To its credit, it’s a little while before it’s entirely clear what Late Company is really all about. But once the penny dropped, I had an intuitive feeling this wasn’t going to work out. By this I mean that a positive conclusion was simply an impossibility, though dramaturgically it is also imperfect. The ladies conveniently leave the room for a few moments, apparently to sort out dinner, but really it’s to allow the gentlemen to talk between themselves without the company of the fairer sex, and to introduce themselves to one another, and in so doing, to the audience. How contrived.
I wouldn’t call it a form of restorative justice, as there is no named criminal offender – at least, not one identified by the criminal justice system as the perpetrator of a crime. Nonetheless, the venue, the Shaun-Hastings’ front room, is hardly a neutral one for this meeting, for want of a better word. I’m not sure what it is, aside from a dinner – which itself goes horribly wrong because of a miscommunication about young Curtis Dermot’s (David Leopold) food allergies. But I must call it something: it’s somewhere between an intervention and a confrontation.
Michael Shaun-Hastings (Todd Boyce) is a Member of Parliament – the Parliament of Canada, that is – and is married to Debora (Lucy Robinson), a metalwork artist. Michael’s university degree certificate is on display on the wall, clearly marked from my vantage point (though not from everybody’s) as a Bachelor of Commerce with Honours from the School of Business, awarded by The Senate of Queen’s University at Kingston. If Canadian society is classless, at least relative to British society, there’s still one-upmanship between Bill Dermot (Alex Lowe) and Michael with regards to academic achievement, a point which doesn’t let up once the meeting proper gets underway, with Michael showing off his son Joel’s school certificates and medals. Completing the set of on-stage characters is Tamara Dermot (Lisa Stevenson), who wants, it seemed to me, some form of absolution for her son Curtis.
I was late, as it were, to Late Company – not in the sense that I arrived after the performance start time, but I was reviewing something else on its official press night at the Trafalgar Studios, and only decided on seeing this later as a) I had a free evening, which doesn’t happen often, and b) it was recommended to me by quite a few others. I hadn’t witnessed what Joe Vesey-Byrne of The Independent (for instance) did on the Finborough Theatre press night earlier in 2017, where the “performance by Lucy Robinson, crucial to the success of the work, reduced many in the audience to tears”. I mean, she wasn’t that bad: I thought she was rather good as it goes. (Clearly, my jokes are as bad as her Debora’s.)
I assume those water works were in reference to the poignancy of the feelings the character demonstrates. As I say, I didn’t have anything like a teary experience with my fellow audience members at the Trafalgar Studios. The anger and bitterness was palpable, and I had more sympathy with Curtis, whose apology was sincere and genuine, even if Debora was dismissive of it with the sort of sneering attitude that might even have had the likes of the late Rev Ian Paisley thinking, “Well, hang on a minute…” Will Longman dared “anyone not to be moved by the reading of her [Debora’s] letter to the boy who bullied her son to death.” Notwithstanding that it was identified in the course of the narrative that there were other ‘bullies’, not just one, well, here I am. How dare I! The scene in question was too melodramatic and the crocodile tears wholly superfluous.
Emotions, almost all round, are still raw. The play does well to portray Curtis as somebody quite far removed from the moody teenage stereotype, responding monosyllabically and forever staring at his smartphone. I did feel there was slightly too much swearing going on – from everyone except Curtis – demonstrating a playwright’s lack of vocabulary, particularly when the parents start effing and blinding away at one another, like some sort of verbal Tough Mudder. Perhaps that’s the point: they’re all just as much as effing cees as each other, leaving me cold and unsympathetic towards any of them by the curtain call. Apart from, as I say, young Curtis.
That said, the play wastes little time in exploring some complex themes, to the point where it almost becomes a competition as to who could be blunter and terser. There is no clear winner. Different parenting strategies are discussed – entire books have been written on the pluses and minuses of Bill’s preferred ‘tough love’ approach, and a literal clip round the ear given to Curtis is strongly objected to by Debora. (Where did the ‘h’ go in that name?) The pretentiousness that is stripped away is refreshing, and the details of Curtis’ trial-by-media starkly harrowing. Covering more ground in just over an hour than some plays do in two-and-a-half, this intense and gripping production rightly offers no simple solutions to the prevailing epidemics of depression and suicide in society today.
Photo credit: Roundturner Visuals
In the flurry of shows I raced around London in the latter part of July to review under the general banner of ‘Edinburgh Previews’, there was one I missed (well, there were others, of course, but I was particularly interested in this one). As I’d missed a previous showing of The Unmarried earlier in the year at Camden People’s Theatre, to have also missed the pre-Edinburgh show at The Bunker Theatre near London Bridge, was slightly gutting. So, as the London theatre press review machine takes a breather over August the bank holiday weekend, I trekked up (or, to be precise, sat on a Virgin Trains East Coast train for four-and-a-half hours) to Edinburgh. It’s a long way to go for one show, so I saw five others as well (or ten, if the six comedy acts in the late night variety show ‘Spank!’ were to be counted separately). Rather crazily, as I decided not to stay overnight because I didn’t want to pay the high hotel rates for a room during the Fringe, I was back through my front door just shy of 24 hours after I had walked out of it, partly thanks to an early morning British Airways flight from Edinburgh to London Gatwick. I hate being away from home that much.
Not all of the tunes that form the soundtrack (yes, soundtrack, not cast recording – this isn’t a musical) were familiar to me; that I knew any at all came as a pleasant surprise, as I’m someone who is usually so out of touch with the sort of music that gets played in plays, nonplussed while much of the rest of the audience around me nods along appreciatively. Here, songs like ‘I Luv U Baby’ by The Original (lyrics include “I love you baby, I love you baby / I love you baby, I love you baby / I love you baby, I love you baby” and “I-i-i-i-i-i-i-i / I love you baby / I love you baby”) and ‘The Rhythm of the Night’ by Corona, pulsated through the narrative in a seamless production that, if anything, is a little too polished and perfect alongside the many rough and (un)ready Fringe dramas.
Luna (Lauren Gauge) narrates her own story, flanked by singer Georgia Bliss and beatboxer Haydn-Sky Bauzon. While undoubtedly feminist, it’s also very nuanced, and stands out in having a plotline that is celebratory of womanhood but without wittering on about periods ad infinitum, and recognising that not all men are shit. The language is often poetic, with rhythms and linguistic sharpness comparable to the musical theatre songs of Lin-Manuel Miranda, packing in so much narrative in relatively few words. The sound levels are just perfect, resisting the temptation to pump out these ‘club classics’ any louder than is strictly necessary.
There are elements of the play that will be relatable to many people, such as the stresses and strains of moving into a new property. At the same time, such an event is clearly unlikely to happen to people who are part of Generation Rent, a term apparently coined by the journalist Tim Walker, and I wonder how many people in such circumstances will really agree that having a London property to call their own is a good reason to vent frustration. Anyway, the salient point, it seems to me, is that the mortgage and settling down with a long-term partner anchors Luna, at a time of life when she still wishes to be free.
Why, indeed, should things be done according to general societal expectations? Consider the raised middle finger on the show’s main marketing image, a statement of defiance against the status quo. As ever with one-person narratives, everything is seen through a single perspective, and it would have been interesting to consider how ‘Pete’ felt, from Pete’s viewpoint. Though some further character development wouldn’t go amiss, this is a strong and triumphant piece of theatre.
As Edinburgh is a long way to go from London just for (separate) matinee and evening shows featuring people I’ve come to know over time, I availed myself of the opportunity to sample 0.001 per cent of the rest of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017 (that is, three out of 3,000 shows), all stand-up comedy shows, selected entirely out of geographical, and therefore financial, convenience. I don’t know if the Camden Fringe would ever consider the use of the University College London buildings for its shows, but apparently the Medical School at the University of Edinburgh has been used as a fringe venue for some years now. I was in ‘black box’ rooms there, rather than any of the lecture theatres, and even in the cooler Scottish air, they were very warm and stuffy.
I don’t recall Laura Davis, an Australian comedian making her UK debut, saying very much, if anything about the ‘cake in the rain’ in the title of her show. But then, she was progressively irritated by a man in the second row, who heckled, then heckled again, then continued talking at full conversational volume, in an intimate space, until Davis had no choice, as David Dimbleby did in very similar circumstances on BBC Television’s Question Time earlier this year, to interrupt herself and ask Mr Heckler to leave. It wasn’t the smoothest of rides, having hit turbulence relatively early on, and was further hindered by a bizarre policy in which those who were either ejected or left of their own accord were almost immediately replaced by others. Had the show oversold or something? Even Davis was genuinely surprised by what went on.
The manner in which Davis decided to deal with a heckler intrigued me. Alexei Sayle once told The Independent, “The worst thing you can do is get security to pull hecklers out of a crowd because it turns everyone against you.” And yet this wasn’t the end result here: most of the crowd supported Davis, most stayed to the end, and most were happy with what was, all things considered, a dark-humoured, if unfocused, stand-up routine. Over at ‘Spank!’ (during which every time either of the two hosts shouted the word ‘Spank’, this was to be followed by the audience shouting back, ‘WE LOVE IT!’ irrespective of whether this was the truth at any given point), headliner Paul McCaffrey repeatedly shut down a member of the audience long after someone who was more of an interrupter than a heckler had stopped. I don’t know what the best approach is, or even if there is one. Each comedian has their own act, and their own ways of dealing with the paying public. For instance, Frankie Boyle is neither funny nor offensive, just downright unpleasant, and yet people still pay to see him. Fair play to him.
Davis is a complicated person, with incessantly frequent suicidal thoughts, which she has learned to dismiss with the equivalent of the Expecto Patronum spell out of the Harry Potter series (my paraphrase, not hers). There were some intriguing insights regarding the sort of unpaid work even multi-million dollar enterprises in the entertainment industry require of writers like Davis. If I recall correctly, she refused the work. (But someone somewhere will have said ‘Yes’, giving that person exposure and publicity that money couldn’t buy in any event.) Elsewhere, her putdowns are incisive and systematic – the city of Melbourne is trialling ‘green women’ on some of its pedestrian crossings as opposed to green men, and Davis’ response to the vicious feedback this initiative has garnered is beautifully scornful.
‘Spank!’ is more of an experience than a show. Interspersed between various comedy acts were long but engaging periods of banter, and at one point a man in the audience promoted his fringe show, fulfilling the one stipulated condition: the promotion must be done in the nude. A strictly no camera policy was reiterated just before this happened. Twice during proceedings, the audience was ordered (not invited) to stand for a sing-song, as though this were some sort of secular Evensong. My sparse knowledge of chart music showed as I silently stood, not having a clue what was going on, amongst a sea of Fringe revellers singing their hearts out. I was given reassuring pats on the back from other audience members, such was the lively but pleasant atmosphere.
Now, most of the comedians’ names were indecipherable as the microphones were turned up to arena rock concert level. I have no idea who the hosts’ names were for the same reason. One of the acts introduced himself very deliberately as Anil Desai, which was only memorable for the ‘porn star’ name apparently related to it, Anal Desire. A long list of celebrity impressions formed the majority of his act, some more convincing than others. Matthew McConaughey will forever be intrinsically linked to “alright, alright, alright”, and his Robert De Niro was spot on. My favourite punchline of my debut Edinburgh Fringe experience was from an earlier act, who sang the title lyric from Nelly Furtado’s ‘I’m Like A Bird’, and immediately followed it up by squawking as loudly as possible and flapping his arms madly as though they were wings. Paul McCaffrey, the headline act, brought the house down with his taking down of Joe Wicks, the so-called ‘Body Coach’. Wicks had once suggested using ham slices to bookend a sandwich instead of bread slices. “But what if you want a ham sandwich?”
The best of the comedy shows I saw came from Rhys Nicholson, though I suspect if I had time to take up his suggestion to “go see Daniel Sloss”, that might have topped it. I hadn’t heard of Rhys Nicholson before, and his very rapid delivery style meant he was the only stand-up comedian I came across at Edinburgh Fringe that had no need to be checking their watch periodically, or otherwise check with their techie how long they have remaining. There’s a lot about white privilege, and like Davis, this Australian comedian can’t help but highlight some of the politically charged events going on Down Under at this time. The ad-libs are extraordinary, his trains of thought active and enthusiastic. Perhaps the best news about Nicholson’s act is that it comes to the Soho Theatre this October, so London audiences have an opportunity to check it out for themselves. Oh, and Laura Davis will be there before then, in September.
The most enlightening act was one I didn’t even book to see, because he was performing outside on the Royal Mile. A man who referred to himself only as ‘Morf’ was sat with his guitar laid horizontally, and plucking its strings. I stood, waiting for the time to pass before the next show I was due to attend, transfixed by an alternative but extraordinary rendering of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. Before that, Morf was explaining to a following large enough to attract police attention (they worked to ensure traffic could continue to flow without pedestrian casualties) how the unique sounds of his album, conveniently available for sale right there and then, were put together. His YouTube page is worth a look.
I suppose a show called The Course of True Love (which ran smoother than the line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream from which the title comes from would suggest) might not attract the attention of those who are wholly unfamiliar with William Shakespeare’s plays. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who have encountered it in one way or another, most commonly perhaps through studying (or trying to study) a Shakespeare play at secondary school, though I’m reliably told this is far from universal, whether one’s school days were two years, twenty-two years or forty-two years ago. But it’s telling that the audience is invited to name as many Shakespeare plays extracts were taken from, with the promise of a free drink for anyone who could correctly reel off ten or more. Less is more, y’see.
It’s not quite more than ten plays condensed into a show that runs at just under an hour, but rather bits borrowed from each to concoct a whole new play. That doesn’t stop it from being so rapidly paced that there’s a danger in not being able to properly follow the narrative whilst trying to keep up with it. Scene changes, while always very smooth, jump to a seemingly unspecified point in the future, and I wondered at one stage whether this was, strictly speaking, entirely in chronological order. (It wasn’t, in the end, that complicated.)
But as far as I could deduce neither of the characters, played by Simão Vaz and Imogen Parker, were named. I don’t know if that in itself would have helped me connect to the narrative more, but in any event, it all came across as a spoken version of a song cycle rather than a journey depicting a relationship with a beginning, middle and end. This being Shakespeare, it’s not exactly a blissful ending, but the Edinburgh Fringe audience is at least spared the fake blood that (certain) London production companies are all too fond of.
Familiarity with the original texts is potentially problematic, in that one cannot help, for instance, think of them when they are being quoted from. Whether the many love letters are from, say, As You Like It, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Hamlet – or something else, or a combination of these and/or others – would be giving too much away. I would have preferred an alternative take on one of the Shakespeare plays, majoring on minor characters in the way in which Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead looks at Hamlet from a different angle. Still, this patchwork quilt of a love story is superbly acted. For love is indeed, “A madness most discreet / A choking gall and a preserving sweet”.
A star rating is dispensed with for this SE Theatre Company production: I was informed afterwards the show is a work in progress.
As Matt Trueman pointed out just before press night for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, “spoilers already exist. A single Google search will provide the plot in full, all its twists and turns laid bare”. So much for the #KeepTheSecrets campaign. And as I pointed out some years ago to somebody who hadn’t seen The Mousetrap before (the show has ended its performances ever since 1952 with a reminder not to tell anyone what happened), if I said Character X did This and That, how would that nugget of information be useful if they have no familiarity with the story?
I hadn’t read any of the books or seen any of the films in the Harry Potter series, so I passed up the opportunity to review it. So Terry Eastham went instead, and quite evidently had a wonderful time. His, and many other reviews, showered the show with praise, so when the opportunity arose to book tickets (I missed the initial release of tickets – I really wasn’t that interested initially) I took the plunge. However, I couldn’t see the show for over a year, and unlike Trueman, I still hadn’t quite finished all seven of them before seeing the play. Why not? I shan’t bore you with details about my personal circumstances, suffice to say there were a lot of shows to review in between, and the background reading for those, whether I did it before or after a press night (or a bit either side of it), took up a lot of my available reading time.
Kayti Burt has reasons to believe Harry Potter (Jamie Glover) himself could be the cursed child in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I disagree, if only because the play might as well be called Harry Potter and Harry Potter. I take her point that the play does not clearly establish who exactly it is. Given the number of spells used during the five-hour plus performance time, a tautological analysis – that is, looking clinically at who could be defined as ‘the child who is cursed’, there are indeed a number of possibilities. But this Harry Potter is all grown up – the play is, as its marketing is keen to inform its audiences, ‘nineteen years later’, so I rule him out as being the cursed child, purely on the basis that he is not a child. But there has to be one, ‘The Cursed Child’.
Yes, I’m being pedantic, but I’m limited in my powers of analysis by the blanket ban on spoilers rule. Who is it, then? Well, #KeepTheSecrets aside, I don’t actually know. According to my Kindle, I’ve read 92 per cent of the seven-volume book series, so I understood the majority of the references to previous events and all the rest of it, but none of that helped to say for certain. Like Bat Out of Hell The Musical, the special effects are a sight to behold, and on balance, The Cursed Child probably does even better than Bat on that score, as it does with furnishing audiences with a truly gripping storyline.
There’s some decent music (Martin Lowe) and choreography (Steven Hoggett) to enjoy too – though this is a play, so no singing – and it permeates through the performance, speeding it along. It didn’t feel like I’d spent hours and hours in the theatre at all. Despite this, I doubt I’ll be back to see it again, at least not any time soon. The only tickets available at the moment on the show’s website cost at least £199 to see both parts (via ATG Tickets) or £250 (via Nimax Theatres). This is to see something I’ve already seen! Nah. Okay, so there’s the infamous ‘Friday Forty’, and a recommendation to keep checking back to see if other cheaper seats become available, but, as Kimberly ‘Sweet Brown’ Wilkins put it in 2012, “ain’t nobody got time for that”
A reminder from the National Theatre about this (at the time of writing) being the final week of performances for Angels in America served as a prompt to remind me that I hadn’t said anything about it. A combined running time of 8 hours and 10 minutes over two evenings (or, for those who were able to, or who felt able to, both parts in one day) with two intervals in each part, was enough to put off some. I thought I was at least going to get my money’s worth of performance time, and I didn’t know anything about it at the time of booking, except to say that there was a lot of excitement about this production, partially for its subject matter, partially from those who remembered the first time it played at the National Theatre, and partially – truth be told – for its casting.
A confession: I turned down an invitation to review it. This doesn’t constitute a review either, but it felt, on balance, a tad unfair to let go one of the theatrical highlights of 2017 without any comment at all. There are ebbs and flows in the narrative, which is fair enough – I wouldn’t want hours and hours of intensity, and the moments of comic relief were more frequent than I would have expected from a play that deals with the political situation in the United States in the 1980s as well as prevailing attitudes towards the gay community and HIV/AIDS.
The humour was all in good taste. The only time I recall the audience audibly wincing was at some blood spurting out of Ray Cohn (Nathan Lane) quite late on in Part Two: even Les Miserables, famed for its length, had let its audiences back out onto Shaftesbury Avenue by the time it happened. I had no problem with Andrew Garfield’s performance as the lead character Prior Walter, portrayed with suitable aplomb and a mixture of campness and flamboyancy. There were some doubts about him from some quarters – if I understood correctly, the perception was that his Hollywood career has been so substantial and successful that he might not have what it takes to convincingly perform on stage. But he’s acted at the National before, and was in the cast of a production of Death of a Salesman on Broadway. And he shines in Angels.
The whole appearance of ‘The Angel’ (Amanda Lawrence), complete with wings (operated by Stuart Angell (don’t scoff), Laura Caldow, Claire Lambert, Becky Namgauds, Stan West and Lewis Wilkins), scares the living daylights out of Walter, and of Hannah Pitt (Susan Brown). It is, in some ways, more significant that the latter becomes terrified, given that she practises religion. Depicting an angel in this manner takes Angels in America closer to the King James Bible (and other translations) in its descriptions of angels than many religious dramas staged in churches: they are mighty and powerful creatures, who, if the Bible is to be believed, usually find themselves saying, “Fear not!”, as the angel Gabriel did to the Virgin Mary.
With everything going on in today’s world, one can be forgiven for wanting to hark back to halcyon days. Whether Donald Trump and Theresa May are better or worse than Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher is debatable, especially after seeing Angels in America! But one aspect that has improved significantly is the living standards of people diagnosed with HIV. Relatively few (but one, I suppose, is still one too many) are later diagnosed with AIDS. But where there have been advances in medical science, the same is not universally true with regards to homophobia and prejudiced opinions. In that regard today’s society is somewhat poorer than the generation before, knowing what we know, and still…
I saw it in the cinema as part of the NT Live broadcast series before I saw it at the National Theatre itself. The screenings expose the set design flaws, as the cameras couldn’t zoom in on characters as they would normally do, given the number of split scenes in the play, and panoramic views consequently required. An extraordinary experience.
Ain’t no doubt about it, everything’s alright yes, I’ve got a beautiful feelin’ no-one’s immune when you pick out a simple tune
Photo credit: BBC/Mark Allan
For various reasons, how most reviewers see a production can vary considerably from the ways in which most audiences see it. With that (albeit fleetingly) in mind, I enjoyed a couple of days away from the reviewing circuit to enjoy shows from a punter’s perspective.
I didn’t know at the time of booking that Prom 34 & 35, as the BBC had inelegantly called it – there has to be, of course, some way of distinguishing one prom concert from another – was going to be broadcast on BBC Four, live. And no, I wasn’t on the telly – I attended Prom 34, and it was Prom 35 that was broadcast (phew!). There’s nothing quite like being at the Royal Albert Hall in person to see it though, and while Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! is very much of its era, this was a solid and beautiful production, technically in concert form but with extraordinary choreography (Alistair David).
Unlike the concerts of the London Musical Theatre Orchestra (which I heartily recommend), where dance sequences are set aside in favour of allowing the audience to look at the musical being performed afresh by concentrating on the rhythm of the music, the audience is given the full glorious song-and-dance spectacle. Scarlett Strallen as Laurey and David Seadon-Young as Jud Fry were the standout performers for me. This was a full, unabridged, three-and-a-bit hours long production, and if it did get a teeny weeny bit repetitive on occasion, this was more than outweighed by the knowledge that no corners were being cut here. My only complaint has nothing to do with the production: a man in the row behind mine insisted on loudly curling and uncurling a flyer for one of the other Albert Hall events (one was left on every seat) throughout, not having read the proverbial memo about keeping quiet as every Prom is broadcast on BBC Radio 3.
One of the joys of attending the theatre as a punter as opposed to a critic is that one can voice one’s opinions without having to pay attention to press embargos. I went to the first preview for what is technically a ‘re-revival’ of the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production of Jesus Christ Superstar, an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, being reprised at that venue having done so well in terms of box office receipts last year. There was far too much stage smoke, and an acquaintance told me afterwards that he couldn’t connect with the setting and staging of the show as a modern-day rock concert. The near-unanimous standing ovation was well-deserved, however, and Declan Bennett as Jesus has considerably improved since last year. Tyrone Huntley as Judas is as sublime as ever, and a memorable moment once more occurs with Christ and the twelve disciples assuming (approximately) the positions they hold in Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ painting.
Recently the theatres at both the Leicester Square and Trafalgar Square ends of St Martin’s Lane have played host to the most extraordinary musicals I’ve ever had the privilege of coming across, and it is with sadness that Bat Out of Hell departs the London Coliseum on 22 August 2017, with Half A Sixpence leaving the Noel Coward Theatre shortly thereafter on 2 September 2017.
The Half A Sixpence cast at the performance I attended (Thursday matinee, 10 August) seemed to be in the process of using up what annual leave they have remaining between them. Sam O’Rourke played Arthur Kipps at the matinee; I am reliably informed Charlie Stemp was back on stage for the evening performance. I “shan’t” (to quote the script) list all the changes and who covered whom here, but it was interesting to see Jennifer Louise Jones’ more vulnerable portrayal of Helen Walsingham, though this may, at least in part, have been a response to a sharper, more acidic matriarch in Annie Wensak’s Mrs Walsingham (Emma Williams and Vivien Parry being the usual performers of those roles, respectively).
I wasn’t aware of any of the Sixpence cast changes before I got to the theatre: the show’s producer, Cameron Mackintosh, doesn’t let his actors tweet when an understudy is on – as I understand it, it is even written into their contracts, which seems to me to be a violation of the rights of both performers and audiences. As ‘West End Producer’ wrote in The Stage¸ “Telling understudies they can’t tweet implies that they are less important than other members of the company – which couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s going to get to the stage where actors aren’t allowed to talk about anything to do with the show they’re in.” There are no such inhibitions as far as the producers of Bat Out of Hell are concerned, so when the tall, dark and handsome Benjamin Purkiss told his followers what his ‘final four’ performances in the leading role of Strat were going to be, I happily told an unofficial Bat fan club of 2,000+ members on Facebook that I’d quietly gone online and booked myself in to the Saturday matinee he was scheduled to do, even though I hadn’t budgeted for it.
I’ve seen him do it before, as well as the leading lead (as it were), Andrew Polec, who I stayed to see at the Saturday evening performance. I had dinner at the English National Opera’s ‘American Bar’ in between performances, so I went into the London Coliseum just after 2:00pm and didn’t leave until just before 10:30pm. There’s not much difference between the two Strats, really – both go for it with gusto and commitment, though Polec does have a stronger belt, and his hair continues to get progressively wilder as the run goes on. If I hadn’t known any better I would have thought he was wearing a wig. The train home was a nightmare, mostly because of crowds returning from the London Stadium, where the IAAF World Championships athletics tournament was taking place, but the show took the words right out of my mouth, so to speak. I look forward to seeing it one more time before it’s ‘gone, gone, gone’ on its final performance in London on the evening of 22 August.
Ardent feminists fervently detest Yank! A World War II Love Story, whether they have even seen it or not, mostly because of the emphasis on the struggle of certain male characters, referred to by the US Army hierarchy at the time of the Second World War as ‘fags’. “What about the struggles women continue to endure every day? Why is this yet another show about the men?” they cry, coupled with their usual expletive-ridden terseness. Their loss, and their narrow-mindedness. Stu (Scott Hunter) is court-marshalled for writing about homosexual experiences in a journal: the authorities had seized the said journal – a notebook, for the purposes of clarification – but had no concrete evidence of any sexual encounters taking place, so Stu is arrested for what he could be arrested for. This makes for a longer show than would it otherwise have been if he were caught in the act: he, and his lover Mitch (Andy Coxon), would have been shot dead.
In the end, Stu’s life ends prematurely anyway, for reasons I won’t reveal here. That his story is told at all, given the suppression (in more ways than one) of homosexual conduct in the US armed forces, comes about as a result of the narrator (also Scott Hunter), living in the modern era, purchasing the book from a charity shop. Interestingly, the ban on homosexuals serving in the US armed forces continued until the Obama Administration repealed the previous ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, introduced by the Clinton Administration. Only since September 2011 has it been possible to serve in the US military as an openly LGBT person, and now the ‘T’ has been withdrawn under the Trump Administration. At the time of writing, whether every transsexual currently in the US military will be court-marshalled remains to be seen.
I read with interest that Neil Genzlinger, reviewing for The New York Times in February 2010, finds the first act ‘delightful’ but the second ‘muddled’. My own experience was the opposite, though of course I saw a completely different production, so a completely different conclusion hardly constitutes an outlier. Stu enters base camp at the age of 18 but, partly because of his physique, he’s not up to scratch, and after meeting Artie (Chris Kiely), who works for Yank! Magazine (like Hello! Magazine but for armed forces personnel), Stu is transferred to the publication’s editorial staff.
Approaching this story from an early twenty-first century perspective, I found the first half had little to offer in terms of a compelling storyline. Some people went to ‘the front’. That’s what happens in wartime. Some people fell in love. That happens all the time. Is it a generational thing? My own puritanical religious upbringing would agree with the man in the row behind me at the performance I attended, who openly muttered, “Disgusting,” at the sight of Stu and Mitch biting each other’s faces off. But then my puritanical upbringing told me that acting is a sin, because a person who is an actor is playing the role of someone other than themselves, that is, the person God made them to be. To ‘be’ someone else is messing with the order of creation. It is almost superfluous to add that I have long forsaken such philosophies.
This is a cast that works hard – Scott Hunter was perspiring through his clothes towards the end of the second half, and not just because the venue was too warm, albeit being a sunny August Saturday matinee. The 12-strong company, particularly in the full ensemble musical numbers, such as the title track, perform with gusto. As do the band, deftly led by James Cleeve. If I hadn’t known any better I would have believed that Sarge (Waylon Jacobs) really was putting ‘The Squad’ through their paces and preparing them for war. This production happened to be topical on its opening night, which took place the day after the closing celebration of the London Pride 2017 weekend.
The second half, in which the show feels like a proper musical, as opposed to the first where the narrative seemed to be just going through the motions, has the soaring melody of ‘Just True’ and the showstopping and unifying ‘Your Squad is Your Squad’. The choreography (Chris Cuming) in a relatively small stage space is delightful. It is telling, however, that the grittiest moment of all, where the Interrogator (Tom Pepper), well, interrogates Stu, is devoid of song and dance altogether. I also wish to mention Sarah-Louise Young and her many roles, merely listed in the programmes as ‘Louise/Females’; here I join the feminists in screaming for more detail than that. She is versatility personified. And the show overall is very much a charming and poignant production.
Booking to 19 August 2017 at the Charing Cross Theatre.
Photo credit: Richard Goldschmidt
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.