They’ve brought back Once? Already? It was March 2015 when it left the West End, when even the star casting of Ronan Keating (who was referenced in this new co-production between the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich and the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch) couldn’t keep the show running. Reviewing commitments elsewhere prevented me from attending opening night in Hornchurch, but as it was, on the whole, positively received, curiosity got the better of me and I went up anyway.
For whatever reason, this production seemed to emphasise the music-making more than the sort-of love story between the unimaginatively named Guy (Daniel Healy) and Girl (Emma Lucia), and for that, it made more sense than the West End show did. This was more about Girl getting Guy’s music out there, despite being a lady of limited means: she has her life, including a daughter Ivonka (a role shared between Isobella Elora Anderson, Lily Jackson and Lily-Anne Wilkin), and Guy has his, helping his ‘Da’ (Peter Peverley) run an electrical appliances repair store.
It’s Billy (Sean Kingsley) who steals the show for me, even more than the bluntness of Girl – a bombastic music shop owner who holds rather forthright views but is, at least, at peace with standing corrected. There’s that ‘aww’ moment when the Bank Manager (Samuel Martin), having sung about a boy whose heart has been “abandoned in Bandon”, a town in County Cork, is told by Guy and Girl that he should refrain from singing altogether.
More than ever, the ending left me thinking, ‘then what?’ What sort of life do Guy and Girl go on to, although it’s made clear that they’ve parted company, albeit amicably? There were people in the audience at the performance I attended that clearly felt more of an emotional connection with the production than me. I suspect they might have latched on to the pleasantness of it all – is there even an antagonist? (And, as the satirical musical revue Forbidden Broadway asks – is there even an orchestrator?) Everyone’s just pitching in, doing what they can for one another, with no detectable villainy.
In that regard, it’s not meant to work, and for my fellow reviewer Terry Eastham, the West End production failed on almost every level: “It felt as if someone had found a CD of the dullest and most despondent Irish songs and decided to write an extremely thin story around them.” True, it wasn’t exactly U2. But it’s charming, and there’s a strange appeal to the elements of the plot that don’t work out well. For all the musicals that preach about shooting for the stars, aiming big and high, and going for gold because we all only have one life, there’s Once. And in Once, there’s Andrej (James William-Pattison) – and I’ve been in his shoes, told that I was the frontrunner for a job, psyched myself up for an interview, only for the panel to go with someone else, leaving my recruitment consultant and myself frankly numb. As Andrej put it, “Bastards! Bastards!”
I might have been the only one amused by Guy’s opening number, in which he almost screams into the microphone, “Leave! Leave!” – I’d only just sat down for one thing, and Havering, the borough where Hornchurch lies, was apparently the only London borough to have a majority who voted in favour of Brexit. Anyway, the actor-musicianship was always going to be of good quality – the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch has even done pantomimes with on-stage bands, and their previous actor-muso productions of Made in Dagenham and Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical set them in good stead for Once. One of these days they’ll do a good regional production of Come From Away. But for now, what a performance!
Until 20 October 2018.
I suppose I ought to be grateful I wasn’t alone in feeling the post-lunch slump during a mostly subtle play with some pauses so long the late Harold Pinter may have been inclined to suggest should be curtailed. A lady in the front row momentarily nodded off; a man a few rows back seemed to miss most of the show, slumped on an aisle seat. There we were, the Saturday matinee audience at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester: perhaps some of us expected a show called Cock to be, well, cocky – and while there is a certain swagger about M (Matthew Needham), a lot of it is talking heads and nothing else.
Literally, nothing else, apart from the everyday clothes the characters wear. No set, no props, not even any action, though with the theatre’s decision to have the audience seated on all four sides of the auditorium, making the show ‘in the round’, or to be more precise, ‘in the square’ (or is it ‘in the rectangle’?), at least the actors move around the performance space. I can’t even call it a stage – there’s no raised platform, just a red box with which all the action must take place. The only properly named character is John (Luke Thallon), with the aforementioned M being his male partner, W (Isabella Laughland) being his female partner (that is, Woman) and F (Simon Chandler) being M’s Father. They are not so ridiculous as to refer to one another at any point as M, W or F (this isn’t James Bond), but John is torn between being with M, with whom he was first in a relationship, but he has known W for longer, as they were friends going back some years.
The salient thing about the play is that John is under pressure to determine whether he is gay or straight, or as F suggests, bisexual. M and W find out about each other, and it all gets a bit complicated; F is only there as John has told M than W is ‘manly’, and so M wanted some backup in case a meetup between all of them got out of hand. But W isn’t ‘manly’, and all are agreed that she is, whichever way one looks at it, ‘feminine’ both in character and appearance. There are qualities that John finds extraordinary in both. Both M and W insist on exclusivity – ‘friends with benefits’ is out of the question (to the point where the question is not even asked).
Thallon’s John trembles as he feels the strain of making an impossible choice – it’s quite a harrowing sight – and when W decides she’s had enough of his apparent indecisiveness, M has reason to believe John is his by default. But, to quote Porgy and Bess, it ain’t necessarily so. John says nothing. M wants an unequivocal promise of commitment. John says nothing. M begs. John says nothing. You get the idea, and my fellow audience member in the block opposite slumps his head once more, bored waiting for John to respond.
It’s a strange play, but I can see why some have responded very positively to it. The world has somewhat shifted since its first outing in 2009 at the Royal Court, but perhaps not enough. To be clear – it’s a personal crisis of sexual identity rather than gender identity. If a label were to be put on John, I’d probably plump for ‘bicurious’ – he’s exploring whether he’s attracted to people of the same gender as well as people of another gender. But to place a label on him at all is missing the point: why should there be labels at all?
I had to laugh at a review elsewhere that said “the actors never actually touch” – underneath the review is a photo of two of the four actors, er, touching. I picked a similar one for this blog post. This production starts off joyfully enough but gradually goes deeper, darker, and more delicate. And in not coming to any neat and tidy solutions, it is a show that provides much food for thought.
Until 27 October 2018
Well, it is a fusion of musical theatre and ‘cirque’, though if you’re going in with an expectation of hearing the sort of showtunes that wouldn’t go amiss on the BBC’s ‘Elaine Paige on Sunday’, you may be a little miffed by the chart music that takes up a good portion of proceedings in Burlesque’D. the storyline may not, for the most part, be anything new, inasmuch as there is nothing new under the sun. I had the privilege of revisiting the West End revival of 42nd Street recently and there, as here, a fresh-faced performer with a heart full of dreams and ambitions leaves her hometown in pursuit of stardom. Substitute Allentown for Massachusetts, New York for Hollywood, Peggy Sawyer for Crystal Lake (Charlotte Jeffery), and the skeleton structure for the show is more or less there.
The devil is in the detail, however, and when the burlesque venue run by Sofia (Valentina Canadiani) must find new premises on account of a change of proprietor, a subplot develops. While the happy ending is somewhat predictable, the route taken to get there is less so, and it is pleasing to note, in the context of #MeToo and #TimesUp, that this group of scantily dressed ladies use legal and contractual means to their advantage rather than having (or indeed choosing) to sleep with anyone to get what they want.
The ambience of the venue for Burlesque’D does not lend itself perfectly to the quieter scenes with spoken dialogue – and, dare I say it, at least from my vantage point, the occasional line was difficult to decipher: more amplification wouldn’t have gone amiss. The production gets the sound pitch perfect when it comes to the musical numbers, helped by some stunning vocals. I can’t pick out a stand-out performance – they all work very well together, and it is always good to see a cast clearly enjoying themselves on stage.
I can’t imagine it would have been nearly as easy as the company make it look to dance in those high heels: it brought to mind a lady I once saw at Gatwick Airport who, having underestimated the walk to get to where she was going, had given up on going any further in heels, having taken hers off and continuing on barefoot. The Emcee (James Paton) does much more than introduce acts tell the audience what is coming up, with a rope routine duet with him and Sofia proving to be a particularly memorable moment.
The stage action goes up a few notches in the second half, and some vibrant routines make for a good night out. It could just about be merged into a one-act show – it would need to be if it were to be taken, for instance, to the Edinburgh Fringe (I think it would fit in well there). The set is fairly simple as it stands, though the production uses the available performance space very well. Although it extends into the audience there isn’t even a scintilla of audience participation: it’s all left to the professionals. There’s a pole – why wouldn’t there be? – but it is rather underused, and I wonder if it could be dispensed with altogether. But, at the end of the day, this is a show with a palpable feelgood factor, with recognisable songs to enjoy.
Photo credit: Vicky Murua
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.