The Curzon cinema on Victoria Street was the last cinema I went to before The Great Shutdown, where I saw both Parasite and The Military Wives on the Sunday before the Monday evening when Boris Johnson advised the country to ‘avoid’ pubs, restaurants, cinemas, theatres and so on. So it’s only fair that the first port of call for my ‘return’ was the same place. Central London is still relatively quiet as people continue to work from home, or in my case (and I am far from alone) looking for work from home. And so it was that I shared an auditorium with two other people. Social distancing wasn’t exactly difficult.
I can’t relate to the experiences of Shola ‘Rocks’ Omotoso (Bukky Bakray) in Rocks – my childhood was lousy and traumatic in some ways, but it was, relatively speaking, very comfortable compared to what she had to go through. After her single mother Funke (Layo-Christina Akinlude) needs to take some time away from looking after the family home, to sort out her mental health, Rocks is left looking after her younger brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) on her own – with limited funds.
Given that they live in a densely populated tower block (there is, apparently, such a thing as a non-densely populated tower block, particularly in prime locations where properties have been snapped up as investment opportunities, such that they are not necessarily occupied, at least not all the time), a concerned neighbour, who hasn’t seen Funke for a bit, calls in social services. Rocks is savvy enough to spot officials outside her front door and manages to evade them. Relying on the benevolence of classmates, the powers that be eventually whisk her and Emmanuel away: her to a local foster home, the boy removed from London to Hastings. That’s social services for you.
Nobody can establish where Funke has gone – Rocks calls her grandmother (Shola Adewusi), who lives in Lagos, Nigeria, but her own calls have not been responded to. Funke was, Rocks discovered, let go by her employer, although she kept leaving the house in the morning as though she were going to work. When the film ends the narrative is still unresolved, which makes the film all the more ‘real’: life is messy, life is unplanned, and throws unanticipated curveballs at people.
It never rains but it pours – a friendship with Roshé (Shaneigha-Monik Greyson), a new schoolgirl, quickly turns sour in the aftermath of a meetup which exposes Rocks to ‘how the other half live’. Rocks has her reasons to have her defences up, however much her most loyal friend Sumaya (Kosar Ali) tries to lend her support. Fiercely doing everything she can to maintain her independence, Rocks has never stayed in a hotel before. So, she loses her £40 deposit because she didn’t know she had to check out by a certain time and left for school without having packed her bags and leaving them at reception for collection later on. She’s a youngster – one would have thought she would have Googled hotel procedures or something. But she does, to be fair, have other things on her mind. It’s sort of hilarious, at least if your sense of humour is as dark as mine, but also indicative of how much she’s had to grow up, and how quickly.
There’s secondary school banter, but Rocks’ classmates are not ones to bear grudges, and things do get a little sentimental after Rocks lets it be known that she wishes to mark Emmanuel’s imminently approaching birthday in a meaningful way. But on the whole, it’s a gripping storyline, and even the worries and concerns of a global pandemic were firmly shunted away for all of ninety-three minutes as I watched this utterly engrossing teenage struggle. It’s an eyeopener: not every schoolgirl is a privileged brat, and some, like Rocks, find themselves in extremely difficult circumstances through no fault of their own. A film that left me counting my blessings.
Is £15 a bit extortionate for a concert programme? It seems to be the norm for Lambert Jackson Productions, who ran out of programmes for one of their concerts at Cadogan Hall previously, because the venue was selling them for a far more reasonable £8. LJP then sent an email to ticket bookers saying they could, if they still wanted (for a one-off concert, mind you) purchase one but it would now be £18 – the additional £3 was needed to cover postage and packing. (Packing? What did they want to ‘pack’ a programme in? A mahogany box?)
In the absence (as far as I could make out) of any other merchandise, however, and with no set, a sparse number of props and an even sparser number of costumes, I couldn’t work out who was doing what in this production of Jason Robert Brown’s Songs For A New World, or the context of each of the nineteen songs, I paid up. (I was going to say ‘coughed up’, but you try coughing in a theatre these days: everyone glares at you because you might have Rona Corona.)
Social distancing, for those interested in such matters (which are not, whatever the conspiracy theorists and well, certain Members of Parliament, think, are far from trivial) is enforced both in the audience and on stage. I’d seen it all before at the ‘test’ performance at the Palladium back in July, at which Beverley Knight did a concert, but for those coming to the Palladium for the first time under Covid restrictions, seeing every seat in every other row, plus two seats between each ‘bubble’ in rows with audience members seated, all marked with a big ‘X’, might have been a bit of a shock to the system.
As far as the show went, each of the songs is a complete mini-story in itself, which probably explains why songs like ‘Stars and the Moon’ and ‘I’d Give It All For You’ are popular as standalone songs in musical theatre concerts. Evidently, it’s been a while since these actors were on stage, and the atmosphere in the Palladium was also very positively charged.
I know there were some critics and reviewers who thought that perhaps once theatres fully reopen under ‘stage five’ of Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden’s ‘roadmap’ (that is, social distancing has ended) the initial reviews need to be kinder to take into account that actors have, to borrow a football term, been lacking in match fitness. “Bah, humbug!” is my response to that. This group simply gave first-rate performances, and I am confident this will carry through when the shows that can’t come back yet are able to do so. Put simply, there is no need to be critically more generous because productions are likely to be at least as good as they were before The Great Shutdown.
This proved the case here, with four actors (in the order listed in the programme, Rachel John, Rachel Tucker, Cedric Neal and David Hunter) who are well-suited to the principal roles they have filled in their careers to date, and yet retained the ability to sing well in harmony with one another in the roles of one another’s ensemble. Shem Omari James, a 2020 ArtsEd graduate, more than held his own among such established actors with the Act One closing number. At the end of the second half, twelve final year students from Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts joined the company, as a further nod to the stars of the future.
The explosive and comedic roles largely went to Tucker, who in the first half vented her spleen at ‘Murray’, her character’s husband, who she had clearly had enough of. In the second she is married to Santa Claus, but is highly rankled at the thought of another Christmas at home without company. As the show is set in the United States, there are rather more references to faith and Christian religion than there probably would be in a British song cycle – one song, ‘Christmas Lullaby’, almost sounds like a contemporary hymn.
At ninety minutes, it could have run through without an interval, though it may have been a bit much to take in all in one big gulp, so I’m grateful for the opportunity to come up for air halfway through. Jason Robert Brown tunes are not the easiest to navigate, whether one is sat in the audience or stood on stage bringing it to life, but there’s no doubting the superb quality of the harmonies and performances here, in which there is as much ballading as there is belting.
Some people are still wary of opening their windows, let alone leaving the house, let alone descending into the bowels of the London Underground and going to one of the few theatres in the capital putting on productions at the moment. There’s not that many of us active theatregoers right now, and it’s proving difficult to persuade others to come along, even on a Friday or Saturday evening, thanks to the 10pm curfew on pubs, bars and restaurants. Standing on the pavement a short distance away from a Tesco Express (open until 11pm) in the rain having a post-show drink is just not the one.
Of course, if one displays symptoms of Rona Corona, one doesn’t venture out. If one does, one is likely to be turned away at the theatre doors anyway, because the stun gun (sorry, portable digital thermometer) just might register a high temperature. And I’ve not yet come across anyone stupid enough to cough in a theatre since The Great Lockdown was lifted.
Southwark Playhouse has Perspex partitions between each ‘bubble’, so their rows are full, even if the capacity is still much reduced because a number of rows have been removed, such that there is a two-metre gap between each row. I used to try to book an aisle seat when deciding to see a show there that I wasn’t reviewing – as the millennials like to say, I’m not gonna lie: the extra legroom the Covid-related restrictions provide will be missed once social distancing ends, whenever that will be.
Southwark is currently resuming its run of The Last Five Years, the Jason Robert Brown two-hander musical about a married couple whose relationship eventually peters out: the wife’s story is told in reverse chronological order, and the husband’s in forward chronological order. Which sounds ingenious on paper, but the ending is revealed in the first line, iconic amongst The Last Five Years fans: “Jamie is over, and Jamie is gone”. If you don’t like to know the end before the end, this isn’t the show for you.
The first time I saw The Last Five Years at Southwark was the weekend before the Prime Minister took to the airwaves and advised that theatres and other public places were to be ‘avoided’. Lydia White had stepped into the role of Cathy at extremely short notice, reading from the book in place of an indisposed Molly Lynch. Without taking anything away from White’s remarkable achievement, it was worth the wait to see Lynch’s Cathy, running the full gamut of human emotions so incredibly convincingly.
The following evening, I went from the (almost) sublime to the (utterly) ridiculous – an outdoor performance of the Stephen Schwartz musical Pippin. This show has never really made much sense to me, but I think I understand it more than I have ever done thanks to this pared down version that adhered to the ‘rule of six’ even before the rule of six was implemented. It was absolutely pouring throughout the evening, although both the seating areas and the performance space were both covered with sheeting. Hallelujah.
The cast’s unamplified voices, however, were not only competing with the sound of passing Vauxhall traffic but the patter of the rain. Whether you caught every word of every line depended, to some extent, on where you were sat, and in which direction an actor’s voice was projecting. Some of Schwartz’s lyrics are quite rapid, too. They were also occasionally competing with themselves – in the large ensemble numbers, with much dancing, the semi-wet floor led to squeaks from the cast’s shoes as they swiftly changed direction. The company made much of the trying circumstances, with amusing references to the ‘new normal’ – Charlemagne (Dan Krikler) rushes to embrace his son Pippin (Ryan Anderson) but immediately stops himself from doing so. Joanne Clifton’s Berthe, Pippin’s paternal grandmother, brought the house down with audience interaction and some ad-libs, including, “Is this bench wet or have I had an accident?”
Billed to run for ninety minutes, it actually ran closer to two hours, mostly because of what was meant to be a five minute comfort break that turned into a full blown interval – we were all very good at socially distanced toileting. At Southwark, too, the curtain fell later than it should have done, as it took longer to get everyone seated in the first place: the 7.30pm start time came and went with many of us still stood outside waiting to be ushered in. Goodness knows how it all worked out at Southwark Playhouse on the rainy night I was at the Garden Theatre – the Southwark staff had their iPads out outside checking people in on the pavement the night before.
Some will no doubt disagree, but my experiences this week (including those I’ve written about separately in reviews) strongly suggest to me that theatre is back. Thank goodness.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.