I have just about managed to keep out of trouble by busying myself tackling a ‘to do’ list over the festive period: some of the fallouts I am hearing and reading about both face-to-face and on social media have been far from pleasant, to say the least. Although there are no reviews in the last few days of the calendar year (well, not for me, anyway) this doesn’t mean I’ve stayed away from live performances. It will come as no surprise to those who know me well (and even those who know me a little) that with my evenings free for a little while, Bat Out of Hell The Musical has re-grabbed my attention, not least because what (to me) is the most stunning show for some years will be closing its doors very soon.
I write this prior to attending the last of their ‘singalong’ performances (my twenty-first visit to the show, for those who like to ask) – not that I sing along, because one has to be able to sing in the first place in order to do that – though it is a lot of fun. There’s a difference between going to a press night and going to a ‘regular’ performance, especially when, as has been the case at Bat, a number of understudies and swings have been on recently, unsurprising for any large-scale production with extra performances at Christmas and New Year. I was particularly impressed by Barney Wilkinson, the second cover in the lead role of Strat, whose powerhouse singing voice is highly suited to these Jim Steinman rock anthems. What’s more, I wasn’t underwhelmed by anyone, and when I popped back for what the show’s groupies call ‘Baturday night’, Jordan Luke Gage’s Strat, while distinctly different, really was very much ‘Bat Out of Hell The Musical’ – in other words, if it’s a musical theatre treatment of the Meat Loaf back catalogue you’re after, Gage is your man.
I am getting asked with alarming regularity how I will cope after next weekend (the musical’s final show is on 5th January 2019). I’ll be fine, I say: and I will be, because the closing date has been known for some time, and I’ve gone back more than enough times and had more than enough of a good time, thank you very much. As Dr Seuss apparently once wrote, “Do not cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” All good things come to an end and all that, and there are the new shows to look forward to, such as Come From Away and Dear Evan Hansen.
From the big stage to the pavement, albeit Regent Street. As I had a bit of spare time, I used the buses rather than the tubes for getting around central London recently, and found myself observing from the top deck some of the entertainers employed by Hamleys Toy Store. Among them was Mike Rogers, the ‘elf’ whose performance was captured by an Alice Orr-Ewing, who tweeted about it – the video went ‘viral’, apparently resulting in offers of representation from agents impressed with Rogers’ enthusiasm. Regent Street was sufficiently crowded with Christmas shoppers that it was surprising Rogers and his colleagues managed to keep dancing at the front of the store without bumping into anyone. I wish him every success.
With justification, the price of theatre tickets is a continuing point of discussion amongst those considering splashing out on a treat. Consider, for instance, the £149.50 top price band to see Snow White at the London Palladium. £598 for a family of four to go to the panto! There are cheaper seats, of course. And there are ways and means of not going into the red just to see a show: I went to a performance of True West at the Vaudeville Theatre, and paid £25 for a stalls seat. I found it to be a rather seasonal play, not because there were tidings of comfort and joy – far from it – but because it was quite the opposite, and seeing the bickering and sibling rivalry between Lee (Johnny Flynn) and Austin (Kit Harington) must bring to mind memories for many in the audience who at one time or another, but particularly in late December, find themselves in the company of people who they would ideally not want to be in the same room with, to say the least.
Even more reasonably priced, although I should really consider the return train fare from London Marylebone to Gerrards Cross, and even that wasn’t that much, was a double bill from VPA Productions. The first, a children’s version of Elf the Musical, which ran comfortably without an interval, was a little like watching one of those summer showcases put on by drama schools and colleges for the final year students to demonstrate their abilities, in the sense that everyone on stage is more or less the same age, but suspension of disbelief requires that they are not.
The second, a Sleeping Beauty panto, had all the ingredients one would reasonably expect from a family show, though I still haven’t figured out why anyone would name-drop Theresa May more than once in a show of this nature (or any other public figure, for that matter) without actually going anywhere with it. The performance I attended was a Sunday afternoon one, and the post-lunch slump had taken hold. Chester The Jester (Jamie Stewart, who also directed) was having none of it, almost jumping off the stage to buoy up those who had somehow forgotten the call and response nature of a pantomime. the most memorable number was a Scottish-accented rendering of The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”, while Dame Dolly Dumpling (Christopher Howard, of Cats, Whistle Down the Wind and Les Misérables fame) was the stand-out performance for me.
This, then, was the year I got myself a new boiler in time for the winter. I finally forked out for air-conditioning, though as aircon installers had a particularly busy summer it was already late August before mine was up and running. I can see clearly again, too, having bought varifocals for the first time. I very nearly resigned from the day job due to a sudden relocation, which then never happened, so I stayed put. Football was definitely coming home, or so the bar staff at Chichester Festival Theatre said to me when I was there for a performance of ‘Me and My Girl’ which happened to be on at the same time as a certain World Cup sporting fixture. I was down to review another show in east London that got cancelled due to the football fever gripping the nation: and then, as it transpired, football was definitely not coming home. I overdid it at the Edinburgh Fringe, seeing 33 shows in eight days, still only one per cent of the total number of productions there in 2018.
I wish you all a very Happy New Year.
The recent announcement that Donner and Blitzen have elected to take the early reindeer retirement package has triggered a good deal of concern about whether they will be replaced, and about other restructuring decisions at the North Pole.
Streamlining is due to the North Pole's loss of dominance of the season's gift distribution business. Home shopping channels and mail order catalogues have diminished Santa's market share. He could not sit idly by and permit further erosion of the profit picture.
The reindeer downsizing was made possible through the purchase of a late model Japanese sled for the CEO's annual trip. Improved productivity from Dasher and Dancer, who summered at the Harvard Business School, is anticipated. Reduction in reindeer will also lessen airborne environmental emissions for which the North Pole has received unfavourable press.
I am pleased to inform you that Rudolph's role will not be disturbed. Tradition still counts for something at the North Pole. Management denies, in the strongest possible language, the earlier leak that Rudolph's nose got that way, not from the cold, but from substance abuse. Calling Rudolph "a lush who was into the sauce and never did pull his share of the load" was an unfortunate comment, made by one of Santa's helpers and taken out of context at a time of year when he is known to be under executive stress.
As a further restructuring, today's global challenges require the North Pole to continue to look for better, more competitive steps. Effective immediately, the following economy measures are to take place in the "Twelve Days of Christmas" subsidiary:
The partridge will be retained, but the pear tree never turned out to be the cash crop forecasted. It will be replaced by a plastic hanging plant, providing considerable savings in maintenance.
The two turtle doves represent a redundancy that is simply not cost effective. In addition, their romance during working hours could not be condoned. The positions are therefore eliminated.
The three French hens will remain intact. After all, everyone loves the French.
The four calling birds were replaced by an automated voice mail system, with a call waiting option. An analysis is underway to determine whom the birds have been calling, how often and how long they talked.
The five golden rings have been put on hold by the Board of Directors. Maintaining a portfolio based on one commodity could have negative implications for institutional investors. Diversification into other precious metals as well as a mix of high technology stocks appear to be in order.
The six geese a-laying constitutes a luxury which can no longer be afforded. It has long been felt that the production rate of one egg per goose per day is an example of the decline in productivity. Three geese will be let go, and an upgrading in the selection procedure by personnel will assure management that from now on every goose it gets will be a good one.
The seven swans a-swimming is obviously a number chosen in better times. The function is primarily decorative. Mechanical swans are on order. The current swans will be retrained to learn some new strokes and therefore enhance their outplacement.
The eight maids a-milking concept has been under heavy scrutiny by Human Resources. A male/female balance in the workforce is being sought. The more militant maids consider this a dead-end job with no upward mobility. Automation of the process may permit the maids to try a-mending, a-mentoring or a-mulching.
Nine Ladies dancing has always been an odd number. This function will be phased out as these individuals grow older and can no longer do the steps.
Ten Lords-a-leaping is overkill. The high cost of Lords plus the expense of international air travel prompted the Board to suggest replacing this group with ten reality television stars. While leaping ability may be somewhat sacrificed, the savings are significant because we expect an oversupply of unemployed reality TV participants in the next year or so.
Eleven pipers piping and twelve drummers drumming is a simple case of the band getting too big. A substitution with a string quartet, a cutback on new music and no uniforms will produce savings which will drop right down to the bottom line.
We can expect a substantial reduction in assorted people, fowl, animals and other expenses. Though incomplete, studies indicate that stretching deliveries over twelve days is inefficient. If we can drop ship in one day, service levels will be improved.
Regarding the lawsuit filed by the Law Society seeking expansion to include the legal profession ("thirteen lawyers a-suing") action is pending.
Lastly, it is not beyond consideration that deeper cuts may be necessary in the future to stay competitive. Should that happen, the Board will request management to scrutinize the Snow White Division to see if seven dwarfs is the right number.
When I was a schoolboy, I was part of (though no choice of my own) a church-like organisation that had some characteristics of a cult. It demanded unswerving devotion to ‘The Pastor’, over and above devotion to God, and the pastor’s instructions were to be taken as gospel, taking precedence over the Bible. One of the things they insisted on was an annual ‘Christmas Presentation’, which they asserted was ‘for the Lord’ (whatever that meant) but was really a way of forcing youngsters like me with no performing arts talent whatsoever to sing and dance in the name of entertainment. If their version of God was real, I am quite sure I would have been ‘smitten’ there and then and sent to Hell, of which there was more talk of in this ‘church’ than Heaven.
At some point as a teenager I saw the light, so to speak. Fast forward to 2018. I find myself attending two Christmas concerts, with some very high-quality musicianship in both, as far removed from the likes of me mumbling through some very poorly written and completely immemorable material as it is possible to get. Firstly, on Saturday afternoon (and evening, though I was reviewing in the evening, so the matinee it had to be), ‘Christmas Praise’ at All Souls Church, Langham Place has been going on for decades, led this year for the last time, at least in his current role as conductor of the All Souls Orchestra (I suspect they’ll have him back as a guest), by Dr Noel Tredinnick, whose baritone vocal rang out across the church to introduce an alternative arrangement to ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night’.
The programme was eclectic, to say the least. Their soloists were Beverly Trotman, a former X-Factor participant who is now an assistant headteacher in Bedfordshire, and Lucy Grimble, a London-based singer-songwriter, backed by Trotman’s daughter Tianna, and Nikki Thornton, about which, sadly, no further details were disclosed. Grimble’s own composition, ‘Great Redeemer’, had the feel of one of those chart music style hymns sometimes heard on the BBC’s ‘Songs of Praise’, while there were ample opportunities for the audience to sing traditional seasonal melodies, including five verses of ‘It Came Upon A Midnight Clear’.
Worthy of mention is an arrangement of ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ (this from a church which one year did ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’), and ‘Mele Kalikimaka’, which is apparently the Hawaiian equivalent of ‘Merry Christmas’, and came complete with a jaunty melody and the singers in leis (that is, those flowery necklace thingys). The sound levels were better than they were in previous years too, and with Trotman and Grimble’s perfect dictions, the songs were just lovely. The only downside for me was a man directly behind me who kept thumping his feet, thus giving me the feeling that I was on a train for most of the proceedings. At least he thumped in time to the music.
Sunday night saw Cadogan Hall filled for ‘West End Christmas’, which I have had no prior experience of, although Darren Bell’s Club 11 London use Cadogan Hall fairly regularly for their gigs. The assembled ‘cast’ for the concert was quite an impressive one, and songs being rattled off at quite an impressive rate, though it did seem the interval was reached very early, after about forty minutes (I’ve sat through sermons longer than that). Audience participation, all in the second half, involved singing ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ (which made me wonder if we really do live in a post-Christian society), before a sing-song of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, in a version lifted straight out of what ‘The BT Christmas Concert’ have been doing for years at the Royal Albert Hall: divide the auditorium into twelve sections, and have each section sing one of the sets of gifts. (There are, singing the whole song through, 364 gifts given over 12 days.) BT, at least, runs through the accompanying actions before the orchestra strikes up: the audience here merely ran with whatever their ‘leader’, one of the soloists assigned by conductor Alex Parker, had thought up.
Things got even more chaotic after that: Alice Fearn, the West End’s Elphaba in Wicked, given the task of blasting through ‘that’ Mariah Carey song, didn’t have a copy of the words supplied to her, resulting in an awkward silence from the stage at one point as the orchestra played on. It would have brought to mind Leslie Uggams’ infamous ‘June Is Bustin’ Out All Over’, still reshared and retweeted every first of June, years and years after the event. (She didn’t know the words, and was singing outdoors, so cue cards were made up for her, but the man holding them up slipped in the mud due to heavy rainfall the day before, so she just carried on, but scatting rather than singing the actual lyrics.)
Before it went awry though, there was much to enjoy, including a choral version of ‘Grown-Up Christmas List’, and Danielle Steers (Bat Out of Hell) performing ‘O Holy Night’ so beautifully. Steers returned to the stage in the second half for a duet with Mazz Murray (Chicago) of ‘Merry Christmas (War Is Over)’. Despite recent controversies, ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ was included in this programme, with Alexander Hanson pairing up with Janie Dee to give a positively warm rendering, even if in this day and age she could have just booked an Uber or something. This is England, remember: if one isn’t to venture outdoors just because it’s cold, one wouldn’t go anywhere at all at certain times of the year.
I thought they’d saved the best for last, though, and Reeve Carney (Hadestown) was the right person to knock out ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’. He’s got an excellent concert stage presence, no doubt developed from his own gigs as a singer-songwriter. It took the combined efforts of the Church of England and the West End to get me in the festive mood, but at least I can say with some sincerity that I do wish you peace and joy this Christmas.
Ah, the power of social media. When I posted a link to a highly negative review of Bohemian Rhapsody recently, the response was unanimous – the review in question is inept, and I would be assured of a good time if I took the trouble to see it for myself. But it was slow-going to begin with, though some of the details in the storyline were of interest, such as Freddie Mercury (1946-1991) (Rami Malek) being born Farrokh Bulsara, in Zanzibar. But the basic narrative arc was something I had seen before – in, for instance, the musical Sunny Afternoon. There is parental disapproval and a vision from a young man and his bandmates to make a success of their music, staying true to their agreed principles even in the face of record company executives telling them that what they have to offer will never sell. Then comes parental denial when success rolls around, followed by an eventual grudging acceptance, and then a hearty one.
A press conference highlights the effects, individually on Mercury and collectively on the band, of the media’s clamour for further particulars on Mercury’s off-stage life. Rather ironically, a considerable amount of film time is spent showing Mercury’s personal life, particularly his relationship and subsequent engagement to a shop worker, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and a later relationship with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker). Being a biographical account, the bickering that goes on between band members is also shown, though I got the feeling that the film wasn’t telling its audiences everything. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was sanitising actual events (talk about “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”), and it may well be that there were simply some ruthless decisions made with regards to what should be included and what should be left out, in order to avoid having a five-hour motion picture.
But it didn’t quite convince me: all of them, Mercury, lead guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and bass guitarist John Deacon (Joe Mazzello), are everlastingly confident that they will hit the big time. Not one time was there ever a scintilla of doubt about anything: really? And then there’s Malek’s enunciation: it’s so unnecessarily exaggerated – Mercury didn’t talk like that! The film builds up to a rendering of the Live Aid show in 1985 at Wembley Stadium (very, very good on the big screen), and then ends abruptly, with a brief postscript about what happened thereafter. It’s as if they couldn’t be bothered dramatizing the rest of the Queen story. Then again, the film does end on a high.
I did enjoy watching the recording sessions in miscellaneous studios, though I have no idea how authentic they were to the actual processes deployed when Queen made their records. But the show rattles along at quite a pace, before stopping at the Live Aid gig and just hovering there, and what is cinematically a decent ending is, plot-wise, a bit of a damp squib. The songs are done well, the narrative less so. Perhaps not quite ‘galileo figaro magnifico’, but an enjoyable experience, even if I wouldn’t be trying to clear space in my calendar for a second viewing.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.