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.
I recently saw a YouTube video of the final night of The Poor School, in which its founder and director Paul Caister – not liked in some quarters because of his forthright approach - spoke. In a closing night speech, bringing The Poor School to an end after 32 years, he lamented the popularity of the modern adaptation of classical works, particularly in British theatre. I agree with him on that point, and have found myself watching an ‘adaptation’ of something or other, wondering why on earth didn’t the writer(s) just come up with a new show?
Now Hadestown is, albeit an American import to the National Theatre, an adaptation, but even I have to admit, this was rather good. I am led to believe it has secured a transfer to Broadway already. Here, on a drizzly Monday night in November, at a ‘regular’ performance (that is, not the press night filled with investors plus friends and families of cast and creatives), a significant proportion of the audience rose to their feet at the curtain call, without any encouragement or overly celebratory encore. There was an encore, and it was quite reflective, and so unexpected that some people had left the theatre without having had the chance to hear it. Their loss.
It is not entirely sung-through, but it very nearly is, and a seven-strong on-stage band are utterly delightful. This is, in effect, a retelling of the ancient Greek legend of Orpheus (Reeve Carney) and Eurydice (Eva Noblezada). Boy meets girl, but that’s probably about as conventional this show gets in terms of musical theatre. Unlike John Gay’s 1728 ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera, there are no calls for a ‘reprieve’ at the final hurdle; at the performance I attended, an audible ‘No!’ could be heard from the audience. Those familiar with the old story will know that Eurydice dies and ends up in the underworld, after which Orpheus descends to the underworld (whilst still alive, don’t ask) to see his other half. Such was his ability to play music and sing that the miscellaneous obstacles that would ordinarily stand in the way of someone getting through to the underworld before actually dying are overcome: free passage was given to him for his talents.
Here, Hades (Patrick Page) speaks with a particularly low voice (think the high priest, Caiaphas, in Jesus Christ Superstar). Hermes (André De Shields), acts as the show’s rather classy and assured narrator, who enjoyed a fully justified excellent rapport with the audience from the start. For me, though, although the show is an ensemble piece of theatre – it’s worth naming ‘The Fates’, Carly Mercedes Dyer, Rosie Fletcher and Gloria Onitiri, and the ‘Workers’, Sharif Afifi, Beth Hinton-Lever, Seyi Omooba, Aiesha Pease, Joseph Prouse, Jordan Shaw and Shaq Taylor – the evening belongs to Carney’s Orpheus. The devil doesn’t always have the best tunes, y’know. Some will find the material he warbles through a bit jarring, or otherwise underwhelming: some high-pitched ‘la, la, la’s just didn’t do it for one couple in the row behind, who took to taking the piss in the second half when it was reprised yet again.
There are some glorious moments, though. The jaunty ‘Livin’ It Up On Top’ showcased energetic choreography (David Neumann), and the final musical number in the first half, ‘Why We Build The Wall’ was, for its dark content, a throwback to the call and response songs of old, and a powerful if harrowing example of group singing. It’s topical, because of the Trump Administration, but the song makes little sense in the context of this production (with the benefit of hindsight, and some time for me to reflect on it thanks to yet more post-theatre transport delays – thank you, South Western Railway and Network Rail). What is the point of Hades building a wall around the perimeters of the underworld? By custom in ancient Greece, one went there at the end of one’s life on Earth whether one wanted to or not, so the undesirables (whoever they may be) would end up there in any event.
It is best not to ponder on such matters too much in a show best enjoyed by sitting back and letting the music, wonderfully diverse in style and tempo, wash over you. I think the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre would be a good place to put a production of Hadestown in one summer. Persephone (Amber Gray) turns the musical into a concert in the Act Two opening number, ‘Our Lady of the Underground’, going as far as to name the musicians individually to audience applause. Breath-taking in places, this was a very satisfying evening.
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks
Music, lyrics and book by Anaïs Mitchell
Developed with Rachel Chavkin
In rep until 26 January 2019
In the warmth of summertime, songwriter Orpheus and his muse Eurydice are living it up and falling in love. But as winter approaches, reality sets in: these young dreamers can’t survive on songs alone. Tempted by the promise of plenty, Eurydice is lured to the depths of industrial Hadestown. On a quest to save her, Orpheus journeys to the underworld where their trust in each other is put to a final test.
Celebrated singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin have transformed Mitchell’s acclaimed concept album into a genre-defying new musical that mixes modern American folk music with vintage New Orleans jazz to reimagine a sweeping ancient tale.
Reeve Carney, André De Shields, Amber Gray, Eva Noblezada and Patrick Page are appearing with the support of UK Equity, incorporating the Variety Artistes’ Federation, pursuant to an exchange programme between American Equity and UK Equity.
It’s the NHS, but not as I’ve known it for the past few years. A general hospital in the north of England, with ‘general’ being very much the operative word, is the setting for Allelujah! The focus is on a geriatric ward: different wards of the building have been named after various people. The one the characters are in happens to be called ‘Dusty Springfield’, whilst others, judging by a sign on a wall giving directions, include ‘Len Hutton’, ‘Barbara Hepworth’ and ‘J.B. Priestley’.
It’s taken this long for me to get around to seeing this Bridge Theatre production due to, well, lots of other productions to see, and it was only possible at all thanks to the power of National Theatre Live, or in this case, National Theatre Not So Live (what show in London starts at 6:10pm?), seeing as the run at the Bridge Theatre is now over. One of the patients at the geriatric ward, Joe (Jeff Rawle) simply doesn’t want to get well enough to be discharged, as that would mean returning to a care home, or to be more precise a non-care home, where the living conditions are considerably worse than they are at the hospital.
The play strongly suggests that there’s a lot of ‘bed blocking’ going on, such that in this instance, the geriatric ward even has a choir, such is the sense of community and camaraderie amongst the patients and staff. But there is one method of moving people on, deployed by Sister Gilchrist (Deborah Findlay), who at the interval is slated to receive a long service award just prior to retirement, but by the curtain call is told she can expect life imprisonment.
The choir does, at least, provide some healthy entertainment as the characters find common ground in the movement and choreography (Arlene Phillips). This isn’t a play that shows the sort of bad behaviour uncovered by investigative journalism in this country, where people are at best benignly neglected and at worst shouted at, spat at and kicked where the sun doesn’t shine. A fair amount goes on in this play, which does at least justify its two hours and 45 minutes running time.
One of the doctors, Valentine (Sacha Dhawan), who isn’t really called Valentine, but he asserts speakers of British English can’t easily pronounce his actual name, finds himself rejected by a most bizarre citizenship test in which he fails to sing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ all the way through. The narcissism of the chairman of the hospital, Salter (Peter Forbes) shines through whenever a documentary director, Alex (Sam Bond) and a camera operator, Cliff (Nadine Higgin) are around, all part of a bid to ‘Save the Beth’, an ongoing campaign to prevent the powers that be from closing down the Bethlehem Hospital.
Joe’s son, Colin (Samuel Barnett), a management consultant, is on a private visit, but try telling that to Salter, who continues to push for answers as to the future status of the hospital. That is resolved, happily or not, by the end of the show, but of note is Colin’s ‘move with the times, get with the programme’ outlook. But as I started by saying, it’s not the NHS I know: here, there’s some evidence of frantic activity – as soon as a bed becomes available, a patient is rushed over to it, as though a seat had suddenly become available on a Tube train in rush hour. But otherwise, everyone is more or less cared for, fed on time, and medicated on time. Perhaps a greater sense of how stretched staff and resources are would have made this production more credible. Still, I did maintain interest throughout.
Like Love Story, and to some extent, the musical adaptation of Bend It Like Beckham, this Howard Goodall musical, Girlfriends, has too many songs in a similar style, which made me tune out somewhat. The narrative is not always driven forward by the songs, and more often it is the spoken-word narrator (Group Captain Victoria Gosling OBE: a real scoop for the London Musical Theatre Orchestra in having an actual senior figurehead within the Royal Air Force telling the story about the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) during the Second World War) who explains a lot in a short space of time, before a single point is seized on and sung about in a musical number or two. Or even three.
I cannot fault the orchestra, led (as usual) by the effervescent Freddie Tapner, who was musical director for a production of Girlfriends at the Union Theatre in 2014, and much of the singing itself is pleasant to listen to. That is actually a problem in this case: the work of the WAAF is portrayed as difficult and unrelenting, and yet the songs are lush and beautiful. Perhaps the concert staging didn’t quite work for me either, and the production as a whole felt as static as the performers rooted to their designated spots on the stage.
I mean, there was some movement (and I don’t just mean standing and sitting dependent on whether a character was even in a scene or not) but not much – because the musical doesn’t really call for it. Fair enough, in a show about the struggles and challenges faced by members of the WAAF, but there is not much to distinguish between some of the women characters. This might have been intentional, inasmuch as they were all in it together and all that, but it meant the narrative as a whole became rather distant – and, dare I say it, cold.
The ‘girlfriends’ who I could recall as being distinct characters are Jasmine (Vikki Stone) who came close to deserting the WAAF because she was not given ‘compassionate leave’ following the death of her brother, and Woods (Lizzie Wofford), who presumably had a first name but because of her seniority within the WAAF was portrayed as an insensitive and heartless leader (and then as a snowflake when she changed her mind with regards to Jasmine). I warmed to Jasmine, even if I didn’t really warm to anyone else: she asks the sort of questions that ought to be asked in wartime and didn’t blindly swallow up the propaganda of the day.
Guy (Rob Houchen) didn’t come across as unlikeable as the character’s words suggest. The lyrics were saying that it’s a tough war and everyone is having a hard time, but somehow this wasn’t really conveyed in the pretty and neat costumes and the melodious tunes that are a pleasure to listen to, but do little, if anything, to portray the struggles of the characters, or of the era. As Groucho Marx put it, “I’ve have had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it."
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.