There was a ‘wow’ factor in my first experience at the Alexandra Palace Theatre, but it wasn’t to do with the theatre space itself, which I was rather underwhelmed by, given that the result of a £27 million restoration project was an auditorium that could do with another £27 million being splashed out on it. The idea, it seems to be from seeing a video on the project on the Palace’s website, was to preserve the existing condition of the brickwork in perpetuity, rather than do anything to redecorate. Given the theatre fell into disrepair and was unused as a theatre space for eighty years (according to the Palace itself), this doesn’t, frankly, equate to ‘restoration’: the walls couldn’t possibly have looked this terrible when the theatre was first opened.
Signage in the theatre bar instructing patrons not to consume any alcohol until they were sat in the auditorium proper was ignored, at least by me: the auditorium hadn’t opened when I got through security and into the bar area, and I wasn’t going to stand there on a hot day, drink in hand, not drinking, waiting for an indeterminate period for the damn doors to open. Even when they did, I resisted going in straight away (this wasn’t a Ryanair flight, and I grasp the concept of numbered seating), and so I finished my glass of wine stood in direct line of sight to the signage saying I shouldn’t be drinking alcohol in the area. This was, mind you, in full view of the Palace’s staff, who did nothing to challenge me. Why have rules if nothing is done to enforce them?
Neither cast list nor programme for Sunset Boulevard in Concert was available, leaving me to find out who was who from cast lists provided to members of the matinee audience prior (a few of whom were kind enough to post photos of said list on social media). Being a concert production, one could hardly expect a staircase, or a car, or a film studio, but I’d seen three previous incarnations of it (West End transfer of the Watermill Theatre production, 2008-09; English National Opera ‘semi-staged’ run, 2016; Curve Theatre and subsequent UK tour, 2017-18) so it wasn’t like I didn’t know what was happening.
The atmosphere was electric, and rightly so, given the sheer talent on stage. I hadn’t seen a mid-show standing ovation of the kind Mazz Murray received at the end of ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’ since a Saturday night crowd at Chichester Festival Theatre rose to their feet at the end of ‘Pick Out A Simple Tune’ in 2016. And no, there weren’t any ovations before the end of the show at any of the other Sunset productions I’d seen. A delightful evening all round, really: no weak links to report, and just the occasional microphone issue that is part and parcel of live performance.
There were several cast changes from the original announcement (the concert was to take taken place in February, then rescheduled to April, then re-rescheduled to June). Ramin Karimloo ended up in the role of Joe Gillis, replacing Kai Ushe (who had been cast in the West End production of The Lion King), with Zizi Strallen taking over the role of Betty Schaefer from Laura Baldwin. Jeremy Secomb took over the role of Max von Meyerling (minus the ‘European’ accent) from Alex Bourne. And for me, in the end, it was either this, or Hair at the London Palladium (at Palladium prices, for a production I’d already seen at a reduced price at an outdoor venue round the corner from the Turbine Theatre in Battersea last summer).
Finally, I followed the advice from David Shaw Parker, who played Cecil B. DeMille, and got the W3 bus from Finsbury Park (rather than Wood Green, which is the Palace’s own suggested route), which apart from the very warm (by British standards) weather, was reasonably painless. And at last, I can say I’ve been to Alexandra Palace.
If 7pm starts on a Saturday evening constitutes the new normal for West End theatre, I don’t like it, especially when it means finishing dinner in time to get to where one is going even earlier than for a 7.30pm start, and go through the even more rigorous checks in place just to get in. It’s all very well front of house staff telling me to ‘take your time’ when I am already in a hurry. After I had my temperature checked and confirmed my name and phone number for ‘track and trace’, security had to satisfy themselves that I didn’t have any gunpowder or any other improvised explosive devices, or indeed, food. I have nothing against the security officers: they are paid to do what it is they have been instructed to do.
I have since learned that Nimax Theatres are being draconian with their refund policy, or rather sticking to their usual terms and conditions even in a pandemic: if a ticket holder needs to self-isolate by Government decree, tickets will not be refunded. There does not even appear to be the option to take out a policy with Nimax Theatres – See Tickets, for instance, has used TicketPlan Cancellation Protection for some time, which allows patrons to obtain a refund under all sorts of circumstances, including “unexpected disruption of the public transport network which could not have been reasonably known about before the date or time or the booked event” and receiving a positive Covid-19 test result. Even ATG, owned by private equity firms, entertains refund requests.
The jokes were corny, and very evidently scripted, with hosts Bonnie Langford and Trevor Dion Nicholas reading off cue cards, albeit in an engaging and animated way. The worse the punchlines got, the more the audience lapped it up: this was, essentially, selected songs from selected musical productions performed in concert format, backed by a live orchestra. While the show script proved borderline insufferable (at least to me), the line-up was, in places, a logistical challenge, with (on the night I attended) Collette Guitart performing the matinee performance of Six at one end of Shaftesbury Avenue, coming up to The Show Must Go On, and apparently going back to Six for the evening show.
Trevor Dion Nicholas raised the roof, ditching his usual part of George Washington in the West End production of Hamilton in favour of George III in an almost riotous rendering of ‘You’ll Be Back’. Some of the other men, I’m sorry to report, came across as a bit wooden, though John Owen-Jones put in a stunning version of ‘Bring Him Home’ from Les Misérables that elicited sustained applause, and to open the second act, Back to the Future’s Olly Dobson gave it his all in ‘The Power of Love’.
Otherwise, as Beyoncé put it over and over again, “Who run the world? Girls, girls.” Laura Pick did ‘The Wizard and I’ from Wicked justice, and Alice Fearn (herself a previous Elphaba) was delightful in ‘Me and the Sky’ from Come From Away. It was the first act closers, however, that were nothing short of sensational. Aisha Jawando, in the title role in Tina – The Tina Turner Musical and Mazz Murray, reprising Donna Sheridan in Mamma Mia! were, as Turner herself used to sing, simply the best. In the end, it was all for a good cause, with the five night run on Shaftesbury Avenue helping the Theatre Support Fund get over its £1 million fundraising target.
The Show Must Go On!
By George Stiles and Anthony Drewe
The Show Must Go On!
The curtains must rise again
With tears in our eyes again
The show must go on
The actors must learn their lines
Designers submit designs
Directors, and band and crew
Are here for you
The dancers will dance again
We’ll have an advance again
So let any doubts be gone
The Show Must Go On!
We’ve baked so much banana bread
We’ve hoarded toilet rolls
We’ve seen every series Netflix ever screened
We’ve been masked, we’ve been distant
We’ve observed the rule of six
And our hands are all meticulously cleaned
If there’s one thing the pandemic proved it’s this –
We don’t mind a lengthy interval
But this one takes the piss
The Show Must Go On!
Let Poppins take flight again
We’ll go fly a kite again
The Show Must Go On!
Let Hamilton rap once more
The Lion King has to roar
The Mormons will spread the word
And we’ll be heard
Let chandeliers fall again
We’ll watch Michael Ball again
Javert will pursue Valjean
The Show Must Go On!
We had to seek out other roles
To help us make ends meet
We’ve been poorer than the Lady and the Tramp
We’ve stocked shelves, we’ve delivered
There are supermarkets shell
Where the checkout staff have never been so camp
So to say we were unviable was wrong
And now just like Dolly Levi
We are back where we belong
The Show Must Go On!
Let orchestras play again
Then Hairspray will spray again
The Show Must Go On!
Put Jamie back in his rock
And welcome us to the rock
& Juliet can be sure
To live once more
Sit Elphaba on her broom
Performances must resume
Dear Evan will lie and con
The Show Must Go On!
And Tina must turn again
Matilda will learn again
And Sophie will find her dad
While Vivian meets a cad
And Joseph will have a dream
And Moses will float downstream
For broomsticks to have a job
Just rub that knob
We were proud to clap the NHS for making us feel better
But isn’t it now time that we all clapped for the theatre
The Show Must Go On!
We’ve all had to wait so long
For Elsa to belt that song
The Show Must Go On!
When Back to the Future starts
And Marty McFly departs
Then Cinders can start anew
To find her show
When Six Tudor Queens can reign
And tell of their woes again
There’s one thing that we are all agreed upon
The Show Must Go On!
The Show Must Go On!
Could there be a better place for a shopaholic to spend the night than in a department store? A woman fell asleep in the toilets of a BHS store in Reading and awoke to find herself locked in – but then suffered the embarrassment of being rescued by fire crews via a first-floor window.
A retired lawyer did not hesitate when a 7ft alligator snatched his dog. Steve Gustafson, 66, was at home in Orlando, Florida, when Bounce the west highland terrier wandered too close to a nearby pond. He heard the dog yelp, looked up and saw his pet being carried away in the alligator’s jaws. “I leaped on the gator, like you do some silly belly flop in a pool. The only difference was I landed on top of a gator.” Steve grappled with the alligator until it released the dog. Bounce – and his owner – escaped with only minor injuries.
A short-sighted shopper paid £527 for two pork chops because she used a supermarket self-service checkout without her glasses on. The 57-year-old thought she was paying £1 and didn’t see that a technical glitch had caused a huge price rise at the Asda store in Poole, Dorset.
Sergei Hodirev, 29, fell in love with a motorist whose car ran him over, breaking his leg. “Despite being in pain he was completely charming,” said driver Elena Muhametshina, 29, of Chelyabinsk, Russia. The couple now live together after striking up a friendship while Mr Hodirev was treated in hospital.
Smitten Patrick Erzer tried to propose to girlfriend Sonja Wyler by putting up a poster outside their flat made up of 1,700 pictures of them – but she didn’t spot it for a week. The 28-year-old finally got a ‘yes’ when Sonja, 26, noticed a crowd taking photos of the collage in Basel, Switzerland.
Even a bomb and pistol are no match for an angry 82-year-old woman who knows how to use a handbag. Herta Wallecker sprang into action when a masked man demanded money at a bank in St Egyden am Stenfeld, Austria. As he shouted, “I’ve got a bomb – I only want the big notes,” Wallecker walloped him with her handbag and then pulled off his mask. He threated her with a pistol but Wallecker just hit him again and told him: “That is the bank’s money. If you want money, then get a job, you lazy devil.” Police later arrested a 62-year-old man.
A mayor put his neck on the line to marry two giraffes. Dragan Palma cancelled a meeting to wed buck Jovance, five, and bride Ema, nine. “Boring meetings can wait for a couple in love,” said the mayor of Jagodina, Serbia.
Some people go on cruises for the food or the sightseeing: others like to see a bit of action. Two women in their seventies have been bailed by police in Sweden for collaring a burglar in their cabin. According to officers in Haninge, the women, who both admit being “portly”, forced the thief up against the wall in an armlock – a technique they had learnt from watching police dramas – and called security staff.
I’ve been indulging recently in ‘Chapters’, an app containing ‘interactive stories’ to read. As with many apps, one can pay to go ad-free, or otherwise put up and shut up (as I do) and tolerate adverts every so often. There are different categories, such as ‘thriller’, ‘suspense’, ‘sci-fi’, ‘young adult’ and so on, but they are all essentially about scenarios in which lonely hearts find their (possible) match, and invariably the most palatable ending is one that ends with two young characters who get married, start a family together and have the perfect life.
Apart from that, they are not as formulaic as I’ve made them sound. One of the stories I’ve ploughed through, ‘Fallen’, goes into some detail about forensics and how advances in science and technology have helped to secure convictions – frankly, I skipped over some of it. But it’s ultimately about demons – or rather ‘fallen’ (hence the title) angels, and the last few chapters are action-packed to say the least.
‘Chapters’ isn’t exactly family viewing, however, and it’s a little surprising that it’s as freely available as it is to any smartphone user. This is an extract from ‘Under Covers’, in which Jake Knight, a billionaire who runs an empire of security firms, seeks to dominate an employee whom he has taken under his wing in more ways than one. Jake tells her (the reader is asked to choose a name for the female central character, and for no particular reason, I plumped for ‘Charlotte’): “I want to make you crazy for it. I want to memorise the taste of your pussy. I want to wind you up so tight that you cum harder than you ever have in your life.”
The narrative continues: “Jake stands up between your parted legs. Lined up with your centre is his clothed cock, the hard, long outline of it clear through his pants. He unbuckles his belt, his blazing blue eyes glued to yours. The rugged timbre of his voice oozes sex. It’s the kind of sound you imagined Jake could make, but never thought it’d be directed at you. He tugs down his boxers, freeing his cock from his pants. Your throat goes dry as you take in the hard, glistening length of him. He strokes himself with one hand as he runs a finger lazily along your apex. He smiles.”
Then: “Jake steps forward into the space between your thighs, his hands gently sliding up your legs and pushing them further apart.” He says, “I can’t say I’ve never dreamed of having you on your back, Charlotte… but laid out on my desk like this, with your legs spread for me?”
“Jake leans over you and captures your lips in a kiss, heated and wanton. You gasp when the weight of his bare cock lands against your thigh, flooding your body with heat. His tongue runs along your lips, making you part for him. His bare length slides between your slick folds as he pushes his body against you. The feel of it is blissful. Jake groans. He bites his lip, almost hard enough to draw blood. You wrap your legs around his waist to pull him close.
“He takes hold of your hips, pulling you to the edge of his desk. It opens your legs even more and you lock your ankles at his lower back. He growls and reaches down to position himself. You can feel the head of his cock pressing at your entrance, and a jolt shudders through you.” He says, “I’m going to fuck you so hard you won’t be able to remember another man has ever been inside you. So hard that you won’t ever want another cock. Come on, good girl. Tell me if you want it. I’m gonna be greedy with that pussy. I plan to indulge myself in you.”
And the story goes on like this, chapter after chapter, twenty in all for this one. It’s worth pointing out that ‘Charlotte’ does have the right to say no, and that right is always respected, even if the story is at pains to point out that the guy is upset and/or unhappy. These stories have me in stitches, partly for their crudeness, partly for their absurd scenarios. I’ve started another one, ‘Unfixable’, in which an American photographer flies to Dublin for a month on assignment and ends up shagging Shane Claymore, a local hotelier and pub landlord. ‘Pushing Her Limits’, meanwhile, is very much in the vain of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’.
There’s plenty of additional content for those who wish to pay for it, which I stubbornly refuse to do. Besides, what is available for free is entertaining enough. It’s literature only good for the gutter, but I think I have a slightly better understanding as to why Mills & Boon books are popular. Part of me tells me unequivocally that this is bizarre, misogynistic, indulgent bullshit. But part of me also thinks that it’s enjoyable, and ultimately harmless.
There’s some sympathy for actors in The Fosse Forest Ballet, which despite its title is a pantomime (there’s a joke in there somewhere, which I’ve evidently missed). Practically everyone else is painted in a bad light. When Bob (David Muscat), desperate to tread the boards again, pours his heart out in desperation to his agent James (Philip Joel), the latter falsely claims it’s a bad line and he didn’t hear the bulk of what was said. Bob ends the call diplomatically, emotionally spent, and must somehow summon the strength from somewhere to carry on dreaming the dream.
Such is the harsh reality of the acting profession. But it also seems grossly unfair to most theatrical agents out there, who (or so actors invariably say) work hard for the people on their books. I suppose one mustn’t take this series too seriously or think that the attitudes of the creative team behind this ballet/pantomime are indicative of everyone in the entertainment industry. The production seems doomed to fail, which probably makes better drama than a show about a show where everything goes swimmingly, and a blockbuster success is born.
The style of humour is quirky to say the least: in one scene, the pantomime’s director, choreographer and musical director (all Philip Joel), all assert in similar ways that actors are impossible to work with because they never, ever get anything right (in which case, why not pursue a vocation that doesn’t involve working with actors?). Individually and collectively, their attitudes stink, and one wonders why, if this is meant to be remotely representative of how creatives behave in the real world, actors put up with it. Perhaps it was meant to be a light-hearted poke at how creatives are sometimes perceived, and many of them may well take what they find here with good grace.
But I’m sorry to report I barely raised a smile, let alone a hearty laugh. Non-actor characters are pretty much all the same, universally extremely highly strung – the sort of people that seem to think the planet will stop spinning on its own axis if the slightest thing doesn’t go wholly and entirely in their favour. Frankly, I found much of the episode tiresome. When the narrator, Darren Day, claims, with reference to a certain point in the audition process for the panto, that “not many make it this far, but then again many do”, which is it? And I couldn’t see the need to lampoon call centre workers in a ‘punchline’ (inverted commas mine) at the end of the episode.
That the series was commissioned with the idea of supporting Acting for Others and Theatres Trust by donating its profits to such causes makes such a disagreeable portrayal of the theatre world all the more bizarre. The show, is at least, filmed to a high standard, and appearances from the likes of Kerry Ellis, Louise Dearman and Oliver Savile will doubtless be welcome to regular theatregoers. A pity, really, that I had little interest in watching any further episodes of this peculiar story.
One seems to, if one is as carefree and juvenile as I am, find the humour even in the most depressing of times. Being made redundant back in July was a shock to the system (however much I saw it coming, and I was far from alone in losing my job) but there was still an element of, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!” Indeed, I now find myself working from home in a temporary job where nobody really cares what precise time in the morning I start and what precise time in the (early) evening I stop, as long as I get my hours in and the work gets done.
And boy, the work gets done, especially when in lockdown, and there isn’t much else going on. Stubborn mule that I am, I still haven’t subscribed to Netflix, or to Disney Plus, and I can’t see myself doing so any time soon. I have, more than ever, taken to doing online surveys (thanks to the relentless adverts for survey filling ‘jobs’ on Reed, CV Library and other places) – I’m sitting on a £20 Tesco gift card which I keep forgetting to bring with me when I pop out for groceries. Online market research doesn’t pay well at all, but in this economy, one must do what is necessary to get by.
Being out of work for so long did allow me to get a grip on other aspects of my personal life: years of correspondence, stuffed into various drawers and piled up in miscellaneous places around the house, were duly gathered and sorted through, with bags and bags of paper having made their way through my trusty cross-cut shredder. At one point, as soon as the refuse collectors had been and gone, my outside bin was duly filled up again.
As you will be aware, theatre reviews didn’t stop just because the theatres were closed for a large part of the year. This was the Year of the Stream, which began as monologues in lockdown and culminated in the likes of London’s National Theatre and Leicester’s Curve Theatre making available Dick Whittington and Sunset Boulevard respectively (I didn’t care much for the former and utterly adored the latter).
Then, of course, there were the socially distanced productions that managed to go ahead with an audience – the press reps behind The Comeback were particularly keen for me to reschedule things and see that show in the West End before Tier Three came into force in London in December (itself swiftly followed by Tier Four) but I simply had too many other things booked in. Mask wearing rules were enforced with rigour at the London Palladium and at Cadogan Hall, and rather less so at The Crazy Coqs.
Practically everything from job interviews to consultations with my diabetes consultant to church services went online: somewhere online there’s a video of a priest who accidentally activates the video filters on his smartphone while live-streaming a Mass. My next door neighbour continued the weekly Clap for Carers into, I think, thirteen weeks (it officially stopped after ten), and I found myself giving far more than anticipated towards somebody’s Movember Foundation charity fundraiser.
Black Lives Matter came to the fore, with people attending marches and protests despite concerns about the spread of Covid-19 – as the actress Audra McDonald put it, there are two pandemics going on. For the first time since I care to remember, I’m not shelling out a huge amount of money in one go for an Annual Travelcard. I don’t miss commuting, frankly, even if it did give me breathing space at either end of the working day.
I ended up blowing much of the redundancy money on repair work to the house – the ceiling in my front room started leaking, and what was initially a gutter replacement job turned into a much bigger waterproofing and roof repair project. I discovered mindfulness, and still occasionally do ten-minute meditations on the Calm app, and while it’s not for everybody, it’s certainly helped me to focus and be calmer than I otherwise would have been in a world that has well and truly lost the plot.
I also started a side hustle as a social carer on the weekends. I’ve chosen to keep doing it for a while, even though I’m back in full-time employment – I retrained (as it were) and it’s a stream of income. I’m glad I did, even if it’s for entirely selfish reasons: looking after the elderly in their own homes pushes me further up the queue to get the Covid-19 vaccine. My employer has already put me forward and I’m waiting to hear back from the NHS. We’ll see. But whether I get it sooner rather than later, the medical advice (for me) is a strong recommendation to have it if offered. If it kills me, or indeed if the virus does, I offer the same rebuttal I’ve used for decades in the face of death: dead people don’t pay council tax. (Unemployed people don’t, either, as I discovered earlier this year.)
I’m grateful to the other members of the Sharon Sexton Fan Club – there’s a fairly busy WhatsApp group to which we contribute – for letting this acid-tongued theatre reviewer continue to be part of their (online) ‘bubble’. (I wonder if they know I once two-starred Wicked.) It’s been many years since I had this many Christmas cards from people (mostly from said fan club): I honestly thought that was a thing of the past. Oh, and on a separate note, my energy bills are higher this year than they have ever been. Anyway, here’s to 2021. Love, laugh, love and all that.
There’s a shouty man on the staff of the Cadogan Hall that likes to, well, shout at people. Except the Covid-secure guidelines discourage shouting, so all he could do was gesticulate wildly at me as I had to walk past the usual door I go through to nip to the toilet at the hall before a show – like many places, the hall has one-way systems in place. I managed to order a drink on my phone – without the need for yet another app, but the £46 ticket price did seem a little steep for a gig that barely lasted 85 minutes (including bows and encore). My own fault: I suppose I could have booked to sit in the gallery rather than the stalls.
“We’re in a theatre!” exclaimed Killian Donnelly, who will probably always be Huey Calhoun in Memphis to me, especially when, like tonight, he shared a stage with one of the Felicia Farrells of that show, Rachel John. We were in a concert hall, really (imagine Cadogan Hall with a safety curtain coming down at the interval!) but we’ll overlook that – after all, the line-up comprised musical theatre actors (the other singers being Oliver Tompsett and Louise Dearman), so much of the audience was made up of theatre patrons. When host Pippa Evans (she of Showstopper: The Improvised Musical fame, as well as Sunday Assembly) asked if anyone present didn’t like musicals, only one person dared to admit as much.
Altered lyrics to ‘It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year’ name-dropped ‘bubbles’ and other corona-related vocabulary. Mercifully, this didn’t become a running theme. In the first half, Rachel John was handed classic Christmas tunes – hymns, if you like, blowing the roof of with sensational renderings of O Come, All Ye Faithful and O Holy Night. By contrast, Louise Dearman was allocated Frosty The Snowman and Into The Unknown (from Frozen 2). Given the running time, and Evans’ comedy routines at various intervals, the show did remarkably well to rattle through seventeen numbers.
The background vocalists (Alex Conder, Sadie Harris, Callum Henderson and Phoebe Williams) got their own number, The Christmas Song. All are 2020 graduates from the Guildford School of Acting – the theatre industry has, as far as is feasible, supported recent newcomers, with Henderson already having completed a run in October at the outdoor Garden Theatre in a production of the musical Next Thing You Know. Overall, there was quite an eclectic mix, ranging from Joni Mitchell’s River to Elton John’s Step Into Christmas. The inclusion of Fairytale of New York, with unaltered lyrics, was, Evans admitted, controversial – I personally take the view that it should be performed as it was written, or not at all.
It was, I think, the best job that could have been done in the circumstances, and with so many Christmas concerts cancelled this year, to have witnessed this one go ahead is itself a remarkable achievement.
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.