It was a weekend away from the reviewing circuit but as per usual I couldn’t resist saying something about what I enjoyed – ‘enjoyed’ being the operative word. I dropped into MT Fest UK, a musical festival theatre of new writing, to sample a couple of their ‘taster’ sessions. These were 45-minute extracts of musicals, presented in front of paying audiences to solicit feedback with a view to developing them further. The Astonishing Return of… The Protagonists had a number of superheroes (or, rather, people with extraordinary powers) from a previous generation who – because history repeats itself and all that – feel it necessary to regroup and make a comeback. But it’s been a while since they last exercised their powers, and in the meantime, they’ve started families and gotten on with their lives.
This, of course, shouldn’t actually be too much of a problem (if a problem at all) given their superpowers. But the narrative insists they are older now than they were then, and it appeared to me that most of the battle against making a comeback was of a mental and psychological nature, rather than any doubts about their older selves being less agile than they were decades before. They are facing not only the resurgence of an old enemy but things like the menopause and children who are growing up and going off to university. I found it very amusing, though, with a good variety of musical styles included in its repertoire. It’s the old adage of good versus evil, triumph over adversity, and I wonder if it really has anything new to offer that hasn’t been seen in something like the Broadway show Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, the off-Broadway musical The Toxic Avenger, or the lesser known Edinburgh Fringe superhero show Vulvarine.
Killer Queen does not, alas, ride on the back of the success of the motion picture Bohemian Rhapsody, or indeed of the rock band Queen itself. Marie Antoinette is not an idiot – when some fraudsters attempt to sell her some fake jewellery, she’s having none of it and dismisses them from her court. The musical is, apparently, at an earlier stage of development than any of the seven other musicals being showcased in the festival. The use of rapping and talk of a ‘revolution’ means that the extract came across as trying to sound like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, but not quite reaching the lyrical sophistication of that show. But the musical theatre director and choreographer extraordinaire Drew McOnie was nodding his head in time to the music and seemed to think it has potential, so we’ll see what becomes of it.
A friend of mine is a regular visitor to the historic city of Oxford, and while I was sat in London sampling new musicals, he had already made his way over to drink in what Oxford has to offer. Making the (sort of) short walk from The Other Palace Theatre to the Oxford Tube pickup point outside Victoria Coach Station, the coach came quickly enough, but heavy traffic at Hangar Lane and then again on the M40 meant we pulled into Oxford rather later than intended, with just enough time for a quick meal before meeting up at the New Theatre to catch the touring production of Kinky Boots. There were only minor modifications from the West End production but otherwise the show is just as tremendous as it was on the Strand. The stand-out for me was Kayi Ushe as Lola/Simon, and Joel Harper-Jackson does well as Charlie Price.
I think the first time I knew anything about Laura Michelle Kelly was when the London megachurch Holy Trinity Brompton published a testimonial in her own words as part of their promotional material for the Christian educational programme ‘The Alpha Course’. Kelly was brought up in a family that practised religion, and it appears she never lost her faith, telling the New York Theatre Guide in 2010 that if she were stranded on a desert island, the three items she would take with her would be, “My Bible, iPhone and my guitar”. She had, of course, won the 2005 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical, having played the title role in a West End stage production of Mary Poppins.
At the Cadogan Hall, she was utterly delightful. She’d garnered a fair few fans over the years, who had come from various places, including the Isle of Wight, where she grew up, to see her (though the hall wasn’t quite sold out, probably because she stayed in the United States for some years after playing Mary Poppins on Broadway that she wasn’t exactly the hottest ticket in London). A good variety of songs, stretching from ‘Our Time’ from Merrily We Roll Along to The Bodyguard’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, were beautifully performed, and there were some anecdotes to enjoy, stretching from her upbringing right through to the present day. The most recent significant event is that her second marriage took place only last month.
Another highlight of this (extended) weekend was a Monday night trip to the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, to catch Sir Ian McKellen’s 80th birthday tour of the country – by the time he finishes his travels later in the year he will have gone as far south as the Jersey Opera House and as far north as the Orkney Theatre. He had an offer to perform at the Queen’s decades ago but then had an offer to perform at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry for more money, so went there instead. “At last,” he mused at the end of a two-and-a-half-hour spectacular display of extracts, anecdotes and a remarkable memory, “I have played Hornchurch.”
The first half was partly about Tolkien and various people who he encountered whilst filming The Lord of the Rings, most of whom apparently had a habit of reading the book once a year. Some personal stories involved name-dropping a whole load of actors and directors who he had the privilege (the word ‘privilege’ sometimes in inverted commas) of working with. The second half was almost entirely given over to the Shakespeare canon. I do not have sufficient knowledge to say with any authority whether he did write, without collaborators, every scene in each of the 37 plays considered to be his: suffice to say, there has been considerable speculation and suspicion over the centuries, and further details are available elsewhere online for anyone interested.
I also cannot claim to have anywhere near the depth of knowledge of the Bard’s plays that McKellen has, and even he admitted to not being able to say much about one or two of them. It was far from the sort of fare the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch usually puts on (their current production is called Kiss Me Quickstep, for instance) but I found it hugely entertaining. I believe his tour is more or less sold out but if you are able to go, it’s worth the financial and geographical inconvenience.
Rough Crossing turned out to be a rough crossing for me, though this was more down to my personal circumstances than faults in the production. Having made the decision to trek down to Chichester Festival Theatre (never an easy decision, what with Southern Railway and South Western Railway being what they are these days), I’d come down with a heavy cold and cough just a couple of days beforehand. But one doesn’t miss the theatre just for the sake of a runny nose and sore throat. The advice is to keep one’s throat’s mucous membranes hydrated so they can heal, so while swallowing is uncomfortable, drinking plenty of fluids is supposed to make a sore throat feel better. So, having drunk gallons of – well, miscellaneous beverages – in a bid to get rid of this blasted illness sooner rather than later, I woke up on Saturday morning. I managed to get up, and thought to myself, “Well, I’m up now. I may as well leave the house.”
I was, of course, drugged up, and while the trains were delayed (yet again), what really didn’t help was the lack of available hackney carriages at Chichester Station. First world problem, naturally, but I wasn’t thinking that when I wheezed and huffed and puffed my way through the city centre. It’s true what they say, though, about the only city in West Sussex: the local population is considerably older than it is in the capital, reflected in the patronage of the theatre, and even this unwell, short, fat bloke (me) was shuffling past quite a few people to get to where I was going.
Rightly or wrongly I agreed to ‘same again’ at the interval (a large glass of chardonnay). As I’d expended more energy than I had expected trekking across central Chichester (on reflection I was more unwell than I had realised) and rather enjoyed my wine, it was very difficult to resist entering the Land of Nod, not helped by the play being quite subtle. At the interval, people were complaining about not being able to hear the cast properly (they were unamplified) which probably is more to do with the configuration of the Festival Theatre stage (Elizabethan thrust rather than proscenium arch), which makes it quite possible for an actor to be facing away from one section of the audience or another at any given point.
There were some musical numbers in the show, though it is very much a play and not a musical. Adam (Rob Ostlere) has some sort of nervous disposition which means he ends up answering the previous question, very much in the style of the 1980 Two Ronnies ‘Mastermind’ sketch. The whole thing goes at quite a pace, sending the Festival Theatre audience back out into the fairly chilly Chichester air barely two hours after it had started, and there were moments when not enough opportunity was given for the audience to appreciate a punchline through laughter and/or applause.
What transpires, as far as I could deduce, is that there is a playwriting partnership between Sandor Turai (John Partridge) and Alex Gal (Matthew Bottle). Adam is their composer, and the trio are still working on their latest musical, called ‘The Cruise of the Dodo’. They and their actors are on board a ship called the SS Italian Castle, bound for New York. The actors are Natasha Navratilova (Issy van Randwyck) and Ivor Fish (Simon Dutton). All are served by a new employee of the ship, Dvornichek (Charlie Stemp, who perhaps unsurprisingly gets a chance to demonstrate his considerable dancing skills). Ivor and Natasha, already being in a professional relationship, develop a personal one, much to the chagrin of Adam, Natasha’s significant other. From this arises some entertaining but absurdist proceedings, which eventually lead to a happy ending of sorts.
Goodness me, it’s dull and dated. It’s a good cast, for sure, but a joke about a speech impediment in this day and age is not really much of a joke at all – for me, it was merely unfunny rather than offensive, and a gag in which Dvornichek repeatedly fails to get a drink to its intended recipient is overdone to the point of flogging a proverbial dead horse. It wasn’t even ‘Springtime for Hitler’ funny (that is, so bad it ironically has comedy value). It was just bland with a capital B. Good set (Colin Richmond) though.
I must admit I knew not much about David Tomlinson (1917-2000) before seeing The Life I Lead, itself something I only saw as it happened to be in Chichester in the same week that I went down to West Sussex to catch a touring production of the Tom Stoppard play Rough Crossing. As Tomlinson (Miles Jupp) observes, “It’s Mr Banks that people want”, as though he were forced to slip back into that character in the 1964 motion picture Mary Poppins to appease the public. One need not, I was delighted to discover, know anything more about Tomlinson to follow what goes on.
His relationship, if it could be called that, with his father was the one took up more time than any other single issue. An aloof figure, even by the standards of the day, it turns out he was quite literally living a double life. There was an entire second family, though the Tomlinsons soldiered on as though nothing had happened. Miles Jupp brilliantly plays the English gent, bursting into song and telling various anecdotes, and treating his own children with far more compassion than what he remembers from his own childhood. Just as well: one of them, Willie, was eventually diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum, at a time when just a few years before, that child would have been taken from his parents and unceremoniously bunged in bedlam. Instead there was compassion, and the work of an extraordinarily patient woman who had devoted her life to helping people like Willie.
Tomlinson’s father was promptly widowed when his first wife was taken by her own hand; his second marriage, to Audrey, lasted until his own death as the result of a sudden stroke from which he never recovered. As tends to be the case with single-performer productions, Jupp voices various people, including the likes of Walt Disney and members of his family. For those who recall Tomlinson in the various films he was in, he was one of those character actors that portrayed more or less the same sort of person over and over again – posh, a tad ridiculous but somewhat modest and unfailingly polite. So was the Tomlinson portrayed here, but there was so much more to him than a man who has been in a lot of films.
A spellbinding performance from Jupp, who is perfectly cast for a show of this nature, full of personal reflections and a narrative full of details about both the personal and professional aspects of a remarkable man.
For the second time in as many months, I found myself in a late-night concert and conversation with musical theatre rising star Luke Bayer. At least that’s my excuse for being brief on this occasion: it wasn’t that long ago that I put my thoughts on paper keyboard about this young man. This time around, theatre producer Paul Taylor-Mills hosted the event, called ‘Late Bites’, a two-week series of solo concerts and chats as part of MT Fest UK, a fortnight-long festival showcasing new musical theatre talent. Taylor-Mills put some context to Bayer’s career, starting at the beginning (to quote The Sound of Music, ‘a very good place to start’) with a video clip of 14-year-old Luke participating in The X-Factor. Adult Luke looking back at Teen Luke was a sight to behold.
There were five songs in amongst all the banter, beginning with the (perhaps inevitable) ‘Wall In My Head’ from Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and closing up with ‘For Forever’ from Dear Evan Hansen. Many in this discernible and stagey audience had, of course, seen Luke’s online video footage of ‘Waving Through A Window’ from that show (his YouTube channel is worth a watch – there’s quite a collection of showtunes to see and hear there).
There was also ‘Rise Up’, which was introduced merely as ‘Rise Up’, without any further details, so I can’t say much more about it, except to say it’s nothing to do with the musical Hamilton, and in any case that song where the words ‘rise up’ are repeated several times is called ‘My Shot’. ‘She Used To Be Mine’, from Waitress, already a go-to subtly emotional number for many a musical theatre concert, sounded sublime being given the Luke Bayer treatment, as did ‘No Limits’, a song from a musical of the same name written by Sam Thomas.
There was also plenty to discuss, with Luke’s most salient piece of advice being to “get over yourself” and not take oneself too seriously. But like Paul, I had assumed Luke as a youngster would have been rather bashful – as I turned out, there was a side to his personality which was quite unexpected. Some years ago, his older sister’s pet hamster bit him; the rodent paid the price, to put it politely. As Paul pointed out, Luke oozes positivity. My thanks to MT Fest UK for allowing me to attend free of charge, to Paul and Luke for being so lovely, and to Perry O’Bree for being such great company.
Of course, I knew the name. Chita Rivera. Mostly because an apparent feud between her and Rita Moreno was included in the Forbidden Broadway satirical musical revue. It’s telling, I suppose, that of all the various people Rivera name-dropped in a relatively brief but nonetheless enthralling concert, Moreno wasn’t one of them. This was a trip down memory lane for Rivera, as well as for her supporters, which on the night included Dame Judi Dench. At 86 years, Rivera not only continues to walk unaided but dances to the beat of the live orchestra (directed by Michael Croiter). Some of the musical numbers are a challenge for almost anyone, such as a Jacques Brel song which builds in builds (as Brel’s songs tend to do) in intensity and rapidity, and if it wasn’t for a certain raspiness in Rivera’s voice that comes with advancing years, she might have gotten away with coming across as someone half her age.
There was a sweet and amusing impersonation of Gwen Verdon in a tune from Chicago, and Rivera had a lovely habit of singing both Rosalia and Anita’s lines in ‘America’ from West Side Story, and even all three parts in ‘Camille, Colette, Fifi’, a tune from Seventh Heaven (a show which I admit to knowing nothing about). Rivera’s first West End role was a reprise of Anita, which she had played on Broadway, in West Side Story, which opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1958. Such is Rivera’s vivid memory that she still recalls the rehearsal period in the Theatre Royal Haymarket across the road, and its resident ghost.
Her only moment off-stage (apart from the interval, of course) was when, having begun ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story, she let the ArtsEd Choir sing the remainder. To the audience’s credit, there were people who rose to their feet in appreciation of the student performers, just as they had risen after Rivera’s still effervescent rendering of ‘America’ a few moments before. Still a ‘triple threat’, Rivera had her fair share of anecdotes about her working relationships with the likes of Leonard Bernstein and composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, all of whom, like so many of the people she mentioned (including Welsh actor and director Roger Rees) had now passed on.
A pleasant and unique experience.
The problem with calling a show 4 One Night Only is this. What happens if the audience has such a good time that a suggestion to do additional performances, perhaps with alterations to the line-up (always dependent on people’s availability as much for the actors as it is for the audience) and/or the running order, is responded to with overwhelming positivity? It’s a nice problem to have – they’ll just have to come up with another name. Many of the people present, including yours truly, never really had much of a reason to pay a visit to the Academy Theatre in Barnsley. For one thing, it isn’t in Barnsley proper, but in a village called Birdwell, just off Junction 36 of the M1, around 4 ½ miles away from Barnsley station.
Birdwell did have a railway station of its own at one point, but this was closed down even before the Beeching cuts. Sylvia Young, founder and principal of the performing arts school that bears her name, apparently stayed in Birdwell as a child evacuee at some point during the Second World War. The Academy Theatre, part of the Take 2 Centre (comprising the theatre, a performing arts academy and ‘Chatterbox Nursery’), seats 172, very tightly. Front row is good from what I could see but other than that there is very little legroom, and no armrests between the seats, such that I found it quite impossible to do “a jump to the left / And then a step to the right” during ‘The Time Warp’ from The Rocky Horror Show. The seats in the bus station at Barnsley Interchange were more comfortable. Incidentally, Academy Theatre is not the largest venue in the village: Birdwell Venue claims a capacity of 450.
So why Birdwell? 4 One Night Only’s host, Danielle Steers, critically acclaimed for putting in a magnificent performance of (amongst other songs) the Meat Loaf hit ‘Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad’ eight times a week in Bat Out of Hell The Musical, had, she told the audience, been performing there, her local theatre, since her school days. The word ‘homecoming’ wasn’t used but there’s no denying that this was (kind of) what this event was. She’d done a West End show, attended (separately) by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Meat Loaf and HRH The Duke of Sussex, and now, in her home venue, she’d brought along some co-stars – (in no particular order) Rob Fowler, Sharon Sexton and Simon Gordon, for a great time. There may or may not have been one or two locals in the crowd who hadn’t seen ‘Bat’. But I suspect even they will have heard and read enough about it to get the gist.
A technician referred to only as ‘Peter’ seemed to be (as far as I could deduce) controlling sound and lighting all on his own. I would, ordinarily, tear into the use of backing tracks – two and a half hours of them is a bit much, even if the quartet’s vocals were in fine form. But there was no mention of there being a band, let alone a musical director and orchestra, so there’s no let down to speak of.
The weakness is mine rather than anyone else’s, but nonetheless I am reaching saturation point with hearing tunes from The Greatest Showman. But, like the British weather, this was one of those concerts where nothing lasted for very long – and there was very little that was unfamiliar here to those who likes their musical theatre. It was all there, really. There were blasts from the past, including ‘River Deep Mountain High’ from The Commitments, which Sexton was in when it played in the West End, and ‘Gethsemane’ from Jesus Christ Superstar. Both Fowler and Gordon had entered the 2012 ITV show ‘Superstar’, a series in which Lloyd Webber set out to find someone to play Jesus in an arena tour, a casting process by public telephone vote that was eventually won by Ben Forster.
Tunes from musicals that West End theatre audiences are looking forward to were featured too, notably numbers from Dear Evan Hansen and Waitress, with Sexton putting in a poignant rendering of ‘She Used To Be Mine’ from the latter. A couple of tunes from Rent, and a big finish in the form of ‘One Day More’ from Les Misérables were among showstopping crowd-pleasers. Oh, and then there were numbers from Bat Out of Hell The Musical: someone had apparently tweeted that they hadn’t seen Gordon play Strat despite several visits to Bat, and this was their chance to (sort of) rectify that. Some excellent banter between the actors added extra enjoyment to an already sparkling performance. Nobody asked me to participate in a raffle they had going, but some posters, a beanie hat and what looked like a rucksack from my vantage point went to some worthy winners. Worth the seven hour round trip? Yes, I’d say so.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.