I’d missed the Southwark Playhouse production of Working, simply because there were too many other things to review at the time and, as with everything at Southwark, it was only on for about a month or so. Ironically, this production from the Royal Academy of Music Musical Theatre Company lased only four days, and as I went to the last one, the postgraduate musical theatre students were in as fine a form as they were going to be.
I rather liked the show: it is not difficult to follow proceedings, for the simple reason that it’s more of a song and speech cycle than a conventional musical – there is some interaction between characters, but they are introduced to the audience separately. Well, apart from one scene where three members of staff who share an open plan office in a large corporation wax lyrical about what it is like to be in that sort of environment. It doesn’t appear to be that far off from the rat race as detailed in the musical How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.
Various characters from various industries gave details about what they get up to both on and off-duty; I am pleased to report that, on the whole, the lives portrayed here indicate that working to live is more popular than living to work. There was a lovely touch at the end of the performance, when the names of everyone involved in the building works for the RAM’s new Susie Sainsbury Theatre were projected during an inspiring number called ‘Something To Point To’, about people in the construction industry who can point to a building in years to come and say they played their part.
I happen to work in the construction industry – every day, sheets are signed off before works commences saying that each worker understands what the tasks to be done during that shift are. Not that they are fired if X, Y and Z aren’t done by the end of the shift – often, the ‘tasks’ are a continuation of construction works begun some time ago. So, while the names of general labourers, carpenters, scaffolders and electricians (and so on) may not be on a plaque at the front entrance to a major new building, they are on documentation that is properly archived.
Anyway, the choreography (Aline David) is quite energetic, arguably too much so for the portrayal of ordinary people just going around their business. Who cares? It’s a delight to see good dancing. The musical could have done better to have fewer characters, properly developed: this is more of a song cycle, with one character after another given too little time to make a substantial impact.
How interesting, then, that the cabaret upstairs in a recital hall after the show, presented by the ‘other’ half of the Musical Theatre Company, who are performing ‘The Sweet Smell of Success’, also as part of the RAM’s summer showcase, had more of a running narrative to it. Rather overtly seductive (it was, to be fair, billed as an ‘after hours’ event), the show including a broad and eclectic range of musical numbers including Stephen Sondheim tunes and two songs from Cyndi Lauper’s Kinky Boots. Janne Snellen stood out for me in a song I’d never come across before, ‘Yolanda at the Bottom of the Stairs’, a humorous number about someone who didn’t get on with the narrator who gets their comeuppance. Frankly, the cabaret upstairs was better than the big show in the main house.
I will be brief, for the simple reason that I wasn’t on the reviewing circuit when seeing Matt Henry MBE perform a concert at The Crazy Coqs. But I thought it worthy of mention as it was such a lovely experience. On the billing was Debbie Kurup, who I last saw in the West End transfer of the Old Vic production of Girl From The North Country. Not on the billing was Luke Evans, these days known for his film career: such is his Hollywood success that I forgot he started out in musical theatre, and it was interesting to hear from both Evans and Henry about the days when they were both understudies in the West End run of Avenue Q. Henry included ‘Schadenfreude’ from that show in his concert, notorious for the lines, “Being on an elevator when somebody shouts, ‘Hold the door!’ / ‘No!’ Schadenfreude! / ‘Fuck you lady, that’s what stairs are for.’”
I wasn’t, alas, familiar with Kurup’s solo offerings, though they were delivered with considerable passion, with her vocals in fine form. As one would expect from a ‘cabaret’ show, there was some conversation as well as plenty of singing: my personal preference is where the music does the talking. I will make an exception here, as Henry’s easy-going and mild-mannered style when telling anecdotes and key moments in his career to date juxtaposed well with a powerhouse singing voice. He opted for ‘Not My Father’s Son’ from Kinky Boots, which he was in for two years, rather than ‘Hold Me In Your Heart’. But hey, it’s his show, his choice.
It’s the sort of show that had me at ‘hello’, with the opening number being an alternative take on ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’, sung without the usual ‘look at me, I’m Norma Desmond, I have delusions of grandeur’ delivery. He was a contestant on BBC Television’s ‘The Voice’ and reprised some songs from that competition. Overall, a hugely pleasant gig, and if Henry does another set of concerts in the future, I would highly recommend going along. Told you I’d be brief.
Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year 2018 and Stiles + Drewe Prize - Savoy Theatre
By her own admission, Tracie Bennett may not have been the best choice to host the Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year Award and Stiles + Drewe Prize 2018, though in these days of (apparent) equal opportunities, why not have a dyslexic read out pages and pages of script? And as the chairman of the Stephen Sondheim Society, Craig Glenday, pointed out, anything is possible – so why couldn’t Dreamgirls, the incumbent production at the Savoy Theatre, host venue for this year’s ‘SSSSPOTY’ be called Dreampersons?
I rather warmed to Bennett as proceedings went on, even if a regurgitation of her punchlines here would leave the reader nonplussed as to what was so amusing about what was said. There’s something in the delivery, I think, for example, of a running gag about how ridiculously young the contestants were. A story about watching what you eat went down like a hoot, with panellist Sharon D. Clarke on the verge of keeling over with laughter, and Bennett reiterated the importance of turning up for work whenever possible. One or two of her own examples began to sound rather like Julie Andrews pushing her vocals beyond their limitations, with career-changing consequences.
Bennett does have a point though, even if it seems obvious to those of us who work in industries where presenting oneself for work is the done thing. A casting agent recently told me he had examples of younger performers making excuses for not turning up to rehearsals, which is about as ridiculous as a sportsperson not turning up for training. People should not be in the entertainment industry if they do not wish to work evenings and weekends, and there are plenty of other people who would happily take their place if they don’t want to do the job. Of course, there are instances of genuine injury, sickness and emergency, and it’s not like a leading performer in a musical can wing it with a voice that isn’t in perfect order in the same way that I can still turn up to my day job, as I once did, harbouring a chest infection.
Anyway, all twelve finalists in contention for Student Performer of the Year were all present and correct. The Stephen Sondheim Society wanted participants to sing a song composed by Sondheim; Sondheim himself agreed, but stipulated participants must also sing a number from a new musical, so to support fresh writing. The mechanics of how this works involves the input of Mercury Musical Developments and award-winning composer and lyricist (respectively) George Styles and Anthony Drewe.
As ever, an attempt to analyse all 24 performances is not something I have the inclination to do, though (also as ever), it’s the songs that aren’t the usual standards in musical theatre cabarets and concerts that allow a participant to stamp their authority on a Sondheim number without being subconsciously compared in the audience’s minds to any number of versions and renderings they may have heard. So ‘Hello, Little Girl’ from Into The Woods came across as that little bit more interesting than yet another performance of ‘Being Alive’ from Company. My fellow theatregoer regales stories of various productions of Follies he had seen over the decades, including the 1987 West End run, produced by Cameron Mackintosh, and an amateur production a few years later, in which the actor playing Buddy stole the show, which, for anybody with a working knowledge of Follies will tell you, isn’t how that musical should be.
Just as well, then, that this wasn’t a production of Follies – judges Edward Seckerson and Julia McKenzie settled on Alex Cardall as Stephen Sondheim Student Performer of the Year 2018, with James Stirling and Shelby Flannery in second and third places. Cardall’s Buddy stole the show (hence my fellow theatregoer’s recollection of the amateur Follies production) in a high octane ‘Buddy’s Blues’ that remained memorable despite being the second song out of 24 performed. I liked ‘If I Had Wings’, the ‘new’ song by Jim Barne and Kit Buchan, performed by Stirling, though the judges plumped for ‘You and Me’ by Adam Wachter, performed by Cardall, as winner of the Stiles + Drewe Prize for Best New Song 2018. Barne and Buchan did come up trumps, though, as their musical The Season won the MTI Stiles + Drewe Mentorship Award 2018, winning them the opportunity to have their musical further developed before having a ‘play through’ at one of the monthly meetups at the Bishopsgate Institute hosted by Freddie Tapner’s London Musical Theatre Orchestra. A long show (it started at 3pm, but it was 6:30pm before I managed to extract myself from the Savoy Theatre) but an enjoyable experience nonetheless.
Casey Seegar (Keisha Atwell) is informed by the sergeant in charge of the first stage of training for would-be military aviators, Emil Foley (Ray Shell), that she is to be the first woman in United States military history to be granted the opportunity to fly military aircraft. Historically speaking, this assertion is dubious – the show is set in 1982, while the female US Air Force officers started graduated in 1977, the regulations on women not being allowed to fly being relaxed in 1976. Both the Army and the Navy beat the Air Force to it, changing their policies in 1974 (see note 1). There are also examples of women flying for the US military during World War Two.
But then, historical accuracy went out the window as early as ‘Hearts On Fire’, the fourth song into the show, released in 1985 as part of the ‘Rocky IV’ soundtrack album, three years after the storyline is set. ‘Material Girl’, made famous by Madonna, didn’t hit the music charts until 1984 (and not as a single until January 1985), and while I am thrilled that Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ has now entered the canon of musical theatre, their album ‘Slippery When Wet’ wasn’t released until August 1986.
Marks down, then, not having songs that wouldn’t have been known to the characters in the show, and marks down for not having at least one original song written for the musical (see note 2). It surely couldn’t be that difficult to find pre-1982 material. Whilst I’m a bit of a roll, marks down for projections that don’t quite work out. There’s a scene where trainees are plunged into a pool, simulating escaping from a downed aircraft underwater, even if Foley points out the simulation is ‘Disneyland’ compared to the real thing. Sid Worley (Ian McIntosh) is unable to escape unassisted (see note 3). But after his classmates have pulled him out of the water and are bringing him around, the projections suggest he’s still drowning. Hashtag fail.
There’s an awareness, it would seem, that the storyline, while heightening one’s emotions quite suitably, doesn’t quite fit with current gender socio-political trends: here comes Zack Mayo (Jonny Fines), a relatively modern-day equivalent of a knight in shining armour, having passed the training course at Aviation Officer Candidate School, whisking Paula Pokrifki (Emma Williams) away because a lady is unfulfilled without a man.
The feminists might be rather riled by this, but the LGBT+ lobby may have yet more justification in having reservations, what with the ‘jokes’ regarding “queers”. It’s a story of its time, and while a generation ago the likes of Lynette Pomeroy (Jessica Daley) might have been criticised for knowing what she wants and not settling for what is on offer, there’s nothing wrong with her sense of clarity in wanting to travel the world as an aviator’s wife. There’s a solution, of course, in the form of Seegar: Pomeroy could just train to fly military aircraft herself.
At least the songs are recognisable, even for those like me, whose knowledge of chart music borders on non-existent. When the projections do work properly, they add to the show’s atmosphere – an image of the waves of the sea leaves little to the imagination in its portrayal of a beachfront view, for instance, and there are several flashbacks during proceedings. I’m generally not an emotional person (and no, I’m not angrily hammering my fingers down on the keyboard as I type this), but I’ll admit to shedding a tear or two of joy at the show’s finale.
The stand out performances are from McIntosh as Worley, whose initial macho nature is eventually broken by Foley’s training regime – deliberately set up to sort those who are prepared to face the challenges of military life from, well, those who aren’t – and Williams in the lead role of Pokrifki. The former’s vulnerability is palpable in his rendering of ‘Family Man’, even if the song doesn’t really fit the narrative, and the latter has a lively zeal and a gorgeous singing voice, which is given several chances to shine during the show.
Somebody somewhere has a quirky sense of humour, having Sergeant Foley almost bark Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’ at the trainees as the final exercises prior to graduation are carried out. The nine-piece band, under the direction of Michael Riley, are flawless throughout. This triumph over adversity tale is far from perfect overall, but what it lacks in form and content it more than makes up for with heart, and with a cast committed to their roles. And when a Yorkshire audience rises to its feet at the curtain call, it’s a standing ovation well deserved. As a fellow theatregoer said to me as we were filing out of the theatre, “I enjoyed that. Aye, it’s a good ‘un.”
1 We all know it’s ‘The Army, the Navy and the Air Force’, to quote the 1938 song of that title. I only figured out which one this show was all about during an early ensemble number, ‘In The Navy Now’. There’s so much talk of flying and ‘getting jets’ (that is, flying) that the show might as well have been about the Air Force. The Royal Navy and Royal Marines have aircraft, while the British Army have a range of helicopters, so even in the UK it is entirely possible to be a military pilot whilst not actually being in the RAF.
2 The show can’t seem to win on this point. Its original run in Sydney, Australia, in 2012, lasted six weeks, and that had an original score. But it was panned by Australian critics, to the point where Douglas Day Stewart, the screenwriter for the film (and co-writer, with Sharleen Cooper Cohen, of the book for the musical), felt it necessary to issue a rebuttal of the negative reviews, published in ‘The Australian’.
3 Yes, I’m quite aware it was Topper Daniels in the film who almost drowned in the dunker exercise. But there’s no Topper Daniels in the stage show. There’s also no Lionel Perryman, and if you are still not convinced this stage adaptation isn’t a blow-by-blow reconstruction of the motion picture, there’s no ‘Young Zack’ either, and no martial arts show-off scene, so when Foley and ‘Mayonnaise’ come to blows, it’s a sort-of bare knuckle boxing round.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.