“It’s a party! Happy, happy, happy!”
It doesn’t cost that much to spend the weekend in Edinburgh, especially when Virgin Trains runs so late the ‘train manager’ repeatedly encourages passengers to go to the train operating company’s website to claim compensation. And my relative familiarity with the city centre thanks to previous visits to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe meant I could navigate my way around fairly easily, though I shall never quite get used to how steep the inclines are when getting about.
As there has been a production of Mamma Mia! stationed in the West End for the past twenty years, it never occurred to me to travel out of town to catch a touring show. But Bat Out of Hell the Musical’s Sharon Sexton and Rob Fowler had been cast in a ‘UK and International Tour’, news substantial enough to be broadcast by Elaine Paige on national radio, and my loyalty to the ‘Bat Family’ is as yet undiminished. So, I went north of Hadrian’s Wall to see what the fuss was all about.
The show opened on Broadway soon after ‘9/11’, and at the time there was some speculation as to whether the opening might be postponed. But the decision was made to go ahead, and such a feelgood musical must have lifted the spirits of a city in mourning. Now, Mamma Mia! is also the show that I bring up in conversation whenever a would-be reviewer (or even someone who just wants to know a little more about what it’s like) asks about what my approach would be to reviewing something a production that isn’t to my personal taste but objectively has a lot going for it. Give it the star rating and the review it deserves, irrespective of whether one cares for jukebox musicals or any other distinguishing characteristic of a given production.
Some of the more local audience members have been seeing touring productions of Mamma Mia! for years, booking each time it comes to Edinburgh and, to coin a phrase, having the time of their lives. Saturday night musical theatre crowds are almost always that little bit more electric than audiences during the week: this one was particularly fiery. While it may be true that, as someone said to me before the performance, “You can’t go wrong with ABBA”, even the repeat visitors seemed to be very impressed with what they’d seen: a cast genuinely enjoying themselves and wanting to give the crowd their very best.
A number of children were in the audience dressed in ‘Donna and the Dynamos’ costumes, and popped round to the stage door afterwards, and it is not beyond reason to imagine that one or more of them just might be treading the boards at Edinburgh Playhouse one day. Indeed, it’s a dream come true for this production’s Emma Mullen. In a recent tweet, Mullen recalls when she “first saw Mamma Mia! in this very theatre. Here I am 15 years later about to open the UK & International tour as Sophie. I literally cannot thank my lucky stars enough.”
Mullen has a star quality about her. A warm and engaging stage presence combines with a strong but nonetheless beautiful singing voice. A wide range of human emotions is convincingly portrayed during the course of the evening, from delightful bliss at the prospect of getting married to her boyfriend Sky (Toby Miles, who couldn’t have gone into a more different role from his previous one as Marius Pontmercy in Les Misérables) to palpable stress and confusion at the close of the first half as her elaborate wedding plans start to go considerably askew.
There are plenty of laughs abound in an almost relentlessly enthusiastic show – the choreography (Anthony Van Laast) is a delight. The musical numbers are fairly evenly distributed amongst the cast, with some expanding to full ensemble song and dance tunes – such as ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’ and ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’. I shall get some stick from theatre purists for saying this, but the performance was enhanced by members of the audience clapping to the beat of the music and singing along – there wasn’t anyone in my section being obnoxious and/or woefully out of tune. Standouts for me were (in no particular order) Rosie (Nicky Swift) singing ‘Take A Chance On Me’, Sam Carmichael’s (Rob Fowler) emotionally charged rendering of ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ and Donna Sullivan (Sharon Sexton) bringing the house down with ‘The Winner Takes It All’.
As for Sexton, I can only agree with Mike Smith in The Edinburgh Reporter, who wrote that her “portrayal as Sophie’s mother achieved the considerable feat of making you laugh one minute and having a lump in the throat the next”. In the end, it all builds up to the final bit, the famed extended curtain call where the audience rises to its feet when the narrative has run its course, in anticipation of a high-octane medley of ABBA tunes that are so very familiar. One would have to have a heart of stone not to come away beaming from this incredibly joyful and enthusiastic show.
At Edinburgh Playhouse until 28 September 2019. Then La Seine Musicale in Paris, 4-20 October 2019; Alhambra Theatre Bradford, 30 October-23 November 2019; Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, 10 December 2019-5 January 2020; Theatre Royal Newcastle, 22 January-8 February 2020; Mayflower Theatre Southampton, 11-29 February 2020; Hull New Theatre, 3-21 March 2020; Royal Concert Hall Nottingham, 24 March-4 April 2020; Liverpool Empire, 28 April-9 May 2020; Birmingham Hippodrome, 12-30 May 2020; Bristol Hippodrome, 2-20 June 2020; Marlowe Theatre Canterbury, 23 June-11 July 2020; Theatre Royal Plymouth, 21 July-8 August 2020.
Hearing Caissie Levy singing ‘With You’ from Ghost The Musical, and singing it so well, cast my mind back to the time when I heard it sung so badly by Sarah Harding in a subsequent touring production of that show when it came to New Wimbledon Theatre (the following night, I was at the final performance of Half A Sixpence at the Chichester Festival Theatre: to misquote Charles Dickens, it was the worst of times, and then it was the best of times). It was also a pleasure to hear her talk about the creative process involved in bringing the role of Molly Jensen to the stage in Britain and then on Broadway.
An acoustic version of ‘Good Morning Starshine’ and ‘Aquarius’ from the musical Hair was a different take on those standards, and things rounded off with a rousing rendering of ‘Let It Go’ from the Broadway musical Frozen, a production of which will open at Theatre Royal Drury Lane in late 2020 – one hopes with her reprising her Elsa, even for a limited period. A particularly poignant moment came when she was talking about her pregnancy whilst she was playing Fantine in the 2014 Broadway production of Les Misérables. She would hear ‘Bring Him Home’ backstage – Ramin Karimloo played Jean Valjean in that production – and sing it to her yet unborn son, a rather unique interpretation of that prayer. To hear it in this concert gave it extra poignancy.
Supporting Levy was Ashley Park, known to Broadway audiences but making her London concert debut at this gig – it appeared to me she came over at least partially out of geographical convenience, taking some time out from filming something or other in Paris. Tunes from an eclectic range of sources – Carole King, Rent and Wicked were all in there – combined from some interesting anecdotes added up to a pleasant and enjoyable night out.
Okay, it’s a compelling play, but The Son still follows the relatively conventional trend in contemporary plays where life goes on, despite its imponderables and idiosyncrasies, before a Very Critical Incident occurs that shatters the hearts and minds of the play’s characters. At least here there is an acknowledgement by Pierre (John Light) and Anne (Amanda Abbington) that something isn’t quite right with their teenage son Nicolas (Laurie Kynaston). He hasn’t attended school for a significant period – in this regard, he’s not entirely unlike Willy Loman in the Arthur Miller play Death of a Salesman, who continues to dress for work every weekday and leaves the house at a time in the morning that would give the impression he’s commuting to the office, even after he’s been fired.
The critical incident is an impactful moment – and one which I have no qualms in admitting that I didn’t see coming. Sofia (Amaka Okafor), Pierre’s second wife, didn’t help matters by speaking so disparagingly about Nicolas while he was still in the house (ooh, look, an evil stepmother: how original). Overhearing it, nothing Pierre could say to smooth things over ultimately had much effect. A nurse (Cudjoe Asare) and a doctor (Martin Turner) complete the set of on-stage characters.
Because of the very nature of Nicolas’ state of mind, he is not easy to ‘read’. While there are fleeting moments of bliss, he is usually extremely unhappy, and openly admits to his father and biological mother that he feels as though he cannot go on, struggling to cope with daily living. Pierre clearly loves him, as does Anne, but both are, in their own ways, ill-equipped to deal effectively with the complex issues the (non) schoolboy faces. Eventually he ends up in a secure unit of some description, which he utterly hates, and after a week, begs and begs his parents to let him come home.
Pierre is, frankly, frustrating in his inability to understand that his cross-examinations (for that is what they are) of his own son aren’t getting anyone anywhere: Nicolas doesn’t know why he feels the way he does, and keeps saying so, because – um – he is genuinely unable to comprehend the nature of his condition. That is perhaps the saddest thing of all about this play (well, that and the critical incident). For Sofia, there are also other things going on behind the scenes, but this play is not called The Son for the hell of it, so Okafor’s character is relatively underdeveloped.
Attitudes towards mental health are changing in modern society, but not fast enough for young Nicolas. That Pierre now has another son is both encouraging and downright frightening, if only because the younger one might end up following a similar path to Nicolas. While the storyline is compelling, the set is messy for a production that has a residency in a West End playhouse: it can be worked out whether a scene is in Pierre and Sofia’s place, Anne’s place or elsewhere, but this is down to the dialogue rather than the set, which doesn’t change nearly as much as it could.
That said, it is a decent play. It’s not exactly ground-breaking but there are impactful moments and some aspects of it will be relatable in some way for many. Thoughtful and disturbing in equal measure.
The final concert in a series featuring cast members from the London production of Bat Out of Hell The Musical was announced well in advance but that didn’t stop it coming around far too quickly for those of us who have enjoyed the ride. Vision of You has always been about discovering the backstories of two ‘BOOH’ characters, Falco (Rob Fowler) and Sloane (Sharon Sexton), and how they came to be the couple represented on stage on the West End eight times a week. As with the previous two act version of the concert, the narrative is abandoned at some point in the second half, the backstory complete.
As there are to be no more performances of Vision of You (Sexton and Fowler have been cast in an international touring production of Mamma Mia!, which will keep them busy for the best part of a year), it is rather tempting to reveal something of the ‘secrets’ of the show, previously kept under wraps by attendees so the magic of discovering the story isn’t spoiled for those who have yet to see it. But no – I couldn’t have that on my conscience.
Eleven special guests joined Sexton and Fowler for this final show, a fitting spectacular send-off. It was critic-proof, really – I might, with my proverbial reviewer’s spectacles on, have moaned about how hammy some of the performances were. But to quote Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”, and this was a cast (if that’s the right word for them) that was absolutely playing to the audience, who responded in kind with cheering, applause and multiple standing ovations.
My knowledge of chart music being as rudimentary as it is, I was more at home with Stuart Boother’s rendering of ‘Nessun Dorma’ than with some of the tunes that I, um, can’t name for neither love nor money. Performed by people the audience came to appreciate through Bat, whether ballad or belter (or something in between), it was all hugely enjoyable. At one point, Sexton bounded onto the stage, mobile phone in hand – Zahara (Danielle Steers) was on the phone from New York City, where another production of Bat was having its last performances on the same day as this concert. It was one of quite a few extraordinary moments.
Vision of You went from (in earlier concerts) having about eight bars, or even fewer, of ‘Paradise By The Dashboard Light’ before it was ‘decided’ not to do it after all, presumably for lack of stage props (which included an on-stage car), to having three Falcos (Fowler, Tim Oxbrow and Stuart Boother), three Sloanes (Sexton, Hannah Ducharme and Jemma Alexander) and a Blake (Patrick Sullivan) go for it, radio commentary and all. But that was chaotic (and it was), a rendering of ‘Bat Out of Hell’ in the second half saw three Strats (Simon Gordon, Ben Purkiss and Barney Wilkinson) all trying to win over one Raven (Georgia Carling) – the narrative remained unchanged, ultimately, so she ran off leaving all three crying, “No!” which left the audience almost roaring with laughter.
Luna Mai, Rob Fowler’s daughter, took to the stage again (having done so previously at the Southwark Playhouse Vision of You), and we were also treated to the delightful vocals of Emma Mullen, who will play Sophie Sheridan in the Mamma Mia! tour that Sexton and Fowler are also in. Indicative of how small this world can be, Mullen is also Wilkinson’s real-life partner; she was, in effect, in the ‘Batfam’ long before she was properly introduced to us. And she was in a drama series broadcast on national television.
Sexton’s version of ‘She Used To Be Mine’ from Waitress was as compelling and emotionally charged as ever (without a scintilla of melodrama), and Gordon, Sullivan and Purkiss (otherwise known as ‘The Songsmiths’, having very recently formed a vocal harmony group) gave an enthusiastic rendering of the 1977 Fleetwood Mac tune ‘Go Your Own Way’, which wasn’t particularly successful as a single in the UK but has nonetheless receives fairly regular radio airplay to this day. The final section of the concert became something of a Bat extravaganza, though Sexton and Fowler’s new single, ‘My Love, My Life’ from the motion picture Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again also featured – and the crowd revelled once more to the likes of ‘For Crying Out Loud’, ‘What Part of My Body Hurts The Most?’ and ‘I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)’. On the piano, as ever, was Steve Corley, this time assisted by Nerys Richards on cello and John Gregson on guitar. An incredible, joyous and highly memorable experience: “Happy, happy, happy!"
If someone calls or emails you and asks you to confirm your personal information, don’t do it. If they say they’re from somewhere where you hold an account, call them back on the number you usually use.
If an offer looks too good to be true, think twice before clicking on a link.
If you’re entering personal details, make sure you’re using a secure site (the URL will begin with ‘https’). This makes it harder for criminals to intercept your data.
For passwords, use a mixture of letters and numbers. Never use the same password for different sites, and if you can’t remember them all, use a password manager (secure, often Web-based software) to do it for you.
Wait until you can use a secure computer before you do your online baking, or make that big purchase.
I read with interest the recent concerns expressed by twenty Jewish actors and creatives about this production of Falsettos. “It contains characters, story beats, events, humour and references that don’t just reference Judaism but rely upon it. Its opening number is named ‘Four Jews In A Room Bitching’. It contains lines such as, ‘we’re watching Jewish boys who cannot play baseball play baseball [not the opening number, but one called ‘The Baseball Game’], lampooning the stereotype that Jews are weak and not sporty. The plot is centred around a boy’s bar mitzvah.” I don’t think it is, really: it’s more about Marvin (Daniel Boys), a family man who leaves his wife Trina (Laura Pitt-Pulford) and their son Jason (Albert Atack at the performance I attended, sharing the role with George Kennedy, Eliot Morris and James Williams) in favour of a same-sex relationship with Whizzer (Oliver Savile).
I recall a Jewish student when I was an undergraduate telling me (and others) that it was quite impossible for a homosexual to be Jewish in the proper sense. Referencing the book of Vayikra (or Leviticus to those with familiarity with the 1611 Authorised Version of the Bible), sexual intercourse between males is a ‘to’eviah’, or an abomination. That said, there are, particularly amongst reformed Jewish denominations, gay rabbis, so clearly not everybody that is part of the Jewish community thinks the same way on the matter. That, however, is not the focus of the open letter published in the Jewish Chronicle, addressed to Selladoor Worldwide, producers for Falsettos, which does not wish to assert that “every actor has to share the same religion, background or heritage as the role they are cast to play”.
The concern is instead with the rehearsal process: “Falsettos needs Jewish representation within the rehearsal room in order to be made with the respect and consultation of those whose stories it seeks to tell and whose cultural heritage it looks to portray.” Rehearsals are not something I often consider when evaluating a production, except where it is blindingly obvious that there simply wasn’t enough rehearsal time, and something has been put in front of paying audiences as a finished show when further workshopping and development is required. This isn’t the case here.
The music doesn’t sound especially Yiddish (compared to, for instance, some of the melodies in Fiddler on the Roof), and frankly had it not been drummed into the audience that these characters were Jewish, one could well be forgiven for not having picked up on it until there is talk of Jason’s bar mitzvah. The Sabbath, as far as I can recall, is not mentioned let alone ‘represented’, and one song in the second half contains the lyric, “It’s days like this I almost believe in God” – that is, these are people who don’t believe in God. So why do they identify as Jewish then?
The production itself is a heart-warming one, and then a heart-breaking one after the interval – the first half is a bit of a hard slog, but the audience’s patience is rewarded and then some in Act Two. Marvin has a psychiatrist, Mendel (Joel Montague), and completing the set of on-stage characters are Marvin’s neighbours, a lesbian couple (their choice of description), Charlotte (Gemma Knight-Jones), a doctor, and Cordelia (Natasha J Barnes). Charlotte and Cordelia don’t even appear until after the interval: I wonder if this leaves the production open to accusations of anti-lesbianism.
Interestingly, the audience applause ramped up at the end of solo numbers rather than larger ensemble tunes. Trina’s ‘I’m Breaking Down’ raised the roof in the first half, as does Whizzer’s ‘The Games I Play’. The first half begins in 1979, and the second begins in 1981. A game of racquetball between Whizzer and Marvin demonstrates that, in fact, the show is capable of portraying decent sportsmanship amongst Jews after all. The show’s critical incident sees Whizzer suddenly keeling over and being admitted to hospital. No prizes for working out what he gets diagnosed with.
James Lapine contributes to the book, but the music and lyrics are entirely the domain of William Finn. Overall, I prefer Finn’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, though there’s no denying the poignancy, without melodrama, of the show’s closing scenes. The melodies are generally so wordy they rarely soar, but the story is a compelling one, and underlines the adage attributed to Alfred Lord Tennyson: “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Looking around after the show, there were a significant number of audience members who had shed tears, such was the depth of feelings being expressed. Bring tissues if you are prone to react accordingly to emotionally charged shows. Every cast member puts their heart and soul into their respective roles, and the result is a beautiful and highly engaging piece of theatre.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.