"why don't you go fuck a play" Boy George, by Twitter 18.7.2012

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Right Little Madam

There's a rash of American musical revivals in London at the moment, many of the best helmed by director Thom Southerland. This one's sandwiched between a punchy Mack and Mabel in Catford and a promising State Fair at the Finborough.

Madam was Ethel Merman's biggest career triumph after Annie Get Your Gun and casting any part she ever played is a minefield. Here, the role of brassy, crassy party-giving US Ambassador to ‘Lichtenburg’ Mrs. Sally Adams is in the sure hands of Beverley Klein, recently successful as Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, and particularly excellent as the Witch in the Linbury Studio ‘Into the Woods’.

In ‘Madam’ her vocal range is tested slightly as some of the songs fall uncomfortably between her chest and head voice, but she delivers power and pathos in equal measure eventually showing the vulnerable romantic beneath the steel magnolia.

The script has been butchered to fit the scale of the venue and production budget, and the political plot of whether or not the US should give a loan to the tiny Grand Duchy is mown down by the theatrical effect of so many excellent Irving Berlin melodies. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

Chris Love is winning as romantic lead Kenneth Gibson, as is Gido Schimanski - a dark horse of the musical theatre circuit and although in his late thirties still ‘discoverable’ - playing Sally's own love interest. The rest of the supporting cast look slightly as though Klein has invited her grandchildren round to tea, but they work darned hard and some of the choreography is brilliant in such a small space. The whole show's miked by the way, heaven knows why because the theatre's the size of my living room and Klein could, in most circumstances, fill a large hall without any assistance.

The Gatehouse is a friendly venue - actually a Wetherspoons pub with good value food and drink - with the invitation to ‘drink as much as you like’ firmly nailed to the doors of the auditorium, a risk not worth taking with some audience members ...

Sweet Corn

The cast of State Fair

The persistent fondness of Rodgers and Hammerstein for corn-fed country settings is at odds with their gritty New York City upbringing. Nostalgic affection for the farmer and the cowgirl is confirmed by Oklahoma!, Carousel and even Ensign Nellie Forbush marooned on her South Pacific island, sings of being "as corny as Kansas in August"

For State Fair, we're next door in Iowa - coincidentally the 159th annual state fair starts today in Des Moines - with the slightest of plots carrying the wholesome Frake family to the fairgrounds to participate in mincemeat, pickle-making, tractor-pulling and hog-raising competitions, with the young 'uns quite naturally (or as naturally as is possible in stage musicals) meeting their romantic matches. Sandwiched as a project between the successes of Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945) R&H were clearly up against deadlines to deliver the score and script to 20th Century Fox and reused both lyrics and melodies that had either been cut from other shows, or only lightly adapted from existing songs in their repertoire. In wartime, you make do with the available material.

Early productions featured huge casts and set pieces, and even a live pig on stage. Clearly ushering a live porker up the many stairs to the tiny Finborough theatre would be impossible, but director Thom Southerland achieves a significant feat in shrink-wrapping this monster onto a weeny set with a perspiring cast of 14, for its first European production in 60 years.

In State Fair the principals are age-appropriate castings, unusual in pub theatre where youngsters predominate, Philip Rham credible as the hog-fancying farmer, with Laura Main carrying the most popular melodies - It Might As Well Be Spring, and It's A Grand Night for Singing - as his daughter Margy.

The ensemble deserve most plaudits, though, for populating the midway with a succession of comic characters. Robert Rees and Martin McCarthy were particularly engaging, McCarthy's dance routines being energetically effective on the pocket-handkerchief stage without causing injury to bystanders, and the second act opener when the whole cast play kitchen implements in an anthem to their home state is a peach.

Some of the lines caused unexpected amusement - "I'm aiming for a pearl necklace in the back row" missed its mark in a variety of ways, and "she's a woman who certainly knows her way around a cucumber" generated hilarity not really appropriate for this age of golden innocence.

It's time someone gave this talented director real money and a decent theatre to showcase his passion and understanding of the genre, since his fine versions of Call Me Madam, Mack and Mabel and Annie Get Your Gun have been seen only by handfuls of theatregoers.

And it's time for a revival of "Pal Joey". Are you listening, Cameron?

Not Cumming Quietly

Alan Cumming told ‘Hello’ magazine his new show was ‘me with a band singing some songs I like, and telling stories about what’s happened to me in the ten years since I moved to America’.

That this is truthfully the middle and both ends of it disguises the fact that it’s a beguiling evening in company of an undeniably charming performer. Although the band seems recruited from music schools and possibly tube stations expressly for this show, they blaze a trail from choky, smoky jazz to bumping grinding Dolly Parton with panache.

Cumming’s musical choices roam the genres from Cole Porter to Cindy Lauper, but also defeat his ability to nail a personal performance style. He occasionally seems tentative in the torch songs but in rocker mode his vocals and his free left hand threaten to punch a hole in the fourth wall.

The confessional anecdotes interspersed with the songs are clearly from the heart but may be familiar to fans of this well-publicised actor, and the name-dropping varies from the deceased (Walter Cronkite, Ann Miller) to the less-than-topically famous, although through a thin story about crashing for the afternoon in the apartment of John Cameron Mitchell he leads in to a blinding medley from Mitchell’s ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’.

When someone is as massively and variously talented in writing, music, acting, film-making and OBE-deserving gay activism as Cumming, and at 44 appears as gamine and youthful as a baby-faced Marc Almond (whose hairstyle and fondness for mascara he appears to have appropriated wholesale) then chirrups gaily for two hours about his transatlantic dual citizenship, public fame and happy marriage, you’re not sure whether you want to embrace him or kill him.

Let’s go with embrace for now.

One Flew Over the Stock Exchange


At a time when bankers and brokers are pilloried in the media for turning the economy into a gibbering basket-case, the idea that a bunch of amateur thespians from the Stock Exchange should get together to perform the inmates-take-over-the-asylum piece ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ is so delicious that it’s a must-see.

The multiple layers of irony positively invite you to make up your own jokes, which is just as well since the script by Dale Wasserman, written thirteen years before the movie is flatter and flabbier than the Jack Nicholson cracker.

Amateur Dramatics in central London is an invidious occupation: there’s so much brilliant professional fringe theatre available for a tenner, that amateurs have to work twice as hard to gain their audiences. But when amateur groups are as good as SEDOS, the lines are blurred and there’s nothing in this production to suggest it’s any the less: production values, inventive lighting and sound, original music, and careful casting are entirely professional in their approach.

Director Rebecca Smith deliberately slants the production to concentrate on the inmates, even bringing in a consultant psychiatrist to help research the characters and most of these are meticulously observed cameos, with Darren Hannant specially strong as the rictus-wearing indecisive Cheswick, and Ben Hale as the tenderly vulnerable Billy Bibbett.

There’s a slight lack of pace which could pick up during the run, although it may be deliberate as in the measured delivery of Lisa Jedan’s coolly-surfaced Nurse Ratched. The ‘star turn’ should be the rambunctious prison-transferee R P McMurphy as immortalised by Nicholson, and more recently by Christian Slater in the sparky 2004 production at the Gielgud. In those shoes, Liam Byrne has a tough task to make RP an explosive mix of delightful and dangerous, and it’s not quite a bullseye. The fault’s more in the dated writing than the intensity of his performance and the wise-cracks don’t seem so sharp any more.

Finally, a plea to the otherwise wonderful Bridewell, and fringe theatres across London to invest in a couple of fifty-quid silent ceiling fans to stop the audience melting on our rare tropical evenings.

Photo by Nick Chronnell

Julie-an Calendar


There are nights in the theatre for which you gladly queue round the block months in advance, secure in the knowledge that the magnitude of the screen star you hope to see outweighs any reservations about the play, the director or the ticket price. It was such considerations paved our way to Ingrid Bergman in Waters of the Moon at the Haymarket in the 70s, to Elizabeth Taylor in The Little Foxes at the Victoria Palace in the 80s, to Madonna in Speed-the-Plow and to Harry Potter getting his wand out in Equus

… so it was with a similar feeling of excited curiosity we anticipated the stage rehabilitation - in the new cast of Calendar Girls - of the leopard-print legend that was the nation's favourite barmaid Bet Lynch, Corrie’s own Ms Julie Goodyear.

Not that this is really a star vehicle, she plays the third or fourth lead, a character listed as ‘vicar’s daughter, single mother and church organist’ although in a long white-blonde wig, stiletto bootees and sparkly accessories she appears to be dressed for the homeward leg of a particularly gruelling Country and Western tour of Tennessee rather than a tramp up the Yorkshire Dales.

It’s what you might call a ‘carpentry’ performance: she nails many of the comic lines, and screws others. But it’s a genuine delight to see this much-loved veteran of the longest running soap opera confront her core audience in her West End debut.

Apart from that, you could wonder what’s in it for Londonist readers and the answer’s not much: the story of the members of Rylstone Womens Institute who raised half a million pounds for Leukaemia research by posing tastefully nude for a calendar has been better chronicled in the 2003 Helen Mirren/Julie Walters movie. The story’s too well-aired to be gripping, the production too clumsy and cheap, and there are some truly terrible performances. It’s so not cool, it may even become cult viewing.

Hamish McColl’s direction is staggeringly uneven, mixing warm and naturalistic characterisations from the always-reliable Janie Dee and surprisingly strong Arabella Weir as the promoters of the calendar, and solid comic acting from both Goodyear and vintage sitcomista Rosalind Knight. At the other end of the scale is an appalling clumping knockabout turn by Helen Lederer as the prim chairperson of the WI branch.

This shoutily inaccurate, one-dimensional foot-stomping performance is one of the worst in the West End for a long time, although Kelly Brook’s dismally incoherent attempt at an upmarket golf widow runs it pretty close. The production also features the inexplicable casting of ex-BBC newsreader Jan Leeming as the Duchess of Yorkshire or somesuch. She looks bewildered as if she’s just doing it for Comic Relief, which she isn’t.

In a rather sad post-script, Ms. Goodyear lasted just four days in the part before being replaced.

Throwback Mountain


Funny how words take on new meanings. ‘Lockerbie’ used to be a tiny hamlet in the West of Scotland before a PanAm plane came down in its fields, ‘Columbine’ was once an average high school … and ‘Laramie’ was an enormously popular 100-episode TV western in the black-and-white era.

Nowadays Laramie is irrevocably connected with the brutal torture and murder by two rednecks of flyweight gay student Matthew Shepard, beaten and left for dead tied to a fence outside the Wyoming town on the night of 6 October 1998. His death led directly to the hate crimes legislation finally enacted by the Obama administration last month.

When planning a London run, Wild Oats Productions couldn’t have known the awful timeliness of this revival, shadowing the homophobic assault on Ian Baynham, kicked to death in Trafalgar Square and for whom the London gay community turned out in their thousands for a vigil three weeks ago.

The Laramie Project is a kinetic theatre piece based on verbatim interviews with the local population in the days and weeks following Matthew’s murder, covering news reporting, police investigation, trials and a portrait of a close-knit community wrestling with its collective and individual consciences. Eleven years after the event it has an immediacy and a freshness which had every member of the audience wholly engaged, whilst staying the right side of sensationalism or mawkishness. The structure of Joseph C. Walsh’s production is elegant and fluid, and the ebb and flow of 75 distinct characters is handled with incredible skill by a tight team of just 8 young actors.

It’s hard to single out individual performances but among a very focused and committed ensemble, Adam Unze’s doubling of the callow barman who served Matt his last drink, and both of the perpetrators is indicative of a highly developed talent, Francis Adams‘ speech to the jury as Matt’s father held the audience in total stillness, and Amy Clarke‘s ability to switch from glamorous sophisticate to backwoods grandma by the mere donning of a beret (not to mention becoming a dead ringer for Glenn Close every time she put it on) was outstanding.

There is no higher recommendation: for all the important reasons you go to the theatre, it’s a ‘must-see’.

Two's Company, Three's an orgy ...


It’s an old story - a celebrity, er, pulls off in a lay-by - maybe loosening some garments to accommodate a painful stomach condition … or, in the case of high-profile newsreader Geoffrey Hammond (Robert Daws) graphically told in newish writer Sam Peter Jackson‘s Private Property at the Trafalgar Studios, triple-fingering a bare-assed rent-boy in full view of the paparazzi.

The damage limitation is in the hands of Nigel Harman as an oily PR with his own agenda, and since nobody does outraged embarrassment as well as Daws, their dialogue crackles with deft sideswipes at media, celebrity and hypocrisy. Add to the triangle a gauche rentboy played with History Boys knowingness by Steven Webb and you have an entertaining black comedy of cleverly three-dimensional gay characters. This in itself is unusual for the West End, but to have them played by actors of this calibre is an even rarer delight.

The piece mostly moves snappily and unpredictably and whilst the interactive TV footage of baying media mob and preening Stephen Fry are somewhat contrived, there’s a plot pivot towards the end of the first act which guarantees you’ll return after the interval.

Hannah Berrigan‘s production deserves a wider audience - with a bit of tightening this should transfer - but despite the intimate 40-seat setting and a short run of less than 30 peformances, it hasn’t attracted Nigel Harman’s EastEnders fanbase to see him undressed, and there are seats available.

Feeling a right tit ...

production photo by Tristram Kenton

The producers of Legally Blonde The Musical played a long game with five weeks of previews to build a popular word-of-mouth and social media following - and a £2 million review-proof advance - before press night. Broadsheet critics today retaliated by reviewing the audience (really squealy girly escapees from Hairspray) as much as the show.

Processed, which is a good word, from the 2001 Reese Witherspoon movie, LBTM follows vapid sorority girl Elle Woods as she, er, beavers her way into Harvard Law school to stalk her beau who wants someone ‘more serious’. Pink outfits and ditzy charm win the day as she outwits the opposing counsel in a court case. It’s not Inherit the Wind, but it is fun.

What makes the production at the Savoy more enjoyable, apart from a repetitive easy-to-hum score, is the presence of Sheridan Smith as Elle. Although convincingly Valley Girl in her accent, she has a grounded inner-Brit charm as the audience identify with her through Gavin and Stacey and Two Pints of Lager. Her engaging, tuneful and energetic performance carries you willingly and helplessly through the lightweight plot to the romantic clinch with - no not newly ‘bisexual’ Duncan James still playing a teen at pushing 35 - but the rather excellent Alex Gaumond.

She's also a thoroughly good sport, greeting dozens of punters in the rain or snow after every show and, in the case of your humble Londonist reporter, encouraging him to fondle her tits.

Now that's star quality.


Photo: Andrew Rogers courtesy of West End Whingers

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Alving's Bright and Beautiful

Sort of enjoyed 'Ghosts'. Hard not to like a play where an orphanage burns down and four out of the five characters get syphilis.

Compact plot: Mrs Alving uses her husband’s legacy to build an orphanage with help of old flame Pastor Manders at whose candlelight supper to open the place, it burns to the ground. Ghostly skeletons springdans out of the family closet when it’s revealed Captain Alving had spread it about a bit, peppering the fjords with genetically-infected illegitimates in the days before penicillin and the son of the house can’t marry the maid he fancies because she’s his sister. He goes blind and dies.

What raises this production so far above the reverential deference typically accorded Ibsen is the design and some excellent performances.

The central dynamic is Lesley Sharp straining at her leash about as far from the cobbles of comfortable Granada dramas as possible and in wonderful contrast to her exhilarating recent performance as bipolar leopard-print Mari in Little Voice. Raw-boned and sharp-elbowed she brings the internal torture of Mrs Alving to the surface in a clear and un-actressy way, abetted by the patently conversational fresh translation by Frank McGuinness.

Pastor Manders is harder to appreciate since Iain Glen, who also directs, chose an accent precisely midway between Mr Hudson in Upstairs, Downstairs and Ian Paisley. As the tortured painter son, Harry Treadaway is beyond remarkable in his overnight progression from pampered prodigal to twitching degradation caught between lover and mother. Someone sign this boy up for ‘Hamlet’, he’s a natural.

Most productions of ‘Ghosts’, like ‘A Doll’s House’ are internalized and underlit. Stephen Brimson Lewis sets this one in a glassy rain-lashed conservatory emphasising the indistinction of the world outside, brilliantly lit by Oliver Fenwick as though by shining light on the family’s problems we can see them, and ourselves, more clearly.

My enjoyment of this performance was greatly enriched by the octogenarian blind lady who sat next to me at the matinee. Her father, who was sixty when she was born, was a Swedish professor of literature who came to England as London correspondent of a Svenska Dagbladet and had been a close chum of Strindberg before being unfortunately killed in the blitz. Her insights into Scandinavian culture, and the rivalries between Strindberg and Ibsen were even more illuminating than the play.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010


Although it can pander to the knitting classes - and a stage adaptation of 'Yes, Minister' in the post-The Thick of It noughties and a potentially average Paul Kerryson revival of 42nd Street are two cases in point - Chichester this year looks promising.

A double bill of Sheridan's 'The Critic' with 'Real Inspector Hound' at the Minerva, Rupert Everett and Stephanie Cole in 'Pygmalion' in the main house AND a new Howard Brenton adaptation of 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' all overlapping in August might make the price of a train ticket and a picnic more than worthwhile.

Particularly as I haven't been for years ...

Chichester Festival

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Soapstar to Rock Star, almost


You could be forgiven for thinking that a sitcom actress who pockets thirteen million dollars a season for Will and Grace might indulge herself with any kind of vanity project including hiring a band and the Vaudeville Theatre for a debut week in the West End.

But this isn’t a vanity, Mullally has worked with her backing group ‘Supreme Music Program‘ for twelve years and her range of vocal styles is extraordinary: from blues to country and Sondheim to Stones she nailed song after song with a deft and personal attack, attack being the operative word when her rock voice reaches a controlled screech in a trailer-trash banger like ‘Fancy’ by Reba McEntyre or Ryan Adams’ ‘Shakedown on 9th Street’, but tender and connected in perhaps her best piece, Randy Newman’s luminous ‘Real Emotional Girl’.

Many of the songs are about death and some of the self-pitying country music teeters on the edge of ironic although the audience remained unsure whether her delivery was straight, or tongue-in-cheek.

Whilst Mullally has successfully laid the ghost of ‘Karen Walker’ in the States, partly through a series of disastrous television projects, it’s harder to escape in the UK where Channel 4 daily repeats keep it fresher - and much of Tuesday’s audience was sibilantly disappointed that this wasn’t ‘Karen with a K’ aping Liza with a Z and giving her camp and bitchy all to an in-crowd.

Sexual overtones spike the whole set, in the post-show Q&A Mullally defended her choice of many songs written specifically for men and for which she resolutely wouldn’t change the gender, partly to attest to the authenticity of the piece, but also ‘If people see me performing as a man - so what’, an attitude loudly appreciated by the substantial sapphic claque in the stalls.

Downside is that this is a lazy concert, Mullally told only one averagely funny anecdote about her boring tour guide in Prague and seemed reluctant to engage with the audience, perhaps for fear of resurrecting Karen. She has pitching problems and it’s hard to tell whether it’s refreshingly honest that she re-started a couple of numbers to find the right key, or under-rehearsed.

She could do with a script, and a director to tighten the presentation, but the music’s mostly a knockout.

Continues at the Vaudeville Theatre 8pm each evening until Sunday 21 February, with two shows Saturday and Sunday at 4pm and 8pm. Box Office 0844 412 4663, top price £47.50.