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

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Cross Section

Would it be churlish, even for me, to suggest that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s £32m sale of a Nazi-tainted Picasso to fund (just ten, tuition-fee only) bursaries for musical theatre students is merely another in a long line of tax-deductible publicity stunts for the noble Lord?

In a good weekend for musical theatre, I’ve witnessed two remarkable events. The first was an actual pay-day for performers in a profit-share production. Last Saturday, thanks to the generosity and good management of their producer, The Audience Club doyenne Angela Hyde-Courtney, the cast of Thom Southerland’s bouncy Jerry Herman compilation show at the Landor each received a white envelope of proper folding stuff at the after-show party.

This in itself is remarkable: few fringe productions generate more than beer money for their participants, and it often makes me feel uncomfortable that to keep ticket prices affordable so many actors and singers have to double a day job in Debenhams. When you don’t get paid, it could be argued you’re actually an amateur, except that the standard and the pool of talent washing around London for such work is so outstanding. In a cast most of whom were West-End-ready there were several shiners but none brighter than Daniella Gibb whose rendition of ‘Look What Happened To Mabel’ was impeccably focused and sung.

The second remarkable event is the SSSPOTTYs – or the Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year awards in which not only performances but also new composition is recognized with a secondary prize given by Betty Blue Eyes composers Stiles and Drewe.

Sunday afternoon’s finals at the Queen’s Theatre simply blew me away. Whilst the boys somewhat outshone the girls, the standard is again beyond excellent, and interestingly many of the finalists came from classical colleges like the Royal Academy of Music and RADA rather than the usual hothouses of Mountview, Central or ArtsEd Schools which is fast becoming the ‘Fame’ academy of the UK.

Winner Taron Egerton, making so much more of ‘Giants in the Sky’ than the piece usually gets in productions, and stand-out finalist Craig Rhys Barlow whose meticulous diction and body language combined in an electrifying ‘Franklin Shepherd Inc’, both proved that Wales still produces naturally talented singers.

The winning composition – a delightful humorous and tender piece in which a superhero tells a geeky kid that muscle doesn’t outrank brains, ‘It’s Not All Kaboom, Kapow’ by Eric Angus and Paul James from their adaptation of the Ayckbourn piece The Boy Who Fell into a Book was delivered by another highly promising baritone, Howard Jenkins.

I was so elated after the SSSPOTTYs I almost didn’t go on to the evening concert at Cadogan Hall where a range of more established performers were supporting London Gay Men's Chorus and the male rape crisis charity SurvivorsUK. Part of my reluctance was fuelled by the fact that the headliner was Lesley Garrett, but given it was for a deserving cause, I thought I’d give her the benefit of the doubt.

Shouldn’t have bothered, she was terrible.

I'm not sure which made me more annoyed - her ridiculous, shrill, too-high-in-her-range singing or the clumsy, campy way she claimed allegiance to the charity. Among the other stars, Hannah Waddingham in particular showed her up with her effortless phrasing and natural projection. Everyone else seemed to make a genuine and heartfelt connection to the Survivors cause, but Garrett came over as desperate-to-be-popular, and a fake.

Her song choices were bizarre – I Dreamed a Dream, Somewhere and The Impossible Dream - since Fantine dies aged 27, Maria is a teenager, and Don Quixote a virile young knight-errant, everything she sang was irrelevant and contributed to her delusional belief in her own ability, youth or popularity, none of which were evident from the Stalls.

Garrett compares piercings with the LGMC's David Clarke. Hers is in her voice. (photo: Mark Killien)

It’s such a pity. She and I are contemporaries and both grew up in Yorkshire, but whereas I couldn't wait to get away, Garrett clings to the Doncaster coal-face as though ashamed to relinquish a background she has long transcended. She’s obviously a very kindly woman if she’ll give of her time for a worthy event, and it must be quite a come-down after her festival career to sing in a half-empty Cadogan Hall – but it’s vastly irritating to see someone who COULD be so much better, and more real, if she abandoned any pretence of being either a great operatic singer (Verdi is not enhanced by a Yorkshire accent), or a soprano.

As a mezzo, she might have had the international career denied her by languishing in the ENO too long, and if she had some acting lessons she mightn’t have disgraced herself quite so badly in Carousel, when despite having only two numbers she almost never worked a full week.

Still, for every fading or deluded diva there’s a thousand up and coming musical theatre performers to cheer on and applaud. It makes even me optimistic.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

in which I take it all back, and @JKCorden stalks me on Twitter

ONE MAN, TWO 'GUVNORS' at the National Theatre

When two reclusive, friendless shut-ins of my acquaintance begged me to take an unwanted ticket to the first preview of One Man, Two Guvnors I closed my ears to the pitiful scratch of their nails on the barrel’s already well-scraped base and, as had their other contacts, ran carefully through a list of pros and cons.

Pros : 1. directed by Nick Hytner, not often a failure. 2. contains Suzy Toase and Green Wing’s Oliver Chris whom I’ve always found decorative. 3. Original by Carlo Goldoni, author of my first school play (although not, you ageist facebuggers, a contemporary) 4. cast complaining online about difficulties of coping with entrances, props and script - could be a so-bad-it’s-good car-crash.

Cons : 1. arse-clamp Travelex second-row seats in the Lyttleton which are already the reason I don’t like Sunday in the Park with George where I think the sciatica first set in. 2. they are both enthusiastic topers and I haven’t had a glass of wine in six weeks so may well keel over on first contact with the high-octane bin end Venezuelan Merlot they tend to imbibe.


3, and possibly the superinjunction of Cons, contains James Corden whose recent career some thought exhibited an arc like a drunk’s vomitory parabola from projectile History Boys promise through glorious Gavin and Stacey zenith plummeting via footy- award- and chat-show laddish ubiquity to splashdown in a dire two-handed TV sketch show from which only a vestigial bounceback of carrot and sweetcorn may yet remain.

So I went.

How wrong we collectively were.

First off, the show is fronted by a superb skiffle band – The (homonymic) Craze – to pinpoint the setting in the pre-Beatles shiny suited sixties, cover scene changes and give several members of the cast a virtuoso opportunity on xylophone, horns or close harmony vocals.

Second, it’s scripted as a filthy pantomime by Richard Bean who both penned England People Very Nice and gagged up the flaccid prose of London Assurance in another sharp collaboration with Hytner. This is coarser cut, and played even more broadly with direct dialogue with the audience, ad-libs and what amounts to a splosh scene in the fractionally overextended second act.

Third, there are some very fine comic turns, notably by Oliver Chris as a Cameronesque Flashman who may single-handedly have repopularised the chinless wonder, by Toase who could perhaps be persuaded to bring her northern broadside down a notch or two in the interest of blending, by Daniel Rigby as Chris’s actorly love rival in a thoroughly engaging performance of an Angry Young Man conflicted with beatnik cowardice, and by Tom Edden as an 87-year old waiter whose physical comedy rivals Norman Wisdom’s and whose tureen-bearing skills challenge Julie Walters in the two-soup sketch stakes.

Fourth, there is James Kimberley (I am not making this up) Corden. Actors, especially chubby ones, are hard to pigeonhole and for every vocal sitcom fan there’s a theatre lover who wishes he’d stuck to the craft and honed his stage skills instead of spunking them up the wall in oeuvres like Lesbian Vampire Killers. However, in his portrayal of Francis the dually employed servant he fulfils not only the Harlequin role from the Commedia dell’Arte plundered by Goldoni for his characters, but also the otherwise vacant position on the London stage of Showman. Because that’s what he is, holding the audience in his palm and carrying them and the production before him. If he inhabits the character with trace elements of Smithy, that’s simply appropriate recycling and Hytner’s direction tames any excess.

James – don’t call him Kimberley – also has the good grace to engage with admirers and detractors alike on Twitter, and messaged me this morning about his sketch show regrets with Well, as Francis says in the play, “Only the man who never does nothing never makes no mistakes"

No-one has made a mistake here in casting, direction or script, and neither should you. This is as close to a sure-fire hit as I have seen in a year. Go.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Fings, for the memory ...


Book Frank Norman
Music/Lyrics Lionel Bart
Director Phil Willmott
Musical Director Elliot Davis
Choreographer Nick Winston
Lighting Jason Meininger

TPR score 4 stars

I confess it, I have previous with this show: in the mid-eighties I was in a fringe production which was selling so badly that one wet Wednesday we’d just decided to give the seven people in the audience their money back when the producer got a phone call to say that Lionel Bart was on his way.

We hastily sent half the cast out to the local pubs to offer free tickets and drag in some punters, and most of them were still there when Bart and his entourage rocked up. He was in the middle of his twenty-year drinking binge at the time, and somewhat fidgety so after a few minutes of waiting he sat down at the piano in the pit … and started to play the overture. To Oliver!.

Our performance was pretty shabby, and when at the end Bart vomited over the poster it seemed a fitting critique of the show. No need for sick-bags at the Union, though, where in Phil Willmott’s bright production the consistently talented cast and Elliot Davis‘s box-fresh arrangements bring the songs to life with a knuckle-duster punch.

Given the Union’s black box flexibility, it might have been fun to mix the audience with the action, or even transfer across the road to the Union Jack pub to make it more site specific, we are after all supposed to be in a raffish London drinking den where ex-Razor King Fred and tart-with-a-heart Lil are on their uppers like a Berwick Street market bruised-fruit half-price Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide.

If there’s a problem, it’s the scant plot. Joan Littlewood’s theatre workshop in Stratford E15 received the script as a straight play by an ex-con, and she set about it with the ferocity of a razor gang - commissioning songs from Bart and literally slashing the pages before scattering them to her cast of improvising actors, including then-unknown George Sewell, Miriam Karlin and Barbara Windsor.

Apart from the title song there’s nothing memorable, which is probably why they reprise it so often, and it’s striking to think that only a year later, Bart – who never learned to read music – composed the lush and varied score for Oliver!. There’s little light and shade in this material and it largely sounds like a knees-up in Peggy Mitchell’s back room, but Hannah-Jane Fox as Lil finds subtlety in ‘Where Do Little Birds Go’ and Richard Foster-King leads the rollicking tapping first act closer ‘Contempery’, which is where Nick Winston's choreography really takes off, to send the audience out to the bar glowing with pleasure.

Whilst the central performances of Neil McCaul as Fred and Hadrian Delacey as Sgt Collins are convincing and committed, Delacey has a particularly strong voice, this is something of a lost period for realistic drama and there’s acting-by-hearsay as many of the women sound like Windsor and the men like Del Boy. The two who stand out are differentiated as colourful pavement caricatures: Suzie Chard as a topheavy Barbara precipitately balanced in her rigid corset, and audience favourite Foster-King as Horace the rhapsodically bohemian decorator.

If you’re in the mood for a right-old Cockerney sing-song, get dahn the Union, knock twice and ask for Fred ...

This review written for The Public Reviews