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Guest Blog: The Joy of Repeat Visits, by Tonyloco

June 21, 2017

ON THE TOWN (15 June, 2017, Open Air Theatre): My third visit to On the Town in as many weeks was more enjoyable than my second, which was more enjoyable than my first and this prompts me to set down some thoughts about the pleasures to be had from seeing a favourite musical several times, or sometimes a lot more than that!

My serious theatre-going began in Sydney towards the end of 1948 when I was  aged eleven with several visits to Annie Get Your Gun at the Theatre Royal starring the American actress Evie Hayes. I believe I saw it six times, including once or twice when it returned to Sydney the following year to the Empire Theatre after its tour to Melbourne, Adelaide and the other Aussie capital cities. I was totally won over by the very generous, big-hearted performance of Miss Hayes in the title role and I just loved all the music.  I had a copy of the piano vocal score (I still have it) and I used to play it through literally from cover to cover, sometimes inviting the neighbours in for a sing-song around the piano.  I was actually quite precocious at playing the piano, thanks to my early training at the Shefte College of Music where one learned the basic chords and how to play them under the melody line, and Irving Berlin’s songs in Annie are all quite straightforward and easy to play, even for a clever eleven-year-old!

Annie was followed in Sydney by most of the other big Broadway hits of the time including Oklahoma!, Brigadoon, Paint your Wagon, South Pacific etc., all of which I saw once or perhaps twice but my next big fixation was probably Kiss Me, Kate (1952), of which I couldn’t get enough. This was strongly cast with the charismatic American actor Hayes Gordon as Fred Graham, Joy Turpin as Lilli Vanessi and the wonderful Maggie Fitzgibbon as Lois Lane and I responded strongly to Cole Porter’s sophisticated score. Also around this time Evie Hayes starred in Call Me Madam, which was where I first discovered the actors’ trick of corpsing on purpose. There is a scene where Mrs Sally Adams, the newly-appointed American Ambassador to Lichtenburg, is wearing a formal evening dress with a long train and in practising how to walk backwards out of the presence of royalty she manages to get herself tangled up in the train. The first time I saw the show this scene was hilarious and one got the impression that it was funnier at that performance than it had ever been before and the actors themselves couldn’t help laughing. But when I saw the show several more times, exactly the same thing happened and I realised the whole thing was rehearsed and planned, even though it seemed totally spontaneous.  I can now spot this kind of planned corpsing and can thoroughly enjoy it when it is well done, as in ‘You’re timeless to me’ in Hairspray or despise it, as when it happened several times in One Man, Two Guv’nors.

Since coming to London in 1960, I have had periods of intense theatre-going but also long periods of abstinence, particularly when I was playing the piano for old time music hall and variety. Throughout most of the early time I usually saw shows I liked more than once, generally because I just wanted to enjoy them again. I saw Fings Ain’t Wot They Used t’Be six times and it was always great. Another show I saw several times was Irma la Douce mainly because I liked the show a lot but none of the leading ladies I saw seemed to be able to survive the gruelling vocal demands of the role. By the early 1960s the ladies seemed to change fairly frequently and it was not until about the fourth viewing (and fourth Irma), that I felt full justice was being done to the role. I started off with the original (1958) Irma, Elizabeth Seal, but by March 1960 she was almost voiceless. I know I also saw Shani Wallace and Mary Preston and possibly somebody else as well.

Then there is a long gap through my music hall years until what is fairly much the present time. In that long interim period I would usually see musicals just once, even the ones that were sensationally good like the National Theatre’s Oklahoma! and Carousel but I then re-discovered that there was a great deal of pleasure from going to see favourite shows over and over. One example of this was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, of which I didn’t see the original cast of Michael Ball, Brian Blessed and co, but went to it for the first time when I discovered one of my music hall buddies called Graham Hoadly was in it, playing several small roles and covering several of the larger parts like the Toymaker and Lord Scrumptious. I was fascinated by this rather complex, sprawling show and soon found that there were always cast changes happening with new stars joining, or covers going on (all of which Graham kept me informed about) and even the structure of the show would change. Both of the Strallen girls appeared as Truly Scrumptious, sometimes I think they just swapped among themselves unofficially. The two comics (Boris and Goran) used to embroider their scenes beyond recognition and I suspect Jeremy Sammes the writer or Adrian Noble the director from time to time would insist on getting them back to the authorised script because their scenes would suddenly change all over again. And there would also be changes in the basic show, for example a funny little scene involving one of the dogs who would sit still in the middle of the stage while one of the comics was firing a rifle, just suddenly disappeared and was never seen again.  There were also several different teams of dogs of different breeds and one never knew exactly what they were going to do at any performance. Graham told me that one particular team of quite small dogs were extremely obnoxious and the actors hated them! And the final atrocity was the complete deletion of the prologue showing the car race where the car got smashed up. This was near the end of the London run and was apparently dropped to simplify the show in preparation for the Broadway production. They needn’t have bothered as the show ran for only just over 300 performances on Broadway and lost most of its $15 million investment. Come to think of it, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was probably unique in the number of changes I saw made to the basic show during the later part of its run, although I bitterly regretted the serious amount of pruning to the script that was done quite early in the run of Mary Poppins to make it more palatable to very small children who shouldn’t have been in the theatre anyway!

Another great favourite was Spamalot, where there were occasional cast changes to see, but the main reason for repeated viewings was that I kept spotting more details of the jokes and the humour on each new viewing.  Perhaps this just proves that I am a bit dumb, but I kept finding more and more to laugh at each time I saw it.  This pleasure of watching a joke being set up was also very evident in the pantomime Mother Goose at Hackney where knowing what was coming greatly enhanced the pleasure of my second viewing as I watched the characters preparing the gags in advance and teasing out the laughs.

Another element that sometimes repays repeated visits is the quality of the orchestra. The production of Guys and Dolls at the Piccadilly had a terrific orchestra playing what I thought was a better orchestration, with the right amount of brass, than the National Theatre version which sounded far too heavy on reeds (saxophones mainly). I returned to the front row of the Piccadilly several times, not only to enjoy some cast changes (all very successful) but also just to revel in the very theatrical sound of the orchestra.  The same thing is true right now with my fixations on 42nd Street and On the Town where it is the sound of the orchestra that affords me as much pleasure as the other elements of the productions.  I should also say that I was very impressed with the sound of the orchestras at Wimbledon recently for both Cats and The Addams Family, although I saw each of them only once.

Of course, sometimes I want to see a production more than once simply because it is a top class realisation of a very good show and into this category I would put Ian Talbot’s recent production of The Boy Friend, as well as his HMS Pinafore and Pirates of Penzance, all in Regent’s Park, and La Cage aux Folles when Douglas Hodge was in it. For these shows, as with On the Town and 42nd Street at present, I have been able on repeated visits just to wallow in every element of each of the productions and get a very complete kind of enjoyment of what I have decided at the grand old age of 80 is probably my favourite form of theatrical entertainment, pace Maria Callas, Jussi Björling, Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Otto Klemperer, Vladimir Horowitz, Artur Rubinstein and the rest of the many iconic classical artists I have seen and enjoyed performing serious classical repertoire throughout my life. I guess Irving Berlin was right when he said in Annie Get Your Gun: ‘There no business like show business’!

 

Tony
17 June 2017

 

Tony is a retired musician and musical director, who has worked extensively in the West End.

Bat Out Of Hell – London Coliseum

June 14, 2017

(seen at the performance on 13th June 2017)

Once upon a time, around 20 years ago now, a show called “Grease,” and a show called “Cats” probably met on a street called “Broadway.” In a short time, they decided to get married. They gave each other a “special cuddle” and, well, 18 years later this is the result.

And I’m not really joking.

It’s 2100, and an accident has left a group kids underground in the big city, stuck permanently at that age. “Peter Pan” style there’s “the boy who never grew up,” Strat (Andrew Polec) and sidekick Tink (Aran Macrae) to head up this gang.

Above, in Falco Tower, Strat’s obsession Raven (Christina Bennington) is about to reach her real 18th Birthday with warring parents dictator Falco (Rob Fowler) determined to keep her out of Strat’s reach, and rockin’ wife Sloane (Sharon Sexton) keeping herself firmly in both camps.

Like “Grease” this is full of that special energy only those who are 18 forever could have, plus all the angst that goes with it. Like “Cats,” this a wafer-thin plot which holds strong and true for the most part, across almost three hours, as a hugely talented ensemble play on a stonkingly clever Jon Bausor set. A guitar fret is a tower block, there’s plenty of projection work from Finn Ross that brings it all to life and also one of the funniest “fourth wall breaking” visual jokes the monkey has seen in years.

To get the faults out of the way, the second half could do with a little more plot – except that to actually cut scenes would mean losing some terrific songs and great dance numbers. That one is a bit of an insoluble. There is a fair amount of strong language too, not all of it required. On the other hand, the fairly racy material renders the show unsuitable for under 14s anyway, so, leave it in. Oh, and one quip was filthy, but hilarious, anyway.

Back to the great stuff.

There’s enough talented eye-candy to satisfy all. Mr Polec and Miss Bennington are sufficient not only to tickle the fancy, but massively gifted singers and dancers too, with strong enough acting skills to get us invested in their characters even when the plot veers a little unsteadily. Both their solo vocals are show-stoppers and they truly drive the tribal aspect in the big numbers involving equally accomplished fellow ensemble members. Aran Macrae in particular deserves a note as Tink, as does Danielle Steers as tribal wise-person Zahara in a pivotal supporting role.

Excellent work too from Rob Fowler and Sharon Sexton, particularly as they re-live their youth and later as they reveal very different aspects of their characters – again finding depth where none really exists in the script.

If, like me, you only really know “Bat Out of Hell” – given a terrific explosive treatment here – and “Anything For Love,” don’t worry. The rest of the songs, “Heaven Can Wait,” “You Took The Words Right Out of My Mouth,” “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” and more (annoyingly, the programme doesn’t list them, and I’m not a big enough fan to instantly know) all land as if written for the theatre in the first place. Better still, though I used earplugs, for most they are at a volume where words are clear and the bass is exciting enough to shake the audience “just for the hell of it.”

Put simply, a show that has even me “up and dancing” at the end has to have something special. It’s “Batty As Hell,” true – insubstantial on the story, but so high-energy, with a gloriously fun cast doing amazing things with their talent that it’s pretty much irresistible for anyone seeking a hard-rocking night out. Interestingly, during the interval this middle aged conservative bloke happened to get chatting to a much facially-pierced, crop-cut late teenage lady. We were both as hyped as each other on the show, and both enjoyed our brief and excited conversation, which I think says it all. It crosses the barriers and makes everyone’s world just that bit better.

Easy 4 stars for now, and if they sorted out the second half, would have been 5.

 

Oh, and as a coda, if (as they were on my night) they are handing out audience surveys to complete, do. Return it after the show to the box office and you get a free poster – the type you see on the Underground Station escalators. Brilliant souvenir and £15 cheaper than the print they sell in the gift shop. Worth knowing, I think.

 

For seating advice, in addition to the stuff on Theatremonkey, I would go for the dress circle and upwards, for overall view. If in the stalls, around row G back, gives the best view. If further forward in the stalls, then centre block first, then “low numbers” side of the auditorium if possible in the side blocks. There are relatively cheaper seats on the side blocks of row A that are worth a look – take the one closest to the centre aisle first, the rest on the “low numbers” side after that, and then the rest on the high numbers side. Same goes for rows B and C cheaper seats behind, too, I feel.

“Lettice & Lovage” Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre

June 7, 2017

(Seen at the preview performance on 14th May 2017).

This revival elicits exactly the same feeling as flicking through the TV channels and happening upon a sitcom from “way back when,” that you loved and much remembered. You pause to watch and realise that, like yourself, it has developed a patina that only time can bring. It’s just as you remember it, but now it’s a little slice of history, and what was once “cutting edge and biting” well, we know now how things turned out.

The themes of Peter Shaffer’s 1987 genius comedy about architecture and those who care about the loss of it in London were once relevant. As is the idea of demonstrating the worst of it. It is ironic therefore, that the central and most reviled building in the play is, in fact, gone. And recently, too. A dream achieved (though between us, I rather liked it).

What’s left are two women in an era where two people could be friends without any other assumption being made. Two eccentric women, again, in an era where Britain was full of them, without any other assumption being made. Best of all, the two women here, one Felicity Kendal (Lettice Douffet) and one Maureen Lipman (Loue Schoen) are absolutely definitive of the time they inhabit on stage.

Kendal’s opening tour-guide becomes ever-more inventive; her quest for bringing the dramatic past into the present extending even into her home life, with disastrous consequences. Lipman’s trade mark ‘stiff-mask hiding immeasurably deep wells of lunacy’ style is put to excellent use as a starchy boss is drawn into the maddest and most fun of schemes.

Sound work from Petra Markham (Miss Framer) as a secretary downtrodden but never trodden in, and Sam Dastor (Mr Bardolph) a solicitor who treads where angels fear… and risks complete immersion in a world less than sane. A mention too for Michael Chance (Surly Man), whom no tour guide will wish to encounter.

Robert Jones provides a remarkable stately home and squalid 80s basement flat on a tiny stage, Paul Pyant believable subterranean murk and Gregory Clarke has great fun with 80s electronic sounds.

Trevor Nunn keeps things motoring, the difficult duolog of act two almost entirely successful, given the excessive weight the author expects it to carry.

If this is difficult simply because it is too recent to be “classic” and too old to be “contemporary,” then it should be regarded as one of those times that a bottle is opened to see how it is maturing. A glass or two will convince that all the required elements are present, and a further maturation of 20 years will see it reveal new flavours, given time.

Meanwhile, quaff the refreshment on offer. Those who remember that period, in particular, will feel the benefit of the nostalgic hit if they do.

“Ballroom” – Waterloo East Theatre

May 24, 2017

(seen at the afternoon performance on 21st May 2017)

I was ecstatic to learn that I would, after many years, have a chance to see one of my favourite “Broadway failures” (116 performances in 1979) on stage. Owning both the original cast album and original source film “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom,” to say I was anticipating this one was an understatement. I’m delighted to say, Gerald Armin and his team didn’t disappoint.

It’s a simple story. Bea Asher (Jessica Martin) is a widow selling the accumulation of a lifetime in her junk store. Friend Angie (Natalie Moore-Williams) suggests she meet “The Very Nice Crowd” at the Stardust Ballroom. There she finds friendship and more, as sister-in-law Helen (Olivia Maffett) looks on disapprovingly.

A slim book holds enough surprises to have the person next to me (hello, Karen) gasp “I didn’t see that coming”) at one point, and Armin, Nancy Kettle and Roman Berry keep the show whirling with an energetic cast of senior actors directed and choreographed to give us full benefit of their experience and talent.

There’s beautiful songs too. One of the two younger performers, Danielle Morris as Ballroom Singer Marlene delivers “Dreams” to a level that deserves a single release, and is a young performer to watch for sure. Doubling as Bea’s daughter Diane and paired with Ballroom Singer counterpart Nathan (Adam Anderson) – himself doubling as Bea’s son David – the duo too are quite a team – “One By One” another particularly successful song delivery.

The show belongs, though, to Ms Martin. Broadway classic “Fifty Percent” is given the full hundred percent treatment, and a perfectly judged “Monroe” regeneration is entrancing. Better yet, Ms Martin finds the transition from shell-shocked widow to fiercely independent lady over just two short hours and fills the theatre with a compelling determined gentleness.

It is small wonder postman Alfred Rossi (Cory Peterson) falls for her – his Italian American charm genuine. In counterpoint, Oliva Maffett’s judgemental Helen could have been over-done, but the actor finds a concern that balances to perfection the domineering aspect.

Supporting roles are all beautifully done by the ensemble. Of particular note for me were Dudley Rogers as Harry, Gerry Tebbutt’s obsessive Scooter and Colette Kelly as Shirley, to mention just three cameos that add to the pleasure of the show.

For those who have seen the original film, there are good points in that a lot of the “family” stuff has been stripped away, speeding up the action and helping focus on the ballroom itself – nicely represented here, incidentally, by Paul O’Shaughnessy’s simple parquet floor set.

Alas, there are also a few disappointments. I already knew that the best numbers in the film had gone, and yearned for them to return. Also, the ending is very different on stage, presumably because Broadway sends crowds out upbeat (the original film ending is below, for those who want to know).

Luckily, here, it’s satisfyingly enough staged not to matter – but I do wonder if one day a “revisical” might be in order, as this production proves the show to work far better than anyone could imagine.

If it were to happen, this is the cast to work with. For me and the audience last Sunday, it was an enchanting way to pass a couple of hours, and I strongly urge anyone who cares about people, particularly the generation that brought them into the world and loves them, not to miss the chance to see this. I wish you all a waltz.

Four stars.

 

ORIGINAL ENDING. SPOILER WARNING. In both this show and the original film, Bea is crowned “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom,” the most popular lady there, who will act as Social Hostess for the next year. On stage, the story ends with her and Alfred taking to the stage to receive the tiara.

In the original film, though, they go back to her home, and they kiss “goodnight” and will meet in the morning. Next morning, Alfred brings breakfast to her house. Bea does not answer the door so he goes inside. Bea is there, in bed… having passed peacefully away in the night.

Now, wouldn’t that have made a great ending to a musical?!

 

 

 

 

No blog next week, but back on the 7th June, I hope.

“The Treatment” – Almeida Theatre

May 17, 2017

(Seen at the afternoon performance on 13th May 2017).

In times of “fake news,” when reality and truth are two different things and, as Richard Littlejohn puts it “everybody is the star of their own movie,” this 1993 Martin Crimp play should feel more relevant than ever. Certainly the quality of both dialogue and the story he tells make the Almeida’s choice of revival entirely justifiable.

Sadly, I’m not so sure they can justify either Giles Cadle’s designs nor Lyndsey Turner’s direction. Whichever of them opted for chopping a play about cinema, that required a fast-flowing cinematic stating, into scenes with long (and, from the front row, exceptionally noisy) scene changes between needs to be on the wrong end of a solid silver fork (in joke).

Anne (Aisling Loftus), a somewhat simple young woman tells her story – in all senses of the word, perhaps, tantalizingly – to slick movie operators Andrew (Julian Ovenden) and wife Jennifer (Indira Varma). This revolting pair of artistic parasites who lack manners and morals as well as talent, instantly begin twisting everything. Actor friend John (Gary Beadle, beautifully balanced performance) and ex-receptionist punch-bag Nicky (impressive Ellora Torchia) reap the success.

Forgotten playwright Clifford (Ian Gelder, in an unforgiving role he makes instead unforgettable) pays the heaviest price for becoming ensnared, with Anne’s husband Simon (multi-faceted work from Matthew Needham) also ultimately a loser on all levels. A mention too for Almeida regular Hara Yannas as a long-suffering waitress and Ben Onwukwe’s Taxi Driver who has the heavy metaphor-lifting work to do, and does it very well. Also a cast from the Community Company, filling the stage as required.

For this is all metaphors. We are all driving blind to destinations that don’t exist. Our stories don’t always ring true and others will shape events to their own ends. The innocent suffer, there are accidents and exploitation, with moments of revenge worthy of Shakespeare – neatly mined to good effect by the author.

Unfortunately, with long breaks and clumsy changes of scene, much of the impact is lost. This is about lives crashing together, bits flying off and randomness. When it happens at the walking pace seen here, with time to ponder and indeed drift off the odd scene that isn’t immediately impactful, but has later bearing, the audience are left wondering what all the fuss is about.

Trust me, stay to the end, and it will hit just how good the writing and performances are. Sadly, though, this is very much a two star production of a four star play. Fingers crossed a small studio with less budget but an equally talented cast host the next revival – I’ll be there if I can. And that’s the truth.

Is Theatre the new “Pop Concert” when it comes to tickets?

May 10, 2017

A remark from a colleague got me thinking, as did a recent indignant exchange on www.theatreboard.co.uk.

Both regular readers of this blog will remember that back in January I compiled a page of tips for getting “Hamilton” tickets. A few weeks later, a reader of that page informed me that those same tips helped her get some much sought after “Lady Gaga” tickets at the O2 Arena, simply following the same technique I outlined for the far smaller Victoria Palace Theatre event.

More recently, “Follies” and “Mosquitoes” at the National Theatre left hundreds unhappy that the best seats were gone and many performances “sold out” before the general public got anywhere near them. Even those like myself, who “know the tricks” and have the lowest rung of “priority booking” membership found very little choice. I was lucky on “Follies” with a seat I was pretty happy with; “Mosquitoes,” well, not terrible but not the greatest. Anyway…

I wonder if it all ties in with several articles I’ve read about economists noting we are spending less on items and more on “experiences,” which all the above productions are / will be. If that’s so, there are now more people than ever chasing fewer and fewer tickets. Good for theatres, not so great for the wider public.

Personally, I’m sceptical. The most vocal complainers about “not getting seats” are not regular theatregoers who support a venue, just those chasing “fashion,” I fear. If they “feel slighted because the system is stacked against them” it’s bad for the theatre industry’s image, yes, but rather ignores those who stand by it ‘thick and thin’ in support.

Rather like the fans who follow a group from pub gigs to Wembley Stadium, or football fans team from Hackney Marshes to, well, Wembley Stadium again, maybe us “regulars” are now experiencing the same thing from our plush tip-up seats.

If we are, is there an answer? Rather like pop and football fans, there are “club memberships” to buy, which help a lot gaining access to the best seats first. We can hardly complain about others wanting to join in, because we are not enough to keep a show running long in ourselves… but is it so wrong to wish to be front of the queue as a reward for loyalty?

Perhaps theatres should work a little harder to equalise distribution of tickets, but if there is a way to balance demand from both regulars and newcomers without upsetting one and putting the other partly in the hands of the “secondary market” (ticket touts), I’m not sure that there is. Longer runs, perhaps – hard with a star in the cast – so maybe have a second star ready to take over? Bigger theatres – but they have to be filled when the circus has moved on?

Tricky, and one to ponder, I think.

Obsession (Barbican Theatre)

May 3, 2017

(seen at the afternoon performance on 29th April 2017)

The vast open space – realistic sounding but unrealistically leaky (nobody gets burned or blinded by the oil it pours) central suspended engine, bar on one side, washing trough on the other, screens either side and around – actually suits this play. For each central character is lost in a wilderness, and all lack a compass both personal and moral to find a way through life.

Or is it death? They happen in the play, but my argument is that the three central protagonists – drifter Gino (Jude Law), and bar-owning husband and wife Hanna (Halina Reijn) and Joseph (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) are long since dead already. Walking corpses, Gino keeps moving to avoid his repression, Hanna her tolerance of a man just to keep herself housed and Joseph his denial.

The toxicity of this trio should have been the key to a sharp and thrilling drama. Instead, the pervading death keeps things at dead walking pace, without revelation or inferno. There’s more drama as Gino encounters fellow drifter Johnny (Robert de Hoog), with an intriguing bi-sexuality or even outright declaration thread left hanging annoyingly. On the other hand, the arrival of Anita (Aysha Kala) could either have been a deliberate attempt at introducing life to highlight the contrasting deadness – or maybe confirm that the sexuality question was going nowhere.

Sadly, in this production, quite a lot doesn’t – despite the peculiar use of a treadmill for “Doctor Who” style athletics. Couples drift and undrift in circles, Chukwudi Iwuji builds the most convincing characters of all, as Priest and Police Inspector. The dead die or don’t, the disappointingly expected happens just when you hoped the writing would avoid shaking its credibility – and the actors play on as best they can.

Like all Ivo van Hove works, it’s impressive in scope, the economy of the staging and sparse use of artifice, even as the whole feels more dreamlike than dramatic, are enough to keep interest going. New moments recover attention around an hour in when act two flags, for sure, but the feeling that there is a shorter and tighter experience to be had remains, lush Tal Yarden video alas included.

Unlikely that a more stylish production nor cohesive small cast will emerge this year, nor that van Hove will be challenged much for his reputation, but this lacks a little of the careful text edit he is known for. Still a darkness worth exploring, but not an entirely compelling one.

3 and a half stars.

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For those planning to go to the Barbican, I’d also rate the current exhibition in their art gallery “The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945” as a fascinating visit. Do pre-book, though, as lines are massive after matinee / before evening performances and throughout the weekends in particular.