Diary of a Theatre Addict: Finding myself centrestage at my public birthday party

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scott-and-meYesterday was my birthday (age unspecified, but not a ‘special’ number!), and I’ve never quite had a birthday celebration like it, to be honest. Over the last few years, the brilliant New York songwriter Scott Alan and I have forged a very special friendship. It emerged from our shared experience of depression — something that’s the loneliest and apparently unreachable place on the earth when you’re in the midst of it, but something that I always try to take positive experiences out of. And one of the most positive has been friendships like the one I’ve forged with Scott.

It takes one to know one, they say; but the one thing that those of us who suffer from depression know, better than anyone else, is that there’s no amount of advice that can mitigate it. The only thing we can do is quietly understand. And be there for each other.

Scott has been there for me, even though he lives in New York and I live (mostly) in London, and I hope I have been there vice versa for him. But we also share time together as often as we can — he’s come to join me and my husband in Provincetown on our annual summer holiday over the last two summers, and I see him often during my regular trips to New York as he does me on his regular trips to London.
He’s in the midst of a 12 night residency at the Hippodrome, and last night he devoted the night entirely to me! evening-standard-scott-alan-adIn fact, when a half page ad ran in the Evening Standard (see left), I was slightly alarmed that, amidst the nightly listings for guests that included Cynthia Erivo, Oliver Tompsett, Eva Noblezada, Rachelle Ann Go and their co-stars from Miss Saigon, Ashleigh Gray, Danny-Boy Hatchard and Lucie Jones, I was billed as the star for September 12, with guests to be announced. I hoped no one was thinking that I was going to sing!

But I also thought that, whereas the other nights would sell on the strength of Scott’s following and those names, my night would be a slow seller, since no one knew who the guests were going to be! Yet last night was entirely sold out. And not just with my friends, either: I actually didn’t know much of the audience.

But I knew all of the incredible line-up of talent that Scott assembled — both onstage and (in an amazing coup-de-cinema!) onscreen in a video montage of taped messages! Onstage, they included Frances Ruffelle (who introduced Scott and me in the first place, so to whom we are forever grateful!), Cynthia Erivo (ahead of her flying to New York to reprise her astonishing performance in The Color Purple on Broadway, heading the billing ahead of Jennifer Hudson!), her partner Dean John-Wilson, and composers Howard Goodall and Richard Thomas, respectively accompanying Emma Williams and Stuart Matthew Price (on songs from the non-Scott Alan catalogue Goodall’s Love Story & The Hired man, and Thomas’s Jerry Springer – the Opera).

There was also Johnny Partridge (who reminded me — and the audience – that the last time I’d seen him on the Hippodrome stage he’d split his trousers right the way down…..) and Madelena Alberto (London’s last Evita, whom I first saw on the tiny stage of the Union Theatre in a production of Jekyll and Hyde and have been a devoted follower of ever since)

On video, meanwhile, the cast list included Philip Quast (on the back of a quadbike on the sea!), Michael Ball, Alfie Boe, Imelda Staunton,  Jonathan Groff (in his Hamilton get-up as King George!), Ramin Karimloo, Hadley Fraser, Rosalie Craig, Eva Noblezada, Jon Jon Briones, Michael Xavier, and a couple more composers I love: Stephen Schwartz (whose Pippin is one of my most adored shows) and Dana P Rowe (with the cast of a new production of The Fix that Dana and I travelled down to see in Arlington, VA last month, that includes Mark Evans).

Jenna Russell also appeared on the video, giving one of the most moving speeches of the night (with hilarious interventions by her young daughter) in which she spoke of how working in the theatre was often difficult, and that one of the things you needed was champions — and that’s what she said I am!

I happily accept the compliment — though of course I hope I’m not an indiscriminate champion. I can’t — and don’t — like everything they do; I famously hated the play Mr Burns that Jenna appeared in at the Almeida. When I tweeted her comment last night and said,  “Tonight everyone was a champ for me!”, she replied, “I was going to sing the 3rd Act of Mr Burns….” I replied, “Oh, I would have just LOVED to hear the third act of Mr Burns again!!!!” And she ominously replied in turn,  “Hahaha! One day Mr Shenton…when you least expect it! ❤️😀❤️

scott-alan-birthday-cake2015This may very well be what attending your own memorial service might be like – with the only difference being that I was there to experience it for myself! Jenna was there on the video; others were there only in spirit. When I posted a picture (left) of Scott and me being presented with the birthday cake  that had been so beautifully prepared for me by Philip Dehany – into which Scott had inserted a giant pink dildo — a friend on Facebook waspishly added, “I see John Barrowman showed up :)

As well as the established talent, either real or wishful thinking, I was delighted that the evening was also, as always with Scott, about promoting younger, yet-to-make-it talent. The show was topped and tailed by a glorious appearance by ten of the students I’ve taught at ArtsEd, who this week move into their 3rd and final year! And Scott also selects a special guest competition winner to sing every night with him, too — last night it was the turn of Bethany Heywood (from over 180 entrants!).

olllie-tompsett-&-scottI spent quite a few nights at the Hippodrome this week: as ever when Scott is in town, I go as often as I can, and this week I also went on Tuesday (where his guest was the utterly wonderful Oliver Tompsett, pictured left with Scott, a major talent I’d previously pigeonholed as belonging to rock shows like We Will Rock You and Rock of Ages that he’d done in the West End, but last Christmas discovered his true leading man versatility when he starred in the West Yorkshire Playhouse production of White Christmas) and again on Wednesday night (when he was joined by Eva Noblezada, the amazing firebrand currently playing Kim in Miss Saigon, as well as guest appearances by her co-stars Jon-Jon Briones and Chris Peluso).

But my ‘real’ life as a critic also has to continue, and I was also at first nights for (the long-delayed) Dusty (my review for The Stage is here), Future Conditional, inaugurating Matthew Warchus’ tenure as artistic director at the Old Vic (my review is here) and the touring The Glenn Miller Story (which I caught in Southampton, review is here)

I also went to a press preview for the London transfer of Broadway’s Tony winning Kinky Boots ahead of its opening on Tuesday (my review will appear that night), and today saw See What I Wanna See at Jermyn Street Theatre (my review will appear tomorrow on The Stage website). I also caught up belatedly with the marvellous People, Places and Things at the National (which deserves closer critical inspection than I have time to give it right now!), Simon Stephens’s Song from Far Away at the Young Vic (that I’ve written about here) and tonight I’ve just re-visited The Commitments at the Palace, which I’ve not seen since the first night, before it closes next month.

So, in addition to my 3 Scott Alan nights, I’ve seen 8 other shows! And that’s besides interviews and/or press events with Nicole Kidman (who opens tomorrow night in Photograph 51), director Dominic Cooke (currently in rehearsals for Christopher Shinn’s Teddy Ferrera at the Donmar) and legendary set and costume designer John Napier (still represented, 30 years on, by Les Miserables at the Queen’s, and soon by the return of Cats to the London Palladium, who is currently preparing a retrospective exhibition of his career as a designer and artist that will open in Eastbourne in November).