Yesterday was my birthday (age unspecified, check 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! In 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! ??😀??
This 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!).
I 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).
If my birthday celebrations that I wrote about here last week were going to be difficult to match, visit this site I began this week by attending my first graduation ceremony at ArtsEd to see the first class I taught three years ago graduating —three of whom are pictured left — and am ending it tonight by watching the cream of the West End stripping as part of this year’s West End Bares (hosted by Graham Norton, medicine who will hopefully keep his clothes on!), viagra approved though of course the best strip show in town is still Gypsy at the Savoy, in which Lara Pulver sheds clothes but Imelda Staunton strips layer upon layer of emotions.
So both the pleasure and satisfaction continued unabated. In both cases, the sense of community that the theatre creates in a special joy. On Broadway, of course, that’s a given — hardly a week goes by without a benefit for one cause or another, which is how Broadway Bares originated (and has now been adopted and copied in the West End). But that community starts at school, and nowhere have I felt it more keenly than at ArtsEd.
I’ve also already watched several of my students graduate to their first jobs, as I wrote about here last week, and the very next day after weeping my way through their graduation ceremony (it was like Merrily We Roll Along come to life!) I saw four more of them onstage at Leicester’s Curve appearing in the new national tour of Hairspray (which I reviewed here). In fact, Omari Douglas, Bobbie Little and Katharine Pearson were each moving onto their second shows after making their professional debuts in High Society at the Old Vic (the first two) and Carrie at Southwark Playhouse (the third). And special kudos to Glen Facey, making his professional debut, with the most athletic performance on that stage as he does back flips from a standing position!
I did a (metaphorical) back flip of my own this week. The guest speaker at their graduation was veteran actor Robert Lindsay (pictured on the front row with the ArtsEd students, sitting beside deputy principal Chris Hocking). Aafter a twitter spat (or two) between us (as I chronicled here at the time), in which he dubbed me “a complete twat because like most critics you have no conception how to perform or even comprehend to sustain a show”, we were able to make up after the graduation, and then speak to each other fondly when we saw each other again at the opening night of Hangmen at the Royal Court.
That’s another great lesson for the students, whose latest intake I start teaching again tomorrow: feel free to cross swords, if you feel strongly enough with those that criticise you, but be sure to uncross them again at the earliest opportunity. The business is too small to sustain grudges.
It’s a lesson I had to take onboard myself, I realised, as I went to see (and loved) Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina premiere at Southwark Playhouse this week (my review is here). Last month I had possibly one of the most uncomfortable phone interviews I’ve ever done with Mr Fierstein (unsmilingly pictured left) in which he took serial offence at the connections I was trying to make between his work, which is a standard journalistic practice.
When I pressed him on why he seemed to be particularly attracted to drag — as witness shows from Torch Song Trilogy and La Cage Aux Folles to Hairspray (which he starred in but didn’t write), Kinky Boots and Mrs Doubtfire, (he’s writing a musical version of the latter now), he replied,
You’re really making me laugh — .you’re trying to take all my work and put it in one envelope, Is that something you do in your life, do you sit at home and alphabetise everything? You seem to be hell bent on getting my work neatly filed, but I do not think that way or feel that way. It’s like asking David Mamet if you were interviewing him, “you had some heterosexuals in hour last play, is there a reason you have heterosexuals in this play?” To me, that’s absolutely ridiculous. Mrs Doubtfire os about a man hiding as a woman so that he can see his children. It has nothing in common with La Cage, Torch Song or Casa Valentina at all!
The defensiveness does feel like I hit a nerve. Be that as it may, he got right on mine, too. I don’t like him now; but that doesn’t mean I don’t like his work, and I was able to embrace his play just as fondly as if my troubling encounter with him hadn’t taken place.
At other times, of course, you can establish such a great rapport with an interview subject that it can predispose you to like their work. Over the years, I’ve come to know Mark Rylance onstage and off (pictured left) very well — and I love him on both sides of the footlights. Just the other day I spent another wonderful hour with him talking to him immediately before he did a matinee of Farinelli and the King that has just brought him back to the West End. We once, by sheer coincidence, shared the same gym trainer — when he buffed up for his West End run in Jerusalem, he saw Paul, a trainer from Soho Gym in Borough, whom my husband and I worked with, too (Paul also trained Patina Miller when she over here in Sister Act).
And as we have spoken very frankly to each other over the years, we have discovered that we share other things in common, too. Some of this is too private to make its way to the print interview, but it’s also what makes him a great actor as well as a great human being: he is always utterly honest. For years he has been a major stage star — that rare person who can sell tickets on the strength of their stage fame. But now he’s getting real screen fame from Wolf Hall and his imminent appearance in Steven Spielberg’s latest film Bridge of Spies that’s being shown in the New York Film Festival later this month before it is released in the US next month.
In a news interview in the Daily Telegraph recently, Spielberg acclaimed him thus: “Mark Rylance is one of the most extraordinary actors working anywhere. I saw him on the stage in Twelfth Night and that pretty much cinched it for me and I asked him to play him the part of the spy.” I can’t wait to see it or Farinelli, which I missed at the Globe.
I’ve had a(nother) busy week, though I managed to get one night off only thanks to a diary error: I had wrongly put the opening of Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen into my diary for Thursday, and was only alerted to it when the eagle-eyed PR for the Royal Court spotted that I’d posted a pick of the week entry in The Stage wrongly stating its opening night! By the time she told me, it was too late to re-plan anything else for Thursday night (and I had to quickly cancel the show I was going to see on the Friday instead); but I was glad of the break, as I was still going back to town that evening for a late night cabaret at the Hippodrome, seeing my friend Scott Alan conclude his 9 night residency there.
I saw five of those nine nights — including of course my big birthday bash! — and while no two shows of Scott’s are ever the same as it is, he really mixed it up this time with different featured guess every night, and unannounced extra guests, too. This week I was blown away by Rachelle Ann Go on Monday and Lucie Jones on Thursday in the featured spots; but it was great also seeing them sharing the stage with appearances by Britain’s Got Talent winners Collabro (who won the 2014 series), the always divine Ollie Tompsett (pictured left with Scott, returning as a surprise guest after being a featured guest last week), and the lovely Georgina Hagen (who threw off her shoes to duet with Lucie Jones, and then when she tried to retrieve them from underneath the piano before a solo turn gave herself an instant black eye as she bumped into it). Scott’s concerts routinely run a fine line between wrenching heartache and pure joy; that night, for Georgina, it became dangerous, too!
Callabro’s Michael Auger has also been turning producer this week, presenting a short run of the Pasek and Paul revue Edges at Fulham’s London Theatre Workshop (where it opened on Wednesday and runs to October 1), with one more performance at Covent Garden’s St Paul’s Actors Church on October 3. As a show of support, Scott and I ventured out to Fulham on Saturday afternoon to see it, and what a lovely surprise it turned out to be.
I’m a big fan of Pasek and Paul’s work— they also wrote Dogfight, which I saw (multiple times) at Southwark Playhouse last year and is returning for a one-night reunion concert of the original cast at the St James on October 11, and last month I saw their brilliant latest show Dear Evan Hansen at Washington DC’s ArenaStage, before it gets its New York premiere next year at Second Stage. Edges is not a book musical, but their version of Maltby and Shire’s Starting Here Starting Now or Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World: a show that pulls together songs written for different projects into one place. A terrific cast of young actors comprising Lauren Allan, Christ Barton, Claudia Kariuki and Robert Woodward perform it with punch and point.