Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily.
In two hot days of theatregoing in London this week, I caught four shows — two of which I’d seen before and was returning for a second helping of. And — in a rare bonanza — I had a great time at all four.
But best of all, I was cool — enough — on each occasion. My memory of past summers is that many London theatres were simply unbearable in the heat. I may have been lucky, but the four venues I attended were all fine on the heating and air-circulation front. The Garrick, where I began my travels on a hot Wednesday afternoon, may only have air-cooling, instead of air-conditioning, but I felt a regular cooling breeze, even as The Drifters were heating up things onstage in THE DRIFTERS’ GIRL. Likewise at the Barbican that evening, the simply sublime ANYTHING GOES offered its own supply of seabreeze and frequent burst of effervescence.
Yesterday afternoon a packed Almeida was entirely gripped by Peter Morgan’s PATRIOTS — though an unmasked elderly woman sitting two seats alongside me who was coughing menacingly throughout the first act caused me to double up on the single mask that I was already wearing, then moving to an empty seat I’d spotted a few rows in front of me for the second act (though I’m sure if she was releasing COVID into the air, it would have still reached me). And then last night, the National’s Olivier Theatre might have proved a COVID risk from all the laughter ricocheting around the auditorium, but at least the theatre has a huge volume of air in it and it is kept well circulated.
THE DRIFTERS’ GIRL (Garrick Theatre)
I recently revisited GET UP STAND UP!, the Bob Marley musical at the Lyric, specifically to see standby David Albury playing Marley, as I reported here. That was a personal visit, undertaken at the invitation of David’s father Simon, who is a friend — and I had the best time. Revisiting THE DRIFTERS’ GIRL was, by contrast, at the invitation of the management, in order to see Felicia Boswell who has recently replaced Beverely Knight in the title role of Faye Treadwell, the long-time manager of The Drifters.
Boswell has been trumpeted as a “Broadway star”; though I’m a regular visitor there, I have to admit i’d never actually heard of her before. Though she had a named role in SHUFFLE ALONG that I did see, I didn’t register her amongst a cast that also included Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter, as well as Joshua Henry and Adrienne Warren (who’d both go on to make major marks on Broadway subsequently). But no, I hadn’t just missed her — I looked her up on imdb.com, the invaluable permanent record of all Broadway credits (if only the West End had a similar resource), and it turns out that her four named roles were all cut during previews.
But her take-over here is a casting coup — it is no mean feat to replace a bona fide musical star like Beverley Knight (who opens the week after next in SISTER ACT), and to make it her own. Interestingly, though, the production is now choosing to elevate the four men playing different iterations of The Drifters line-up — Adam J Bernard, Tarin Callender, Matt Henry and Tosh Wanogho -Maud, who are also credited for co-creating the show with Knight and have remained with the show now — in publicity, and even the image on the programme cover. They remain absolutely sensational, and Jonathan Church’s slick production, sleekly designed by Anthony Ward and beautifully lit by Ben Cracknell — is a gorgeous wallow in classic pop.
ANYTHING GOES (Barbican Theatre)
The (very belated) arrival last summer of a 2011 Broadway revival of ANYTHING GOES, with its Broadway star Sutton Foster reprising her Tony Award performance as Reno Sweeney, was just the post-COVID tonic London needed; she subsequently returned home to join Hugh Jackman in the current revival there of another classic, THE MUSIC MAN (though both she and Jackman have succumbed to COVID during the run).
Another Broadway performer Rachel York subsequently took over from Foster for the last weeks of its run last year, and I returned to see her smash it as well. The show’s return to the Barbican this summer, as part of a national tour both before and after it, now sees British star Kerry Ellis (pictured below at the curtain call) stepping into Reno’s tap shoes and slinky gowns with effortless ease. In the process, she moves to the very front rank of British musical theatre performers who can do it all: sing, dance and act up a comedic storm with glamour, grit and wit.
Returning leads Samuel Edwards, NIcole-Lily Baisden, Haydn Oakley and especially Carly Mercedes Dyer are as breezy, charming, delightful and hilarious respectively as before, anchoring the production in old-fashioned musical theatre star quality, while newcomer to the show Bonnie Langford — who would once have made a wonderful Reno Sweeney, and in fact could probably still pull it off — has moved into the dowager comedy role played last year by Felicity Kendal with supreme style.
Hopefully the favourable reviews will lead to a busier time at the box office; the seating charts for the Barbican are worryingly undersold However, when I spoke to lead producer Howard Panter of Trafalgar Entertainment as I waited for my cab outside the Barbican on Wednesday evening, he told me that tickets were selling much later than ever before, right up to the wire. I guess people don’t like to make plans when COVID might disrupt them, either for themselves or the production. When I also told Howard that COVID had led me to relocate home to the countryside, he looked concerned: “We need audiences to return to London!”, he declared. I’m glad he’s keeping up the fight for it.
PATRIOTS (Almeida Theatre)
I missed Tuesday’s press night of Peter Morgan’s Patriots at the Almeida, attending yesterday’s matinee instead; by then, I had the benefit (?) of having seen the widely divergent reviews, which saw Fiona Mountford in a four-star review for the Daily Telegraph predicting that “the West End, and indeed Broadway, should surely ready themselves for a benign Russian invasion”, while Clive Davis in a two-star review for The TImes dismissed it as a “scrappy pageant, which tells us nothing about his regime that we didn’t already know”.
As always, you pay your money and you take your chances; I found it completely gripping. This play about Boris Berezovsky, a Russian oligarch kingmaker who “made” Putin — but was then ruthlessly discarded when he dared to cross him, and found himself in exile in London instead, longing — like Chekhov’s Three Sisters — to return to his beloved Moscow has a superb Tom Hollander in the role, with Will Keen as a chillingly plausible Putin. Keen is one of British theatre’s unsung great actors; I’ve never seen him less than brilliant. And director Rupert Goold — who is also the Almeida’s brilliant artistic director — is one of our very best directors. There are a few of his showy gestures, but mostly he exerts a forensic hold on the complex narrative.
JACK ABSOLUTE FLIES AGAIN (National’s Olivier Theatre)
Finally, last night I attended a first night at the National Theatre for the first time in ages, and was delighted to have done so to see JACK ABSOLUTE FLIES AGAIN take flight. This re-write of Sheridan’s The Rivals — relocated to wartime West Sussex in 1940, and populated with lots of references to an area I now live in, including Arundel and Fontwell — by Richard Bean and Olivier Chris proves to be an always amiable, and frequently hilarious, comic delight, driven by energised performances all around, with stand-outs from wildly funny Peter Forbes and Caroline Quentin.
Again, the critics are seriously divided, with curmudgeonly Arifa Akbar in a two-star notice for The Guardian comparing it to its source material, and declaring: “Sheridan’s razor sharp lines and social class critiques become mostly toothless in this transposition. The humour is, for the main, as over-familiar as the green pastures and rolling hills of the nicely compact set designed by Mark Thompson – we see the predictable punch-lines coming round the corner.”
In a four-star review for The Times, however, Clive Davis declares that “the National has a summer hit on its hands.” I agree — and though the show may not be to everyone’s comic taste, I had a ball.
SEE YOU ON MONDAY
I’ll be back here on Monday. If you can’t wait that long, I may also be found on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/ (though not as regularly on weekends