Critics are in a mad rush all over town at the moment to keep up with the flood of openings. Just the other night Michael Billington was telling me that he’s got a straight run of 10 openings to cover, pharm night after night.
Henry Hitchings told me just yesterday that he’s got 20 consecutive theatre trips in his diary (he usually does three or four a week).
As I’m no longer constrained by the strictures of a weekly Sunday column that requires me to be ‘current’ with my theatregoing, link and I share lead critic duties on The Stage with my colleague Natasha Tripney, I can juggle my diary a bit more flexibly. So although there’s absolutely no let up in my own theatregoing, either, I actually managed two nights ‘off’ this week — though that didn’t mean staying at home.
On one of them I hosted a live public interview with Elaine Paige at the Hospital Club, to benefit Mountview’s 70th birthday (she didn’t actually go there, but is an artistic associate of the school); on another, I travelled to Peterborough Cathedral to hear Howard Goodall conduct his own glorious oratorio ‘Every Purpose Under the Heaven’ with a large youth orchestra and choir, joined by professional soloists.
The eclectic Goodall (left), of course, has a big musical about to open in the West End — a stage version of Bend it Like Beckham, which begins performances at the Phoenix Theatre on Friday week (May 15), which he tells me he is still busily orchestrating, and I have to say I am looking forward to no musical more this year. Over 30 years ago now, I saw his first musical The Hired Man while I was still at Cambridge when it premiered at the Astoria (now a hole in the ground at Tottenham Court Road) in 1984, and made the trip down several times to see it again there. It shook me to the core: a hauntingly beautiful and evocative score, with an English choral sound that we simply do not get in musical theatre, that remains to this day for me the greatest British musical of these last 30 years.
Goodall has become a major force in the years since, as classical composer (you can’t listen to Classic FM, where he has also been composer-in-residence and presenter of an erudite weekly show of film music that he recently gave up, without hearing his music being played!), composer of TV themes (including Mr Bean and Vicar of Dibley), TV presenter and educator. He’s also written several more musicals, a couple more of which have landed in the West End, but Girlfriends was a notorious flop in 1987 after transferring from Oldham’s Coliseum where it had premiered the year before, and Love Story didn’t get its due when it transferred from Chichester to the Duchess in 2010. (Both of those shows were stunningly revived at the Union Theatre in a dedicated Goodall season last year).
He’s had better success as a composer of musicals commissioned by the National Youth Music Theatre, who have staged the premieres of his gorgeous scores for The Kissing Dance in 1998 and The Dreaming in 2001 (the latter was also seen int he Union season), while Sage Gateshead commissioned his musical version of Shakespeare’s Winer’s Tale in 2005.
In a world where Kinky Boots wins Tony Awards (over the far superior Matilda), or Sunny Afternoon (a compilation musical based on old Kinks songs) wins the Olivier for Outstanding Achievement in Music for composer Ray Davies for simply having written those songs three or four decades ago (over more original contributions to entirely new musicals like Here Lies Love and Memphis, even if the latter has a tendency to sound recycled), I hope that Goodall’s own deeply original voice is finally going to be acknowledged with Bend it Like Beckham, his most conspicuously commercial project to date, and not just by me! Listening to the ravishing, haunting beauty of his oratorio celebration of the King James Bible on Friday, I was frequently in tears at the sheer feeling of the soaring music: the true ecstasy of art.
There was also musical theatre ecstasy, in parts, to the one-day, all-star concert staging of Sondheim and Goldman’s 1971 musical Follies at the Royal Albert Hall this week, which I reviewed here for The Stage.
The Albert Hall is hardly the most appropriate venue for its story of crumbling marriages set in a theatre that is itself crumbling and about to be demolished to make way for a car park; I’d love to see at somewhere like Wilton’s Music Hall. ??The last Broadway revival of Follies in 2011 played, somewhat ironically, at the giant Marquis Theatre, buried within the Times Square hotel of the same name, that had itself been built at the cost of five venerable Broadway houses, the Gaiety, Astor, Helen Hayes, Morosco, and Bijou theatres.
It was seeing a photograph (left) of Gloria Swanson standing in the ruins of a once-famous New York cinema the Roxy (which seated nearly 6,000 people and stood on West 50th Street) that inspired Sondheim and Goldman to write their piece, so it was doubly poignant and added another ironic layer that Broadway was bringing it back to a theatre that had risen out of the ashes of New York’s shameful way of erasing its past.
Another 70s musical Bugsy Malone — originally written for the cinema — was also gloriously reclaimed this week (my review for The Stage is here) to formally re-open the Lyric Hammersmith after its £20m refurbishment scheme. Interestingly, the Lyric is another theatre that was demolished — but before they did, they saved all the plasterwork, and reinstated it within a brand-new building, so you have the peculiar sensation of finding a classical old auditorium sitting incongruously in the elevated middle of an office block like building.
Yet another 2001 British musical Closer to Heaven was also brought back to the stage, too, this week, at the ever-resourceful, ever-industrious Union Theatre. But the show — with a (mostly) original score by the Pet Shop Boys and a book by Jonathan Harvey — was a mess back in 2001 when it premiered at the Arts Theatre, and it still is now. It’s patchwork book about an aspiring bisexual boy band performer and club culture is all over the place; as Matt Trueman put it in his review for Whatsonstage, “the plot’s stringier than the dancing boys’ vests.” But the Pet Shop Boys score is fun, and the show is is given an intentionally trashy, colourful production by Gene David Kirk, oozing with sex in Philip Joel’s pulsing dance.
The next week will also bring an even more notorious flop musical Carrie back for the first time since it crashed and burned on Broadway back in 1988. closing after just five performances, after transferring from Stratford-upon-Avon where the RSC premiered it the year before. The creators were so stung by the experience that they withdrew performance rights thereafter, and it remained a virtually unseen curiosity until an off-Broadway company revived it in 2012. Now London is finally getting a chance to see what all the fuss is about when it opens at Southwark Playhouse in Wednesday.
I’ve already snuck in to take a peek, by permission of the producer, but will hold my council until it opens officially on Wednesday! But on Thursday I will be back to host a post-performance talk with the director and some of the cast, and we’re going to be joined by the original stage Carrie Linzi Hateley (below) and Sally Ann Triplett, both of whom made their Broadway debuts in it. Triplett has since been back just last year to star in Sting’s The Last Ship, which played at the Neil Simon Theatre literally opposite the Virginia (now the August Wilson) where Carrie played.
I’ve also been in early — by invitation — to the return of The Audience to the West End (which opens officially on Tuesday). While Helen Mirren is now reprising her Evening Standard Award winning performance as the Queen on Broadway (and has just been nominated this week for a Tony Award for her efforts), she’s been succeeded by Kristin Scott Thomas here. The show is at a new home, too — the Apollo, across the road from the Gielgud where it originally played. Meanwhile the Gielgud has, of course, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time — which originally played at the Apollo (until par to the ceiling notoriously came down mid-performance in December 2013).
My guest for The Audience, Smooth FM Drivetime presenter Anthony Davis, actually turned up at the wrong theatre and was waiting for me inside the Gielgud — completely oblivious to the front-of-house signage for Curious Incident! It reminds me of a night I attended a Jason Robert Brown concert at the Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, and a series of befuddled tourists approached the front-of-house manager in the interval: they thought they were seeing Thriller Live!, which plays every other night there…
Also this week, I caught up with Alan Ayckbourn’s rarely revived, but utterly hilarious and surprisingly moving Way Upstream, splendidly revived at Chichester Festival Theatre (my review for The Stage is here).
Meanwhile in the coming week, I’m taking two nights ‘off’ to see my friend Scott Alan hosting concerts of his own work at the St James Studio, joined by star-in-the-making Cynthia Erivo (who later this year goes to Broadway to reprise her performance in The Color Purple that she originally gave at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory). I’m also looking forward to another trip to the St James Studio next Sunday to see Jamie Parker — so good recently in Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory, and a UK Theatre Award winner for his Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls at Chichester — do his solo cabaret.
I’m also seeing The Vote at the Donmar Warehouse on Wednesday, ahead of its live telecast on Thursday, and Two Gentlemen of Verona at ArtsEd, where I also teach regularly, on Tuesday afternoon, directed by no less than local resident Trevor Nunn who is completing his Shakespearean canon by directing the play for the first time. All that, and The Pirates of Penzance, too, opening at the London Coliseum next Saturday with Mike Leigh — who of course made the wonderful bio-film about G&S Topsy-Turvy — directing English National Opera’s new production.
See you in the stalls — or here, on Twitter and in The Stage.
I feel like I’ve been at the St James Theatre and Studio all week — I went to three consecutive nights of Scott Alan performing his own work from last Sunday to Tuesday (joined by a host of guests in his first night in the main house, store then just Cynthia Erivo and one more guest a night on each of the other more intimate gigs in the downstairs Studio), help then also saw Paul Baker on Friday and tonight I’m seeing Jamie Parker. All that, and Alison Jiear on Britain’s Got Talent, last night too — what a week it has been for cabaret.
All of them (except Ali, of course, on BGT) were presented under the umbrella auspices of the London Festival of Cabaret: more a brochure than a festival, really, linking disparate cabaret events across different venues, a bit like the Assembly/Underbelly/Pleasance brochure groups together a vast number of different shows into the same publication at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Seeing Scott quite so much was partly an act of friendship, but hardly an act of penance, either. Not that his shows are exactly easy going, for him or us: they’re hugely emotional events, since his songs speak so personally of his private griefs and struggles (particularly with depression, something I share with him and indeed it was a conversation that he and I once had over coffee in a New York bakery that led directly to “I’m in pain”, one of the songs he performed on Tuesday and dedicated to me).
But as with all great art, there’s something unique and thrilling in hearing one man’s trailblazing honesty that speaks to others very directly, too. On every night I saw him, you could cut the attentive silence with a knife, only disrupted by the sounds of stifled sobs. Scott, too, is often in tears as he tells us of his losses, particularly of his late lover Kyle. But there’s something naturally cathartic to the reaching out he does to those of us still living — and urging us to continue doing so, however bleak it sometimes feels.
He also has an incredible generosity, both professional and personal: on Sunday, he drew well-known names from the West End (Anna-Jane Casey, Miss Saigon’s Eva Noblezada, Oliver Thompsett, Sophie Evans, Carley Stenson etc) and even the X-Factor (last year’s winner Sam Bailey) to sing his songs, but also threw in a total unknown, until then: just two nights earlier, he’d been surfing youtube for those who had recently sung his songs there, and chanced upon a young Irish troubadour Niall O’Halloran (pictured left; his youtube rendition of ‘Again’ is here). He sent him a message — and by the next morning, O’Halloran replied and booked a flight for the next day to come to London!
Though there are times when Scott threatens to be the Ken Dodd of cabaret — his first night ran for nearly four hours, the second for nearly three — it’s never too much of a good thing. We’re in this thing called life together, and being at a Scott Alan concert we are in it together, too — and we don’t want either to end. Which is the exact opposite of how you feel when you’re devastatingly depressed.
Alison Jiear wasn’t on the Scott Alan bill this time — though she has in the past, and has recorded one of his most beautiful and haunting songs ‘Goodnight’ on her gorgeous solo album In Your Eyes (recorded live at Pizza on the Park back in 2009). Last night the world got to see what some of us have known for years — in my case, nearly thirty years — that Ali is one of the great voices in musical theatre, period, when she appeared, on the eve of her 50th birthday, as contestant on Britain’s Got Talent.
She left a message for me a few days ago to tip me off that she was going to be on it and when I called her back she told me that it was just as well I wasn’t on FaceTime with her: she was in the middle of a bikini waxing! That’s my Ali — one of the funniest people I know! But she’s also one of our greatest cabaret performers, too. Last year I saw her at the St James Studio — funnily enough, with Scott Alan this time as her guest, not the other way around — and she was also joined by our mutual friend Johnny Barr; and they knew I was in a depression at the time. Ali and Johnny duly sang ‘That’s What Friends are For’ — and dedicated it to me. It was one of the most moving cabaret experiences of my life.
And last night on BGT, she delivered a roaring performance of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ which is exactly the message of Scott Alan’s work, too: we may feel alone sometimes in our darkest moments, but there’s always, ALWAYS, light at the end of the tunnel. And last night Ali herself lit up the sometimes ridiculous talent show parade that included a dog with a talent for popping balloons. Yes, really!
The best cabaret, on the other hand, is an artform that requires performers to pop only their vanity and expose their vulnerability. There’s nowhere to hide on the cabaret stage — and on Friday, Paul Baker – another West End veteran of shows from Starlight Express (he was Rusty for three years) to Taboo (he won an Olivier Award for the original production), didn’t hide, either, again at the St James Studio (now simply the best cabaret room in London). The impish, personable Paul offered a musically rich, diverse set, from Boy George to Sting, Anthony Newley to gems from rare musicals like Lucky Stiff and The Far Pavilions.
My week also involved interviews with two more people who are Broadway and West End royalty respectively, and whom I have both seen more than once in great cabarets, too. Chita Rivera, now 82, is appearing on Broadway in The Visit — and giving one of the greatest performances of her amazing career. We caught up by FaceTime the other day. The same day I also met Maria Friedman at the Old Vic, where she is currently following up her directorial debut of Merrily We Roll Along that transferred from the Menier to the West End’s Pinter Theatre two years ago with a new production of High Society, that opens this coming Thursday. Both interviews will run in The Stage in due course.
In the midst of all this cabaret and interviews, I’ve “only” seen six real shows this week, but I’ve also been to two more run-throughs of shows ahead of their opening. So this has been a particularly busy week: I think my score card since Monday is four cabarets, six shows, and two run-throughs; I’ve also done three interviews (a phoner, a Facetime and a face-to-face), and one more public post-show Q&A.
The latter was at Carrie, after I re-visited the current production at Southwark Playhouse on Thursday that I’d already reviewed for The Stage here; after the show, I was joined onstage by director Gary Lloyd and producer Paul Taylor-Mills, as well as the stars of the original ill-fated 1988 RSC production of Carrie and its current incarnation: Linzi Hateley, who originated the title role, and her successor Evelyn Hoskins; Sally Ann Triplett, who originated the role of Sue; and Kim Criswell, who is now playing the role of Mrs White, originally played in turn by Barbara Cook (at Stratford-upon-Avon) and Betty Buckley (on Broadway).
Hateley, who was just 17 at the time, was particularly poignant and revealing of the overwhelming experience of being catapulted to the front ranks of a troubled musical straight out of Italia Conti; while Sally Ann Triplett, who returned to Broadway just last year in The Last Ship, pointed out a number of crazy coincidences of her own: she was 26 when she did Carrie, and her return was 26 years later, which makes her 52 now — the street on which stood both theatres that Carrie and The Last Ship played at directly across from each other. And in The Last Ship Sally was playing a character called Peggy White – the same surname as Carrie!
I was also personally thrilled to see no fewer than four of the students I taught in my first year teaching at ArtsEd making their professional debuts in Carrie: Gabriella Williams, Patrick Sullivan, Emily McGougan and Bobbie Little. It’s wonderful to see them all starting out in the world towards their goals; Gabriella has also already got her second job lined up, when she joins the cast of Mamma Mia! as Sophie from June 8!
I was also at ArtsEd itself, besides my teaching afternoon on Thursday to the first year acting students, two days earlier to catch the matinee of the 3rd year Acting course production of Two Gentlemen of Verona — directed by none other than Trevor Nunn! What a serious coup for ArtsEd to have one of the world’s great theatre directors come to work with them! It’s the only Shakespeare play he hadn’t directed yet, so it was the completing of a cycle for him. But it also felt like a liberating return to form for him, too: working with young actors released a new youthful energy in him. The production was fleet of foot (it clocked in at only two and a half hours, not the 3 hour plus that Nunn’s work typically does), but also youthfully contemporary, too.
And talking of youthful: I also belatedly caught the Young Vic’s current revival of Eugene O’Neill’s rarely seen early work Ah, Wilderness! — and a comedy, too! I went a bit out of morbid interest: my colleague Michael Coveney had given it a one-star pan in his Whatsonstage review, in which he gave us some historical context to declare how bad it is:
There’s a history to this ground-breaking play, O’Neill’s first on Broadway: the legendary George M Cohan played Nat, Lionel Barrymore and Mickey Rooney were in the movie, and it holds a continuing and crucial place in the American repertoire. The Young Vic turns it into a wannabe “European”-style reading that is frankly embarrassing.
Well, I had to find out for myself. And I was thrilled to find a really warm hearted, lovely and loving play, given a true sandy glow here.
Finally, there was no glow to the shock election result when I woke up on Friday morning. But if politics has been the elephant in the room all week, the Donmar made its own surprisingly light-hearted contribution to the election fever by staging a novelty item The Vote, both for stage and then TV in a live broadcast on More4 at exactly the time the play itself is set, namely the last 90 minutes before polls close at a polling station. I reviewed the live theatre experience for The Stage here while my colleague Natasha Tripney reviewed the television one here.
The coming week promises another week of addictive theatregoing — I’m going to first nights for Hay Fever (transferred from Bath to the Duke of York’s), Alan Ayckbourn’s Communicating Doors (revived at the Menier) and High Society (at the Old Vic), the 10th anniversary performance of Billy Elliot on Tuesday at the Victoria Palace, and playing catch-up on seeing Everyman at the National, Carmen Disruption at the Almeida and Clarion at the Arcola. Another busy week, as I say!(But then I’m off to South Africa for two weeks…. where I hope to find no theatre at all, even though that is where I first discovered theatre for myself as a teenager growing up in Johannesburg).