- Jenna Russell, Anna-Jane Casey, Julie Atherton, Sooz Kempner/Richard Thomas — Live in London season at Hippodrome London, https://www.fw-live.com
- The Comeback, Wyndham’s Theatre, https://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk/tickets/the-comeback/
- West End Does Christmas 2020, Cadogan Hall, https://www.westenddoes.com/what-s-on.
Last Friday I posted a review column of the first slate of four shows I’d seen last week; by last night, I’d increased my tally for the week to ten shows in that single week. I’ve freely admitted to being a fully-fledged theatre addict — and in fact in my Friday column, I anticipated a weekend in which I’d see five more shows (two each on Friday and Saturdays and another on Sunday).
But by Friday night, circumstances changed when the press agent for The Comeback, that I was due to see this Wednesday, e-mailed in the late afternoon to say that — owing to uncertainty around whether or not London would move into Tier 3 this week — the producers had decided to lift the original embargo on reviews, and invited us instead to attend any performances over the weekend. (It was a wise call; this afternoon it was announced that theatres would have to shut again after tomorrow evening’s performances). So I added the Saturday matinee of The Comeback to my weekend theatre going to make a total of six shows I was now seeing.
It is, of course, a nice problem to have: after months of theatrical drought, to suddenly find myself with such a packed diary. But every single one of the other shows I was seeing that weekend were ones I’d bought a ticket to attend: they were each one-offs, and I wanted to support their producers as much as I could.
Four of them were at the London Hippodrome, where its theatre cabaret space is located on what used to be the stage of the former theatre of that name, while the former stalls is now the main casino floor and the dress circle is part restaurant, part bars, and private gambling areas. The theatre space is now called the Magic Mike Theatre (pictured above), with its own separate entrance on Cranbourn Street, specially adapted for the tame male burlesque strip franchise of the same name that I’ve previously reviewed here (for londontheatre.co.uk) in which I noted, “There’s lots of rippling, washboard stomached male flesh on display to be sure (though no actual nudity, unless you count a bum). There’s a notable absence of body hair on any of the men – the most that one could master was a happy trail from his belly button to his waist – and a generic quality to their look. Though one or two may sport long manes of hair (and a tattoo or two), there’s mostly a wholesome, squeaky-clean quality to them all. You can literally smell the soap.”
Actually, when the Hippodrome was first relaunched as a casino in 2012, the express purpose of the room that Magic Mike now occupies was as a showcase for cabaret, acknowledging the venue’s storied past as the one-time home of the Talk of the Town, where it famously hosted seasons from the likes of Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Tom Jones and The Carpenters, as well as being the venue where Ethel Merman made her only British appearance in a season of cabaret.
The stage space that was created as a new venue in 2012 was called The Matcham Room, and quickly became my favourite cabaret haunt in town. Amongst highlights during these years I saw the incredible Broadway composer Adam Guettel (grandson of Richard Rodgers) performing a concert of his own work and my friend Scott Alan hosting a residency showcasing his own work (and one of the nights coincided with a birthday of mine, so he announced the evening as a tribute to me….. which scared me, as I honestly didn’t expect anyone to buy tickets, but a parade of guests that included Cynthia Erivo and John Partridge appeared live, while video appearances were made by my theatre friends like Philip Quast, Michael Ball and Jenna Russell) to make a really special night.
So it was hugely welcome to return to this space over the weekend during the current hiatus of the Magic Mike show, where producer Darren Bell had programmed a season of 40 cabaret performances for November and December. When the lockdown kicked in, he lost some of the scheduled dates, but was still able to proceed from December 3, meaning there are 25 shows in all. I crammed in four on Friday and Saturday night alone. And it was a hugely welcome reminder of just why London can be such a great place to live, as well as an even more welcome back for some performers who’ve not been on a stage for months and months.
In the case of the aforementioned Jenna Russell (pictured above), she was in fact also making her cabaret debut: she’d never put together a programme like it before, in some 35 years in the business. She announced at the start that she intended it to be a warm hug to the audience — the kind we’re currently prohibited from doing in actuality — and that’s exactly what it was: a generous outpouring of genuine love for her craft from a performer who is as beautiful inside as she is out.
She should, of course, have been in the fourth month of a run playing Irene Molloy opposite Imelda Staunton’s Dolly Levi in a revival of Hello, Dolly! at the Adelphi, but that production has been postponed first by the pandemic, and then by the fact that Staunton is now signed to play Queen Elizabeth II in the next series of The Crown, so it will now arrive in 2022. Russell, saying she was already ten years too old for the role, is now worried what this will mean for when she finally gets to do it. (I’d say, don’t fret: she still seems as young and radiant as when I first saw her in the premiere of Howard Goodall’s musical Girlfriends in Oldham in 1986, and then its subsequent short-lived transfer to the West End’s Playhouse a year later; she would subsequently gain her biggest unacknowledged break when she sang Goodall’s theme tune to the series Red Dwarf).
Over the years since, I’ve seen her progress from juve lead (taking over as Young Sally in the West End’s premiere production of Follies in 1988) to leading lady (most recently the UK premieres of Jason Robert Brown’s The Bridges of Madison County, last summer at the Menier Chocolate Factory, and the summer before that in Fun Home at the Young Vic, which shamefully didn’t transfer as expected to the West End), via a glorious Dot in the Menier’s transfer of Sunday in the Park of George first to the West End and then on to Broadway (where she was Tony nominated). I’ve seen and adored her in every one of these shows; I loved how when she appeared by video for my birthday at Scott Alan’s event for me, she spoke about how performers need champions — and I had been that for her. It’s something I’m very proud of.
And even though the audience was fully masked on Saturday, she spied me straight away when she took to the stage, saying to the audience, “There’s Mark Shenton!” I beamed with pride, again — though no one could see my beaming smile. It was a lovely, warm, generous performance from a lovely, warm, generous performer.
Jenna was followed on Saturday night by a concert appearance by Anna-Jane Casey (pictured above), a performer who has become one of the public face’s the pandemic’s cruel effect on actors, as she and her actor husband Graham Macduff have had to take jobs as delivery drivers to support themselves and their two daughters. AJ — as this veteran of 12 West End musicals is universally known — had actually originated the role of Dot in that Menier production of Sunday in the Park with George, but had to surrender the role for the West End when she fell pregnant with her first daughter; I remember talking to Jenna about this when she was playing the role in New York, and she told me she that she would have exchanged that opportunity for AJ’s one to have a child. But happily, Jenna, too, fell pregnant (also with a daughter) during that Broadway run, as her partner came over to spend a few months with her in New York!
AJ eschewed a theatrical repertoire for her concert, preferring to showcase contemporary material rom the Alicia Keys hit Girl on Fire to the Aretha Franklin classic Nobody like You, those titles sum her up: there’s nobody like her — and she’s definitely a girl on fire.
Also on fire the night before was Julie Atherton, a queen of promoting new voices in musical theatre over the years, who has also lately been forging a productive career as a director of musicals at Mountview, the drama school where she trained. She’s the real, authentic deal: I’ve long adored her quirky, hilarious personality. She’s a performer in the long tradition of belting Broadway clowns from Carol Burnett and Madeleine Kahn to Faith Prince and Kristin Chenoweth. She stands comparison, but also has an appealing vulnerability, and a great voice too.
Also on Friday, I saw another comic marvel — Sooz Kempner, accompanied by composer Richard Thomas, in a programme of all-new satirical songs by him, entitled Wrong Songs for Christmas. This turned out to be a scintillatingly dark comedy hour, embracing death, drugs, mental health, love and politics — plus great impressions of Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Bernadette Peters and more. Kempner is a brand-new performer to me, whereas I’ve known Richard for more than 35 years — we were at University together in the first half of the 80s, though he still looks (almost) like a teenager. He claims that I gave him his first negative review in a Cambridge student newspaper when he was part of a musical comedy duo called Miles and Millner. I’ve happily given him much better reviews in the years since, not least for his genius satirical musical Jerry Springer — the Opera, which famously and brilliantly deployed a form of high culture (opera) to satirise a form of low culture (reality TV shows).
Cambridge University is also where, in the (many) years that followed us, two more comedy duos now taking on the West End first joined forces: Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss first wrote the cult show Six in their final year at Cambridge in 2016-17, which has since become a cult hit at the West End’s Arts Theatre and last week resumed its run at the Lyric on Shaftesbury Avenue, which is now being shut down again by the Tier 3 restrictions; its planned Broadway opening night was literally scuppered hours before the curtain was due to go up in March, when the theatres were closed and are yet to re-open.
I am yet to see this newly polished version of Six, introducing changes that were made for that Broadway run; but I did catch The Comeback (featured image at top of the page), written and performed by Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen, who call themselves The Pin, and are former members of the Cambridge Footlights who first presented a version of this show on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2018.
I must admit that I found it betrayed its undergraduate origins in its scrappy eagerness-to-please, puppyish sense of innocence and inventiveness. The Comeback is a meta-theatrical double act comedy show about not one comedy double act but two — a younger aspiring pair of comics called “Alex” and “Ben”, who are performing as the warm-up act for a once-prime time television duo called Syd and Jim (also played by themselves). If it inevitably recalled another West End hit about another real-life comedy duo, The Right Size’s The Play What I Wrote (a tribute to Morecambe and Wise, presented at Wyndham’s around the corner from the Coward back in 2001), its got its own distinctive slapstick pleasures of finely-tuned physical comedy, plus (again reminding me of The Play What I Wrote), a nightly celebrity appearance in a supporting role. At the Saturday matinee, this was Danny Dyer; other guests during previews have included Ian McKellen and Joanna Lumley.
Finally, with Christmas now on the imminent horizon, I caught , an amiable live concert of Christmas favourites last night at Cadogan Hall, featuring a cast of West End faves Rachel John, Killian Donnelly, Louise Dearman and Oliver Tompsett (pictured left to right above), in a programme of seasonal favourites.
The concert will be available for streaming on Dec 19/20 — with a bonus appearance by Rob Houchen! So I may just have to watch it again. To book, visit https://www.westenddoes.com/what-s-on.