May 18: I’m a fan first — then a critic

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Returning to the theatre last night for the first time in over five months, I’m reminded that I’m a theatre fan before I’m a critic.

Theatre returned, partially, last night. Baz Bamigboye checked into the St Martin’s to see The Mousetrap, which is now in its 69th year (though it missed its 68th). And I popped into the Turbine Theatre in Battersea, to see the (partial) British premiere of Far From Heaven, the 2013 Off-Broadway musical version of the 2002 film about a woman in 1957 coming to realise that her husband is gay.

I’d actually seen the whole show in its New York premiere in 2013 at Playwrights Horizon’s that starred the wonderful Steven Pasquale as the husband and the absolutely miraculous Kelli O’Hara as his previously unaware wife (she was number three in my ShenTens of my favourite current Broadway leading ladies, after Audra McDonald and Patti LuPone).

They would reunite on Broadway less than a year when he played a photographer who visits the town where O’Hara’s character lives with her husband and children, and they have a brief passionate affair while the rest of her family is away, in Jason Robert Brown’s musical adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County. That’s a show that we have seen here, at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2019, when Trevor Nunn directs one of my favourite UK leading ladies Jenna Russell (she was number three in my ShenTens, after Imelda Staunton and Sharon D Clark) and Edward Baker-Duly.

The memories of all of these live performances were swirling around inside me as I took my (socially bubbled) seat at the Turbine — protected from my nearest neighbour by a plastic divider screen between us. And that’s the first thing about being back in a theatre (as opposed to in from of our computer monitor watching a show on zoom); it stirs memories and emotions of previous visits to theatres, including of course THIS one that you’re in tonight.

I’ve not been nearly enough to the Turbine, which is understandable given that it has not actually been here that long. It is located within a railway arch, like the Union in Southwark where artistic director Paul Taylor-Mills’s producing career began — and where he was spotted as a result by Andrew Lloyd Webber when he revived the Lord’s 2000 musical Beautiful Game, and eventually put in charge of programming the Other Palace as a home of new musicals for a time, and where he originated an first incarnation of the MTFest in 2019 and that he’s now revived at the Turbine.

In the space of 12 days that began yesterday (and will continue to May 29), there will be presentations of eight new musicals in all, testing them in bare-bone readings in front of a public, paying audience for the first time. That sets it apart from usual musical theatre readings, which are usually offered to closed, invited audiences only; this allows the public a window into the process of developing and showcasing new work, and to let them see, close up, some of the serious talent that lends itself to help getting the shows on their feet.

Last night, for example, I was seriously thrilled to see the return ‘home’ of Scarlett Strallen, long one of the very best theatrical sopranos Britain has ever produced, who has been mostly living Stateside (though occasionally returning here for shows like Candide and She Loves Me at the Menier) after being lured to Broadway as a replacement on Mary Poppins in 2008, and subsequently taking over a leading role in the Tony-winning musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder in 2015, for which its lead Bryce Pinkham had been nominated for a 2014 Tony for best performance by an actor in a leading role in a musical.

And last night she appeared alongside Pinkham, making his British stage debut as he played her husband in the show — and he is, indeed, now her actual husband. While the pandemic has put a n inevitable pause on the careers of all theatre actors, Strallen and Pinkham have used the time constructively to expand their family, and they now have two kids (who were being looked after by their grandmother last night).

It was wonderful to reconnect with Strallen, and to meet Pinkham for the first time, outside the theatre after the show, who I’ve known for many years (and admired for even longer). I first met her when I interviewed her at the Prince Edward Theatre when she first took over in the title role of the first run of Mary Poppins in the West End in 2005 (which she’d go on to reprise on Broadway); and again in 2013 (when she played Cassie in A Chorus Line at the London Palladium) and 2016, when she was preparing to star in She Loves Me at the Menier.

By the time of the latter, she was already living in New York permanently and had just rented an apartment on the Upper West Side. She told me then that living in New York was an attempt to separate herself from the Strallen showbiz legacy (she has three sisters, all also in the business, one of whom — Zizi — is currently leading the return of Mary Poppins at its original home the Prince Edward):

“That’s what’s quite refreshing about being in America. No one knows about that there. Not that I’m ashamed of it or anything. But there it’s just me, as opposed to being part of a tribe”.

In the summer of 2015, she starred in a production of The Pirates of Penzance at the regional Barrington Stage in Massachusetts (pictured above right). Reviewing it in the New York Times, Charles Isherwood asked: “Where has the fabulous Scarlett Strallen, who plays the ingenue, Mabel, been hiding herself?”

He went on to answer his own question, stating, “She hasn’t really been pining in obscurity, but has been performing mostly in her native Britain, although she also appeared in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder on Broadway.” And he also noted, “A lyric soprano with a voice as flexible as it is rich, she is also a fine actress whose instinctive feel for the Gilbert and Sullivan ingenue idiom – play it straight with just a sly wink peeking out from the batting eyelashes – makes her every scene and song a joy.”

And last night it was simply a joy to have her back on a London stage, too, albeit all-too- briefly — the run ends tomorrow (though it will live on in a streamed version that is being filmed, to bring the festival to a countrywide audience; I have to confess that, hearing music live in a theatre for the first time in over five months since the December lockdown arrived, and in particular Strallen’s opening yearningly beautiful solo Autumn in Connecticut, I was in tears. This is what we’ve missed so much!

And going to a live performance, of course, also means being able to interact (safely and at social distance!) with others in a public setting — something that has been more or less taboo for the last year outside of your own social bubbles.

I ran into friends I’ve not seen for over a year, like choreographer Lee Proud and Vivien Goodwin, senior VP for the European office of Concord Theatricals, the licensing house that she first joined in pre-Concord days when the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organisation set up a London office.

In fact, I helped in her recruitment for that role, recommending her to Ted Chapin, pictured above,President and chief creative officer for R&H, now a division of Concord (since they acquired R&H from Imagem in 2017), from which it was announced just yesterday that he is stepping down at the end of this month, after nearly 40 years at the helm.

As Ted commented in a press release yesterday,

“It’s astonishing to me just how fast time passes when you love what you do. I can’t help but feel that, over the course of our time together, this incredible organization and I have helped each other grow and flourish in ways that could never have been anticipated 40 years ago. As I look forward to the next act of my life in the theatre, I take with me cherished memories, dear friends, and – above all – gratitude.”

And that’s one of the things I love about the theatre: the threads that connect us all. I’ve already described how long I’ve been connected to Scarlett Strallen; I also go back with Paul Taylor-Mills to his earliest producing days at the Union, and have ben able to watch his career flourish and grow since. Next month he will have not one but two shows in in the West End, too, as co-producer of a return run of Heathers (at the Haymarket from June 21) and Be More Chill (at the Shaftesbury from June 30), both of them first seen at the Other Palace.

Last night, sitting again in the theatre again for the first time in over five months, I was reminded that even as a paying audience member, as I was last night, I’m also part of the story. The theatre wouldn’t, after all, be here without its audience.

It may well live without its critics (though I sincerely hope that I’ll be returning to that role, too, even if I have to use my own space here to do so). But going to the Turbine was a good reminder to me that I’m a theatre fan first — a critic second.

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