This was our first ever visit to the Curve Theatre in Leicester. To be honest, it was actually the first time I’ve been to Leicester at all. Mrs Chrisparkle had been there for work once and so wasn’t quite as enthralled at the prospect as I was. Problems on the M1 meant we had to take the slow country route through deepest Leicestershire, which was very pleasant by the way, and we therefore arrived much later than anticipated, thus reducing my orientation tour of the city to about half an hour. Never mind, there’s always another time. Mind you, the parking experience didn’t help.
We arrived at the NCP Car Park next door to the theatre, and wended our way up its narrow lanes and tight corners until we found a useable space – cramped, but useable. Never in the field of human parking endeavour has anyone managed to make such a performance out of reversing into a parking space. Mrs C had to get out and guide me back and forth about seven times. I even had to hurl myself out of the car in a fit of rage to gauge precisely what tiny dimensions I had at my disposal. Eventually I could park no more and let the car stand at whatever position I had finally achieved. At that point we realised that the car park ticket which you collect on the way in, and which you use to pay on the way out, had gone missing. Where could it possibly have gone? I kid you not, gentle reader, we spent the best part of half an hour ransacking the car, lifting mats and carpets, setting the iPhone to torch mode to peer into its darkest recesses, flipping through map pages, searching the glove box, etc etc and etc, until eventually the ticket made its appearance in the most ridiculously inaccessible and remote position, curled up and wedged inside the metal runners that allow the passenger seat to move. I think it’s fair to say that we were both, officially, the biggest pair of prize plonkers ever to have attempted to use a car park.
The Curve itself is pretty stunning in many ways. Shaped from the outside – you guessed it – like a curve, it’s an arresting piece of modern architecture in an otherwise rather drab quarter. There are a number of bar and café areas, a fairly good supply of seating, helpful staff and a (necessary with those charges) scheme for paying only £3.95 at the car park. One very thrilling dimension, that we only saw as we were leaving, is an open side wall to the theatre where you can see the stage from the wings, as it were; where all the costumes and prop tables are stored and it’s a fascinating glimpse into the backstage world of the theatre. What of inside the auditorium? Well, on the up side, the seats are reasonably comfortable, and from our position in Row J of the stalls, you had an excellent sightline to the stage. There was also hugely generous legroom, so you could really stretch out and get comfy. It’s a very wide proscenium arch, which gives the impression of the auditorium being somewhat shallow, even though it goes back to Row V. On the downside, it’s a little undecorated and featureless inside, which makes it feel a bit municipal, a bit soulless. But on the whole I would say it’s a jolly fine venue and one I’m glad to add to our repertory.
“I thought this was going to be about Hello Dolly”, I hear you mumble. And so it is. I’ve only seen the show once before, back in 1979 when I accompanied the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane to see Miss Carol Channing in the role. She had a smile that stretched a mile – Miss Channing that is, not the Dowager. She was a dab hand at the comic business – I particularly remember how funny she was in the scene where Dolly insists on finishing her meal whilst everyone else is awaiting her in court. Impossibly stagey and camp as a row of tents, she was just brilliant. She had the physical presence – and let’s face it, age – to suggest Dolly’s back catalogue of life experience; and an accent of pure Yonkers. Possibly because they were the same age, the Dowager looked on her as something of a role model, and it was a rare day that she didn’t find time to quote something about “snuggling up to your cash register” or “lose some weight, Stanley”. So I was very interested to see how Janie Dee, an extraordinarily versatile actress, would appear as Dolly.
She’s very different from Miss Channing, but she’s also extremely good. Her Dolly appears much younger – which feels slightly wrong to me – but she is so winning and cheeky in her disposition, and her instant rapport with the audience is so overwhelming, that she absolutely assumes the role with natural conviction and spreads around the inherent joy of the show, much as Ephraim Levi told us you had to spread around manure. She’s good hearted and gutsy – and can sing beautifully, which comes as a splendid bonus. She looks great, and well deserves Horace Vandergelder’s “wonderful woman” compliment at the end. There really appears to be no end to Miss Dee’s talents.
Horace is played by Dale Rapley, who gives a really good supporting performance; terrifically underplayed, for example, during “So Long Dearie” where he allows Dolly completely to overwhelm him. He’s got a good singing voice too – and gives a super, comic performance of “It Takes A Woman”. Again he feels a lot younger than I would expect Vandergelder to be; you wouldn’t have thought he would need a matchmaker to set him up with a choice of widows, at his age he should still be able to set his own agenda. Nevertheless it’s still very funny when he goes on his date with the lovely Ernestina – Kerry Washington superb as a voluptuous canary lookalike – and his eventual match with Dolly seems perfectly right.
I’d not seen Michael Xavier on stage before – he plays first underdog Cornelius – but I’m not surprised he’s been nominated for all those Olivier awards. He has an amazing voice; loud, clear and expressive, perfect for this kind of show, and he brought great colour and likeability to the role. As second underdog Barnaby, Jason Denton had just the right level of believable goofiness, and the pair of them made excellent suitors for their two ladies.
Laura Pitt-Pulford is a marvellous Irene. It’s not that exciting a role, to be honest, and I remember in my youth whenever I played the soundtrack album, her song “Ribbons Down My Back” was always one I would skip. But I have to say I have never heard that song sung so beautifully as it is here by Miss Pitt-Pulford. For me, she made the song sound fresh but also wistful in a way that had always passed me by before. I would happily go back just to see her perform that song again. Ngo Ngofa’s Minnie Fay is full of fun, rather cute, and she and Barnaby will be a lovely couple.
Of course, what everyone remembers and awaits is the Waiters’ Gallop followed by Dolly’s staircase appearance and the huge number that is “Hello Dolly”. Expectations of this scene are so high that maybe it’s inevitable that there’s a slight sense of disappointment. The dancers are great, no question – and it’s also delightful that they used so much (if not all?) of Gower Champion’s original choreography (all that thigh patting and wavy hands in the air stuff); it’s just that the Curve stage is so wide, that I did not feel they occupied the area enough. This is a production with high values – the costumes are terrific, the sets are effective, even the props seem really good quality. The band are incredible and produce a superb sound. There just needed to be something else that gave the waiters’ scene an extra impact. Maybe they simply needed another six dancers – or a smaller stage. It’s still a really enjoyable scene and it went down very well with the audience, but I wanted just a soupcon more oomph. The cinematic style backdrop which suggested changes of scenes was also a little too small to have great impact, but the sets – and one’s own imagination – more than make up for it.
The performance we saw had a few minor odd moments – Dolly’s handbag seemed to have a life of its own – getting left behind here, suddenly appearing there – and I am still not sure Dolly said hello to the correct Stanley – my powers of lip reading suggest Stanley said something to her like “why are you saying that to me” and he certainly didn’t look as though he needed to lose weight anyway. But these don’t matter with such a colourful and high octane show. I’d forgotten how good the majority of the songs are – especially in the second half – although the whole “Dancing” sequence in the hat shop has always left me cold. It took a good week after we’d seen the show for some of these songs finally to work their way out of my brain. Mrs C pointed out that the whole thing is very “hokey”, and of course she is right. Hokiness is its raison d’être. This is a very entertaining and extremely enjoyable production, and one that fully warrants the good box-office business it seems to be doing – but there are still some good seats available and it would be a great shame to miss it.
On the way home Mrs C asked if Dolly and Horace really love each other, or is it just a marriage of convenience. With the sounds of “…and we won’t go home until we fall in love…” ringing in your ears during the finale, surely they must love each other. Mustn’t they? True, Dolly is an ace manipulatrix, and she certainly gets what she wants – Ephraim even gives her his sign of consent – so I expect she loves him sufficiently well to make a go of it. Horace, I am sure, is besotted. What do you think?