Another sold out night at the Screaming Blue Murder, which simply goes to show what excellent quality and value it is. This week Mrs Chrisparkle and I were not only joined by Lady Duncansby, but also the Sheriff of Shenstone, Lady Lichfield, the young Duchess of Dudley and the even younger Baron Brownhills. We were tempted to complain about the lack of red carpet, but noblesse oblige.
Our regular host Dan Evans was once again tried, tested, weighed in the balance, and found absolutely not wanting. He had to cope with a tanked-up crowd who this week included a large works party from a local builders’ merchant, a loved-up young couple from Towcester, and a birthday girl with her family and friends. But it was the builders’ merchant boys who really got stuck in to do their best to disrupt proceedings. Loudly talking amongst themselves, taking phone calls, getting progressively drunker, thinking they were funnier than the acts…. If in the cold light of day any of you are reading this, take a tip and leave the humour to the professionals, guys. We’d all appreciate it. Dan was of course a master at the game, treading a perfect balance between keeping order and teasing out all the fun of the situation.
First act was Jeremy O’Donnell, whom we’ve seen here twice before, once as a compere and once as the middle act. He’s got a bright, breezy, blokey persona, with lots of good material and a confident delivery. My favourite sequence involved his visiting the toilet on the train which had a soap dispenser but no towel – you had to be there. Very experienced at handling tricky crowds, he got through it beautifully unscathed.
Second up was Wendy Wason, new to us, and very entertaining. A little slow to start, we initially feared she might not fully find her feet. Nevertheless she soon dealt out some really filthy lines and we were fully on her side after that. She had very good material about sex, family life, and more sex, and I thought the young Duchess of Dudley was going to have a heart attack at her line about her decision criteria on the Spit or Swallow question. Extremely funny, and she went down very well with the crowd.
Our headline act was Christian Reilly, an old hand at these Screaming Blues, whom we’ve seen many times before and who was indeed the runner-up in the coveted Chrisparkle Award for Best Screaming Blue Comic in 2013. He has a brilliant act involving musical parodies with the aid of his old guitar, a rather goofy straw Stetson, great confidence and terrific timing. Bang up to date with the Jeremy Clarkson material! I don’t specifically know what those builders’ merchant guys were doing to him in the front row – goading him somehow I think – but he didn’t like it. It’s a slightly risky strategy for the comic to turn on a section of the audience like that – but basically we agreed with him and they deserved their public humiliation. Mr Reilly’s material was excellent enough for both myself and the Sheriff to buy his CDs afterwards.
On reflection it sounds like it was rather a rough, tense night – but not a bit of it, it was excellent entertainment as usual. Three weeks till the next one!
I’ve always been a huge fan of Agatha Christie. As a child, she was my next step up the reading curve after Enid Blyton. I used to swap Christies with a rather attractive and well-developed girl at my school called Julia, and it was a splendidly sneaky way of engineering a conversation her. The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle took me to see The Mousetrap when it was only in its 17th year (work that back) and the creepy tension in it scared me to death. However, since then, we’ve only seen a few Christies on stage and on the whole, don’t think they work that well; and certainly the kindest thing you can say about The Mousetrap now is that it’s a creaky old historical artefact (but you just have to see it once, to prove you’re alive).
The Secret Adversary was only Christie’s second novel and introduces us to Tommy and Tuppence, a game pair of young scamps – well they were in 1922 – full of derring-do and no aptitude for a 9-5 job, who become “Young Adventurers”. They dreamed of hiring themselves out to anyone who needs an escapade performed but doesn’t have the sheer lack of a sense of self-preservation to do it themselves. They’re among Christie’s less well-known detectives, but they’re good fun and full of character, cheek and bravery; seemingly innocent and naïve but with nerves of steel. There was a terrific TV series in the 80s – Partners in Crime – where they were played by Francesca Annis and James Warwick; sophisticated, methodical, good taste and keen as mustard. And I still carry the mental image of those two whenever I think of the characters.
And so to this production, from the Watermill Theatre; I probably should have noticed that before I booked, as it would almost certainly mean an adaptation of an Agatha Christie mystery involving actors playing their own instruments. They love a bit of that down there in Newbury. Miss Marple on the harp? Poirot on a tuba? Fortunately those characters don’t play a part in this tale of our heroic couple searching for a mystery woman with secret papers that would compromise the government, which search in turn leads on to another search, of the mystery man who’s masterminding the whole skulduggery. Tommy and Tuppence get into various scrapes all across London but manage to come up with the solution and even get engaged on the last page. It’s a good story, rather far-fetched and full of coincidences but an enjoyable escapist read all the same.
The adaptation by Sarah Punshon and Johann Hari has very cleverly taken the majority of the elements of the original book and stitched them back together in different sequences and in different locations, which works well as an exercise in itself but for me made the play largely unrecognisable from the original book. The play is mainly set in a nightclub. I’ve had a very good flick through the book today and can’t find any reference to it in Christie’s original – that’s not to say it’s not there, but even if it is, it doesn’t form the central location on which to base the story. The mystery woman has undergone a name change, presumably to support a visual gag in one of the early scenes where a fish lands on a dessert (also not in the original). There’s a medley of songs involving the word “Money” (I’m pretty sure Christie never heard the Flying Lizards), and I surprised myself by realising how much of a Christie Purist Snob I had become.
It’s a shame because there were many elements to the production that were very inventive, very funny and very effective. We both laughed a lot at the primitive PowerPoint presentation of the sinking of the Lusitania; there was an amusingly clever representation of what Tommy saw through the keyhole; there was some magic – always like a bit of magic, I do; and there were moments where the cast addressed the audience, much to our surprise. I loved the clever staging of the scene where the villains are meeting at a table, jutting up from the stage at an angle of 135 degrees with Tommy staring down at them from the grille above their heads. All these elements were performed with a nice sense of fun and an appreciation of the ridiculous.
But we both felt that the whole show was so overwhelmingly tongue-in-cheek, so completely camped up and over the top, that it lost any serious pretence to actually tell the story, or to present characters that weren’t caricatures (I thought only the character of Tuppence herself came close to having any real identity). When the audience returns for the second act, one of the characters asks us if we’re enjoying ourselves and are we following the plot (with a facial expression that implies it’s a pretty tough plot to follow). If the show is doing its job properly, there should be no difficulty in understanding what’s going on. It’s as though the whole thing has been sacrificed on the altar of The 39 Steps but, regrettably, few things are that funny.
We did enjoy the performances on the whole. I liked Morgan Philpott’s rather supercilious array of waiters, MC’s and villains – and I did enjoy his spots of magic. One of the cast members referred to him as “Philpott” during the show – couldn’t work out if that was an intentional “out of character” moment or an epicfail. Emerald O’Hanrahan played Tuppence with a sense of spirit and cuteness which was rather charming. I’ve seen Garmon Rhys before – he was an excellent Wilfred Owen in Regeneration last year – so I know he’s a terrific actor, but I’m afraid I found his Tommy rather one-dimensional. I enjoyed Elizabeth Marsh’s very stagey Rita (straight out of Sunset Boulevard) but sighed with dismay when she donned a beard to play Kramenin – just not enough respect for the original work, I felt.
I think the show went down pretty well with the majority of the audience, but it just wasn’t for us. It wasn’t the show I was expecting to see, and my flexibility biorhythm must have been at a low ebb. I was expecting a classic whodunit; instead we got a 1920s semi-musical end-of-the-pier-show of a whodunit. Purists beware; others may well enjoy. The tour continues to Eastbourne, Ipswich, Derby, Coventry and Kingston, up to May.
P.S. When the interval came we agreed that we were bored by it all; Mrs Chrisparkle proposed taking our coats with us when we went for our interval drinks so that we didn’t have to go back in to the auditorium if we didn’t want to. That was code for I want to go home. However, I didn’t think it quite warranted half-time abandonment, on the grounds that there were some amusing moments and some proficient performances, and I normally only give up on a show after the interval when a play is so bad that it’s not funny. This wasn’t that bad. So we compromised. We went back in, and Mrs C decided to sleep through the majority of the second half. Fair do’s.
Just as Curious Incident (the book) became a must-read on its publication in 2003, Curious Incident (the play) became a must-see after its rave reviews at the National Theatre in 2012. Mrs Chrisparkle and I both read the book and enjoyed it, although we couldn’t recollect much of the story. I’m like that – I can never remember the stories of novels, just the characters. It means I can re-read whodunits dozens of times over and still be surprised at the dénouement; at least I get good value out of a paperback. Late to the party, we finally got round to seeing the stage version last night at the Royal and Derngate, as part of its major 2015 UK and Ireland tour.
When we originally booked, the show was due to run six nights, Monday to Saturday, and we had booked for the first night. A few months ago I received a call from the Box Office saying that the Monday night show had been cancelled as the production team felt they needed longer to get the set in place. Must be some set, I thought. And my word was I right. From the moment you walk into the auditorium to be greeted by Mrs Shears’ German Shepherd with a garden fork plunged through its heart, looking for all the world like some hors d’oeuvres for a Pantomime Giant, it’s hard to imagine a more inventive, contemporary, artistic and indeed scientific set than Bunny Christie’s mind-blowing grid of circuitry and cupboards that constantly comes to life with its own lighting and projections. Even the props that continually emerge from the walls are indivisible from the set as well. Every so often in the first act our hero Christopher would magically produce from inside the walls of the set another handful of toy train tracks and start laying them down on the floor, together with all the attributes of a great train set – stations, passengers, flower beds, signal boxes – even Big Ben and the London Eye. The way they all come together at the end of the first act is simply a joy to behold. A seamless bond between set and props – true stagecraft.
But I’m ahead of myself. I’m sure you know what The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is all about, but here’s a quick summary. Fifteen year old Christopher has unspecified behavioural problems most closely related to Asperger Syndrome. This makes it very hard for him to understand the meanings behind what people say as he takes everything very literally. For example, if he was simply told to “stop talking”, he would never know when it would be acceptable for him to start talking again, because that vital information wasn’t provided. He cannot bear to be touched; he cannot cope with large amounts of visual information coming at him from all angles; he has a tendency towards incontinence under stress and won’t use a stranger’s toilet. He’s also an incredibly gifted mathematician and he finds it impossible to tell a lie. His behavioural problems get him into occasional trouble with the police due to his tendency to lash out when they’re asking him questions. But Christopher is a highly moral young chap, and so when he discovers that Mrs Shears’ dog has been murdered, he sets about finding out whodunit, and writing it up in the form of a novel – the novel entitled The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in fact. By sleuth and sneakiness he discovers that his mother did not die in hospital of a heart attack, as his father had previously told him, but had in fact run off with Mr Shears and was living in Willesden Green. He can’t bear his father’s lies, so heads off to find his mother. But this is biting off way more than he can chew (which is a phrase Christopher simply wouldn’t understand, as he’s not biting or chewing anything). How far will he get?
Simon Stephens’ adaptation of the novel for the stage rises to the challenge of how to turn a quirky novel into a quirky play. Just as Mark Haddon’s original book had, as its premise, the fact that the book was actually written by Christopher himself, so Mr Stephens’ play also is assumed to be written by Christopher, which gives rise to a few “play within a play” moments, when some of the characters come out of context and deal with its authorship. Nowhere is this more amusingly realised than with the epilogue, which is definitely worth waiting thirty seconds or so in your seat after what appears to be the end of the show. Actually it astounded me by revealing how much geometry and algebra I genuinely remember from school! If all this sounds teasing and tantalising, there are so many moments of visual delight and inventiveness in the entire show that I don’t want to spoil them for you. This is like a multimedia experience – there are so many different ways to enjoy it.
At the heart of this production is a simply superb performance by Joshua Jenkins as Christopher. There aren’t many roles that require you to run the gamut from A-Z as the old saying goes, but this is one. His abrupt mood and tone changes throughout the show, for example going from self-assured detective to bawling infant in a split second, take place with consummate ease. His struggle to cope with his train ride to Willesden is painful to watch as he fights off all the visual and oral stimuli that are hurled at him. One minute he’s sullen and moody, and the next he’s gawping with pleasure at the arrival of an Andrex puppy (as indeed are the entire audience). You never feel like he’s an actor playing a role; you really feel he is Christopher, coping with the world in the best way he can. Totally credible throughout; an amazing performance.
There’s a moving and sensitive performance by Stuart Laing as Ed, his father, supportive of his son but driven to distraction by him too; his attempts at discipline are usually not worth the fight and he’s clearly reticent about making bad situations worse. There are a few very tender moments when he just watches Christopher in awed silence, not quite believing that he could have a son this remarkable. As a balance, there’s a lovely spirited performance by Gina Isaac as Judy, Christopher’s mother, something of what the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle would have called “a good-time girl”, but also deeply caring for her son, and the semi-reconciliation that occurs between the two parents is heart-warming to observe. Geraldine Alexander gives a lovely performance as Siobhan, Christopher’s school teacher and mentor, with the perfect mixture of friendliness and professionalism that you would have to maintain in order to do that job correctly.
The rest of the cast form an ensemble around the character of Christopher, and give great support; to pick out a few, I really liked Clare Perkins as the Headmistress who always repeats the sentences that Siobhan has previously narrated – a very funny running joke; Roberta Kerr as the elderly neighbour Mrs Alexander who really wants to befriend Christopher except that he won’t let her in; John McAndrew as the “too old” Reverend Peters; and Lucas Hare as the wretched Roger Shears who hopes Judy ditches her rediscovered son as quickly as possible. The ensemble work is powerful and thought-provoking; I loved the balletic, physical theatre-type moves between the actors and Christopher as he floats and bounces off them in various dream sequences; members of the ensemble even take on the roles of doors, latches, windows, and so on in order to accentuate the physical achievement of Christopher successfully negotiating an ordinary day. There’s a great moment when Christopher is lifted on his side so that he can walk along the sides of the walls – not seen anything like that since Bert did his gravity-defying dancing in Mary Poppins. The whole thing is magic to watch.
Despite the large numbers of children in the audience – this is now a set text in schools – this is far from being a “children’s play”. There’s an appropriate amount of bad language in it, considering the level of stress that some of the characters face, and it deals with some difficult subjects like broken relationships, lies, and challenging behaviour. But it’s extremely funny and creates a fantastic dramatic environment where we see the world through the eyes of one unique individual. A memorable theatrical experience that ought to be compulsory viewing for everyone! The tour continues throughout the UK and Ireland till November.
For the second time in six months, Mrs Chrisparkle and I attended the Menier Chocolate Factory to see a one-man one-act (no interval) American comedy play about a chap working in an unusual environment. Fully Committed centred on the guy who handled the reservations for an upmarket restaurant, and whilst it was a splendid performance by Kevin Bishop, at the end of the day, the play itself was a little bit of candy-floss lasting 70 minutes, which you’d largely forgotten about by the time you got on the tube home. Buyer and Cellar, however, lasts a full hour and three quarters, and has plenty to make you think about the nature of friendship, the value of celebrity, human eccentricity, loyalty, and the Games People Play.
Alex More gets offered a rather wacky job. In the basement of her Los Angeles home, Barbra Streisand has recreated a real-life shopping mall. Not the type with massive chain stores (I doubt you’ll find a Poundland or a Primark there) but with individual boutiques, doll shops, stationers, gift shops, and – more importantly – olde worlde gifte shoppes. She owns all the stock of course, because she had the mall built to showcase all her collectables. The trouble with having shops though is that you need a retail manager to look after them and serve the customers. Customer. Thus Alex is recruited to man the tills, operate the frozen yogurt stand and generally keep everything squeaky clean, and fit for VIP celebrity visits.
This is not a documentary. This is pure fantasy. Yes, Miss Streisand has indeed built a shopping mall under her home. We know that, because she wrote all about it in her book My Passion for Design. But whether it’s got a retail manager, and whether she goes shopping there, and whether there are any fiscal transactions taking place, that’s all in the imagination of the writer Jonathan Tolins. This is made clear in a very warmly written and performed personal introduction at the beginning of the play, where you can’t tell if the actor (Michael Urie), hovering at the side of the stage, is addressing us as himself or if it’s part of the play per se. Indeed, I suspect it is both, as the one almost imperceptibly drifts into the other. Mr Urie reads from the book, shows us some of the pictures, and tells us that, as far as he is aware, Miss Streisand has never seen the play, and perhaps hardly knows anything about it. You sense that he and Mr Tolins are probably quite happy with that arrangement.
For this production the Menier has shrunk its stage area to a very small and shallow proscenium arch. When you enter the auditorium all you see on stage is some very minimalist furniture. What you don’t expect is that the back wall of the stage will become the focus of very effective projections, suggesting the various locations at which the story takes place. Simple, and it works incredibly well. The whole story plays on your imagination anyway, so keeping the props to a minimum is fine. This would actually work very well as a radio play or an audiobook.
I wonder if it’s lonely being in a one-man show. You’re not going to have the camaraderie of a bigger cast or backstage company in your dressing room. Neither is there the buzz of working off what your colleagues say to you on stage. I guess you must get all your adrenaline from the audience reaction. Certainly Michael Urie has a brilliant relationship with the audience. He appears charming, witty and self-deprecating both as himself and as Alex; he knows he is performing in a play with a preposterous premise and tells us as much, which all increases a sense of honesty about the performance. If we, the audience, are his co-performers in this experience, then I hope we came up to scratch for him (I think we probably did).
You might get more out of this play if a) you are a devotee of Barbra Streisand or b) if you’ve been to Los Angeles. Neither Mrs C nor I fall into either of these categories. All I know about Barbra Streisand is that she was in Yentl and she recorded The Way We Were (which gets nicely deconstructed early on). Oh, and Second Hand Rose. There are a number of references about her career, and LA life in general, which went sailing over the top of our heads; but it didn’t bother us too much. Occasionally some members of the audience would react with recognition to one of the references, and Mr Urie took time to look very pleased to see that his comment had hit home.
In a splendid performance, Mr Urie takes us into this imaginary/real world, where Alex has to park his filthy Jetta away from the other posh cars, engages in mock bartering with the customer when she wants to knock down his prices (they’re clearly non-negotiable, much to her annoyance), has difficulty ascertaining where he is in the pecking order of the household (quite low), stays late so that he can serve a fro-yo to James Brolin, gets ridiculed by his boyfriend Barry for believing that he and Barb are friends, and things come to a conclusion when he is finally invited in to the Main House. For an hour and three quarters Mr Urie doesn’t put a foot wrong, absolutely convincing you that he is wandering around that empty mall, playing at shops, side-stepping the watchful eye of Household Manager Sharon, encouraging Barbra to star in a new production of Gypsy (his idea). His characterisations are excellent, and whilst he admits he’s no impressionist, you get a very good impression, not only of Miss Streisand, but also of the other characters that inhabit this story. Both the play and his performance are very funny and surprisingly moving. And yes, I came out of this play with a stronger impression of what Miss Streisand might be like in real life, and also how you can basically Never Trust A Celebrity. This is an excellent opportunity to see both an Off-Broadway award-winning show and award-winning actor; it’s on until 2nd May, and I recommend it whole-heartedly!
P.S. We forgot the golden rule, never arrive late at the Menier. By the time we arrived, nearly everyone else had taken their seats which meant that some middle aged ladies had spread themselves out very comfortably at the end of our bench (Row B) so that our two seats really only had enough space for one buttock each. Fortunately Mrs C is a mere slip of a thing; I, however, am a different kettle of fish. We found a solution – her right shoulder and the left shoulder of the lady to my right both nestled beneath my two shoulders so that my upper torso spent an hour and three quarters bent forward, adrift from the soft furnishings. Judging by the number of tut-tuts arising from the middle-aged-lady party, we don’t think they appreciated much of the humour. If a play is offending someone, it must be doing its job right.
I don’t think there can be many lives who haven’t been affected by the character of Adrian Mole in one way or another. I can remember when the original book came out, and the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle bought it for me as part of my Christmas Present Package. I thought it was brilliant, and over the subsequent years bought and read all of young Mr Mole’s diarised works. The TV series with Julie Walters and Stephen Moore was great too. Moley was one of the author Sue Townsend’s greatest creations, and definitely her most successful. Sue Townsend herself was from Leicester, as is Adrian Mole, and she based his school environment and council estate home on the places where she was educated and lived. So it’s entirely appropriate that The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ The Musical should start life at the Curve in Leicester. Young Adrian would have been so impressed by the artistic and cultural hub that is the Curve.
The original book runs from New Year’s Day 1981 to April 1982 (Mole’s 15th birthday), but the show just takes the full year from New Year’s Eve to New Year’s Eve. In that time Adrian charts a painful course as an adolescent falling in love with the blessed Pandora, watching his parents’ marriage fall apart and coping with their new loves, visiting and being used as a slave by old Bert Baxter, getting on with some schoolmates and being bullied by others, habitually writing to the BBC and generally being a typical, angst-ridden teenager. But this isn’t a simple dramatization of the novel – it’s a musical, with book and lyrics by Jake Brunger and music and lyrics by Pippa Cleary, two Bristol University graduates who are starting to carve out a career in the genre. Director Luke Sheppard has brought together a talented team to tell the story of Moley’s early adolescence, and the result is a bright and breezy show with many enjoyable aspects, plenty of drama and some extremely humorous scenes.
Tom Rogers has designed a wonderful set, full of quirky corners and jagged angles, with pencils that pierce the sky like chimneys and with ink blots all over the floor. Tantalising glimpses of Adrian’s diary pages frame the stage and everything appears bright in satisfyingly child-like primary colours. Congratulations, by the way, to the props department for sourcing all those old Skol cans and the Woolworth’s carrier bag. It’s effectively staged with the Moles’ kitchen at the front and their living area/bedroom to the side – that area also doubles up as Bert’s Stalinist living room and the school room is towards the back of the stage. There’s plenty of useful space for acting as well as singing and dancing. A small thing, but I really enjoyed the way the child actors opened the side doors for the rest of the cast to come out on stage for their curtain calls. It looked very stylish and showed that the kids were in charge.
I’d been looking forward to this show for ages, as I was really curious to see whether this story would actually work as a musical. The answer is Almost. The songs do fit very neatly into the plot and they’re tuneful and entertaining if not over-memorable. In the schoolroom scenes, I liked the way the adult actors joined forces with the child actors to create a whole classroom of the little blighters, which gave rise to some very amusing moments where age was juxtaposed with behaviour. The climax scene – so to speak – when Adrian and the other kids stage an alternative School Nativity play, was full of bravado, delightfully outrageous and very funny.
But there was something about the whole show that just didn’t quite click for me. It didn’t really engage me. I didn’t feel much sympathy for many of the characters, which never helps when you’re trying to identify with a show. It hadn’t properly occurred to me before just how unpleasant a character Adrian’s mum Pauline is. I thought Kirsty Hoiles showed just the right amount of sentimental detachment and lack of empathy to make the character of Pauline very credible. As Adrian’s dad George, Neil Ditt turned in a nicely downtrodden and “victim” performance, and I thought his scenes with Adrian, the two guys home alone, were often quite moving. I really enjoyed Cameron Blakely’s creepy seduction techniques as the slimy Mr Lucas from next door, and his scenes where he’s wooing Pauline with his Latin moves were hilarious. You just don’t expect that kind of thing in Leicester.
So it wasn’t the performances (for the most part) that caused (for me) the show not to soar. I think the main problem is that in order to condense the book into a two and a half hour show – with songs – they had to omit so much that you only have the barebones of the story to work with and not a lot of depth of character. Doubling up roles also caused its own problems. Amy Booth-Steel is excellent as Miss Elf and Mrs Lucas, but as Doreen Slater she presents a completely different character from that in the book. Miss Booth-Steel is a fine comely woman, but Adrian always referred to Doreen as “stick-insect” in his diaries, and, with the best will in the world, Miss Booth-Steel is never going to achieve that epithet. There’s also no Queenie for Bert to settle down with, no Singh family, no parents for Pandora, and the story stops before Argentina invades the Falklands.
Adrian himself, in the book, as far as I can remember, wavers between nervous enfant terrible and neurotic sidekick. He’s hypochondriac, hyper-sensitive, self-deludingly confident about his own intellect; he’s patronising, he’s hideously class-oriented; basically, he’s an insufferable little prig. But we recognise our own adolescence in him, so forgive him and laugh along at his mistakes, his foibles and anxieties, as we know that life will iron them all out in the fullness of time. The Brunger and Cleary version of Adrian struck me as being simply far too nice. That’s no criticism of Sebastian Croft, who played Adrian in our performance, who’s an amazing little song and dance man, has wonderful stage presence for someone so young, who enunciated beautifully (it’s a skill, and one to be appreciated), fitted in to the rest of the cast like a dream, and absolutely deserved his very enthusiastic curtain call.
His Pandora was played by Lulu-Mae Pears, splendidly mature compared to Adrian, delicately fluttering into his world and very credibly being the target of the Optimum Girlfriend Award. I’d say Adrian was boxing way above his weight here. The rest of the cast all give very good support; although, unfortunately, there was one actor who, for whatever reason, was considerably below par for our performance. Maybe they weren’t feeling well or maybe they were under-rehearsed; but it’s probably not very fair to make further comment.
So, for some reason, for me this all added up to something less than the sum of its parts. However, the audience enjoyed it and gave it a very good reception, and there was certainly something for everyone to enjoy. Maybe not for purist aficionados of the book, but if you want to see teenage angst set to music, this is a good place to start!
P.S. There’s been a creeping trend (and I don’t mind it) that the programme on sale to accompany the show of your choice is basically the printed text of the play but with some biographical details of the cast. Now I like reading plays, and giving you the text to take home with you can only add to your knowledge and appreciation of what you have seen; plus it works as an excellent memory aid should you wish to revisit it in sometime in the future. However, I did think it was a bit cheeky that the programme for this show is an adapted version – not of the book/libretto of the show as such, but of Sue Townsend’s original novel. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least half the households whose families come to see this show already have a copy. I know that at £5 it’s not an unreasonable price, but I think if you’re going to combine the programme and text into one book, it should at least contain the words of the show you’re seeing!
On our first foray to the Edinburgh fringe last summer we saw some spellbinding productions. Riveting drama, glamorous revue, exciting dance – but nothing funnier than Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho, late at night under a circus big top. So when the Divine Diva got resurrected for another hoorah week at the Leicester Square Theatre, we couldn’t resist re-dipping our toes into the seedy world of 1980s Soho. We also knew that our friends my Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters would find it irresistible, as they have been leftie agitators since they were connected to the placenta. Thus it was that the four of us snuck downstairs into that vibrant little arty hub that is the Leicester Square Theatre to see a slightly extended version of the show that won this year’s Chrisparkle Award for Best Entertainment – Edinburgh (I know, catchy category.)
The time – the late 80s, the place – Westminster. The Beloved Margaret is hanging on to her third term as PM but trouble’s brewing. What can she do to firm up her flagging popularity? She’s already closed the mines; she’s already sunk the Belgrano. Options are running out. Enter Jill Knight (boo, hiss) with her nose deftly sniffing out dirt like a truffle-hunting pig as she exposes the book “Jenny lives with Eric and Martin”, a hideous piece of homosexual propaganda designed to deprave and corrupt children everywhere (this is me being satirical, by the way). With the threat of a revolt from her back benchers, Maggie sees it is right and just to support Section 28 of the Local Government Act and therefore make it illegal for such filth to be liberally promoted in our schools. But this causes the homosexuals to be revolting too, and she cannot decide what to do. She turns to the spirit of Winston Churchill only to discover that even he has turned into a raving queen. Desperate, on the streets, in search of solace and enlightenment, she finds herself in deepest darkest Soho, where a couple of friendly chaps entice her into a gay bar where she finally sees the light. Section 28 is no more, she happily hands over the reins of the country to that nice Mr Kinnock and she devotes her life to disco. And it’s all, comme on dit, Absolutely Fabulous.
The show is an unashamed riot from start to finish. The humour comes from so many sources, all hitting you at the same time that you hardly have time to take stock of each situation. Firstly, you have to suspend disbelief that the Ballsy Baroness is still with us (and that daughter Carol is operating the lights). Then you have to accept the preposterous suggestion that the Iron Lady could actually immerse herself in camp, and give herself over to the decadence of the gay Soho scene. There’s enormous fun spotting the many clever Thatcherite references throughout (like the milk moment); it plays with time – Ian McKellen’s Gandalf’s surprise intervention being a good example; it re-writes all our childhoods with a gay episode of Grange Hill and redefines other real-life characters (turning Peter Tatchell into a cross between Johnny Rotten and Bob Hoskins). To add to the cabaret element, it incorporates many of the favourite disco and New Romantic hits of the era, and the Blessed Margaret treats us to her version of each of the songs, giving it some wellie in her delivery. John Brittain and Matt Tedford’s script is sardined with ludicrous wit and genuine heart, and the fourth wall is broken so many times you’d think Miley Cyrus had got to it first with her wrecking ball. And, above all, you have one of the most delightful parody characterisations of a female Prime Minister you could imagine.
Matt Tedford assumes so many of Thatcher’s idiosyncrasies so accurately and indeed subtly – for what is in no way a subtle show – contributing enormously to what I think is of the best comic performances I’ve ever seen. The stoop, the condescending manner, the patronising voice, the manipulative use of pauses – not to mention the evil glare – are all done to perfection. It’s not a traditional impersonation in the Rory Bremner/Mike Yarwood tradition (in fact wasn’t it Janet Brown who got closest to the traditional who do you do of Thatcher?) because Mr Tedford is way too young (and frankly too jovial) to achieve that, but more of an askance suggestion of what the Conniving Chemist could have been like if only she’d been born with a silver glitterball in her mouth. Mr Tedford’s Maggie sings like she’s delivering a speech (“Don’t you want me, baby?” “You can get yourself clean, you can have a good meal”, “good authors too who once knew better words now only use four-letter words” – as she opens a book with the word “TITS” emblazoned on the middle pages – I told you it wasn’t subtle).
He’s also exceptional in his handling of the audience (ooh matron), swiftly putting down any “contributions” with a scornful look. Early on in last night’s show someone in the front row made a comment which didn’t get many laughs (I didn’t quite hear it myself) which he squished viciously. Near the end of the show, Maggie proclaims “there’s only one place for me now” at which someone shouted “in the cemetery!” to much hilarity from the audience; which prompted Mrs (or should that be Mr) T to return to that first heckler with a patronising “you see, that’s the way you do it, dear”. Mr Tedford has the rare ability to engage the audience completely and take us along with a sheer flight of fantasy, and it’s great to see a master at work. To add to the downright fun of it all, he’s gamely assisted by Nico Lennon and Ed Yelland as his supporting company, playing something like 25 roles between them, totally over-the-top in their characterisations and throwing themselves into very athletic and physical comedy, as well as embodying the moustachioed gay equivalent of Pan’s People for the disco numbers.
The audience absolutely loved it, reacting enthusiastically, almost panto-like, during many sequences and giving a much deserved standing ovation at the end. There are only two more nights for this show at the Leicester Square Theatre, but surely this is not the end of Maggie Queen of Soho. It was definitely the right decision to see it again, and I only hope she continues to grace our stages in the near future. Anarchic fantasy at its best!
For one week over Christmas 1976, Jesus Christ Superstar was my favourite show of all time. I already had the studio album, bought the film album whilst on holiday in Spain in 1975, but I hadn’t actually seen either the stage or film version until Wednesday 22nd December 1976, when the 16 year old me sat in Seat B18 of the stalls of London’s Palace Theatre and was literally entranced by the show that enfolded before my eyes. I was mesmerised by the late Steve Alder as Jesus (you could almost believe you were watching the real one), horrified by Mike Mulloy as Judas, terrified by Nelson Perry as Caiaphas, I fell in love with Mary (Sharon Campbell) and thought the whole representation of King Herod (Barry James) as the camp host of sex parties absolutely inspired. I flinched at every one of the 39 lashes, and left hoping one day I’d be an apostle. I may have been going through a slightly religious phase at the time, and I think it really hit me in a soft spot, as Kate Bush once said. But then, one week later, I saw A Chorus Line, and Jesus Christ Superstar got relegated to second place in my affections. But 39 years later, and having seen a few productions over the years, it’s still a show that I really love.
But haven’t times changed? The audience at last night’s show was heavily weighted towards the, shall we say, older lady. I saw them all tapping their toes and drumming their fingers on their arms and mouthing the words in time with all the most memorable musical moments of Christ’s last seven days. I remember when I told my great aunt back in 1976 that I had seen Jesus Christ Superstar she was completely shocked. She tutted for ages about blasphemy and “shouldn’t be allowed”. What once was a challenge is now extraordinarily mainstream. Indeed, when it first hit the stage in 1972 it was only four years after the withdrawal of stage censorship and I can’t imagine the Lord Chamberlain would have permitted it, even though sections of the Church praised it for making the story of Christ more accessible.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that it’s an incredible score. Personally I think it’s the best that Rice & Lloyd Webber created. There’s not a dumb note, no longueurs, nowhere you think “they could have cut this”. It’s tight, gripping (after all, it is a very exciting story of love and betrayal), and it’s jam-packed with memorable tunes and wonderful lyrics. I don’t know about you, but I find myself frequently quoting the show. If I have to correct someone (not that it happens very often, you understand), I’ll as like as not say “no you’re wrong, you’re very wrong, no you’re wrong, you’re very wrong” etc. If something goes surprisingly wrong I’ll doubtless offer up a “this was unexpected, what do we do now? Could we start again please?” If I’m trying to discover what the plan is for some event I’ll probably say “what’s the buzz, tell me what’s-a-happening, what’s the buzz, tell me what’s-a-happening” – and if I haven’t had a reply within a few seconds, I’ll probably delve deeper with “when do we ride into Jerusalem, when do we ride into Jerusalem” – not a particularly useful question in Northampton. Wouldn’t it be great if politicians had the freedom to quote from musicals during debates? I can just imagine David Cameron challenging Ed Miliband in the House of Commons with “prove to me that you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool”. I think this has legs.
So what of this production? Well, no question, it’s excellent. Paul Farnsworth’s set is dominated by a series of thick square stone pillars around the stage, delicately tickled by green light, decorated with apparently historic and intricate carvings, just like you might find in some old temple. There’s the traditional walkway above the back of the stage and along the sides, excellent for the High Priests to stare down on the little people below, or by which the treacherous Judas can escape. A grand pair of double doors at the back suggest both the entrance to the temple and to the sealed tomb into which Christ will be carried after the crucifixion, and from which he rather delightfully re-emerges to take his curtain call. The lighting is exciting and dramatic, and creates some extraordinary images at the crucifixion scene, making Christ’s body go grey at his death, and suggesting a heavenly welcome from directly behind the cross. It was actually quite moving to experience. The seven-piece band, under the direction of Bob Broad, traditionally situated in the pit at the front of the stage, make a more brilliant sound than you would think would be decent for so few people. And it’s topped off by a very talented cast, including, for our performance, two understudies in important roles, who absolutely shone.
I reckon there are two ways in which you can play Jesus. There’s the Steve Alder way, where he looked like the classic Jesus from the religious paintings – gaunt, swarthy, distinctly middle-eastern, like El Greco’s Christ as Saviour. Or there’s the Glenn Carter way, imposing and broad, pale with a golden mane, visually the opposite from the rest of the apostles which makes him stand out completely. This is the second time we’ve seen Mr Carter play Jesus; the first was seven or eight years ago at the Birmingham Hippodrome opposite James Fox as Judas. He has a beautiful voice – pure and expressive, capable of softness and power and a distinctive stage presence. Mrs Chrisparkle wasn’t sure about his facial expressions at times – when he reacts with the other apostles when Judas goes off on one it reminded her of what a senior manager looks like when he is rather disappointed with a middle manager. He does have this habit of looking reassuringly at someone with his hand out as if to say I know, doesn’t he go on, don’t worry, let me handle this, after all, I’m in charge. I also felt that, in his white robe and with his golden locks all straggly, he looked like someone who was halfway through a spa treatment. Nevertheless, he still puts in an excellent performance.
Of course the catalyst for all the tension in the show is Judas, commenting critically on the sidelines, disapproving of Jesus’ profligacy and tendency to be with “women of her kind”, believing the other apostles have just got caught up with the X-Factor celebrity status with “too much Heaven on their minds”. You’ve got to believe that Judas is actually a very decent man but flawed with that inability to accept what he perceives to be tripe. Judas has to change from critic to traitor to self-loathing puppet, manipulated by God so that he has to commit suicide – although still blaming God for it – You have murdered me. Neither Mrs C nor I quite believed Tim Rogers’ “journey” as Judas. I felt he started well, with his telling observations in Heaven on their Minds and Strange Thing Mystifying, but as he grew more angst-ridden he seemed to sacrifice musicality for emotion. He seemed to show Judas’ mental torture by howling at some of the lyrics, as if suggesting that he’s so upset that he can’t quite hit the right notes. Now I know the words to this show inside out, but Mrs C doesn’t, and she found a lot of what he sang very hard to follow. I just sense it would have been better if he had emoted a little less and enunciated a little more. Still, you couldn’t fault his passion and commitment, which were absolutely tangible.
Not that he was the only one to confuse Mrs C with a lack of verbal clarity. When Mary sings “Let me try to cool down your face a little”, all Mrs C heard was “coodle down your doodle”, which would surely represent Tim Rice on a Very Bad Lyric Day. However that was the only blip in an otherwise fantastic performance by Jodie Steele, understudying the role of Mary. Her voice is sensationally clear and expressive and hits the notes in the most faultlessly perfect way. She pitched just the right amount of pathos and drama in I Don’t Know How To Love Him, was reassuringly sweet and sexy in Everything’s Alright and very poignant in Could We Start Again Please – my personal favourite song from the show, that was never in the original production but has always been incorporated into subsequent productions following its appearance in the film. The other role played by an understudy was Johnathan Tweedie as Pilate (instead of the usual Rhydian Roberts). Full of precision, power and authority, he was excellent as the confident Pilate but then went whimpering splendidly as the cowardly Pilate as he literally washed his hands of Jesus – I loved the way the water turned blood red, by the way. You’d never know Mr Tweedie wasn’t the regular performer of the role.
The cast is littered with excellent performers that we’ve seen in a number of shows, but particularly standing out were Cavin Cornwall (last seen by us in the wonderful Sister Act) as a most spooky Caiaphas, his deep voice low enough to mine coal; Alistair Lee as his snide, spoilt priest buddy Annas, and Kristopher Harding (a very jolly Rusty in Starlight Express a couple of years ago) as a very zealous Simon Zealotes. Lizzie Ottley and Olive Robinson were also excellent as the two apostle women, both having terrific voices, great presence and, let’s not deny it, lending some much appreciated beauty to the stage; and Tom Gilling’s Herod is a fun and depraved despot, looking like some reject from a seedy Burlesque Show – as indeed he should. I’d also like to give a mention to the children from the Arts 1 School of Performance who Hosanna’d beautifully and withstood Caiaphas’ terrifying tones without crying. I’m sure that’s more than I would have done at that age.
So a very enjoyable production of this old favourite, allowing the words and music to speak for themselves, looking and sounding fantastic, and enabling a new generation to discover this musically stunning very individual look at the last days of Christ. The tour continues to July, visiting Liverpool, Woking, Edinburgh, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Milton Keynes and Bristol. A great show – you’ll be singing it for ages.