Review – Stephen Ward, Aldwych Theatre, 8th February 2014

Stephen WardHow much do you know about the Profumo affair? If you’re like us, then probably not that much. The name’s familiar – as are those of Christine Keeler, Mandy Rice-Davies, and, when it all came to trial, the judge was the esteemed Lord Denning. But Yevgeny Ivanov? Lucky Gordon? Stephen Ward? No, you’d have beaten me there, those names would have meant nothing until we’d seen Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical about the eponymous osteopath, who massaged the backs of the great and painful and found himself buoyant in the sea of early 1960s London celebrity.

Charlotte SpencerOne of the main criticisms I’d heard about it in advance was that, although it was a perfectly good show, who could possibly be its target market? Surely only the (relatively) elderly would remember those days and be interested in reliving those scandalous times? Well, judging from the age bracket of those attending last Saturday’s matinee (and bearing in mind that it was indeed a matinee, which may skew the demographic) then maybe so. However, that’s a real shame. It’s a timeless story – and if it were fiction, we’d be lapping it up. Sex, political scandals, celebrity and espionage – what’s not to love? And, of course, the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. I’ve not seen all his shows, by a long chalk, but for the most part I find them pretty enjoyable. Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Phantom are all amazing. Joseph, Starlight and Aspects are all very good. Sunset – ok, Cats – a bit boring; not seen the others. But if musicals were football teams (and I accept that they’re not) I’d certainly put this show up there at the top of the Championship, looking for possible promotion to the Premiership.

Charlotte BlackledgeI was really impressed with the story-telling aspect of the show. It’s a very well-paced, momentum-building book, and, by the time you get to the second act, it becomes the stage version of a real page-turner. The lyrics are not drowned out by the music (Rent in Concert take note) so you can hear all the words as clear as a bell. That’s not to say the orchestra don’t give it their all, because they do – it’s a really great performance by them, and Lloyd Webber has come up with some terrific tunes as usual – just that it all comes across as beautifully balanced in your eardrums. Structurally or technically, the only thing I thought could have been improved is the Act One climax – Johnny from the club arriving at Stephen’s flat with a gun and not afraid to shoot it; I guess it was meant to be an exciting moment to take you buzzing into the interval, but actually I thought it was a damp squib that needed much more oomph.

Anthony CalfThere’s obviously absolutely no doubt in ALW’s mind that Stephen Ward was framed. With worthies like Profumo, Astor and Rachman surrounding him, Ward was a comparative no-mark, who, with the benefit of hindsight, was always going to be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. There’s a scene in the show where the Home Secretary and his cronies brainstorm on what trumped-up charge they will get the police to fabricate, nicely giving a new meaning to Stephen Ward’s “Manipulation” song from earlier. This develops into the brilliant “Police Interview”, where the impetus to incriminate Ward in any way they can, is blatantly, ruthlessly and unsettlingly hilariously portrayed. All this, and a superb scene with News of the World journalists (whatever became of that responsible and newsworthy organ?) where they encourage Christine to “give us something juicy” – the plot may be in the 1960s but the subject matter is as relevant today as ever.

Joanna RidingAlexander Hanson is fantastic as Ward; this is the first time we’ve seen him since his excellent Captain von Trapp in the Palladium’s Sound of Music a few years ago. Manipulative, but manipulable too; attracted to the ladies in a determined, confident way; displaying an air of quiet authority that ends up being just a little too quiet to save himself. And musically, he’s great; an outstanding, rich, clear voice and an interpretation of Don Black’s lyrics that make you feel really sorry for him. The bizarre thing is that, of all the people in the show, Ward is the one who has really done nothing wrong; just having a taste for the highlife and a liking for a varied array of ladies – there’s nothing illegal about that.

Alexander HansonCharlotte Spencer gives a great performance as Christine Keeler, the very young dancer at Murray’s Cabaret Club – I’m sure I remember adverts for that club in Palladium theatre programmes from the 60s and 70s – who catches Ward’s eye and doesn’t resist his advances, but with whom, for whatever reason, he apparently doesn’t actually have a relationship – he just installs her in his flat. She’s an excellent singer, looks great, and over the course of the show develops from rough-edged teenager to a more sophisticated, and much more experienced, woman. Charlotte Blackledge’s Mandy Rice-Davies is a more outgoing, back-chatty girl, full of fun and cheek and it’s no surprise Rachman would have shown an interest in her; or indeed, Ward. Interestingly, the real Mandy Rice-Davies apparently advised during the creative process of the show, which lends the plot additional veracity.

Ian ConninghamThere’s also a brilliant turn by Joanna Riding as Valerie Hobson (Lady Profumo) standing by her man in best Tammy Wynette fashion, both when she thinks he has been falsely accused of having an affair with Christine Keeler, and when she knows it is true. Profumo must have been one of the luckiest men alive to have a high profile affair like that and suffer the vengeance of his wife for no more than about thirty seconds. Miss Riding’s performance of “I’m Hopeless when it comes to you” is probably the musical highlight of the show. Anthony Calf, who can always be relied upon to provide great support in any cast, is a very chummy and friendly Lord Astor, so that the scene where he distances himself from Ward because the heat is on, has a much greater impact and you realise what a cowardly toe-rag Astor is. And I really loved the double act of Ian Conningham and Christopher Howell as the two bent coppers intimidating their way through their interrogations. But the whole cast is excellent, and the big set pieces like the rather posh orgy and the courtroom scene work extremely well.

Christopher HowellAt the end of the day it’s Stephen Ward’s story, his good times and his tragic ending; the show completely revolves around him and ends as it begins with his bizarrely featuring in the Chamber of Horrors at Blackpool. Alexander Hanson gives the stand-out performance required for this heavy role. Pre-show warnings advise that it’s not for the easily offended; to be honest I think you’d have to be very easily offended indeed to get upset by its content. It’s an excellent show and I would really recommend it!

Review – Cats, Milton Keynes Theatre, 7th July 2013

CatsBack in that dizzy summer of 1986 when the young Miss Duncansby and I set about seeing everything in London worth seeing, the Andrew Lloyd Webber/T S Eliot combo of Cats was hot on the list. “The longer you wait, the longer you’ll wait” was the smug advertising strapline, as it had been around for five years and you still had to book a good four months in advance to get decent seats. So we committed, and went, and our memories are that we really enjoyed it.

Joanna AmpilFast forward 27 years to the Milton Keynes Theatre and this current touring production; a Saturday matinee with barely a seat available. When you enter the theatre you realise the set is amazing: the grim detritus of everyday life stuck together to make platforms, rooms, doorways and so on; scraps and rubbish overspill into the seating area; lights suspend all around the auditorium. It’s quite something. When the orchestra starts, hundreds of cats’ eyes blink at you in the dark creating true theatrical magic. At the end of the show, when Old Deuteronomy and Grizabella ascend to the heavens, the stagecraft of their spaceship-like journey is stunning. The music is played strongly and vibrantly; that very recognisable Cats overture that always reminds me of TV sports themes sets you up and gets you ready for a really enjoyable show. Performers start emerging from the darkness, dressed in extraordinary cat costumes and make up, emulating precisely that delicate, wily, determined, languid behaviour of your average domestic moggy, and reminding me of why I’m more of a dog person. They’re great dancers and singers and the whole Prologue sequence is fantastic.

Joseph PoultonAnd then something rather strange happens – and I guess this may be controversial. You get presented with a parade of different cats, with musical numbers and dance routines to portray their different characters, but there’s hardly any link between them. Dramatic intensity ebbs away; a sense of aimlessness takes its place. There’s absolutely no connecting narrative between any of the scenes, apart from the occasional sighting of Grizabella slinking on stage, getting attacked by other cats, then slinking back off. You don’t get any sense of progression or plot development. It ends up feeling like a rather sterile episodic contemporary dance where you don’t quite get how the current piece relates to the one before or the one after. Much to our surprise, and disappointment, we both found it a really boring show.

Ross FinnieThe T S Eliotishness of it all is strangely disturbing too. I love a good bit of Eliot as much as the next man, but I don’t think this works for the stage. Old Possum’s Practical Cats are more or less what you would expect from someone grappling with constructing the Four Quartets on one hand and then writing something for his godchildren on the other. It’s non-contemporary – Bustopher Jones in white spats for goodness sake? It’s pretentious – Jellicle cats and Pollicle dogs? Sadly, it’s also amazingly tedious at times – the whole Gus the Theatre Cat and his Growltiger the pirate sequence had me numb with disbelief. Mrs Chrisparkle gave up and decided that sleep was a more constructive way to spend the afternoon from the Bustopher Jones number to the interval, and then nodded off again early in the second half but fortunately woke up for one of the better scenes, Mr Mistoffelees. I tried hard to stay awake throughout and largely managed it.

Melissa JamesIt’s a shame because the cast put their heart and soul into this show and give really good performances. There are at least two star turns. Joanna Ampil as Grizabella doesn’t have to do much but what she does is superb, and her two “Memory” sequences are outstanding. I could tell Joseph Poulton was a great dancer in his role as Quaxo but when he becomes Mr Mistoffelees he’s in another sphere – breathtakingly good. Other excellent performances came from Ross Finnie as Skimbleshanks, the railway cat, breathing life and humour into an otherwise rather tedious character; Melissa James, rather fabulously sexy throughout as Bombalurina; and Oliver Savile was good as the Rum Tum Tugger, even if his make up gave him a slightly off-putting resemblance to the Bruce Forsyth of the 1960s – but then he’s definitely In Charge.

Oliver SavileSo despite all those extraordinarily good elements I fear this is not the sum of its parts. I’m prepared to accept I’m in the minority as it went down very well with the audience and is, in any case, one of the most successful musicals of all time – so what do I know? It’s touring till January – go see it for yourself.

It’s that time of year again and I am officially excited

Eurovision The Eurovision Song Contest. Let’s look at it objectively. It’s probably the world’s largest live light entertainment show. Up to 600 million viewers according to some estimates. And with its being broadcast online since 2000, it additionally has a very large number of people following it in countries where it is not televised. It has given ex-Soviet states a chance to shine on the global stage and certainly contributed towards the Baltic States growing closer to the rest of Europe. It has created stars in the world of music. You know their names.

Let’s look at it from the heart. It’s an opportunity for all those countries who used to go to war with each other to vie for superiority, to do so safely from the pizzazz of a glitzy stage. Games without frontiers, war without tears. It’s a feast for the senses – an overwhelming amount of colour, light, sound, audience, competition – it’s live, it’s exciting, it’s funny, it’s emotional, it’s just a marvellous, wonderful thing.

And although it’s just light entertainment, it deserves to be taken seriously. Not po-faced: that’s not entertainment. Not anorakky: that’s alienating. I simply mean treat it with the same respect you would have for any other Saturday night entertainment show. Don’t deride it. Don’t be ashamed of it. Unfortunately I think the BBC over the years has simply come to the conclusion that it doesn’t know how to deal with it.

Graham Norton Last year could have been a turning point but I fear we’re not going to capitalise on the extra interest it created. Graham Norton was a vast improvement on Terry Wogan. He still made it funny, he still stuck the critical boot in where it was needed; but at the same time he did show that he had done some research, did give relevant background facts about some of the people appearing, without being an anorak about it. We had a pre-selection contest that had been well trailed (with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “People of Britain” broadcasts), conducted over several weeks, eliminating contestants X-Factor/Pop Idol/Strictly/Maria style, sweeping the UK viewers along with it and encouraging, legitimising their enthusiasm for the contest.

By this time last year we were well into the pre-selection period. But what of this year? This year we have only just started watching “So You Think You Can Dance”, and it’s no doubt got a few more weeks to go. Eurovision, that show that only clocks up 600 million viewers, has been sidelined again.

I feel the BBC don’t know whether it is something to be taken jokily, whether it deserves to derision heaped on it, and to mock its followers; or whether they think it has any credibility and should therefore be supported, promoted and financed – not only their contribution as one of the “Big 4” but also financing a big lead up pre-selection series.

They should also take responsibility for our subsequent performance and our result. No more of this blaming Europeans for our disappointing results. How much more assertive and productive to say, “We chose to put forward this song, this singer, it was the wrong choice, we offered the public the wrong options, we didn’t approach the right performers and writers and we didn’t publicise it sufficiently – it’s our fault and it’s up to us to put it right”. How unlike the usual Eurovision moaning, which admittedly came mainly from Terry Wogan, but which the corporation seemed to lap up with glee.

Quite rightly, many Europeans think of the UK as the birthplace of great music. This year they will be thinking Lily Allen, Robbie Williams, The Killers. When we send someone considerably below that level of entertainment value they get annoyed with us. Andy Abraham In 2008 Russia sent Dima Bilan. UK sent Andy Abraham. Je reste ma valise. And yes, I know, people will say Lily Allen and Robbie Williams won’t enter because they’ve got “too much to lose”. But surely the same applied to Dima Bilan and Patricia Kaas, and probably at least half a dozen others over the past few years. There’s also “an awful lot to gain”.

Oh and look at the top 5 last year:

1) Norway
2) Iceland
3) Azerbaijan
4) Turkey
5) UK

That has to put paid to the argument that only the East wins nowadays because “they all vote for each other”. Three of the top five are from the west. In the past few years the winning song has been one from the East that has appealed to voters from the West. Javine Last year it was reversed, a song from the West that appealed to voters from the East. But that appeal has to be subtle. Much as I enjoyed the charms of Javine in 2005, her song was trying to be Turkish. Norway’s winning song this year had an instant appeal, but it wasn’t trying to be anything other than it genuinely was, upbeat, from the heart, honest. Iceland’s highly regarded song that came second was as simple and honest and straightforward as it is possible to be. Me, I couldn’t write a song for toffee, so I plead with you Eurovision songwriters out there, just write a good song. One you can be proud of to stand alone as a good, honest, lovely song. It’s good songs that win and are remembered.

Phew! That’s a lot off my chest. I only say it because I care. I care very much how the UK perform in the Eurovision. I want us to be proud of our entries; to be able to say that we offered the rest of Europe the best we had. Other countries do. We used to.

And I should add that we don’t yet officially know what the BBC propose for this year. They might surprise and delight me. I really hope so. But if it is a megastar it would have been great to have known earlier. The excitement would have been building around Europe too and that could only have been to our advantage.