Still the theatre memories keep coming – July to October 1981

Well? Are you ready to go??

  1. Educating Rita – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Piccadilly Theatre, London, 24th July 1981

image(1045)image(1046)image(1047)I saw this with my friend Rob, and we both really enjoyed it. The original production – although not the original cast – of Willy Russell’s instant smash hit comedy that spawned a terrific film version and endless stage revivals, with many more to come I trust. If you only know the film, then you might be surprised to discover the play is a two-hander, with Mark Kingston’s lecturer Frank getting progressively more drunk and disorderly as the play progresses, whilst Shirin Taylor’s Rita gets progressively smarter. Two superb performances – although my memory tells me that Ms Taylor was on particularly cracking form.

  1. Barnum – London Palladium, 3rd August 1981

image(1058)image(1043)image(1044)One of those shows that rewrote the history of the musical. I saw it with the Dowager Mrs C because we were both still carried away by Michael Crawford’s performance in Flowers for Algernon, so we wanted to see him in a show where he’d been incredibly successful too. Mr Crawford’s skill and showmanship have never been more delightfully expressed.

But this is a terrific show all round – with amazing songs, wonderful circus skills, memorable characters and sheer goodtime exhilaration. Deborah Grant was superb as Charity, but there was superb support throughout the entire cast, and I remember with particular fondness Jennie McGustie’s hilarious Joice Heth (Thank God I’m Old is one of my favourite showtunes) and Sarah Payne’s temptress Jenny Lind.

I even managed to get one of the flyers for Jenny Lind’s free concert. One helluva show.

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  1. Childe Byron – Young Vic, London, 11th August 1981

image(1060)From the heights of exhilaration to the depths of sheer awfulness in one fell swoop. I saw this with my friend Claire because she wanted to see how David Essex was in real life and this did, to be fair, sound like an interesting play, with fascinating controversies over the original American performance, and with terrific performers like Sara Kestelman and Simon Chandler in the cast, it couldn’t be all bad. Wrong. It was as bad as they get. To be honest, it wasn’t the play, although it was cumbersome and pretentious. It was David Essex. I’m afraid this was the worst performance I’ve ever seen from a star name. image(1061)He simply had no variety to his speaking pattern, it was that Godspell-style sing-song intonation all the way through. And it wasn’t just me who found him awful. A sizeable chunk of the Young Vic audience was clearly appalled at what they were seeing. In that awful tense moment where an audience has to choose whether to react either by booing or laughing at it (believe me, silence was not an option), we decided on laughter. At one stage Mr Essex stopped the show and told us all that if we weren’t going to take it seriously he wasn’t going to carry on (at which we all had to suppressed a mock ooooh retort). For some bizarre reason we stayed until the end. But it was flat out dreadful, and Mr Essex did himself no favours that evening.

 

  1. Pygmalion – Young Vic, London, August 1981

image(1074)image(1059)I headed back to the Young Vic a couple of weeks later to see this revival of Shaw’s Pygmalion, directed by Denise Coffey, and with Richard Easton as Henry Higgins and Lorraine Chase as Eliza. It was very enjoyable and good-humoured. So much so that, when Stephen Lewis (Blakey in On The Buses) playing Alfred Doolittle, seriously mucked up a couple of lines, he stopped, turned to the audience and very politely asked “Shall I go off and come on again?” at which point we all cheered and good-naturedly let him go from the top again. All this and the redoubtable Betty Marsden as Mrs Higgins. Highly entertaining.

  1. Quartermaine’s Terms – Queen’s Theatre, London, 14th August 1981

image(1080)image(1081)image(1073)Simon Gray’s new play was a charming and funny look at how teachers interact in the staff room at a Cambridge school for teaching English to foreign students, with an accent on how the good old days are on their way out. With a notable cast led by Edward Fox, including James Grout, Prunella Scales and Robin Bailey. Not too many other memories of this one, but I remember that it was good.

  1. Goose Pimples – Garrick Theatre, London, 19th August 1981

image(1086)image(1087)I have much stronger memories of this production, but not entirely for the right reasons. Devised by Mike Leigh – which will have meant that the cast basically wrote it themselves under his aegis – it’s a very tasteless play where a middle class party gets out of hand and they encourage a non-drinking Muslim to get blottoed so that they can laugh at him. Hilarious if you like poking fun at filthy foreigners, otherwise, even in those not especially PC days, buttock-clenchingly embarrassing at times. What’s most bizarre is that the sheikh was played by a young Antony Sher, in his pre-RSC days. The cast also included the splendid Jim Broadbent. I went to see this because I was hoping for another Abigail’s Party. I didn’t get it.

  1. One Big Blow – 7:84 Theatre Company England at the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, 25th September 1981

image(1084)image(1085)Passing over 1981’s visit to the Pendley Festival (Merchant of Venice that year), I went with my friends Mike and Dave, whilst I was staying at their family home in Liverpool during the summer hols, to see John Burrows’ One Big Blow, a moving and beautifully performed story of the health and safety hazards faced by a group of coal miners, who also formed a brass band for their recreation when they were above ground. The actors performed the sounds of the brass band a capella and, yes, these were the actors who went on to become The Flying Pickets. Superb and emotional night at the theatre, and it was fascinating to see the beginning of what was to be a very successful musical career for these actors.

  1. Overheard – Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, 28th October 1981

image(1103)image(1104)image(1094)A new play by Peter Ustinov must have been a source of great joy, but I have to confess, I can’t remember a single thing about this. I even forgot that I had ever seen Ian Carmichael (whom I always admired) and the excellent Deborah Kerr on stage. I had just begun two years’ postgraduate studies at the University of London and I reckon I had enough on my plate. What I do remember, is that I started to blitz the West End now that I was living in London, so I saw a matinee of this play, then an evening performance of the next one – and then I repeated the same pattern the next day. And the same the following week. I crammed a lot of theatre into a short space of time that way!

  1. Steaming – Comedy Theatre, London, 28th October 1981

image(1112)image(1113)image(1100)I remember much better Nell Dunn’s play about the women who used municipal steam baths and how they faced and dealt with its proposed closure. Hats off to Jenny Tiramani for her design which allowed the stage of the Comedy Theatre to be transformed into a real-life steam bath, which the naked ladies occasionally jumped into with total unalloyed abandon. The film that starred Diana Dors changed the emphasis of the original play somewhat, in order to accommodate its star, but the play was a delight, with Georgina Hale, Maria Charles and Brenda Blethyn all giving top rate performances.

  1. The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B – Duke of York’s Theatre, London, 29th October 1981

image(1107)image(1108)image(1111)J P Donleavy adapted his own novel for the stage in this thoroughly entertaining romp starring Simon Callow and Patrick Ryecart. After a while the title was shortened to just Balthazar B, but I’m sure the audiences didn’t miss out on his beastly beatitudes too. Messrs Callow and Ryecart were a terrific duo in this rather salacious tale of women chasing men and marriages of convenience. I can’t remember too many details but I know I enjoyed it enormously. This was a matinee performance – and you’ll have to wait until my next theatre blog to discover what I saw in the evening!

Thanks for joining me on this little look at some old shows. Next regular blog will be back to the holiday snaps, and J is also for Jersey, and a fortnight in 1995 that coincided with 50 years since the end of the war, and, more important, 50 years since the liberation of Jersey. In the meantime, stay safe!

Review – Barnum, Menier Chocolate Factory, 4th February 2018

BarnumI had a really bad night’s sleep the night before we saw Barnum. And I know precisely why; even though we go to the theatre a lot (I’m very lucky, gentle reader, and I do try not to take it for granted), I couldn’t sleep simply because I was genuinely so excited to see the show again. I saw the original production of Barnum at the London Palladium with the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle back in 1981. Front stalls seats for £8.50… they charged £99.50 for the same seats for Dick Whittington last month. Michael Crawford was always one of my theatrical heroes, and he’s rarely taken to a role with such positivity and enthusiasm as that of Phineas Taylor Barnum. In 1996 Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw a touring production at the Wycombe Swan starring Andrew O’Connor. I remember enjoying it; that’s all I remember.

Barnum and circus typesThen a few years ago, Barnum was revived at Chichester, in a big top tent in the park, whilst the Festival Theatre was being refitted. A perfect use of the space, and a magnificent setting for the revival. PTB was played by Broadway star Christopher Fitzgerald. Comparisons are odious, but he lacked the showbizzy pizzazz of Michael Crawford, and he couldn’t walk the tightrope. He did, however, invest the part with loads of emotion, so his affair with Jenny Lind, and his bereavement when his beloved Charity dies (oops, spoilers, sorry) were really moving.

Barnum and palsSo now we have a brand new Barnum, in that amazingly versatile theatre space, the Menier Chocolate Factory, which has been jiggered around so that it now feels like a proper big top. First thing: the staging is superb. Even just entering the theatre, you might bump into the ringmaster or some of his assistants; the bar/reception area recreates Barnum’s museum, with suitable pictures and artefacts; on the way out, his mermaid even shows up to direct us towards the egress. It all makes absolutely perfect scene-setting. Inside the auditorium, various cast members play card tricks with the audience, or create balloon animals for children of all ages; it was one of those shows where I was absolutely loving it before it had even begun.

Barnum and CharityInevitably though, with this in the round staging, for every moment when part of the action is right in front of you and you have the best view in the house, there’s another moment when you simply can’t see what’s going on. We sat in seats A 84 & 85, from where you couldn’t see the balcony where Charity often looked down on the action and where (I believe) the blues singer opens the song Black and White. When Tom Thumb’s elephant appears, his right leg completely obliterated the view of the stage so we couldn’t see the final part of Bigger Isn’t Better – and also from that angle, you had no sense of how the theatrical illusion of the elephant worked. So, some friendly and helpful advice: if you haven’t booked yet, and there are still some tickets left for some shows, I’d definitely opt for seats numbers 20 – 36, no matter what row you choose. The Menier is one of the most intimate acting spaces I know, and even if there were a full house for Barnum it can’t seat more than 190 people for one show; so the atmosphere is still magic no matter where you sit.

Barnum castIn the title role is Marcus Brigstocke, whom we’ve seen twice doing stand-up and once in Spamalot, and he’s always a total joy to watch. But what would he make of the iconic role of Barnum, the supreme showman? As you would expect, he makes it his own. Wisely, there’s no attempt to impersonate Crawford, or to go over the top on the pizzazz. Mr Brigstocke’s Barnum is not so much the supreme showman, more the supreme businessman – and I don’t mean that unkindly. Much of the story revolves around Barnum’s building up of his circus/museum empire, assessing the benefits of one act over the next, working out how much they should be paid, going into partnerships with various other businessmen; and also getting his work/life balance right vis-à-vis his good lady wife. In these regards, Mr B is absolutely spot on. For the other aspects of Barnum’s character, I found him perhaps a little staid, a little respectable. I’m not sure he’d ever run away to join the circus, but he’d definitely be their Operations Manager. Credit where it’s due though; on the show we saw, he performed the tightrope trick perfectly, so kudos to him for that, given he’s quite a big bloke!

Barnum Political campaignThe character of Barnum has a lot of singing to do, and I’d say that Mr Brigstocke’s singing voice has come a long way since we saw him in Spamalot. Technically, it’s a really demanding role and challenges the performer’s vocal dexterity. For example, he has to enunciate the Museum Song, a patter song with so many words per minute that most people would need a lie down after it. I couldn’t work out whether it was Mr Brigstocke’s performance, or the Menier’s sound system, but quite a lot of it got, shall we say, lost in action. But I’ve no wish to be mean, I really enjoyed Mr Brigstocke as Barnum, he had an avuncular charm and great interaction with the audience; and we got to shake his hand as part of his political rally.

Barnum - Charity's heard it all beforeThe rest of the cast are outstanding, in all departments. Laura Pitt-Pulford is as splendid as you would imagine as Chairy Barnum, with her beautiful singing voice complimenting perfectly the sentiments of The Colours of My Life, I Like Your Style (by the way, how come it became I liked your style?) and my own favourite, One Brick at a Time. She also teased out all the emotion of the role; you could have heard the legendary pin drop – or indeed, her heart break – when she realised that her Taylor was staying behind to play the jackdaw with the Swedish nightingale. Talking of whom, Celinde Schoemaker is brilliant as Jenny Lind; captivatingly beautiful, an extraordinary voice and really expressing that spoilt, demanding and tiresome character that lurked beneath. The staging of Love Makes Such Fools of us All, within a picture frame, was both beautiful and tragic to witness. Tupele Dorgu is an amusingly young looking Joice Heth – almost throwing Barnum’s humbug in our face to think that she could be 160 years old – and I loved her renditions of Black and White and especially Thank God I’m Old, which I reckon is one of the funniest songs in musical theatre. I remember how when I saw the Palladium production, “Thank God I’m Old” really made the late Dowager laugh her head off; which, if you ever knew her, gentle reader, may well come as quite a surprise.

Barnum - Black and WhiteI was delighted to see one of my favourite performers, Harry Francis, as Tom Thumb; having seen him dance his way through A Chorus Line, Chicago and Fiddler on the Roof, I knew he’d bring something special to this show. I bet no other Tom Thumb has ever performed so many perfect pirouettes, executed brilliantly without travelling from the start position. It was also great to see another fantastic dancer, Danny Collins, so amazing as Dr Jekyll a couple of years ago, as Amos Scudder. Dominic Owen plays the ringmaster more like one of the lads than the boss, which is an interesting way of looking at the role, and his curious Mr Bailey at the end was a picture of awe and wonderment at the wonderful world of circus, rather than the hard-nosed businessman I’ve seen before. The ensemble are vivacious and entertaining, with some great circus performers as well as the musical theatre types. Amongst them I reckon young Ainsley Hall Ricketts is going to be One To Watch for the future! I almost forgot to mention Rebecca Howell’s choreography, which would have been most remiss of me. Funny, exhilarating, inventive, joyful; it matched the music and the story perfectly and was a sheer delight.

Barnum - Jenny LindIt wasn’t until the final song – Join The Circus – was starting up that I remembered quite how much significance and emotion I, personally, invest in Barnum the show. Basically, I’d forgotten how much it reminded me of my old mum; she who was an enormous Michael Crawford fan, she who found the character of Joice Heth so hilarious. Never underestimate the power of the theatre to stir the emotions and trigger the nostalgia button; nor ever underestimate the power of a show tune to get the old waterworks flowing. By the time we were putting our coats on to brave the Southwark winter, I found the tears were fair coursin’ down my cheeks, so they were. Now I wasn’t expecting that!

Barnum - Tom ThumbIt wasn’t perfect; few things are. But I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it. No wonder I couldn’t sleep the night before. If you ever dreamed of running away and joining a troupe of acrobats and clowns, this is the show for you. If you love immersive theatre where the action comes up right close to you, this is also the show for you. It runs until 3rd March and I’d be thrilled to go again, if you’ve got a spare ticket.

Production photos by Nobby Clark

Review – Barnum, Theatre in the Park, Chichester, 20th July 2013

Barnum 2013Having seen “If Only” at the Minerva theatre in the afternoon, we took a leisurely stroll through the town to Marks and Spencer to buy a picnic, which we subsequently enjoyed sprawled out in the glorious early evening sunshine in the grounds of Chichester Cathedral. Prawn crackers, various salads, lots of fruit and a bottle of Macon Burgundy. Occasionally the CCTV camera turned its lens towards us, and I did wonder if perhaps we were breaking some bye-law, but I doubt whether the Powers That Be were over-concerned at a middle-aged couple taking a relaxed, if slightly boozy, repast in God’s Garden.

Barnum 1981Then it was back to the Festival theatre site. Not to the Festival Theatre itself, as it is currently being renovated to celebrate its first fifty years. I am sure they will do a splendid job of it. So there are no shows in that theatre this summer; but they have come up with a splendid alternative, the Theatre in the Park. The park in question is Oaklands Park, adjacent to the Festival theatre, and the Park theatre is a big top canvas type structure that resembles a circus tent –Theatre in the Park and what better show to revive for this season than Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart’s Barnum. It’s an enchanting walk up the path to the theatre – staff are now positioned at various points along the way to welcome you, much like the gamesmakers at last year’s Olympics. Once you reach the theatre there is a real summer circus vibe, and inside they have constructed a really useful and lively acting space – horseshoe shaped, much like the Festival theatre, with a big round stage and circussy drapes at the back that hide the band and all the backstage gubbins.

Jenny Lind inviteI remember going to see the original production of Barnum at the London Palladium with the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle – on 3rd August 1981, according to my ticket stub; look – I even still have my invitation to Jenny Lind’s free concert on the White House lawn! The show starred Michael Crawford, who was probably at the peak of his stage prowess at the time and he gave the most starriest of star performances. He had this extraordinary ability to convey showmanship and vulnerability at the same time, and no opportunity was missed to impress you with his style and panache or to take you all the way down to whicheverMichael Crawford emotional depths he wanted. Mrs Chrisparkle and I also saw a touring production in July 1996 at the Wycombe Swan with Andrew O’Connor in the role. I remember enjoying it very much, but it doesn’t seem to have left a mark in history.

Christopher FitzgeraldAnd now on to 2013 and our new Barnum, Christopher Fitzgerald; a rising star on Broadway but pretty much unknown in the UK. At 5ft 5in, he’s a mini powerhouse of talent; engaging, funny and he packs a great vocal punch. He’s great at doing clever comic business and communicates well with the audience. On the night we saw it, which admittedly was still a preview, he didn’t get all the way with the tightrope act, although I understand he’s got better since then! Mrs Chrisparkle and I really enjoyed his performance; but comparisons with Michael Crawford would be odious, so I won’t go down that route. He really did excel though, in the “Barnum’s Lament” sequence, sat on the edge of the stage looking as though the Earth had caved in on him. That’s when he really tapped in to the emotions.

Tamsin CarrollTamsin Carroll is Chairy, his long-suffering wife, and she gives a cracker of a performance. I’m sure every husband in the audience winced at her withering expressions as she attempted to keep her Taylor in check. She’s also a great singer and has terrific stage presence. One of the perplexing things about the show is how readily Chairy accepts Barnum back after he’s been gallivanting with Jenny Lind for six months; considering that at other times he has to act the lion tamer to her man-eating beast, it’s a bit of a character inconsistency. Nevertheless, Miss Carroll and Mr Fitzgerald together create a terrific stage partnership.

Aretha AyehAs for the rest of the cast, they’re all excellent; the majority of the other main characters have one big song each, and they all carry them off superbly. I loved Aretha Ayeh as Joice Heth, the oldest woman in the world, singing that great song “Thank God I’m Old” wheeling around in her bath chair; it comes quite early in the show and really gives it a superb lift. Jack North is a cheeky little General Tom Thumb tapping his way through “Bigger Isn’t Better”, nearly but not quite being upstaged by the inventive stage appearance of Jumbo the elephant. And there’s a fabulous performance by Anna O’Byrne as Jenny Lind, who really could be the new Swedish nightingale; she’s stunningly beautiful, has the voice of an angel; no wonder Barnum was led astray.

Jack NorthThe staging of the show is really arresting – the big numbers are exceptional and memorable. The band members entering the auditorium individually at the beginning of the second act for “Come Follow The Band” sent a shiver up my spine – but then I do always have a weak spot for traditional circus; plus we got some great acrobatics performed right up close to us. “Join The Circus” is a stirringly wonderful song that the whole cast and audience can get behind; but definitely one of the main highlights for me was “One Brick At A Time”, where the whole ensemble chuck bricks around the stage to build the American Museum, and it’s a mesmerising routine. One dropped brick and the whole thing would be a disaster!

Anna O’ByrneIt’s an ensemble that’s chock-full of talent; amongst them, I was really impressed by James O’Connell who is a great dancer considering he’s a relatively big chap and in the final scenes of the show he turns in a very convincing appearance as Mr Bailey, Barnum’s business partner with whom he worked for the last ten years of his life. There are some strong guys in that ensemble too, especially those holding the planks of wood that Chairy climbs up; there’s obviously an enormous amount of respect and trust between cast members – the two guys that hold her secure as they turn the plank around with her standing on it do a fantastic job!

James O’ConnellIt’s an intriguing decision to remove the traditional role of Ringmaster and make it into a puppet-style performance with an off-stage voice; I’m not sure it has quite the same impact as the original presentation – Mr William C Witter who played the Ringmaster at the Palladium was constantly doing circus tricks and stunts throughout the show. However, we loved the simple but effective suggestion of the fire at the museum by the use of flares thrown down on to the stage; and I should also give mention to the brilliant band under the direction of Adam Rowe, whom the audience didn’t want to let go home as we kept demanding encores after the show had finished! They make a fantastic contribution to the show.

EnsembleYou come away with a lightness of heart and a touch of magic in your soul, which is only enhanced by the nighttime view of the park and the lights outside that lead you back to civilisation and the car park. It’s a superb revival with some class performances and a great ensemble and I would be very surprised if it doesn’t get a well-deserved transfer. If you’re in Chichester this summer, it’s a must.

Theatre lit upPS Last year, on our eternal quest for some decent gluten-free breakfasts, we discovered Spires Bakery on Crane Street. We went back again this year, and it’s as good as ever. Not only did we have top quality cooked breakfasts on Sunday morning, but we popped over for a cheeky Saturday lunch, where Mrs C asked for a Brie and Bacon gluten-free toasted sandwich and she said it was to die for. High praise indeed.