We spent most of the Christmas period playing that touch-and-go game of will the shows go ahead or will Covid get the better of us all. Amazingly, all three shows that we had booked for between Christmas and New Year managed to stay sufficiently Corona-free and they were all thoroughly pleasing theatre trips, so praise be to the Vaccine and Booster!
First of those three was a show that I had high hopes of seeing early in 2020 but it wasn’t to be because of you know what. The first major work written and composed by husband and wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Come From Away first opened in various locations in the US in 2015, before arriving in Toronto in 2016, Broadway in 2017 and the West End in 2019. It’s the longest running Canadian musical on Broadway, and has won many awards, including the Olivier for Best Musical in 2019. Does it live up to its hype? Oh boy, yes it sure does.
Everyone knows the tragic story of the hijacked planes that were flown into the Twin Towers on September 11th 2001, resulting in almost 3,000 deaths. But I’d never thought about – and I bet you hadn’t either – the 38 flights that were headed for New York at the same time and which had to be diverted to the small town of Gander, in Newfoundland. Approximately 7,000 passengers and crew, expecting to land in the Big Apple, suddenly found themselves in the back of beyond, nearly doubling the population of that tiny town. What a logistical nightmare that must have been – how to feed, house, and clothe these people; how to take care of their medical needs, how to get them in contact with friends and family (no one had mobiles in those days), and how eventually to get them back to where they needed to be, once the danger had passed. And who would give that help? The kind, generous and welcoming inhabitants of Gander, that’s who.
If ever we lived at a time where we need a good news story it’s now, and Come From Away overflows with kindness and compassion. It boasts a brilliant eight-strong band who deliver the catchy, Irish-folky score with huge enthusiasm and infectious rhythm. Beowulf Borritt’s simple but terrifically evocative set, combined with Howell Binkley’s subtle lighting design, provides a sparse, rustic backdrop to all the scenes, from a super-friendly Tim Horton’s to a chaotic airport.
The cast of twelve play dozens of characters, the majority based on real-life people and their genuine experiences at the time. There’s never been a time when theatre has needed and valued its amazing swings and covers as much as now, and for our performance we had three understudies. But the whole cast worked together superbly as a true ensemble, seamlessly moving in and out of different characters with as little as a simple walk around the stage, or change of a hat. And although the show emphasises the good things, it’s not to say that there aren’t of course many crises, heartaches, petty antagonisms and reconciliations along the way; but everything reaches a positive conclusion. So many mini-dramas are played out in this show, like the arguments between James Doherty’s Mayor Claude and Mark Dugdale’s union leader Garth, who decides to suspend the bus drivers’ strike to help with the emergency; or the relationship deterioration between the two Kevins – Mark Dugdale again and superb standby Ricardo Castro, who is also excellent as the initially distrusted super-chef Ali.
Jenna Boyd is brilliant as teacher Beulah, but also hilarious as the terrified/drunk scouser passenger who breaks into Celine Dion at a moment’s notice. She has very touching scenes with Gemma Knight Jones’ Hannah as both characters share the concern about having a son as a firefighter. I loved Alice Fearn’s smart pilot Beverley, and Harry Morrison’s constantly enthusiastic cop Oz. The heart-warming romance that kindles between Kate Graham’s Diane and standby Stuart Hickey’s Nick is beautifully observed and gets more and more charming as it progresses. Another standby, Jennifer Tierney, is excellent as the kind-hearted Bonnie, in charge of the SPCA, and who treats the 19 animals who suddenly arrive in Gander with the same respect as everyone else treats the humans – especially her beloved Bonobos! There are also great performances by Emma Salvo as newbie reporter Janice and Sam Oladeinde as the partial to Irish Whiskey Bob. The music is uplifting and emotional, and the band get their own sensational curtain call at the end with a fantastic demonstration of their individual musical skills in a finale hoe-down.
Everything about this show is a delight. A tonic for the heart and a balm for the mind. No wonder it’s been so successful. Absolutely superb from start to finish.
The musical theatre is a very broad church. Only a few hours ago I was writing about how Anything Goes is a brilliant show but ever so lightweight. Today I am writing about Assassins, also a brilliant show (in a different way) but as dark as dark can be. If Anything Goes can be likened to nibbling at a stick of candy floss (and I think it can), Assassins is like tucking in to a lump of nutty slack. It first hit the UK stage in 1992, at a time when Mrs Chrisparkle and I didn’t see much theatre, so it’s great to be able to fill in the gaps of one’s Sondheim knowledge. Up till now the only link I had between the notion of assassins and musicals theatre was a character called The Assassin, who sang “I’m an A double S a double S I N”, from Tim Rice’s long forgotten Blondel. I think I used to irritate Mrs C by singing it a lot. Fortunately it’s a phase I’ve grown out of.
Sondheim’s assassins are not really in the Tim Rice mould. The show takes several famous assassins (or wannabe assassins), all of whom had a crack at taking out an American President (and I don’t mean on a dinner date). The show gathers them together and makes them confront each other, even though in real life they lived at different times and places. Sondheim forces them to look at their motives, their modus operandi, and their influence on each other. They challenge each other, they support each other, they goad each other on; and, for the most part, they each come to a sticky end. All this jollity set in a nightmare fantasy fairground. Well, where else would you set such a show? In fact when you descend those old steps into the Menier auditorium it’s like going to Luna Park in Sydney – a thoroughly creepy experience. The place is littered with all sorts of fairground ephemera, including those huge open mouthed clown faces and a decrepit old dodgems car. You have pick your way quite carefully to your seat, which may include encroaching on the stage a little -which is in traverse for this performance, something the Menier lends itself to superbly well.
Regular readers (bless you), may recollect my mantra that I prefer a brave failure to a lazy success. Well, this is an extremely brave and innovative show, and I certainly wouldn’t class it a failure by any means. To be fair, you couldn’t call it Sondheim’s strongest score, and I can’t really remember any of the tunes; but it’s very enjoyable. However, when it was all over, Mrs C and I looked at each other and just felt completely baffled by the whole thing. If I were to be able to ask Mr Sondheim just one question about it, it would be the one word: “why?” It’s an incredibly niche content – not just murderers, but assassins; not just assassins but assassins of US Presidents. I can’t believe Sondheim had people knocking at his door begging for this to be the subject matter of his latest show. I can only put it down to a huge burst of creative eccentricity.
One of the great things about the Menier is its intimacy. When you sit in row A, our usual chosen position, you’re within touching distance of the cast. Assassins has a cast of sixteen, the majority of whom are all on stage at the same time, and when they’re doing fairly intricate and powerful dance moves and gestures in that relatively small area, it feels incredibly close. There’s a lot of bringing your feet in as much as possible so you can’t trip anyone up (never send a murderer arse over tip is a good motto I feel); and there are some sequences when the cast sit on chairs staring out at the audience, which is an opportunity to see if you can out-stare them. They’ve practised that – they always out-stare you back. Much of Chris Bailey’s choreography is quite stompy (not a criticism, merely an observation), and as the cast stomp around you, you can feel yourself literally shaking in your seat. This is an all-round experience production – loud, vibrating, vivid, powerful and literally in-your-face. No one’s going to nod off during this show.
Whilst there are some star names in the cast, it’s very much an ensemble piece, and it’s hard to identify any particular role that outweighs the others – apart, perhaps, from the central character, “the Proprietor”, played by Simon Lipkin, whose fairground (I presume) we inhabit. He spends most of the show standing up to the assassins and getting regularly shot by them, all the time masked in the most terrifying circus make up. If you see Mr Lipkin’s face in the programme, you’d never believe they were the same person. Imagine an elaborately painted clown’s face that has been left out in the rain for an hour or so, resulting in streams of contrasting colours trickling down and ruining his vest. It’s a long shot, but if you remember the RSC’s Comedy of Errors from the late 1970s, his appearance reminded me strongly of Doctor Pinch, the Schoolmaster. I really enjoyed Mr Lipkin’s performance – powerful, terrifying, intense; the stuff of nightmares.
Another slightly strange role is that of the Balladeer. For the first three-quarters of the show, he sings and strums his banjo on the sidelines, commenting on the action, like an Everyman figure; pivotal in the show numbers but neither, as far as one can make out, an assassin nor a victim. However, towards the end he becomes Lee Harvey Oswald, antagonised by John Wilkes Booth (who despatched Abraham Lincoln) into committing a crime you feel he had no reason to undertake other than that supreme sense of flattery when everyone knows your name. He’s played by one of our favourite performers, Jamie Parker; you always know you’re in very safe hands with him in the cast.
The majority of the male assassins are rather dour creatures. David Roberts’ Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who assassinated President McKinley, could be mistaken for Lenin on a dark night, despairingly flitting across the stage in an angst-ridden quest for justice, until he goes all gooey eyed at his heroine Emma Goldman – it’s an unexpectedly amusing scene between them. I was very impressed with Harry Morrison’s performance as John Hinckley, who attempted to assassinate Reagan; a seething mass of vengeance under a barely concealed veneer of calm – so different from the Mr Morrison we enjoyed a few months ago in Chichester’s Guys and Dolls, which is, coincidentally, where was last saw Jamie Parker too.
Steward Clarke’s Giuseppe Zangara, who attempted assassination on Franklin D Roosevelt, is portrayed as a vicious, angry victim himself – driven mental because of his constant stomach pains., Mr Clarke’s unnervingly wild eyes contribute to a very compelling performance, particularly when Zangara meets his electrifying death. Mike McShane, dressed as a rather bedraggled Santa Claus for a reason I couldn’t quite make out, takes the role of Samuel Byck, the unhinged wannabe assassin of Richard Nixon, whose murderous attempt was somewhat hapless and ended up with him killing himself instead. Mr McShane is a fine actor with a great stage presence, but I found his monologues where he is recording messages to Leonard Bernstein just a bit too long, and lacking in dramatic tension. It’s the only place where I felt John Weidman’s book needed some trimming.
On the other hand, a couple of the male assassins were much brighter characters. The always entertaining Andy Nyman (who we’ve seen at the Menier twice before – has he taken up residence?) plays Charles Guiteau (assassin of President Garfield), bouncing around the stage like an excited puppy. He’s obsessed with becoming Ambassador to France, and is clearly a maverick and a charlatan, and immense fun to watch. His death by hanging scene is a great piece of stagecraft, encompassing tragedy and hilarity at the same time. Broadway favourite Aaron Tveit takes the role of John Wilkes Booth, bestriding the stage, moustachioed like Van Dyck, cajoling and coaxing many a wannabe assassin into action. With controlled power, Mr Tveit gives us almost every emotion under the sun; never let him near an empty coke bottle. It’s a very enjoyable performance.
There are only two female assassins, both of whom acted in collaboration with each other in two separate attempts to assassinate Gerald Ford: Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, played by the excellent Carly Bawden (unforgettable as Eliza in Sheffield’s My Fair Lady), and TV favourite Catherine Tate as Sara Jane Moore. Carly Bawden is wonderfully irrepressible as Fromme, balancing no-nonsense serious threats with totally loopy adoration of Charles Manson; and Catherine Tate is hilarious as the rather inept and definitely thick Moore, taking her son and her dog to the assassination, hurling bullets manually at the President when the gun doesn’t work (which is one of the funniest things I’ve seen on stage in a long time). If you like Catherine Tate’s TV show, you’ll love her in this – Sara Jane Moore would fit perfectly into her repertoire of weird and wacky characters. Mind you, I’d better be careful what I say about Moore and Fromme as they’re both out on parole now.
A big theatrical experience, with a great band, costumes, make up, and set; more gunshots than you would normally expect in a lifetime at the theatre; and a colourful finale that cleverly covers the entire stage and some of the seats in a sea of blood (don’t worry, it’s an illusion, you don’t get wet). A very high impact production and, rarely for me, one of the occasions when not having an interval feels strangely appropriate. Whilst there is some humour, it’s not what you’d call a Musical Comedy; and I can’t say that you leave the theatre on a high – we left it rather shell-shocked at what we’d seen. But it’s certainly a stunner. It’s on at the Menier until 7th March, but if you haven’t booked, it’s too late as the whole of the rest of the run is sold out. There’s got to be the potential of a transfer, surely – but it needs to be kept intimate, so as to preserve the claustrophobic power of the whole thing. Congratulations to the Menier, another winner!
Wasn’t it Stephen Sondheim who said (and I think it was) that the best musical ever written is Carmen? Or maybe it was me. No, it wouldn’t have been me because my favourite musical of all time is A Chorus Line, and nothing is ever going to change me from that – inflexible though that sounds. But of all the other musicals ever written, a big contender for the title of Best Ever is without doubt Guys and Dolls, which fills your heart with happiness and pathos non-stop for two and a half hours and is jam-packed with a score that soars.
It’s based on the Broadway-based short stories of Damon Runyon and tells the tales of two ladies. Miss Adelaide is the star at the Hot Box revue and has been engaged to Nathan for fourteen years. Unsurprisingly, she’s getting a bit fed up of her status, which has brought on psychosomatic sniffles. Nathan’s a bit of a lazy so-and-so and just makes his money from organising floating crap games – and although he’s promised Miss Adelaide that he’s stopped this reckless and illegal way of making a living, he hasn’t. Sister Sarah Brown is a prim but kind-hearted Salvationist at the Save A Soul Mission. If she doesn’t get more sinners to attend her meetings, the mission is going to get closed down. Enter inveterate gambler (and charmer) Sky Masterson, who wins a bet and the lady’s heart even though he’s not at all the kind of guy she’d imagined she’d want. Do Miss Adelaide and Nathan eventually get married? Does Sky arrange for all the local gamblers to attend the prayer meeting and convince Sarah that he’s the right guy for her? Of course they do!
Although it is undoubtedly a top-notch show, it’s not perfect – it breaks the Chrisparkle Cardinal Rule for a great musical, which is that every song must move the story or character development forward. There’s nothing worse than a musical where you have plot development then stop for a song, then more plot development, then stop for a song, and so on ad nauseam, mentioning no names (42nd Street). Guys and Dolls has two songs that are simply excuses for Miss Adelaide and the Hot Box girls to show us what they’re made of – the rather silly Bushel and a Peck, and the utterly brilliant Take Back Your Mink. They’re nothing more than dramatic interludes, but I break my Cardinal Rule and forgive them for that, due to the sheer entertainment value. There are also two sequences that seem rather dated today but fit perfectly to the “standard musical formula” of the time – this was written in 1950 – the ubiquitous musical ballet sequences. Think Oklahoma’s Dream Ballet or Carousel’s Billy Makes a Journey. However, they do have a purpose. The Havana sequence allows us to see Sarah Brown let her hair down, and the Crap Shooters’ Ballet serves as a lively aperitif to – indeed almost an extension of – Luck Be A Lady.
Chichester’s production of Guys and Dolls is a spectacular success. Beautiful to look at, thrilling to hear, and with some sensational performances that really take your breath away. Every department – lighting, sound, costume, choreography – excels. This was only the second time in all my years of theatregoing that I’ve seen this show – and it was Mrs Chrisparkle’s first. I remember with huge affection the National Theatre’s amazing production that I saw at a preview performance on 4th March 1982, starring a most glorious cast. I know it’s rude to compare, but it’s my blog and I’ll compare if I want to. Sadly, I may have to use the phrase “the late great” a few times in this paragraph. Miss Adelaide was played by Julia McKenzie, absolutely at the top of her musical skills and she was fantastic. For Nathan Detroit we had none other than the late great Bob Hoskins, and you can just imagine how much characterisation he gave it. Sarah Brown was the wonderful Julie Covington, who put such sincere expression into every scene, and Sky Masterson was the late great Ian Charleson – if only he had lived he would have undoubtedly been one of the greatest ever actors. Even dropping down the cast list there were some incredible names – Nicely-Nicely Johnson was the late great David Healy, beaming with happiness and brilliant throughout. Benny Southstreet was Northern Broadsides’ very own Barrie Rutter; Arvide Abernathy the late great John Normington; Harry the Horse was the amazing Bill Paterson; Brannigan was the late great Harry Towb; and Mimi in the chorus was played by someone called Imelda Staunton. With the help of a superb cast album, so much of that production is alive in my mind as if it were yesterday. So this Chichester revival had a lot to live up to – but without question it achieves it.
Sophie Thompson plays Miss Adelaide like she’s been waiting all her life to do it. I’ve only seen her once before, in Clybourne Park, where she gave a fantastic performance. But her Miss Adelaide is just wonderful. Delivering all the sadness as well as the humour in the brilliant Adelaide’s Lament, timing it to perfection with some daringly long pauses as you see the truth of her situation slowly occurring to her. There is an element of caricature to her performance, but then there’s more than an element of caricature about the whole character of Miss Adelaide, and it’s a perfect fit. She’s vivacious in the Hot Box songs, moving and funny in her arguments with Nathan, and just sublime with Sarah in Marry The Man Today. Quite simply a star performance.
Peter Polycarpou plays Nathan Detroit with a downtrodden, can’t-ever-win attitude, which really emphasises the humour of his situation and character. He’s got natural stage authority and is a superb singer. His is a very different Nathan from Bob Hoskins’, who was more cheeky and chancy; Mr Polycarpou’s Nathan is quieter and wiser – less caricature, more real. As Sarah Brown, Clare Foster is a revelation, with an incredible vocal range and she switches from the prim and proper Sarah to the letting-her-hair-down Sarah really convincingly. I’d forgotten that we’d also seen her in Merrily We Roll Along, where she was extremely good, but here in Guys and Dolls, her performance is an absolute stunner. I was also very impressed with the way she kept up with the other sensational dancers in the Havana scene – choreographer Carlos Acosta couldn’t be a more appropriate choice. And Sky Masterson is played by the excellent Jamie Parker, who’s always rewarding to watch, and is perfect casting for this charismatic and enigmatic character.
The biggest number of course comes from Nicely-Nicely Johnson leading the sinners in the rousing Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat. Harry Morrison gives it great attack and comic vitality, and sends it as way over the top as it can be, which is perfect for this tongue-in-cheek homage to being good without being godly. It went down a storm, as it always does. However, I was reminded of the 1982 version, which David Healy and the whole ensemble delivered so magnificently, that it literally stopped the show. Harry Towb came on as Brannigan to deliver his next line that moves us on from the song, and he waited, and he waited, but the audience wouldn’t let up with its noisy delighted applause, and in the end he threw up his hands and went off again while they all did a full encore. That was a theatrical magic moment. But comparisons are indeed odious, and that takes nothing away from Mr Morrison’s tremendous performance. He also does a fantastic job, with Ian Hughes as Benny, with the song Guys and Dolls, a really lively, funny, and engaging rendition of that number.
I loved Neil McCaul’s robust delivery of More I Cannot Wish You, very different from John Normington’s more sentimental delivery – I think I preferred Mr McCaul’s interpretation. And he gets a round of applause for his killer exit line. Very pleased to see him on stage again, I’ve not seen him since “Privates on Parade” in 1978. Nick Wilton (hilarious in the Menier’s Two into One earlier this year) is a wonderfully gruff gangster of a Harry The Horse, Nic Greenshields an amusingly imposing Big Jule, and the chorus ensemble are all just superb. As for the band, we had absolutely no choice but to stay behind to hear them finish their outro at the end of the show. Fantastic!
It’s a bit of a cliché to say that it would be a travesty if this doesn’t transfer, but, there, I’ve said it. If you were lucky enough to get to see it – wasn’t it great? If you didn’t see it – I bet you’re kicking yourself now.