Jerry Springer The Opera – Cambridge Theatre, London, 10th July 2004
Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas’ scurrilous, sacrilegious and totally hilarious musical probably gave me the most laughs in a show until I saw The Book of Mormon. A wonderful parody of the Jerry Springer TV show, this upset people near and far – which is always a good indication that it takes its place in history. Fantastic performances from Michael Brandon as Springer and particularly David Bedella as Satan/Warm up Man. We adored it from start to finish.
Jesus Christ Superstar – Birmingham Hippodrome, September 2004
I don’t usually write up shows in this blog if I’ve already seen them before, but I include this production of Jesus Christ Superstar because of the two extraordinary performances by Glenn Carter as Jesus and James Fox as Judas. A show on a grand scale that was absolutely stunning.
Rambert Dance Company Autumn Tour – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 7th October 2004
Passing over a rather forgettable touring production of Blithe Spirit at the Milton Keynes Theatre, starring Penelope Keith as Madame Arcati, our next show was Rambert’s Autumn tour, featuring four pieces. First up was Frederick Ashton’s Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, as restaged by Lynn Seymour, and danced by Melanie Teal. Then came Kim Brandstrup’s Songs of a Wayfarer, Ian Spink’s reworking of Ashton’s A Tragedy of Fashion and Michael Clark’s Swamp. Always skilful and inspiring.
Richard Alston Dance Company – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 2nd November 2004
Our annual trip to see Richard Alston’s show, this performance featured three dances: Brisk Singing, Shimmer and Gypsy Mixture. Star dancers Martin Lawrance and Jonathan Goddard on top form. Amazing as always.
Jekyll and Hyde The Musical – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 25th November 2004
I remember there being a blaze of excitement and anticipation about this musical written by Leslie Bricusse, starring Paul Nicholas as the dually-tormented hero/anti-hero. It had opened in the US in 1990 but had taken fourteen years to reach the UK. Fully expecting to get a West End run, for some reason it just didn’t click – and it’s still not reached the West End to this day. Very lavish, great production values – good performances, but something was definitely lacking.
Matthew Bourne’s Highland Fling – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 24th February 2005
Passing over the Watermill’s highly rated production of Sweeney Todd at the Ambassadors, and a tenth anniversary production of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake at Sadler’s Wells, our next show was said choreographer’s revival production of his early hit Highland Fling, “a romantic wee ballet” which reenvisages La Sylphide in a disco and council flat in Glasgow. Huge fun, terrifically inventive, and with a great cast of dancers including James Leece and Hannah Vassallo.
Losing Louis – Trafalgar Studios, London, 26th February 2005
Simon Mendes da Costa’s black comedy was a bit of a hit and miss affair with the critics but we thoroughly enjoyed it. Great performances from Alison Steadman and Lynda Bellingham.
Carmen – Oper Leipzig at the Opera House, Leipzig, 23rd April 2005
We took a long weekend at the exciting German city of Leipzig, and decided to pay a visit to the Opera House to see a production of Carmen. The theatre was quite municipal, but the production was very enjoyable – in French with German surtitles, which was a linguistic challenge.
Grupo Corpo – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 3rd May 2005
Dance Consortium brought the Brazilian dance group Grupo Corpo to the UK for a tour, featuring two dances, O Corpo and Lecuona. The pictures look really exciting – what a shame I can hardly remember this at all!
The 2005 Russian Spectacular – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 3rd June 2005
A slight misrepresentation of the truth, as this Russian Spectacular featured the White Russian Central Band from Belarus, and Belarussian military singers, as well as dancers from the Bolshoi and the Belarussian National Folk Dance Academy. An evening of Cossacks and Kalinka – I loved it. It was to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Victory in Europe, so it’s safe to say they came in peace. Massive fun.
Gird your loins as we dip further into the back catalogue!
Yahoo – Queen’s Theatre, London, November 1976.
A school trip to see a play that I thought had the potential to be boring – and boy was I right. For some reason, a lot of my schoolfriends were into studying Jonathan Swift for A Level and it was thought this would be a helpful insight into his life. If it was, all I can see is that he was a very dull man. Of course the main attraction was to see Sir Alec Guinness acting in the flesh, and he cut a very imposing figure.
It also featured Nicola Pagett, whom I never liked (sorry), Mark Kingston and To the Manor Born’s Angela Thorne. My only memory of it is Sir Alec turning to the audience at the resumption after the interval with the line “I trust you have all relieved yourself of your baser necessities”. The only laugh in the show. I hated it.
The Frontiers of Farce – Old Vic, London, November 1976.
I saw this with my schoolfriend Robin because we both liked Leonard Rossiter on TV – I was more a Rising Damp kind of guy and Rob was more a Reggie Perrin fan, but this wasn’t exclusive! The Frontiers of Farce was a combination of two one act fin de siècle farces – The Purging by Georges Feydeau and The Singer by Frank Wedekind, adapted and directed by Peter Barnes.
I can’t remember too much about The Singer, but The Purging is a brilliant play in which Leonard Rossiter played the manufacturer of unbreakable chamber pots; with the simple plot twist that those unbreakable chamber pots broke with the slightest stress. Rob and I sat in the front row and made a collection in the interval of all the broken bits of chamber pot that had been smashed and landed on our laps. The excellent cast also included John Stride, John Phillips and Dilys Laye, and I loved it.
Tartuffe – Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, London, 18th November 1976.
Another school trip, but this time with the French A level class, as this production of Tartuffe was performed in the original French, in a touring production by the Theatre National Populaire of Lyon in France. Don’t think I understood a damn word. The production starred, was directed by (and he probably made the tea too) the late Roger Planchon. Rather reserved and dreary in its presentation, if I remember rightly, which is a bit of a crime when you consider what a great play Tartuffe is.
A Man for All Seasons – Young Vic, London, 17th December 1976.
First play of a very memorable Christmas holiday, this revival of Robert Bolt’s powerful play was very well performed by an excellent cast, directed by Stewart Trotter. I particularly remember the resounding performance by Michael Graham Cox as The Common Man, and the cast included Ian Gelder and Simon Chandler who would go on to have long and successful careers. As you can see, the Young Vic never invested a lot of money in their programmes!
Jesus Christ Superstar – Palace Theatre, London, 22nd December 1976.
Looking back, this was one of the “biggest” shows I’d seen at the time, with its longstanding reputation, its massive staging, and its loyal fan base. I went by myself, as I did every show over this Christmas holiday, and remember sitting next to a young woman who, whilst waiting for the show to start, went to the front page of her souvenir brochure and attached (with some glue that she had fortuitously brought with her) her ticket stub where it joined about fifty other similar stubs – that was my first insight into true theatre fandom!
The production was stunning. I found the portrayal of Jesus (by the late, brilliant Steve Alder) absolutely mesmeric. Apart from a couple of the tunes I had no knowledge of what to expect, so the appearance of Barry James as a super camp Herod worked as the fantastic coup-de-theatre that it’s meant to be. Other top performances were from Mike Mulloy as Judas and a brilliant Caiaphas in the form of Nelson Perry. The theatrical highlight of the show for me was the hanging of Judas – it was so horrifically realistic.
This became my favourite show of all time – an accolade it held for exactly one week.
A Chorus Line – Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, 29th December 1976.
This production came towards the end of the initial six months run of this show, performed by the Toronto cast. I made a list at the time of the moments that made it for me the best show I’d seen at the time, and I still stand by that. I love this show from the bottom of my heart and it has stayed with me all my life. Here are the things I wrote down:
The mystical march away from the mirrors at the end of I Hope I Get It. The touching sorrow of At the Ballet. The dancing of I Can Do That. The sincerity of And. The mammoth Music and the Mirror. The emotional and sad speech of Paul revealing his homosexuality. The hilarity of Val’s song. The magnificence of One. The pure beauty of What I Did for Love. Val singing: Orphan at 3, orphan at 3, Momma and Dad both gone, raised by a sweet ex-con, tied up and raped at 7 – seriously, seriously, nothing too obscene, I’d better keep it clean. The sequence during Dance Ten Looks Three:
Val: You’re all looking at my tits aren’t you?
Sheila: (peering) They aren’t very big.
Val: I heard that you bitch. Anyway I didn’t want them like yours. I wanted them in proportion.
Sheila: Well you got what you paid for.
Kristine: Say, I’d give anything for just one of yours!
Sheila asking Need any women? Or Can the adults smoke? Bobby saying it was about then that I started breaking into people’s houses. Oh, I didn’t steal anything – I just rearranged the furniture. Judy’s A little brat! That’s what my sister was, a little brat, that’s why I shaved her head, I’m glad I shaved her head. Mark apparently having gonorrhoea at the age of 13. Greg getting hard on the bus. Connie tap-dancing in sneakers. Sheila’s happy-to-be-dancing smile.
I’d better stop. I ended up seeing this production seven more times over the next two and a half years, with the London cast that arrived in February 1977. I won’t include these extra visits in my theatrical memories, because that would be overkill!
Charley’s Aunt – Young Vic, London, 3rd January 1977.
I remember this as being a delightfully funny production of this timeless play. It was the first time I had seen the late great Nicky Henson, and he was perfect for the wacky Lord Fancourt Babberley. In addition to Messrs Gelder and Chandler (who were also in A Man for All Seasons, see earlier) this also featured Janine Duvitski who has gone on to be a TV and stage favourite over several decades. Directed by Denise Coffey, with whom I always associate Mrs Black and her Horrible Handbag, from Do Not Adjust Your Set. I know, you’re too young to know what I’m talking about.
The Circle – Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, 5th January 1977.
I saw this with the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle who, as I mentioned before, was a big Somerset Maugham fan. It was my first time to the Haymarket, and I wasn’t impressed – I thought the acoustics were poor and it was hard to hear everything on stage even from our relatively good seats. A rather stately play, slow moving to start but quite fun once it got going.
Despite all its big names, the best performance was from a young Martin Jarvis. It starred Googie Withers (whom I knew from TV’s Within These Walls), her husband John McCallum, Bill Porter, Susan Hampshire and Clive Francis.
Irene – Adelphi Theatre, London, 10th January 1977.
I booked to see this at the end of the Christmas holidays slightly against my better judgment, as I wasn’t overly keen to see it, but I did want to see Jon Pertwee on stage again. As it turned out, it was a good show, very lively, likeable and colourful, but it never got close to being a great show. It features one fantastic song, Up There on Park Avenue, which I still regularly play today. Jon Pertwee was very amusing as the couturier Madame Lucy, and it starred Australia’s Julie Anthony, primarily known as a soprano. Unfortunately, Ms Anthony was indisposed at this performance and I saw Mary Dunne in the role, who was very good. A big show, but a lot more style than substance.
Wild Oats – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Aldwych Theatre, London, 7th February 1977.
This was a school trip organised by English teacher Bruce Ritchie and what a great choice it was. John O’Keeffe’s long lost 1791 play was hysterical from start to finish, with a stonkingly good cast who threw everything at it. Led by Alan Howard, one of the great names of the RSC, it also featured Norman Rodway, Joe Melia (always one of my favourite actors), Zoe Wanamaker, some young spark called Jeremy Irons, and, playing 2nd Ruffian, Ben Cross who would go on to be fantastic in Chariots of Fire amongst other roles. I’d love to see this again, but I don’t think there was a recording. I am Hamlet the Dane, said Mr Howard as the poseur Rover, swirling his cape around him like a mad villain. It brought the house down. Absolutely terrific.
Thanks for joining me for these memories. Tomorrow it’s back to the holiday snaps, C is for Croatia and some memories of Dubrovnik. Stay safe!
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.