There was a time, somewhere in the lonely misery of Lockdown 1.0, when we wondered if we would ever see the Trocks again. Everything else was cancelled due to Covid – how would it ever be safe to venture out again? But here we are, just four short (or maybe long) years since their last visit, and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo have returned to our shores for a two week stint at the Peacock Theatre, with two different programmes, followed by a UK tour.
How sad it was, then, that their return should coincide with the death of Her Majesty the Queen, which knocked the stuffing out of us as a nation. We saw Programme A on the matinee of 10th September, when we were all still coming to terms with her death. The usual hilarious announcement that begins each Trocks show that there will be changes to the advertised programme, largely due to the mission of mercy by esteemed dancer Natasha Notgoodenuff, to rescue a production at Le Grand Theatre de Ballet de Croydon (or somewhere equally unlikely) was missing, and was instead replaced by a two minutes silence plus standing for the national anthem.
Whilst this was completely in keeping with the mourning period, and was scrupulously observed by everyone, it was not the perfect way to start a programme of comic dance. Normally, we would be instantly laughing as an unfit von Rothbart started scampering around the stage at the beginning of the Trocks’ incomparable take on Swan Lake Act II. We’ve seen this wonderful piece of nonsense at least a dozen times and it never failed to make us laugh till we ached – until this time. It’s still wonderful and always will be; but the sadness of the day wasn’t in keeping with the pratfalls on display, and it took a long time for us all to loosen up. It did, however, allow us to witness a brand new Trock star in the diminutive but oh so powerful form of Takaomi Yoshino, who, as Varvara Laptopova, performed the most extraordinary jetés and fouettés, gaining amazing height and completely made you forget you were watching a comedy performance.
Without a pre-show announcement, we didn’t know if there were any changes of cast or what the surprise Pas de Deux would be. Actually, it turned out to be a Pas de Trois, from Swan Lake Act I, with two majestically tall ballerinas accompanied by a teeny tiny male dancer doing his best to support them – and in the end, they gave up and hoisted him overhead in a hilarious about-turn from the usual gender roles. We then moved on to Nightcrawlers, a surprisingly stylish and slick parody of Jerome Robbins’ In The Night, with couples mixing and matching, unexpected rapid cross-stage exits and entrances, and a lot of fun to boot. It was Robert Carter’s magnificent creation Olga Supphozova who executed the Dying Swan in the age old tradition, and we finally enjoyed the ludicrously charming Walpurgisnacht, the stage littered with delightfully silly fauns, a powerful coupling between Minnie Van Driver and Jacques D’Aniels, and a scene-stealing Pan by Boris Dumbkopf (that brilliant Takaomi Yoshino again).
We returned for Programme B on the evening of 15th September. It’s amazing what a few days can do for public spirit. No pre-show silence, but a return to the announcement of changes – and the fact that Natasha Notgoodenuff’s errand of mercy had taken her to Les Grands Ballets Imperiales de Slough. It’s funny how rattling off a few faux Russian names and the news that the ballerinas are all in a very very good mood this evening can really help the show start off on the right foot. We kicked off (indeed, it all kicked off) with Les Sylphides, an excellent example of the Trocks doing their trademark perfect combination of comedy riffs with superb classical ballet. Olga Supphozova took every opportunity to milk the show for comedy value, but there were some terrific solos too. Dmitri Legupski didn’t sober up the whole time.
Again we enjoyed a Pas de Trois, this time from Paquita, with some genuinely brilliant dancing from Helen Highwaters (who I think should be now be made a Dame), Elvira Khababgallina (I think) and William Vanilla. The Trocks at their very best. Then came the slightly more subdued Vivaldi Suite, followed by La Supphozova dealing with the terminal fowl again, and finally Majisimas, a delightful mix of mock-flamenco and Spanish bravura with the usual comedy/classic combo.
I’m going to be controversial here. (Gasp!) I’ve checked back, and this is the 15th (and 16th) times that we’ve seen the Trocks since we discovered them in 1998. Their unique selling point has always been that combination of comedy and classical ballet perfection. However, for the first time, there were a few moments when the dancing, primarily from those dancers in a more corps de ballet role, wasn’t quite a perfect as usual. No names, no pack drill. But some of those leaps didn’t land properly and some of the usual elegance was missing. Don’t get me wrong – they’re still brilliant, and we will still see them again for a 17th time (and more!) It’s just that when you expect perfection and it’s not entirely there, it comes as a bit of a surprise.
Do catch them on their UK tour though – Canterbury, Brighton, Norwich, Nottingham, Buxton, Hull, Bradford, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Truro and Belfast, between 19th September and 29th October. Keep on Trockin’!
When I saw that the Young Vic were showing the new, shaken-up Broadway version of Oklahoma! I knew it was something I had to see. Oklahoma! is one of my favourite musicals but you can never overlook the dark, violent prejudice and savagery that lurks just a little under the surface. The Chichester production from 2019 brought out all the joy of the show whilst exposing a lot of its iffy underbelly. Daniel Fish’s new production goes deeper, and a lot of what it reveals is truly horrific. But it’s also jam-packed with the humour that has always been a mainstay of this musical.
You know the show is going to be disturbing even before it starts. The transformed Young Vic auditorium is ablaze with bright light; the band sit at one end of the stage area, whilst trestle tables laden with cans of beer (that get consumed) and crockpots of chilli (that don’t) line along either side of the acting area and – for the first act – along the middle. The actors sit with their backs to us until it’s their time to join in the show. Unusually for a musical the programme doesn’t list the musical numbers, so unless you know the show intimately you don’t know what’s coming next or whereabouts in the sequence of scenes you are. You might assume from this that the music takes second place in the show’s priorities – but that’s not the case. The music is vital to the show, and frequently adds to the sense of irony and discord that permeates Daniel Fish’s vision for the production. Tom Brady’s band takes Rodgers and Hammerstein’s sumptuous score and give it a modern twist; less Broadway 1943, more country guitar-heavy, but still with stunning singing from the cast who harmonise together exquisitely, with passion and power.
The iconic opening, where Curly sings Oh What a Beautiful Morning off stage whilst Aunt Eller churns butter, now has Curly onstage accompanying himself on his own guitar whilst Aunt Eller silently looks away with the rest of the cast. In fact, gone are the Curly and Laurey of yore, the adorable young couple who win your heart, and whom you want to see living happy ever after at the end. Arthur Darvill’s Curly is vain and arrogant; his swagger barely conceals his scorn for his surroundings, and you get the sense he’s more isolated, not really part of the community; you wouldn’t believe anyone who says he’s their friend. However, this characterisation is juxtaposed with his surprisingly delicate and eloquent singing voice. Anoushka Lucas’ Laurey, on the other hand, is temperamental and sullen; she bats Curly’s approaches away as though he were just another “typical man” for whom she has neither time nor interest – until things start to get physical, at any rate. If and when this Curly and Laurey get together you feel that the sparks will fly in their relationship and not always in a good way.
Where the show is much more traditional is in the representation of the four comedy characters, Ado Annie, Will Parker, Ali Hakim and Gertie Cummings, each one played sublimely. Rebekah Hinds gets Gertie’s irritating cackle perfectly, and suggests a superb smugness whenever she gets her way over anything (or anyone). Stavros Demetraki is hilarious as Hakim, desperately trying to put more money Will’s way so that he can be freed from his commitment to Ado Annie. James Davis, who played Will in this production on Broadway, brilliantly portrays just how utterly stupid the character is, constantly infuriating himself with his own mistakes.
Although she has a lot of stage credits to her name, I’ve never seen Marisha Wallace before, but I was blown away by just how fantastic she is as Ado Annie. Filling the theatre with the most powerful and beautiful of voices, she has immense stage presence and injects everything the character does with just the right amount of comedy, as well as perfect interplay with the audience. Her performance of I Cain’t Say No is the true highlight moment of the show. All the way through, I couldn’t wait for her next appearance because she lights up the stage with such genuine pleasure. Simply marvellous!
I hardly recognised Greg Hicks as Andrew Carnes; if you’ve seen this role played as a lovable old rogue before, think again. Mr Hicks makes him a truly hard man. No sense of humour or kindness; a man who thinks with his gun first then might reflect afterwards (or might not). He’ll aim his barrels at anyone who dallies with his daughter; I thought he was going to blast a few heads off early on and finish the show before the interval. Liza Sadovy’s Aunt Eller is another characterisation that feels more remote and detached from the community, until, at least, she’s in charge of the auction of lunch baskets. There’s excellent support from Raphael Bushay as Mike and Ashley Samuels as Cord Elam; their hesitations at supporting the decision of Judge Andrew towards the end spoke volumes. But the whole cast does a great ensemble job, with terrific singing and dancing – a lot of full-bodied hard-floor thumping to get a resoundingly noisy beat effect.
One of many fascinating directorial decisions in the show – some of which work, and some don’t – is the characterisation of Jud Fry. It’s in the characters’ dealings with Jud that this show gets particularly uncomfortable. Jud is usually portrayed as a loner. Papering his bedroom walls with soft porn to make him seem like a worthless wretch, picking on his learning difficulties, or sometimes on his ethnicity, he’s often seen as the antithesis of Curly, who’s All-American Hero in comparison to Pore Jud. However, Patrick Vaill (who also played the role on Broadway) presents us with a very different Jud. He’s passive, quiet, unemotional; determined but unthreatening, and probably no more of an outsider than Curly is. Rather than being the monster or ogre that he’s normally portrayed, this Jud is just another guy. And that makes Curly’s persecution of him strangely more uncomfortable – other than the fact that Curly’s a bully and wants nothing and no one to stand in his way.
So here’s the first directorial decision that I really didn’t understand. The two scenes where Curly intimidates and interrogates Jud are played in total blackout. All you can follow is by what you hear the two men say to each other. No visual cues, no facial expressions, no physical movement. Apart from the fact that it puts the audience in an uncomfortable, vulnerable position as well, it acts as a barrier to communication; and you can feel the built-up energy of the show quickly sap away as the scene progresses. The fact that you can’t see Curly and Jud’s interactions means that you can’t really understand what goes on between them. And whilst we have seen Curly in action several times during the show, Jud’s presence has only been very minimal, apart from in these two scenes – where you can’t see him! After a while, a camera projects Jud’s image onto the back wall during the song Pore Jud is Daid, but it’s distorted and artificial, and by that time I was so exasperated at being literally kept in the dark that I resented this piece of direction. I felt it was disrespectful to the audience. <rant>Rather like the moment when Ali Hakim unnecessarily and totally out of character sprays beer (actually water but we weren’t sure) over some members of the audience, including Mrs Chrisparkle. She was genuinely concerned it might have ruined her new leather jacket. It would have done if it was beer. The poor man next to her was soaked. Come on, Young Vic, treat us like adults! This isn’t a panto! </rant>.
Odd decision number 2 coming up: it’s always difficult to incorporate the dream ballet sequence in the show. Nowadays it doesn’t fit in with our expectations and comes across as a purely historical interlude that the show would be better off cutting out. However, if you keep it in, it has to be relevant. It’s Laurey’s dream, so it should be performed by Laurey. If it has a meaning, it’s to process her anxieties regarding her forthcoming marriage to Curly. So I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy the dream dance sequence in this production at all. Nothing against Marie-Astrid Mence who throws herself brilliantly into John Heginbotham’s frankly ugly and irrelevant choreography and moves in time with the ghastly distorted musical accompaniment that’s brash, discordant and way too loud. And my word, did it go on….!
There is a third directorial decision that works well – but, good grief, is it horrible! I’m not going to give the game away too much because the shock of the staging is vital to the show’s effect. I knew that Curly was going to shoot Jud near the end – he always does, it’s part of the plot. What I wasn’t expecting was the physical aftermath, both in the actual appearance of the characters and in their change of demeanour. When Curly leads the cast for what is normally the final, triumphant rendition of the title song, so shocked is he at what has happened that he is literally like a zombie. His mouth is singing the words, his hands are strumming the guitar, but the soul inside has gone awol. Laurey joins in with demented fury, eyes on stalks, stamping and shouting like Lady Macbeth on an acid trip.
But this is the message that the show wants to send. The action takes place at the time when Oklahoma was all set to be the next state of the union. You’re doing fine, Oklahoma, goes the uplifting, unforgettable melody, as the state triumphantly sails into the next century. This show points out that the rot has already set in. There’s nothing fine about this Oklahoman society, riddled with injustice and corruption, hatred and contempt. What is normally a sweet ending is rendered bitterly sour. And the production is hugely successful at revealing this ugly truth.
But if you’re a fan of the traditional show like me, even though you appreciate its dark undercurrent and murky prejudices, watching this production left me feeling physically nauseous. My stomach was frappéd like I’d been involved in the Oklahoma Chain Saw Massacre. By far the majority of the audience stood to give it a rapturous ovation, and I completely understand why; but I was rooted to the spot, giving a slowish handclap in disbelief at what I had seen. I’m writing this five days after seeing the show and I can still feel that sense of horror and destruction that this production has created in me. I can only say that you must see this show for yourself to truly appreciate what it reveals. It’s on until 25th June, but this is too much of a landmark production for it to stop there. I only wonder if there will ever be space for a traditional Oklahoma! again.
Emlyn Williams wrote the first play I ever saw at the theatre – I was six, on my own, in the front row for the local amateur dramatics group’ production of A Murder Has Been Arranged at the Wendover Memorial Hall. I was entranced, and a lifelong love of theatre was born. Imagine a six-year-old being out on their own to see a play nowadays – you’d call in Social Services at once! Things were different in the old days. Thirty years or so later I became friends with a chap who had acted with Emlyn Williams when he was a callow youth, and Williams was a big star. He was very proud of his albeit slight association with Williams, and, remembering that he had written the first play I ever saw, I also felt a strange sort of connection.
Since then, I have seen a production of Williams’ most famous play, Night Must Fall, but never The Corn is Green; and it was never on my radar as a play I should catch up with, until I saw that the National Theatre were mounting a production with Nicola Walker in the lead role. Being a huge admirer of Ms Walker’s TV career, I jumped at the chance. That was sometime in early 2020, and – well, you know the rest. Now that the worst of the pandemic is passed (fingers crossed at least) I was thrilled to secure myself some tickets for its delayed performance. They say that good things are worth waiting for; this certainly proves that rule.
The premise of the play is pretty simple. Miss Moffat arrives at a remote Welsh village with the intention of setting up a school, so that all the local lads have an alternative to a life down the coal pits. She wants them to be able to appreciate books, to extend their minds; to give them a fuller, more rounded understanding of what life has to offer. Despite opposition, she succeeds; and her first promising pupil is young Morgan Evans, whom she encourages, and develops to such an extent that she arranges for him to sit for a scholarship to Oxford. But can a boy who’s been bred to work down the mines leave behind the dismal future that he has always been expected to follow and break out into a middle-class world of learning and self-expression?
It’s a semi-autobiographical play, and in the original production Williams played Evans; the character of Miss Moffat was based on his own teacher, Miss Cooke. And in a fascinating new twist to the play, director Dominic Cooke (no relation I presume!) has made Williams a key player on the stage. Not only does this production provide us with a performance of The Corn is Green, it also shows Williams going through the creative process, sometimes steering the production, sometimes discovering that it steers him. It’s a masterstroke of an idea and works incredibly well.
The play begins, for example, not with the house that Miss Moffat has inherited and will make into the school, but with a society ball, maybe in London, maybe in Oxford, where smart young things dance to the latest craze until the young Emlyn Williams bursts out of the proceedings, a sweaty, anxious mess, and decides to sit down at a typewriter and put his initial thoughts onto paper. As the play develops, Williams takes on the dual role of writer/director, deciding, for example, whether a character would speak in English or Welsh, whether they would enter the stage now or later, or whether the plot would twist this way or that. At one point Williams stops the show and makes the characters retrace their steps and do it differently – it reminded me of Laura Wade’s excellent The Watsons, where a character takes charge and shakes the rest of the cast into performing a different play. This extra dimension to the production allows Dominic Cooke to bring in a chorus of miners, all grubby faces and golden voices, that serve as a constant reminder of the world outside the schoolroom, never allowing Evans to forget his roots. There is also all the fun of the radio studio, with squeaking door sound effects, and actors never actually leaving the stage, just turning their back on the action. There’s a lot of façade going on, but it works a treat.
The presence of Williams also serves as a bridge between the Welsh backwaters and the smart young society things, capturing both the grit and the glamour. The humour of the story is beautifully observed, with a harsh lack of sentimentality between the characters, a dismissive reaction to parental obligations, and a delightful obsequiousness towards The Squire, the local authority figure with whom everyone wants to ingratiate themselves – and he certainly expects it. As an outsider, Miss Moffat wants none of that; but the scene where she deliberately fawns to him and flatters him, setting herself up as a mere woman who needs the strength and guidance of a capable man, is comedy gold.
I had high expectations of Nicola Walker as Miss Moffat and they were achieved in abundance. She has the most remarkably expressive face; no need for speech, but within a space of ten seconds she can show a sequence of emotions that follow naturally on from each other, going from, say, surprise to disappointment, then knowing she shouldn’t have been surprised, to seeing the funny side and then the tragic side. Basically, she can do anything! Her Miss Moffat is wonderfully no-nonsense and ruthlessly determined. At one stage she is so fixated on Evans’ Oxford career, she reminded me of that terrifying moment in Gypsy where Imelda Staunton broke into Everything’s Coming Up Roses not for the achievement of her prodigy but for her own overweening success. But Miss Moffat is also supremely altruistic – the sacrifice she is prepared to make at the end of the play is something quite extraordinary.
Gareth David-Lloyd is excellent as the ever-present Emlyn Williams, a class apart from everyone else, attempting to take charge of his characters and plot, even when his characters have other ideas. I loved Alice Orr-Ewing as the shallow Miss Ronberry, fluttering for the attention of the Squire, repelled by the baser actions of the boys. Iwan Davies is also excellent as Evans, at first cheeky and one-of-the-lads, later a serious student who wants to do well; but he wants it to be on his own terms. Saffron Coomber is superb as Bessie Watty, desperate for a glamorous life away from the humdrum of rural Wales, and there’s great support from Richard Lynch as the lugubrious, saved, Jones. Jo McInnes as the hard-working and totally unmotherly Mrs Watty, and the marvellous pomposity of Rufus Wright’s Squire.
I wasn’t sure about the final image of the scene; I understand that Williams was bisexual and had a number of liaisons with men during his marriage and after his wife died, but I still didn’t really see the relevance of his ending the show with a romantic dance with Evans. A small quibble though. This is a very clever and revealing production that breathes new life into a well-known, traditional play; and Nicola Walker is absolutely fabulous. It continues at the Lyttelton just until 11th June, so you’d better get your skates on.
Within a minute of the start of Anupama Chandrasekhar’s magnificent The Father and the Assassin, Gandhi’s murderer, Nathuram Godse, has already mocked us all for only knowing about him through “that fawning Attenborough film. With Sir Ben Kingsley”. The scorn fairly drips from his lips, but we forgive him, because we are already spellbound by this cheeky chirpy chap who addresses us as though he’s Live at the Apollo, and we’re all out to have some fun. How can it be that we so easily fall for his charm and humour, this man who sets out to kill Gandhi; the Father of India, the model of humanity, the architect of non-violent protest?
Surely he’s a ruthless ogre, a tyrannical terrorist, a monster in human form? No. He’s just little Nathuram Godse, born to a Brahmin family who made him grow up as a girl because they were terrified that all the boys in the family die due to some ridiculous curse. With such an artificial start to life, no one could blame him for feeling like a fish out of water, at odds with the world. He runs away to hear his childhood hero Gandhi address a crowd; and when the nine-year-old Godse can’t pretend to be a girl anymore, who is there to dress him like a boy in a kurta pyjama and thus allow him to start his life over again? None other than the great man himself. Chandrasekhar blurs so many lines with her depiction of Godse that you cannot but admire him, and appreciate his complicated and conflicting emotions, even though we know, and he knows we know, that he’s a murderer.
Never off stage, Godse takes us through his childhood, and his relationship with his parents, through to his apprenticeship to the tailor Kishore, his introduction to nationalist agitator Vinayak Savarkar and espousal of his beliefs, the discussions and agreements that led to partition, and the perception that Gandhi is to blame. We see the assassination, and the arrests of Godse and his friend Apte. But as Godse avows to the audience at the end, “it’s better to be a Godse than a Gandhi… A Gandhi is of no use to you when tomorrow’s battles are fought with deadlier weapons. No, you’ll need a Godse. And I will rise.”
Rajha Shakiry’s simple but impressive set design is a backdrop of threads; tightly woven at one end representing a cohesive piece of material, separated at the other end to reveal the individual cotton threads that lack the skilled craftsman to make cloth. Gandhi, of course, famously spun cotton; is he the master who can make a whole from the disparate threads of the Indian subcontinent, or is he the reason the country is randomly picked apart, resulting in the personal and national horrors of partition?
A great set, costumes, lighting and so on; but the real strength of this production is that enchanted theatre environment where inspired writing and superb performance meet. Shubham Saraf is simply mind-blowing as Godse; his is a performance of enormous wit, charm, humour and intelligence. The essential challenge of the play, to win the audience onto the side of the murderer, is achieved right from the start with Mr Saraf’s masterful delivery and hugely likeable characterisation. His light-hearted attitude makes the perfect contrast with Paul Bazely’s serious Gandhi, who takes control of his scenes with a measured calmness that gives you an instant insight into the man’s charisma, and is another brilliant characterisation.
Tony Jayawardena and Ayesha Dharker are superb as Godse’s parents, fussing and protecting and trying to lay down the law as good Indian parents always do. I really enjoyed the portrayal of Jinnah by Irvine Iqbal, wiping out the memory from “that fawning Attenborough film” that Jinnah was the outright bad guy, representing him in a much more reasonable light. There’s excellent support from Ankur Bahl as the petulant tailor Kishore, and as his childhood friend Madhav; and from Dinita Gohil as his friend Vimala, who constantly returns to interrupt Godse’s narrative, questioning his beliefs and attitudes, much to his annoyance.
There are great performances also from Sagar Arya as the severe and ruthless Savarkar, encouraging unrest from Godse, and a scene-stealing turn from Nadeem Islam as Mithun, the school watchman, who tries to influence young Godse but is let down by him. But the entire cast work together extremely well and tell this beautifully written story with conviction, humour and tremendous heart.
This is one of those rare, delightful productions that you know is going to be fantastic right from the very start. The two and half hours fly by, without a duff scene or a wasted word, piecing together the jigsaw puzzle that unites Godse and Gandhi in an attempt to justify the assassination. Of course, the audience will be the judge of that. And there are one or two references that sneak in, regarding life in Britain today; some things just never change. I was riveted throughout. And with Mr Shubham Saraf, a star is most definitely born! The play continues at the Olivier Theatre until 18th June, but I’m sure it won’t be the last we see of this modern classic.
Talk about a sensory overload! Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club is one of the most ambitious theatrical projects I’ve ever encountered, aiming to achieve so much and very nearly nailing it all. At first, we weren’t going to go. I knew that if I saw it, but wasn’t seated at one of the exclusive front row tables costing £Blimey O’Riley, I’d feel as though I was missing out on the full experience. And two lots of £Blimey O’Rileys is an unjustifiably awful lot of coin. However, a friend went and sat in those very same seats and was overwhelmed by it, and told us we had to go. So, grabbing those mammoth prices by the throat, we went as my birthday treat. Oh, thanks. Yes, 21 again, thank you for asking.
Let’s go back to basics. If anyone ever dares tell you that musical theatre is mere froth and cannot say anything deep and meaningful, point them in the direction of Cabaret and tell them to shut it. The product of a distillation from Christopher Isherwood’s original 1939 book Goodbye to Berlin, through its adaptation by John van Druten into the play I am a Camera, and finally to Kander and Ebb’s 1966 stage musical, it’s also fifty years (gasp!) since the iconic film version came out. American Cliff Bradshaw arrives in Berlin to gain inspiration to write. He’s quickly beguiled by Sally Bowles, singer at the Kit Kat Club, and their unorthodox relationship plays out against the rise of Nazism; the songs and routines performed at the club reflect the growing tensions in society. Landlady Fräulein Schneider is courted by widower fruitmonger Herr Schultz; he is Jewish, but optimistic. The audience has the dubious investment of dramatic irony, knowing the fate that will befall the characters within the next ten years although the characters themselves don’t. It still has the power to shock, to horrify, and to make you look away; it’s also still supremely entertaining, delightfully funny, and proves itself remarkably resilient to new presentations and interpretations.
The production has been veiled in secrecy, in, I presume, an attempt to maintain the mystique of the Kit Kat Club. Until the last couple of weeks, there have been no photographs of any sort – not even promotionally pasted outside the theatre. There is now a video trailer online giving you some idea of what to expect, but it doesn’t reveal much. What happens in the Kit Kat Club stays in the Kit Kat Club; to the extent that they insist you put a sticker over the camera lens on your phone on the way in. I must say, it made me feel as though I was being treated as less than an adult. I wouldn’t have taken any photos anyway I gently complained as I complied. You’re one of the few, replied the attendant. I am a Camera, but we’re definitely not.
This show tries to do two things: a) present a spectacular, bar-raising production of one of the greatest musicals of all time and b) frame it within an experience that includes food and drink, backstage pre-entertainment, and a transformation of the Playhouse into a genuine Kit Kat Club environment. It achieves a) fantastically well and has a good stab at b) whilst forgetting the practicalities of being a theatregoer, with the result that there is an element of endurance test about it. And I can’t believe the Emcee would be happy with that. Leave your troubles outside, he insists, in the famous opening song; in here, life is beautiful.
Let’s come to that later. There’s so much about this production that enthrals you. Rebecca Frecknall’s new production comes to life as a theatre-in-the-round extravaganza, using a relatively small circular revolving stage that itself reveals endless surprises throughout the show. The cast spill out into the table area of the audience so that the edge of the acting area is blurred; at one stage during Two Ladies, a Cabaret boy and girl were performing unspeakable rumpy-pumpy nudged up against my left thigh. The staging calls for very expressive, inventive and carefully controlled choreography, and Julia Cheng has done a marvellous job creating the perfect moves for the confined space – absolutely thrilling.
After the first five minutes you also realise the quality of the singing voices – everyone blends and harmonises superbly; and with the intimacy of the presentation, the amazing clarity of sound doesn’t need that much artificial enhancement. It’s easy to forget how stage amplification can really distort voices, but here the music is just stunning. Even the orchestra is beautiful. Well, they sound it at any rate. And then there are the costumes! Emcee and the boys and girls wear a range of outrageous outfits, suggesting all manners of sexual self-expression, frequently topped off with a cheeky party hat. The respectable clothing of the more reserved characters, like Fräulein Schneider, Herr Schultz, and even Cliff Bradshaw, stand out in sharp contrast with the gaudy self-indulgence of the Kit Kat Coterie.
The show is studded with thrilling moments. The versatility of the revolving stage. The unique interaction between audience and cast that the intimate staging offers. Sexual tension invested in a pineapple. The shock comedy of the gorilla. Masturbation over Mein Kampf. The symbolic moment when Emcee smashes the glass in the traditional Jewish marriage good luck gesture. Perhaps the most extraordinary moment is when Sally Bowles delivers the big number Cabaret at the end of the show. As when Imelda Staunton tore up the rule book with her performance of Everything’s Coming up Roses in Gypsy, Amy Lennox’s rendition of this familiar song takes your breath away with its anger, its pain, its frustration, and its cruelty. You’ll never think of this song in the same way again.
As you might expect, the performances are outstanding. The above-mentioned Ms Lennox steals the show with her totally credible portrayal of Sally Bowles as a worn out trouper who slept her way to prominence. Her singing and stage presence are absolutely superb. Vivien Parry and Eliot Levey make a truly charming older couple, tentatively finding love against the odds. Omar Baroud’s Cliff is a kindly, benign presence, who takes everything in his stride including his bisexuality. Anna Jane Casey is a constant joy as Fräulein Kost, forever smuggling men out of her digs and incurring Fräulein Schneider’s disapproval. And the ensemble, who perform as the Cabaret Girls and Boys, are simply stunning. A veritable hotch-potch of shapes and sizes, genders and guises. You can’t pick out any particular actor but they all really make the show.
Fra Fee has the biggest job of all, having to take over from Eddie Redmayne who, by all accounts, was just incredible as the Emcee, insinuating himself around the stage, an unsettling and unmissable presence. Mr F is also blessed with an amazing stage presence, and he works his facial expressions and vocal tics brilliantly into the role; and of course he can carry off all the Emcee’s fantastic songs with supreme theatricality. He’s a deceptively playful Emcee, grinning maniacally at us all, which makes the shock of the horror that’s barely concealed beneath the surface, even more terrifying.
So, as a show it’s sensational, no question. But what about as an experience for the audience – particularly those who forked out a genuine fortune to sit at a cabaret table? This is where it’s not quite so sensational. There’s no doubt that you get a truly amazing intimate experience, right up close to the action, constant eye contact and other interaction with all the ensemble. But there are practicalities too. The downside of theatre in the round is that there will always be times when the actors face away from you. It’s particularly galling when, for the ultimate moment of the show, the finale of the song Cabaret, all we could see was Ms Lennox’s back.
When you arrive, via the stage door basement, your route takes you past some informal entertainment – a band playing at the Red Bar, and some dancers at the Gold Bar, but there’s no real direction as to what you should be doing, where you should be going, and how long you should be lingering in one place, which detracted from the enjoyment of these additional entertainments. I wonder what happens when it’s pouring with rain outside? There’s no cloakroom provision, and even on a pleasant evening like last Wednesday, there was nowhere for us to put our jackets apart from wedged between our legs on the floor. You can’t hang them over the backrest of your chair because the table behind is wedged up against it. If you had wet coats or umbrellas, you’d have a serious practical problem.
Toilet provision is poor, with very long queues; they’re gender neutral, which I guess is in keeping with the production, but women lining up in the same small space behind men using urinals is comfortable for no one. The meal is tasty and nutritious, but small; it takes no effort or gluttony to finish all three courses in under ten minutes. The champagne, at least, is excellent, but the £12 glass of Riesling at the interval was dismal. And £15 for a programme is outrageous. And that sticker on the phone – well, look what it did to Mrs Chrisparkle’s mobile – basically the cover is ruined.
Nevertheless, it’s a sensational, thrilling production and we loved every minute of it!
Production photos by Marc BrennerFive Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!
Two well-observed ceremonies open Dominic Cooke’s riveting production of Larry Kramer’s semi-autobiographical The Normal Heart at the Olivier. First, the cast come on stage in reverent silence as a flame is lit in memory of those who died, those who suffered, and those who lost; but also as an eternal hope for the future – and it burns throughout the entire performance. Second, the scene changes to a thumping gay nightclub where Donna Summer’s I Feel Love dominates the stage as the clubbers throw themselves into a vibrant tableau of sheer, carefree enjoyment where shirts are optional. The first couldn’t be more different from the second. The production instantly invites us to be judgmental; it’s in those clubs, and in the promiscuity that they enable, it implies, that the whole AIDS crisis started. In fact, I blame Donna Summer. If she hadn’t had created such an appealing dance track, all this death and destruction could have been avoided.
I jest of course; but this is no jesting matter. The Normal Heart takes us on an intense journey from the first days of otherwise healthy young gay men showing unusual symptoms of infections and cancer, through growing awareness that there seems to be an inexplicable “gay plague” causing havoc, resistance from a homophobic establishment to investigate it, finally to gruesome deaths in the close-knit gay community and beyond. Between 1981 and 1984, the years covered by the play, the annual number of AIDS related death in the US went up from 130 to 3,500. Global numbers would continue to rise every year until they reached a peak of 1.9 million in 2004 before they would slowly start to fall. Of course, that was all in the future for the original production of The Normal Heart which opened on Broadway in 1985. To its first audiences, this must have been like a snapshot of the time, just dipping a toe into the vague and confusing world of the mysterious virus which was still perplexing scientists – at least, those prepared to spend time investigating it.
Today we have the benefit of almost forty additional years of understanding; and it’s almost impossible to watch this play without making comparisons (most of which are unfair, but we’re only human) with the Coronavirus pandemic. Given how rapidly vaccines have been developed to combat Covid, there’s a stark contrast with the (lack of) gravity that met the early days of HIV. There’s a stunningly impactful scene where Dr Emma Brookner, the only medic/scientist taking this new condition seriously, has her application for research funding rejected on grounds of its being “unfocused”. Of course it was unfocused. They didn’t know what was causing it!
There are two main threads that combine to create the powerful content of the play. One is the simple (and very effective) storytelling of the progress of the virus and the birth of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis organisation that was set up by Ned Weeks (Larry Kramer in real life) in an effort to raise awareness of the condition and to try to find a way to fight it. The other is the growing relationship between Ned and influential journalist Felix, and Felix’s gradual decline in health as he too falls foul of the virus. Thus you have at the same time both a broad picture of the effect of HIV on a whole community, and also a close-up view of how it effects two individuals; two amongst many, of course. Like all diseases and illnesses, the bottom line is the fear that grips ordinary people facing an extraordinary death, and this play conveys that fear superbly (and tragically) well.
But this is a complex play which also raises other themes and questions. I liked how the play explored the problems and the feelings when an individual starts a pressure group (or a company, or a resolution, or anything similar) and then for whatever reason is voted out and excluded from its future, as happens to Ned. The play also shows how humans are reticent to take action to save themselves because that very action is, in itself, undesirable. Dr Brookner implores Ned to influence gay men into abstaining from sex because she’s convinced it’s the only way of ensuring they stay alive. Unsurprisingly, as an option, this was always going to go down like the legendary lead balloon. Compare this with the actions that some activists are suggesting today are the right way to deal with climate change. We know that it’s something that must be dealt with, but none of us actively and individually wants to do those self-denying things. Basically, people never know what’s best for them.
Vicki Mortimer’s almost empty set is the perfect blank canvas to paint our own imagination of all the different locations in the play; in fact, the lack of scenery is a strength that concentrates our minds on the words, the actions, and the immense performances of the incredibly good cast. Central to all the proceedings is a superb performance by Ben Daniels as Ned; a strong, determined character, full of passion for his cause although initially less certain about his own private passions. Angry at injustice, he portrays brilliantly that ability to pick the wrong fights and create division where unity is needed – he explodes against his brother (an excellent performance by Robert Bowman) for his perceived lack of support, against the mayor’s representative Hiram with whom he should be ingratiating himself, even against the one person who fearlessly and single-handedly does her best to get to the heart of the problem, Dr Brookner. It’s a stunning performance.
Dino Fetscher is also superb as Felix, the journalist that Ned courts for publicity for his cause and ends up courting him back for a relationship. As Felix slowly gets consumed by HIV, Mr Fetscher’s strong performance conveys his fear and desperation, as well as his physical decline, but never loses his mental clarity and determination. In another memorable scene, Messrs Daniels and Fetscher perform together supremely well as they both lose control with angry frustration, ending with Ned hurling on the ground all the nutritional food that he has carefully bought to nurse Felix back to health, because Felix cannot bring himself to eat. The combined desperation, sadness and fury with which both characters deliberately wound each other is painful but incredibly telling to watch.
Liz Carr is tremendous as Dr Brookner, delivering her medical advice with unsentimental directness, determined to work all hours of the day and night in an attempt to save life – and not caring what raw emotions she treads on to get there. Luke Norris is great as the closeted Bruce Niles, treading a fine line between giving the cause all the support he can without nailing his colours completely to the mast. There are excellent supporting performances from Daniel Monks as committee member Mickey Marcus, scared for what repercussions his activism will have on his job, and Danny Lee Wynter as the always cheerful, always hard-working Tommy Boatwright.
Rarely have I heard so many barely-suppressed snuffles of crying from audience members as in the last five minutes of The Normal Heart (maybe Blood Brothers comes close). The standing ovation (from a midweek matinee audience) was instant and virtually unanimous, and recognised the awful truth of the AIDS crisis which deprived so many young people of their older years, so many partners of their loved ones, and all of us of so many creative talents and much-loved performers over the years. It’s a long play – it’s advertised as two hours forty minutes, but our performance lasted pretty much three hours – but it has a lot to say. A remarkable work given an immaculate production and memorable performances. One of those productions where you may come out of it as a different person from the one you went into it. The run at the Olivier is until 6th November – don’t miss it.
There can be few more delightful places to experience a sunny matinee in London than the beautiful setting of the Bridge Theatre, with Tower Bridge majestically overlooking its front lawn, its wide public spaces inside and a degree (degree, mind) of social distancing in the auditorium. To be honest, I was expecting more, but it was one of those times when you must trust to double vaccinations and a good tight mask. Fortunately, all the other theatregoers abided by the mask instruction pretty much 100%, which was very reassuring.
Bach and Sons is a new play by Nina Raine and takes that redoubtable composer Johann Sebastian Bach and examines his family relationships, primarily with his two oldest sons, Wilhelm and Carl, his wife Maria Barbara, her sister and housekeeper Katharina, and soprano Anna, who steps into the breach on more than one occasion and in more than one way. The play concentrates heavily on Bach Senior’s conservatism both musically and in faith, which shows itself in his obsession with musical counterpoint – even though, as the years pass, this style loses relevance and becomes outmoded. Remember how our parents hated whatever constituted the popular music of our youth? It was ever thus.
The play is at its best when it explores the dynamic between Johann Sebastian, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and Wilhelm Friedemann. Bach clearly favours his older son, which confuses and upsets the younger Carl, and it’s a rift that increases throughout their lives. Wilhelm has more natural talent but lacks the discipline to make the most of it. Carl has a strong technical understanding of writing music but lacks the je ne sais quoi (or, I guess, in this case, Ich weiß nicht) to make his writing soar. But with application, he gains preferment from the rather sinister King Frederick the Great, whilst Wilhelm drinks himself into oblivion and Johann Sebastian slips down the greasy pole of recognition as he can’t stop being tetchy with important people. There is a reconciliation at the end though; and of course, today, the music of J S Bach is still everywhere in the classical music world, whereas you might have to look a bit harder to find the C P E Bach.
However, it is a rather slow and stodgy play and at times I had to fight to keep those eyes open. The music metaphors become rather heavy and laden, and occasionally you wonder if the whole thing isn’t straying into Private Eye’s Pseud’s Corner. From the moment you see all the characters together there’s never any doubt that Bach would go off with Anna sooner or later; and whilst that is a statement of historical fact, for the purposes of the play it might have been more effective if it came as a surprise. Overall, one gets the impression that the play is just rather light and on the shallow side. Deeper writing might have mined more drama out of the storyline; we need to feel more involved with the characters and not just bear witness to what goes on. The audience knows that time is passing throughout the course of the play, but it’s very hard to tell exactly how much, because for the first three-quarters of the play none of the characters ages at all; all we can do is find out how old brother Gottfried is, and then work it back. It’s only when you see Johann Sebastian shuffle on stage wearing an old cardie that you realise that he’s now officially old.
Grey piano keyboards are suspended over the stage like several swords of Damocles, and smaller stages roll in and out from the wings to suggest all the different locations of the story. I don’t know what was wrong with the moving platform that brought the Christmas Tree on stage; it sounded like it was being rolled over bubble wrap with all the popping noises it made; some WD40 needed there, I reckon. The “live” playing of the instruments works extremely well, with specially recorded sequences for the production. You’d never know that Bastian wasn’t actually playing that harpsichord or that C P E wasn’t wowing us with his Cello Concerto.
The cast is led by the safe pair of hands that is Simon Russell Beale as J S Bach, and he is perfectly cast for the role; he presents the composer as neither ogre nor caricature, but as a very believable portrayal of a sometime irascible and flawed man who sacrifices others’ happiness on the altar of his own favouritism. To be honest, this is easy pickings for Sir Simon; he could probably do this role with one hand tied behind his back (although perhaps not the harpsichord scenes). If the writing had been bolder, I’m sure he would have revealed more about the man. Samuel Blenkin and Douggie McMeekin are both excellent as brothers Carl and Wilhelm, realistically portraying both brotherly closeness and distant annoyance.
Pravessh Rana gives an unsettling performance as Frederick the Great, creepily giving vent to the character’s latent and predatory homosexuality, with conversations full of veiled threats which reminded me of John Hurt’s batty but terrifying Caligula in TV’s I Claudius. It is perhaps surprising that Nina Raine hasn’t made more of the female characters in the play, but Pandora Colin, Racheal Ofori and Ruth Lass make the most of what limited dramatic intensity the writing provides them. I was, however, impressively disturbed by the scene where Ms Ofori’s Anna dwells on the children she has lost as she walks around J S’s piano, obsessively drumming its surface with her fingers.
There are a few telling lines – I loved Bach’s description of one of his musicians as multi-talentless for example – and a few excellent scenes – Bach attending Frederick’s court and subjecting himself to the humiliation of the King’s mentally sadistic pleasure is one. I can’t help but feel though that this is not as good a play as it ought to be, but this is cunningly disguised by a highly competent and professional production. Excellent performances bring it to life to provide a very enjoyable two and a half hours!
Orwell had used his experiences living in deliberate poverty in Paris and London to create material for essays that had already been published, including Hop Picking and Common Lodging Houses. In 1930 he wrote an account of all his Paris experiences, including working as a plongeur (washer-up and general dogsbody) in restaurants, but it was rejected by publishers Jonathan Cape. The following year he added his London memoir to the first part, but this larger version was still rejected, this time by Faber and Faber. Editorial director T S Eliot wrote “We did find it of very great interest, but I regret to say that it does not appear to me possible as a publishing venture.” He left the manuscript with Mabel Fierz, an older woman with whom Orwell had a relationship and who was keen to help young authors, and she sent it to an agent who thought it would be a perfect fit for the new publishing house Victor Gollancz. And, subject to a few changes, it was! Initial sales were low, but it was taken up by Penguin seven years later, when Orwell was a much more established writer, and reprinted, to greater success.
The book is simple in structure; thirty-eight short chapters in two clearly separate parts, the first twenty-three describing his time in Paris and the rest of the book covering his return to London. It opens with an epigraph: O scathful harm, condition of poverte! from the Man of Law’s Prologue in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Living in poverty is the miserable, evil, and unifying thread that runs throughout the book, so it’s a good choice for an epigraph. Down and Out in Paris and London is narrated in the first person, as a memoir; you sense that every word he says is true and this encourages you to keep reading, to share at first hand in his (largely poverty-stricken and grimy) experiences. Orwell indicated in his introduction to the French edition of the book that everything he writes about is more or less true, just with some flexibility on the characters he meets, the order in which things happen, and natural writers’ exaggeration.
This blog post isn’t an attempt by me to write a “proper” piece of literary criticism, it’s just my own reflections on the book and some of its aspects that particularly jumped out at me as I was reading it. I first read the book when I was eighteen and it had a strong effect on me. But I could remember few of the details, apart from Orwell’s advice that you should always take a flyer from someone in the street if it is offered (or even if it isn’t): “When you see a man distributing handbills you can do him a good turn by taking one, for he goes off duty when he has distributed all his bills.” I’ve always put that into practice, even if I’m not remotely interested in what the flyer has to say. It’s the reason that I always come back with dozens of them whenever I’m walking about during the Edinburgh Fringe!
If there’s one message that comes out from this book more than any other for me it’s Orwell’s ability to make the best of a bad situation and how he offers the reader advice so that you can do the same. One of the eminently practical things about Orwell’s writing is that he doesn’t just describe a bad situation and then bemoan the lot of anyone who has to endure it. By making the best of every situation, and also describing how others do the same, he has created a remarkably uplifting book, considering the poverty and degradation strewn on its pages. For example, his first description of life in the Rue Coq d’Or includes the story of the Bulgarian student who makes intricate and elegant shoes all morning before attending lectures at the Sorbonne. He’s someone who is obviously on his way up and out of trouble, much to Orwell’s admiration. An example of Orwell offering advice on how to cope with a bad situation is when he tells how, if you burn sulphur, you can drive the bugs marching around the floor of your room into the next door room – very helpful advice when you’re besieged by them. Also he tells us: “you can live on a shilling a day in Paris if you know how. But it is a complicated business.” He has advice on how not to look destitute even when you are, describing how Boris the Russian soldier “managed to keep a fairly smart appearance. He shaved without soap and with a razor-blade two months old, tied his tie so that the holes did not show, and carefully stuffed the soles of his shoes with newspaper. Finally, when he was dressed, he produced an ink-bottle and inked the skin of his ankles where it showed through his socks. You would never have thought, when it was finished, that he had recently been sleeping under the Seine bridges.”
He also offers solutions for society to escape from bad situations. He has a range of ideas for stopping the continuous problem of tramps in England – specifically in London – roaming the streets pointlessly and dejectedly. They could, for example, be given work on farms to grow their own food. Or they could put an end to the rule that a tramp could not stay at the same casual ward within a thirty day period, which therefore requires him to stay on the road rather than attempt to set down roots.
One tends to think of Orwell as a political writer, but in this book there is no sense of identifying with any one political party. What does come across is that Orwell is strongly on the side of the working man, but not the shirking man. He has little time for the Communist waiter Jules, who stands on the side-lines and watches whilst everyone else breaks their backs trying to get the Auberge de Jehan Cottard ready for opening: “Boris and I did all the work. Jules was skulking…” Orwell doesn’t pass comment on how Jules puts his communism into practice – but he doesn’t have to. “Did any man alive ever see me working when I could avoid it? No, And not only I don’t wear myself out working, like you other fools, but I steal, just to show my independence. Once I was in a restaurant where the patron thought he could treat me like a dog. Well, in revenge I found out a way to steal milk from the milk-cans and seal them up again so that no one should know. I tell you I just swilled that milk down night and morning […] it wasn’t that I wanted milk, you understand because I hate the stuff; it was principle, just principle.”
Orwell describes Jules has having a “curious, malignant spirit”. He goes on: “he told me, as a matter of pride, that he had sometimes wrung a dirty dishcloth into a customer’s soup before taking it in, just to be revenged upon a member of the bourgeoisie.” Jules is an angry and hostile man; a man driven by vengeance and selfishness. He’s one of Orwell’s most vividly drawn characters in this book – of which there are plenty – and one wonders if he was perhaps the first true communist that Orwell ever met, which might inform his opinions about communism that we will characterise future works. He’s also very different from the other waiters that Orwell gets to know in Paris, who approach their work from a completely opposite direction. “Never be sorry for a waiter” he stresses. “Sometimes when you sit in a restaurant, still stuffing yourself half an hour after closing time, you feel that the tired waiter at your side must surely be despising you. But he is not […] he is thinking, “one day, when I have saved enough money, I shall be able to imitate that man”. He is ministering to a kind of pleasure he thoroughly understands and admires. And that is why waiters are seldom Socialists, have no effective trade union, and will work twelve hours a day […] they are snobs, and they find the servile nature of their work rather congenial.”
This observation, about the nature of waiters, is typical of Orwell’s writing style, in that it is a clever mix of pure journalism and social commentary, part factual, part gossip, part truth, part inference. With great lightness of touch, he can express a complex issue in a simple sentence – so that you feel you’ve absolutely grasped what he’s trying to convey. He devotes a considerable amount of time in the book discussing the life of tramps, and what can be done to ameliorate their position, and how the rest of society regards them; but he sums it up beautifully in the phrase “a tramp is only an Englishman out of work, forced by law to live as a vagabond”. His friend Boris tells a story of a Russian duke who swindles restaurants and waiters by getting them to pay for his meals, playing on his status as being a guarantee of his integrity (wrongly). Orwell infers that the duke made quite a lot of money that way, and that probably the waiters did not mind being swindled. His summing up: “A duke is a duke, even in exile” expresses the rationale perfectly.
He’s delightfully matter-of-fact in dealing with some of the desperate aspects of the poverty-stricken life. One night, whilst he is working long hours as a plongeur, a murder takes place right outside his lodgings. Everyone in the house is awoken by the noise and disruption; they get up and see what’s happened for themselves. But that is all. “We just made sure that the man was done for, and went straight back to bed. We were working people, and where was the sense of wasting sleep over a murder?” There’s another passage where Orwell encapsulates the reality of employing plongeurs, who are a vital element of the restaurant trade but simply not to be trusted: “the food we were given was no more than eatable, but the patron was not mean about drink; he allowed us two litres of wine a day each, knowing that if a plongeur is not given two litres he will steal three.”
Other lines and descriptions just shout out from the pages, capturing the reader’s imagination and understanding. He describes the moment when you realise that thousands of people in Paris work long hours with no hope of ever doing anything else, as “a good cure for self-pity”. Tramps gathering outside a church in the hope of a free tea are “like kites round a dead buffalo.” In a Paris restaurant, the fewer the waiters involved in the preparation of your meal, the greater the chance it will be clean: “roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it.”
Orwell does seem to have caught some of the French scorn for the well-to-do foreign clients staying at the Hotel X; they “seemed to know nothing whatever about good food. They would stuff themselves with disgusting American “cereals”, and eat marmalade at tea, and drink vermouth after dinner, and order a poulet à la reine at a hundred Francs and then souse it in Worcester sauce. One customer, from Pittsburg (sic) dined every night in his bedroom on grape-nuts, scrambled eggs and cocoa. Perhaps it hardly matters whether such people are swindled or not.” He recognised that waiters are snobs, and he has become snobbish himself.
One thing that did strike me about the book is how relevant much of it is today. Whilst we no longer have common lodging houses, we do have Houses of Multiple Occupation, which, like in the 30s, need to be licensed and have to meet certain standards. Similarly there are no casual wards today, but there are shelters for the homeless. The meal ticket swindle, where vouchers worth sixpence were given to the tramps but were redeemed at an eating-house for only fourpence worth of food – thus having the proprietor effectively stealing twopence from each tramp – is strongly reminiscent of the recent scandal where school meal vouchers were exchanged for hampers containing food worth less than half the value of the voucher; basically, there’s always someone there to make money from the disadvantaged. Orwell could see there was no end to this type of swindle: “this kind of victimization is a regular part of a tramp’s life, and it will go on as long as people continue to give meal tickets instead of money.” And Paddy, Orwell’s Irish tramp companion, saw “all foreigners” as “dem bloody dagoes” – for, according to his theory, foreigners were responsible for unemployment.” Rightly or wrongly, that was one of the reasons people voted for Brexit. Things don’t change as much as we think they do.
The Orwell of this book enjoys his own company; he’s perfectly happy being solitary, taking rooms on his own, writing his essays, observing others. When poverty kicks in, necessity requires him to work alongside other people. But whether he’s on his own or with others, it’s the characters that flit in and out of his life – especially in Paris – that give his memoir extra colour and depth, elements of horror, humour and simple incredulity. We’ve already mentioned the Bulgarian student, working on his shoes before his daily visits to the Sorbonne. There’s the Russian mother and son – she darning socks for sixteen hours a day whilst he loafs in the Montparnasse cafés – it’s not difficult to see with whom Orwell’s sympathies lie there. Orwell points out that poverty breeds eccentricity; “people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent. Poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work” – another of Orwell’s pearls of wisdom.
He then talks about the true eccentrics he has met in Paris. The Rougiers, for example, who sold postcards on the Boulevard St Michel, packaged as if they were pornographic, but in fact they were merely of Loire chateaux. They spent their lives half-starved and half-drunk and “the filth of their room was such that one could smell it on the floor below.” Henri, the melancholy and silent sewer worker, whose ability to talk about anything other than work had been dashed out of him by a bad love affair. There’s Charlie, the young innocent-looking lad, who tells a tale so shocking of his experience with an unwilling prostitute that is really a brutal rape; Orwell describes him as a “curious specimen”, and an example of the “diverse characters” to be found in the Coq d’Or quarter. Orwell’s relating of Charlie’s story is so appalling and cruel that Gollancz nearly didn’t publish the book because of it.
There is Boris, whom Orwell liked, the brash and booming Russian soldier, now on hard times trying to scrape a living as a waiter; Boris was Orwell’s chief companion in Paris. There is Valenti, a waiter at the Hotel X, whose life is a novel in itself: “crossing the Italian frontier without a passport and selling chestnuts from a barrow on the northern boulevards, and being given fifty days’ imprisonment in London for working without a permit, and being made love to by a rich old woman in a hotel who gave him a diamond ring and afterwards accused him of stealing it, were among his experiences.” There’s Furex, the Limousin stonemason, who worked hard all week so that he could spend Saturday interminably drunk: “the queer thing about Furex was that, though he was a Communist when sober, he turned violently patriotic when drunk. He started the evening with good Communist principles, but after four or five litres he was a rampant Chauvinist denouncing spies, challenging all foreigners to fight and, if he was not prevented, throwing bottles.“ And of course there’s Jules, the lazy, vengeful and proud Magyar waiter. Time for another Orwell bon mot: “Proud and lazy men do not make good waiters. It was Jules’s dearest boast that once when a customer in a restaurant had insulted him, he had poured a plate of hot soup down the customer’s neck, and then walked straight out without even waiting to be sacked.”
Orwell goes into less detail regarding the characters he meets in London; the main two are Paddy, the Irish tramp, and Bozo the screever, or pavement artist. Paddy was unusually smart and didn’t resort to crime in order to eat; he took Orwell under his wing and showed him how to survive as a tramp. Bozo was an artist through and through, intelligent and thoughtful, creative and inspirational. Lame, following what we would now call an industrial accident, Bozo tried to get work, selling books like his father, then toys, then finally resorting to screeving. He had travelled; spoke French, knew Shakespeare, had watched a corpse burn in India. Orwell clearly finds him a very impressive character. The London folk are less eccentric, and more like friends on whom Orwell relied; whereas the Paris characters are quirkier and more peripheral; for the most part Orwell did not need to rely on others in Paris in order to survive.
Whether it’s despite or because of the poverty and the wretchedness – and I’m tempted to think it’s both – there’s a lot of humour hidden away in the darker recesses of this book. As we’ve already seen, Orwell has a wicked turn of phrase, that can convey multitudes in a few syllables. This applies just as well to the humour lurking behind the sorrow. His account of pawning his clothes in Paris, having to take a number and waiting to be called, being swindled out of a decent price for his property, watching the old man pick his woollen pants off the floor, and so on, is delivered as though he were giving a witty and urbane after dinner speech à la Oscar Wilde. Throwaway observations like: “afterwards, when it was too late, I learned that it was wiser to go to a pawnshop in the afternoon. The clerks are French, and, like most French people, are in a bad temper till they have eaten their lunch” are very funny whilst conveying a grain of absolute truth.
Another example of Orwell’s wry sense of humour comes when he is describing how he and Boris applied to work as hands at a circus. “You had to shift benches and clean up litter and, during the performance, stand on two tubs and let a lion jump through your legs. When we got to the place, an hour before the time named, we found a queue of fifty men already waiting. There is some attraction in lions, evidently.” There was also the time when Orwell became involved in a secret society of Communists looking for journalists; anyone arriving at their location brought a bag of washing, to make it look respectable. But it was a con, because you had to pay twenty francs to be allowed in the society. They promised him 150 francs an article, but they swiftly disappeared; however, his sense of humour allows him to respect their inventiveness. “They were clever fellows, and played their part admirably. Their office looked exactly as a secret Communist office should look, and as for that touch about bringing a parcel of washing, it was genius.”
On another occasion, Orwell recounts how he was offered a permanent job as a plongeur at a restaurant, where they spend the entire time swearing and cursing at each other, but treat each other as equals when work is finished for the day. “The head waiter says he would enjoy calling an Englishman names. Will you sign on for a month?” I could go on – but you can see how Orwell’s use of humour, even in the depths of despair, played a major part in seeing him through – as indeed it did all the people whose lives he crossed whilst down and out.
There are plenty of serious observations to be made, however. The hoops that have to be gone through, and humiliation that has to be endured in order to get a Salvation Army bed for the night, mean that, whatever spirit of generosity might be there in the intent, Orwell will resent the Salvation Army for the rest of his life. Churches, generally, come in for a lot of criticism – there’s another oddly hilarious scene where a number of tramps are made to sit through a service, and they behave so riotously badly in revenge against the people offering charity. “The scene had interested me. It was so different from the ordinary demeanour of tramps – from the abject worm-like gratitude with which they normally accept charity. The explanation, of course, was that we outnumbered the congregation and so were not afraid of them. A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor – it is a fixed characteristic of human nature; and, when he has fifty or a hundred others to back him, he will show it.”
Here are some more of Orwell’s observations and deductions from his couple of years living down and out. The fact that clothes are powerful things; when Orwell is finally able to wear anything other than rags and patches, “my new clothes had put me instantly into a new world. Everyone’s demeanour seemed to have changed abruptly […] dressed in a tramp’s clothes it is very difficult, at any rate for the first day, not to feel that you are genuinely degraded.” The fact that begging is loathed by society is because it’s impossible to grow rich from begging. “In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable […] Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised […] A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a businessman […] he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.”
The fact that fatigue has a bad effect on one’s manners. The overworked, under slept, underpaid, underwashed hotel workers in Paris treat each other abominably, not only with foul language, but physical and mental cruelty in a manner that no other professional would ever dream of behaving or accepting. Take the argument between Orwell and the cook: “Once she nagged and nagged until at last, out of pure spite, I lifted the dustbin up and put it out in the middle of the floor, where she was bound to trip over it. “Now, you cow, “ I said, “move it yourself.” Poor old woman, it was too heavy for her to lift and she sat down, put her head on the table and burst out crying. And I jeered at her. This is the kind of effect that fatigue has upon one’s manners.” Orwell knows he behaved despicably; but he tells us the tale with honesty as an illustration of those desperate times.
The fact that there is a caste system in a French hotel, with the manager at the top of the tree, the maitre d’hotel next, who “did not serve at table, unless to a lord or someone of that kind”; he would be followed by the head cook, who dined in the kitchen but at a separate table; then came the chef du personnel, the other cooks, then the waiters, who would only receive a retaining fee and their tips, then the laundresses, the apprentice waiters, then the plongeurs (like Orwell), then the chambermaids and finally the cafetiers. The relationship rules were unwritten but fully understood; but only while they were at work. Outside of work, a spirit of liberté, egalité, fraternité took over.
The fact that there is a similar hierarchy of status of begging in London; “there is a sharp social line between those who merely cadge and those who attempt to give some value for money […] The most prosperous beggars are street acrobats and street photographers. On a good pitch – a theatre queue for instance – a street acrobat can often earn five pounds a week […] Organ-grinders, like acrobats, are considered artists rather than beggars […] Screevers can sometimes be called artists, sometimes not […] Below screevers come the people who sing hymns, or sell matches, or bootlaces, or envelopes containing a few grains of lavender – called, euphemistically, perfume […] there is not a singer or match-seller in London who can be sure of £50 a year – a poor return for standing eighty-four hours a week on the kerb, with the cars grazing your backside.” This is just a small selection of the revelations and insights that Orwell offers us throughout the book.
It’s been suggested that Orwell expresses a lot of antisemitic sentiment in the book, particularly in the Parisian section. Is this evidence that Orwell was antisemitic, or is it simply the product of the age? I don’t know enough to comment, but I would point out that he also writes intolerantly of homosexuality; not so much in this book, but in the earlier essays he rather despises the tramps who turn to other men for sex – an almost inevitable consequence to the fact that their daily life completely prevents them from ever meeting women. I’m tempted to think that this is due to the times in which he lived, rather than betraying a truly antisemitic or homophobic characteristic; maybe this will become clearer with his later books. I will keep a watch out!
One other point – if your copy of the book, like mine, was printed many years ago, you may find that chapter 32, where Orwell writes journalistically about everyday London slang and swearing, contains a number of words that have been replaced by a euphemistic dash; this is because Gollancz couldn’t consider the book for publication if those foul words were included – much to Orwell’s fury. It’s only been in very recent publications that the dashes have been replaced by the actual words that Orwell originally used. And, to fulfil your curiosity as to which words they are, I can reveal that they are our good old friends f*ck and f*cking! This is a genuinely fascinating chapter, because a number of the slang words used, which Orwell foresaw would quickly go out of style, either never did, or have since come back into use. You don’t need a glossary to understand what is meant by mooching, dideki, boozer, kip, or knocking-off.
There is so much more to be got out of this book – I can only recommend that you read it for yourself, if you haven’t already! And if you’ve read it too, I’d be fascinated to know your thoughts, please add them in the comments below! Orwell’s next published writing were a few poems, but, for brevity’s sake, I’m not going to include them in my George Orwell Challenge, After that comes his first novel, Burmese Days. Hopefully I’ll read it over the next few weeks then get my thoughts down on paper soon after! Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the book.
It’s the third year that the tradition of the London Palladium panto has been revived, and I nabbed our tickets as early as I could. The last two Palladium pantos have been magnificent with their usual cast recidivists, Julian Clary, Paul Zerdin and Nigel Havers; topped up with Gary Wilmot and Charlie Stemp this year and last year, and a fresh baddie every year – first, Paul O’Grady, next Elaine Paige, and this year, Dawn French. As always, the production department has thrown everything at it – glamorous costumes, lively sets, a glorious orchestra, a superb supporting cast and a very funny script. Are you waiting for me to come up with a “but…..”?
No, there’s no buts. This is as exciting, hilarious and downright filthy as you might expect. I’m sure the majority of the children present – and there were surprisingly quite a few for a Saturday night – wouldn’t have understood one word that Julian Clary said; and if they did, then Social Services need a word with the parents. However, hidden within the concoction that is the panto Snow White, there were a few moments that would really appeal to kids: Paul Zerdin as Muddles, with his irrepressible puppet Sam, and Gary Wilmot’s Dame, as ever with a patter song, this time about all the stars that have ever appeared at the Palladium to the tune of I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General. Mr Wilmot had to stop the orchestra, actually, because he left a huge chunk of his list out! One sequence that took me back to my childhood was the appearance of the Palladium Pantaloons, four fast and funny acrobatic guys who took the roof off in the best Charlie Cairoli tradition.
Kids also like Strictly Come Dancing, and this panto has special guest appearances by Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace. They perform two enchanting dances, the second of which is an Argentine Tango; it’s their speciality and you can’t take your eyes off them. They play the King and Queen but there’s no real attempt to integrate them into the rest of the plot; they’re just a couple of delightful interludes.
There’s also romance, in the form of the charming Danielle Hope as Snow White and the irresistible Charlie Stemp as Prince Harry of Hampstead. I’m sure I’m not risking any spoilers when I tell you that the two of them get married in the end, ahhh. That’s not before both of them have run the gamut of side-swipes from the waspish tongue of Mr Clary, of course. As last year, there were moments when Mr Stemp just couldn’t continue for laughing. His star quality shines through; and Mrs C and I can’t wait to see him in Mary Poppins later this year. And Ms Hope did a devilish thing during a slightly ham-fisted piece of comic business; she accidentally switched off the control button on the remote Sam, so when they were meant to be having a conversation together, Sam just sat there, like the dummy he is. One of the children brought on stage for a singalong at the end announced that that was their favourite moment of the show.
Even though they’re not mentioned in the title, Snow White does have her usual team of cohabitees at the house in the forest, here referred to as The Magnificent Seven. I can only presume it’s a copyright issue but none of them bear the same names as their counterparts in the original Disney film. Like, when did Happy become Cheery? Even Doc has now been upgraded to Prof; he must have been awarded an honorary degree somewhere. They are, of course, an ensemble all of their own, but I must say I do always enjoy seeing Craig Garner (Cheery) on stage; I still have very fond memories of his Tommy the Cat in Sheffield’s Dick Whittington a few years ago.
And of course, there’s Nigel. We know it’s Nigel because he has five big letters on stage around which he cavorts, just like Cilla did in her 1960s TV series. By the way, there’s precious little attempt for any of the performers to hide behind their character names. All the way through it’s Nigel, Dawn, Julian, Charlie etc on stage. This year’s ritual humiliation for Nigel is that he has finally been given a part – that of Julian Clary’s understudy. As you would expect, he doesn’t really come up trumps, but I do love how he allows the production to absolutely rip his credibility to shreds.
So how do the big guns get on in this panto? Julian Clary only has to suggest the whiff of an innuendo and the audience are at his feet. Over the last decade he has become the supreme pantomimier, if there were to be such a word (I’ve just invented it); the arch practitioner who appreciates the combination of apparent innocence and utter filth and understands exactly how far to take it for the best comic effect. He is, of course, supported by the most outrageous costumes imaginable, some of them totally ridiculous. They must weigh a ton, so I reckon he’s stronger than he looks. Dawn French’s Queen Dragonella is, from the start, Dawn French dressed as a regal bully, admitting she hasn’t yet mastered the necessary evil cackle. It’s wonderfully tongue-in-cheek all the way through, from her lascivious (and unsuccessful) chatting up of the Prince, to her final re-emergence as a much more familiar figure. She’s enormous fun (no joke intended) and her obvious lack of scariness is presented as a strength. “You don’t frighten me”, says Mr Clary as the Man in the Mirror, “last year I did eight shows a week with Elaine Paige”. Well, quite.
There are only a handful of seats left for the remaining performances so you’d better get in quick. It’s a feast for all the senses and guaranteed guffaws from start to finish. Can’t wait for next year’s panto!
P. S. Why do some people have to be so grouchy about letting people in and out of their seats during the interval? We were in the middle of Row G of the stalls and you’ve never met a more unhelpful bunch of surly selfish theatregoers. Beware – if you don’t try to let me through, I may end up stepping on your feet and I am heavy; your risk. Mrs C is much politer than me, but even she was forced to tell the unhelpful youth at the end of the row that she was literally stuck and that he’d have to stand up unless they were both going to stay there all night. Honestly, people, remember your theatre etiquette!
P. P. S. As we all know, the London Palladium is a theatre of the highest reputation and standing, not only throughout the UK but also the world. On a sold-out Saturday night, I can only imagine the bar takings – they must be tremendous; and that’s good news because all revenue helps keep our theatres alive. Having quaffed a delicious Chardonnay before the show, we returned to collect our pre-ordered interval Chardonnays halfway through. I took my first gulp and it tasted revolting. One look at the liquid and you could tell it was a much, much lighter colour than the wine in the other glass. Could it possibly be that a theatre with the reputation of the Palladium is watering down its wine? We took it to the barman, said it had been watered down and he didn’t deny it – in fact, he quickly and sheepishly replaced both glasses with fresh Chardonnay from the bottle. Buyer beware!
What could be better than a return visit by Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo for the first time in three years in the UK? Answer: two return visits! Let me explain; for this first venue in the Trocks UK tour, they have been holding court at the Peacock Theatre for two weeks, with two different programmes illustrating their artistry and skills. And Mrs Chrisparkle and I were lucky enough to be able to see the shows on both the matinee of 15th September (Programme A) and the evening of the 20th (Programme B). Simples!
This is actually the eleventh season of visits from the Trocks that we’ve been delighted to see; our first exposure to them was back in 1998, when Comrade Ida Neversayneva was at the height of her powers, and young Olga Supphozova was just starting out. Today, La Supphozova is the Grande Dame of the Company, and new, younger stars are beginning to shine. Such is the way with the Trocks; every time they come back, we get a mixture of old favourites (Swan Lake Act II and the Dying Swan are an ever-present fixture) and some new delights.
As always, we start the show with some unexpected changes in the best tradition of Russian ballet, to the extent that the cast list in the programme is virtually meaningless! I wasn’t surprised that the mysterious missing Miss Natasha Notgoodenuff was winging her way on an errand of mercy, this time to help out the ailing ballerinas of Luton. Fortunately we were reassured that all of the ballerinas were in a very good mood for our performances. I’m sure we wouldn’t want it any other way.
Programme A kicked off, and it would be criminal if it didn’t, with Swan Lake Act II. A splendidly petulant Benno danced by William Vanilla (Noah Herron) and a suitably languid and emotionless Jacques D’Aniels (Joshua Thake) introduced us to a new star of the Trocks, the sensational Nina Enimenimynimova (Long Zou) as an immaculate Odette. If ever there was someone who embodies the spirit of the Trocks, it’s Mr Zou, because not only is he a sensational dancer – those pirouettes and placings were all brilliant – but he invests Miss Enimenimynimova with such a cheeky sense of fun; flirting with her leading man and with the audience, and delightfully taking the rise out of the classical traditions of ballet whilst giving them the utmost respect too. Superb.
After an interval, we were treated to the dubious pleasures of Patterns in Time, with a nod to the work of Merce Cunningham. This has also long been a favourite, not because of the dancing, which each time I forget to watch, but because of the hilarious po-faced shenanigans of the two musicians, creating sound effects from everyday odds and ends. This so beautifully mocks the “sound effect” accompaniments of modern dance, and Miss Supphozova (the inimitable Robert Carter) in particular made it impossible to watch the dance – I just love all those preparations in advance for just one note played on the recorder. Hilarious.
Then it was time for La Trovatiara (Pas de cinq) which we’ve not seen before, although I know it’s been in the Trocks’ rep for some time. This is a scene from an opera that Verdi could have written, if he was writing for a bunch of pirate girls off the coast of Tripoli. It’s brought to life superbly by the statuesque Eugenia Repelskii (Joshua Thake again) and the chirpy Guzella Verbitskaya (Jack Furlong Jr) amongst others. I particularly liked the moment when Miss Repelskii, supported herself on the heads of Marat and Sergey Legupski (Christopher Ouellette and Kevin Garcia) in order to get a proper twirl action going.
The Dying Swan was executed by Helen Highwaters (Duane Gosa), her fluffy feathers moulting madly as she first dances, then hobbles, her way across the stage. We all played along with the ridiculous over-reaction from the audience to confirm this as the sheer pantomime delight that it is. Maybe Miss Highwaters was a little too quick to encourage our applause, and found her way on and off stage through the curtains a little too easily? Comrade Ida would have milked another five minutes out of that act.
Our final piece was again new to me, the Underwater Scene from The Little Humpback Horse; music (which sounded a little scratchy at times) by Pugni, choreography by the great Petipa. Olga Supphozova completely stole it with an extraordinary sequence of pirouettes which left the audience thundering their applause. Beautifully danced and exquisitely costumed too – I really liked the headgear of the Medusas, like they were photobombing a bunch of jellyfish. For an encore, the Trocks turned into a kind of Tiller Girl act, with high legs kicking along to Sinatra’s New York New York.
Programme B started with a brilliant performance of Les Sylphides, with leading man Boris Mudko completely out of it on a mix of booze and Valium, or so it seemed. Once again La Eminemimynimova was on terrific form, and I loved the brilliant mix of dance and comedy throughout – including Miss Supphozova’s sleepwalking tumble into the auditorium, and Miss Repelskii’s perpetual attempts to take charge of the whole thing.
After another helping of Patterns in Time, we had the Pas de Six from Napoli, and some stunning choreography after August Bournonville which gave it a truly exquisite feel. Some beautiful elements danced by Miss Verbitskaya and Miss Repelskii, but for me the highlights were the two male soloists, Nicholas Khachafallenjar (Haojun Xie) and especially Boris Dumbkopf (Takaomi Yoshino) who was totally outstanding.
Our second Dying Swan was lethally executed by Olga Supphozova, in an amazing blend of pure beauty and frantic cygnicide; an absolutely classic performance. And the evening ended with another old favourite, Raymonda’s Wedding, with guest artiste Lagavulina Skotchroksova (Graham Sheffield) as the White Lady doing it for charity, and yet more superb performances from Miss Enimenimynimova as bride Raymonda, Boris Mudko (sobered up slightly) as her groom and some beautiful combinations of various Trocks in all the other roles.
The Trocks never fail to inspire, to entertain, to make you laugh and to make you gasp at their incredible strength, grace and agility. A worldwide treasure for us all to share! If you haven’t seen them before, no excuses, you must go! Their UK and Ireland tour takes them to Southampton, Newcastle, Hull, Dublin, Buxton, Cardiff, Canterbury, Nottingham, Inverness, Edinburgh and wrapping up in Belfast in early November. Sheer genius!