For the first time in many years, last Christmas we missed out on seeing the Royal and Derngate’s panto – Peter Pan, starring Joe Pasquale. Shame, because I love a good panto, but there were other shows out there that we wanted to see more – and, sadly, you can’t see everything. The dame for that production was played by Ceri Dupree, and, from what I’d read, he was brilliant. So I was very pleased to see he was bringing his one-man show to Northampton, so we could see first-hand what we’d missed.
I had no particular expectation of what the show would be about. I knew Mr Dupree was a female impersonator – I’d seen comparisons made with Danny La Rue – but I also thought there might be a touch of the Ennio Marchetto about him. Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw Mr Marchetto in Oxford a few years back and his rapid impersonations of a series of women in one show was just sensational. But it was very short! All over in about 50 minutes, which, when you sit in the centre of the front stalls at the Oxford Playhouse, is the equivalent of the time it takes to get to your seat and to get out again at the end.
Well there’s hardly any similarity between them. Mr Marchetto does about a hundred women in considerably less than an hour and never says a word, miming to original recordings. Mr Dupree does 14 (I think) in three hours, and extends many of them into hilarious monologues – or indeed dialogues with the audience. His skill as a vocal impersonator is equally as strong as the way he captures each of these ladies’ appearances. One word of warning though; you may have taken your kids to see him in panto, and they probably loved him, so you might feel there would be plenty for children to enjoy in this show. As far as costumes and glamour are concerned, that might well be the case! However, Mr Dupree’s act is decidedly on the blue side, and I expect there were some very interesting next-day conversations to be had in the households of several families who took their youngsters to see Fit For A Queen. As a rule of thumb, I’d say, if they need a booster seat to see the stage, it’s a bad idea.
Saturday night’s divatastic smorgasbord in the delightfully intimate setting of the old Royal theatre fell into two halves. Before the interval, some international superstars graced our stage, from the elegantly divine to the downright weird. After the interval, we celebrated Cool Britannia, with homegrown talent both meek and magnificent, plus a couple of dashes of royalty. I’ll get into the details shortly, but first, a couple of observations about the structure of the show.
It started off with what looked to me like a fairly old and ropey video of Mr Dupree not being ready for a show – thirty minutes to curtain up and he’s still in bed. Cue for some Benny Hill-style fast action film that gets him up, gets washed and dressed, and eventually arriving at the theatre on time. Except of course, that it wasn’t the theatre that we were all at, it was somewhere else, filmed a long time ago. I don’t think it contributed anything to the show at all, apart from making it start a bit later than it should have done; and when you’re starting at 8pm and it’s not all over till 11, maybe we could have done without that. Secondly, unlike the aforementioned Mr Marchetto, Mr Dupree is not a quick-change artist. He’s no slowcoach, but it’s not instant transformation either. He needs a few minutes between each character to prepare. In the first half, this time was taken up by videos that were meant to give us a clue as to who his next portrayal would be. To be honest, this was a bit boring, and actually made the time we were waiting for the next act to feel longer than it really was. In the second half, this was replaced by clever lighting behind a screen showing him actually changing from one outfit to the next, in silhouette. This served as a much better entr’acte, as a) it’s more intriguing to observe and b) you can guess much more accurately how much longer you’re going to have to wait.
On to the show then. We kicked off with Zsa Zsa Gabor (who, I discovered, celebrated her 98th birthday the day before the performance), an excuse for a stunning evening dress – and to be honest, there’s no expense spared on the costumes, wigs, accessories etc throughout the show – who told us a little of her Hollywood lifestyle, her sexual appetite and a run-down of her nine husbands. It’s a very funny and pretty damn accurate impersonation, with some knock-out material, very much à la Joan Rivers. You couldn’t get a greater contrast with Zsa Zsa than with our next star, the legendary Nana Mouskouri, all trademark specs, flicky hair and ghastly 70s summer patterned dress. Sitting in the third row of the stalls, we were always likely to be picked on to some extent in this show, but largely got away with it, Miss Mouskouri simply noting that my glasses were a little like hers. Phew, that was a close one. Mr Dupree is devastatingly good at interacting with the audience as the lady a few seats to our right discovered, while he interrogated her on her flicking activities. Another Grande Dame appeared in the shape of Marlene Dietrich, (I can still only think of her in terms of how my dad used to call her Marlene Dirtybitch) Mr Dupree adopting a brilliantly superior and bored expression whilst delivering some more first rate material. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the joke about the stamp collector. The late Denis Quilley did a memorable Dietrich in the original production of Privates on Parade – but Mr Dupree’s version is equally as good. Look! I’ve got a signed programme of Marlene Dietrich’s cabaret show at the Bristol Hippodrome in 1965.
Next was probably the comedy highlight of the evening – Dame Edna. Vocally perfect, Mr Dupree really gets her twisted, condescending smile to a tee – he and Barry Humphries are probably about as quick-witted as each other. It wasn’t long before Dame Edna had engaged many of us in embarrassing conversations, but most notably Patricia, who squirmed as he enquired about her bedroom at great length in order to appreciate the colour co-ordination (burgundy and cream, as it happens), and Audrey, who became the butt of so many jokes about twilight years and carers – she was a real good sport. Typical Dame Edna.
The next three acts were more musical homages than character scenes. A monstrously over-wigged Tina Turner gave us her Private Dancer, a wacky overblown schoolgirl of a Bjork treated us to It’s Oh So Quiet (personally I’ve always preferred Noisy Smurf’s version), and we finished the first half with a very staid and dignified Edith Piaf, regretting rien. We then took to the Merlots, spending the interval still laughing over Dame Edna’s escapades and observing the families desperate to talk to their children about Something Else.
Back for the second half and we were graciously entertained to a Royal audience with Her Majesty the Queen, who had kindly accepted Mr Dupree’s invitation to make a little speech. It was a very affectionate, if not that respectful, impersonation. However, any cap doffing was trumped by our next guest, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, with thighs like gammons and the glitziest hunting jacket. Given the fact that we don’t often see her interviewed or know that much about her, Mr Dupree has been able to let his imagination run riot here and come up with a genius comic cameo; irreverence personified, completely hilarious.
Whilst his international ladies feature glamorous older ladies like Zsa Zsa Gabor and Marlene Dietrich, his Brits are perhaps not quite so glamorous. Our next blast from the past was Gladys Pugh from Hi-De-Hi. That was the first comedy series from the Jimmy Perry/David Croft stable that didn’t do it for me, so I never followed the escapades of the Yellowcoats, but I could still appreciate Mr Dupree’s version. Our Gladys was required to provide a poetry recital (cue for lots of rude double entendres) and the camp quiz (cue for even more rude double entendres). Then we were back in the more familiar glamorous environment of Shirley Bassey, all grand gestures and fabulous frock, and then someone whom I can barely remember ever seeing on TV, and certainly I’ve never seen anyone imitate them, Dorothy Squires. I seem to remember having a recording of her singing For Once In My Life when I was a kid. Only by doing a little online research do I now realise that Mr Dupree’s performance must have been a parody of her doing Say It With Flowers (a single with Russ Conway, apparently). From memory I think it was a really good visual impersonation – but I can’t help but think that she would mean very little to most people watching, and maybe it’s time to retire her from the act?
Keeping with the Welsh theme (Mr Dupree is a Swansea lad), our next artiste was another fairly long-forgotten singer, Mary Hopkin, although I gather she is still active and performing, just not with much big publicity. It’s always a delight to be reminded of Those Were The Days, even if it wasn’t taken entirely seriously. But I must admit I was a little taken aback by his final star – Amy Winehouse. It’s a skilful impersonation, and there was plenty of humour in the performance, but I’m not entirely comfortable with seeing a presentation of this gifted, troubled and now dead young lady, hobbling around the stage clearly stoned. Mrs C didn’t feel it was inappropriate; maybe I’m a bit over-sensitive.
And finally, in the best Mike Yarwood tradition (and indeed as Barry Humphries did at the end of his recent tour), Ceri came out as himself for one final number and a very warm set of thank-yous to the various people who assisted him during the course of the evening, which we felt showed he must have been very nicely brought up. He’s a very talented performer, a great female impersonator, very quick witted with the audience, and all in all it was a very entertaining show. Just don’t bring your little kids or maiden aunts!