How about some more theatre memories? April 1984 – February 1985

Another plunge into history…

  1. Poppie Nongena – Riverside Studios, London, April 1984

Poppie NongenaThis arrived at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith with much expectation, and, although I can’t remember too many details about the show, I know I really enjoyed it and so did my friend Dave who came with me. Based on Elsa Joubert’s acclaimed novel, which has only recently also been made into a film, it tells the story of a South African woman born in the 1930s and the journey of her life. Poppie was played by Thuli Dumakude who won the Laurence Olivier Award for Actress of the Year in a New Play for this performance. The cast and crew had all come to London following the successful original production of the play in South Africa.

  1. Mr Cinders – Fortune Theatre, London, 14th May 1984

This hugely successful little production had already been playing for over a year when I finally saw it.  Written in 1928 by Clifford Grey and Greatrex Newman, with music by Vivian Ellis and Richard Myers, this is a Cinderella story with the roles reversed – Mr Cinders is the downtrodden menial help and the Prince Charming role is a young, forceful woman. This production started at the King’s Head theatre then quickly transferred to the Fortune, originally with Denis Lawson in the main role, but I saw it shortly after a cast change and Jim was played by Lionel Blair, and Jill by Carole Brooke. I remember it being absolutely charming, beautifully played, very funny and a completely winning little show. Looking back, I wonder how on earth they crammed a cast of twenty on the tiny Fortune stage. But they must have somehow!

  1. 42nd Street – Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, 28th July 1984

I’m always keen to see the big names of musical theatre history, so I was really looking forward to seeing this giant of a show, staged at my favourite London theatre, with my friends Mike and Lin and Lin’s mum Barbara. I was so disappointed – in fact, I was really bored by it and pretty much hated it. Despite a fantastic cast led by Georgia Brown, it commits the cardinal sin that only a musical can: it tells a bit of story, then everything stops for a song. Then it picks up the story, then it stops again. There’s no flowing movement. It’s all façade and no sincerity. Happy never to see this show again!

  1. The Ratepayers’ Iolanthe – Phoenix Theatre, London, 1st September 1984

Ned Sherrin and Alistair Beaton adapted Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe to reflect the current political wranglings between Tory PM Margaret Thatcher and the London GLC’s leadership by Labour Ken Livingstone. The result was a very clever and witty political parody and I enjoyed it a lot. Looking back, it was a tremendous cast of West End stalwarts: Gaye Brown, Lorna Dallas, David Firth, Doug Fisher, David Kernan, Michael Robbins, Gay Soper, Dudley Stevens, Sally Bradshaw, Myra Sands and Jenny Wren. Very much a thing of its time, there’s no way this would ever be revived!

  1. Little Shop of Horrors – Comedy Theatre, London, 24th November 1984

Moving over a production of Ira Levin’s Deathtrap at the Bournemouth Playhouse starring Gareth Hunt as Sidney Bruhl (only because I’ve already mentioned the original West End production) my next show was the original London production of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s Little Shop of Horrors, the cult classic ridiculously funny musical with an out of control man-eating plant. This had already been running for a year when I saw it, and had undergone a change of cast with Ellen Greene leaving the role of Audrey, and now being performed by Claire Moore; and on the matinee that I saw, Audrey was performed by her understudy Susie Fenwick. The cast also included some other great performers, including Barry James, Harry Towb, David Burt and Dawn Hope. Huge fun, brilliant staging – including at the end when plant tentacles dropped down from the ceiling and brushed the heads of everyone in the stalls, much to our combined surprised horror!

  1. Stepping Out – Duke of York’s Theatre, London, 24th November 1984

Richard Harris’ delightful and successful play about a group of women who learn to tap dance together won the Evening Standard Play of the Year award before being made into a film. Thoroughly enjoyable play, given a very good production directed by Julia McKenzie. Barbara Ferris and Diane Langton led the cast. Not much more to say, really!

  1. Trumpets and Raspberries – Phoenix Theatre, London, 15th December 1984

After Accidental Death of an Anarchist I was a huge fan of Dario Fo and this production of his 1981 play was a must-see. Another of his left-wing farces, it starred Griff Rhys-Jones playing the dual roles of Agnelli, the head of Fiat Motors, and Antonio, who rescues Agnelli from a kidnap attempt. When Agnelli’s face is reconstructed to look like Antonio – typical farce ensues. Very funny and thoroughly enjoyable, with a great supporting cast including Gwen Taylor and Gavin Muir.

  1. The Hired Man – Astoria Theatre, London, 2nd February 1985

Passing over a concert by Jacques Loussier at the Royal Festival Hall that I saw in January 1985 with my friends John and Paul, the next show I saw was the brilliant – and still frequently performed (I’m pleased to say) The Hired Man, Melvyn Bragg and Howard Goodall’s adaptation of Bragg’s own original book, charting the life of John and Emily, high up on some fell, Jackson, who betrayed John’s friendship by a dalliance with Emily; and, as time goes by, the adventures of May and Harry their children, culminating in Emily’s death and John’s return to working on the land. A production whose strength came from, not only the brilliance of the material but the simplicity of its staging; and I remember being completely blown away by a mesmerising performance by Paul Clarkson as John, who I always thought would go on to be the biggest thing in the West End – but it didn’t quite work out that way. Oh – and the music is sensational. One of the best shows ever.

  1. She Stoops to Conquer – National Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre, London, February 1985.

Giles Block’s wonderful production of Oliver Goldsmith’s classic, this was a riot starring Tom Baker and Dora Bryan, Tony Haygarth and Hywel Bennett. This had enjoyed a lengthy and successful tour and would go on to appear in some more regional theatres before finally closing. Great fun!

  1. Me and My Girl – Adelphi Theatre, London, 25th February 1985

The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle was always a sucker for anything nostalgic about the good old days of London, so a show featuring The Lambeth Walk would always be high on her priority list. We both really enjoyed this fantastic production, which breathed new life into an old show and has kept it in the public’s wish list ever since. A great cast album too!

Heading the cast was the amazing Robert Lindsay who revealed song and dance abilities I had no idea he had, and he continues to give great performances to this day. Emma Thompson was a delightful Sally, and with a supporting cast including names like Frank Thornton, Ursula Smith, Robert Longden and Richard Caldicot, this was always going to be a great production. Low down the cast list was Rosemarie Ford, who would become better known as Bruce Forsyth’s assistant on the Generation Game (what’s on the board, Miss Ford) and who would also become known as Mrs Robert Lindsay.

Review – Me and My Girl, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 11th August 2018

Me and My GirlThe Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle was the poshest person you could ever meet who also claimed to be a Cockney Sparrer. Any show, programme, book or film that had a whiff of the East End about it (or even better, the West End) and she’d be there like a shot. Thus it was that she and I went to see the original production of this revised version of Me and My Girl at the Adelphi Theatre 33 years ago, gasp. It made a star of Emma Thompson, and confirmed Robert Lindsay as the second-best song and dance man in Britain (after Michael Crawford). The current Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with assorted members of her family, saw a revival in Milton Keynes in 2006, which was more notable for the supporting cast of Dillie Keane as the Duchess, the late Trevor Bannister as Sir John, and Sylvester McCoy as a splendid Parchester. And now the Lambeth Walk is back on the elegantly middle-class streets (avenues?) of Chichester, Oi!

Bill Me and My Girl is a pure feelgood show, that plays upon the age-old themes of rags to riches and the class divide; the common as muck hero lording it over the beautifully-bred gentry. Think Penelope Keith’s Margo versus Richard Briers’ Tom, Charlie Drake persistently aggravating Henry McGee, or Eliza Doolittle taking revenge on Henry Higgins. Higgins even fulfils a remote role in this story, and I’m sure you can guess what it is! Bill Snibson, wisecracking costermonger of the parish of Lambeth, is revealed to be the new Earl of Hareford, heir to a magnificent estate and fortune, all because of some irregular hows-your-father committed by the 13th Earl. But there is a condition; the new heir has to be considered to be a fit and proper person to assume the title; and Bill is, to coin a phrase, as rough as guts. Can Bill convince the Duchess, Sir John and their entourage that he and his girl Sally fit into high society? Does he even want to? Or is he a permanent fixture, South of the River? You’ll have to watch the show to find out!

Take it on the ChinFew creative masters can put together an exuberant, crowd-pleasing musical like the dream team of Daniel Evans (director), Lez Brotherston (design) and Alistair David (choreography). It worked in Sheffield, with their productions of My Fair Lady, Oliver!, Anything Goes, and Show Boat, and it’s still working in Chichester with this superb production. Mr Brotherston’s set opens up like a 3-D Advent Calendar, with opaque windows barely concealing partygoers inside; open a door and you get lovely glimpses of priceless tapestries beyond the back of the stage. Noblesse Oblige is the Hareford family motto; and Mr Brotherston does it proud. The costumes and props suggest immaculate taste in preference to creature comforts; Hareford Hall was never going to be a comfy and cosy sort of place, was it? Tim Mitchell’s lighting compliments the set perfectly and gives extra depth to some of the big choreographed numbers – The Lambeth Walk looks particularly beguiling. And Gareth Valentine’s orchestra never has a dull moment with a constant range of great tunes and fantastic arrangements; with the top of Mr Valentine’s head peeping out from a cut out triangle in the stage floor, I kept on hoping that the dancers don’t put a foot wrong and land up on top of him. Not as much as Mr Valentine does, I expect.

Leaning on a lamp...The original book by L Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber was revised by a young Stephen Fry (whatever happened to him?) back in the 1980s and still comes across as fresh and cheeky, with some puntastic lines for Bill to offend the dignified ears of the gentry. Noel Gay’s music still sounds sweet and tuneful. Not only the famous Lambeth Walk, and the title song Me and My Girl, but also the quirky fun of You Would if You Could, Take it on the Chin, and Parchester’s irrepressible The Family Solicitor. If you’ve only ever thought of Leaning on a Lamppost as a George Formby comedy number, you’ll be amazed at how beautiful it is as a romantic ballad. And to cap it all, there’s the terrific silliness of The Sun Has Got His Hat On. Removed from the running order, for some reason, is the delicately funny and sad If Only You Had Cared For Me, performed by the Duchess and Sir John; it’s a perfect little song that gives us an insight into what their lives could have been like, if only one of them had had the courage to say something. I say: reinstate it!

Me and My Girl in personPopular comic actor Matt Lucas plays Bill Snibson, and he absolutely looks the part. Garishly bedecked in a loud checked suit – all colour and no taste, the complete opposite of the Harefords – he’s quite nifty on his feet given he’s a slightly chunkier chap, and there’s an unexpectedly endearing nature to his vocal tone. He bats out the cockney patter like a regular at the Elephant and Castle and his comic timing is excellent. Oddly, he stumbled over a couple of his lines earlier on and never stopped referring back to it throughout the rest of the show; I sense he was less at ease about his little faux pas than the rest of us were; we’d forgiven him and forgotten about it ages ago.

Doing the Lambeth WalkVery good as he was, what his performance lacked for me was a little extra depth in the emotions. I know it’s just a silly and fluffy musical, but these are real people in real predicaments. You never felt the physical and mental anguish of Bill’s being deliberately separated from Sally. His voice never betrayed that doubtful uncertainty of being a fish out of water. All his emotions and reactions were essentially superficial; a little too comic-book and not sufficiently heartfelt for my liking. I found myself wondering what Robert Lindsay was doing that evening. I felt that slight superficiality also extended to his Sally, the wonderful Alex Young, whom we have seen so many times and is always a delight. True, she sang the lovely Once You Lose Your Heart with a beautiful sense of tragedy, and she masterminded the stage invasion that is the start of The Lambeth Walk. But I felt there was less chemistry when she was actually singing alongside Mr Lucas. By the way, her transformation from Lambeth Sally to the refined potential Lady Hareford was immaculately realised.

DuchessThe true star of the evening was Caroline Quentin who gives a huge performance – vocally, comedically, and even choreographically. Perfectly treading that fine line between a Christine Hamilton-style battle-axe and being a kindly matriarch with a twinkle in her eye and a heart of gold, Ms Quentin convincingly shows throughout how, for the sake of tradition, she desperately wants Bill to succeed as the new Earl, because That’s How Things Are Done. She effortlessly slides in to the comic set pieces, such as helping Bill practise meeting grand dignitaries at his party; she throws herself into the Lambeth Walk, so much so that she could become the Pearly Queen of Tunbridge Wells. It’s a brilliant performance throughout. Clive Rowe, too, has a fine old time as Sir John; a perfect comedy foil to Mr Lucas whilst being a supportive arm for Ms Quentin.

As the family solicitor, here's what you have to doDominic Marsh is excellent as Gerald; not quite like one of Ray Alan’s Lord Charles’ Silly Arses so he remains a credible character, joyfully leading us through The Sun Has Got His Hat On, and entertainingly reuniting with the excellent and frightful Lady Jackie (Siubhan Harrison) with the most effective kiss ever planted on woman’s lips. And there’s a frolicsomely fun performance from Jennie Dale as Parchester, who finds refuge from the dryness of a legal career through the medium of song and dance. I’ve not seen Parchester played by a woman before, but there’s absolutely no reason why she shouldn’t be. If anything, I’d liked to have seen Messrs Evans and David allow Ms Dale even more free rein to cavort all over the stage. Having occasionally to repress her irrepressibility was rather sad!

So jump into your sunbathLast Saturday night’s show was pretty much sold out; and these final two weeks of the run are looking fairly cramped too. A terrific production that would certainly suit one of these hugely successful Chichester/West End transfers. This one will have you travelling home afterwards, beaming from ear to ear. Oi!

Production photos by Johan Persson