Review – The Bridges of Madison County, Menier Chocolate Factory, 11th August 2019

Bridges of Madison CountyIt’s not often, gentle reader, that I can honestly say that I have read the book from which a musical/film/melodrama/interpretative dance/etc (delete as applicable) was taken; but, in this instance, I Have Indeed Read That Book. The Bridges of Madison County was recommended to Mrs Chrisparkle by our friend Lady Lichfield back in the day (1992) when it was all the rage; she enjoyed it, so, as it was short, I thought I’d give it a try. It would be wrong to use the pejorative term chicklit, so I won’t. Robert James Waller’s romantic novella tells the tale of Francesca, a lonely Italian-American housewife, being swept off her feet by the dashing National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid, a brief moment of passion in an otherwise dowdy existence. It had Lady Lichfield in tears; Mrs C was audibly sobbing whilst reading it; I read it and thought it was… ok.

Dale Rapley and Jenna RussellHowever, when the Menier announced that they were producing the musical version of the book, which had received the Tony award for best score for its Broadway production in 2014, I knew it was the right thing to do, so booked the tickets straight away. And then I realised an extraordinary thing: The Observer gave it a 5-star review; the Standard gave it 1 star. This is going to be nothing if not Marmite.

David-Perkins-and-Jenna-RusselLife for someone like Francesca must have been extraordinary difficult. Brought up with all the metropolitan bustle and bustle of Napoli, then transplanted to the plains of Iowa, you couldn’t get a stronger contrast. With her only sister on the other side of the world, she must have felt isolated, even in a loving, committed relationship. With a farmer husband and children who are only interested in showing steers, Francesca loves her family but can’t associate herself with their interests. So when the rest of the family go off to Indianapolis for a fair, she stays behind, assuring them that she will be fine with her book and testing out new recipes. And, to be fair, you get the feeling that she’s 100% telling the truth. There’s no doubt that this Francesca loves her family and seems more contented than the version of Francesca that you find in the book. So, perhaps, when Kincaid enters her life, it’s more of a surprise to her – and to us – that she falls for him so easily.

Edward-Baker-Duly-and-Jenna-RussellBut fall she does, and, as a romantic love affair story, which she has to hide from not only her husband, but also her children and her nosy neighbours, it’s a story as old as time, but none the less emotional as a result. Confronted with the reality of her family returning home, and expecting life to carry on the same, does Francesca leave them for Robert, or does she buckle down to her previous life? If you don’t know the answer, I’m not going to tell you, you’ll have to see the show to find out!

Maddison Bulleyment and Jenna RussellThe score, by Jason Robert Brown, was completely new to me, and is truly impressive. With its plaintive intimacy, it reminded me to an extent of the score from The Hired Man, but doesn’t have the latter’s barely concealed savagery. Tom Murray’s terrific, unseen, orchestra play these beautiful tunes with a marvellous balance of strength and fragility. However, although it was performed with great bravado, I thought the opening number to the second Act, State Road 21, completely destroys the atmosphere that had been built up at the end of the first Act; hoe-downing around, and encouraging the audience to clap along just feels all wrong. Whether that’s a misjudgement by Mr Brown and Marsha Norman, who wrote the book, or by top director Sir Trevor Nunn, I have no idea, but I clapped along, unhappy with myself for doing so.

Dale RapleyTal Rosner’s video design projects constantly changing images on the back walls to suggest the prairie fields or the city lights, encroaching into Jon Bausor’s set which recreates a homely but modest kitchen; enough to keep a family fed, but not to linger over. A couple of things really bugged me; why, when we get a glimpse of Francesca’s sister Chiara swigging out of a wine bottle in her miserable home in Napoli, is she drinking Mersault? That’s far too upmarket (and French) to be believable. It should have been a cheap bottle of Chianti or something. And how come Kincaid goes into the garden to pick fresh vegetables for the evening meal, which Francesca then prepares and they eat, whilst the aforementioned vegetables are still sitting in the box on the kitchen worktop? If it was a film you’d say that was a continuity error.

Gillian-Kirkpatrick-and-Paul-F-MonaghanJenna Russell is a sensational Francesca. Resilient, brave, mature but childlike, you can see the character constantly daring herself to go one stage further, along a path to who knows what. Of course, her voice is superb and she delivers her songs full of expression, of hope and of love. Edward Baker-Duly is also excellent as Kincaid, treading a fine line between an innocent abroad and a roué; the character is neither of these, but Mr B-D always makes us think that Kincaid could react in any number of unexpected ways. The always reliable Dale Rapley is great as Francesca’s dullard husband Bud; a good, unadventurous man with no hint of suspicion. There’s excellent support from Gillian Kirkpatrick as the nosy – and slightly jealous – Marge, and Paul F Monaghan as the very grounded Charlie, as well as all the rest of the cast. But I must mention that I particularly liked Maddison Bulleyment’s portrayal of the rather goofy daughter Carolyn, with its nicely underplayed sense of comedy.

Jenna RussellA very enjoyable and captivating production of a strong musical show. It’s on at the Menier until 14th September, and worth catching for its two central performances alone. I cannot comprehend under any circumstances how you could possibly award this production only one star!

 Jenna Russell and Edward Baker-DulyP. S. We took tissues, just in case; we didn’t need them. However, you could certainly hear the sobs from all corners of the audience. The poor woman in the front row opposite us looked like she was going to explode in a sea of lachrymosity!

Production photos variously by Johan Persson and Alastair Muir

Review – The Grönholm Method, Menier Chocolate Factory, 1st July 2018

The Gronholm MethodSeveral decades ago in a previous existence, gentle reader, I was gainfully employed as an officer of Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise. Early on in my career there, I was required to attend a week-long Induction Course at a London Headquarters building. It was one of the most miserable weeks of my life. Incredibly stressful, totally humiliating, but moreover completely designed to be both those two things and we all knew it. The story was that they had moved the course from another office because one participant had attempted to throw themselves off the roof, so they relocated it to a non-skyscraper building. Whether that’s apocryphal or not, I don’t know – but I have no reason to disbelieve it. Not long after I’d survived that week, the powers that be decided to stop running the course. How very wise.

Jonathan CakeSo that horrendous experience was the first thing that came into my head as I watched the opening moments of The Grönholm Method. Four people are shown into a smart office waiting room, expecting a final-stage interview for some great city management role. But there’s no interviewer? And the four of them are left to battle it out for themselves, following instructions that magically appear in a secret drawer that opens out of the wall every so often. Wiser reviewers than me have pointed out the similarity to Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter and I get their drift – instructions that come into a closed unit from an invisible hand outside. I was also reminded of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, as the numbers in the room slowly go down, whilst a hidden presence from without reveals the secrets of members of the group. And, of course, there’s a large element of TV’s Big Brother here, with the unseen boss giving individual members of the group secret tasks that they have to achieve in order to win preference in future rounds.

John Gordon SinclairBut you shouldn’t waste your time trying to read any particular meaning into this play. Yes, it has some amusing and insightful observations into office life, but that aside, it’s purely for fun. Catalan playwright Jordi Galceran has written 90 minutes of tricks and teases, leading the audience up one garden path then down another, playing mindgames not only on the audience but also on the characters too. It’s not over till the fat lady sings, and the last couple of minutes contains two plot voltes-face, that you can choose to believe, or not. This is a play that has no definite rights and wrongs.

Laura Pitt-PulfordAlthough it may be purely for fun, there’s no disguising that it’s actually a thoroughly nasty play. Characters are required to go through hoops that expose them and demean themselves in a way that you wouldn’t possibly accept if you were going for a job interview. Any company that hauled you in through the Grönholm Method (this method of applicant selection doesn’t exist by the way and is purely a fiendish invention of Mr Galceran) is a company that you would not want to work for. There’s a reasonably lengthy sequence about halfway through the play that can only be described as transphobic. It made me feel very uncomfortable and certainly unwilling to laugh at anything in that sequence. The play was originally written in 2003, when attitudes to such topics were probably less enlightened than they are today, and from that point of view it’s not an inaccurate portrayal of the perception of trans people in the workplace; but it’s thoroughly unpleasant and outdated to today’s audience. There’s another sequence towards the end when two candidates are each given secret tasks, and the interview ends either when one of them achieves their task, or the other guesses what the other’s task is. Much personal harassment and heartache ensues. However, they left the two task instructions in envelopes on the table. Don’t know about you, but I would simply have opened my opponent’s envelope and read their task. Simples.

Greg McHughB T McNicholl directs at a slick pace, bringing out all the antagonism and cynicism of modern office life, and emphasising the sacrifices that people must make if they’re to get on in business. It’s set in New York, but in reality it could be set anywhere in the world where ambitious city types are willing to tread on and be trodden on in order to get places. When you arrive in the auditorium before it starts, you’re made to look at a featureless black screen that separates you from the stage and it’s surprising how disturbing it feels – almost as though we the audience are imprisoned too. When it finally opens out to reveal Tim Hatley’s set, it’s as crisply efficient and ruthlessly sterile as the business firm it depicts.

Frank and MelanieThe cast of four work superbly together – and indeed it is brilliant casting. Jonathan Cake truly excels as the dislikeable Frank Porter, the hard-nosed Pharma executive who reckons he knows it all and is just there to sniff out the money and to hell with everything and everyone else. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly so it’s perfect for him to be up against John Gordon Sinclair’s Rick Foster for the first part of the play, another deftly fantastic performance with brilliant comic timing. Mr Sinclair plays Rick like he just about has a reasonable grasp on the basics of life but is woefully absent on any detail; it’s a really funny performance.

RickIt’s unusual to see Laura Pitt-Pulford in a non-musical role but here she is scheming with the best of them as Melanie Douglas, contending with personal crises whilst refusing to back down in the selection procedure and switching personality (all becomes clear when you see the show) with effortless effectiveness and hilarious ease. Greg McHugh makes up the foursome as the genial Carl Gardner, who may or may not have any number of secrets up his sleeve, and whose principled stance sets him at odds against the Big Recruitment Plan.

CarlEndlessly surprising and impossible to second-guess, this is a fast and funny production that’s full of entertainment, despite a few sticky moments in the script. It’s almost at the end of its run now, but if you’re quick you could get tickets. Very enjoyable!

Review – Kiss of the Spider Woman, Menier Chocolate Factory, 18th March 2018

Kiss of the Spider WomanWhen I saw that the Menier’s next offering was to be Kiss of the Spider Woman, my initial reaction was – great, I’ve always wanted to see that musical. It wasn’t until a day or two before seeing the show that I discovered this is not the Kander/Ebb production from 1992 that starred Chita Rivera. This is a new dramatization by Jose Rivera and Allan Baker of Manuel Puig’s original 1976 novel, set in a Buenos Aires prison, about the developing relationship between window-dresser and film fan, Molina, and left wing political activist Valentin. The novel was originally only published in Spain and was for many years banned in Argentina. Considered Puig’s finest work, not only did it become the aforementioned award-winning Broadway musical, but Puig also adapted it as a play (1983), and it became a film in 1985.

Cast of twoBut I hadn’t seen any of its previous incarnations and I’ve never read the book, so I was completely ignorant as to the story; and, gentle reader, if you plan to see this show and also don’t know the story, then I’m going to break one of my usual rules. I normally outline at least the initial plotline; but this time I’m going to keep you in your blissful ignorance. Because both Mrs Chrisparkle and I found this an absolutely riveting piece of drama; stunning story-telling with multi-layered characters, and visually highly impactful. And it really helped that we didn’t know where the story was going.

Grace Cookey-Gam and Samuel BarnettIt’s always a delight to come to the Menier and walk down into the auditorium to see how they have rearranged everything to suit whatever new show you’re seeing. Unusually, this time, you have to walk up and into the auditorium, and then walk down to your particular row. Jon Bausor’s design for this show hits the mark from The Word Go and there is so much to take in before the play actually starts. Molina and Valentin’s cell is there in a corner; the two prisoners are on stage right from the start, quietly idling through their day. The walls to their cell are broken down and removed so we can see inside; around it, you find the most convincing representation of fresh wet mud you could ever imagine. Behind it, darkness, but which will come into use in the final scene. On a higher level, you see the walkways of the other prison cells, creating a superb, but oppressive setting of harsh, cruel prison life. You can’t imagine the prisoners in the Villa Devoto jail in Buenos Aires playing pool or benefiting from university courses.

S BarnettBut those walkways have an ulterior purpose. Molina whiles away the endless hours in prison, and entertains Valentin at the same time, by re-telling the plots of favourite old films. Andrzej Goulding’s brilliant projection design depicts these stories on the walkways, where silhouette characters act out Molina’s reminiscences. The silhouettes are real enough to fix those stories in our heads, but not so clearly defined that they replace our own imagination of what we’ve been told. It’s both technically impressive and artistically enjoyable.

Declan Bennett and Samuel BarnettAnother of the reasons why I wanted to see this was because it has been directed by Laurie Sansom, ex-Artistic Director of the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, where he created so many memorable and extraordinary works. The last show of his we saw was the huge (in so many ways) The James Plays, where he did his usual trick of creating a seamless ensemble from a large and varied group of actors. Kiss of the Spider Woman only has three characters, so ensemble isn’t really the right word, but what Mr Sansom is so good at is creating a work where his actors have such complete trust, respect and faith in each other. You could see it in the bold relationship he created between Dionysus and Pentheus in his The Bacchae a few years ago. In this current play there are a number of scenes where Samuel Barnett as Molina and Declan Bennett as Valentin have to share a lot of intimacy and there isn’t a hair’s-breadth of awkwardness or artificiality to their stage relationship. As a result, it’s compelling and rewarding viewing; not remotely embarrassing, which would have really killed the semblance of reality.

Samuel BarnettSamuel Barnett is outstanding as Molina. Although at first he entertains us with the character’s short-tempered show-offishness, he quickly invests the character with so much kindness, and so many hidden depths, that you realise you want to find out so much more about their dreams and motivations. Mr Barnett can turn bright, cheeky comedy into sombre tragedy at the flicker of an eye. It’s a bold, funny, moving, elegant performance that stays with you long after curtain down. Declan Bennett is also fantastic as Valentin; sullen, tortured, lost in his own disgrace. It’s a superb portrayal of a powerful and charismatic leader, brought down by institutionalised deceit and corruption, and slowly, blindly, walking into the Spider Woman’s web. The third member of the cast is Grace Cookey-Gam, whose crisp and forthright performance as the warden reveals a more complex role than it might at first appear.

Declan BennettWe saw a preview, so there’s always a chance that they might change something before press night – but that would be bizarre because it works so well as it is. I know I should really wait until after press night before reviewing, but, hey, what the hell. If I can encourage you to book quickly for this stunning production before those who wait for the first night reviews, then I will have done A Useful Thing. It’s a fascinating story, delicately told by a magnificent cast and a creative team at the top of their game. Just a short season until 5th May, but surely this should have a life after Menier? Highly recommended.

D Bennett and S BarnettP. S. So, regular readers may well remember, the current trend for “no interval” is one of my pet hates. This show comes in at around 1 hour 40 minutes without an interval, and I do think the story and performances are strong enough to sustain a 20-minute break in the middle just to ensure the audience’s comfort. Those Menier benches aren’t the most luxurious in London and who wants to worry about needing to nip to the loo halfway through and then not being allowed back in to the auditorium?

P. P. S. I noticed Laurie Sansom deep in conversation with some guys as we were leaving. Should I interrupt and say hi, or should I just walk away? Of course, I said a quick hello. I told him it was great. I didn’t get around to telling him we’d be seeing his Nightfall at the Bridge Theatre in May too. One can be too much of a groupie.

Production photos by Nobby Clark

Review – Barnum, Menier Chocolate Factory, 4th February 2018

BarnumI had a really bad night’s sleep the night before we saw Barnum. And I know precisely why; even though we go to the theatre a lot (I’m very lucky, gentle reader, and I do try not to take it for granted), I couldn’t sleep simply because I was genuinely so excited to see the show again. I saw the original production of Barnum at the London Palladium with the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle back in 1981. Front stalls seats for £8.50… they charged £99.50 for the same seats for Dick Whittington last month. Michael Crawford was always one of my theatrical heroes, and he’s rarely taken to a role with such positivity and enthusiasm as that of Phineas Taylor Barnum. In 1996 Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw a touring production at the Wycombe Swan starring Andrew O’Connor. I remember enjoying it; that’s all I remember.

Barnum and circus typesThen a few years ago, Barnum was revived at Chichester, in a big top tent in the park, whilst the Festival Theatre was being refitted. A perfect use of the space, and a magnificent setting for the revival. PTB was played by Broadway star Christopher Fitzgerald. Comparisons are odious, but he lacked the showbizzy pizzazz of Michael Crawford, and he couldn’t walk the tightrope. He did, however, invest the part with loads of emotion, so his affair with Jenny Lind, and his bereavement when his beloved Charity dies (oops, spoilers, sorry) were really moving.

Barnum and palsSo now we have a brand new Barnum, in that amazingly versatile theatre space, the Menier Chocolate Factory, which has been jiggered around so that it now feels like a proper big top. First thing: the staging is superb. Even just entering the theatre, you might bump into the ringmaster or some of his assistants; the bar/reception area recreates Barnum’s museum, with suitable pictures and artefacts; on the way out, his mermaid even shows up to direct us towards the egress. It all makes absolutely perfect scene-setting. Inside the auditorium, various cast members play card tricks with the audience, or create balloon animals for children of all ages; it was one of those shows where I was absolutely loving it before it had even begun.

Barnum and CharityInevitably though, with this in the round staging, for every moment when part of the action is right in front of you and you have the best view in the house, there’s another moment when you simply can’t see what’s going on. We sat in seats A 84 & 85, from where you couldn’t see the balcony where Charity often looked down on the action and where (I believe) the blues singer opens the song Black and White. When Tom Thumb’s elephant appears, his right leg completely obliterated the view of the stage so we couldn’t see the final part of Bigger Isn’t Better – and also from that angle, you had no sense of how the theatrical illusion of the elephant worked. So, some friendly and helpful advice: if you haven’t booked yet, and there are still some tickets left for some shows, I’d definitely opt for seats numbers 20 – 36, no matter what row you choose. The Menier is one of the most intimate acting spaces I know, and even if there were a full house for Barnum it can’t seat more than 190 people for one show; so the atmosphere is still magic no matter where you sit.

Barnum castIn the title role is Marcus Brigstocke, whom we’ve seen twice doing stand-up and once in Spamalot, and he’s always a total joy to watch. But what would he make of the iconic role of Barnum, the supreme showman? As you would expect, he makes it his own. Wisely, there’s no attempt to impersonate Crawford, or to go over the top on the pizzazz. Mr Brigstocke’s Barnum is not so much the supreme showman, more the supreme businessman – and I don’t mean that unkindly. Much of the story revolves around Barnum’s building up of his circus/museum empire, assessing the benefits of one act over the next, working out how much they should be paid, going into partnerships with various other businessmen; and also getting his work/life balance right vis-à-vis his good lady wife. In these regards, Mr B is absolutely spot on. For the other aspects of Barnum’s character, I found him perhaps a little staid, a little respectable. I’m not sure he’d ever run away to join the circus, but he’d definitely be their Operations Manager. Credit where it’s due though; on the show we saw, he performed the tightrope trick perfectly, so kudos to him for that, given he’s quite a big bloke!

Barnum Political campaignThe character of Barnum has a lot of singing to do, and I’d say that Mr Brigstocke’s singing voice has come a long way since we saw him in Spamalot. Technically, it’s a really demanding role and challenges the performer’s vocal dexterity. For example, he has to enunciate the Museum Song, a patter song with so many words per minute that most people would need a lie down after it. I couldn’t work out whether it was Mr Brigstocke’s performance, or the Menier’s sound system, but quite a lot of it got, shall we say, lost in action. But I’ve no wish to be mean, I really enjoyed Mr Brigstocke as Barnum, he had an avuncular charm and great interaction with the audience; and we got to shake his hand as part of his political rally.

Barnum - Charity's heard it all beforeThe rest of the cast are outstanding, in all departments. Laura Pitt-Pulford is as splendid as you would imagine as Chairy Barnum, with her beautiful singing voice complimenting perfectly the sentiments of The Colours of My Life, I Like Your Style (by the way, how come it became I liked your style?) and my own favourite, One Brick at a Time. She also teased out all the emotion of the role; you could have heard the legendary pin drop – or indeed, her heart break – when she realised that her Taylor was staying behind to play the jackdaw with the Swedish nightingale. Talking of whom, Celinde Schoemaker is brilliant as Jenny Lind; captivatingly beautiful, an extraordinary voice and really expressing that spoilt, demanding and tiresome character that lurked beneath. The staging of Love Makes Such Fools of us All, within a picture frame, was both beautiful and tragic to witness. Tupele Dorgu is an amusingly young looking Joice Heth – almost throwing Barnum’s humbug in our face to think that she could be 160 years old – and I loved her renditions of Black and White and especially Thank God I’m Old, which I reckon is one of the funniest songs in musical theatre. I remember how when I saw the Palladium production, “Thank God I’m Old” really made the late Dowager laugh her head off; which, if you ever knew her, gentle reader, may well come as quite a surprise.

Barnum - Black and WhiteI was delighted to see one of my favourite performers, Harry Francis, as Tom Thumb; having seen him dance his way through A Chorus Line, Chicago and Fiddler on the Roof, I knew he’d bring something special to this show. I bet no other Tom Thumb has ever performed so many perfect pirouettes, executed brilliantly without travelling from the start position. It was also great to see another fantastic dancer, Danny Collins, so amazing as Dr Jekyll a couple of years ago, as Amos Scudder. Dominic Owen plays the ringmaster more like one of the lads than the boss, which is an interesting way of looking at the role, and his curious Mr Bailey at the end was a picture of awe and wonderment at the wonderful world of circus, rather than the hard-nosed businessman I’ve seen before. The ensemble are vivacious and entertaining, with some great circus performers as well as the musical theatre types. Amongst them I reckon young Ainsley Hall Ricketts is going to be One To Watch for the future! I almost forgot to mention Rebecca Howell’s choreography, which would have been most remiss of me. Funny, exhilarating, inventive, joyful; it matched the music and the story perfectly and was a sheer delight.

Barnum - Jenny LindIt wasn’t until the final song – Join The Circus – was starting up that I remembered quite how much significance and emotion I, personally, invest in Barnum the show. Basically, I’d forgotten how much it reminded me of my old mum; she who was an enormous Michael Crawford fan, she who found the character of Joice Heth so hilarious. Never underestimate the power of the theatre to stir the emotions and trigger the nostalgia button; nor ever underestimate the power of a show tune to get the old waterworks flowing. By the time we were putting our coats on to brave the Southwark winter, I found the tears were fair coursin’ down my cheeks, so they were. Now I wasn’t expecting that!

Barnum - Tom ThumbIt wasn’t perfect; few things are. But I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it. No wonder I couldn’t sleep the night before. If you ever dreamed of running away and joining a troupe of acrobats and clowns, this is the show for you. If you love immersive theatre where the action comes up right close to you, this is also the show for you. It runs until 3rd March and I’d be thrilled to go again, if you’ve got a spare ticket.

Production photos by Nobby Clark

Review – She Loves Me, Menier Chocolate Factory, 29th January 2017

She Loves MeI’m probably as guilty as anyone else in thinking that Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock wrote Fiddler on the Roof and probably not much else. Wrong! Together they wrote nine other shows, including She Loves Me, an adaptation of the 1937 play Illatszertár, by Hungarian dramatist Miklos Laszlo, with whose works I am sure we are all highly familiar. Surprisingly perhaps, the play was also the original basis for three films, including the (relatively) recent You’ve Got Mail. She Loves Me was moderately successful artistically, but didn’t make any money, with a run of 302 performances on Broadway and 189 in the West End. A film, that was to star Julie Andrews, failed to materialise. Nevertheless, a revival in London in 1994 ran for a year and won many awards, and a revival on Broadway in 2016 was very successful – so now we see it back in London at the Menier.

slm5The scene is mainly set in Mr Maraczek’s perfume shop in Budapest, where diligent and respectful sales clerks bend over backwards to satisfy the demanding hoity-toity ladies of the Hungarian capital. Miss Ritter and Mr Kodaly have an on-off relationship which seems to be more off than on as they argue and then spoon despite Maraczek’s disapproval. The second-in-command, Mr Nowack, has been writing love letters to a “dear friend” whom he has never met and he’s getting very agitated about the prospect of finally meeting her. One day a new face appears at the shop – Miss Balash – who impresses Maraczek enough to give her a job. However, she and Nowack start off on the wrong foot and before long they can’t stand the sight of each other. Yes, you’ve guessed it; she’s the recipient of his love letters and neither of them realise it. What happens when the two pen pals finally decide to meet for dinner? Well, you’ll just have to see the show to find out.

slm4It’s a really beautiful, charming, funny and exquisitely musical musical. Paul Farnsworth’s set, which utilises four small revolving stages to transform a Budapest street into an upper class haven of retail delights, is stunning – although I did find the acting space provided for first two scenes of the second act – the hospital and Amalia’s bedroom – a little cramped. Catherine Jayes’ band plays Jerry Bock’s entertaining and beautiful melodies with loads of fun and character, and Sheldon Harnick’s witty and thoughtful lyrics are in very safe hands with a fine cast and sensitive direction by Matthew White. There are a lot of musical numbers in the show, and I appreciated how well each song either progressed the plot or gave us valuable character insights. It’s not a stop-start musical, but rather the book and the songs join seamlessly to create a satisfyingly well-structured piece.

slm3Scarlett Strallen leads the cast in the role of Amalia Balash, with a fine portrayal of both the enthusiastic shop girl head over heels in love and the feisty, obstinate colleague from hell. She sings immaculately – well you knew that already from her appearances in A Chorus Line and Candide. She really nails the humour of the role too – her tear-stained slumping around the bedroom was hilarious, and of course she expresses Harnick’s superb observations with telling accuracy. She’s perfectly matched by Menier favourite Mark Umbers, whom we loved in Sweet Charity and Merrily We Roll Along, with his essential earnestness and hilarious portrayal of Nowack deviously wriggling out of a difficult situation. He sings with great tone and warmth and has a great stage presence.

slm2There are plenty of other show-stealing performances on offer – Katherine Kingsley is officially fabulous as Ilona Ritter, characterising her as a working-class girl whose head is turned – eventually – by the lure of books; the downtrodden voice she gives Miss Ritter is simply brilliant. Dominic Tighe confidently expresses Kodaly’s superiority and smugness, and I’m always impressed by how nifty he is on his feet for a big chap. Alastair Brookshaw’s Sipos is an entertainingly humble everyday guy, with a little more of the wheeler-dealer about him than you might expect; Callum Howells’ delivery boy Arpad is bright as a button and keen as mustard, and Les Dennis plays Maraczek with avuncular generosity until he has cause to doubt the world around him. But for scene-stealing, you only have to look to Norman Pace’s hilarious head waiter at the Café Imperiale, managing his bumbling staff and his unsuspecting customers alike with ruthless authority.

slm1Mrs Chrisparkle and I were in complete agreement that this is a beautiful and classy production that absolutely brings the best out of the cast and the music. But we also agreed that the show itself is extraordinarily lightweight. It’s pure, insignificant light entertainment with absolutely no substance whatsoever. Given the fact that its subjects include adultery, a suicide attempt and broken relationships, there’s not an ounce of gravitas or a provocative moment in the whole two-and-a-half hours. It’s truly a soufflé in an art form where you have the potential to be a Chateaubriand. Depending on your point of view, this may be the perfect escapism from a world of Trump and Brexit. For me, however, it makes the show borderline irrelevant. There’s no doubting the talent that brings all this together, but on the whole I’d prefer to take home memories of something a little more substantial. One year later Harnick and Bock would give the world Fiddler on the Roof, with all its important observations and superb character creativity. Perhaps this show just came one year too early.

Production photos by Alastair Muir

Review – Travesties, Menier Chocolate Factory, 23rd October 2016

TravestiesThe first time I saw a Tom Stoppard play was in 1976 on a school expedition to London to see Dirty Linen at the Arts Theatre. I sat next to Andy (you’ll know him as A. N.) Wilson; now a highly regarded author, columnist and social commentator, then a mere English teacher just about to get his first book published. Mr Wilson and Mr Ritchie (our other English teacher on this jaunt) were huge fans of Stoppard and were itching to see this new play, and not unreasonably thought their A level English students would appreciate the experience too. It was a success. A few months later they took us to see the National Theatre revival of Stoppard’s Jumpers too, which I thought was absolutely ace.

Travesties - 1975 playtextTwo years before all this, Stoppard wrote Travesties. I reckon that if I’d seen a production of Travesties at the same time, I wouldn’t have had a Scooby – it would have sailed way over my head, in the direction of the second star on the right, straight on till morning. I did get the playtext for Christmas that year; and I think it reads a little more easily out of the book than it actually appears on stage, because you have the time to take in Stoppard’s verbal fireworks and re-read them to understand them better. But watching Patrick Marber’s excellent revival at the Menier made me realise what a difficult play it really is.

tom-hollanderAll these early Stoppard works relied heavily on his brilliant wordplay and sense of nonsense. He loved to depict stories from a weird angle – like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on stage when they should be off (and vice versa) or The Real Inspector Hound, seen from the view of the theatre critic who accidentally gets involved in the show. Every Good Boy Deserves Favour even needs a full orchestra to perform it. R&G and Hound also have the common theme of containing a play within a play; and Travesties too has some of the same elements, wrapping Henry Carr’s recollections of his youth in with an amateur production of The Importance of Being Earnest.

peter-mcdonald-and-othersIt must have been something of a gift for Stoppard to discover that Lenin, Joyce and Dadaist movement founder Tristan Tzara were all living in Zürich in 1917. So was little known consular official Henry Carr, who – to pass the time of day, presumably – joined an acting troupe called The English Players, whose business manager was the (ironically not very English) James Joyce. The play is set in the present (i.e. 1974) with an elderly Carr (he actually died in 1962 but who’s counting) reminiscing about his past and the extraordinary minds with whom he shared his Zürich days. But what is the purpose of the play, I asked myself, during the interval, and afterwards? There must be something more to it than just an exercise for Stoppard to show off his considerable verbal dexterity, or an example of how you can mash up a new play and an old play and not see the join. Apart from little glimpses into individual folly – like Joyce’s inability to match a jacket and trouser, or Tzara’s foppish use of a monocle when he had perfect eyesight – I couldn’t really identify the driving force behind this play.

freddie-foxThat’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. In fact, as productions go, I can’t imagine how you would play this better than the way it’s currently packing them in at the Menier. Tim Hatley’s design involves the remnants and loose pages of seemingly thousands of books, scattered to invoke both a busy library and a Dadaist approach to literature. Hidden false panels create opportunities for those outside to look in, library steps enable the action to take place on several levels in an otherwise confined space. There are also a few outrageously incongruent and surreal sequences when the whole thing turns song-and-dance like in The Ruling Class or something by Joan Littlewood. Personally, I find that kind of surreal breakout a tad tedious; what worked in the 60s and 70s doesn’t necessarily always work today.

cecily-and-gwendolenBut if ever there were perfect casting it must come in the form of Tom Hollander as Henry Carr. On his first entrance, you can’t help but be impressed at how Mr Hollander can bend himself down double to create the most elderly looking wretch imaginable as Carr Snr. With Dickensian dressing gown and warbly voice in place, he takes us through one of Stoppard’s longest and frankly self-indulgent prologue speeches as he introduces us to the glitterati of 1917 Zürich. And then, when he flips into Carr Jnr, he becomes a slightly pompous Everyman character; keen to take a good place in society, revelling in the fame and notoriety of his contemporaries, pretending to be more involved in their political and artistic movements than he really is, and willing to play Algernon if the trousers are right. He’s hardly ever off the stage and it’s a thoroughly demanding and terrific performance.

tom-hollander-and-clare-fosterThe rest of the cast give Mr Hollander excellent support – for me the best was Clare Foster as Cecily. We’ve seen her a couple of times, most recently as a stunning Sarah Brown in Chichester’s Guys and Dolls, and here once again she is outstanding. With her clear-cut voice and amazingly expressive face she can cheerfully deride and humiliate anyone who’s noisy in the library; and her hilarious set pieces with Amy Morgan’s Gwendolen are just remarkable. Freddie Fox was also very good as the faux-refined and show-offy Tzara, with a nice sense of comic timing and a good stage presence; and Peter McDonald made the best of the laconic opportunities Stoppard provides to make fun of Joyce’s irascible eccentricities.

t-hollanderIt’s like a most intricate serving of super deluxe candy floss. Utterly delicious to look at, and incredibly sweet to consume, but once it’s gone, it’s gone. Does it inform the human condition? No. Is it an opportunity for Stoppard to look erudite and swish? Yes. Is it entertaining? Yes, providing you can survive its occasional longueurs.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Funny Girl, Menier Chocolate Factory, 28th February 2016

Funny GirlYes, gentle reader, I was one of those hopefuls poised at their computer on the 17th August last year, the day when Funny Girl tickets went on general sale. The run was sold out in an instant. I was lucky enough to procure our favourite Menier combination of Row A for a Sunday matinee, for very nearly the end of the run – it closes this weekend. But of course, the production is transferring to the Savoy, as was announced at the end of October – before it had actually opened, such was the public’s faith in the show; a twelve-week, limited engagement from April 9th. And now, even before the transfer has opened, it’s been extended by another three months, taking it to October. That is how it stands as the moment. There aren’t many shows that successful before even a dress rehearsal has taken place.

Sheridan SmithI had no previous knowledge of Funny Girl apart from People and Don’t Rain on my Parade. Neither of us have ever seen the film, nor any other stage production. I knew it was about the life of Fanny Brice, but I didn’t know anything much about her either. Stephen Sondheim’s lyric “we aren’t the Lunts, I’m not Fanny Brice” was about the sum of it. The real Fanny Brice was a comic chanteuse at the Ziegfeld Follies on and off between the 1910s and the 1930s. Later she was to have a huge radio comedy presence until her death in 1951 – but the show doesn’t get that far in her life. It also ignores her first marriage to Frank White and doesn’t reach her third marriage to impresario and lyricist Billy Rose. Instead, it’s all about her breaking into showbiz by impressing Florenz Ziegfeld, and her relationship with husband number 2, Nicky Arnstein – swindler, racketeer, gambler, con artist, and all-round good egg. He lived until 1965 so actually got to see himself immortalised in this show.

Sheridan Smith and the boys of the ensembleThe original production opened on Broadway in March 1964, just a couple of months after the opening of a not dissimilar musical, Hello Dolly. But whereas Dolly scooped ten of the eleven Tony awards for which it was nominated, Funny Girl missed out on all eight of its nominations. Both shows featured a larger than life female lead that dominates the story and gets all the best songs. It was the Swinging Sixties, but both shows give us a huge dollop of nostalgia. Both shows portray people falling in love and the pitfalls associated therewith. They even each have a song about a parade! And of course both are associated with La Streisand (although Miss Carol Channing is the only Dolly for me.) Having seen both shows, I think where Funny Girl falls down is that there isn’t a big attention-seeking show-off number in the second half, which is the moment where Hello Dolly simply excels. Funny Girl’s best songs are all in the first act so you get a sense of imbalance. As in Gypsy, the song before the interval is a moment of pure theatrical defiance which sends you into the interval bristling with excitement and anticipation for the second act. But it’s a peak that the show never quite reaches again. On reflection, I think if I had been in the selection panel for the 1964 Tony Awards, I would have voted for Dolly too.

Girls of the ensembleBut that’s not in any way to criticise this production because it’s every bit as good as you could possibly have hoped it would be. The ever flexible Menier acting space is in standard Proscenium arch mode, but with a front curtain at a diagonal angle criss-crossing the stage rather than straight across the front – and you’ve never seen a curtain whip into position as quickly as it does at the end of the first act – stand in the way and you’d get concussion. Alan Williams’ band is on great form, playing those catchy show tunes with immense gusto. Lynne Page’s choreography neatly allows the large cast to dance together on what is a very shallow stage without bumping in to one another yet still appearing technically intricate. The show also benefits from having a very funny book, revised by Harvey Fierstein, and many of the songs also have wickedly delightful lyrics. If a Girl isn’t Pretty, You are Woman and I am Man, and Sadie Sadie had me laughing all the way through because of their clever turns of phrase (and also delightful performances). I haven’t heard the song Who Taught her Everything she Knows? for decades and had no idea it was from Funny Girl. I last heard it performed by – would you believe – Larry Grayson and Noele Gordon on the stage of the London Palladium in 1974, so it was fascinating to see how it actually fitted in to a real musical (although I also note that it usually appears in the first act – this production delays it till the second). I was also, erroneously, expecting Second Hand Rose to make an appearance, but it isn’t actually from Funny Girl, it was one of the real Fanny Brice’s hits, way back in 1921.

S SmithI have no doubt that the main reason the show sold out so rapidly was the promise of seeing Sheridan Smith as Fanny. Over the past few years she’s built up an enviable reputation of being the kind of actress who can turn her hand to anything. A pocket-sized powerhouse of warmth and charm, with a fantastic singing voice and a comic delivery to match the best in the business, I really couldn’t wait to see her in the role. And she was superb. From the naïve tomboy of her early years, failing (hilariously) to keep apace with the other dancing Ziegfeld girls, through the headstrong abandonment of her career to follow after Arnstein, to the wiser and sadder old trooper of later years, she always captures that spark of positivity that drives the character on. She’s one of those actors you just can’t take your eyes off, even if the others on stage are really good!

Sheridan Smith and Darius CampbellDarius Campbell plays Arnstein, and although he’s now something of an old hand at the theatre game, this is the first time we’ve seen him on stage, although we’re very familiar with (and fond of) his musical oeuvre. How does that singing voice translate to musical theatre? Incredibly well, as it turns out. He cuts the most imposing figure, his height adding to his stage presence, and his voice – would it be a baritone? – just resonates throughout the auditorium. They really use the “little and large” nature of the couple to great effect, including the delightful wedding photograph and her sneaking out from under his gangly limbs when he tries to get a little jiggy with it.

Sheridan Smith and Joel MontagueI really enjoyed Joel Montague as song and dance man Eddie, lamely trying to get Fanny’s romantic attention, when it was clear he was always only going to be Buttons to her Cinderella. I always like it when a relatively big chap carries off some challenging choreography, and Mr Montague is incredibly light on his feet throughout. Bruce Montague (no relation – at least I don’t think so) plays Ziegfeld with dignity and authority but also a mischievous glint in his eye. You might remember Mr Montague (Senior) as Leonard in Butterflies all those years ago, one of Mrs Chrisparkle’s childhood favourites. He’s also one of two cast members who are nearer to their 80th birthdays than their 70th, the other being the excellent Maurice Lane as Mr Keeney, hoofing it with the best of them. Fine examples of how you’re never too old to give a great physical performance.

Funny Girl castThere’s the magnificent triumvirate (if that’s not too male a term – triumfeminate?) of Mrs Strakosh, Mrs Meeker and Mrs Rose Brice, all cunningly playing poker in the corner of the stage, cackling like hens and you wouldn’t trust any one of them an inch. With experienced performers like Gay Soper, Valda Aviks and Marilyn Cutts taking those roles, you know they’re going to give it every inch of oomph it needs, and their performance of If a Girl isn’t Pretty was especially enjoyable. The ensemble of singers and dancers are all first class but I did feel a twinge of sympathy for Matthew Croke and Luke Fetherston having to perform what must be the feyest dancing soldiers routine I’ve seen since the Monty Python Camp Square-Bashing sketch.

Maurice Lane and Darius CampbellIt’s a great show that leaves you with a smile as wide as your arm and makes you want to tap your toes all the way back to London Bridge station. Everyone who booked all those months ago certainly got their reward, and I’d be very surprised if the Savoy transfer doesn’t get extended yet again. And I promise you, you’ll be singing Don’t Rain on my Parade to yourself for days.

Sheridan SP. S. I know the Menier is a charity, but £5 for a programme? That’s a bit toppy isn’t it? Increase the price of the peripherals and you’ll only find people decreasing the size of the voluntary donation when they book in future.

Production photos by Marc Brenner

Review – Communicating Doors, Menier Chocolate Factory, 7th June 2015

Communicating Doors 1996Hurrah for the theatre programme archive boxes in my study which quickly yielded up the programme for Alan Ayckbourn’s Communicating Doors, which Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw on Saturday 3rd February 1996 at the Savoy Theatre, with Miss Angela Thorne playing the part of Ruella. That’s almost twenty years ago. Maybe it isn’t a coincidence that twenty years have passed since the play first opened in the West End, as there are two periods of twenty years each that separate all three of the time scales in the play. But it’s not an epic staged over forty years, it all happens at the same time. Didn’t you know about that? Am I going too fast for you?

Communicating Doors 2015The scene is a grand suite at London’s Regal Hotel, in the year 2020. Poopay, a rather sassy visiting dominatrix has come to give aged and infirm client Reece a good going-over. Reece has other ideas for her though, getting her to witness his signature on a document where he confesses to have arranged the murder of both of his ex-wives. In an attempt to escape for her life, Poopay dashes through a communicating door in the hotel room, only to find that, rather than taking her to another room, it takes her back to the same room, only twenty years earlier. Thus she discovers Reece’s second wife Ruella on the eve of her murder (by his somewhat violent and wicked business partner Julian, as it happens). Once Poopay has cottoned on to what’s happening, it’s up to her to convince Ruella of the danger she is in. Fortunately, Ruella is a spirited sort who enjoys a challenge. Ruella discovers she too can go back another twenty years via the communicating door, to discover Reece and Jessica (Wife #1) on their honeymoon night. Can the three women gang up together to use time to their advantage, defeat evil and create some happy-ever-afters where the course of all three of their lives turns out beautifully? You’ll have to see the play to find out.

Imogen StubbsAyckbourn’s play is a modern classic of the “playing with time” genre. It was J B Priestley who really explored this style all hammer and tongs in the 1930s and 40s. Among his time-plays are Dangerous Corner, I Have Been Here Before and of course An Inspector Calls, rather moody, melodramatic plays, all revolving around time-tricks that are impossible in real life, with Priestley often using the device to expose hypocrisy and wickedness. Whilst the threat of violence and death is not inconsiderable in Communicating Doors, cocking a respectful hat to Psycho in one scene, Ayckbourn’s version of the time-play is nevertheless a much jollier affair, played strictly for laughs, and you don’t have to gen up on any Einsteinian time theories in advance. But I’m sure Priestley would have loved it all the same.

Rachel TuckerFor this production, the wonderfully flexible Menier space has been set up as a traditional proscenium arch, creating a very wide stage perfect for the grandeur of a five star hotel suite. Whilst the main living room area of the suite has a timeless appearance, it is perhaps stretching credulity that the ensuite appearance and tiling would be the same in 1980 as it is in 2020. But then I can’t believe I’m actually looking for consistency in bathroom fittings over a period of forty years when the play itself is a complete flight of nonsense from start to finish.

Lucy Briggs-OwenIt’s often been said that Ayckbourn writes great roles for women and here is a triumivirate (or should that be triumfeminate) to rank with the best. Imogen Stubbs is brilliant as Ruella, mixing hearty, brave, and enthusiastic characteristics with demure and unassuming behaviour. Mind you, she’s not above fluttering her womanly wiles at the hapless security man to get her way, manipulating in a thoroughly nice and decent manner, of course. Rachel Tucker, too, gives a delightful performance as Poopay, the dominatrix who’d probably be more comfortable tucked up with a late night cocoa, occasionally subtly revealing a hidden insight into what you imagine might be her rather sad and lonely world. As she faces her fears, running the gauntlet of Reece’s and Julian’s evil scheme, she and Ruella show great sisterly solidarity with each other, like a kind of time-warp self-help group. And then you have the wonderfully near-vacuous Jessica, played by Lucy Briggs-Owen, sweetly dippy on her wedding night, but blossoming in sophistication in later years – with a wonderfully underplayed moment where you realise what her ultimate fate will be. All three of them join forces in one amazing slapstick scene on the balcony – physical comedy at its funniest.

David BamberThe “supporting” male cast are all very good too. There’s a splendidly low-life performance by David Bamber as the irredeemably horrible Julian, dripping with snide and malevolence, ready to snap your neck as soon as look at you. Robert Portal convinces us with both the nasty and kindly sides of Reece – being nasty certainly does nothing for Reece’s health, that’s for sure (nice work from the make-up department). And there’s some wonderful comic timing from Matthew Cottle as security man Harold, both bumptious in youth and beaten by age, and who also gets his own share of happy-ever-after.

Matthew CottleWe’re pretty sure all the loose ends tie up together, and, in the strange otherworld logic of the play, it kind of all makes sense. Incidentally, the original production had the three elements of the play set in 1974, 1994 and 2014. In our more modern society, Lindsay Posner has chosen to set the “future” scenes only a handful of years away, rather than a complete generation. A result of that is that whereas the original production had the “Ruella Years” for the contemporary setting, this production has “today” hovering somewhere between the two. So it looks like the director can play with time just as much as the author. Whatever, this is a timely opportunity to catch this great Ayckbourn play with a cast that do it terrific justice.

Robert PortalP.S. Great idea at the Menier now to have the bench seats in different colour fabric every two seats. That makes it so much easier to see where you should (and should not) be sitting, and may well discourage some people from spilling over into next door’s patch. Nice work!

Review – Buyer and Cellar, Menier Chocolate Factory, 22nd March 2015

Buyer and CellarFor the second time in six months, Mrs Chrisparkle and I attended the Menier Chocolate Factory to see a one-man one-act (no interval) American comedy play about a chap working in an unusual environment. Fully Committed centred on the guy who handled the reservations for an upmarket restaurant, and whilst it was a splendid performance by Kevin Bishop, at the end of the day, the play itself was a little bit of candy-floss lasting 70 minutes, which you’d largely forgotten about by the time you got on the tube home. Buyer and Cellar, however, lasts a full hour and three quarters, and has plenty to make you think about the nature of friendship, the value of celebrity, human eccentricity, loyalty, and the Games People Play.

Alex More gets offered a rather wacky job. In the basement of her Los Angeles home, Barbra Streisand has recreated a real-life shopping mall. Not the type with massive chain stores (I doubt you’ll find a Poundland or a Primark there) but with individual boutiques, doll shops, stationers, gift shops, and – more importantly – olde worlde gifte shoppes. She owns all the stock of course, because she had the mall built to showcase all her collectables. The trouble with having shops though is that you need a retail manager to look after them and serve the customers. Customer. Thus Alex is recruited to man the tills, operate the frozen yogurt stand and generally keep everything squeaky clean, and fit for VIP celebrity visits.

Michael UrieThis is not a documentary. This is pure fantasy. Yes, Miss Streisand has indeed built a shopping mall under her home. We know that, because she wrote all about it in her book My Passion for Design. But whether it’s got a retail manager, and whether she goes shopping there, and whether there are any fiscal transactions taking place, that’s all in the imagination of the writer Jonathan Tolins. This is made clear in a very warmly written and performed personal introduction at the beginning of the play, where you can’t tell if the actor (Michael Urie), hovering at the side of the stage, is addressing us as himself or if it’s part of the play per se. Indeed, I suspect it is both, as the one almost imperceptibly drifts into the other. Mr Urie reads from the book, shows us some of the pictures, and tells us that, as far as he is aware, Miss Streisand has never seen the play, and perhaps hardly knows anything about it. You sense that he and Mr Tolins are probably quite happy with that arrangement.

For this production the Menier has shrunk its stage area to a very small and shallow proscenium arch. When you enter the auditorium all you see on stage is some very minimalist furniture. What you don’t expect is that the back wall of the stage will become the focus of very effective projections, suggesting the various locations at which the story takes place. Simple, and it works incredibly well. The whole story plays on your imagination anyway, so keeping the props to a minimum is fine. This would actually work very well as a radio play or an audiobook.

Mr Michael UrieI wonder if it’s lonely being in a one-man show. You’re not going to have the camaraderie of a bigger cast or backstage company in your dressing room. Neither is there the buzz of working off what your colleagues say to you on stage. I guess you must get all your adrenaline from the audience reaction. Certainly Michael Urie has a brilliant relationship with the audience. He appears charming, witty and self-deprecating both as himself and as Alex; he knows he is performing in a play with a preposterous premise and tells us as much, which all increases a sense of honesty about the performance. If we, the audience, are his co-performers in this experience, then I hope we came up to scratch for him (I think we probably did).

You might get more out of this play if a) you are a devotee of Barbra Streisand or b) if you’ve been to Los Angeles. Neither Mrs C nor I fall into either of these categories. All I know about Barbra Streisand is that she was in Yentl and she recorded The Way We Were (which gets nicely deconstructed early on). Oh, and Second Hand Rose. There are a number of references about her career, and LA life in general, which went sailing over the top of our heads; but it didn’t bother us too much. Occasionally some members of the audience would react with recognition to one of the references, and Mr Urie took time to look very pleased to see that his comment had hit home.

M UrieIn a splendid performance, Mr Urie takes us into this imaginary/real world, where Alex has to park his filthy Jetta away from the other posh cars, engages in mock bartering with the customer when she wants to knock down his prices (they’re clearly non-negotiable, much to her annoyance), has difficulty ascertaining where he is in the pecking order of the household (quite low), stays late so that he can serve a fro-yo to James Brolin, gets ridiculed by his boyfriend Barry for believing that he and Barb are friends, and things come to a conclusion when he is finally invited in to the Main House. For an hour and three quarters Mr Urie doesn’t put a foot wrong, absolutely convincing you that he is wandering around that empty mall, playing at shops, side-stepping the watchful eye of Household Manager Sharon, encouraging Barbra to star in a new production of Gypsy (his idea). His characterisations are excellent, and whilst he admits he’s no impressionist, you get a very good impression, not only of Miss Streisand, but also of the other characters that inhabit this story. Both the play and his performance are very funny and surprisingly moving. And yes, I came out of this play with a stronger impression of what Miss Streisand might be like in real life, and also how you can basically Never Trust A Celebrity. This is an excellent opportunity to see both an Off-Broadway award-winning show and award-winning actor; it’s on until 2nd May, and I recommend it whole-heartedly!

Reclining at the MenierP.S. We forgot the golden rule, never arrive late at the Menier. By the time we arrived, nearly everyone else had taken their seats which meant that some middle aged ladies had spread themselves out very comfortably at the end of our bench (Row B) so that our two seats really only had enough space for one buttock each. Fortunately Mrs C is a mere slip of a thing; I, however, am a different kettle of fish. We found a solution – her right shoulder and the left shoulder of the lady to my right both nestled beneath my two shoulders so that my upper torso spent an hour and three quarters bent forward, adrift from the soft furnishings. Judging by the number of tut-tuts arising from the middle-aged-lady party, we don’t think they appreciated much of the humour. If a play is offending someone, it must be doing its job right.

Review – Fully Committed, Menier Chocolate Factory, 28th September 2014

Fully CommittedI didn’t really know what Fully Committed was going to be about when I booked it; it was a comedy and I had faith with the Menier that nine times out of ten their productions are well worth the visit into town for Sunday matinee. A week or so before we went I discovered that it was actually a one-man, one-act 70 minute show, but didn’t think much more about that apart from what time train we would need to catch home. I also found it that was about the trials and tribulations of someone manning the reservation phone line at an exclusive and desirable restaurant. I knew it starred Kevin Bishop; and I knew I knew his name, but I couldn’t quite think how or put a face to the name. It was only reading the programme before the show that I realised everyone else in the audience would probably have seen him loads of times on TV but to us he was a complete unknown – we really don’t watch the box much at all.

Sam is an actor – much more out-of work than in- – so makes a living working for a tyrannical chef and other beastly colleagues at this upmarket Manhattan restaurant where you have to reserve your table at least two months in advance. Primarily his job is to man the phones, and take the reservations and queries. Sounds like an easy job? Think again. Massively high pressure, dealing with all sorts of rude and unpleasant people; it reminded me of when I was in charge of the team taking refuse collection complaint calls back in the 90s. Sam has to balance reasonable requests from ordinary people with outrageous ones from VIPs – and what a VIP wants, they get. He also has to juggle with his family life and Christmas commitments and the important task of taking auditions. It’s not an easy life.

This play was just the second to have been produced at the Menier when it opened in 2004, then starring Mark Setlock, who has directed this production. Both Mr Setlock and Becky Mode, the writer, have worked within the New York Restaurant scene so you can presume that there’s an awful lot of truth in what you see on stage. As for me, the difficulty of getting a booking at a restaurant is something I hadn’t really considered. If I try and book and they say they’re full, I just say “OK never mind” and end the conversation. It isn’t something I dwell on. Apparently, that’s quite unusual.

Kevin BishopLet’s start with the good things. It’s a very smart and watchable production. The fantastically messy set by Tim Shortall reminded me of my own work desk, dominated by this huge desk diary and dozens of scrunched up pieces of paper all around. The play relies heavily on a very complex and active sound plot – constant phone calls and buzzers coming in from all directions, and if any of that were to go wrong the whole show would be ruined – but it all takes place with pinpoint precision. The script, for the most part, is very funny and written with a great understanding of telephone manners, boasting an array of never-seen larger-than-life characters both inside and outside the restaurant that give it a sense of huge variety for a one-man show. Above all, there’s a tremendous performance by Kevin Bishop.

It’s a real tour-de-force, with his not only playing Sam but also adopting all the different voices of all the different callers and colleagues, in a fast-paced, energetic performance. In fact he doesn’t just adopt their voices but takes on their physical appearance too so you can really imagine how these “other people” look and act, as vividly as if they were actually being presented on stage by another actor. From his cast of dozens – hundreds even – I particularly liked the tenaciously exuberant Bryce, and manager Jean-Claude’s diva-like reaction to one of their uglier contacts. There’s also the rather charming way all Sam’s family have of signing off as they put the phone down – very nicely observed.

But, having started with the good things, you can tell I’m holding back on some not so good things, can’t you. You know me too well, gentle reader. The play itself is very slight. Whilst generally entertaining from start to finish, and whilst there is some character and plot progression during the course of the play, it still feels much more like an extended sketch than a play in its own right. It’s one of those pieces where, once you’re about fifteen or twenty minutes in to it, you feel like you’ve got its measure and it’s not going to have any more surprises for you; and largely, you’re right. Were it not for Mr Bishop’s remarkable performance, I’m not sure it would really hold your attention.

Secondly, it’s a bit confusing from a time perspective. At the beginning of the play Sam comes on, obviously just arriving for work, sometime in the morning. From then till the end of the play (with one brief exception where he goes off and cleans the toilets) it’s non-stop interruptions from the phones and colleagues, giving you the impression that it’s a punishing job where you never get a chance to stop and think. But then, 70 minutes later, when the play ends, he’s clearly reached the end of the working day. So you come to understand that it’s actually not all taking place in real-time, but is actually some kind of concatenation of chunks of the working day all stitched together to give the impression of one relentless nightmare of a day. If they’d had specific scene changes you could have made it feel like a full day. But as it is, it feels artificially compressed, deliberately pressurised by the writer, thereby becoming neither one thing nor the other – and that didn’t work for me.

Sam on the phoneAnd then of course, you’ve got the slightly disappointing nature of a one-act play that isn’t really long enough to sustain an evening’s or an afternoon’s entertainment just by itself. It would be fine on its own at somewhere like the Edinburgh Fringe, where it would dovetail into one’s daily schedule perfectly; or combined with another one-act play to create a meatier programme. We once went to the Oxford Playhouse to see Ennio Marchetto, the amazing paper-costume mime artist – but it started at 7.30 and was finished by 8.20 and so we were twiddling our thumbs for the rest of the evening. You get a similar sensation with this production.

It could be the shortness of the duration that may have put some people off, as I have to say this was the smallest audience (probably half full) of any that we’ve seen in the Menier since we started regularly going there about seven years ago. It certainly merits a larger audience, and the people who were there were absolutely thrilled with Mr Bishop’s performance, many of whom gave him a standing ovation. If you’re happy to go and see a divertissement that you can fit in before dinner, then this is a very entertaining way to spend 70 minutes; and Kevin Bishop’s performance is definitely well worth seeing.