I never lose track of the thrill and the indeed the privilege of attending a performance at the London Palladium. Going through those glass doors instantly gives you a feeling of invigoration, of importance, and of being part of decades upon decades of sheer entertainment. As I was growing up, the Palladium always meant the pantomime, but also the home of revue – from To See Such Fun with Tommy Cooper and Clive Dunn, to the Tommy Steele Show, to The Comedians, to Larry Grayson in Grayson’s Scandals, to the Sacha Distel Show (appearing with the then love of my life, Lynsey de Paul) And then the big musicals – Barnum, Singin’ in the Rain, La Cage aux Folles, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the revival of A Chorus Line, and now full circle to the annual return of the Palladium panto. Good or bad, you can never be indifferent to what’s going on at the Palladium – and long may it remain so.
Last year there was a plucky attempt to bring back panto to the post-Covid Palladium, with Pantoland, but it’s great to have a proper full-scale panto back here again, even if it is yet another production of Jack and the Beanstalk, although, for obvious reasons, this version is very different from the others around the country. The usual suspects of Julian Clary, Paul Zerdin, Gary Wilmot and Nigel Havers return (and it wouldn’t be the same without them), this year with Dawn French on her second Palladium panto, the exquisite voice and presence of Alexandra Burke, and upcoming musical theatre star Rob Madge. It’s always bizarre (but traditional) that the roles of Jack and Jill (Louis Gaunt and Natalie McQueen) almost appear as afterthoughts; that’s just the way it is, except that there wouldn’t be a story without them!
Technical highlight of this year’s show is without doubt the beanstalk – and I’m not being pejorative about the rest of the show! This is the most auditorium-invading, skyscraper-forming, neckache-inducing slice of vegetation in a theatre since Audrey II had too much to eat in Little Shop of Horrors. And having Jack climb up it is a terrific idea. We were seated pretty near the beanstalk and it’s a shame that the illusion kind of ends with a view that few people would have had, namely Jack dangling around at the very top of the auditorium, waiting for that final pull that would yank him through the roof and into safety. But it’s still a great effect.
Naturally, Mr Clary appeared in a sequence of outlandish garments, and if there hadn’t been a double-entendre for a few minutes, he’d give us one. His badinage with all the cast – and indeed the audience – is a thing of beauty and a joy forever and is pretty much worth the (expensive) ticket price on its own. Mr Wilmot – of course – did another of his list songs, this year about diseases and ailments, and is always a great laugh. Among the new elements this year, my favourite was probably Rob Madge as Pat the Cow, a West-End Musical-obsessed bovine, who had me in hysterics with their version of that Les Miserables classic, I Creamed a Cream.
There’s no questioning the production values of a show like this – literally, no expense is spared and it’s a pure onslaught of pizzazz from start to finish. As always, enormous fun, and don’t bother bringing the children.
And now another plunge into my early days of theatregoing. Hold tight!
11. To See Such Fun – London Palladium, 25th April 1971.
The first proper revue show I ever saw, I went with my Dad because we were both great fans of the legendary Tommy Cooper, who topped the bill, but the show also starred the great names Clive Dunn, Anita Harris and Russ Conway. What I learned from this show is that it’s acceptable to laugh hysterically – as I remember doing, from Tommy Cooper’s very first appearance to his final trick. I was so thrilled by this show – it probably remained my favourite show (I reserve the right to change my mind on that statement) until A Chorus Line came along and blew everything away for me five years later.
I only got one autograph – but that too was a memorable experience. Standing outside the Stage Door about an hour before the show started, some guy came up to us and said that if we wanted to see Tommy Cooper, he was just finishing his dinner over there – and he pointed towards a greasy spoon that is now the swish O’Neills pub on the corner of Carnaby Street and Great Marlborough Street. So we went over there, and there was the great man, sitting in front of an empty plate that had obviously contained fried eggs, baked beans and chips, signing autographs for a queue of people. I joined the queue, and he kindly signed.
12. Boeing-Boeing – Lido Theatre, Cliftonville, July 1971.
Our week’s summer holiday in 1971 was to Ramsgate – we always went to the best places. One of the shows we saw that week was Boeing-Boeing, Marc Camoletti’s 1962 comedy that refuses to go away, even though the recently planned tour was cancelled due to poor advance sales – pity, as it’s one of the finest modern farces, superbly structured and a wonderful example of bringing a lovable louse to justice. I guess it is a little dated now. But I remember this fondly. This is another example of the lesson Look After Your Programme – it rained that day and the programme got soggy so we chucked it. Nowadays I’d know to keep it under my coat! The cast featured Kenneth Connor (of the Carry On films), McDonald Hobley, who was primarily a TV presenter and continuity announcer, and Yutte Stensgaard, who I remember as being one of the hostesses on TV’s The Golden Shot and appeared in some racy horror movies in the 1970s.
13. The Toast of the Town – The Granville Ballroom, Ramsgate, July 1971.
Not the Talk of the Town – that was something far more glamorous! Sadly the Granville Ballroom was demolished in the 1980s – proof that we have to protect our live venues. I remember clearly that this little show delivered more than it promised; a hilarious cast with some great sketches, including “The Jumble Sale”, a variation of which you see frequently at pantos today – “If I were not upon the stage something else I’d rather be…” to which various performers with silly moves add their lines and end up in a deliberately choreographic mess. I remember it featured a vicar singing “nylon panties, nylon panties, look at them stretch”, a robust young lady shouting “crumpet, crumpet, come and have a nibble” and an effete young man with the lines “pansies, pansies, don’t you think they’re Oh so gay”. Not that acceptable today, but done with huge panache.
The cast were “yodelling cowboy” Ronnie Winters, Colin Beach, Sonny Day and Nola Collins, and many of them signed my programme. A little research shows that Ronnie and Nola were married, and their daughter Mandy still performs in the family tradition.
14. John Mann’s Show – Granville Theatre, Ramsgate, July 1971.
I completely draw a blank on this show I’m afraid – I have no memories of it whatsoever! No autographs either, so perhaps I wasn’t in the zone. John Mann (who retired in 2018) was on the organ, and the show also featured Roy Greenslade, Roger Smith, Ricky and Shirlie Young, and Myra Sands, whom we only saw last year in one of the Lost Musicals.
15. Moscow State Circus – Wembley Empire Pool, August 1971.
It may be odd to include this show in theatre reminiscences, but I still have the programme and also the memory of an enormously entertaining show. I’m one of those weird people who actually enjoy clowns, and Oleg Popov was the Master of the genre and I loved watching him. My other main memory of this show is that it was a matinee, due to start at 3pm, when the orchestra started the show with three musical strikes (to suggest the clock striking 3). However… for whatever reason, the show was delayed and didn’t start until about 3.20pm – nevertheless the orchestra still had to start with the three musical notes. I learned from that experience that it’s not always wise to tie down a start time that firmly!
16. Cinderella – London Palladium, 3rd January 1972.
Theatre is never an island; your own experiences and those in the theatre are inextricably linked. I say this because three days before Mum took me to see Cinderella at the Palladium, my dad died. I was 11; she was widowed at 50. In retrospect, I still don’t know whether the decision to go ahead with going to the panto was a wise one or not. It probably was, as I remember enjoying it – it provided a couple of hours of light relief at an otherwise very sad time. Much harder for my mother though, who put on her stiff upper lip throughout, but I remember looking at her from time to time and thinking she’d never looked so sad; and wondering whether it was fair of me to still ask to go to the panto despite everything.
But we did; and it was a typically glamorous and showbizzy affair. Ronnie Corbett as Buttons, Clodagh Rodgers (who’d just represented the UK at Eurovision) as Cinderella, and Terry Scott and Julian Orchard were the Ugly Sisters. Malcolm (May I Have the Next Dream with You) Roberts was Prince Charming. I got a few autographs, including David Kossoff and 1960s favourite Dorothy Dampier, but I remember the whole event being tinged with sadness.
17. Give a Dog a Bone – Westminster Theatre, January 1972.
This Christmas Show came back every year from 1964 to 1975 and the Saturday Morning Drama School that I attended had a school visit to see the show. It was written by Peter Howard, head of the Moral Re-Armament movement, and I expect it was the heavy Moral/Christian element of the story that made it feel very worthy but not very sophisticated. What I learned from this show was an ability to start honing my critical faculties where it came to theatre, because, in comparison with all the other shows I’d seen, this was deathly dull. Too childish and patronising for my taste. I hated it!
Although I have to confess, I do still sing “I Dream of Ice Cream” to myself at regular intervals. “I Dream of Ice Cream, sausages and cake. Things that you chew, things that you bake. It’s such a nice dream, I’m afraid to wake, when I dream of ice cream, sausages and cake.” Music by Ivor Novello, lyrics by Sir Noel Coward, as the late Terry Wogan would have said.
18. Move Over Mrs Markham – Vaudeville Theatre, July 1972.
This is more like it! A very funny, Ray Cooney and John Chapman farcical comedy, where a one-bedroomed flat is the target for three sets of illicit lovers, none of whom know that the others have the same intent. Cue a couple of hours of trendy early 70s stage naughtiness. I remember that I absolutely loved it – and my mother did too, so it was nice to see her enjoying theatre again (although all that was to change when you see the next entry!)
It had a terrific cast, many of whom I met at the stage door afterwards and were generous with their time and their autographs. Dinah Sheridan, Tony Britton, Diane Hart, Terence Alexander and even Dame Cicely Courtneidge were all lovely. And the programme features loads of photographs from the production, which brings it all back in glorious monochrome!
19. The Comedians – London Palladium, July 1972.
What I learned from this show is that a successful product in one format does not necessarily translate into a successful product in another format! Granada TV’s The Comedians was a big hit at the time and made stars of the likes of Bernard Manning, Charlie Williams and Ken Goodwin, with its innovative editing and nightclub style presentation. On the vast stage of the Palladium, most of these comics looked and felt very sad indeed. I had particularly wanted to see this show, but Mother was not keen, feeling that their acts were an unfortunate cross between coarse and Northern, not sure which was the more offensive to her! As it was, my memory of it was that their material was very disappointing and not very funny.
The six comics who presented this show were Mike Reid, Dave Butler, Jos White, Jimmy Marshall, Charlie Williams and Ken Goodwin. When I was hunting autographs at the Stage Door Jimmy Marshall didn’t endear himself to my mother by bumping into her as he wasn’t looking where he was going, and she put on her affronted look. And Ken Goodwin ended his act with a very schmaltzy and sentimental number, and as soon as he sang the words “absence makes the heart grow fonder they say” all her inner griefs exploded and she burst into loud uncontrollable tears in the middle of the stalls, much to the embarrassment of those around, including myself. So another lesson I learned was to make sure of the material on offer in a show when you have a volatile parent!
20. The Mating Game – Apollo Theatre, London, August 1972.
I got on much better with this fast, funny and sexy farce (yes, I know I was just 12) with a brilliant cast and a show full of laughter. Terry Scott led the cast, with Aimi Macdonald, Clive Francis, Avril Angers and Julia Lockwood. I remember the first scene very clearly, where Mr Francis is luring Miss Macdonald back to his bed for a night of shenanigans only to find Mr Scott already in it.
Written by Robin Hawdon, and directed by Ray Cooney, this had a long run and enjoyed very many successful international transfers. Julia Lockwood was the daughter of Margaret Lockwood and retired from acting a few years later. Clive Francis is the father of Harry Francis, one of the best young actor/dancers on stage today. All the cast were charming when I met them at the stage door afterwards.
And there you have it for today’s reminiscences. My next blog post, probably on Tuesday, will be back on the holiday snaps and we’ll be in Austria in 1989.
Greetings gentle reader, and welcome to what could be an enormously entertaining retro odyssey of all the shows I’ve seen over the years, or it could turn out to be some self-indulgent nonsense to pass the lockdown months – only time will tell. So here’s a reminiscence of the first ten professional shows that I’ve seen.
Showtime – Pavilion Theatre, Bournemouth, June 1967.
Whilst on our annual family week-long summer holiday, which in 1967 was in Bournemouth, my parents took me to see Showtime which starred Des O’Connor and Kenneth McKellar. As a 7-year-old, I have very few memories of the show, but I do remember a sequence where Des O’Connor asked us all if anyone from the audience wanted to join him on stage – there was a brief silence and I remember him saying “come on, speak to Desmond” and just as I was wondering whether I could pluck up the courage to stand up, Jack Douglas emerged from the audience in his character as Alf Ippitittimus (how do you spell that? Two Ips, a Pippi and a Tittimus, which isn’t actually correct but was his catchphrase) and I realised that it was a set-up. That was my first lesson of theatre – things are not always as they seem. It took until One Man Two Guvnors for that art to be perfected!
I also learned that sitting at the back of a theatre isn’t as much fun as sitting at the front. We sat at the back because my dad wanted to keep drinking pints through the show, much to my mother’s fury. If you drank, you had to sit at the back. If you were pure in mind and spirit, you could sit at the front. Funny old rules.
Some great other shows on that summer in Bournemouth by the way, according to the adverts in the programme.
Jack and The Beanstalk – London Palladium, January 1 1969
Not 100% certain of the date but it’s near enough. My first London show, my first pantomime, and my first real sense of the excitement and buzz that theatre can offer – that’s what I learned from this show. I went with my mother because, as I was to discover over the coming decades, the London Palladium was probably her favourite place on Earth and she wanted me to start at the top! Jimmy Tarbuck as Jack, Arthur Askey as the Dame (mother couldn’t stand him), and also the brilliant Charlie Cairoli as the leader of the Strolling Clowns.
My main memory of this show is actually standing outside the Palladium amongst the throngs of excited people who knew they were in for a treat – or had just experienced a treat, because I can’t remember if it was before or after the show. I was only 8, after all. But I also remember Jimmy Tarbuck’s first entrance on stage, halfway through the boys and girls of the Pamela Devis Dancers doing the opening number, which was their version of Manfred Mann’s My Name is Jack – pantos always have played with the pop songs of the day. I think I was just tingling with excitement.
Oh! Clarence! – Lyric Theatre, London, January 8 1969.
A week after Jack and the Beanstalk, Mum took me back into London to see a matinee of Oh! Clarence!, a comedy by John Chapman based on Blandings Castle and other Lord Emsworth stories by P G Wodehouse. What I learned from this production is Look After Your Programme. I left it on the train coming home and was UTTERLY FURIOUS WITH MYSELF for doing so. And in fact, I STILL AM! Fortunately I tracked down a copy of the text which had the full cast details and even a couple of photos, so all is not lost.
This had, for 1969, a stunning cast. Jon Pertwee, Peggy Mount, Ealing comedy hero Naunton Wayne and stage farceur par excellence, Robertson Hare, plus some great supporting names. My only vague memories of the play are that Jon Pertwee spent the whole time in great pain (acting, obviously) and that Peggy Mount played her usual “dragon” character. I made a note at the time that there was a hilarious bedroom scene, although I’m sure the 8-year-old me didn’t understand all the jokes.
The other major significance this production has for me was that it was the first time that I took my autograph book to the stage door after the show came down. With the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle to watch out for me, I got the autographs of Jon Pertwee (who spent the whole time when he was writing in my book talking to someone else); Austin Trevor – the first actor to play Hercule Poirot on film in the 1930s – who was a very kindly and courteous gentleman to us both; and Harry Roy, the famous bandleader, because, for some strange reason, this production had a totally unnecessary band in the orchestra pit. Just because they could, I guess. It was so exciting meeting these famous people that I became fairly hooked on autograph collecting, as you’ll see over the next few blog posts!
Charlie Girl – Adelphi Theatre, London, August 1969.
My first musical, this production taught me four things. 1) with clever scenery, you can make it look as though the theatre has been built in order to accommodate the production – as I did, until my mother put me right. More importantly, 2) I learned how going to the theatre can be a social experience, as there were five of us at this performance: me, my parents, and my Nan and Grandad. I have vague recollections of a meal before the show, maybe coffee afterwards (no drinks, as kids were not allowed in pubs in 1969!)
Thirdly, that there is such a thing as the London Cast Album. We didn’t buy it, but we did buy a 45 rpm single (remember them?) with two of the main songs – Liverpool, and the title track Charlie Girl. So you could have a memory of the music at home after the show. What a discovery! And finally, that there was also an entity called the Souvenir Brochure that you could buy in addition to the programme. Looking back on it now, the Charlie Girl Picture Book is very amateurishly presented and photographed – but it offers some unique pictorial memories of the show. I even got a badge, so they were pretty well mastering the art of merchandise!
Another stunningly good cast: Dame Anna Neagle, Gerry Marsden, Derek Nimmo, plus some brilliant supporting cast. The story wasn’t up to much – would Charlie marry Joe or Jack? That’s about it. The only moment of dialogue I remember clearly was when Derek Nimmo, as the Man from the Football Pools, came to tell Gerry Marsden as Joe that he’d won a fortune. He came on stage with a fistful of celebratory balloons. Gerry Marsden loudly deflated them, to which Derek Nimmo, in that uniquely posh hurt accent of his, moaned You’ve Burst My Balloons! Funny what you remember. It was a great show.
Autograph collecting was fun. We waited ages for Derek Nimmo to come out, and eventually the stage door keeper had to ring down to ask him to come up. He was dressed in Dressing Gown and Wellington Boots, apologising that he was rehearsing a scene from Oh Brother, his TV show of the time. Anna Neagle came out looking very glamorous, and was met in a taxi by her husband, the film producer Herbert Wilcox. Mum told me to get his autograph too because he was equally famous, but being a purist, and as he wasn’t in the show, I didn’t.
There’s A Girl in my Soup – Comedy Theatre, London, December 1969.
This long-running comedy was my next show – it was already in its fourth year and had a great reputation – it became London’s longest running comedy until its run was surpassed by No Sex Please We’re British. Basically, a TV chef fancies himself as a lady-killer (this was the Swinging Sixties after all) but he meets his match in the character of Marion and they both tame each other down. I didn’t see a panto this Christmas season, but I think this was meant to replace it. Again, I went with Mum, Dad, Nan and Grandad.
What this production taught me was something that’s only recently started to become untrue, but for many years was undeniable. I remember a moment when I laughed a lot at a very funny scene, and I glanced at my watch – and it said 10.15pm. And I remember thinking that every day (apart from Sundays), at 10.15pm, other audiences would be enjoying that very same hilarious moment. It was like a realisation that I would have something in common with future audiences. Furthermore, it led to a sadder thought; which was that when the show finally closed, as it inevitably would, no one would ever share that funny moment at 10.15 ever again. Unlike a film, once a show closes, it closes – and you can never get it back again. Not quite the same today with the filmed versions of NT and RSC shows appearing regularly at your local cinema. But at the time, that sadness that you can’t recapture a live performance really rather upset me! Sensitive little child!
The cast was headed by Peter Byrne, famous at the time for his work on Dixon of Dock Green, and Australian actress Karen Kessey, who was lovely at the Stage Door. Also in the cast was Janet Hargreaves, who would later go on to infamous success as Rosemary Hunter in Crossroads, and that amazing TV blooper where she tries to shoot her husband but the gun clicks off too early. I enjoyed the show a lot; so much so that when a revival came around in 1996 I insisted that we went to see it – and it had dated so badly that it was excruciating.
She’s Done it Again – Garrick Theatre, London, January 14 1970
Bookending the other end of school Christmas holidays, I went with Mum to see this Brian Rix farce set in a hotel overrun with babies. An excellent cast, that also starred Leo Franklyn, Robert Dorning, Derek Royle and Michael Kilgarriff. It was a classic Rix affair, with a couple of getting caught with his trousers down moments; you can see a wonderful scene below where the Bishop of Upton (a very unhappy looking Anthony Sharp) discovered the Revd Hubert (Mr Rix) in such an embarrassing position with Sylvia, played by the beautiful Margaret Nolan.
I learned two things from this production. One was that a play can be part of a long tradition of similar productions, as the Souvenir Brochure for his play showed photos and details of all the Brian Rix farces going right back to Reluctant Heroes in 1950. It made me really want to see all the earlier productions, which, of course, was impossible – although I do think there was a TV production of Let Sleeping Wives Lie, which would be enormous fun to track down.
The other thing I learned was how lucky I was. We saw a matinee (I was 9 by this stage) and I think the next day was the first day of the new term, so I couldn’t be late to bed. After the show we went to the Stage Door to get autographs – in those days you could walk all the way down the alleyway to the side of the Garrick to get to the Stage Door; today it’s boarded off at street level. We met a lot of the cast coming out of the theatre – Margaret Nolan was particularly kind and lovely to me. But where was Mr Rix? The Stage Door Keeper rang down for us. Mr Rix had a bit of a sore throat and was saving his voice for the evening performance, but he came upstairs in his dressing gown all the same. And then, at the crucial moment, my pen ran out of ink! So Mr Rix very kindly invited me down to his dressing room, to use a pen down there! I felt that was such a privilege. I was really surprised to discover that such a star actually shared a dressing room – with Anthony Sharp, as it happens. He was incredibly kind and friendly and it really made my day.
The Show Inn – Pier Theatre, Shanklin, Isle of Wight, July 1970.
For our summer holiday in 1970, the family went to Shanklin, Isle of Wight, for a week, and whilst there we saw a typical end-of-the-pier show, The Show Inn. I remember very little of this at all, but I see that my programme has the autographs of three of the performers – Bernie Landy, Melody Scott, and Jason Darnel, who, at the age of 84 still maintains a website with reminiscences of all the shows he appeared in. But that’s about all I remember of this show. I’m sure I enjoyed it.
Blithe Spirit – Globe Theatre, London, November 1970.
I remember really looking forward to seeing this show, not only because it had such a great cast, but also because I was fascinated by its name. Charles Condomine was played by Patrick Cargill – whom I knew from TV’s Father Dear Father, Ruth was Ursula Howells, Elvira was Amanda Reiss, and Madame Arcati was Beryl Reid. I absolutely loved it; it’s still one of my favourite plays, and I missed out seeing this year’s production with Jennifer Saunders as Madame A because of the dreaded Covid 19. I made at the time though, that it was a rotten audience who didn’t seem to enjoy the show.
Fascinating how trendy it was to be photographed smoking in those days!
Everyone was pleasant and kind at the Stage Door, but I have two particular memories of that experience; when I got Beryl Reid’s autograph, there was another lady wanting to meet her, and it turned out she was someone who went to school with Ms Reid and they hadn’t met since they left school – and it was a joyful reunion for the pair of them. The other thing I remember was that after we’d met Amanda Reiss, she left the theatre and headed straight for the local butchers. So what I learned from that production was that Stars Have To Go Food Shopping Too.
Aladdin – London Palladium, February 1971.
My second ever panto, and my second visit to the Palladium. A lavish and hilarious production with yet another superb cast – Cilla Black, Leslie Crowther, Alfred Marks, Terry Scott, Sheila Burnette and Basil Brush. A particularly brilliant scene featured Terry Scott, who played Widow Twankey, being caught on the Magic Carpet as it (apparently) soared over cities and landscapes, looping the loop and doing all sorts of perilous pranks – the comic timing, combined with the special effects, made it something I remember to this day.
What I learned from this experience is if you don’t ask you don’t get. My mother had written to the Palladium weeks before we went, asking if it would be possible to meet Basil Brush before the show – he was always a favourite of mine, and in fact my parents loved him too. To our surprise he wrote back, and invited us to call round at the Stage Door before the show. So we did. And we met Mr Ivor, who was the Original Voice of Basil, who took us into his dressing room, showed me how the puppet worked (Ooops – spoiler! Sorry) and we had a lovely chat. Would you like to go on the Palladium stage? he asked us. Mother was even more keen than I was. So he took us through corridors on to the stage, showed us how the famous revolving mechanism worked, and we had an absolutely brilliant chat. Whilst we were backstage I also bumped into Leslie Crowther, who signed my autograph book and was absolutely charming and friendly – see you on stage, were his parting words. By this stage I thought that everything about the theatre is magic. But that’s self-evident, no?
The Mousetrap – Ambassadors Theatre, London, 13th April 1971.
Now in its 19th Year, proclaims the programme – and at the time of Lockdown, it’s in its 68th year! So it’s fair to say it’s been a reasonably successful production. A hokey old thriller, but, if you’re a theatre buff, it’s compulsory viewing. I enjoyed this so much, being a Christie fan even in those youthful days. I thought the murderer was Mr Paravicini, Mum thought it was Mollie Ralston. I’m not going to tell you if either of us was right! I do remember quite a few thrills and chills from the production, which, you have to accept, is a classic.
The Mousetrap has always regularly changed cast, and our cast had Carol Marsh as Mollie – she of the landmark TV play Cathy Come Home – who was incredibly friendly and chatty with us – Bee Duffell as Mrs Boyle, Steve Plytas (Fawlty Towers’ irascible and lovelorn chef, Kurt) as Paravicini, and Kevan Sheehan as Sgt Trotter, who had sung on the Music for Pleasure album of Doctor Dolittle which I played a lot at the time.
See you tomorrow for another bunch of holiday snaps – Australia in 1985!
It’s the third year that the tradition of the London Palladium panto has been revived, and I nabbed our tickets as early as I could. The last two Palladium pantos have been magnificent with their usual cast recidivists, Julian Clary, Paul Zerdin and Nigel Havers; topped up with Gary Wilmot and Charlie Stemp this year and last year, and a fresh baddie every year – first, Paul O’Grady, next Elaine Paige, and this year, Dawn French. As always, the production department has thrown everything at it – glamorous costumes, lively sets, a glorious orchestra, a superb supporting cast and a very funny script. Are you waiting for me to come up with a “but…..”?
No, there’s no buts. This is as exciting, hilarious and downright filthy as you might expect. I’m sure the majority of the children present – and there were surprisingly quite a few for a Saturday night – wouldn’t have understood one word that Julian Clary said; and if they did, then Social Services need a word with the parents. However, hidden within the concoction that is the panto Snow White, there were a few moments that would really appeal to kids: Paul Zerdin as Muddles, with his irrepressible puppet Sam, and Gary Wilmot’s Dame, as ever with a patter song, this time about all the stars that have ever appeared at the Palladium to the tune of I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General. Mr Wilmot had to stop the orchestra, actually, because he left a huge chunk of his list out! One sequence that took me back to my childhood was the appearance of the Palladium Pantaloons, four fast and funny acrobatic guys who took the roof off in the best Charlie Cairoli tradition.
Kids also like Strictly Come Dancing, and this panto has special guest appearances by Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace. They perform two enchanting dances, the second of which is an Argentine Tango; it’s their speciality and you can’t take your eyes off them. They play the King and Queen but there’s no real attempt to integrate them into the rest of the plot; they’re just a couple of delightful interludes.
There’s also romance, in the form of the charming Danielle Hope as Snow White and the irresistible Charlie Stemp as Prince Harry of Hampstead. I’m sure I’m not risking any spoilers when I tell you that the two of them get married in the end, ahhh. That’s not before both of them have run the gamut of side-swipes from the waspish tongue of Mr Clary, of course. As last year, there were moments when Mr Stemp just couldn’t continue for laughing. His star quality shines through; and Mrs C and I can’t wait to see him in Mary Poppins later this year. And Ms Hope did a devilish thing during a slightly ham-fisted piece of comic business; she accidentally switched off the control button on the remote Sam, so when they were meant to be having a conversation together, Sam just sat there, like the dummy he is. One of the children brought on stage for a singalong at the end announced that that was their favourite moment of the show.
Even though they’re not mentioned in the title, Snow White does have her usual team of cohabitees at the house in the forest, here referred to as The Magnificent Seven. I can only presume it’s a copyright issue but none of them bear the same names as their counterparts in the original Disney film. Like, when did Happy become Cheery? Even Doc has now been upgraded to Prof; he must have been awarded an honorary degree somewhere. They are, of course, an ensemble all of their own, but I must say I do always enjoy seeing Craig Garner (Cheery) on stage; I still have very fond memories of his Tommy the Cat in Sheffield’s Dick Whittington a few years ago.
And of course, there’s Nigel. We know it’s Nigel because he has five big letters on stage around which he cavorts, just like Cilla did in her 1960s TV series. By the way, there’s precious little attempt for any of the performers to hide behind their character names. All the way through it’s Nigel, Dawn, Julian, Charlie etc on stage. This year’s ritual humiliation for Nigel is that he has finally been given a part – that of Julian Clary’s understudy. As you would expect, he doesn’t really come up trumps, but I do love how he allows the production to absolutely rip his credibility to shreds.
So how do the big guns get on in this panto? Julian Clary only has to suggest the whiff of an innuendo and the audience are at his feet. Over the last decade he has become the supreme pantomimier, if there were to be such a word (I’ve just invented it); the arch practitioner who appreciates the combination of apparent innocence and utter filth and understands exactly how far to take it for the best comic effect. He is, of course, supported by the most outrageous costumes imaginable, some of them totally ridiculous. They must weigh a ton, so I reckon he’s stronger than he looks. Dawn French’s Queen Dragonella is, from the start, Dawn French dressed as a regal bully, admitting she hasn’t yet mastered the necessary evil cackle. It’s wonderfully tongue-in-cheek all the way through, from her lascivious (and unsuccessful) chatting up of the Prince, to her final re-emergence as a much more familiar figure. She’s enormous fun (no joke intended) and her obvious lack of scariness is presented as a strength. “You don’t frighten me”, says Mr Clary as the Man in the Mirror, “last year I did eight shows a week with Elaine Paige”. Well, quite.
There are only a handful of seats left for the remaining performances so you’d better get in quick. It’s a feast for all the senses and guaranteed guffaws from start to finish. Can’t wait for next year’s panto!
P. S. Why do some people have to be so grouchy about letting people in and out of their seats during the interval? We were in the middle of Row G of the stalls and you’ve never met a more unhelpful bunch of surly selfish theatregoers. Beware – if you don’t try to let me through, I may end up stepping on your feet and I am heavy; your risk. Mrs C is much politer than me, but even she was forced to tell the unhelpful youth at the end of the row that she was literally stuck and that he’d have to stand up unless they were both going to stay there all night. Honestly, people, remember your theatre etiquette!
P. P. S. As we all know, the London Palladium is a theatre of the highest reputation and standing, not only throughout the UK but also the world. On a sold-out Saturday night, I can only imagine the bar takings – they must be tremendous; and that’s good news because all revenue helps keep our theatres alive. Having quaffed a delicious Chardonnay before the show, we returned to collect our pre-ordered interval Chardonnays halfway through. I took my first gulp and it tasted revolting. One look at the liquid and you could tell it was a much, much lighter colour than the wine in the other glass. Could it possibly be that a theatre with the reputation of the Palladium is watering down its wine? We took it to the barman, said it had been watered down and he didn’t deny it – in fact, he quickly and sheepishly replaced both glasses with fresh Chardonnay from the bottle. Buyer beware!
For the last evening of our Christmas London break we headed off to the glamour and excitement of the one and only London Palladium for this year’s pantomime, Dick Whittington. When panto returned to the Palladium last year for the first time in 29 years it was such a nostalgic and feelgood experience. Fortunately, it was also a box office smash and they soon advertised that is would be back this year. Oh yes it would.
The Palladium pantos were always a must-see for their top-of-their-career stars, the amazing sets, the lavish dancing and their full, brilliant orchestra. Last year they showed that they were returning to the same high standards, and this year they pretty much surpassed themselves. There were a few recidivists; Julian Clary, Paul Zerdin and Nigel Havers all returned, all largely playing the identical role they played last year. Paul Zerdin – this time in the guise of Idle Jack – even chose a couple out of the audience to join him on stage for precisely the same routine as last year, where they are made to wear ventriloquist masks around their mouths so that their words are pure Zerdin but their eyes are pure panic. But it’s a very funny act, why change it?!
Nigel Havers this time was Captain Nigel – come on, we all know the pivotal role of Captain Nigel in Dick Whittington….don’t we? – still desperate for a decent scene, still the butt of nearly everyone else’s jokes. There was a very sweet moment when one of the four kids that Paul Zerdin got up on stage at the end of the show to sing Old Macdonald announced that his favourite performer of the evening had been Nigel. You’ve never seen a slightly maturing, thoroughly well-respected actor look quite so flippin’ delighted. Julian Clary, fresh from his success as last year’s Dandini, returns as the Spirit of the Bells, make of that what you wish, punters. As you can imagine, gentle reader, in this particular pantomime, there was a lot of Dick. As usual, Mr Clary lets no innuendo escape unexpressed, nor does he hold back from teasing a corpse moment out of every other member of the cast. The rough, tough one out of Diversity was visibly shaking with barely suppressed guffaws as Mr C delivered him an unexpected double entendre.
Talking of whom, Ashley Banjo and Diversity appeared as the Sultan and his advisors, in a number of set dance pieces which, whilst not completely integrating with the show as a whole, carried on the old Palladium panto tradition of lively dance and comedy pratfalls. I looked on Diversity as the modern day equivalent of Charlie Cairoli and his clowns, who used to have me in hysterics as a lad. Diversity sure have a great stage impact, and all their contributions were very enjoyable.
This year’s other new blood were all pretty darn magnificent. Charlie Stemp and Emma Williams were reunited on stage after their superb performances in Half A Sixpence (still sadly missed) as Dick Whittington and Alice Fitzwarren. Mr Stemp in particular continued to show what a brilliant find he is. He exudes a natural happiness on stage that is irresistible – and there were plenty of references to his past and future performances; a song with the Dame had the title Flash Bang Wallop, What a Sweetshop (I wonder where they got that from) and Mr Clary gave him a huge plug for his appearance on Broadway next year. Oh, and there’s another innuendo for you.
Gary Wilmot was a brilliant Dame – this time the standard Sarah The Cook becomes Sarah Fitzwarren. You can just tell how much Mr Wilmot absolutely adores doing this kind of thing; and his tube station patter song was a true pièce de résistance! Messrs Clary, Zerdin, Havers, Wilmot and Stemp gave us a tremendously anarchic performance of the Twelve Days of Christmas that involved Mr C hurling toilet rolls at the audience – not entirely sure that was meant to happen – and everyone stumbling over each other to get through the number unharmed, which they just about managed. A classic Palladium panto routine, performed to brilliant effect.
And I’ve left the best to last! I have nothing but huge respect for the way Elaine Paige as Queen Rat allowed herself to be sent up something rotten. Her singing parodies of her best-known songs, including forgetting the words to Memory, were simply hilarious. And what was even more enjoyable was that her voice is still astounding. When she delivered her first big number, the chills down my spine were out of this world! It made me want to dig out my old EP albums. (Don’t judge me.)
Extremely funny, glamorous and professional, this is just a wonderful way to celebrate the Christmas season on stage. Amazingly, there were even a few children in the Friday evening audience. Can’t think what they got out of it! This is simply an opportunity for you to go out, have a great laugh, see some fabulous routines and just be a child again. Want to be the first to hear about next Christmas’s Palladium panto? Click here!
I only started watching live stand-up comedy in 2009, and I would say the biggest names I’ve seen would probably be Dara O’Briain, Julian Clary, Jimmy Carr, Al Murray, Reginald D Hunter, Jack Dee, Russell Brand, Sarah Millican, and Alan Carr. Splendid chaps each and every one of course, but do they count as International Stars? We saw Trevor Noah a few years ago and he has since made the big time but I certainly hadn’t heard of him when we saw him. For sheer fame, however, the name Whoopi Goldberg rather knocks all these wonderful people into the proverbial cocked hat.
I was extremely curious to see what her one-woman stand-up show would be like, and chose to see the late-night show as, we were advised, it would be a little more no-holds-barred than her early evening show. I thought there’s absolutely no point going to see Whoopi Goldberg and opting for the holds-barred version. That would be like going to see Oh! Calcutta! and just concentrating on the recorded music.
There’s no doubt there was an extremely excited buzz to the Palladium on Saturday night. There was a full crowd – naturally. When I was queueing at the bar to take some drinks in, someone asked one of the staff if they knew what the running time was. “The first show lasted ninety minutes, with no interval” we were advised. We took our Merlots in, and started chatting to the guys seated next to us. They were equally excited. “Do you think she’ll talk about Trump?” I asked. “For sure!” they replied, as if she could possibly have considered talking about anything else. Good, I said to myself; I really feel like hearing some intelligent anti-Trump material.
The lights dimmed and on she came, in stripy trousers and a big white smocky top, to a tremendous thunder of applause and an instant ovation, even though she hadn’t done anything yet. She accepted the applause graciously, and after a decent pause told us to sit down because there was a curfew and she had a lot to get through! Her opening – slightly disappointing – gambit was to point out that both the US and the UK had made an enormous f*** up (her words) at the ballot box last year, so let’s just recognise it and admit there’s no point going over old mistakes. So much for that source of material, then.
Instead she told us all about what life is like for a woman of 60+… well perhaps, more specifically, what sex is like for a woman of 60+; a very personal and funny account of the ups and downs of modern existence when you’re just about bus-passable. It was all full of very enjoyable observations, but, as Mrs Chrisparkle and I discussed after the show, we couldn’t really remember any one individual topic of discussion. But that didn’t matter. She has such a powerful stage presence, oozing charisma from every pore, that she could have been reading the shipping forecast, and North Utsire would never have sounded so hilarious. It was all a whirl that we let wash over us, if that isn’t a mixed metaphor.
After a while she brought on David. She did explain who David was, but I can’t remember now. Anyway, he asked her a number of pre-posed questions that had appeared on her Facebook page. That’s the modern way of doing stand-up, kids. Whilst the Qs and As threw up a number of entertaining subjects and witty observations, it nevertheless acted as a drain on the accumulated energy of the show up to that point. I enjoyed it, but I also looked forward to this section ending, so that she could go back to some sure-fire stand-up. Unfortunately, it took us through right to the end of the performance, when, in a surprise twist, the show ended with a pair of unnamed twins coming on stage to sing Make You Feel My Love. It reminded me of the finale to Morecambe and Wise’s weekly TV programme, when we would welcome the grand appearance of Janet Webb thanking us for watching her show, even though she hadn’t featured earlier. Charming though the boys’ rendition of Adele’s classic was, it meant the night ended with more of a whimper than a bang.
Still – this was the first time London has seen Whoopi Goldberg do stand-up in thirty years, so it was a thrill to be there, and there’s no doubting her ability to command an audience!
P. S. I subsequently discovered the twins are called Chris and Theo. Well done, lads.
Some photos I took, the others I lifted from Ms Goldberg’s Facebook page!
My first ever visit to a London theatre was to the Palladium for a pantomime back in January 1969 when I was a very small wee urchin. It was Jack and the Beanstalk starring Jimmy Tarbuck and Arthur Askey and I adored it. I don’t know why I missed out in 1970, but in February 1971 I saw my next Palladium panto, Aladdin, starring Cilla Black. In January 1972, just three days after my father died, the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle still took me to see Clodagh Rodgers and Ronnie Corbett in Cinderella. And after that – for me – no more Palladium pantos! I didn’t see another panto until I was 19 (Mother Goose at Oxford, with John Inman). And after that, nada, until we took our nieces to see Cinderella in Malvern in 2006. But the London Palladium panto tradition was a very special thing, with its heyday being the late 40s, 50s and 60s. The last time one was staged was back in 1987 with – yet again – Cinderella. Now it’s 29 years later, and look what’s back!
Having loved my first three Palladium pantos, an irresistible force drew me to booking for this comeback show. And what a production it is! The old phrase “no expense spared” is often used, but this time it’s for real. The sets, the costumes, the orchestra, everything about it exudes riches and exquisiteness. They’ve got the old Chitty Chitty Bang Bang technology to make the pumpkin carriage fly through the air, and boy do they use it. With a nod to shows of the past, the panto includes the Sunday Night at the London Palladium theme, the famous revolving stage, and there’s even a brief homage to the Tiller Girls. The boys and girls of the ensemble and the supporting character parts give their all to make it a really entertaining night; and to top it all there is a star-studded lead cast that has to be seen to be believed. No surprise that it’s been a commercial success and that they’re already booking for Dick Whittington next December.
We saw a Friday evening performance – and you might expect that show to be a little more adult in its targeting than some of the matinees. To be fair, there were hardly any children there. That’s right, the Palladium, a theatre that seats over 2,400 people, showing a pantomime, and there was just a handful of kids. Mrs Chrisparkle and I had thought it would be an irreverent night full of theatrical fun, perfect for the break between Christmas and New Year, and no kids. I reckon over 2,300 other adults felt precisely the same. However, that was probably just as well, as the vast majority of the material was completely unsuitable for children. Cleverly unsuitable, for certain, in that it would go straight over their heads (possibly causing them to be a little bored occasionally) but unsuitable nonetheless. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a complaint, but merely an observation – I loved it!
The last time we saw Julian Clary do his stand-up routine I questioned whether or not his act was starting to become a trifle anachronistic, poking fun at effeminacy – especially his own – in this day and age. There’s no doubt he does it brilliantly and it brings the house down, but how 2017 is it? If the jury was out on that one, it’s just come back in, because in Cinderella Mr Clary’s performance as Dandini is an absolute triumph of camp filth. Scene after scene is crammed with double (and treble!) entendres, from his opening song about exploring Soho (to the tune of Downtown), to discussions about his muff and his ring, and being pulled off. Those few children who have sneaked in are totally bemused at why the adults are laughing so much. Actually, there was one teenager that Mrs C noticed, who understood all the dirty jokes but was having to suppress her laughter in case her mother caught her. Ah, the trials and tribulations of youth.
Trumping Mr Clary (although not in the American Presidential sense) – or not, you decide – is Paul O’Grady in the rarely seen role of Baroness Hardup, channelling his inner Cruella de Vil from the moment he gets out of his limo to the epiphany he has on the floor. I’d not seen him on stage before and he’s a right handful, I can tell you. As soon as an infant in the audience made a mewling noise he was straight on it: “Calpol that child, before I come down there and do it for you!” Between the two of them, Messrs Clary and O’Grady wiped the floor with the audience in a nice cop/nasty cop sort of way. They are hysterically funny. It must have been a complete toss-up (the innuendo is catching) as to which of them got top billing. I wonder who it was who told Mr Clary it wasn’t him.
More for the kids – although with plenty of adult twists – Paul Zerdin is a terrific Buttons, with his ventriloquist dummy sidekick Sam, dressed as a mini-Buttons. Sam has a mind of his own and can’t be trusted with anyone, as he both chats up and derides members of the audience, including the sexually-laden line “once puppet, never look back”. His is a brilliant act – no wonder he won America’s Got Talent in 2015. At one stage, he selects a couple from the audience to do the same masked vent act that we saw Nina Conti do in Edinburgh in 2015. Poor Richard and Angela – what great sports they were.
Amanda Holden is a very charming Fairy Godmother, with a lot of X-Factor/Cowell/talent show material that slips out at regular intervals. I rather enjoyed her performance because she doesn’t pretend to be anything that she isn’t – and when it came to the (highly enjoyable) If I Were Not in Pantomime routine, she messed it up a bit by getting the words wrong, and I found that rather endearing. Others, I believe, have been more critical. Cinderella is played by Natasha J Barnes and is a hearty and good natured soul in the best tradition of the role. Lee Mead, as Prince Charming, allows himself to be ridiculed by constant musical references to show tunes that he has made his own in previous productions and on TV; and, on even more of a self-deprecating trip, Lord Chamberlain Nigel Havers is constantly turning up, only to find he has no lines in this scene, and begging to be allowed to participate in the next. It’s a beautifully sequenced saga of ritual humiliation.
In a break from normal tradition, the Ugly Sisters are actually played by women! Suzie Chard and Wendy Somerville are the delightfully named Verruca and Hernia and they do a good job but they are basically outshone by the all the other stars that surround them. The only problem comes with Baron Hardup played by Steve Delaney’ alter ego, the rambling and forgetful Count Arthur Strong. As soon as the Count comes on and starts dithering it seems to sap all energy from the production. His laughs are few and far between and frankly (and this is an unpleasant thing to admit) you can’t wait for him to get off the stage. He redeems himself in the aforementioned If I Were Not in Pantomime scene, but I think his appearance is simply too much at odds with the showbizzy glamour of everything and everyone else on stage.
Still, the rest of the show is so good that this little quibble really doesn’t matter. A triumphant return of panto to the Palladium, and a packed theatre full of ecstatic punters. We’ll definitely be booking for next year!
Production photos by Paul Coltas and Steve Williams
Probably not so much of a review, more a reverie…anyone who knows me well – especially if you’ve known me for many years – will know that A Chorus Line is my favourite show of all time. I first saw it featuring the Toronto cast when I was 16 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on 29th December 1976 (matinee – yes I am that anal) and before I had reached 17 the following April I had seen it twice more. By the time the run closed I had seen it 8 times, including the last night. I remember spectacular, moving performances from the British cast – including Diane Langton, Michael Staniforth, Petra Siniawski, Geraldine Gardner, Stephen Tate, and many others. Alas some of them are no longer with us. Then Mrs Chrisparkle and I took the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle to see a touring production in Oxford in 1987 (Cassie played by Caroline O’Connor, Maggie was a 19-year-old Ruthie Henshall); there was a production about ten years ago (if not more) at the Sheffield Crucible; and then Mrs C and I saw it in New York in 2008 during a week’s holiday. And now, it has come back to London, and the prospect of seeing it again made me bristle with excitement.
You know the basic story of this show, don’t you? It’s an audition for eight places in the chorus to back the star in some unnamed Broadway musical. Zach the director has the unenviable task of whittling down the 24 or so wannabes to a shortlist of 17, then the final eight. Their personalities are dissected; their dance abilities scrutinised; their attitudes tested. At first, you join in with the selection process, and pick who you would like to get through. But at some point, your admiration for them all means you cannot choose between them, and you just will them all to succeed. My attitude to this show has never changed, all through the decades. It takes young, ambitious and talented dancers who otherwise never get to shine on stage, and brings them into the full gaze of “the line”, thereby giving them a character voice they don’t normally get and exposing the fragility of their lives and careers. It’s full of respect and understanding, and it taught the young me an awful lot about life and people. It’s also very funny, very sad and has the most wonderful expressive choreography by the late Michael Bennett. The songs are showstoppers. I can’t see why it wouldn’t be everyone’s favourite show.
So you can understand that I have some difficulty trying to observe this show and describe it reasonably impartially! What I am genuinely delighted is that it remains more or less precisely the same as it was nearly forty years ago, and that it can still pack out the Palladium and get a standing ovation. Mind you, I’m sure that the audience – first Saturday evening after press night – was full of fans from the old days. As far as I could tell, the choreography and costumes were unchanged, the set (which is just a few mirrors and a sparkly backdrop at the end) is the same, the songs are the same, and there are just a few minor changes to the text.
Those changes are very interesting in themselves. When Judy (a delightfully dotty and heart-warming performance by Lucy Jane Adcock) first introduces herself, she says her name is Judy Turner, but “my real name is Tina Turner!” Cue a “ta-da!” pose and affectionate laughter. This has been modernised from the 1970s’ “my real name is Lana Turner!” Same “ta-da!” pose. I’m not entirely sure why. Sure, today I don’t suppose many theatregoers will be overly moved by likening someone to a film actress who died aged 74 in 1995. However, the show is full of other references to stars of yesteryear – Troy Donohue (died 2001), Steve McQueen (died 1980), George Hamilton (still alive at 73), Robert Goulet (died 2007), Maria Tallchief (still alive at 88). I’m not sure why poor Lana Turner has been kicked into touch whilst the others are still part of the show.
Another text change shows a significant movement in what’s considered humorous material. In the sequence “And….”, Val originally sang, “Orphan at 3, Orphan at 3, Mother and Dad both gone, Raised by a sweet ex-con, Tied up and raped at 7, Seriously, Seriously, Nothing too obscene, I’d better keep it clean”. In this production, the “tied up and raped at 7” line had been replaced by something much more anodyne (I’m afraid I can’t remember the replacement line) but which didn’t really make sense when she went on to say “nothing too obscene” – as the replacement line hadn’t been obscene at all. I guess the powers that be just think that kind of reference is no longer appropriate in the 21st century.
The other change – which kind of makes sense – is that the dancers no longer give the year in which they were born in their introduction. In the first production, they were all born in the early 1950s. That would sound odd to today’s audience, even though the setting makes it clear that we are in 1975. In the Oxford production, if I remember rightly, they brought forward the years by about ten so that it still sounded believable. I think in the Sheffield production they went back to the 1950s birth dates – and at the Palladium, they just say I was born April 13th (or whatever) and I’m 25 (or whatever). The trouble with that is that Zach doesn’t really want to know the birth date – after all, he’s not going to buy them a birthday card or check their horoscope – he just wants to know their age. So the birth date part of this sequence, rather like committing suicide in Buffalo, is redundant.
Apart from that, it very much is the original article. I’m sure back in the old days it used to run for just over 2 hours 10 minutes, but they seem to have shaved five minutes off it now. Maybe they’re dancing a little faster! There’s still no interval – something that Mrs C reminds me I am normally very critical of in other shows – but for me it is completely appropriate that it runs straight through without stopping, as any break would arrest the momentum of the show. Anyway I think it was ground-breaking at the time to have no interval. Any production team nowadays, who simply want to wrap up and go home early, go for the “no-interval” option.
It’s a great cast of superb dancers and actors – I understand they all had to attend “boot camp” held by Baayork Lee (the original Connie) to get into shape before rehearsals started, and it shows. One of the great things about A Chorus Line is that it is “the ensemble show par excellence”. Misleadingly the producers revealed early on who would be performing the “star roles” of Zach, Cassie, Sheila and Diana, which somewhat misses the point of the show itself – as Cassie herself says “we’re all special. He’s special – she’s special. And Sheila, and Richie and Connie. They’re all special.” However, let’s take those star roles first.
John Partridge is Zach the director. Of all the Zachs I’ve seen, he feels far and away the most closely associated with the rest of the dancers. Sometimes Zach can be aloof to the point of hostility, but this Zach works with the dancers’ responses with the greatest sense of understanding and appreciation that I can remember – and it really benefits as a result. Zach’s still a rather scary powerhouse of directorial pizzazz; you wouldn’t choose to waste his time. But I found his reading of the role really credible. It’s full of energy and authority; and when he joins the rest of the cast for the One Singular Sensation closing number, you have never seen a performer look so happy to be out there on stage. Some friends also went to see the same performance – they booked separately and so we didn’t sit together – and they were seated alongside Mr Partridge at the back of the theatre, as his voice booms mystically from the dark. Apparently he genuinely checks all the characters against their resumés as the show progresses. Who knew?
Scarlett Strallen is Cassie – and first of all I must say that she performs The Music and The Mirror with extraordinary artistry and movement; I really loved it. She can pop the hip for me anytime. Her painful recollections of a career that never took off are movingly relived, and the “dirty linen” sequence when she and Zach pick over the remains of their previous relationship has tangible bitterness and disappointment. Again, another superb performance.
Sheila is played by Leigh Zimmermann, whom we last saw many years ago in Susan Stroman’s Contact. Perfect casting for the seen-it-all, done-it-all, world-weary but still with a mischievous sparkle, Sheila. When she opens up her heart in At The Ballet you feel like it’s a genuine insight into the parts of her character she wants kept locked up. And her last distant look at Zach, at the end of the show, says everything about ambition, bravery, distress and sadness. Really beautifully done.
Victoria Hamilton-Barritt is Diana, and something of a revelation, as I’ve not seen her before and she’s really terrific! She put her heart and soul into “Nothing” (Mrs C’s favourite number in the show) and she made it a real victory song. Endearing, quirky; and when she is called back in line at the end after Zach makes a mistake, everyone gasps. Of course, it falls to Diana to sing “What I Did For Love”, which is NOT about Zach and Cassie’s relationship as Richard Attenborough’s travesty of a film would have you believe, but is the simple answer to “what do you do when you can no longer dance”. She sings it beautifully – and the searing chorus that builds up around her is just magical. A brilliant performance.
But the whole cast turn in wonderful performances. For example, I loved Vicki Lee Taylor’s Maggie – a voice of crystal clarity, and who invests Maggie’s role in At The Ballet with such empathy and understanding – outstandingly good. Adam Salter’s Mike is called on to do the acrobatic “I Can Do That” early on, and it’s a wonderfully funny and credible performance. You really do believe he didn’t like his mates calling him Twinkletoes. Andy Rees plays Greg with terrific comic timing – it’s a gift of a role, of course, but all the stuff about being (if I may be so direct, gentle reader) “hard” on the bus was really superbly done. I very much liked Harry Francis as Mark. That was the role I always associated myself with, when I were a lad. He brought all the necessary youth and embarrassing earnestness in his wish to do really well in his first major job. He’s also an amazing dancer. There’s a sequence in “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen…” where he leads an arrow-shaped phalanx of dancers darting left and right across the stage, in true show-off Michael Bennett style, and he does it brilliantly. And James T Lane’s Richie is a little powerhouse of energy and humour, and his (again turn away if you’re likely to be offended) “Shit Richie” chorus was fantastic. I could be here all day talking about every member of the cast – and frankly they would all deserve it.
So I am thrilled to see A Chorus Line back on the London stage after 34 years, and in a production that is a credit to that amazing original creative team, nearly all of whom have shuffled off to that great audition in the sky. I can’t recommend it strongly enough, and I’m sure that won’t be the last time I go to see it!
PS On the way out of the theatre, there was a cameraman and a sound boom man who said they were making a documentary for NBC about the late Marvin Hamlisch. Basically, they were asking for people to sing a snatch of a Hamlisch song for their programme. So guess who got to do a bit of their “Dance Ten Looks Three” routine? I might be on the telly!