Review – Allelujah!, Bridge Theatre, 28th July 2018

AllelujahI have to admit, it’s lovely to be back at the Bridge Theatre after the complete disaster of trying to get tickets to see their earlier show Nightfall. I booked for a Sunday matinee, only to be told a few weeks later that by then the run would have ended as they were squeezing another show into their timetable. So they transferred me to an earlier Sunday matinee, only to be told another few weeks later that the performance had been cancelled and could I manage a different date? No I could not! Whatever happened to the show must go on? As Oscar Wilde once (almost) said, “to cancel one performance may be classed a misfortune. To cancel two sounds like carelessness.” Clearly Sunday matinees at the Bridge Theatre are a thing of the past, which is a shame because Saturdays are always busy; for us, it will simply mean seeing fewer shows at this otherwise fantastic new theatre.

SalterAnyway…. Allelujah for the return of Alan Bennett to the London stage. He’s 84 now; and sometimes, when a much loved and respected playwright reaches their later years, you can tell it by an increasing laziness or tiredness in the writing. Not so with Mr Bennett. Allelujah! has a sprightly construction, killer punchlines, devastating observations about the NHS and Life in General (whatever that is), memorable characterisations and a neat eye for the surreal. It’s rare for a first Act to end on two bombshells, both within the last ten seconds; but you’ll be going into the interval not knowing whether to be horrified or laughing out loud – probably both. There are some very moving and accurate portrayals of characters with dementia; if occasionally they verge on the cruel, it’s only because dementia itself is cruel and there’s no point hiding it. This play isn’t always an easy watch; more power to its elbow for being that stark.

Dr Valentine on TVTo fill you in, the Bethlehem Hospital is in a parlous state because it no longer fits in with the modern NHS. It’s a local hospital, for local people; the kind of place where you go in with something wrong with you, they make you better, and you leave. No sexy surgical specialities; the books all add up and in fact the place is run so efficiently that it even makes something of a profit. But there’s a lot of bed-blocking, it doesn’t fit in with 21st century vision, and if they’re not careful, it’ll get closed down and all the patients (and some of the staff, perhaps) will get transferred to Tadcaster, Lord forbid. Save the Beth is the cry of the local protest movement, and TV cameras are out and about covering the hospital’s every move for the Local News. Salter, the Chairman of the Hospital Trust, is constantly fussing around trying to emphasise all its achievements, and brown-nosing anyone he suspects might be of influence; like in-patient Joe’s son Colin, who has cycled all the way from London to visit his dad, but who is known to work in Whitehall, if not actually as part of the Department of Health, but alongside the Department of Health. If anyone might be in a position to put in a good word for the future of the hospital, it’s Colin. But is he on their side? You’ll have to watch the play to find out.

Mrs Maudsley arrivesIt’s not the first time a hospital has been used as a metaphor for the state of British society. Allelujah reminded me strongly of Lindsay Anderson’s 1982 film Britannia Hospital, which did very much the same thing; it also featured a panicky and increasingly desperate Chief Administrator, and a TV documentary crew snooping round who (without giving the game away too much) observed some particularly nefarious and illegal goings on. What’s different about Allelujah is that, when everything else has dried up and failed, in the face of all adversity, indomitable human spirit carries on. And that’s shown in the singing.

Colin singsSinging? So is this a musical? No not at all. Nor is it particularly a play about singing, although singing plays a major role. If you’ve ever had an elderly relative spend a long time in a hospital ward, or a care home, you’ll know that musical entertainment in the form of getting everyone around to join in a sing-song, is a successful way to lift spirits. So on the one hand, it looks a little surreal when all the old patients start singing songs together, but on the other, nothing could be more natural. The music is significant in many ways: 1) on the most basic level, it’s a spirit-lifter for the patients; 2) it reveals the youthful nature of what’s inside us all, no matter how old and decrepit we are on the outside, inside we’re all still 21; 3) no matter what problems beset us, we shall overcome; and 4) as our inexorably failing NHS and society in general steadily decline, we can divert ourselves from this inevitable horror by singing; a little like throwing yourself into the last verses on the Titanic.

Sister Gilchrist dances with JoeI would, however, question the choice of songs. The average age of the people on the wards would, I would have thought, be something in the region of 80. So the songs that are really going to keep them buoyed up would be the songs they enjoyed during their 20s and 30s; so that would be songs of approximately 50 to 60 years ago; so roughly 1958 – 1968. The songs that feature in the show are actually more like those that Mr Bennett’s own parents would have enjoyed; so to me at least they felt strangely old-fashioned. I would have found it even more believable if they’d been singing some rock and roll and some Lennon & McCartney. Actually, the second Act opens with the patients performing a rousing version of Good Golly Miss Molly, just like they would have done in the Good Old Days, and it stood out like a beacon of sheer joy.

Dr Valentine and ColinBob Crowley’s design for the play is spot-on accurate in its representation of a busy hospital; all the signs, the notice boards, the reception areas, the magnolia walls, even the dado rails are absolutely perfect. We’ve all been to children’s wards where they’re given names like Disney Ward, Pooh Ward, Noddy Ward, and so on. Mr Bennett’s runs with this idea to create in Bethlehem Hospital, Dusty Springfield Ward, Shirley Bassey Ward, Len Hutton Ward, etc, which works perfectly.

Save the BethNicholas Hytner has brought together a comparatively huge cast of 25 to create a great ensemble atmosphere amongst the actors who play the patients; this creates something of an us and them feel in regard to their dealings with anyone outside their own group – so the medical staff, the visiting relatives, the documentary people definitely feel like outsiders. And it’s true, as this play deftly shows, some of those outsiders are not working in the patients’ best interests.

Sister Gilchrist chatted up by FletcherThere isn’t a one single star performance in this play because there isn’t one single star role that is that central to the story; but there are some terrific performances throughout the cast. Peter Forbes is delightfully smarmy and slippery as Chairman Salter, constantly on the lookout to emphasise the best and disguise the worst, careful never to be out of the camera’s eye for too long; and, when it looks as though the Beth won’t be saved, he’s the first one to ensure his future security in whatever way he can. He doesn’t know quite how to handle Samuel Barnett’s Colin, though; Mr Barnett plays this strategic adviser-but-also-relative with cool, detached cynicism and a quiet adherence to a more ruthless vision for the NHS. TAndy taunts Joehere’s a chillingly eerie performance by the brilliant Deborah Findlay as Sister Gilchrist, making her rounds with silent determination, rarely betraying any emotion; as her complete opposite number, Sacha Dhawan is excellent as Dr Valentine, keen as mustard, trying to engage with the patients on an emotional level – and put through the humiliation of a citizenship test that is truly cringeworthy. There’s also brilliant support from David Moorst as the gormless work-experience lad Andy; negligently trying to get away with as little effort as possible, whist still sucking up to the bosses.

Dr Valentine and AmbroseAnd then there’s the fantastic cast of patients. Jacqueline Clarke shows she still has a great voice and charisma as the woeful Mrs Maudsley; Julia Foster is hilariously mischievous as Mary; Jeff Rawle as Joe shows not only great understanding of dementia but also brilliant comic timing and a genuinely horrified understanding of what his fate is to be. Gwen Taylor’s Lucille is still full of the vigour of a much younger and (what the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle would have called) flightier woman; and Simon Williams’ Ambrose dishes out some fantastic cantankerous malevolence as his patience is tried too often.

Neville and CoraVery funny, but also more than a little sad, this beautifully written play gives us lots to think about our own long-term future and how vulnerable the elderly can be. Highly recommended!

Party for EverybodyP. S. For the attention of Alan Bennett: I have a bit of a gripe with the title, Mr Bennett. I was always taught that if it ends with a J and an H it starts with an H. If it ends with an I and an A, it starts with an A. Hallelujah or Alleluia; make your mind up!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Follies, National Theatre at the Olivier, 23rd September 2017

FolliesOriginally produced in 1971, and wisely with no attempt to update it in any way, Follies tells the story of a final reunion of the showgirls at New York’s Weismanns’ Follies, one of those Ziegfeld-type revue shows that hold a cult but unique place in the history of theatre. Ever since we all stopped watching the Tiller Girls on Sunday Night at the London Palladium, there’s been precious little remnant of this form of entertainment in the modern era. Even Burlesque has been handed down to us via a completely different route. We really are in another time and another place.

Follies OpeningSally and Phyllis were two friends who worked together in the Follies, and Buddy and Ben were the two boys who would wait for them to finish their show before taking them out for a night on the town. Ben was the prize guy – Buddy was just his mate; whichever of the girls (Phyllis) ended up with Ben will have “won”; the other (Sally) would make do with Buddy. But it was messy; with Ben having a fling with Sally whilst engaged to Phyllis, and their friendships all fell apart as a result. That was many years ago, and the reunion is an opportunity for Sally and Phyllis to heal old wounds. But, somehow, it doesn’t quite work that way. Meanwhile, the old hoofers and belters (aka the former Follies performers) relive their memories, recount how their lives have moved forward, renew old friendships and enmities, and are haunted by the ghosts of their former selves.

Follies Young charactersThis was the very first show that Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw together after we had tied the proverbial knot way back in 1988; a production at the Shaftesbury Theatre, which we loved. On reflection, it was an interesting choice to start off our married life, seeing as how Stephen Sondheim’s view of marriage, which peppers this show like a bazooka blaster, is so bleak. Those first few days may be full of “you’re going to love tomorrow”, but pretty soon it’s “could I leave you?” Despite that, the show’s overwhelming message is one of survival. At the end, Sally’s dreams of rekindling love with Ben are dashed but Buddy seems willing to try again; Phyllis and Ben stay together because the alternative is just too hard to contemplate. The old-age singers and dancers are still knocking out their powerful songs and kicking their heels to any old show tune. Good times and bum times, they’ve seen them all and my dear, they’re still here. And that’s got to be good, hasn’t it?

Follies Beautiful GirlsEarly on in the show, when the “beautiful girls”, each wearing their year sash, take to the very unglamorous fire-escape staircase for their grand entrance, you realise quite how anachronistic this whole piece is – on the surface. The girls are just being judged, or admired, at that stage for their visual heavenliness and how adroit they are at walking down stairs. The sash lends an element of Miss World to it, which, although it still happens every year, lost its place in the affections of the UK audience decades ago, as being very last century.

Follies CarlottaGoing back briefly to that 1988 production, it boasted a wondrous cast – Julia McKenzie as Sally, Diana Rigg as Phyllis (although we saw her understudy); David Healy as Buddy and Daniel Massey as Ben. Amongst the older, supporting cast, we had Leonard Sachs, Dolores Gray, Adele Leigh, and Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson. A substantial element of the impact of the show is that you must absolutely believe that the supporting cast of ex-Weismann Follies girls were once magnificently glamorous, superbly talented and just magic to watch. Thirty years ago at the Shaftesbury, the fact that they had really well-known performers on stage in these roles, totally emphasised this sense of enormous reputation. Today’s cast, at the Olivier, of old Follies girls, whilst still superbly skilful and a delight on stage, are not quite so famous, nor indeed as old, as in the earlier production. For instance, I know ladies never tell a lie about their age but from what I can gather online, Ms Janie Dee (Phyllis), Ms Tracie Bennett (Carlotta), Ms Di Botcher (Hattie) and Ms Dawn Hope (Stella) are all younger than me, goddammit. No wonder they’re all such great dancers.

Follies Sally and PhyllisIf the framework and structure of the show now seems a little dated, the passions beneath the surface are as resounding now as they ever were. Sondheim’s score for this musical is definitely amongst his best; maybe it is his best. Broadway Baby, Too Many Mornings, Could I Leave You, Losing My Mind and the incomparable I’m Still Here are all held together with blood, sweat and tears. Ah, Paris!, You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow, and Buddy’s Blues make us laugh with a lump in our throats. The songs support James Goldman’s wistful book which builds up magnificent tension between the four main characters before they explode with emotional devastation. They will survive, against all the odds, because that’s the whole point of the show. But, boy, are they going to get raw first.

Follies PhyllisThis production has Phyllis singing The Story of Lucy and Jessie as her “Follies” number, which was a huge disappointment to us because we much prefer the alternative song Ah, but Underneath. Apparently that song is only used when the actress playing Phyllis isn’t a natural dancer. Ah but Underneath is richly self-deprecatory with astoundingly clever turns of phrases, whereas Lucy and Jessie is just a trite patter song in comparison – something Cole Porter would have written, then chucked away. An odd judgment, in my opinion, to choose a far lesser song over a great one.

Follies Sally seatedAs soon as it was announced that Imelda Staunton would be starring in the new production of Follies, I knew that I finally had a reason to join the National Theatre’s Advance Member scheme, in order to be within a whiff of a chance of getting a good seat. It worked. Ms Staunton, who it seems can currently do no wrong (Gypsy, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) chalks up another personal success with this superb mix of heartbreak and old-fashioned stamina. With her brilliantly inelegant dress and tastelessly showy hairdo, you can instantly see that this Sally doesn’t have the personal style of the others, whether it be through lacking the trappings of wealth or simply some natural flair. She’s a most charming, good-natured, walking failure. Her every scene reveals Sally’s desperate lack of self-confidence, and her waspish antagonism towards her unfaithful husband is a painful delight. For such a great singer as Ms Staunton, it’s a shame that Sally only really takes part in two songs; but her Too Many Mornings duet and Losing My Mind solo reveal what an extraordinary re-interpreter of musical classics she is.

Follies Whos that WomanWe’d seen Janie Dee a few times before, most notably as Dolly Levi in Leicester’s Hello Dolly a few years ago, so I knew she was a fine exponent of the art of musical theatre. Here she invests Phyllis with a marvellously supercilious air and a wicked ability to go for the kill in any conversation; and her performance of Could I Leave You is riveting. Peter Forbes’ Buddy is a convincingly wretched piece of scum, as he tells Sally about his liaisons with the lovely Margie, guiltlessly matter-of-fact. The whole presentation of Buddy’s Blues is fantastic, with his Max Miller suit, strobe lighting comedy effect, and the revelation of just how lovely Margie really is. Philip Quast has the tough task of conveying the sullenness of the inward-looking Ben, but he does a good job with the ironic Live, Laugh, Love. And of course, there are the priceless moments of Di Botcher’s Broadway Baby, Dame Josephine Barstow’s One More Kiss and Tracie Bennett’s I’m Still Here. But the number that absolutely brought the house down? Dawn Hope leading all the girls with their taptastic performance of Who’s That Woman.

Follies Young characters arguingEach character has their own younger version, silently observing from close by. This is an intriguing theatrical device; it’s not always easy to tell if the older characters are being haunted by their younger selves or if the young ones are being shown up by the older ones. I think it’s fair to say that as we grow older we do think back to our younger days – after all, it’s quite easy; we remember them; we were there. When we’re young, we don’t so much think forward to our older days, because the future is a mystery; at best, all you can hope for is some comfort and satisfaction in a life well lived. I’m not sure to what extent the younger characters can say that of their older generation counterparts in this show. The delightful Alex Young and Zizi Strallen are almost criminally wasted as young Sally and Phyllis, with excellent support from Fred Haig and Adam Rhys-Charles as their young suitors; but it’s worth the wait for their brilliant rendition of You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through.

Follies HattieI’d read some rather disappointing reviews of this production; well, I don’t know what the hell those people were watching. This is as crisp, as telling, as emotional and as musically rewarding as you could possibly wish for. Irresistibly moving, it’s what musical theatre is all about. Go see it for yourself!

Follies Solange and Young SolangeP. S. The show comes in at around 2 hours 20 minutes with no interval. Apparently, this is in keeping with Sondheim’s original intent that there should be no break; that’s all very well for a youngish man of 41 (as Sondheim was at the time) but it’s tough on a packed matinee full of pensioners. Yes, I can see the artistic merit in taking it through without the distraction of a break, but if you spend the last half hour worrying whether your bladder is going to burst, you might as well have Her Majesty the Queen breakdancing naked on stage and you still won’t be able to concentrate on it. Say, Mr Producer, be kind to your audiences and preserve the very practical tradition of the interval!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Diary of a Nobody, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, March 10th 2011

Diary of a NobodyConfession time. When I attended the Royal and Derngate’s Subscription Season launch in January, this was one of two productions that I wasn’t certain I was going to enjoy. I’m not familiar with the original book and I feared that it might be a little dated, a little stilted; a lot of Victorian pomposity and bluster and no substance.

Hah! How wrong I was! This is a truly super show. It’s laugh out loud funny from start to finish and each of its four performers is a star turn.

Mr Pooter is at the heart of it, a traditional Victorian man in many respects but with an interest in modern fads, like these wonderful new enamel paints (cue all the furniture turning red). The troubles that beset him are the same we have today – pesky builders who create more work than they repair; bankers who abuse the system to make money for themselves; obstructive pub bouncers; there’s a lot of similarities. And Mr Pooter’s honesty nearly always works against him, hence he doesn’t get into the pub, he unwittingly offends his wife so she goes off and stays with her friend, and he complies with his Godlike boss’s demand that he changes his holiday week so he misses out on the best view of Broadstairs beach.

Robert DawsAgain, without having read the original, so I may be wide of the mark here, where I think this play could have gone wrong would be to accentuate the downside of Mr Pooter. He could be played as a pompous, tedious, self-deluded, self-aggrandising know-it-all. However, instead, this Mr Pooter is just so immensely likeable! Robert Daws plays him with an air of total joy. From the first few moments you are captured by his humanity and you want to be his friend. He is so pleased to be centre stage and delighted to say “Good evening” to everyone that you know you’re going to love him. When he comes up with his awful jokes you still laugh along with him, whereas if anyone else said them you’d run a mile. You identify with him throughout the evening because you are on his side and he is essentially one of the nicest people you could possibly know. Robert Daws’ performance is stand-out smashing. He connects instantly with the audience and we stand by his side the whole time. By the end of the show if anyone said anything unpleasant to him you’d have to get up and say “disrespect Mr Pooter and you disrespect me” and that might lead to some regrettable unfortunateness.

Peter ForbesSupporting Mr Pooter are his three thespian acquaintances who play all the other characters in his life. They’re all great. Peter Forbes probably stands out because he plays (inter alia) Mr Pooter’s wife, Carrie, and his instant transformation into that character is amazing. A caring, loving look; a deft manoeuvre of the fingers to suggest sewing; the little girl transported in wonder at the Lord Mayor’s reception. Then in the flick of a heel he becomes Pooter’s blustery old Bicycling friend Cumming, and a host of others.

Steven Blakeley Steven Blakeley’s roles include Pooter’s gangly son Lupin, a sort of nineteenth century ne’er-do-well finance trader who turns from respectable to drunk to lovelorn youth with total ease as well as finding time to be the maid too. And I also loved the performance of William Oxborrow, providing the music and sound effects William Oxborrow but also playing some of the roles including that of Lupin’s prospective playfully useless brother-in-law, which put me in mind of the late great Derek Royle if you were ever lucky enough to see him on stage. On top of all that, the performances of Daisy Mutlar and her friend Murray Posh have to be seen to be believed, and as for the cat….!

It’s directed by Gary Sefton who gave us Travels with My Aunt last year and you can see the influences. I really enjoyed that production but here he has developed that interaction between four actors taking on many roles and made it slicker, faster, more direct to the audience – basically funnier. Hugh Osborne’s writing delightfully theatricalises the novel format and mines the comic situations to great effect whilst credibly delivering the emotional moments too. Although being Victorians, the love moments are suitably stiff upper-lip.

The run is scheduled to end on 19th March but it would be a travesty if this production did not have a life beyond. It received one of the warmest responses I’ve seen in the Royal auditorium and I wholeheartedly recommend it! (In fact I am quite tempted to book for “Does Your Mother Come from Kettering?”)