To tell you the truth, gentle reader, the main reason we booked to see the Old Vic’s Bagdad Café, a Wise Children production directed by Emma Rice, was because we were in London anyway and this was the only show I could identify that was still offering “proper” social distancing in its theatre. And from that perspective, we weren’t disappointed at all. They did a grand job. Huge amount of space around everyone’s bubbles, a reasonable level of mask-adherence, and a sensible, double-entry access to the theatre to avoid too much criss-crossing in the lobby. Ten out of ten and five stars.
However, the show… It feels almost ungrateful to be critical of a return to live performance, created from the best possible motives, love for the theatre, one in the eye to the pandemic, and the power of kindness and love to overcome all obstacles. But sadly, this show completely missed the mark for us. We’ve not seen the original 1987 movie and by all accounts it’s a goodie. It sounds full of heart, pathos, gentle humour and a feelgood factor to soar the heights. I cannot know for sure, but I suspect, that if we had seen the movie, we might have enjoyed the show more. But that oughtn’t to be a prerequisite for any theatre production. A theatre performance should stand on its own and tell its own story, in its own way. Around us I could feel and hear the affectionate reactions of recognition from other audience members – but I’m afraid Mrs Chrisparkle and I both found that the show committed the cardinal sin of theatre; we were bored.
Of course, some aspects of the show are still excellent. Lez Brotherston and Vicki Mortimer’s design captured that desolate desert feel superbly, with the café itself being suggested by a battered old caravan which, when reversed, becomes the back wall and door to Jasmin’s motel room. Emma Rice’s trademark use of puppetry works very well, particularly with the creation of Salome’s fully mobile and articulated baby. Amongst the performances, Kandaka Moore lights up the stage every time she appears as Brenda’s fun-loving daughter Phyllis, her exuberant smile and total joie de vivre perfectly pitched to convey the subtle balance of the character’s innocence and thirst for experience. Ewan Wardrop works his socks off in multiple roles, most successfully as the line-dancing look-at-me sheriff Arnie who loves to be loved, but finds his star quality rejected when he has to enforce the law.
It’s very much an ensemble show, but Sandra Marvin (Brenda) is always a star turn in my book and I regretted how little opportunity she was given to shine with her belter of a voice and fantastic stage presence. I was also looking forward to seeing cabaret artist Le Gateau Chocolat for the first time, having heard great things about his Edinburgh fringe performances, but again much of the time he’s lurking about in a run down car slap bang in the middle of the stalls, and we only get to hear his pleasing baritone in odd moments. Musically, the show is surprisingly disappointing; there’s no doubting the excellence of the skill and quality, but it’s so repetitive! I am Calling You might be a great song, but not on the fifth, sixth, seventh hearing (I lost track). Similarly there’s only so often I could bear to hear Brenda being serenaded in absentia as a Songbird – sometimes, less is more.
There’s a pivotal moment in the story, when Jasmin is surrounded by all the local people in her room, and they’re either doing homework, or painting, or just generally chilling in her company; and Brenda marches in, jealous, and accuses Jasmin of stealing her life; then Brenda regrets her outburst, and her and Jasmin’s friendship really begins. The trouble is, I just didn’t believe a word of it. Brenda’s retraction of her anger, and Jasmin’s acceptance of her apology just felt totally false. Come to think of it, there was a lot I couldn’t believe. All the foreigners are presented as national stereotypes, from the Australian backpacker (straight out of Men at Work’s Down Under video), a Russian with Marge Simpson’s hairdo who just says “glasnost, perestroika, Gorbachev” all the time (totally didn’t get that), and the German tourists in their starched lederhosen, as if they were extras in The Sound of Music’s Salzburg Festival. By the way, after he’s taken it off when he first comes on stage, the Australian’s backpack just sits at the corner of the stage for the rest of the show even though an unspecified amount of time passes; I know it’s not a literal presentation, but even so, that still looked messy.
We’ve seen several Emma Rice productions – from the blissful Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, to the fabulous online Romantics Anonymous last year, as well as her work with Spymonkey and Brief Encounter, and she nearly always hits the flight of fancy perfectly. But, sadly, for us anyway, Bagdad Café just didn’t do it. Ah well, better luck next time. By the way, Saturday night’s show was the last of the normal run at the Old Vic, but there are still streaming performances this week from 25th to 28th August.
In another of these inventive and innovative stage moves, this week the Bristol Old Vic are performing Wise Children’s production of Romantics Anonymous, to an empty auditorium but streamed through the magic of the Internet to your home – and it’s about as close to the sense of a real theatrical experience as most of us are going to get during these Covid times. Mrs Chrisparkle and I tuned in on Wednesday as that was the broadcast that was specifically geared to the Midlands, with proceeds benefiting not only the Bristol Old Vic but some Midland theatres including our very own Royal and Derngate here in Northampton. At £15 a ticket (we played fair and bought two) it’s a very reasonable price for what could – hopefully – be a tremendous theatrical experience.
And it is! Romantics Anonymous – a musical by Michael Kooman, Christopher Dimond and Emma Rice – is based on the French 2010 film Les Emotifs Anonymes, and is the story of Angélique, hopeless in relationships, devoid of confidence, but an absolute whizz at creating the perfect chocolate. When her boss M. Mercier, chocolate provider to the French cognoscenti, dies, Angélique applies for a job at The Chocolate Factory, where owner Jean-René is as awkward and hopeless as she is. However, the company is going under because they haven’t kept up with the times. Can Angélique turn around the company’s ailing fortunes – indeed, will she confess that she is the famous Mercier chocolatière – and can she and Jean-René scrape together enough self-confidence to win each other’s hearts? You’ll have to watch to find out!
Romantics Anonymous originally played at the Globe in 2017, and this production opened at the Bristol Old Vic in January 2020, to great reviews, shortly before the world fell apart. This streamed production features largely the same cast, although with a little shifting of roles. With a compact but fantasy-glamorous set by the one and only Lez Brotherston, amusing and charming choreography by New Adventures’ Etta Murfitt, a classy and witty band performance led by Nigel Lilley and crackingly quirky direction by Emma Rice, this is a delightful exploration of love and social terror that warms the cockles of your heart and makes you cheer on the characters as you encourage them to find happiness. I’m sure it was splendid to watch in the flesh, but catching it through the Internet is definitely the next best thing, and I hope that at least one of the broadcasts will be recorded for future entertainment over the years.
There are so many amusing and winning aspects to the show as a whole – here are a few of my own favourite moments. I loved how it abruptly changes from French to English; Jean-René’s hopeless attempts at self-improvement home yoga; the running gag about the Mumbler and how he unexpectedly comes to Angélique’s rescue; and the Health and Safety Advisory song at the Interval. The songs are either charming, delicate and heartfelt, or incredibly funny; two songs called (I think – difficult to identify without a proper programme) Je suis émotif, and Savoir faire specifically come to mind.
As you might expect in a production led by Emma Rice, the cast work together seamlessly as a beautiful ensemble, but with everyone’s individual talents flashing out from the stage like a series of twinkling lights. Angélique is played by the fantastic Carly Bawden, who was stunning in Sheffield’s My Fair Lady a few years back, with her gloriously pure voice and terrific stage presence. You can absolutely believe that she is a chocolate maker supreme (indeed, she proves it in the first few minutes of the show!) and she gets you on her side to will her on to greater self-confidence as the evening progresses. She is matched by the brilliant Marc Antolin, whom we loved in Emma Rice’s Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, as the tetchily awkward Jean-René. Employing all his expert clowning skills, Mr Antolin gives a superb physical performance conveying all the character’s social anxieties, but delightfully understated so that less is more. Simple effects like his deliberate flatfoot walk to and from the restaurant toilet, or his restrained facial expressions allowing his body to reveal the character’s thoughts, are just wonderful to watch.
I also really enjoyed the wide range of characterisations by Me’sha Bryan, including her wonderfully Brummie HR lady Suzanne, and Mimi in the Emotifs Anonymes self-help group. Sandra Marvin is as glorious as usual as the anxious dermatologist and Angélique’s dominating mother, and Harry Hepple’s constantly chirpy presence brings a lightness of touch to his roles as Ludo and Remi. Gareth Snook gives a great all-round performance as the magnanimous Mercier, the outrageous Marini and the hilarious Mumbler. But every member of the cast pulls out all the stops and delivers a fine and thoroughly enjoyable performance. I should also point out that the camera work that delivers these fine performances to your living room is absolutely spot on, framing scenes so that you get an overall impression of how the cast and set are interacting, and even encouraging a couple of slightly fourth-wall-breaking moments.
If Angélique creates the Jesus Christ of French Desserts, then (forgive my blasphemy) Romantics Anonymous delivers a whole gospel’s worth of positivity and love. There are still tickets available for the rest of the week here – not only do you get to see a great show, you get to support the theatre community and keep the arts alive in these perilous times. A Montelimar of magic, a Fondant of fun, a Noisette of… I dunno…. niceness. Do your heart a favour and see this show!
A dim and distant memory from my childhood is the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle playing an LP (that’s what they were called in those days) with highlights from Show Boat on one side and Roberta on the other. I remembered the tunes being, on the whole, pretty enjoyable. Pursuant to following up these memories, sometime in my 20s I discovered the album of Roberta (probably in Tower Records, remember that?) took it home, played it, hated it, and never played it again. However, I never got round to buying an album of Show Boat, and I guess the songs from that show left my conscious mind and settled somewhere in the back of my subconscious, waiting for an unlocking moment when I would finally get round to seeing a production of the show myself.
Artistic Director of the Crucible, Daniel Evans, is on his way south to taking up the reins at Chichester this summer. For his Sheffield Christmas musical swansong, he couldn’t have chosen a better production than Show Boat. Considered the first “modern” musical, it was adapted from Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel by no less than the renowned Jerome Kern and a still relatively young Oscar Hammerstein II. It was produced by the legendary Florenz Ziegfeld (of the Follies fame) and first hit the stage in 1927 with its significant multiracial cast and its, for the time, almost unique structure combining music, lyrics and libretto.
The show boat seems a quaint institution today, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in America they were at the heart of bringing entertainment to communities outside the big cities. Ferber’s novel follows three generations of women through the history of running and working on one of these vessels. The musical adaptation concentrates less on the characterisation of the women and more on general life aboard the show boat, specifically the relationship between Magnolia and Gaylord from their hopeful beginnings to their somewhat desolate conclusion.
Captain Andy runs the Cotton Blossom, a show boat that chugs up and down the Mississippi, full of actors, singers and dancers, backstage hands, kitchen staff and boat mechanics. Andy is married to the redoubtable Parthenia, and their daughter Magnolia is entranced by the glamour of life on board. She’s also entranced with handsome gambler Gaylord Ravenal (you have to admit, these names are priceless today). Two of the boat’s leading performers, Julie and Steve, are charged with miscegenation, as it was illegal for a white man and a black woman to marry. Even though they evade the law, they are forced to leave the boat, as it was not acceptable for black people to appear before the white segregated audience. In retrospect it’s easy to see why this was such a ground-breaking show! Magnolia and Gaylord take Julie and Steve’s place, and eventually get married. They move to Chicago and have a daughter, Kim; but Gaylord’s gambling crashes out of control and, unable to support his family, he moves out. And I’ll leave the plot synopsis there because if you haven’t seen it yet, I don’t want to ruin it for you!
I must draw your attention, gentle reader, to the fact that this is one of those edgy experiences in the theatre where some characters use the N word. It’s amazing the impact it can have on an audience. When Scout innocently blurted it out in To Kill a Mockingbird, we all winced. Its usage in Show Boat is possibly even more uncomfortable, as it both accompanies the mindless mistreatment of the black dock workers as well as the legal harassment of Steve and Julie. Still, IMHO, it’s better to include it than to sanitise the show, and, to be honest, you get great theatrical intensity out of it. Incidentally, why is it acceptable to use the N word on stage like this but that famous Agatha Christie book has now been substantially amended to And Then There Were None? I’m merely wondering about the inconsistency.
Enough of that, what about the score? It’s really one of history’s most rewarding musicals from a purely musical point of view. As the show started to unwrap my subconscious memories of the Dowager Mrs C singing along whilst attending to chores, I was amazed to realise how many superb and well-known songs are performed in this show. Ol’ Man River, of course, was no surprise – one of the most stirring, moving and simply beautiful songs ever to come out of musical theatre. But I couldn’t believe my ears when, just a little way into the show Gaylord and Magnolia sing Only Make Believe. It was like a sudden blast from the past hitting my auditory nerves. It’s such a sweet and touching song, and I don’t think I’ve heard it since maybe before I was a teenager. I had to fight back the urge to sing along, because all the words came to me instantly. Of course, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man is an absolute classic, and the show demonstrates how versatile it is by the number of different styles and arrangements that suit it perfectly. Bill is another sweet song that the Dowager used to perform at the drop of a hat – and is a complete show-stopper in this production. Originally written by Kern with P G Wodehouse in 1917, the words were later adapted by Hammerstein. And another old favourite suddenly appeared, that I had no idea was from this show – After The Ball. I would have put money on that being a Noel Coward song. Actually, neither is correct. It was written by Charles K Harris in 1892, and is simply borrowed for use in Show Boat, as an example of a typical type of song that might have been sung in that era. Captain Andy encourages us, the audience, to sing along – although he doesn’t actually mean us, he means the audience who were watching Magnolia perform that song in the Trocadero on that New Year’s Eve. Nevertheless, I needed no second bidding and gave it my all, much to the embarrassment of Mrs Chrisparkle. I couldn’t help it. As Cat Stevens once said, I can’t keep it in, I just gotta let it out.
The production is a credit to everyone involved. When you find out the sets are by Lez Brotherston, you know they are going to be superb – and they are. David White’s band produce a fantastic sound from their little subterranean cubbyhole. Alistair David’s choreography is fresh and lively, using the maximum space that the Crucible can allow and incorporating many different styles. And the amazing cast, studded with people who are absolutely at the top of their game, perform with true commitment and sincerity, producing some scenes of real raw emotion, as well as musical delight.
In fact I was surprised – and excited – to see so many names in the cast whose work I’ve been lucky enough to see before and have really enjoyed. Gina Beck, whom I last saw when she was pouring me a drink at the cabaret tables in the excellent Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, brings youthful enthusiasm to the young Magnolia, and dignified regret and grim determination to the sadder Magnolia of later years. She has a wonderful purity to her voice, and gives a very personal expression to all her songs. It’s a great performance. She’s matched, in the marriage stakes at least, by the fantastic Michael Xavier, who we last saw giving it large as Cornelius in the Curve’s Hello Dolly. He cuts a dashing figure as the young Gaylord – and I found his portrayal of the pitifully washed-up older man very moving. Of course, he sings with amazing resonance and clarity, and the two perform together brilliantly.
Everyone who goes to see Show Boat will be looking forward to – and have high expectations of – the performance of Ol’ Man River. So no pressure there! It falls to Emmanuel Kojo to take the part of Joe, whom we last saw as one of the Scottsboro Boys, and he takes to it like the proverbial duck to water. Tremendous raw emotion, a quiet, solid dignity, highly believable as an ordinary, hard-working man with no prospect of ever bettering himself, but strangely secure in his own position. You might think that the show will centre on this song, but in fact it comes quite early on, and, although there are a couple of reprises, it’s not the essence of the show in the way that you might suspect. Joe has his Queenie, the Cotton Blossom’s cook, played by the powerful Sandra Marvin, whom we last saw dishing it out as the devious Mama Morton in Chicago. Ms Marvin gives us the moving Mis’ry’s Coming Aroun’, the uplifting Hey Feller, and, with Mr Kojo, the two of them combine with great humour and a lightness of touch for the utterly charming I Still Suits Me – think of a 1920s Mississippi version of Alesha Dixon’s The Boy Does Nothing. If the likes of Ellie and Frank are on the way up in this world, and Magnolia and Gaylord are on the way down, Joe and Queenie represent a constant level; forever working hard to stay in the same place, rather like the incessant flow of the ol’ man river itself, they just keep rolling along.
Alex Young (brilliant in both last year’s Anything Goes and the touring High Society a few years ago gives another chirpy and cute performance as Ellie, the rising star, and she is matched by the brilliant Danny Collins, a fantastic dancer whose performances we have enjoyed both as part of Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty company and Drew McOnie’s Drunk, here giving us his full stagey showdance routines. Allan Corduner is a bluff and avuncular Captain Andy, and Lucy Briers perfect as the grim and grumpy Parthy, seriously channelling what Captain Andy calls her “mean disposition”. We saw her recently equally grim and grumpy in the Young Chekhov season at Chichester, and before that in the Royal and Derngate’s Ayckbourn season back in 2009. I’d love to see her play a cheerful role for a change! I also really enjoyed the performances of Rebecca Trehearn as Julie and Bob Harms as Steve (and many other characters) – Mr Harms is getting to be a bit of a regular in Sheffield, and that can only be A Good Thing. I’m not going to mention everyone, but the entire cast get behind the show with such attack and talent that the show whizzes past in the blink of an eye.
Another great Christmas Crucible production. I waited many years finally to see Show Boat on stage and it was well worth the wait! It’s on till 23rd January so you still have time to jump aboard the Cotton Blossom. My only hope now is that Daniel Evans’ successor will be equally as adept at staging these great musicals – and that Mr Evans will also have the opportunity to bring his own aptitude for musicals to the Chichester programme; that would be a win-win!
Confession time: I have a problem with the show Chicago. I first saw it on 14th April 1979 (look, there’s my programme and ticket stub in the picture below! Such a trend-setting teenager I was, just four days after opening night), and three weeks after the original production of A Chorus Line closed at Drury Lane, a show I’d seen eight times by that stage and which was, and remains, my favourite show of all time. To put it in context, I was missing my Chorus Line, and I hoped Chicago might fill its void. But I was wrong. Chicago is no Chorus Line. Chorus Line is highly moral; good gets rewarded, respect is given to everyone, and everyone is special, there are no celebrities. The songs and book are about talent, personal development, and being true to yourself. The costumes are either work-functional or showbiz pizazz. Michael Bennett’s choreography was optimistic, cheeky and bright.
Chicago, on the other hand, is highly amoral. Murderers and corrupt officials get rewarded, celebrity status is king, the good get downtrodden. The songs and book are about crime, cynicism and putting on an act. The costumes are sleazy. The Bob Fosse-inspired choreography was flashy, sexual and lurid. Why did I want to see this Leicester revival then? In fact I very nearly didn’t book for this show, but in the end I decided to “keep the faith” with the recent London A Chorus Line, as three impressive members of its cast are in it. History repeating itself in fact; the original London cast of Chicago featured five members of the Chorus Line cast who had lost their jobs three weeks earlier.
As a Chorus Line fan, I was always a Michael Bennett boy, never a Bob Fosse boy. But now, after seeing the Curve’s new production of Chicago, I think I could become a Drew McOnie boy. For one of this show’s chief highlights is the completely new set of routines by this young choreographer who we enjoyed watching a few years back on “So You Think You Can Dance”. You can’t classify his style by any one term, as every song, every routine has its own different flavour. I had no sense of repetition, but I did get a great sense of inventiveness, showbiz, sexiness and some mystery too. I particularly loved the transformation of “Razzle Dazzle” into a circus presentation. Above all, the choreography throughout was enjoyable and communicative, and I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.
In case you don’t know, but may have surmised from my first paragraph anyway, Chicago is set in the 1920s and is based on the true stories of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner who got away with the murders of their lovers through their courtroom glamour and pretend vulnerability that made their all-male juries go weak at the knees. On stage in this show they become Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, who live a celebrity lifestyle whilst on remand and are represented by the dashing lawyer Billy Flynn, whose interest in solely financial. The structure of the show is key to how the audience reacts to it, as each scene is introduced by a member of the cast addressing the audience directly and telling them what to expect in 100% Bertolt Brecht style. Brecht’s original vision was deliberately to distance the audience from the action, and it’s absolutely true, it’s an incredibly effective device to take you one step further away in each scene from either identifying with the characters or from getting lost and involved in the action. I think that’s one of the reasons I have reservations about the show. It’s intriguing without being all-involving.
I also found the some of the costumes rather off-putting too. With the original Fosse choreography, a sense of sleaziness felt very appropriate, but in this production I don’t think the choreography requires it. In fact I thought some of the “boys-in-a-basque” costumes bordered on the Rocky Horror instead, which I’m sure is not what was intended. After all, I follow some of these chaps on twitter, it doesn’t feel entirely decent to see them clad so dubiously. I’m also not entirely sure I like the “unveiling” of the character of Mary Sunshine at the end either; in the other productions I’ve seen, the performer’s details in the programme feature an androgynous face and their first name is in initials so you can’t be entirely sure if it’s a man or a woman; but at the Curve, we know straight away that the character is played by Adam Bailey, so revealing his bare chest at the end is I feel both prurient and redundant.
However, what is beyond doubt is that Paul Kerryson has assembled a cast of great talent who work together fantastically well, and who sing and dance with superb skill. The double act of Verity Rushworth and Gemma Sutton as the wicked Velma and Roxie works brilliantly. Miss Sutton’s Roxie is a harsh heartless bitch who transforms herself into a glamourpuss-de-luxe at the flash of an instamatic; and Miss Rushworth’s Velma is a world-weary siren who can knock out a song with ultimate conviction and appeal. Sandra Marvin is un-take-your-eyes-off-able as the devious Mama Morton, the “matron” of the convicts who will look after her girls as long as they look after Mama. That Curve stage always strikes me as being massive but she completely fills it with her show-stopping performance. David Leonard is a superb sleazebag as the arrogant Billy Flynn, and Matthew Barrow turns in a great performance as Roxie’s ineffectual husband Amos. His “Mister Cellophane” number was terrific stuff – again with clever use of circus elements – and his so-called “exit music” drew a huge sigh of sympathy from the audience. The chorus who fill the minor roles are all excellent; I would expect no less from Harry Francis, Simon Hardwick and Katy Hards (the ex-Chorus Line contingent) but also Zizi Strallen was a beguiling Mona and Anabel Kutay a tragic Hunyak.
Ben Atkinson’s band were sensational and brought the best out of John Kander’s jazzy and exciting tunes. Al Parkinson’s set is cunningly gloomy for the prison scenes – the low hung light bulbs over the front few rows of the stalls at the beginning almost makes us feel part of the set – but then is minimalist enough accurately to suggest all the locations without getting in the way of the dancing. It’s very rewarding to see such a committed performance from everyone involved and I’m pretty sure (from memory) that this is a more fulfilling production than the original London one or the touring show we saw at Milton Keynes in 2007. The combination of vocal and dance skills with the new choreography and fabulous band make this a really excellent show. It’s still on for a couple more weeks so if you prefer your murderesses sassy, you’ve come to the right place!