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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production photos by Marc Brenner

Review – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Michael Grandage Company, Noel Coward Theatre, 2nd November 2013

A Midsummer Night's DreamOur fourth visit to the Noel Coward theatre in the space of a year and the fourth different production of Midsummer Night’s Dream we’ve seen in the past few years. It’s another triumph as far as the Michael Grandage season is concerned, as it’s a dream of a “Dream”, played for merriment and pleasure to a packed house by a talented and committed cast who have a whale of a time doing it. The more I see this play, the more I enjoy it, especially its high jinks scenes of mistaken love between the four young lovers, but I also really enjoy the scene where Titania falls in love with Bottom, and the rehearsal scenes by Quince and his crew, culminating in their final performance of the notable tragi-comedy “Pyramus and Thisbe”. Gifted actors and directors can create splendid comedy out of these scenes and that’s certainly what Michael Grandage has achieved with this production.

 Padraic DelaneyBut I’m getting ahead of myself. You’d guess from the way that the Athenian Court is dressed in the opening scene that we’re somewhere in the early 20th century – smart, stylish but not overly vivacious in appearance. Fairyland, on the other hand, is like the set from “Hair”, with its inhabitants in a perpetual stage of inner peace and hallucination brought on by their wacky baccy. With this play, the more up-to-date the setting, the more you feel you can relate to the characters, which in turn sharpens the humour. However, none of this really matters, because the essence of the story is timeless; as Jenny Wren sings in “Barnum”, “love makes such fools of us all”.

Sheridan SmithPadraic Delaney and Sheridan Smith make a very mild mannered, democratic almost, Duke Theseus and Hippolyta. Mr Delaney (an excellent Babbybobby in The Cripple of Inishmaan, the previous Grandage play at this theatre) listens fairly and tries to be constructive in determining Egeus’ complaint about his daughter Hermia’s intransigency in whom she will agree to marry; Miss Smith meanwhile politely takes a backseat and won’t dream of interfering in matters of state; but both giggle like naughty young lovers when they think no one is watching. As Oberon, Mr Delaney is a very mischievous king of the fairies, not as angry as sometimes he is portrayed; and Miss Smith is an enchanting Titania, extremely laid back and content with the company of her pot-fuelled posse.Gavin Fowler There’s almost something of Edwin Drood’s Princess Puffer to her characterisation. It’s no secret; I am a little bit in love with Sheridan Smith (who isn’t?), and it only takes a certain smile to get your toes tingling. Gavin Fowler’s Puck is a cheeky chap – he and Oberon make a right pair of lads in their “love-in-idleness” “let’s anoint everyone’s eyes with love potion” games. He’s not really how I would imagine a merry wanderer of the night to look – he’s more the kind of guy you’d share a few pints down the pub with. But it works as a partnership. Leo Wringer brings just the right level of proper decency mixed with a touch of savage spite in his brief appearances as Egeus.

Leo WringerI always love the bickering and romantic and/or sexual confusion between Hermia and Helena, Lysander and Demetrius, and this winsome foursome are no different. Susannah Fielding’s Hermia is rather precious and spoilt, and with a hilariously surprising proclivity to turn nasty in a fight; Katherine Kingsley’s Helena is delightfully furious at how she is treated by the others whether they appear to be in love with her or not, and has an unsurprising proclivity to turn nasty in a fight. There’s not a lot of character difference between Sam Swainsbury’s Lysander (a sensitive Cartwright in Privates on Parade, the first play in this season) and Stefano Braschi’s Demetrius (whose versatility brought alive several minor roles in Peter and Alice, the second) – they even wear the same Athenian standard issue underpants. Nevertheless, all four turn in exceptional comic performances, and their lengthy scenes in the forest are stuffed full of physical comedy that must be choreographed precisely within an inch of its life for it to look so slick.

Hermia and LysanderAnd then, of course, there are the rude mechanicals. Confession time: I am not a particular fan of David Walliams; that’s not to say I don’t like him but Mrs Chrisparkle and I have managed largely to avoid Little Britain and his other TV comedy roles. However, I have to say, his Bottom is officially fabulous. Very camp, he plays him as the forest’s biggest luvvie and it works a treat. The whole performance is crammed with comedy gesture that is never quite over-the-top and would be completely appropriate to an old acting ham like Bottom. Whether it’s constantly running his hand over Flute’s face, taking odd words and giving them a life of their own (“some man or other must present WALL!”), eyeing up his colleagues in a not entirely platonic manner whilst they’re not looking, or encouraging some enforced Helena and Demetrius(let’s not beat about the bush) fellatio in Pyramus’ elongated death scene, his performance is a total joy from start to finish. As Miss Smith is diminutive, Mr Walliams is tall and imposing – visually, they make a very nice comedy juxtaposition. Richard Dempsey has an effective line in intellectual geek in his portrayal of Peter Quince, and the other mechanicals all make the best of their traditional dimwit characters and acting performances. I make a very appreciative mention of Jack Brown, the understudy appearing in the role of Flute, who made an almost attractive Thisbe and brought the house down with the sheer stupidity of his final scene – great stuff.

David WalliamsAll the Grandage season plays have been absolutely top-notch so far and this is no exception. Unashamedly funny all the way through; I can’t recommend it too highly. We haven’t booked to see Jude Law in Henry V – but I do hope that Mr Grandage puts together another similar season in the near future.

West End Eurovision, Piccadilly Theatre, London, April 21st 2011

West End EurovisionHaving heard so much about these shows in the past, I was determined this year we would get tickets. And what a great idea that was, as this terrific show combines my two great loves of Theatre and Eurovision, and it’s clear from the audience that I am not alone!

It’s all done to support the Make a Difference Trust, who do great work to support people living with HIV and AIDS. This year, the casts of eleven west end shows came together to compete to win the coveted trophy. Gaby Roslin, with Denise van Outen Each show has to perform a Eurovision song – and not one that has been done in previous years. It’s an opportunity for their creative talents to work wonders, either making something completely new out of a well known song, or painstakingly observing and mimicking an original performance. Graham Norton The top two entries this year were great examples of both. Additionally, each show has an “ident” – a short film put together by each cast to introduce their song. There’s an additional voting prize for the best ident.

This year the glamorous proceedings were hosted by Gaby Roslin, looking resplendent and taking fun control; and the celebrity panel of judges were Graham Norton, Sheridan Smith and Justin Lee Collins. Sheridan Smith Each West End show entering also had a two-person judging panel, but of course in time honoured tradition they could not vote for their own show. I wonder where they got that idea from?

Justin Lee Collins Anyway the minutiae of these details are far less entertaining than the show itself. It’s bizarre to read in the programme, for example, “The Phantom of the Opera” perform “Diggi-loo Diggi-ley”, but perform it they did, right down to the golden shoes and the magic and wonder. “Wicked” created a Big Fat Gypsy Wedding version of “Aven Romale”, the 2009 Czech entry. “Dirty Dancing” took Carola’s “Captured by a Love Storm”. Diggi Loo Diggi Ley And there were many more. The cast of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” took Iceland’s “This is my Life” and used lots of bare chests and black leather.

Aven RomaleHowever, definitely the favourite of the audience was “The 39 Steps” taking Finland’s 1976 entry “Pump Pump” by Fredi and Friends. This was delightful because of the precise way their performance echoed the all-hallowed original. Fredi was there in his black outfit, slightly less plump than I remember him, This is my Lifebacked with his girl singer/dancers, the keyboard player and the two other backing performers, one of whom was perfectly decked out as the gormless guy in the grey jumper back in 1976. It was really funny, but really musical too and it completely won the audience over.

Pump Pump It didn’t however win. That honour went to probably the second favourite of the night, “Legally Blonde”’s version of Verka Seduchka’s “Dancing Lasha Tumbai”. Introduced by the evening’s winning ident, we got to know a little about Ukraine’s sensational star Dr Belond, and his creatively ludicrous sex-change clinic. Dancing Lasha Tumbai Dr Belond, who had a surprising resemblance to my best performance by an actor in a musical award winner and his team gave a fantastic performance that had everyone in hysterics from start to finish.

Dr Belond There was even a guest performance by Bucks Fizz, at least the three of them who aren’t Bobby G. Eurovision legends, looking great, singing…err.. a bit out of tune really. But no one cared. It was Bucks Fizz, goddammit!

If I’m honest, I think the show dragged a little during the voting but it was gone 1.30 am and I’m not one for staying up too late. But apart from that it was a marvellous evening and I cannot understate the commitment and creativity of these performers who did the whole night for charity.

Bucks Fizz Mrs Chrisparkle and I were fortunate to have VIP tickets, don’t you know, which not only gave us access to a free glass of champagne in a roped-off area of the bar before this show started, but also entry to the after show party. The only way we could work out the location of the party was to follow all the Beautiful People on the way out of the theatre wearing similar wristbands. Once we got there, it was a bit crowded so any chance of a relaxed chat with Bucks Fizz over their back catalogue was never going to happen. We did however get glimpses of Sheridan Smith (tiny but well built), Denise van Outen (tiny and slim) and Denise Welch (relatively tiny but bigger than the other two put together). It did feel quite daring for the two of us to be in such highly regarded company (although it’s not the same time we’ve been to the same party as Sheridan so there), but sleepiness took over and after a short time we night-bussed it back to our Travelodge.

Definitely look out for this event in the future!

Review – Legally Blonde – Savoy Theatre, London

Legally Like totally cosmic, wow. So I promised I would keep you up to date with my theatregoing, therefore it’s only right I should tell you about “Legally Blonde” the musical, which I saw last Saturday with Mrs Chrisparkle and Mother-in-law at the Savoy. Sometimes you just get one of those happy circumstances when everything falls right into place. I’m delighted to say that “Legally Blonde” is a joyful night at the theatre. Witty songs, star performances and perfect casting add up to a well deserved standing ovation. I’ve not seen the film but Mother-in-law had, had enjoyed it very much; but thought the musical show was better.

We’re still in Preview Mode for this show – one of the longest set of previews I can remember – so I guess it could all change before opening night, but why would they? This show is going to run and run, and with Sheridan Smith, (aka @Sheridansmith1 – go on, follow her, she’s very nice), we’ve got one of those “A Star Is Born” moments. She’s just perfect for the role of Elle, and with immaculate comic timing. She’s on stage nearly all the time and you never tire of seeing her. Also on top form are Jill Halfpenny whose Paulette was touching and hilarious, and to Aoife Mulholland (who’s come a long way since the pre-Maria days) dancing and skipping perfectly.

The courtroom scene is completely wonderful, engaging the audience and moving the story on apace with humour and musicality – everything a musical number should be. I’m a firm believer that, in musicals, you must come out of a song in a different place from where you went into it, if you know what I mean. The songs really need to move the story on. Nothing worse than a show where the songs hold up the story and you have to wait for them to finish before you can progress. No worries about that here. The courtroom song/scene does it brilliantly. Courtroom Scene

Duncan James fans made themselves known by whooping on his entrance; I thought they were going to ruin it, but they didn’t. Mr James himself absolutely looked the part even if I found his singing a trifle underwhelming. Alex Gaumond as Emmett struck the perfect note of being lovelorn without realising it.

Omigod you guys you just gotta see this show it’s like double totally fab. I had to put a sentence like that in, as it rather sums up one aspect of the show. But don’t be deluded into thinking this is a dumbed-down teenager-only-appealing entertainment. It’s a classically structured show and the best new musical I have seen for Some Considerable Time.