A few train strikes weren’t going to stop Mrs Chrisparkle and me from undertaking our annual post-Christmas trip to London to catch up on a few shows and blitz the sales; although it did mean having to take an extra night in a hotel the night before we had intended to travel. But you don’t want to hear about our transport difficulties. You want to hear about how much we enjoyed our shows! (At least, I hope you do.)
Our first show was 2:22 A Ghost Story, currently at the Criterion but shortly to be moving to the Lyric. This is (I think) its fourth reincarnation since it first opened at the Noel Coward Theatre in 2021. It’s a show that appears for a while then goes away, then comes back, then goes away again, then comes back… you get the drift… almost like a ghost re-emerging from the shadows (see what I did there?) Each time it comes back it has a new cast which I am sure keeps the whole thing fresh and lively.
A bit like The Mousetrap, at the end of the show they ask the audience not to tell anyone the secret of the play, and I am nothing if not obedient. But I wouldn’t be giving the game away by telling you a little of what it’s about. New mother Jenny is decorating the ramshackle old house that she has bought with partner Sam, with one eye on her painting skills and one ear on the baby alarm. For reasons best known to her, she is still working away at gone 2am – I would have though most new mothers would be knackered long before then, but we’ll let that pass. By the time she decides to pack up and go to bed, it’s 2:22 in the morning. Cue the first heart-attack-inducing moment in the play for the audience! Jenny becomes more and more convinced that her new house is haunted but cynical Sam thinks it’s a load of old baloney. But when they have a dinner party for Sam’s old friend Lauren and her new boyfriend Ben, things start to get a little out of hand. Ben turns out to be quite the Ghost Whisperer, much to Sam’s dismay. Are there really ghosts in the house? They decide to stay up till 2:22 to see what happens….
I’d heard good things about this play but I wasn’t expecting quite such a superb piece of writing. Danny Robins’ text is sharp, clever, witty, and totally honest with the audience; and he gets some nice digs in at yuppie North London home renovators too! If you want to stay ahead of the game, the clues are there to help you work it out before the final curtain. However, the play weaves such a wonderful web of atmosphere and spookiness that you just revel in the moment and don’t give a thought to what possible solution there might be to it all – making the final revelation even more of a surprise.
The whole production is excellent too, with an intriguing set by Anna Fleischle, unsettling lighting from Lucy Carter and a frankly terrifying sound design by Ian Dickinson. The terrific cast of four work together superbly well, with a variety of accents that give a heart-warming sense of inclusivity. There’s a great West End debut from Laura Whitmore as Jenny, a delightfully understated performance from Matt Willis as Ben, Felix Scott is a superbly exasperated Sam and Tamsin Carroll provides a lot of the humour as Lauren.
Terrific fun all the way through; and when you realise exactly what it is that has happened (right at the very end of the play) there’s a huge sense of satisfaction that everything makes sense, and all loose ends are tied up. There’s no reason why a crowd-pleaser of a play shouldn’t also be a marvellous work of art; and 2:22 A Ghost Story proves it. The new season opens at the Lyric Theatre on 21st January, and I highly recommend it!
I always thought it was a bit unfair that Willy Russell’s Rita was castigated for her “Do it on the radio” response to the essay about the problems with staging Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. For one thing – she’s reading English Literature, not training to be a director. And secondly, Ibsen was Norwegian the last time I looked, and Peer Gynt was written in Danish too. Personally, I think she nailed it. David Hare’s response to the same question is to bring the play bang up to date, set it in Dunoon (yes, Dunoon; I don’t know why either), and had the job over to the brilliantly inventive team of Jonathan Kent (Director) and Richard Hudson (Designer). Simples.
I’ve had a copy of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt languishing in my drama bookshelf since 1978 and never really had the motivation to open its pages – till now, that is. Whilst watching this new production I just got the sense that it was probably a pinpoint-accurate updating of the 150-year-old classic. So when I got home I speed-read the original, and, guess what – I was right. The structure of Ibsen’s original play firmly (but fairly) frames Hare’s new work. Ibsen’s five acts have become a more manageable three acts under Hare – Ibsen’s first three acts become Hare’s first act, then Act Four becomes Act Two and Act Five becomes Act Three, if you get my drift. Yes, there are two intervals. You’re in this for the long haul. The bar does very good business.
But it’s not just the structure that bridges the 150 year gap. Peer (now Peter) still makes up stories that make his mother Åse (now Agatha) fume. He still leaves his mother on the roof, he still storms Ingrid’s wedding, she still refuses to come out of the bedroom until he whisks her away, has his wicked way (we presume) and dumps her. He still perplexes Mads Moen (now Spudface) with stories of his Invisibility Cloak (hands up who assumed J K Rowling thought of that first?) He still encounters the Woman in Green, the Trolls, the Boyg; he still gets robbed in North Africa (although in a much more 21st century way); he still appears as a prophet to Anitra, he still gets swept up in Begriffenfeldt’s asylum, he is still stopped in his tracks by The Button Moulder; he still breaks Solveig’s (now Sabine’s) heart. It’s an extraordinary feat of transposing the same sequence of 19th century folkloric events into 21st century Scotland.
Gynt’s picaresque journey through life is a constant delight. No matter how much of a liar or a cad he is, you’re always on his side – although you’re also quite happy to see him deservedly suffer every so often. His constant search for pleasure – whether it be sexual, financial, influential, or whatever – gets him into endless scrapes which provide episodic entertainment that build up to create a full life but a meaningless one. But there’s always a final reckoning; and it’s in Sabine’s arms and heart that he realises where his place was all along. Sometimes a play ends on a note of uncertainty, leaving the audience to come to their own conclusions. Not in this case. Ibsen/Hare make the purpose of Gynt’s journey perfectly clear.
It’s worth pointing out, in case you were expecting something po-faced and worthy, that Hare has taken the lively and rather insolent nature of Ibsen’s original text and created a very funny play, choc-full of modern references and terrific characterisations. This is not the doom-laden Ibsen of Hedda Gabler and Ghosts, but a much younger man’s play; in fact, it reminded me of the unexpected comedy of the young Chekhov’s Platonov – although that might have been because I saw James McArdle in that role too – more of him later.
The vast Olivier stage is the perfect venue for this wide-ranging, high-level imagination play. At the beginning, blue sky and clouds are projected over a back wall of doors and one opens to reveal Peter Gynt, his head already in the clouds before he even starts speaking; a visual nod to the surrealism of Magritte, an unexpected flight of stairs bringing him down to the real world, as though the play was starting with a deus ex machina rather than ending with one. Stage right, a grassy bank with a few surprise traps where a head can bob up (or, indeed, an onion); stage left, a black void that can be usefully transformed into the Hall of the Mountain King, a desert oasis or a wedding party. For the fifth act, storm projections create a magnificent effect of a ship at sea. For three-and-a-quarter hours (maybe more) the show’s visuals create a highly dramatic impact on your brain, and in many cases it’s the visual tableaux that you remember most in the days that follow.
There were three reasons why I particularly wanted to see this production. 1) I’ve never actually seen Peer Gynt before (don’t judge me). 2) I’ve long been an admirer of David Hare and even on those rare occasions where he does put a foot wrong it’s always a brave and fascinating foot. 3) James McArdle. He’s one of our most arresting actors and I don’t know why he isn’t better known. He was a brilliant ingénu Alexey in A Month in the Country and a hilarious lead in Platonov. I understand he was amazing in Angels in America, but sadly we didn’t see that. He has, however, matured into a first-class leading actor and he’s barely off stage for the whole of the show, giving us a devastatingly brilliant performance of a lovable rogue, with all his sarcasms, flights of fancy, dejections and everything else that Ibsen and Hare throw at their hero. A truly outstanding performance.
Ann Louise Ross does a great job of conveying Agatha’s fighting spirit and her love of her son with her complete fury at his lies and his folly. There are a few other featured roles, but the nature of the play is that the rest of the cast form an ensemble that populate Gynt’s life and times whether it be in Dunoon, North Africa or somewhere lurking in the Hall of the Mountain King. Tamsin Carroll is both bewitching and alarming as the Woman in Green and Anitra, Jonathan Coy gives great bluster as Bertram and alarming sincerity as Begriffenfeldt, Anya Chalotra plays Sabine with a terrific blend of feistiness and calm resignation, and Oliver Ford Davies is perfect casting as the authoritative but reasonable Button Moulder. Amongst the minor roles Lorne MacFadyen as Duncan, Ezra Faroque Khan as the Captain and Guy Henry as Ballon and the Weird Passenger give great support. But everyone throws their heart and soul into creating a very impressive theatrical experience.
It’s running at the National Theatre just until 8th October. Glad I caught it before it closed! You should too!
As has become traditional, Mrs Chrisparkle and I took ourselves off for a few days break in London between Christmas and New Year to see some shows (makes a change), have some nice meals (makes a change), and treat ourselves to something in the sales. I got three shirts and she got a jacket and trousers, if you’re interested. The first of our four post-Christmas shows was Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which I wanted to see earlier in the year in Sheffield but just couldn’t fit it in to our schedule. Two friends saw it up there and enjoyed it hugely. I have to confess though, one of the reasons I really wanted to see it is because I hadn’t been to the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue for decades. Checking back, my last show there was on 29th October 1982, when I saw that very dull play Rocket to the Moon by Clifford Odets. It starred Hair’s Annabel Leventon, Nicholas Nickleby’s John Woodvine and Skippy’s Ed Devereaux.
But I digress. “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” is based on the true story of Jamie Campbell and his mum Margaret. Jamie featured in the BBC3 documentary about himself, Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, as a teenager who wanted to go to the school prom wearing a dress. The creative team deliberately didn’t meet Jamie and Margaret until after the show had been thoroughly worked through, because they wanted the freedom to create their own characters who tell their own story. The real Jamie and Margaret didn’t actually see the show until its first night – and by all accounts it’s extraordinary how close the show is to their own real-life experience.
Jamie New (no longer Campbell) stands out somewhat at his school, and not just because he’s the tallest. He’s openly gay and very camp, but most of his contemporaries simply accept him the way he is. The girls are his pals, the boys swap banter with him; but he’s besties with Pritti, who’s also on the edge of school society, being the school swot and a hijab-wearing Muslim. He lives with his very supportive Mum, and gets on great with her best friend Ray. There are only three flies in his ointment: his dad, who can’t come to terms with his son’s sexuality and behaviour; school bully Dean, for whom Jamie is a natural target; and careers teacher Miss Hedge, who wants to encourage Jamie to become something that he isn’t. Jamie’s dream is to be a drag queen, and Miss Hedge can’t see a future in that; she agrees with the computer assessment that he should be a forklift truck driver (#yeahright). And then, for his 16th birthday, Jamie’s mum buys him a new pair of shoes…
If any show cried out Instant Hit, this is it! Dan Gillespie Sells’ (yes, he of The Feeling) music is as bright, appealing and entertaining as you might expect, and Tom Macrae’s lyrics and book (co-written with director Jonathan Butterell) are smart, witty and emotional in all the right places. The songs do just the right thing, by moving the plot forward and complementing our understanding of the characters. Anna Fleischle’s set design is crackingly effective, with what would double as Shirley Valentine’s kitchen for Jamie’s home environment and a versatile arrangement of school desks for almost everything else. And Jamie’s story has feelgood factor written through it like a stick of rock; you’d have to be very hard-hearted not to come away from this show unmoved.
Another great plus is that the largely unknown cast is full of surprises! Fifteen of them are making their West End debut, and their own freshness and excitement really communicates itself to the audience. The ensemble of schoolkids sing and dance with great verve and vivacity, their individual characterisations sparking off each other to great effect. Luke Baker’s Dean is far more than a mere stock villain, as he effectively portrays the character’s essential loneliness, and how out of touch he is with his contemporaries, as much as his antagonism towards Jamie. Lucie Shorthouse is a terrific discovery as the kind-hearted, conservative but feisty Pritti. It’s a great role, and she gave me an insight into a teenage Muslim girl’s life that I’ve never experienced before; plus Ms Shorthouse has a voice to die for, with a richness and maturity way beyond her years.
There’s some genuinely fabulous drag queenery from Alex Anstey, James Gillan and Daniel Jacob as the trio Laika Virgin, Tray Sophisticay and Sandra Bollock; it comes as no surprise to find out that two of these performers have their own real-life drag alter-egos, and I’m guessing from the huge cheer for Mr Jacob at curtain call that there were a few Royal Vauxhall Tavern die-hards in the audience that afternoon! What did surprise me was to see comedy stand-up Phil Nichol, whom we’d seen trying out Edinburgh material earlier in the year, taking the role of Hugo, a.k.a. inspirational drag queen Loco Chanelle. Mr Nichol is the kind of person the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle used to dislike because he’s good at everything. He superbly conveys the generosity and sadness of the character with a very honest and moving performance – and he’s not backward in coming forward with the glitter either.
Tamsin Carroll, whom we last saw as a brilliant Charity Barnum in Chichester a few years ago, again excels as the bossy but strangely vivacious Miss Hedge; it’s a difficult task to make an unsympathetic character likeable, but she achieves it. Josie Walker is extraordinary as Margaret, portraying the character’s powerful combination of support and self-doubt, and her performance of the song “He’s My Boy” almost stopped the show. There’s excellent support from Mina Anwar as the down-to-earth Ray and Ken Christiansen as Jamie’s dad, effectively conveying his brutality and cruelty whilst never becoming the panto baddie.
But the night definitely belongs to John McCrea as Jamie. Instantly likeable, you’re on his side from the very start, just willing the character on to better and greater things. Mr McCrea absolutely captures that sense of uncertainty and lack of self-confidence in a young person who’s finding their way and discovering who they are. As his confidence grows so does the audience’s support, and we all go on his journey together. Mr M has an amazing stage presence and knows precisely how to wrap us all around his little finger. We hug him in his hours of need, we rejoice at his triumphs. Messrs Macrae and Butterell have written a humdinger of a role, with some brilliant lines and plenty of opportunities to shine; and Mr McCrea takes them and makes the best of them all.
One of those rare events; a British musical that really works, performed by a stunning cast that gets it right 100%. Everybody’s talking about Jamie, and I expect they will for some time to come. Unmissable!
Production photos by Johan Persson and Alistair Muir
Having seen “If Only” at the Minerva theatre in the afternoon, we took a leisurely stroll through the town to Marks and Spencer to buy a picnic, which we subsequently enjoyed sprawled out in the glorious early evening sunshine in the grounds of Chichester Cathedral. Prawn crackers, various salads, lots of fruit and a bottle of Macon Burgundy. Occasionally the CCTV camera turned its lens towards us, and I did wonder if perhaps we were breaking some bye-law, but I doubt whether the Powers That Be were over-concerned at a middle-aged couple taking a relaxed, if slightly boozy, repast in God’s Garden.
Then it was back to the Festival theatre site. Not to the Festival Theatre itself, as it is currently being renovated to celebrate its first fifty years. I am sure they will do a splendid job of it. So there are no shows in that theatre this summer; but they have come up with a splendid alternative, the Theatre in the Park. The park in question is Oaklands Park, adjacent to the Festival theatre, and the Park theatre is a big top canvas type structure that resembles a circus tent – and what better show to revive for this season than Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart’s Barnum. It’s an enchanting walk up the path to the theatre – staff are now positioned at various points along the way to welcome you, much like the gamesmakers at last year’s Olympics. Once you reach the theatre there is a real summer circus vibe, and inside they have constructed a really useful and lively acting space – horseshoe shaped, much like the Festival theatre, with a big round stage and circussy drapes at the back that hide the band and all the backstage gubbins.
I remember going to see the original production of Barnum at the London Palladium with the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle – on 3rd August 1981, according to my ticket stub; look – I even still have my invitation to Jenny Lind’s free concert on the White House lawn! The show starred Michael Crawford, who was probably at the peak of his stage prowess at the time and he gave the most starriest of star performances. He had this extraordinary ability to convey showmanship and vulnerability at the same time, and no opportunity was missed to impress you with his style and panache or to take you all the way down to whichever emotional depths he wanted. Mrs Chrisparkle and I also saw a touring production in July 1996 at the Wycombe Swan with Andrew O’Connor in the role. I remember enjoying it very much, but it doesn’t seem to have left a mark in history.
And now on to 2013 and our new Barnum, Christopher Fitzgerald; a rising star on Broadway but pretty much unknown in the UK. At 5ft 5in, he’s a mini powerhouse of talent; engaging, funny and he packs a great vocal punch. He’s great at doing clever comic business and communicates well with the audience. On the night we saw it, which admittedly was still a preview, he didn’t get all the way with the tightrope act, although I understand he’s got better since then! Mrs Chrisparkle and I really enjoyed his performance; but comparisons with Michael Crawford would be odious, so I won’t go down that route. He really did excel though, in the “Barnum’s Lament” sequence, sat on the edge of the stage looking as though the Earth had caved in on him. That’s when he really tapped in to the emotions.
Tamsin Carroll is Chairy, his long-suffering wife, and she gives a cracker of a performance. I’m sure every husband in the audience winced at her withering expressions as she attempted to keep her Taylor in check. She’s also a great singer and has terrific stage presence. One of the perplexing things about the show is how readily Chairy accepts Barnum back after he’s been gallivanting with Jenny Lind for six months; considering that at other times he has to act the lion tamer to her man-eating beast, it’s a bit of a character inconsistency. Nevertheless, Miss Carroll and Mr Fitzgerald together create a terrific stage partnership.
As for the rest of the cast, they’re all excellent; the majority of the other main characters have one big song each, and they all carry them off superbly. I loved Aretha Ayeh as Joice Heth, the oldest woman in the world, singing that great song “Thank God I’m Old” wheeling around in her bath chair; it comes quite early in the show and really gives it a superb lift. Jack North is a cheeky little General Tom Thumb tapping his way through “Bigger Isn’t Better”, nearly but not quite being upstaged by the inventive stage appearance of Jumbo the elephant. And there’s a fabulous performance by Anna O’Byrne as Jenny Lind, who really could be the new Swedish nightingale; she’s stunningly beautiful, has the voice of an angel; no wonder Barnum was led astray.
The staging of the show is really arresting – the big numbers are exceptional and memorable. The band members entering the auditorium individually at the beginning of the second act for “Come Follow The Band” sent a shiver up my spine – but then I do always have a weak spot for traditional circus; plus we got some great acrobatics performed right up close to us. “Join The Circus” is a stirringly wonderful song that the whole cast and audience can get behind; but definitely one of the main highlights for me was “One Brick At A Time”, where the whole ensemble chuck bricks around the stage to build the American Museum, and it’s a mesmerising routine. One dropped brick and the whole thing would be a disaster!
It’s an ensemble that’s chock-full of talent; amongst them, I was really impressed by James O’Connell who is a great dancer considering he’s a relatively big chap and in the final scenes of the show he turns in a very convincing appearance as Mr Bailey, Barnum’s business partner with whom he worked for the last ten years of his life. There are some strong guys in that ensemble too, especially those holding the planks of wood that Chairy climbs up; there’s obviously an enormous amount of respect and trust between cast members – the two guys that hold her secure as they turn the plank around with her standing on it do a fantastic job!
It’s an intriguing decision to remove the traditional role of Ringmaster and make it into a puppet-style performance with an off-stage voice; I’m not sure it has quite the same impact as the original presentation – Mr William C Witter who played the Ringmaster at the Palladium was constantly doing circus tricks and stunts throughout the show. However, we loved the simple but effective suggestion of the fire at the museum by the use of flares thrown down on to the stage; and I should also give mention to the brilliant band under the direction of Adam Rowe, whom the audience didn’t want to let go home as we kept demanding encores after the show had finished! They make a fantastic contribution to the show.
You come away with a lightness of heart and a touch of magic in your soul, which is only enhanced by the nighttime view of the park and the lights outside that lead you back to civilisation and the car park. It’s a superb revival with some class performances and a great ensemble and I would be very surprised if it doesn’t get a well-deserved transfer. If you’re in Chichester this summer, it’s a must.
PS Last year, on our eternal quest for some decent gluten-free breakfasts, we discovered Spires Bakery on Crane Street. We went back again this year, and it’s as good as ever. Not only did we have top quality cooked breakfasts on Sunday morning, but we popped over for a cheeky Saturday lunch, where Mrs C asked for a Brie and Bacon gluten-free toasted sandwich and she said it was to die for. High praise indeed.