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My third open air theatrical treat in eight days took me to a favourite haunt, the lovely Watermill Theatre near Newbury. I’d seen a show in their garden before, when they did Alan Ayckbourn’s House & Garden in 2017, Garden performed there with House playing simultaneously in the theatre and the cast moving between the two in real time. Nothing in the theatre this time, but ten actor-musicians on a tiny stage, also moving around the garden, gave us an edited semi-staged version of this rarely performed 60-year-old Lerner & Lowe musical which I have only seen once, somewhat ironically at the Open Air Theatre in 2004.

We’ve lost seven named characters, but only two songs, and we’ve gained a narrator. The tale of both the King’s promotion of honour and justice by the creation of the Knights of the Round Table and the love triangle with his wife Guenevere and the French Knight Lancelot are intact, but some characters and some sub-plots have ended up on the cutting room floor, as it were, but this is a concert version, so it’s the music that matters and that’s where it excels. There were some, but not too many, delicious COVID references, one explaining that Arthur & Guenevere are a real life couple.

The three leads are all excellent. Michael Jibson follows his royal role in Hamilton with a very different king, idealistic and earnest, more charismatic. Caroline Sheen is lovely as Guenevere, torn between two men, in fine voice. Marc Antolin’s Lancelot is every bit as narcissistic as you’d expect, yet charming with it, and he makes a spectacular first entrance. Seven others, including MD Tom Self, play all the remaining roles, and all instruments in the now well established Watermill style. Paul Hart’s staging spills out from the stage with jousts and journeys.

The Watermill’s Covid measures were as professional as my other two open air outings, with even more social distance in this lovely space. My cup runneth over.

This show has been on my radar for most of its three year life; on one occasion I even got to the venue in Edinburgh to find it had sold out. I’ve very much enjoyed similar treatments of Round the Horne, The Missing Hancocks and Men from the Ministry, but this was even more impressive, with two actors playing some 25 roles.

They’ve taken two radio scripts and recreate the recordings at microphones, in costume, with sound affects. The first, When You’ve Got to Go, concerns young Pike’s call up and the second, My Brother and I, a visit from Captain Mainwaring’s brother. Both are from 1975, late in it’s nine year run, and Jimmy Perry & David Croft’s scripts have stood the test of time, all 45 years of it. Not only are they very funny, but they now have a nostalgic charm (well, for someone my age, anyway) and the smile never left my face.

David Benson and Jack Lane give virtuoso performances with uncanny vocal imitations and as this was their first show for some time, they seemed to be enjoying each others performances as well as the joy of performing again, and by the end were very moved, as were the audience. It was a delightful hour, at least for people of a certain age, perhaps more so given the five month theatrical famine.

The venue for this, part of the New Normal Festival, is the courtyard of Le Gothique in the brilliantly named Royal Victoria Patriotic Building, a gothic gem in Wandsworth, is lovely and the Covid measures were all professionally handled. My second return to live theatre in five days was as much fun as the first.

 

Blindness

A sound installation that’s so theatrical it deserves a blog!

The Donmar Warehouse Theatre has reopened its doors to sixty people at a time, socially distanced (and on Wednesday, sweltering!), sitting with headphones listening to this monologue adapted by Simon Stephens from Jose Saramago’s book about another sort of epidemic, where people go blind.

We hear that the first victim becomes blind whilst driving and the story rapidly unfolds as others succumb to blindness, fear spreads, people are institutionalised and the world is soon in the grip of this phenomenon. Juliet Stevenson tells the story as the only person who seems to be spared, but who has to feign blindness for her own safety, with great urgency, and the extraordinary sound design by Ben & Max Ringham means you hear her moving around the space, sometimes distant, sometimes whispering into your ear, dropping something, dragging something else. You find yourself looking over your shoulder to the place her voice appears to originate.

Even though it is a sound installation, Lizzie Clachan’s design and Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting contribute a lot to the tension and claustrophobic atmosphere. Neon lights above you drop to eye level and lights illuminate different parts of the space at different times, but much of it is in complete darkness. All of these contributions come together under Water Meierjohann’s direction to bring this story alive with great theatricality.

It won’t cheer you up but it will probably quench your thirst for drama, albeit without a live actor in sight. Huge congratulations to the Donmar for this inventive response to out predicament in the arts.

 

Fanny & Stella

It’s 21 weeks since I attended a cultural event. Normally it would have been between 60 and 80 in that timespan. I queued, socially distanced of course, for a very short while. My temperature was taken and hand gel dispensed. I was led to a table where, after orderly ordering at the bar, my drink was brought to me. I scanned the QR code and registered for track & trace. Then I was led to my seat in the garden with another splash of sanitiser on the way. It was all done in a very professional, unhurried, slick way, so gold stars to the Garden Theatre at the Eagle Vauxhall for this, and for being the first off the mark on the London fringe.

Fanny and Stella were the alter egos for two men – Ernest Boulton & Frederick William Park – in Victorian London, who flouted the law by performing dressed as women, and staying in drag beyond that. Ernest had a ‘sugar daddy’, a peer no less, who treats him and refers to him as his wife, but Ernest also has a boyfriend in Edinburgh and has a dalliance with the American Consul based there. They finally overstepped the mark and after a period on remand in prison were somehow acquitted, perhaps because Frederick’s father was a judge!

The book and lyrics by Glenn Chandler, the creator of Taggart, one of Britain’s longest running police dramas, are witty and cheeky, littered with double entendres and, with Charles Miller’s chirpy score, create a music hall style which suits both the story and the venue. They’ve worked wonders with a few red curtains and potted plants to create a lovely garden theatre and David Shields design and costumes are a delight. MD Aaron Clingham, with his branded Fanny & Stella facemask, plays the score gamely on piano. Steven Dexter’s direction and Nick Winston’s musical staging are fresh and sprightly. Despite the lightness of the treatment, the serious side of the story isn’t lost.

Jed Berry and Kane Verrall are terrific as as Ernest / Stella and Frederic / Fanny, with excellent audience engagement. Kurt Kansley as Lord Arthur Clinton, Alex Lodge as friend Louis Charles Hurt and Joaquin Pedro Valdes as the American Consul provide great support, with Mark Pearce often stealing the show in a number of small roles, all delivered playfully.

I suppose you could think a theatre lover would fall for just about anything after a 21 week famine, but I can honestly say it was great fun, and an absolute tonic.

I promise I won’t say ‘unprecedented’.

100 days without my major diversions – travel, theatre, concerts, exhibitions, opera, dance – is simply unprecedented. OK, I lied. Six cancelled trips, four international, and 63 lost cultural events. So far. I got myself set up with extra streaming services early on, but nothing really replaces live anything. As much as I’ve appreciated the lengths arts organisations have gone to sharing recordings of their work, or creating socially distanced new work, little of it has really engaged me. Lack of concentration appears to be a common complaint and it certainly marred my reading, listening and viewing.

An early positive was exploring the neighbourhood. I’ve lived here for over 21 years, but I’d hardly ventured onto the 220 acre common and even nearer woods 100m from my front door. My daily walks (I only missed one day), latterly twice daily, through the change of seasons from the tail end of winter through spring to early summer were a revelation of nature. When I started the thirty-something trees on the small green I overlook were bare. An entire season revealed itself before my eyes as they came fully into leaf, with blossom coming and going. After the purchase of some new earphones, music accompanied my walks enabling me to mine my vast music collection and reconnect with some classic albums.

Soon, though, the fine weather meant people started invading these spaces in big numbers and it became increasingly difficult to maintain social distance with others two three or more abreast, dogs off leads, pram pushers on kamikaze missions, inconsiderate cyclists on pedestrian only paths……I became a grumpy old man. OK, an even grumpier old man. As is often the case, we see both the best and worst in people in a crisis, so this was balanced by kindness and consideration.

At first impressed by the government’s handling of it all, particularly the economic aspects, despite the slowness of the initial response, it didn’t take long before the lack of clarity, indecision, hypocrisy and incompetence meant I climbed the grumpy old man scale even further. Only the US seemed to be making more of a hash of it.

I shall campaign for Sir Tim Berners-Lee to be elevated to a peerage, as the internet proved to be my saviour, by enabling me to continue my part-time work online, advising clients and running training sessions, and by bringing people into my living room, individually and in groups, on video calls. Some included diversions like quiz’s and other ‘games’. I’ve only spoken to a handful of people face-to-face, socially distanced of course, so this proved crucial. I was expecting the internet or broadband to break, but it didn’t. If only I’d sold my BA shares and bought Zoom shares.

The garage rang asking if I wanted to reschedule the cancelled service, the hairdresser rang to offer me the first appointment on their first day back and the chiropodist reopened to take care of my feet after all that walking. All we need now is the dentist to repair the broken tooth and the green shoots will be complete. There won’t be any live culture for a while yet, but I should get to travel, if only in the UK.

It’s been a tough 100 days, but I stayed sane, didn’t put on weight and strengthened many friendships. I didn’t get very far down the ‘to do’ list, though, and I consumed 23 box sets and too much wine. As I write I’m planning local picnics, visits to friends in other parts of the UK and to hire a cottage or two with others for a change of scenery and some good company. This is what the next 100 days are beginning to look like. Better than the first 100 but a long way from a normal 100.

End of Pandemic Part One.

Opera

I managed to catch an opera during a visit to Brno in the Czech Republic, a rarely performed Dvorak work called The Devil & Kate. They consider it a children’s show there, so it was an early start and was full of (well behaved) kids. I liked the music, but the story was a bit weak and the performers didn’t seem to have their heart in it. Still, £11 for the best seat in the house!

The Royal Academy of Music’s production of Massenet’s Cherubin was terrific, with sky high musical standards – some stunning soloists and a great chorus and orchestra. Any opera house would be proud to have a production this good in their repertoire, yet here it was at a conservatoire!.

Classical Music

The LSO invited American conductor Andre Thomas and his pianist, soprano & baritone to lead a Gospel evening which included a Mass he composed, with traditional spirituals on either side. With 450 singers, 90% of them in community choirs, overflowing into the front third of the Barbican Hall stalls, it was rousing, but it had its gentle moments too, notably a beautiful unaccompanied soprano solo of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Great to see one of the world’s top orchestras extending itself in this way.

Another lunchtime concert at RAM, this time their Chamber Orchestra conducted by Trevor Pinnock in a lovely combination of Ravel and Mozart. I so love these little gems.

Trying to rescue an afternoon after a cancelled theatre matinee, we decided on a wander along the south bank of the Thames, starting by popping in to Southwark Cathedral where we caught the last half of a delightful concert by Wake Forest University Concert Choir. Our half seemed to be the more interesting selection, five secular works. Lovely.

The LSO were on fine form at the Barbican yet again, with a pairing of Britten’s Violin Concerto, superbly played by Norwegian Vilde Frang, which I was hearing for the first time, and Vaughan Williams uncharacteristically dark 6th Symphony, which I have heard before but it felt like the first time. The curtain-raiser of VW’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis completed a superb programme brilliantly played. Antonio Pappano thanked us for coming to support them, acknowledging the many seats clearly vacant due to Coronavirus fears. This had somehow added an air of foreboding and melancholy. It turned out to be my last dose of culture, excluding art, before lockdown.

Dance

We’ve been inundated with juke box musicals, but the dancical, which followed at the beginning of this century with Contact and Moving Out, never really took off. Well, Message in a Bottle, hip hop dance to the music of Sting at the Peacock Theatre certainly did. The twenty-six songs, many re-recorded by him with the help of Hamilton’s Alex Lacamoire, sounded great. The refugee narrative worked well, thanks to playwright Lolita Chakrabarti’s dramaturgy. Kate Prince’s choreography was thrilling, often taking your breath away. Now to see the man again in six months’ time…..hopefully.

Film

I enjoyed Military Wives, even though I blubbed through a lot of it! I was however puzzled and a bit upset by the fact they wiped Gareth Malone and The Choir documentary series out of the story altogether. It felt like changing history to me.

I like and admire films that expose injustice and Dark Water was a fine one, though embarrassingly close to home for someone who once worked in the chemical industry. A lack of law suits against the film suggest its story is true, so shame on you DuPont.

Art

Masculinities: liberation through photography at the Barbican Art Gallery had some interesting photos, but I’m not sure what the point of it was. It was vast and varied, but it was one of those exhibitions you go to because it’s free for members; if you’d paid, you’d be even less satisfied.

At Borough Market, I popped in to see Picturing Britain, an exhibition of photographs about the poor and those working with them. It was a bit small and the space didn’t really do them justice, I’m afraid.

On a visit to Oxford I went to the Ashmolean Museum to see Young Rembrandt, which focused mostly on pictures from his late teens / early twenties, much of it drawings. It was a stunning body of work and a way more satisfying exhibition than the recent Rembrandt’s Light at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

On the day before the lockdown, I decided to do an art binge of exhibitions I didn’t want to miss, starting with Aubrey Beardsley at Tate Britain which was brilliant, and an astonishing body of work by a man who only lived until he was 25. It was easier to get social distance in the gallery than any shop, workplace or school so I continued by travelling on the Tate to Tate boat (at one point the only passenger) to see Andy Warhol at Tate Modern. I’ve seen a lot of his work, including visiting his museum in Pittsburgh, but there were still things new to me. Next stop was the Royal Academy of Arts to be introduced to a new artist once again, Belgian Leon Spilliaert, whose exhibition was particularly diverse and well worth catching. The final stop was a double-dip at the NPG, staring with David Hockney’s Portraits. Again, I’m glad I caught them, but there were only really three or four subjects in addition to a lot of self-portraits which made it a touch monotonous, though his diverse styles were indeed fascinating. Finally, a retro treat in Cecil Beaton’s photographs, most from the golden age of the mid-20th century, mostly black and white. I was exhausted but satisfied. It’ll be a long time before I see a fraction of what I saw on that day.

Be More Chill

This American cult musical by Joe Iconis & Joe Tracz, based on the 2008 novel by Ned Vizzini, has had an interesting history. It was first produced in a regional theatre in New Jersey in 2015. Though a success, it never went anywhere else and disappeared for three years, though they had made a cast album. The music went viral on social media, which created enough buzz for a successful two-month off-Broadway run and a transfer to Broadway last year for six months and this UK premiere. Soon after it started I was asking myself the question ‘what am I doing here?’; I’m not the audience for this. I still felt that at the end, but there was enough to enjoy to stop me regretting going.

We’ve heard of the term ‘take a chill pill’, well this one is a Japanese micro-computer that makes you cool, and nerdy teenager Jeremy buys one to try and gain social inclusion, and in particular to get Christine, but the price he has to pay is high, risking pre-existing friendships and relationships. The show’s themes are all about teenage angst and everything they have to go through growing up – hence ‘its not for me’. It’s very American and I wondered if anglicising it might have helped, but the rest of the, mostly very young, audience didn’t seem to be bothered. It was too cheesy for my taste, though, and with the exception of a couple of songs, I thought the score was bland and the story a book-by-numbers.

What I did like was the bright, colourful design, with excellent projections by Alex Basco Koch and terrific costumes by Bobby Frederick Tilley II, and a fine ensemble led by Scott Folan as Jeremy and Blake Patrick Anderson as his best friend Michael. The voice of the ‘pill’ in Jeremy’s head, the Squip, comes alive in an excellent characterisation by Stewart Clarke, who gets some particularly good costumes. So don’t let me put you off, it’s not for me. Maybe they should have an upper age limit?!

It’s taken me over a year to catch up with this, deterred by mixed reviews and West End prices, propelled now by the return of co-creator Paul Whitehouse to the cast and a decent midweek deal. It’s extraordinarily faithful to the TV sitcom, a true homage which offers no surprises, but the familiarity, nostalgia and excellent execution made it a real fun night out.

It’s obviously an amalgam of episodes / series during which Del Boy meets Raquel, Rodney marries Cassandra and Boycie and Marlene’s attempts to conceive succeed. All of the other characters, including deadpan Trigger, are there in Peckham as we move between the flat, the pub, the cafe and the market. There’s a lot of attention to detail in recreating things like mannerisms and voices, and they’ve even created the iconic visual gags involving a bar that’s not there and a chandelier. Oh, and the yellow Reliant Robin comes onstage a couple of times. The music, mostly by Paul Whitehouse and Jim Sullivan (creator John Sullivan’s son) and Chas & Dave, and the original John Sullivan theme tune recurring, suits the show, though I found the addition of songs by Simply Red and Bill Withers, and part of Carmina Burana as a curtain-raiser, a bit baffling. When Whitehouse as Grandad morphed into Uncle Albert, continuity went right out of the window.

It’s well designed by Liz Ascroft, with the pub building and block of flats as backdrop to a playing area that transforms between locations. The Theatre Royal is a bit plush for Peckham, but director Caroline Jay Ranger’s delivers a surprisingly intimate staging. Tom Bennett is great as Del Boy, the archetypal lovable rogue that the show revolves around, excellently partnered by Ryan Hutton as younger brother Rodney; there was more warmth to the relationship as surrogate father / son, I thought. There’s excellent support from Ashleigh Grey as Raquel, Jeff Nicholson as Boycie, Samantha Seager as Marlene and the understudy playing Cassandra, who was very good. Paul Whitehouse was delightful as Grandad, more playful when he surprised us as Uncle Albert. The ensemble numbers were particularly well staged and sung.

I’m really glad I went. It was nice to be in a very un-West End audience for what is populist fare, but quality populist fare, and I enjoyed the warm nostalgia of sharing memories of one of British TV’s greatest sitcoms. Gavin & Stacey – the Musical anyone?

I can’t think of a better way of marking International Women’s Day than visiting a women’s prison to see sixteen of their residents perform in Hairspray, with musical theatre professionals as creatives, musicians and in some of the lead roes. This is the sixth time I’ve witnessed Pimlico Opera’s therapeutic, rehabilitative work, in five different prisons, and each time the standard gets higher. I’ve had a soft spot for this particular show since I saw the original production in preview on Broadway eighteen years ago. I saw it in the West End three times and a new production in Leicester six years ago, but I can honestly say none were as uplifting as Sunday in HMP Bronzefield.

As the prison director reminded us, this year’s International Women’s Day theme is equality, so what better than a show about a feisty teenage girl fighting fat shaming, racism and segregation. Tracy Turnblad is obsessed with the Corney Collins Show, a TV dance programme featuring local teenagers, and infatuated with its lead dancer Link Larkin. When a vacancy arises for the show ensemble, she’s turned down because of her size. She meets up with Seaweed J Stubbs, a black boy whose mom runs a record shop, and becomes friends with his. Black kids aren’t allowed on the show, but are given an occasional ‘negro day’. Tracy is determined to get on the show, to get it integrated, and to get Link, a journey that involves protest and prison.

It’s such a feel-good show, its tongue firmly in its cheek, often hilarious, with great moral messages and so many catchy tunes and clever lyrics and lines, you hardly stop grinning. Nikki Woollaston’s terrific production has bags of energy and a superb sense of fun; her nifty choreography is a particular high. Alex Parker is as fine an MD as you can get and his 12-piece band sounds fantastic. Alex Doige-Green’s set makes great use of the space, on two levels, and Bek Palmer’s costumes are a period delight. Chloe Hart played Tracy in the West End for the last part of its run, before she’d even graduated, and she shines again here with particularly gorgeous vocals. Christopher Howell as mom Edna and Darren Bennett as dad Wilbur are pitch perfect and make a superb double-act. Amongst the rest of the professionals, Andre Fabien Francis and Sam Murphy impress as Seaweed and Corney respectively.

There is much talent amongst the sixteen resident performers. Dhonna Campbell-Grant brought the house down with I Know Where I’ve Been; if she’d been on The Voice, all four chairs would have turned! Mandy Webb played baddie Velma Van Tussle with great confidence, Christine Callaghan was very assured and appropriately bitchy as her daughter Amber and Tiffany Smart was so good as Tracy’s friend Penny I thought she was one of the pros. These are big roles and these women rose to the occasion with great aplomb. If this were a fully professional show, we’d have still been standing and cheering; by any standards, a joyous and uplifting evening.

On until Sunday 15th March. Catch it if you can.

Pass Over

This highly original play by American Antoinette Nwandu packs one hell of a punch and gets a thrilling production by Indhu Rubasingham, with a trio of fine performances.

Moses and Kitch live on the streets of an American city. They are bound together by games and rituals that keep them occupied, and sane. They often reference slavery and sometimes god. They have a private language, more personal than street talk, constantly referring to each other using the ‘n’ word. It’s sometimes impenetrable and often uncomfortable, but adds a visceral quality. They live in fear of the police.

They first encounter a naive young man on the way to see his mom, with a picnic, who seems to have lost his way. Though initially reluctant, they take up his offer to eat and drink, suspicious but grateful. Moses is more cautious than Kitch in what is a rather surreal scene. Soon after he has left, a cop pays a call for some routine intimidation; they are immediately on edge as they know full well how this could play out. They descend into more existential thoughts before a second visit from the cop, and another from the young man.

At times it appears to be repeating itself and there is an other-wordiness about the scene with the young man, but I think the comparisons with Waiting for Godot are a bit overdone. It’s very effective in addressing ‘black lives matter’ and drawing parallels with slavery, without being heavy-handed or preachy. Designer Robert Jones has brilliantly transformed the Kiln into an in-the-round space, with just a sidewalk, lamp and some signs, superbly lit by Oliver Fenwick. The production has extraordinary energy and edginess.

Paapa Essiedu has wowed me three times before, not least his Hamlet, and here he extends his range again as Moses. Gershwyn Eustache Jnr has also impressed me in the past and again he excels here as Kitch. These are stunning individual performances, but they are superb sparring with one another, verbally and physically, too. There’s great support from Alexander Eliot in two very different roles, the doubling up making a point in itself.

Don’t miss!