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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.

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All Star Productions last produced this Stephen Sondheim show just four years ago at their regular home in Walthamstow (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/into-the-woods). Now it’s in central London, fully in-the-round at the Cockpit Theatre, substantially re-cast, but essentially the same production.

Director Tim McArthur seems to have extended his contemporary characterisations, some of which work – Towie ugly sisters, Little Red Ridinghood with headphones and Sloane prince’s – but some which don’t – the witch as bag-lady and Jack’s chavy single mum (with such an impenetrable accent I could hardly understand a word she spoke or sang). The first half is meant to smother you in fairytale charm and lull you into a false sense of security, before it turns very dark after the interval; the problem with this interpretation is that it robs you of that, and that’s where it fails.

They’ve kept the adventure playground design aesthetic, albeit with a different designer. Aaron Clingham’s band sounded great, as ever, though there were amplification problems at the performance I attended. The cast is a great combination of young newcomers, like Florence Odumosu as Little Red Ridinghood and Abigail Carter-Simpson as Cinderella, both delightful, and seasoned performers like Michele Moran and Mary Lincoln, who was in the UK premiere in 1990 – a great singer in a virtually non-singing role here! Jo Wickham is excellent as an older Baker’s Wife than we’re used to, Macey Cherrett & Francesca Pim give great turns as Cinderella’s sisters and Ashley Daniels & Michael Duke make a lovely pair of prince’s.

It was only the fifth performance (but after the press night) so it may well improve. There’s much to enjoy; what I saw was flawed, but worth catching nonetheless.

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I’ve been banging on about the extraordinary ambition of the All Star Productions team in Walthamstow for a while now, but I really thought they’d lost the plot when I heard they were mounting this infamous West End flop. Wrong again; they’ve turned into a cult fringe hit.

In 1989 it went straight into the cavernous Piccadilly Theatre. I liked it. It was an unusual pairing of American composer Joe Brooks (music) and British playwright Dusty Hughes (book & lyrics). Before becoming a playwright, Hughes had been Time Out’s theatre editor and the Bush Theatre’s joint AD. His plays had been put on at the NT, RSC & Royal Court, but he had no musicals pedigree. Brooks had written America’s biggest selling song in the 70’s, an Academy & Grammy award winner, but hadn’t written a musical. They chose to adapt Fritz Lang’s iconic 1927 film.

It occupies that sparsely populated SciFi musical sub-genre. Set in a dystopian future, the overground world of the Elitists of Metropolis is powered by the Workers underground, in a city founded by John Freemen. The workers have a new-found charismatic leader in Maria, who has fallen in love with Freeman’s son Steven. Freeman has her abducted. He’s also hired an inventor to find a robotic alternative to the troublesome and increasingly scarce workers. These two actions come together.

The big surprise for me was how good the score is, with some great tunes and rousing choruses, freshly orchestrated and arranged by MD Aaron Clingham. The vocal quality is sky high, with particularly strong vocals from Rob Herron as Steven. My namesake Gareth James makes a fine baddie (Brian Blessed in the West End!) and there’s a hugely impressive professional debut by Miiya Alexandra as Maria. The excellent ensemble deliver the choruses with passion, expertly choreographed by Ian Pyle. The design team of Justin Williams, Jonny Rust & Joana Dias work wonders with limited resources, creating an inventive set and costumes. The show seems to be a favourite of director Tim McArthur, and it shows.

So by now you know you have three weeks to head to the northern end of the Victoria Line, where the centre of gravity of fringe musicals now clearly resides.

 

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If any further proof were needed that Ye Olde Rose & Crown Theatre in Walthamstow is fast becoming the most ambitious fringe musical theatre venue, with the highest musical standards, here it is. The confidence that Christopher J Orton & Robert Gould, the writers of this superb new musical, sixteen years in the making, already nicknamed the Welsh Les Mis, have placed in the Walthamstow team for its world premiere is richly rewarded with passionate performances and glorious singing.  

Set in the South Wales valleys in 1831, in Merthyr Tydfil to be precise (20 miles from my childhood home in a another valley, though many years later, but that doesn’t make me biased!) it tells the story of the Merthyr Rising and its martyr Dic Penderyn. It was the culmination of years of unrest created by unemployment, wage reductions and price rises. Men can barely feed their families with their wages from the mines and ironworks and things come to a head when they try to organise to present their grievances, adding demands for representation and universal suffrage. At its heart is the personal story of Richard Lewis (Dic Penderyn) who takes on single mother Angharad and her eight-year-old son Jonathan. The political and and the personal stories eventually converge and we learn of the events leading up to Angharad’s pregnancy. The authorities, encouraged by the mine and ironworks owners, violently put down what they call a revolt. Troops kill innocent protestors and their leader Lewis Lewis and Dic are sentenced to hang.

It’s both an epic story and a very human one and the score is simply superb, full of beautiful melodies and rousing choruses. Aaron Clingham’s orchestrations are beautiful too, with strings and woodwind creating an evocative musical landscape. The singing does full justice to the score. There are too many fine performances to single any out – casting director Benjamin Newsome has found some extraordinary talent again, with a welcome proportion of actual Welsh talent! Director Brendan Matthew, a regular in this venue now, marshals his cast of eighteen very effectively given the space limitations. It’s hard to conjure up mountainsides, churches, mines and family homes in any space, let alone a room above a pub, but designer Joana Dias does very well with limited resources and help from the lighting designer Sky Bembury and costume designer Celestine Healy, though it’s crying out for a bigger space.

It left me as excited as when I first saw Howard Goodall’s The Hired Man over thirty years ago. A truly British musical and a very fine one indeed. I don’t believe for one minute we won’t see more of it and I suspect sometime in the future I will be reminiscing about seeing the world premiere. You have just two weeks to get yourselves to Walthamstow.

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This appears to be the first London production of this Bernstein / Comden & Green musical comedy for thirty years. I think the last one was the the 1986 revival, which featured Maureen Lipman. There was a touring production with Connie Fisher and the Halle Orchestra no less, but the nearest that got to London was Woking, where I went to see it. I’m a bit surprised as it’s really a lot of fun.

Ruth & Eileen are sisters who arrive in Greenwich Village from Ohio intent on making their names, Ruth as a writer and Eileen as a performer. They get a poky, noisy apartment formerly occupied by a prostitute, and soon their circle includes neighbours Helen & Wreck, drugstore manager Frank, their landlord and sometime artist Appopolous, night club owner Valentin, editor Baker, newspaperman Chick and most of the local police, all Irish and all besotted with Eileen, as are Frank, Baker and Chick. They get into scrapes trying to get work, notably with most of the Brazilian navy, but eventually end up with a press card and a cabaret job respectively.

In this production they really play it for laughs, with some pretty broad performances, but it works as it’s not at the expense of the musical standards, which are as high as we’ve come to expect in this fringe venue. MD Aaron Clingham is flying solo at the piano this time, and that works too. There’s some cracking musical staging and choreography from director Tim McArthur and choreographer Ian Pyle, who throw in some Irish dancing by the policemen with Eileen, and some great ensemble work in Christopher Street and The Wrong Note Rag. Can there be another show with a conga in it? and here one which exits the auditorium at the interval, picking up audience members along the way.

Lizzie Wofford (who I first saw six years ago as a brilliant Mrs Lovett in the NYMT’s Sweeney Todd at the Village Underground) and Francesca Benton-Stace are both terrific as Ruth and Eileen respectively, and they have a fine young, enthusiastic, energetic supporting cast (casting by Benjamin Newsome again).

I’ve come to very much enjoy my trips to Walthamstow, and this is no exception. It’s over now, but look out for their next show.

 

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This 1937 Rogers & Hart musical came three-quarters of the way through their prolific 22 year partnership, straight after On Your Toes, famous for it’s jazz ballet Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. They were clearly still into ‘ballets’ as they inserted one into each act of this show. This is the original version, not the sanitised 1959 version which removed political references and two black characters subjected to racism.

Young Val is abandoned by his parents, off on a Vaudeville tour. As he is under 21, the local sheriff decides he must go to a work farm, but gives him a two-week stay of execution to attempt to put on a charity show with his friends and new girlfriend, who turned up one night when her car broke down! They squabble too much to succeed, so they all end up on the work farm. In a surreal plot twist, a French transatlantic pilot crash lands in Val’s family field which leads to the expectation of a prosperous future. It’s one of the daftest, most contrived plots in musical theatre, but it has a handful of standards including My Fully Valentine and The Lady is a Tramp, which is no doubt what attracts revivals.

Whatever you think of the show, you have to admire the chutzpah of this production. It’s chief strength is the outstanding dancing (choreographer Carole Todd), though the musical standards are as good as we’ve got used to here, but there’s sometimes a bit of a competition between the band, a (very necessary!) giant fan and some of the solo vocals. It’s an excellent energetic young cast, with Jack McCann and Ruth Betteridge very good romantic leads, Ruth making a fine job of both My Funny Valentine and The Lady is a Tramp. Beth Brantley delivers Johnny One Note with gusto. Gus Fielding, Jamie Tait and Alex Okoampa are particularly impressive in the dancing department.

Fine work up in Walthamstow again.

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There’s great fun to be had in Walthamstow again with this London premiere of a neglected 1950 Cole Porter show with a great score.

You can see why its neglected – it’s a bit of a daft story, based on a 2200 year old play by Roman playwright Plautus. Greek gods Jupiter and his son Mercury are intent on having fun at the expense of a newly married mortal couple. Mercury is sent to whisk Helen & Art away under the guise of a story for journo Art to pursue in Greece and get a honeymoon out of it. Jupiter just wants to bed Helen and his wife Juno wants to make mischief in cahoots with Niki Skolianos, the criminal subject of Art’s story. It might be preposterous, but it does provide the setting for a lot of fun, togas and sex romps!

It might not have Cole Porter standards in it – well, apart from From This Moment On, which was removed before the original (unsuccessful) Broadway run but has returned for subsequent productions – but it really is a very good score with very good lyrics, and the vocal standards here are outstanding. Cameron Bernard Jones has a rich operatic baritone as Jupiter. Hugo Joss Catton has great presence and cheekiness as Mercury to go with his fine vocals. Rhiannon Moushall is feisty as well as vocally assured. Ruth Betterbridge as Helen and Megan Gilmartin as Chloe both sing beautifully. Aaron Clingham’s four-piece again provide great accompaniment.

Designer Andrew Yon’s clever set includes some Corinthian columns, a pediment, balustrade and dais, but also manages to allow enough space for Kate McPhee and Katie Deacon’s excellent choreography. The former also designed the bright, colourful costumes. Randy Smartnick’s production has the same infectious sense of fun that his Superman had at the same venue.

The only other production in the UK I’m aware of was Martin Duncan’s in Chichester 12 years ago. It was good (with Anne Reid, no less, as Juno) but this is better sung, so a must for musical theatre lovers.

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Howard Goodall wrote this musical adaptation of Oliver Goldsmith’s restoration comedy for the National Youth Music Theatre 18 years ago (Sheridan Smith’s music theatre debut!). It’s the midpoint of his musical theatre catalogue, to date. It didn’t get a professional production until five years ago and now Ye Olde Rose & Crown Theatre in Walthamstow have matched and in some respects bettered that. It’s been great to see All Star Productions grow through the three Goodall shows they’ve done in the last 2.5 years (not counting the compilation show Love & War) to reach the quality they achieve here.

Charles Marlow is off to meet Kate Hardcastle, their fathers intent on a match. He’s accompanied by George Hastings who is going to have to elope if he is to wed his love, Kate’s cousin Constance, as she’s promised to Kate’s step-brother Tony Lumpkin. The mischievous Tony meets them en route and persuades them the Hardcastle home is an Inn, which results in much confusion as the story propels towards it’s inevitable happy ending.

Charles Hart made an excellent job of the book and lyrics, making it even funnier, though just as broad, and director Brendan Matthew’s time shift from the late eighteenth to early twentieth century makes a lot of sense. There’s a lot of music and it’s an even better score than I remembered (like a lot of Goodall shows, there’s no recording) with particularly fine ensemble pieces. As usual at this venue, the musical standards under Aaron Clingham are outstanding, though the balance of unamplified band and voices meant that some lyrics were lost. It takes a while to take off, the Act One finale is a touch laboured and it could do with losing ten or fifteen minutes, but it’s a great show nonetheless.

It’s another terrific ensemble here, many new to the venue, with all seven leads well cast. The comedy honours belong to Andrew Truluck and Laurel Dougall as Mr & Mrs Hardcastle. Kira Morsley is excellent as Kate, with particularly fine vocals. I very much liked both David Zachary and Robert Metson as Marlow and Hastings respectively, as I did Emily Peach as Constance and Jacob Jackson’s cheeky chappie Lumpkin.

Another good reason to go to the very end of the Victoria Line. I think it’s time to place my order for the London premiere of Goodall’s Two Cities.

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Ye Olde Rose & Crown Theatre had a great success with another rare and early Charles ‘Annie’ Rouse musical comedy, It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman. This was his first show, back in 1960, which I’ve only seen once, at Guildhall School of Music & Drama ten years ago. My starting point was ‘they’ve got their work cut out with this one’.

It takes its inspiration from Elvis Presley signing up to join the army. Here, Conrad Birdie is the singer who’s about to become a GI. His record company boss Albert decides to spin his story and create a photo and TV opportunity for a last kiss with a fan. Fifteen-year-old Kim is selected and her family all appear on the Ed Sullivan Show, where it all goes wrong thanks to Kim’s jealous boyfriend Hugo. There’s a parallel story about Albert losing his secretary and love interest Rose after eight years of doing nothing, largely to avoid upsetting his possessive mother Mae. As Conrad heads off to enlist, Albert finally gets some balls and chooses Rose over his mother.

When I walked into theatre I was instantly impressed by Andrew Yon’s design. It’s a red, black and chequered diner with adverts and records (remember them?) on the walls and 50’s tunes being played as you enter. Ryan Walklett’s excellent costumes complete the spot-on period feel. It gets off to a shaky start, partly because the material of the first part is weak (it pulls almost all of its punches in the second half), and partly because the playing style was a bit all over the place, some OTT, some too restrained. It does pick up significantly and is really motoring in the second half, with great choreography from Anthony Whiteman in Baby Talk to Me and the Shriner Ballet. The design leaves ample space for the ensemble scenes and I liked the band in view and (sort of) in costume at the back. It’s not a great score, though a few songs are familiar, having a life outside the show – Put On A Happy Face in particular, but A Lot Of Livin’ To Do and Kids as well.

When they’d settled, there were good performances all round, and the loud, somewhat exaggerated acting style suited the broad comedy of the material. I particularly liked Liberty Buckland’s feisty, sexy Rose (Chita Rivera in the original production!) and Abigail Matthews as teenage fan Kim (if they ever make a bio drama of Imelda Staunton’s life, she’s a shoe-in for the role). There are lovely cameos from Harry Heart as Kim’s somewhat overwrought dad, Jayne Ashley as the acid-tongued Mae, Benedikt de la Bedoyere (what a name!) as Hugo and Stephen Loriot as Kim’s young brother Randolph. MD Aaron Clingham has opted for more oomph with a band including winds, bass and drums and that seemed to suit the material without drowning out the singers (were those mic’s I saw overhead?) and the musical standards were as good as ever here.

This theatre continues its essential role of putting on rarely seen musicals. This one won’t change your life, but you’ll have a lot of fun, and who knows when you’ll get the chance to see it again.

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Well, I certainly had to suffer for my art last night, the hottest day of the year in a stifling room above a pub, but All Star Productions managed to make me whoop with joy at their UK première of this 1932 Irving Berlin / Moss Hart musical.

Why on earth has it taken so long to get here? It’s a fun story of a Broadway producer putting on a show, but it’s the depression so he’s run out of gullible investors, until a chance meeting with the wife of the chief of police leads him to persuade the corrupt NYC police to launder the proceeds of their corruption in his show. There’s something of The Producers in this storyline, but it pre-dates the original film of that show by 36 years. The cops, and the chief’s wife, interfere in the show and the producer quits, leaving them to finish off the flop. After the first night, and predictable bad reviews, a cast member suggests spicing it up and it turns into a hit, which brings attention from the FBI.

It hasn’t got much of a book, but it’s good enough for a showcase of some great songs and ends brilliantly with the number Investigation. Though none of the songs are standards in the Berlin way, they’re better than many Broadway musicals and here they are played and sung exceptionally well. Designer Joana Dias has created an impressionistic NYC skyline on the walls of the room with a can of white paint. Some packing crates, wooden chairs and a rack of clothes complete the picture. The costumes are very good and it all looks great. Sally Brooks’ choreography is outstanding, making great use of the limited space to produce uplifting movement. Brendan Matthew’s staging is superb, respecting the period but with enough of its tongue in its cheek to laugh with it. Aaron Clingham’s 4-piece band are as good as ever.

They’ve assembled another crack cast (that man Newsome again). David Anthony and Laurel Dougall are suitably OTT as the chief cop Meshbesher and his wife Myrtle, the comic heart of the piece.  Samuel Haughton takes the acting honours as archetypal Broadway producer Hal Reisman. Joanne Clifton brought the house down as the streetwalker with her Torch Song and Joanna Hughes as Kit sang beautifully. There are also a couple of impressive professional débuts from Lewis Dewar Foley and Kirsten Stark.

Ye Olde Rose & Crown continues to produce outstanding fringe musicals and this is amongst its best. Only three more days to catch it.

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