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Posts Tagged ‘Elton John’

I have a great affection for Lee Hall & Elton John’s show, based on Hall and Stephen Daldry’s 2000 film. I come from a mining village in South Wales and the show perfectly portrays the sense of community of such places at that time, Thatcher & Scargill’s war at their expense and the hope that Billy represents. I’ve lost track of the number of times I saw it during its 11 year run in the West End, but I was still greatly anticipating this first revival just six years after it left London.

It’s set in the North-East coalfields, in Easington, County Durham. The backdrop, of course, is the 1984-85 miner’s strike and Billy’s widowed dad and elder brother are in the thick of it. Billy ends up in a dance class by mistake, heading home after his boxing class, where Mrs Wilkinson sees promise and persuades him to return. When the family find out, they are horrified he’s taken up ‘something for girls’, and the Royal Ballet audition in Newcastle Mrs Wilkinson has set up has to be aborted. They eventually realise how much it means to Billy and a whip round funds a last chance trip to London. He’s accepted, but as he leaves the strike collapses and Billy becomes a glimmer of hope set against the inevitable mine closures and demise of the community. A brilliant meeting of social history and personal story.

The highly effective design by Michael Taylor (set) and Ben Cracknell (lighting) consists of some wire mesh screens and lighting rigs which move speedily and dramatically with the action, with just a few props to create Billy’s home, the boxing and dance class rooms and the pit-head. Simple but brilliant. Director Nikolai Foster has made a few changes and cuts, but if anything the show has more emotional impact. I cried more than I did in any of my London visits. George Dyer’s band give it more of a rock concert aesthetic.

Joe Caffrey reprises his role as Billy’s dad from the original production, though he grew up with it, starting as brother Tony, played here by Luke Baker. They are very lucky to have Sally Ann Triplett as Mrs Wilkinson, a wonderful performance, and Rachel Izen as Grandma and Jessica Daley as Billy’s (dead) mum both melt your heart. There are four kids alternating the three child leads. We had Leo Hollingsworth as Billy and Bobby Donald as Michael, both absolutely terrific, both in their stage debuts.

Though the social backdrop and Billy’s personal story are sad, the show is an uplifting joy. It’s a great tribute to the quality of our regional theatres and to local talent in the East Midlands. Now in its last week. Get to Leicester if you can.

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The Wainwright-McGarrigle musical dynasty has been part of my life now for 40 years. The first Kate & Anna McGarrigle album is on my personal soundtrack of the 70’s. Loudon was always lingering there in the background, though I never took to his quirkiness as I did to the McGarrigles gorgeous harmonies. I came late to Rufus, when Want One bowled me over little more than 6 years ago, but have since bought every record and taken every opportunity to see him live. A year or so later I went to see Martha at the Bloomsbury Theatre out of curiosity (with a singer-songwriter called James Morrison supporting!) and from then I was hooked on her too. She provided one of the highlights of 2010 with a solo show at the Jazz Cafe, a break from nursing her premature baby, and contributed greatly to another highlight, the Kate McGarrigle tribute concert that was part of Richard Thompson’s Meltdown – another musical dynasty – which I suspect will prove to be a highlight of a lifetime of concert-going let alone last year.

When I heard Rufus was to have a one week residency at the Royal Opera House, I couldn’t decide if it was brave, arrogant or sheer chutzpah. After picking myself off the floor having seen the ticket prices, it wasn’t difficult to decide which of the concerts to go to. I’d seen his opera Prima Donna twice, so I didn’t want to see part of it in concert, and I wasn’t sure he and his dad Loudon were particularly compatible stage partners.

The first of my selected two was his concert with sister Martha. This may be Rufus’ ROH debut, but it wasn’t Martha’s as she’d been part of a brilliant production of Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins here a few years back. This concert wasn’t what I was expecting, and I suspect fans of the family liked it more than those of just Rufus, but it was still a treat. Martha, after a slow start, delivered a wonderfully eclectic hour of her own songs plus some from her mum and a couple of Piaf’s. She’s growing into as much of an original and as much of a star as her brother. I was expecting Rufus to give us his own selection, but half-way through, on came Martha, then cousin Lily (Anna’s daughter), and we got another eclectic selection which included more Kate McGarrigle songs, a Leonard Cohen song (‘my father-in-law, well, sort of’!) and the Elton John / Kiki Dee duet Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, which was huge fun. Calum, the son of Ewan MacColl (another folk dynasty!) was on guitar so we got Ewan’s lovely homage to London – Sweet Thames, Flow Softly – which was deeply moving, though not as moving as Kate’s Talk To Me of Mendocino, where there wasn’t a dry eye in my seat in the House of Rufus.

When he first did Rufus Does Judy, I couldn’t get excited about it. I wasn’t a Judy Garland fan and didn’t really see the point. Much later, I caught it on TV and then got the point, so seeing it live became a must. By the interval, I wasn’t sure but the second half (when he came on as a queen in crown and robe!) soared and my the end I was absolutely convinced. The arrangements are terrific and his extraordinary voice really suits these songs. The Britten Sinfonia, under Stephen Oremus, was a great backing band, though a shade too loud occasionally, burying the voice. Highlights included two songs with just piano – Gershwin’s A Foggy Day and Noel Coward’s If Love Were All – plus You Go To My Head, Putting on the Ritz, Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart and Chicago. Martha’s almost stole the show with a brilliant version of Stormy Weather (in tutu, tiara and some accomplished but tongue-in-cheek ballet moves!).

So, not arrogant…..yes, brave……yes, chutzpah……and two fine musical evenings I shall cherish with all the other Wainwright-McGarrigle memories.

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