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Posts Tagged ‘I Can’t Sing’

Harry Hill & Steve Bown’s first musical I Can’t Sing, an X-Factor parody, went straight into the West End in 2014, to the London Palladium no less. It got a critical mauling and didn’t survive long, but based on a late preview I thought it was great fun, in an anarchic, shambolic sort of way, probably helped by having Simon Cowell in the audience that night, adding a palpable frisson. It was also an early career showcase for Cynthia Erivo and we all know what that led to. Seven years later I went to a workshop of this, their second show (Brown had written the superb Spend Spend Spend before, without Hill), also anarchic & shambolic, but also great fun. Seven months on and we have its world premiere production at the same venue, the Park Theatre.

It takes us from Blair’s birth to his demise in a series of sketches with songs in which you can hear musical theatre styles, references and tropes, Sondheim featuring heavily. In Oxford University he meets Gordon Brown and they agree he gets the top bunk first. When he’s a new MP, Neil Kinnock endorses him, and Brown, as future leaders. John Smith comes and goes quickly, as he did, so their time comes earlier than expected, and they’re left to agree who goes first again, as they did in uni, and as the real Blair and Brown did at Granita, here played out as a wrestling match. The death of Diana brings a more cynical tone and in no time we’re at the interval anticipating a second half mired in the Middle East. So far so good.

This is where it begins to lose it’s sense of fun and balance as the satire gets even more biting and cynical and the laughs fade. The cast of Labour characters includes John Prescott, Robin Cook, Clare Short and of course Peter Mandleson, but no Alistair Campbell (surely a lost opportunity for an expletive-laden song a la Jerry Springer The Opera?). International characters include George Bush, Dick Cheney, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. They’re all played for laughs, with gusto, by a cast of ten led by Charlie Baker’s smily Blair and Howard Samuels oily Mandelson.

It picks up again to end by tarring all leaders with the same brush, taking us right up to date, but it did lose its way in this second half. The production values improve on the workshop of course, but they retain the dodgy wigs and beards that keep the shambolic element, which is one of its charms. It needs to lose the branding of rock opera or musical though, because it isn’t really either. It’s a panto, a satire composed of sketches and songs, an irreverent comedic entertainment. Musical theatre purists and critics will turn against it because of this branding, which is a shame because it’s great fun, despite the imbalance of the second half.

The shit show we’ve lived through since its workshop somehow makes you look more affectionately at Blair. They could get away with the satirical bite and cynicism more if this were Bozza! The Boris Johnson Rock Opera. I’m glad I went back and would recommend you go, but don’t go expecting a rock opera or a musical as we know it.

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Best New Play(s) – The James Plays

First up its plays, new ones, and when I counted I was surprised to find I’d seen 75 of them, including a pleasing half-dozen at the NT. My long list only brought that down to 31 so I had to be real hard to get to the Top Ten short-list of Versailles at the Donmar, Good People & Wonderland at Hampstead, Wet House at Soho, The Visitors at the Arcola (now at the Bush), 1927’s Golem at the Young Vic and 3 Winters & The James Plays from the National Theatre of Scotland at the NT – a three-play feast which pipped the others at the post.

Best Revival (Play) – shared by Accolade and My Night With Reg

I saw fewer revivals – a mere 44! – but 18 were there at the final cut. The Young Vic had a stonking year with Happy Days, A Streetcar Named Desire & A View From a Bridge, the latter two getting into my top ten with the Old Vic’s The Crucible, the Open Air’s All My Sons (that’s no less than 3 Millers) the NT’s Medea, Fathers & Sons at the Donmar, True West at the Tricycle and the Trafalgar Transformed Richard III. In the end I copped out, unable to choose between My Night with Reg at the Donmar and Accolade at the St James.

Best New Musical – Made in Dagenham

I was a bit taken aback at the total of 25 new musicals, 10 of which got through the first round, including the ill-fated I Can’t Sing, Superman in Walthamstow (coming soon to Leicester Square Theatre) , In the Heights at Southwark and London Theatre Workshop’s Apartment 40C. I struggled to get to one from the six remaining, which included the NT’s Here Lies Love and five I saw twice – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Dogfight at Southwark, Hampstead’s Kinkfest Sunny Afternoon and Dessa Rose at Trafalgar Studio Two – but eventually I settled on a great new British musical Made in Dagenham.

Best Revival (Musical) – Sweeney Todd in Harrington’s Pie Shop, Tooting

An extraordinary year for musical revivals with 38 to choose from and 22 serious contenders including 7 outside London (two of which I short-listed – Hairspray in Leicester and Gypsy in Chichester) and not one but two Sweeney Tood’s! Difficult not to choose Damn Yankees at the Landor, a lovely Love Story at the Union, more Goodall with the NYMT’s The Hired Man at St James Theatre, Blues in the Night at Hackney, Sweeney Todd at the ill-fated Twickenham Theatre and Assassins at the Menier, plus the Arcola’s Carousel which was so good I went twice in its short run. In the end though, expecting and accepting accusations of bias, I have to go for the other Sweeney Todd in Harrington”s Pie Shop here in Tooting – funnier & scarier, beautifully sung & played and in the perfect location, bringing Sondheim to Tooting – in person too!

Best Out of Town – National Theatre Wales’ Mametz

I have to recognise my out-of-town theatregoing, where great theatre happens too, and some things start out (or end up!). The best this year included a superb revival of a recent Broadway / West End show, Hairspray at Leicester Curve, and one on the way in from Chichester, Gypsy, which I will have to see again when it arrives……. but my winner was National Theatre of Wales’ extraordinary Mametz, taking us back to a World War I battle, in the woods near Usk, in this centenary year.

Best Site Specific Theatre – Symphony of a Missing Room (LIFT 2014)

Finally, a site specific theatre award – just because I love them and because it’s my list, so I can invent any categories I like! Two of the foregoing winners – Sweeney Todd and Mametz – fall into this category but are  now ineligible. The two other finalists were I Do, a wedding in the Hilton Docklands, and Symphony of a Missing Room, a blindfolded walk through the Royal Academy buildings as part of LIFT, which piped the other at the post.

With some multiple visits, 2014 saw around 200 visits to the theatre, which no other city in the world could offer. As my theatrical man of the year Stephen Sondheim put it in the musical revival of the year – There’s No Place Like London.

 

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