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Posts Tagged ‘Mercury Theatre’

I was flabbergasted when this lovely show closed early in the West End. Now the enterprising Mercury Theatre in Colchester launches a 5-month tour of this scaled-down version which has lost none of its quintessential British charm and eccentricity.

It’s set in 1947 post-war, still rationed, Britain just as Princess Elizabeth is about to marry Phillip. Chiropodist Gilbert, his wife Joyce and her ‘Mother Dear’ are new to Shepardsford and are finding it hard to fit in, and even harder to get meat. Butchers keep closing as Meat Inspector Wormold has them arrested for corruption whilst the town worthies are secretly breeding a pig for the royal wedding banquet, though one of them has named it Betty and rather fallen for it. Gilbert, somewhat uncharacteristically, steals Betty, which causes much chaos at home, what with the smells and all. The show turns farcical as mother gets confused and the worthies get suspicious. Gilbert eventually hands over Betty to be roasted for the banquet, to which they are now invited, signalling their arrival in this closed society.

It’s adapted from Alan Bennett’s film The Private Function by a pair of Americans(!), Ron Cowen & Daniel Lipman, with a score by Stiles & Drew which seemed even better than I remembered. It takes a short while to get going, but when it lifts off its great fun, with the second half working particularly well. Daniel Buckroyd’s staging and Andrew Wright’s choreography are fresh and sprightly and Sara Parks multi-level set enables speedy scene changes.

Amy Booth-Steel and Haydn Oakley (a dead ringer for Alan Bennett!) are excellent leads and there’s a lovely turn as ‘Mother Dear’ from Sally Mates. Matt Harrop is a hoot mooning over Betty and Kit Benjamin’s ears are almost steaming in his frequent rages as Dr Swaby. Tobias Beer is a suitably grotesque baddie as Wormwold. They’re all supported by a fine ensemble. The West End’s animatronic pig is replaced by a much more charming puppet, ably manipulated by Lauren Logan, which brought lots of ‘ah’s’ from an adoring audience. Richard Reeday’s quartet is supplemented by six of the cast playing instruments.

It’s great to see this show again and great that it’s going to be seen by more people around the country in such a high quality production. Gold star to the Mercury team, I’d say.

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The year after I saw the first production of this wonderful show in the West End in 1984 I was interviewed for the Laurence Olivier Awards panel, during which I told them defiantly that 42nd Street was not the Best Musical the previous year, this was. Afterwards I realised the producer of 42nd Street was on the panel, so imagine my surprise when I was appointed. I wanted to think it was because I was right, because I was, but was later told it was because they wanted public panel members who would hold their own amongst the professionals; for once, being opinionated was an advantage!

So here we are in Colchester 28 years later for only my 7th production (including the wonderful reunion concert in 1992) with the last one, a triumph for The Landor, still ringing in my ears (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/08/19/the-hired-man). By now I consider it to be the best British musical bar none, though it’s more of a folk opera – not a chorus girl in sight. An adaptation of Melvyn Bragg’s novel, its epic sweep over 23 years from 1898 to 1921 takes us from the land to the mines to the first world war, back to the mines and back to the land. Within this, we have the very personal story of the Tallentire family through happy times of marriage and births to the challenge of infidelity and the tragedy of death.

We start and end at a hiring fair where employers find and bargain with farm workers. Though lured by the higher wages in the mines, and side-tracked by the war, John Tallentire eventually returns to the land. In between, we see the devastation of the great war and the conditions miners had to endure for those extra pennies, leading to the birth of the unions. The social history blends well with the personal story and the superb score, seeped in British choral tradition and folk songs, makes it deeply moving yet uplifting.

Director Daniel Buckroyd’s production evokes the Cumbrian landscape very simply but effectively with platforms and screens bathed in warmth. He has assembled a fine cast which is particularly strong in the choruses. David Hunter brings real feeling to John’s songs and Julie Atherton sings and acts her heart out (I’ve only seen her in modern – mostly American – shows, so it’s great to see her so effective in a ‘period piece’). The musical standards, under MD & pianist Richard Reeday, are outstanding; it sounds like musicians also playing roles, rather than actors playing instruments as we see in Watermill shows. I thought Rachel Gladwin’s harp playing was particularly beautiful.

I saw and enjoyed Buckroyd’s 2008 touring production when it popped in to Greenwich but this is even better. After Greenwich, I emailed the NT’s director and told him to stop neglecting British musical theatre and get over to Greenwich and tell me why this show isn’t in the Cottesloe. To his credit he replied, but all we’ve had since is London Road, another show in a genre of its own. Time for another email, I think!

A lovely production of a lovely show – two more weeks in Colchester, then The Curve in Leicester for another two. Now, where’s the Leicester train timetable…..

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