Review – The Provoked Wife, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 9th May 2019

The Provoked WifeWas there nothing that Sir John Vanbrugh couldn’t do? Architect of such national treasures as Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard, writer of such enduring Restoration Comedies like The Relapse and The Provoked Wife, political activist, even working for the East India Company in Gujarat. He must have been such a Smart Alec.

MusicLet’s get up to date with the plot: Lady Brute, tired of being ignored and despised by her waster of a husband, Sir John, decides to take a lover to spice up her life and to give him a virtual bloody nose into the bargain. She tries to instigate a liaison with Constant, a gentleman, whilst his friend Heartfree, who’s something of a misanthrope – especially against women, falls for Lady Brute’s confidante and niece Bellinda. To add to the mess, Constant and Heartfree are also pals with Sir John. The plot, as it so often does, thickens. Meanwhile, the vain and silly Lady Fancyfull, inspired by her companion Mademoiselle, also wishes to try her luck with Heartfree. Their plans all fall apart in a series of farcical meetings, with ladies hiding behind arbours, and gentlemen heeding the ever-familiar instruction to secrete themselves “into the closet”. But, as Browning was to ask 150-odd years later, what of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?

Sir JohnThe Provoked Wife was Vanbrugh’s second comedy, first performed in 1697, with what was, at the time, an all-star cast. The whole nature of restoration comedy, a natural rebellion against the Cromwellian frugality and puritanism of a few decades earlier, required as much careless wit, bawdy and foppery as you could cram into a few hours. Stock characters abound, their names proclaiming their characteristics; but even so, they have hearts too, and social disgrace means precisely that. Reputation is key, and when a character cries “I am ruined!” they’re not kidding.

Sir John in troublePhillip Breen’s new production for the RSC teems with life and laughter – until about the last thirty minutes. Not because the production goes off the boil, far from it; but because the villainous, murky side of Vanbrugh’s characters take control of the play. Up till then, it’s all knowing winks, powdered faces, nicking an audience member’s programme, and a wonderful selection of pomposity-pricking moments. However, despite its obviously comical – indeed farcical – main plot of wannabe sexual shenanigans and the hilarity of cuckolding a cruel husband, there’s a savage underbelly that makes you question whether you should be laughing at it; and that knife-edge is at the heart of all the best comedy, from Shakespeare to Ayckbourn. As the plot switches from major to minor, the effects of what’s been happening to these figures of fun, who are indeed flesh and blood after all, becomes apparent, and by the end there’s very little to laugh at.

Show that ankleMark Bailey’s simple set presents us with a solid proscenium arch complete with traditional overhangings and a useful curtain to hide behind. And an all-important back door, which is our glimpse of the outside world, the entry and exit point for all things comical or threatening; and even a way to demonstrate superiority (watch two self-important women try to struggle through it at the same time and you’ll see what I mean). Paddy Cunneen has composed some lively, cheeky tunes for our five on-stage musicians, who herald the end or start of scenes and accompany Lady Pipe or Mr Treble with their pompous warblings.

Lady BruteAlexandra Gilbreath’s Lady Brute is a brilliant portrayal of a woman coming out of her shell; wonderfully confiding, slow to react, discovering the truth of her own meanings as she’s speaking the words. She is matched by an equally superb performance by Jonathan Slinger as Sir John Brute, who sets the tone of the evening with a hilarious opening scene of grumbling and misogyny, and who rises to the challenge of playing the old drunk vagabond impersonating his wife perfectly. It’s their scene when we see his true brutal nature and his attempt to rape his wife where the play turns its corner; challenging and uncomfortable, but played with true commitment and honesty.

HeartfreeJohn Hodgkinson plays Heartfree with just the right amount of cynicism, i. e. not too much, because you have to believe that he genuinely turns from a callous cold fish to an unexpectedly affectionate suitor. Natalie Dew is a sweet and thoughtful Bellinda – mischievous enough to encourage Lady Brute to cast off the shackles of her miserable marriage, but virtuous enough to attract the attentions of Heartfree. Rufus Hound’s Constant is just that; played very calmly and straight, respectable but always with a twinkle in his eye as he looks for preferment. There are also some terrific performances from the minor characters, with Isabel Adomakoh Young’s Cornet a delightful fly in Lady Fancyfull’s ointment, Sarah Twomey a beautifully manipulative and mischievous Mademoiselle, Kevin N Golding a bemused Justice and Steve Nicholson a hilariously plain-talking Rasor. I was excited to see that Les Dennis is in the cast but was disappointed at how small his role as Colonel Bully is – just a little bit of drunk swagger in a scene or two; hopefully he’s keeping his powder dry for his appearance in the RSC’s Venice Preserved later this month.

Lady FancyfullBut it’s Caroline Quentin’s Lady Fancyfull that makes you beam with pleasure from start to finish. A vision of self-importance, who clearly pays well for flattery; she coquettishly protests modesty whenever she hears praise, and vilifies anyone who dares to contradict her own opinion of herself. In an age today where people often have self-esteem issues, here’s what happens when you go to the opposite end of the scale! Yet it’s a measure of the intelligence of Ms Quentin’s performance that when Lady F is shamed and mocked at the end of the play, her face-paint and wig cast aside, that you do feel some compassion for the wretched character. It’s a great comic performance and she brightens up the stage whenever she’s on.

The BrutesTo be fair, at a little over 3 hrs 15 minutes, the production does feel a trifle long, and leafing through my copy of the text, I don’t think they made any cuts apart from removing the epilogue. However, it’s a very entertaining and lively way to spend an evening; just remember never to provoke your wife.

Production photos by Pete Le May

Review – Me and My Girl, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 11th August 2018

Me and My GirlThe Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle was the poshest person you could ever meet who also claimed to be a Cockney Sparrer. Any show, programme, book or film that had a whiff of the East End about it (or even better, the West End) and she’d be there like a shot. Thus it was that she and I went to see the original production of this revised version of Me and My Girl at the Adelphi Theatre 33 years ago, gasp. It made a star of Emma Thompson, and confirmed Robert Lindsay as the second-best song and dance man in Britain (after Michael Crawford). The current Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with assorted members of her family, saw a revival in Milton Keynes in 2006, which was more notable for the supporting cast of Dillie Keane as the Duchess, the late Trevor Bannister as Sir John, and Sylvester McCoy as a splendid Parchester. And now the Lambeth Walk is back on the elegantly middle-class streets (avenues?) of Chichester, Oi!

Bill Me and My Girl is a pure feelgood show, that plays upon the age-old themes of rags to riches and the class divide; the common as muck hero lording it over the beautifully-bred gentry. Think Penelope Keith’s Margo versus Richard Briers’ Tom, Charlie Drake persistently aggravating Henry McGee, or Eliza Doolittle taking revenge on Henry Higgins. Higgins even fulfils a remote role in this story, and I’m sure you can guess what it is! Bill Snibson, wisecracking costermonger of the parish of Lambeth, is revealed to be the new Earl of Hareford, heir to a magnificent estate and fortune, all because of some irregular hows-your-father committed by the 13th Earl. But there is a condition; the new heir has to be considered to be a fit and proper person to assume the title; and Bill is, to coin a phrase, as rough as guts. Can Bill convince the Duchess, Sir John and their entourage that he and his girl Sally fit into high society? Does he even want to? Or is he a permanent fixture, South of the River? You’ll have to watch the show to find out!

Take it on the ChinFew creative masters can put together an exuberant, crowd-pleasing musical like the dream team of Daniel Evans (director), Lez Brotherston (design) and Alistair David (choreography). It worked in Sheffield, with their productions of My Fair Lady, Oliver!, Anything Goes, and Show Boat, and it’s still working in Chichester with this superb production. Mr Brotherston’s set opens up like a 3-D Advent Calendar, with opaque windows barely concealing partygoers inside; open a door and you get lovely glimpses of priceless tapestries beyond the back of the stage. Noblesse Oblige is the Hareford family motto; and Mr Brotherston does it proud. The costumes and props suggest immaculate taste in preference to creature comforts; Hareford Hall was never going to be a comfy and cosy sort of place, was it? Tim Mitchell’s lighting compliments the set perfectly and gives extra depth to some of the big choreographed numbers – The Lambeth Walk looks particularly beguiling. And Gareth Valentine’s orchestra never has a dull moment with a constant range of great tunes and fantastic arrangements; with the top of Mr Valentine’s head peeping out from a cut out triangle in the stage floor, I kept on hoping that the dancers don’t put a foot wrong and land up on top of him. Not as much as Mr Valentine does, I expect.

Leaning on a lamp...The original book by L Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber was revised by a young Stephen Fry (whatever happened to him?) back in the 1980s and still comes across as fresh and cheeky, with some puntastic lines for Bill to offend the dignified ears of the gentry. Noel Gay’s music still sounds sweet and tuneful. Not only the famous Lambeth Walk, and the title song Me and My Girl, but also the quirky fun of You Would if You Could, Take it on the Chin, and Parchester’s irrepressible The Family Solicitor. If you’ve only ever thought of Leaning on a Lamppost as a George Formby comedy number, you’ll be amazed at how beautiful it is as a romantic ballad. And to cap it all, there’s the terrific silliness of The Sun Has Got His Hat On. Removed from the running order, for some reason, is the delicately funny and sad If Only You Had Cared For Me, performed by the Duchess and Sir John; it’s a perfect little song that gives us an insight into what their lives could have been like, if only one of them had had the courage to say something. I say: reinstate it!

Me and My Girl in personPopular comic actor Matt Lucas plays Bill Snibson, and he absolutely looks the part. Garishly bedecked in a loud checked suit – all colour and no taste, the complete opposite of the Harefords – he’s quite nifty on his feet given he’s a slightly chunkier chap, and there’s an unexpectedly endearing nature to his vocal tone. He bats out the cockney patter like a regular at the Elephant and Castle and his comic timing is excellent. Oddly, he stumbled over a couple of his lines earlier on and never stopped referring back to it throughout the rest of the show; I sense he was less at ease about his little faux pas than the rest of us were; we’d forgiven him and forgotten about it ages ago.

Doing the Lambeth WalkVery good as he was, what his performance lacked for me was a little extra depth in the emotions. I know it’s just a silly and fluffy musical, but these are real people in real predicaments. You never felt the physical and mental anguish of Bill’s being deliberately separated from Sally. His voice never betrayed that doubtful uncertainty of being a fish out of water. All his emotions and reactions were essentially superficial; a little too comic-book and not sufficiently heartfelt for my liking. I found myself wondering what Robert Lindsay was doing that evening. I felt that slight superficiality also extended to his Sally, the wonderful Alex Young, whom we have seen so many times and is always a delight. True, she sang the lovely Once You Lose Your Heart with a beautiful sense of tragedy, and she masterminded the stage invasion that is the start of The Lambeth Walk. But I felt there was less chemistry when she was actually singing alongside Mr Lucas. By the way, her transformation from Lambeth Sally to the refined potential Lady Hareford was immaculately realised.

DuchessThe true star of the evening was Caroline Quentin who gives a huge performance – vocally, comedically, and even choreographically. Perfectly treading that fine line between a Christine Hamilton-style battle-axe and being a kindly matriarch with a twinkle in her eye and a heart of gold, Ms Quentin convincingly shows throughout how, for the sake of tradition, she desperately wants Bill to succeed as the new Earl, because That’s How Things Are Done. She effortlessly slides in to the comic set pieces, such as helping Bill practise meeting grand dignitaries at his party; she throws herself into the Lambeth Walk, so much so that she could become the Pearly Queen of Tunbridge Wells. It’s a brilliant performance throughout. Clive Rowe, too, has a fine old time as Sir John; a perfect comedy foil to Mr Lucas whilst being a supportive arm for Ms Quentin.

As the family solicitor, here's what you have to doDominic Marsh is excellent as Gerald; not quite like one of Ray Alan’s Lord Charles’ Silly Arses so he remains a credible character, joyfully leading us through The Sun Has Got His Hat On, and entertainingly reuniting with the excellent and frightful Lady Jackie (Siubhan Harrison) with the most effective kiss ever planted on woman’s lips. And there’s a frolicsomely fun performance from Jennie Dale as Parchester, who finds refuge from the dryness of a legal career through the medium of song and dance. I’ve not seen Parchester played by a woman before, but there’s absolutely no reason why she shouldn’t be. If anything, I’d liked to have seen Messrs Evans and David allow Ms Dale even more free rein to cavort all over the stage. Having occasionally to repress her irrepressibility was rather sad!

So jump into your sunbathLast Saturday night’s show was pretty much sold out; and these final two weeks of the run are looking fairly cramped too. A terrific production that would certainly suit one of these hugely successful Chichester/West End transfers. This one will have you travelling home afterwards, beaming from ear to ear. Oi!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Relative Values, Harold Pinter Theatre, 14th June 2014

Relative ValuesI’ve seen some great Coward, I’ve seen some iffy Coward, but for the most part you can rely on him to provide you with a sophisticated comedy of manners, probably involving at least one maid, some aristocrats and an outsider to shake things up. His most renowned comedies are from the 20s to the 40s, and as he got older I think it’s fair to say that on the whole the quality went down – at least, that’s what my experience of Volcano tells me. Relative Values, however, is from 1951, when he still definitely had “it”, whatever “it” was.

Patricia HodgeEven though it had been six years since World War Two had ended, it was a time of austerity. There was still meat and sugar rationing; we think times are hard now – it must have been very much worse for that generation. “Things were changing” too, generally speaking. Five years after Relative Values, John Osborne gave us angry young Jimmy Porter as a reaction against the drawing room comedies of Coward and Rattigan. But actually – Relative Values is a forward-looking play for its time and has its finger on the pulse of the changing society. Countess Felicity is best friends with her lady’s maid and looks on her butler as a senior member of the family. Certainly, there are still reactionary stick-in-the-muds, as represented by Admiral and Lady Cynthia Hayling, Caroline Quentinbut the young Earl Nigel is moving with the times sufficiently to want to marry someone whose celebrity status derives from films and glossy magazines rather than country estates with horses and hounds. The traditional statuses of aristocrat and servant are further confounded by the realisation that, if Nigel and Miranda marry, the new Countess will be the sister of the present Countess’ lady’s maid. Still, noblesse oblige, and all that, and the only person to whom this is an insuperable problem is the maid herself. Cue for some fantastic comedy that blurs the lines between the classes and has the maid pretending to be an old family friend/companion – and that’s actually way funnier than it sounds.

Neil MorrisseyThis is a production from the Theatre Royal Bath (don’t they do some good stuff) that first saw light of day last year but only transferred to London for a brief run this spring. It’s the kind of play and production that sits so elegantly and beautifully in a West End theatre, a space it occupies as to the manor born. Looking at the photo in my French’s Acting Edition, designer Stephen Brimson Lewis has very accurately revived the original 1951 set, and all the costumes are suitably functional or sumptuous, depending on which character we’re talking about. Director Trevor NunnSteven Pacey has interspersed the different scenes with mock Pathé newsreels showing 1951 in the raw – some of the footage is real, but I recognised the narrator as Rory Bremner, who played Crestwell the butler until a few weeks ago. This all helps to contextualise the play to its time whilst still being eminently 21st century as it features members of the cast in its black and white clips. We’re not allowed to have two intervals anymore, so this classic three act play is broken up halfway through the second act, which is a slight shame as it not only reduces the impact of the tremendous line with which Coward ended Act One and which got a spontaneous round of applause, but also introduces the interval with much less of a cliffhanger.

Leigh ZimmermanNevertheless, it’s a fantastically entertaining show, with some absolutely superb performances. Patricia Hodge plays the Countess and she’s every bit as splendid as you could imagine. Cut glass accent with a sneaky touch of warmth to it, decorous eyes that have seen it all but are far too polite to react to indecorous behaviour, and unsurpassable comic timing all make for a memorable performance. Her maid and best friend Moxie is played by Caroline Quentin, who is fantastic as the no-nonsense but heart of gold servant – loyal, traditional but never servile; and whose conversation, when she’s upgraded to companion, is a stroke of comic genius. Her transformation from drudge to socialite is devastatingly hilarious. She brings the house down as she blisteringly patronises Lady Cynthia – one of the funniest moments I can remember in a play for a long time.

Ben MansfieldYou need a really good cast to balance the rest of the play when you’ve got two such superb performers acting their socks off, and, delightfully, that is exactly what we have. I’ve not seen Neil Morrissey live before but I’d forgotten what an excellent comedy actor he is – all those Men Behaving Badly days shared with Caroline Quentin seem an awfully long time ago, but they still have a terrific rapport together, and you can see he’s really enjoying himself too, which encourages the audience to do so too. Steven Pacey, superb in the Menier’s Charley’s Aunt a couple of years ago, has a fantastic mischievous twinkle in his eye as Countess Felicity’s nephew Peter, revelling in the hilarity of all the scrapes they get themselves into, and belly-achingly funny when he has his sexuality challenged by sudden proximity to the hunky leading man, staying just on theSam Hoare right side of cliché to maximise the humour. Leigh Zimmerman is perfect for the role of film star Miranda Frayle, stunningly tall and elegant, disdainfully making up stories about the poverty of her childhood, much to Moxie’s disgust – another example of the somewhat skewed look at class that Coward creates in this play. When she meets up again with old flame Don Lucas, dashingly played by Ben Mansfield, and Lady Felicity catches them “at it”, it’s only a matter of time before she’s a lamb to the slaughter and no mistake. There’s also excellent support from Amanda Boxer whose Lady Cynthia is as crusty as a vintage port, and Timothy Kightley, an excellent old stick of a retired admiral, who never quite knows when to shut up. Sam Hoare’s Earl Nigel is a chinless dimwit manipulated by every woman he meets, and Rebecca Birch is a nicely irreverent housemaid in the best Coward tradition.

The play and production delivered so much more than I was expecting of it. Mrs Chrisparkle and I absolutely loved it, and I’m so glad we snuck in to see it just before it closes next week. If you can get yourself down to the Harold Pinter Theatre (that’s the Comedy Theatre in old money) before Saturday 21st June, you won’t regret it.

Review – West End Eurovision 2014 – The Final Battle – Dominion Theatre, 22nd May 2014

West End Eurovision 2014Our second time of seeing West End Eurovision – our first one, in 2011 was a complete hoot. Unfortunately it’s always held on a Thursday night and there’s work the next day unless you plan very carefully. So that’s what we did this year. It’s being called “The Final Battle”, with a very sad threat of there being no more in the future – I guess they must be very arduous to organise. I’m always amazed at the keenness and competitiveness behind it all. “Battle” is indeed a suitable word.

drinks receptionIt’s all done to support the Make a Difference Trust, who do great work to support people living with HIV and AIDS. The event involves the casts of many West End shows, all coming together to perform a Eurovision song, which gets voted on by the star jury, their peers from the other shows, and us, the rabble in the audience. Before the night, they’ve already filmed their idents – little introductory movies for each performance – which you can still see on youtube. Vote for your favourite and the MAD Trust receive £1. I voted for my favourite five (Mr Generous). After you’ve seen the performances, you are then invited to turn on your mobile phones (really? Did anyone actually turn theirs off?) and vote for your favourite performance. Apparently the whole thing raised £66,000 this year for the charity, which is not bad going.

Everyone arrivingWe paid extra for the VIP seats, primarily because we wanted a good view of the show, and of course we were happy to donate more to support the very good works of MAD Trust, but also in the hope of doing some star-spotting. More on that later. But with our bronze coloured VIP wristbands gleaming, we made our way up the stairs to the Studio at the Dominion, where the Drinks Reception was to take place. And a very jolly affair it was too. There was a brief address by chairman David Pendlebury, where he welcomed us all, introduced us to the jury members (of whom only Rylan Clark was actually there, resplendent in his Conchita Wurst outfit), told us all to have a great night and suggested that it might – just might – not be the last of these events. Yes, you heard it here first. (Unless you were there too.) We kept on bumping into David Pendlebury during the course of the evening and he seems a jolly nice chap.

The JuryFuelled with a second plastic mug of cava, we made our way to our seats – and they were pretty magnificent. Middle of row G, on the central aisle, fantastic views. I knew that some of our Eurovision friends were also going to be there, so we scouted around and found them for some pre-show hugs and quips. Back in our seats, awaiting the slightly-later-than 11.30pm start (there was no way all those people were going to make their way from the bars to their seats by 11.30), Mrs Chrisparkle was overawed with the incredible vibe in the place. It felt so exciting. The atmosphere was electric.

Making Your Mind UpOur host was the superb Richard Gauntlett. I don’t think I’ve seen him before, but he was excellent at keeping everything fast moving and really funny. Our competitors (over 230 of them apparently), he said, were all backstage more nervous than Max Clifford looking for the soap. The resident cast of We Will Rock You came on for the opening number of the night, “The Show Must Go On”. Ironic, said Mr Gauntlett, considering it’s closing on Saturday week. I’ve never had the remotest interest in seeing We Will Rock You – but I have to say, it was a pretty stunning start to the show.

Ding A DongHe then introduced us to the judges, Rylan Clark, Lesley Joseph, Caroline Quentin and Graham Norton. They all sat in the box to the left, like the Muppets’ Statler and Waldorf going on a double date. They were very enthusiastic all night, and came up with some wonderful lines. Culture snob that I am, I really expected not to like Rylan, who I’d never seen before; but I must be honest, I thought he came across as a really likeable funny guy.

Rock 'n' Roll KidsOnto the contest proper, with the first of nine entries – the cast of Once performing Bucks Fizz’ Making Your Mind Up. It started off as a typical spoof of the group, dressed in the same colours, ripping off the skirts, but then went AWOL as a troupe of leprechauns joined in, fiddles and Irish dance routines blazing. Michael Flatley would turn in his grave. Very entertaining, with nice musical interludes from Riverdance and We Will Rock You.

Flying the FlagNext up was cast of The Book of Mormon performing Teach-In’s Ding-a-Dong, the 1975 winner for the Netherlands. The perfect choice in many ways, given the Mormons’ predilection for doorbelling activities. Their ident, as The Real Housewives of Uganda, was brilliant, and their live performance carried on with the same characterisation. Flinging babies (not real ones) about as props, they did a lovely version of the song, first accompanied by some dancing missionaries, then by tribal dancers – it was like 1976 and Ipi Tombi all over again. Of course, being from the Book of Mormon, this was never going to be devoid of foul language and dubious taste – and in the end the Real Housewives of Uganda removed their traditional costumes to reveal their late night Kampala nightspot little black dresses. Really funny – the audience loved it.

CongratulationsOur third act was The Commitments cast performing Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids, Ireland’s winning entry from 1994. Graham Norton showed himself up by confessing he’d never heard it or of it. Back to Fan Camp for you sir. Unfortunately there was a false start with this one, as the microphones on stage failed. It would have been great if it had been Bandido (Spain 1990 – if you know the song, you’ll get the reference). It started with some evocative shadow dancing, but then got infiltrated by characters from other shows to great comic effect. A Mormon elder, a Mamma Mia Abba-type, Jean Valjean, Billy Elliot and the Phantom (probably more) all ended up singing together. By about this stage you realised that the standard of entries was extremely high.

Disco TangoAfter a short appearance by Harriet Thorpe, telling us more about the good work of the Trust, it was back to the show and, probably my favourite of the evening, the cast of Les Miserables performing Flying The Flag, Scooch’s Magnum Opus for the United Kingdom from 2007. It started with a lone barricader plaintively emoting about flying the flag – of course, it’s the French flag (they are Les Mis after all), which was followed by an invasion of BA type air crew doing all the usual moves with even a message from Captain Cameron Mackintosh on the video wall. The inventive use of the French flag throughout made it unquestionably Les Mis, but alongside this archetypal British comedy song, it made a terrific combination.

Jan JanThe cast of the Phantom of the Opera took to the stage to perform Congratulations – and after the high energy of all the previous entries, this one had a slightly less showbizzy feel to it, although they also chucked in elements of Riverdance and there was also a massive Rubik’s cube on stage for some reason. Congratulations though was an appropriate choice to celebrate performer Philip Griffiths’ record as the longest running performer on the West End stage – 34 consecutive years I believe. Then we had the cast of The Bodyguard performing Disco Tango in the original Danish, Tommy Seebach’s magic little ditty from 1979. Quirky, comic and somewhat surreal, it’s not often you get to hear Beverley Knight singing in Viking. Maybe because it wasn’t in English there wasn’t quite the opportunity to represent the lyrics in the performance, but still it was very enjoyable.

Marry MeAfter the interval, where Mrs C and I met more Eurovision friends and decided to stick with sparkling water to help our overall health, we returned to see the cast of Wicked perform Jan Jan, Armenia’s 2009 contribution. Never one of my favourite songs, but this looked beautiful, with atmospheric lighting and glistening blue overcoats giving way to spangly white outfits. This led on to a frankly bonkers Marry Me (Finland 2013) from the cast of Billy Elliot; great choice of song, lots of humour, a disassociation of costumes, all frantic and frenetic. I think the jury were a bit puzzled by that one. The last entry of the night was the cast of Mamma Mia performing Waterloo – which sounds a bit unadventurous, considering Waterloo is the finale number in their show – but was actually hysterical. Like the Commitments entry it featured characters from other West End shows breaking in on the act. So, to accompany four Abba lookalikes, you had the Jersey Boys performing their version of the song, Miss Saigon’s helicopter, Ugandan villagers, Rachel from The Bodyguard and even a cavorting naked man from the chorus of Hair.

Waterloo with Jersey BoysI can’t quite recall the running order but it was about now that director Andrew Keates took to the stage, to give a very brave and honest speech about directing the play “As Is”, which concerns living with HIV, and how he hoped the play might encourage some people to get tested for the condition and if they are positive, to get the necessary treatment. The honesty was that he himself had not been tested, but took his own advice and discovered that he too was HIV positive. So it was a very personal plea for everyone to look after their own health by getting tested and seeking the medical help if they need it. Unfortunately he was interrupted by the most inappropriate heckle of the year, on a completely unrelated issue, which had us cringing in our seats. Even if they had a genuine grievance, there’s a time and a place – and that wasn’t it. But it didn’t dent the emotion and starkness of Mr Keates’ message.

SoniaAfter Beverley Knight drew the raffle (I lost again), it was time for our Eurovision guest act, Sonia, who proved she can still belt out a good hit. Not only did she perform her second placed 1993 entry, Better The Devil You Know, she also sang You’ll Never Stop Me From Wanting You. This moved us on to the voting, which was pretty tight, with the Book of Mormon in 3rd place and a tie for the top between Mamma Mia and Les Miserables. Apparently they don’t do Countback to identify an ultimate winner, so it’s not like real Eurovision. The performers from the winning shows all came back on stage and it was clear that they regarded their achievement with huge pride – and so they should.

Final scoreboardIt was a good 2.30am when it was all over. But of course, it wasn’t, as there was still the post-show party to be enjoyed. When we went in 2011, the party was held at a distant bar, some fifteen minutes trudging through the streets of Soho trying to find the place, and no one was quite sure where it was. Then we had to queue for entry, whilst celebs walked on through, which kind of rankled As I Had Paid For My Entry In Advance With My Ticket Price. Still, there were quite a lot of interesting people to gawp at and eavesdrop on – Sheridan Smith, Denise Welch, Denise van Outen, for example.

After show partyThis time, we had been told in advance that the party would also be held at the Dominion – we should make our way out of the theatre then back to the front where we would find the way in. There only seemed one way back in – through the theatre foyer, where heavies at the door were inspecting our wristbands. Ours were bronze, but everyone else’s appeared to be red. I also noted that the stairs to the Studio, where we had gone for the reception earlier, were now roped off. I thought no more of it, and we spent the next hour or so happily wandering around the foyers watching all these beautiful young people (cast members and their friends I guess) getting rat-arsed, and posing with the winning trophy. I did wonder though, where the other people were. Where was Graham Norton? And Caroline Quentin? I’d seen Aljaz and Janette from Strictly Come Dancing at the Drinks Reception, but they weren’t anywhere to be seen, until I noticed them emerging down some stairs and leaving at about 3.15am. The next day I saw a happy picture online of Graham Norton and Harriet Thorpe sharing champagne, and that’s when I realised that there are VIP parties and VIP parties, and that some VIPs are vipper than others!

I really hope this isn’t the last of the West End Eurovisions, as it’s a splendid tradition, everyone has a great time and it raises a lot of money for a very important cause. Now – the question is, shall we book to see West End Bares? Not been before and, let’s face it, it sounds fun!

Review – Pippin, Menier Chocolate Factory, 22nd January 2012

PippinThis is the first proper London revival of the Stephen Schwartz/ Roger O. Hirson musical since Bob Fosse directed it in 1973. According to the programme notes, this production is trying to get the show recognised again as a mature, adult, dark piece, and away from its legacy of being only suitable for school productions. All I can say is, welcome back Pippin, you’ve been absent from our stage too long. This is a brilliantly inventive production and is performed by a first rate cast.

One of the strengths of the Menier is its amazing versatility as an acting space. You can set it the right way round, the wrong way round, sideways, in the middle, in traverse; it wouldn’t surprise me one day if they stage something upside down. This time they have created a walkway between the steps down from the bar to the point of entry to the auditorium, and decked it out like a rather geeky, nerdy student’s bedroom. And just on your way in there is the student himself, sitting at a TV screen, playing a computer game. It’s not over high-tech; there’s something of the 1990s Atari to it all.

And then you enter the auditorium, and the stage is alive with flashing lights and retro green cursor lines, and you realise you are in the middle of the computer game. How is this going to frame the story of Pippin, you ask yourself. Comfortably, as it happens. Pippin is the elder son of Charlemagne who rebelled against his father and was banished as a consequence. The 1973 production began with a troupe of actors, under the Leading Player, who introduces a new actor to play the part the eponymous boy prince searching for fulfilment. With cunning modernisation, the Leading Player is now in charge of a computer game, and the boy prince role is to be played by the young lad in his bedroom at home who we walked past earlier. Sometimes when a gifted director decides to update a show, it can be disappointing when the new framework only partly fits the original story. For me, this reincarnation of Pippin worked the full 100%.

The set itself is suitably creative in its own right. What appears to be grey stone, that nicely represents castle walls, is actually littered with gaps and holes so that the cast can appear and disappear with sudden ease. Lighting effects on the walls serve to enhance the scenery and give it additional depth and suggestion of different locations, and all this works really well with the computer game scenario.

Harry HepplePippin himself is perfectly cast and played by Harry Hepple. As the slightly naïve prince who gets emboldened by ambition and then depressed by reality, he manages to be both prince and game player at the same time and conveys both aspects of the character convincingly. His singing is also amazing, we were both wowed by his voice.

Ian KelseyHe also really communicates the character’s wannabe heroism and decency, that becomes the inspiration for him to overthrow his father Charlemagne, a bullying emperor enthusiastically played by Ian Kelsey, who portrays him as a wide boy, lording it over his sons and wife whilst looking for a bit of slap and tickle wherever he can get it. There’s a strong emotional scene when Pippin does actually kill his father – but later he regrets it as his governing skills aren’t that great, and I loved how the death gets undone.

Frances RuffelleFastrada, Charlemagne’s wife, is played with urban charm by Frances Ruffelle, who is also a great singer and does a wonderful blend of coquettish and coarse. You could imagine she would give as good as she gets when she’s alone with Charlemagne. She invests the role with great humour and gives a superb performance.

Caroline QuentinThe role of Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother, has been shared by various actresses during the run, and the performance we saw was the last time Caroline Quentin took the role. It’s actually just one scene and one song, but she delivers it with huge panache and got a deservingly great cheer from the audience at the end of it. She’s such a spirited communicator. The song is great fun too and we all had to sing along with it, verging into pantomime. It’s time to start livin’ and time to take a little from this world we’re given. Hugely entertaining.

Bob HarmsI was looking forward to seeing Matt Rawle in the role of the Leading Player as we saw him in Evita as Che and he was excellent. Unfortunately he must have been off sick as his role was played by his understudy, Bob Harms. What a find! Mr Harms carries off the role splendidly. He’s a great singer and dancer, and commands the stage in his role of MD. When the characters start to go off script in the second act you really feel his anger and frustration at losing control. If you saw Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, there’s definitely something of the Major-Domo character about him. We thought he was great and One To Watch.

Carly BawdenThe second half of the show is slightly imbalanced as it concentrates on the relationship between Pippin and Catherine, a partly demure but often saucy Carly Bawden, and her slightly troubled son Theo played by Stuart Neal. The domestic situation that Pippin finds hard to cope with is indeed a little one-dimensional in comparison with the over-the-top antics of Charlemagne’s court, who you rather miss. Nevertheless the songs are beautifully sung and make an ironic contrast with Pippin’s tangible descent into misery.

Stuart NealI won’t tell you how it ends but suffice to say, the exit from the auditorium when you’re going home is precisely the same as when you first entered but with one vital change – a fantastic attention to detail that made me laugh on the way out.

It’s all superbly performed and sung, the music sounds superb, and Chet Walker’s recreations of Bob Fosse’s choreography are magnificent – edgy as Chicago and sexier than Cabaret. Definitely one of the best productions we’ve seen at the Menier and it should surely transfer somewhere after the run ends on 25th February. Go and enjoy!

Review – Terrible Advice, Menier Chocolate Factory, October 9th 2011

Terrible AdviceThere’s a very enjoyable article in the programme for “Terrible Advice” by the writer Saul Rubinek, about how he came to write the play. It seems that it’s been a mere 34 years in the making. At this rate, it’ll be 2045 before we see his next offering, which would be a shame because this is an intelligent, witty, hard-hitting, and extremely funny play, tightly directed by Frank (How’d you like a Pork Chop!) Oz, who gets the best out of the talented cast, and I’m pleased to say it’s all good.

Scott BakulaIt’s a little difficult to talk too much about the play without giving away a lot of the plot, and I don’t want to spoil it for you. But once the first scene gets underway, you’re hooked. Two guys, who have been friends for years, talk about sex on a hot afternoon by the pool. The difference between the two is instantly obvious. Scott Bakula’s Jake is clearly the kind of guy who is Very Successful With Girls, and knows it. He lounges around in his swimming shorts, all tanned and confident, knocking back the beers while watching the ball game on his computer; the ultimate in cool. You know this guy – we all do. It’s a really excellent performance, completely convincing, wonderfully capturing the reprobate nature of the man whilst still getting us to have some sympathy for him.

Andy NymanAndy Nyman’s Stanley is clearly Not Very Successful With Girls, and is a vision of repression by comparison. Dressed in a formal shirt, jacket and even reinforced with an undervest, the sweat uncomfortably trickles off him. Not cool at all. Again you feel totally familiar with this character – some of us may actually be him. Andy Nyman turns in a wonderfully comic performance, lurching from sad to confused to distinctly unhinged as he carries out Jake’s terrible advice. These two characters work really well together. They’re funny, they’re miserable; they’re way out of their depth although only one of them realises; they’re both on their way down, but for how long will either of them stay there?

Caroline QuentinHelping and hindering them on their journeys down and up and in all directions are two of the girls in their lives – Sharon Morgan’s Delila (Stanley’s wannabe fiancée, or maybe not) and Caroline Quentin’s Hedda (Jake’s long time girl friend). There’s a great scene where Hedda has video’d herself so that she can ensure she gets Jake’s attention – and it brings all Caroline Quentin’s marvellous comic abilities to the forefront. Dealing with all those Men Behaving Badly was a useful preparation for this role. She also shows herself to be something of a dab hand at changing a car wheel – and hats off to the Menier for the clever way they get that car on the set! Mind you, whereas Meera Syal’s Chips and Egg was of a Michelin star quality, I’m not sure Ms Quentin’s car would get round the corner without the wheel falling off – I think she should spend more time tightening her nuts. Elsewhere she is superb as an impatiently randy bed partner, and also really rather scary when confronting Stanley as she tries to get to the bottom of the guys’ suspicious behaviour.

Sharon MorganIt’s also brilliantly funny to watch Sharon Morgan experiencing Delila’s world falling apart. As her façade of relative normality unravels, she has to cope with her relationships spinning off in all directions, which I won’t tell you about because that will spoil the plot. The four actors integrate so well together, and the entertainment lever is set to full-on energy, that you have to think the rehearsals must have been a complete hoot. After the excellent Road Show, the Menier remains on form with this very funny play, with all four performers giving star turns. What more could one ask?