Review – Flowers for Mrs Harris, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 22nd September 2018

Flowers for Mrs HarrisI remember reading about Flowers for Mrs Harris before it opened in Sheffield a couple of years back and finding that it failed to pique my interest much. Paul Gallico is a writer whose work has never drifted my way, and the bare bones of the story – post-war London charlady goes to Paris to buy a Dior dress – sounded horribly rooted in class and stereotype as well as sentimentally mushy. But then I read the reviews, and admitted to myself that I must have made a mistake.

FFMH1Now that Daniel Evans has taken over the reins at Chichester, I’m not surprised to see Flowers for Mrs H revived in the Festival Theatre, and the timing was right for Professor and Mrs Plum, Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and Mrs Chrisparkle and me to incorporate it as one of our theatrical weekends. The Countess had actually read the book in her youth; I don’t think she rated it much, so it was bold of her to consent to attending.

FFMH3London, 1947; free from the tyranny of war, but not of its austerity consequences. Widowed Mrs Harris and her next-door neighbour friend, widowed Mrs Butterfield, just about scrape a living by cleaning the houses of a variety of clients, from posh Lady Dant to wannabe actress Pamela, from a cantankerous retired Major to desperate writer Bob. But it’s when Mrs H goes to Lady D’s to clean (rather than Mrs B, who’s her usual daily) that she espies a Christian Dior dress hanging up in her wardrobe; FFMH2and it’s the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen. She goes home, chats to the spirit of her dead husband (as you do) and decides then and there that she must have one. Trouble is – it’s £450 – that’s £12,500 in today’s money. It’s going to take her years and years to save. But if Mrs H is one thing, she’s tenacious. She has her dream and she’s not going to let it go. But what happens when Mrs ‘Arris gets to Paris (to almost quote the US name of the book), and just how welcome is une femme de ménage at the exclusive Dior showroom?

FFMH9The book has been adapted into this production by Rachel Wagstaff, who also adapted Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong for the stage; and given a musical score by Richard Taylor who had composed the music for the Royal and Derngate’s production of The Go-Between in 2011. To my mind this is a much more successful venture than either of those previous shows. You won’t find any linguistic or musical fireworks on display in this production; I’ve heard comparisons with Sondheim in the composition department and, personally, I think that’s way off the mark. This is not remotely Sondheimesque; there are no glitteringly memorable tunes nor starkly powerful lyrics that set your teeth on edge at the truths they reveal. But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy them. They create a mellifluous wash-over experience, accompanying the stage actions and the storytelling, but never taking over your attention or your senses.

FFMH4Sentimental? Most definitely yes. Mushy? Surprisingly no. The characterisations throughout are very strong and it’s written with honesty and integrity so that the audience fully appreciates the motivations for what takes place. However, the story itself is delicate and sensitively told. We didn’t quite get a tear in the eye on a few occasions in the second act, but it wasn’t far off. What you do come away from this show with, is a sense that kindness and decency go a long way in making the world a brighter place; the more you give, the more you get. Despite the lack of welcome she receives in Paris, the kindness she gives spreads out like ripples in the water. Happy ending? That’s up to you to decide, depending on your own priorities in life. The colour and light that comes into her world at the end (and indeed, on to the Festival Theatre stage) are unmistakeably heart-warming and life-enhancing.

FFMH8As you would expect, the creative team have gone all out to make this a show to please all the senses. Tom Brady’s ten-piece band deliver Richard Taylor’s score with passion and depth. Lez Brotherston (who else?) has created a deceptively simple set that utilises a revolving track to create the illusion of space, distance and movement brilliantly; and the modest furniture of Ada’s London kitchen drops in and out of view with satisfyingly technical precision. There’s some very inventive use of the staircase, and – no question – some stunning frocks on display in the Paris showroom. And don’t forget those flowers. All those flowers. How can flowers be so emotional?

FFMH5At the heart of the show is a great performance by Claire Burt as Mrs Harris; battered by life’s experiences but incredibly resilient and hugely generous of spirit. Having seen Miss Burt earlier this year as Miss Littlewood, I know that she has an incredible stage presence and a wonderful way of connecting with the audience. Ada Harris doesn’t have the same brash self-confidence that Joan Littlewood does, so Miss Burt channels all her stage efforts to reflect the character’s good nature and innate decency. I must say, we were all a little concerned at the beginning because Miss Burt hit quite a few bum notes in the first ten minutes and I wondered if she was suffering with a virus; however, as the show warmed up, so did she and in the end she gave a beautiful vocal performance.

FFMH6The rest of the cast create a true ensemble, with different roles in both London and Paris. Claire Machin is particularly good as Violet Butterfield, Mrs Harris’ hot-headed friend who only wants the best for her even though she can’t always express it. Joanna Riding is an exquisitely refined Lady Dant and a beautifully flawed Madame Colbert, struggling with the status of her position in conflict with her natural warmth. Laura Pitt-Pulford is wonderful as the lovely Natasha in Paris and suitably irksome as the difficult Pamela. Louis Maskell receives the Best Wobbly Legs on Staircase Award for his brilliant performance as Fauvel, and there are also a series of enjoyable cameos from an otherwise underused Gary Wilmot. The rest of the cast all give sterling support and high-quality performances.

FFMH7I’m not sure what my expectations were of this show – but I feel that they were exceeded. In the simplest terms, it’s just all very lovely, very sweet, and very heart-warming. You’ll leave the theatre with a love for your fellow man that you might not have noticed on your way in. It’s on until Saturday 29th, but I wouldn’t be remotely surprised to discover it appearing on some other stage in the not too distant future.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – The Grönholm Method, Menier Chocolate Factory, 1st July 2018

The Gronholm MethodSeveral decades ago in a previous existence, gentle reader, I was gainfully employed as an officer of Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise. Early on in my career there, I was required to attend a week-long Induction Course at a London Headquarters building. It was one of the most miserable weeks of my life. Incredibly stressful, totally humiliating, but moreover completely designed to be both those two things and we all knew it. The story was that they had moved the course from another office because one participant had attempted to throw themselves off the roof, so they relocated it to a non-skyscraper building. Whether that’s apocryphal or not, I don’t know – but I have no reason to disbelieve it. Not long after I’d survived that week, the powers that be decided to stop running the course. How very wise.

Jonathan CakeSo that horrendous experience was the first thing that came into my head as I watched the opening moments of The Grönholm Method. Four people are shown into a smart office waiting room, expecting a final-stage interview for some great city management role. But there’s no interviewer? And the four of them are left to battle it out for themselves, following instructions that magically appear in a secret drawer that opens out of the wall every so often. Wiser reviewers than me have pointed out the similarity to Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter and I get their drift – instructions that come into a closed unit from an invisible hand outside. I was also reminded of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, as the numbers in the room slowly go down, whilst a hidden presence from without reveals the secrets of members of the group. And, of course, there’s a large element of TV’s Big Brother here, with the unseen boss giving individual members of the group secret tasks that they have to achieve in order to win preference in future rounds.

John Gordon SinclairBut you shouldn’t waste your time trying to read any particular meaning into this play. Yes, it has some amusing and insightful observations into office life, but that aside, it’s purely for fun. Catalan playwright Jordi Galceran has written 90 minutes of tricks and teases, leading the audience up one garden path then down another, playing mindgames not only on the audience but also on the characters too. It’s not over till the fat lady sings, and the last couple of minutes contains two plot voltes-face, that you can choose to believe, or not. This is a play that has no definite rights and wrongs.

Laura Pitt-PulfordAlthough it may be purely for fun, there’s no disguising that it’s actually a thoroughly nasty play. Characters are required to go through hoops that expose them and demean themselves in a way that you wouldn’t possibly accept if you were going for a job interview. Any company that hauled you in through the Grönholm Method (this method of applicant selection doesn’t exist by the way and is purely a fiendish invention of Mr Galceran) is a company that you would not want to work for. There’s a reasonably lengthy sequence about halfway through the play that can only be described as transphobic. It made me feel very uncomfortable and certainly unwilling to laugh at anything in that sequence. The play was originally written in 2003, when attitudes to such topics were probably less enlightened than they are today, and from that point of view it’s not an inaccurate portrayal of the perception of trans people in the workplace; but it’s thoroughly unpleasant and outdated to today’s audience. There’s another sequence towards the end when two candidates are each given secret tasks, and the interview ends either when one of them achieves their task, or the other guesses what the other’s task is. Much personal harassment and heartache ensues. However, they left the two task instructions in envelopes on the table. Don’t know about you, but I would simply have opened my opponent’s envelope and read their task. Simples.

Greg McHughB T McNicholl directs at a slick pace, bringing out all the antagonism and cynicism of modern office life, and emphasising the sacrifices that people must make if they’re to get on in business. It’s set in New York, but in reality it could be set anywhere in the world where ambitious city types are willing to tread on and be trodden on in order to get places. When you arrive in the auditorium before it starts, you’re made to look at a featureless black screen that separates you from the stage and it’s surprising how disturbing it feels – almost as though we the audience are imprisoned too. When it finally opens out to reveal Tim Hatley’s set, it’s as crisply efficient and ruthlessly sterile as the business firm it depicts.

Frank and MelanieThe cast of four work superbly together – and indeed it is brilliant casting. Jonathan Cake truly excels as the dislikeable Frank Porter, the hard-nosed Pharma executive who reckons he knows it all and is just there to sniff out the money and to hell with everything and everyone else. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly so it’s perfect for him to be up against John Gordon Sinclair’s Rick Foster for the first part of the play, another deftly fantastic performance with brilliant comic timing. Mr Sinclair plays Rick like he just about has a reasonable grasp on the basics of life but is woefully absent on any detail; it’s a really funny performance.

RickIt’s unusual to see Laura Pitt-Pulford in a non-musical role but here she is scheming with the best of them as Melanie Douglas, contending with personal crises whilst refusing to back down in the selection procedure and switching personality (all becomes clear when you see the show) with effortless effectiveness and hilarious ease. Greg McHugh makes up the foursome as the genial Carl Gardner, who may or may not have any number of secrets up his sleeve, and whose principled stance sets him at odds against the Big Recruitment Plan.

CarlEndlessly surprising and impossible to second-guess, this is a fast and funny production that’s full of entertainment, despite a few sticky moments in the script. It’s almost at the end of its run now, but if you’re quick you could get tickets. Very enjoyable!

Review – Barnum, Menier Chocolate Factory, 4th February 2018

BarnumI had a really bad night’s sleep the night before we saw Barnum. And I know precisely why; even though we go to the theatre a lot (I’m very lucky, gentle reader, and I do try not to take it for granted), I couldn’t sleep simply because I was genuinely so excited to see the show again. I saw the original production of Barnum at the London Palladium with the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle back in 1981. Front stalls seats for £8.50… they charged £99.50 for the same seats for Dick Whittington last month. Michael Crawford was always one of my theatrical heroes, and he’s rarely taken to a role with such positivity and enthusiasm as that of Phineas Taylor Barnum. In 1996 Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw a touring production at the Wycombe Swan starring Andrew O’Connor. I remember enjoying it; that’s all I remember.

Barnum and circus typesThen a few years ago, Barnum was revived at Chichester, in a big top tent in the park, whilst the Festival Theatre was being refitted. A perfect use of the space, and a magnificent setting for the revival. PTB was played by Broadway star Christopher Fitzgerald. Comparisons are odious, but he lacked the showbizzy pizzazz of Michael Crawford, and he couldn’t walk the tightrope. He did, however, invest the part with loads of emotion, so his affair with Jenny Lind, and his bereavement when his beloved Charity dies (oops, spoilers, sorry) were really moving.

Barnum and palsSo now we have a brand new Barnum, in that amazingly versatile theatre space, the Menier Chocolate Factory, which has been jiggered around so that it now feels like a proper big top. First thing: the staging is superb. Even just entering the theatre, you might bump into the ringmaster or some of his assistants; the bar/reception area recreates Barnum’s museum, with suitable pictures and artefacts; on the way out, his mermaid even shows up to direct us towards the egress. It all makes absolutely perfect scene-setting. Inside the auditorium, various cast members play card tricks with the audience, or create balloon animals for children of all ages; it was one of those shows where I was absolutely loving it before it had even begun.

Barnum and CharityInevitably though, with this in the round staging, for every moment when part of the action is right in front of you and you have the best view in the house, there’s another moment when you simply can’t see what’s going on. We sat in seats A 84 & 85, from where you couldn’t see the balcony where Charity often looked down on the action and where (I believe) the blues singer opens the song Black and White. When Tom Thumb’s elephant appears, his right leg completely obliterated the view of the stage so we couldn’t see the final part of Bigger Isn’t Better – and also from that angle, you had no sense of how the theatrical illusion of the elephant worked. So, some friendly and helpful advice: if you haven’t booked yet, and there are still some tickets left for some shows, I’d definitely opt for seats numbers 20 – 36, no matter what row you choose. The Menier is one of the most intimate acting spaces I know, and even if there were a full house for Barnum it can’t seat more than 190 people for one show; so the atmosphere is still magic no matter where you sit.

Barnum castIn the title role is Marcus Brigstocke, whom we’ve seen twice doing stand-up and once in Spamalot, and he’s always a total joy to watch. But what would he make of the iconic role of Barnum, the supreme showman? As you would expect, he makes it his own. Wisely, there’s no attempt to impersonate Crawford, or to go over the top on the pizzazz. Mr Brigstocke’s Barnum is not so much the supreme showman, more the supreme businessman – and I don’t mean that unkindly. Much of the story revolves around Barnum’s building up of his circus/museum empire, assessing the benefits of one act over the next, working out how much they should be paid, going into partnerships with various other businessmen; and also getting his work/life balance right vis-à-vis his good lady wife. In these regards, Mr B is absolutely spot on. For the other aspects of Barnum’s character, I found him perhaps a little staid, a little respectable. I’m not sure he’d ever run away to join the circus, but he’d definitely be their Operations Manager. Credit where it’s due though; on the show we saw, he performed the tightrope trick perfectly, so kudos to him for that, given he’s quite a big bloke!

Barnum Political campaignThe character of Barnum has a lot of singing to do, and I’d say that Mr Brigstocke’s singing voice has come a long way since we saw him in Spamalot. Technically, it’s a really demanding role and challenges the performer’s vocal dexterity. For example, he has to enunciate the Museum Song, a patter song with so many words per minute that most people would need a lie down after it. I couldn’t work out whether it was Mr Brigstocke’s performance, or the Menier’s sound system, but quite a lot of it got, shall we say, lost in action. But I’ve no wish to be mean, I really enjoyed Mr Brigstocke as Barnum, he had an avuncular charm and great interaction with the audience; and we got to shake his hand as part of his political rally.

Barnum - Charity's heard it all beforeThe rest of the cast are outstanding, in all departments. Laura Pitt-Pulford is as splendid as you would imagine as Chairy Barnum, with her beautiful singing voice complimenting perfectly the sentiments of The Colours of My Life, I Like Your Style (by the way, how come it became I liked your style?) and my own favourite, One Brick at a Time. She also teased out all the emotion of the role; you could have heard the legendary pin drop – or indeed, her heart break – when she realised that her Taylor was staying behind to play the jackdaw with the Swedish nightingale. Talking of whom, Celinde Schoemaker is brilliant as Jenny Lind; captivatingly beautiful, an extraordinary voice and really expressing that spoilt, demanding and tiresome character that lurked beneath. The staging of Love Makes Such Fools of us All, within a picture frame, was both beautiful and tragic to witness. Tupele Dorgu is an amusingly young looking Joice Heth – almost throwing Barnum’s humbug in our face to think that she could be 160 years old – and I loved her renditions of Black and White and especially Thank God I’m Old, which I reckon is one of the funniest songs in musical theatre. I remember how when I saw the Palladium production, “Thank God I’m Old” really made the late Dowager laugh her head off; which, if you ever knew her, gentle reader, may well come as quite a surprise.

Barnum - Black and WhiteI was delighted to see one of my favourite performers, Harry Francis, as Tom Thumb; having seen him dance his way through A Chorus Line, Chicago and Fiddler on the Roof, I knew he’d bring something special to this show. I bet no other Tom Thumb has ever performed so many perfect pirouettes, executed brilliantly without travelling from the start position. It was also great to see another fantastic dancer, Danny Collins, so amazing as Dr Jekyll a couple of years ago, as Amos Scudder. Dominic Owen plays the ringmaster more like one of the lads than the boss, which is an interesting way of looking at the role, and his curious Mr Bailey at the end was a picture of awe and wonderment at the wonderful world of circus, rather than the hard-nosed businessman I’ve seen before. The ensemble are vivacious and entertaining, with some great circus performers as well as the musical theatre types. Amongst them I reckon young Ainsley Hall Ricketts is going to be One To Watch for the future! I almost forgot to mention Rebecca Howell’s choreography, which would have been most remiss of me. Funny, exhilarating, inventive, joyful; it matched the music and the story perfectly and was a sheer delight.

Barnum - Jenny LindIt wasn’t until the final song – Join The Circus – was starting up that I remembered quite how much significance and emotion I, personally, invest in Barnum the show. Basically, I’d forgotten how much it reminded me of my old mum; she who was an enormous Michael Crawford fan, she who found the character of Joice Heth so hilarious. Never underestimate the power of the theatre to stir the emotions and trigger the nostalgia button; nor ever underestimate the power of a show tune to get the old waterworks flowing. By the time we were putting our coats on to brave the Southwark winter, I found the tears were fair coursin’ down my cheeks, so they were. Now I wasn’t expecting that!

Barnum - Tom ThumbIt wasn’t perfect; few things are. But I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it. No wonder I couldn’t sleep the night before. If you ever dreamed of running away and joining a troupe of acrobats and clowns, this is the show for you. If you love immersive theatre where the action comes up right close to you, this is also the show for you. It runs until 3rd March and I’d be thrilled to go again, if you’ve got a spare ticket.

Production photos by Nobby Clark

Review – The Sound of Music, Curve Theatre Leicester, 17th January 2015

The Sound of Music 2015Everybody loves The Sound of Music, don’t they? It was a natural choice for us to take our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra to see a show completely suitable for children. As indeed did the majority of the citizens of Leicester, judging from the number of children who were in Saturday’s matinee audience. All eager for a stage presentation of that sweet, wholesome musical film that generations have grown up with. Of course, the original stage version preceded the film by six years, but we don’t often think about that.

Do Re MiYou can smell that crisp, unpolluted Austrian countryside air. The delectable, yet innocent, Julie Andrews teaching children to sing Do-re-Mi. Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. High on a hill stood a lonely goatherd. Larks that are learning to pray. It’s the full package. Yes, of course there are Nazis, but you never really get the sense that they’re anything but plastic baddies creating a bit of an exciting chase towards the end of the film.

The Sound of Music 2007That used to be my opinion. Then on 9th April 2007 we saw the Palladium production starring Connie How do you solve a problem like Maria Fisher – except that it was one of the performances where Maria was played by Sophie Bould who normally played Liesl – and extremely good she was too. But the most memorable thing about that production was how, about three-quarters of the way through, the Palladium transformed itself into a Nazi rally, with huge swastika banners hurling down from the ceiling throughout the auditorium; and that simple device just took my breath away. It was really scary.

Maria and LieslSo there is definitely a blend of the sweet and the sour in this show. Mrs Chrisparkle and I once dressed up for a performance of Sing-along-a-Sound-of-Music at the Wycombe Swan. That experience certainly emphasised the sweet side of the story. Mrs C became a less than demure nun and I was a redoubtable, fully-kitted-out German Officer. The best dressed competition was tough for the ladies as the place was awash with nuns of all shapes and sizes. However, us German Officer lads were fewer and farther in between. Only half a dozen or so of us actually got on the stage to be voted on, and I think I was the only one who assumed any sort of character. I based my performance on Bernard Hepton in Colditz, only a bit more vicious. I got loads of boos and hisses. and won a rather lousy CD of cover versions of Sound of Music songs for my pains.

Seven childrenThe new production of The Sound of Music at the Leicester Curve – which ended its season on the 17th January – repeated the dream team of the previous year’s Chicago, being directed by Paul Kerryson (his swansong before standing down as Curve Artistic Director) and choreographed by up-and-coming dance genius Drew McOnie. It was a beautiful production, and I’m glad we managed to see it on its final day. Al Parkinson’s sets were stunning, on a grand scale. The severe looking bars that dropped down to represent the hallowed gated cloisters of the Abbey, with coloured lighting coming from imaginary stained glass windows; and the huge painting that appeared to suggest the Reverend Mother’s office gave it a real sense of substance and occasion. The surprisingly natural looking green mountain where Maria first appears, with its big strong trees descending into place made you want to go for a hike; the grandeur of the inside of Captain von Trapp’s villa made you feel like you were worth a million dollars. The Nazi element was also effectively portrayed, with the subtle regular introduction of swastikas on armbands as the show proceeds, and when the von Trapp children are performing at the Kaltzberg Festival there was no escaping our row (E of the stalls) as we had two Nazi “heavies” at either end, observing us closely and making sure we weren’t going to assist in any escape attempt. As if.

16 going on 17Recently a number of otherwise really good musicals have been spoiled by the sound amplification. In some – Calamity Jane, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – it was really hard to hear the words at all because of the over-amplification. Well, all praise to the people twiddling the technical knobs at the Curve because the sound quality in this show was just perfect. The star roles were sung with impeccable exquisiteness anyway; but the overall clarity and purity of the sound throughout the performance was amazing.

Maria and the CaptainMaria was played by Laura Pitt-Pulford, who was a magnificent Irene in the Curve’s Hello Dolly a couple of years ago. It was a faultless performance; the singing, the humour, the warmth, the anguish, were all perfect. Seeing her Maria was like meeting an old friend – there’s a lot you remember from when you last met but since then they’ve got a few new tricks up their sleeve too. By the time she’d finished singing the opening “Sound of Music” theme I had goosebumps everywhere. I loved her relationship with the children – especially Emma Harrold’s Liesl (so much better in this show than in the awful Happy Days) – and her growing relationship with the Captain was very delicately portrayed. Her Ländler dance with him, after which one of the children, Brigitta, tells her that she’s obviously in love her dad, was one of those deep down, genuinely lovely moments.

RolfIn the performance we saw, the Captain was played by Mark Inscoe (who normally plays Max, and who we last saw as a villainous Claudius in Hamlet the Musical). His was a very different Captain from any other I’d seen, in that he didn’t come across as particularly tyrannical at first. He didn’t raise his voice in belligerence or strictness; he just liked households to run like a well-oiled machine. In fact he was like one of those very quiet level-headed bosses who you know will handle a crisis well – firmly but fairly. In many respects it’s a much more believable presentation, but it does also mean that his leaving the dark side and becoming nice again isn’t quite so dramatic. This Captain definitely reserves his tough side for dealing with the Nazi sympathisers rather than disobedient children. I very much enjoyed his performance though, including how he doesn’t have much time for his reprehensible pal Max (played on this occasion by Matt Harrop, who warmed into the role during the course of the show) and having a lot of flirtatiousness with the glamorous Frau Schräder, (she’s just a Frau here, she’s a Baroness in the film), played with style and vivacity by Emma Clifford (although Mrs C wasn’t convinced by her accent).

Climb Every MountainThe other outstanding performance was by Susannah van den Berg as the Mother Abbess. Previously we’d seen her in a relatively minor role in Fiddler on the Roof where she was clearly hiding her light under a bushel. Her Mother Abbess is a fantastic creation – balanced, witty and not afraid to be cruel to be kind. When she sang Climb Every Mountain before the interval, those goosebumps came back in droves. A total musical treat. There was also excellent support from Hannah Grace, Rebecca Ridout and Kate Manley as the Sisters with opposing views of how you solve a problem like Maria; an intelligent performance by Jack Wilcox as Rolf who seems kindly enough to Liesl in the superbly staged Sixteen Going on Seventeen, but proves himself a turncoat at the end; and an excellently nasty portrayal of Nazi enthusiast Herr Zeller by Patrick Moy.

EdelweissAnd then, of course, there are the children. A captain with seven children…. what’s so fearsome about that? I always enjoy that line. The programme lists a choice of two or three names against each child character but with no photos so I’m afraid I don’t know which particular actors we saw in our performance. Suffice to say they were all excellent. I do think they were probably considerably older than the children they were playing – especially the character of seven-year-old Marta who seemed very mature – but they never put a foot or a vocal chord wrong throughout. You’re not meant to have favourites with kids, but little Gretl was outstandingly cute, and Kurt was impishly decent in his dancing with Maria. Their So Long Farewell was definitely a highlight of the show.

Frau SchräderAll in all, a superb production that looked and sounded absolutely great throughout. A very fitting send-off for Paul Kerryson, and a tribute to the wonderful theatre that he has steered artistically over the past few years. We all loved the show, and have been singing the songs with irritating regularity ever since!

Review – Hello Dolly, Leicester Curve, 30th December 2012

Hello DollyThis was our first ever visit to the Curve Theatre in Leicester. To be honest, it was actually the first time I’ve been to Leicester at all. Mrs Chrisparkle had been there for work once and so wasn’t quite as enthralled at the prospect as I was. Problems on the M1 meant we had to take the slow country route through deepest Leicestershire, which was very pleasant by the way, and we therefore arrived much later than anticipated, thus reducing my orientation tour of the city to about half an hour. Never mind, there’s always another time. Mind you, the parking experience didn’t help.

We arrived at the NCP Car Park next door to the theatre, and wended our way up its narrow lanes and tight corners until we found a useable space – cramped, but useable. Never in the field of human parking endeavour has anyone managed to make such a performance out of reversing into a parking space. Mrs C had to get out and guide me back and forth about seven times. I even had to hurl myself out of the car in a fit of rage to gauge precisely what tiny dimensions I had at my disposal. Eventually I could park no more and let the car stand at whatever position I had finally achieved. At that point we realised that the car park ticket which you collect on the way in, and which you use to pay on the way out, had gone missing. Where could it possibly have gone? I kid you not, gentle reader, we spent the best part of half an hour ransacking the car, lifting mats and carpets, setting the iPhone to torch mode to peer into its darkest recesses, flipping through map pages, searching the glove box, etc etc and etc, until eventually the ticket made its appearance in the most ridiculously inaccessible and remote position, curled up and wedged inside the metal runners that allow the passenger seat to move. I think it’s fair to say that we were both, officially, the biggest pair of prize plonkers ever to have attempted to use a car park.

The Curve itself is pretty stunning in many ways. Shaped from the outside – you guessed it – like a curve, it’s an arresting piece of modern architecture in an otherwise rather drab quarter. There are a number of bar and café areas, a fairly good supply of seating, helpful staff and a (necessary with those charges) scheme for paying only £3.95 at the car park. One very thrilling dimension, that we only saw as we were leaving, is an open side wall to the theatre where you can see the stage from the wings, as it were; where all the costumes and prop tables are stored and it’s a fascinating glimpse into the backstage world of the theatre. What of inside the auditorium? Well, on the up side, the seats are reasonably comfortable, and from our position in Row J of the stalls, you had an excellent sightline to the stage. There was also hugely generous legroom, so you could really stretch out and get comfy. It’s a very wide proscenium arch, which gives the impression of the auditorium being somewhat shallow, even though it goes back to Row V. On the downside, it’s a little undecorated and featureless inside, which makes it feel a bit municipal, a bit soulless. But on the whole I would say it’s a jolly fine venue and one I’m glad to add to our repertory.

Hello Dolly 1979“I thought this was going to be about Hello Dolly”, I hear you mumble. And so it is. I’ve only seen the show once before, back in 1979 when I accompanied the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane to see Miss Carol Channing in the role. She had a smile that stretched a mile – Miss Channing that is, not the Dowager. She was a dab hand at the comic business – I particularly remember how funny she was in the scene where Dolly insists on finishing her meal whilst everyone else is awaiting her in court. Carol ChanningImpossibly stagey and camp as a row of tents, she was just brilliant. She had the physical presence – and let’s face it, age – to suggest Dolly’s back catalogue of life experience; and an accent of pure Yonkers. Possibly because they were the same age, the Dowager looked on her as something of a role model, and it was a rare day that she didn’t find time to quote something about “snuggling up to your cash register” or “lose some weight, Stanley”. So I was very interested to see how Janie Dee, an extraordinarily versatile actress, would appear as Dolly.

Janie DeeShe’s very different from Miss Channing, but she’s also extremely good. Her Dolly appears much younger – which feels slightly wrong to me – but she is so winning and cheeky in her disposition, and her instant rapport with the audience is so overwhelming, that she absolutely assumes the role with natural conviction and spreads around the inherent joy of the show, much as Ephraim Levi told us you had to spread around manure. She’s good hearted and gutsy – and can sing beautifully, which comes as a splendid bonus. She looks great, and well deserves Horace Vandergelder’s “wonderful woman” compliment at the end. There really appears to be no end to Miss Dee’s talents.

Dale RapleyHorace is played by Dale Rapley, who gives a really good supporting performance; terrifically underplayed, for example, during “So Long Dearie” where he allows Dolly completely to overwhelm him. He’s got a good singing voice too – and gives a super, comic performance of “It Takes A Woman”. Again he feels a lot younger than I would expect Vandergelder to be; you wouldn’t have thought he would need a matchmaker to set him up with a choice of widows, at his age he should still be able to set his own agenda. Nevertheless it’s still very funny when he goes on his date with the lovely Ernestina – Kerry Washington superb as a voluptuous canary lookalike – and his eventual match with Dolly seems perfectly right.

Kerry WashingtonI’d not seen Michael Xavier on stage before – he plays first underdog Cornelius – but I’m not surprised he’s been nominated for all those Olivier awards. He has an amazing voice; loud, clear and expressive, perfect for this kind of show, and he brought great colour and likeability to the role. As second underdog Barnaby, Jason Denton had just the right level of believable goofiness, and the pair of them made excellent suitors for their two ladies.

Michael XavierLaura Pitt-Pulford is a marvellous Irene. It’s not that exciting a role, to be honest, and I remember in my youth whenever I played the soundtrack album, her song “Ribbons Down My Back” was always one I would skip. But I have to say I have never heard that song sung so beautifully as it is here by Miss Pitt-Pulford. For me, she made the song sound fresh but also wistful in a way that had always passed me by before. I would happily go back just to see her perform that song again. Ngo Ngofa’s Minnie Fay is full of fun, rather cute, and she and Barnaby will be a lovely couple.

Jason DentonOf course, what everyone remembers and awaits is the Waiters’ Gallop followed by Dolly’s staircase appearance and the huge number that is “Hello Dolly”. Expectations of this scene are so high that maybe it’s inevitable that there’s a slight sense of disappointment. The dancers are great, no question – and it’s also delightful that they used so much (if not all?) of Gower Champion’s original choreography (all that thigh patting and wavy hands in the air stuff); it’s just that the Curve stage is so wide, that I did not feel they occupied the area enough. This is a production with high values – the costumes are terrific, the sets are effective, even the props seem really good quality. The band are incredible and produce a superb sound. There just needed to be something else that gave the waiters’ scene an extra impact. Maybe they simply needed another six dancers – or a smaller stage. It’s still a really enjoyable scene and it went down very well with the audience, but I wanted just a soupcon more oomph. The cinematic style backdrop which suggested changes of scenes was also a little too small to have great impact, but the sets – and one’s own imagination – more than make up for it.

Laura Pitt-PulfordThe performance we saw had a few minor odd moments – Dolly’s handbag seemed to have a life of its own – getting left behind here, suddenly appearing there – and I am still not sure Dolly said hello to the correct Stanley – my powers of lip reading suggest Stanley said something to her like “why are you saying that to me” and he certainly didn’t look as though he needed to lose weight anyway. But these don’t matter with such a colourful and high octane show. I’d forgotten how good the majority of the songs are – especially in the second half – although the whole “Dancing” sequence in the hat shop has always left me cold. It took a good week after we’d seen the show for some of these songs finally to work their way out of my brain. Mrs C pointed out that the whole thing is very “hokey”, and of course she is right. Hokiness is its raison d’être. This is a very entertaining and extremely enjoyable production, and one that fully warrants the good box-office business it seems to be doing – but there are still some good seats available and it would be a great shame to miss it.

Ngo NgofaOn the way home Mrs C asked if Dolly and Horace really love each other, or is it just a marriage of convenience. With the sounds of “…and we won’t go home until we fall in love…” ringing in your ears during the finale, surely they must love each other. Mustn’t they? True, Dolly is an ace manipulatrix, and she certainly gets what she wants – Ephraim even gives her his sign of consent – so I expect she loves him sufficiently well to make a go of it. Horace, I am sure, is besotted. What do you think?