With all the talk of the London Marathon during the month of April, I decided in my own way to do a little marathon of my own, except mine was a Theatrical Marathon, in which I saw 9 shows in 11 days. Starting with:
1. Glenn Close in “Sunset Boulevard” at the Coliseum Theatre.
Glenn Close in “Sunset Boulevard” at the Coliseum Theatre.
She was the main reason that I decided on the Marathon, and to say that she lived up to all the expectations that I had is an understatement. Her performance was brilliant. To my mind she was as good as Gloria Swanson who appeared in the original noir classic in 1950. In fact, Close was even better because apart from being a brilliant actress, she sang, and how she sang! Receiving rapturous applause and ovation after ovation. When I read that the production was to be semi-staged (and I had already bought my ticket), I thought, ‘semi-staged’ Ugh! What is semi-staged? Is it going to be like in concert? How wrong I was! Lonny Price’s brilliant production was spectacular and moody and very creepy, with metal staircases, walkways, and gantry’s covering the whole stage and the most gigantic chandelier ever to grace a London stage.
Glenn Close as Norma Desmond
The English National Opera Orchestra of 48 musicians were placed across the whole back area of the stage in front of an ever changing cyclorama, and it had to be the most amazing sound that I have ever heard in a musical, something you would only hear at the Royal Albert Hall, and on top of that I had Glenn Close, the Glenn Close. The theatre was packed, that was 2359 people, and you could hear a pin drop. As the story unfolded it was as though I was watching it for the first time, which is some feat considering I have lived with “Sunset Boulevard” since 1950 and Ray Jackson had a complete collection of stills from the original film. I knew the music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, but I had not seen the musical. I don’t know why, but I never got round to it. There were many who considered the Lonny Price production the best. I have no comparison, but I know that I had seen the best and if I didn’t see another show it wouldn’t matter. I came out of the theatre on a cloud of euphoria, only to find the traffic in St. Martins Lane at a standstill. There were crowds of people on the pavements and in the road all waiting for Kit Harrington, “Game of Thrones”, to come out of the Stage Door of the Duke of York Theatre opposite the Coliseum Theatre, where he was in previews of “Dr. Faustus”. (I thought that’s number 5 on my marathon list, something to look forward to). But really what were the crowds doing there? I didn’t know that he took his kit off in “Dr. Faustus”.They should all have been lined up at the Coliseum Stage Door waiting to applaud Glenn Close for her triumphant performance in Sunset Boulevard. But as they say that’s Show Business! I knew that I really couldn’t expect too much from the other 8 shows, after all I had just been lucky enough to see the best. You could not top “Sunset Boulevard”.
Glenn Close and the Coliseum Theatre.
Since writing this Blog, I have found this great review by Johnny Fox which to my joy really confirms all that I have said about this production, and Glenn Close. But also adds a few extra points.
05 April 2016 | On Stage, Theatre & Arts | By: Johnny Fox Review:
Glenn Close Is Blinding In Sunset Boulevard at the London Coliseum ★★★★★
The night after Imelda Staunton picked up her Olivier award for best actress in a musical in Gypsy, her successor is a rock solid certainty. With such tumultuous reception at the Coliseum, there is no doubt that Glenn Close must win for Sunset Boulevard in which, like Staunton, she plays a deluded and flawed tragic hero of the entertainment business.
That Close is a movie star with a memorable back catalogue playing a silent movie star whose back catalogue has been eclipsed is just the surrealist cherry on her richly iced cake.
Stephen Sondheim began a musical of Sunset Boulevard and it’s fortunate he abandoned it because it’s doubtful he would have orchestrated it with the swimmingly sensual depth of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s homage to the film music by which he’d been enthralled when young, and which may prove his epitaph as the woven, silken fabric of his best work.
The score is the centrepiece of this stripped-down staging in the Grade/Linnet production at the Coliseum, the only residual feature of the ENO company (once its magnificent chorus had been hired then stood down as ‘unsuitable’ to play the ensemble) is the ferociously excellent 48-piece orchestra upstage and centre.
Even if you’re completely familiar with this music, you have never heard it played better. Not only does Michael Reed restrain the tempi and coax the strings to cinematic heights when following the car chase or tenderly underscoring Close’s solos, there’s enough dirty brass to power a Cuban nightclub in support of the upbeat numbers.
Few productions have excited as much anticipatory comment on social media, and even though former Normas Patti LuPone and Elaine Paige are still singing forcibly and chewing scenery at approximately the same age, speculation was rife whether Close would be up to the vocal demands 20 years after she won the Tony.
She is perhaps fortunate that Lloyd Webber sites ‘With One Look’ so early in the proceedings: once she’d hurdled that, confidently staring down the audience with its final crescendo, she was home free.
There’s a break in her range that more experienced singers could have transitioned better, but then they wouldn’t have acted the part with more intelligence.
Close has a wonderful way of undercutting the climax of a set-piece song by almost throwing away the next line. It’s winning.
This Norma is less imperious, often playful or skittish, which sets her up for a credible loosening of her grip on reality. Some of her mood-swings are too crude, but the additional years of experience have given Close an observant perspective on ageing and delusion which she fully transmits to the audience.
You could wish they’d make Norma’s age more accurate. She’s 50. It’s in the script. Gloria Swanson was 50 when she made the film. It’s almost grotesque of the book writer and lyricist to repeatedly suggest she’s ‘ancient’ or beyond the age of sexuality because the pathos is not in her decrepitude but in her elegant reclusive withdrawal, a dethroned queen: in Close’s aching interpretation, a Wallis Simpson of the silver screen.
The original London and Broadway productions both lost money because of the high initial costs including an elaborate rococo mansion set with a realistic swimming pool and gilded staircase on lifts. Here, the grand luxe is represented only by a cluster of chandeliers and the deconstruction makes you focus more on both the strengths of the 1950 Billy Wilder movie and its flawed but fascinating characters, and the weaknesses of the stage book. It enhances the ‘big’ songs and exposes the feebler comic chorus numbers for tailors and beauticians. Clever.
The search for a suitable leading man and foil to play Joe Gillis must have been tough. Someone not so starry as to steal the limelight from Close, and competent enough to carry the dramatic narrative. Not Barrowman, then. Michael Xavier, rescued from old-before-his-time roles like Captain von Trapp is an amazement and a delight. At the curtain call, the audience were on their feet for him before Close even made her bows. His elegant fluidity even as a down-at-heel and slightly desperate writer is so attractive, and he sings conversationally and with feeling, like an effortless charm.
Fully clothed, he is every inch the leading man, and stripped to skimpy Speedos emerging from the orchestra pit ‘pool’ at the top of act two with a washboard stomach and balconied pectorals, he’s hot too. Don’t be late back from the bar.
I’m also including a great write-up from Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s, of Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard.
Michael Xavier as Joe Gillis and Glenn Close as Norma Desmond, at the London Coliseum, April 2016. Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith
For all the endless dashing around for the newest, edgiest thing sometimes you just have to see the greats do the classics. We watch this eccentric, old silent movie star seduce and manipulate a younger man to feed her fading dreams and also watch him exploit her neediness. God, it’s exciting, dark, sexy and hilarious. Glenn’s first song is called Surrender; she all but floats down the stairs, with an ache in her heart and you can almost feel it in your own. She plays the naivety of a child with the gravitas of a goddess. In the final moments, I turned to look down the aisle to see rows upon rows of wet cheeks and shining eyes. We all left the theatre knowing we’d just shared something very special.
Watch GLENN CLOSE on YOU TUBE.
2. “Mrs. Henderson Presents” at the Noel Coward Theatre.
I should have known after seeing the brilliant “Sunset Boulevard” that I was going from the sublime to the ridiculous. I only wanted to see this show because of my past history. I owned with my partner Ray Jackson the ‘Casino de Paris Striptease Club’ in Denman Street, W.1., the adjoining street to the Windmill Theatre, and it was during the run and the demise of the Windmill. For me they were such happy days, with such wonderful memories. This show did nothing to change my opinion of what the Windmill was and stood for. The corruption with the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, it was all there in the show. The Windmill was tacky, and it came across in the production, perhaps it was meant to show that. But striptease and nudity was my business, and I have to say that at the Casino de Paris we did it with finesse and class
The obligatory Fan Dance.
Jamie Foreman as Arthur (The Comic)
The cast of Mrs. Henderson Presents were good in their own way, and they did the best of what was expected of them, but story-wise there was so much that was missed out, and the music? Forgettable! Maybe I am biased, (I am, I really am!), but when they cast an actor in the role of a comic (which is a breed unto itself) it doesn’t work. The continuity and plot was put into this poor guys’ hands and it really needed a seasoned comic to be able to handle it, and manipulate the audience. But the poor bugger he did his best. Enough said! The sooner I forget about it the better.
3. Sheridan Smith in “Funny Girl” at the Savoy Theatre.
I was so pleased to be able to get a seat, they were like gold dust, so my expectations were high. Let me first say that I consider Sheridan Smith a brilliantly multi-talented actress whose portrayal of Cilla Black in the TV mini series was superb, and also she sings beautifully, but does she look Jewish? Never in a million years! I blame the miscasting of this lovely actress, on the producers and the director and choreographer.
Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice
They made her look and act like an American Hilda Baker, and as for her love interest (it was Cynthia, “She knows you know!”), he was so tall that when they embraced she came up to just below his chest. Which could have been interesting, if it wasn’t “Funny Girl”! “Let My People Come” or “Hair”, yes! But not “Funny Girl”. And he sounded like Vincent Price! So there I am watching “Funny Girl” with a Hilda Baker with an American accent and (Cynthia) Vincent Price. I think that the choreographer must have watched every film and TV that Hilda Baker made, because he gave poor Sheridan Smith all her moves. Didn’t anyone tell them that Fanny Brice, although she could be gross and funny, she had class. And the clothes they gave her! Ugh! The sort of clothes that I imagine Hilda Baker would have chosen. Having to wear them was enough for anyone to take to drink!
(Cynthia) Darius Campbell, (Hilda Baker) Sheridan Smith, (Mrs.Brice) Marilyn Cutts.
An open letter to Sheridan Smith:
Dear Sheridan Smith,
Write it off as a bad experience. They need you, more than you need them.
You are a truly beautiful, talented and brilliant actress.
Blame the Director, Producers and Choreographer, who trying to ride on the back of your
extraordinary current success, mistakenly cast you into “Funny Girl”
By the way, if they ever decide to make a Musical on the life of Hilda Baker you
Would be a dead ringer!
That’s 3 down 6 more to go.
4. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at the Lyttelton Theatre.
This is the first time that I have been to this theatre and what a beautiful modern theatre it is. I had no idea what the play was about, but the Black Bottom was a dance I knew so I thought I’d give it a go and I’m so pleased that I did. Nothing like what I expected, this play with music is so moving that in one part I was nearly moved to tears and choked up. The whole cast was brilliant, except I found that Sharon D. Clarke in her quieter moments difficult to hear. The really outstanding performance was to my mind O-T Fagbenle a wonderful ‘tour de force’, so moving and heartfelt.
The review by Quentin Letts published in the Daily Mail on the 3rd.February, 2016 says it all far better than I can.
Long-suffering jazz band hits all the right notes: QUENTIN LETTS’ first night review of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
By Quentin Letts for the Daily Mail
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
August Wilson, Royal National Theatre
Good play, good jazz, great acting: the Royal National’s new production of ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ hits lots of right notes.
August Wilson’s 1984 play is set in a recording studio in 1920s Chicago. Ma Rainey is a black jazz singer and a frightful prima donna. Her white manager Irvin (Finbar Lynch) spends much of his life saying ‘let me handle this’ as he soothes her tantrums.
Ma is played here by Sharon D Clarke, who could almost have been made for the part. Ma is by turns impossible, brilliant at the microphone and – when she needs to be – sweetly encouraging to her stuttering nephew (Tunji Lucas).
The 1984 play by August Wilson is set in a recording studio in 1920s Chicago
Miss Clarke sings with her usual smoky power. But the story is not really about Ma, or studio boss Mr Sturdyvant (Stuart McQuarrie).
It is about Ma’s long-suffering band members, one of whom, young-buck trumpeter Levee, refuses to be cowed by her or by convention. All Levee’s cockiness and sex appeal and rage is caught fizzingly by OT Fagbenle.
Mr Fagbenle knows how to play a horn. He can act, too. The tale of Levee’s family left last night’s audience in sudden silence. ( Me too. He is quite brilliant. E.L.)
He is supported by Lucian Msamati as cerebral pianist Toledo, lecturing his colleagues in the duty of all black people to aspire. Toledo talks and talks.
Levee is more a man of action – and makes moves on Ma Rainey’s pretty girlfriend Dussie Mae (Tamara Lawrance). Giles Terera and Clint Dyer are also excellent as the other band members.
A slightly odd set, designed by our old friend Ultz (a railway station in Austria?), has the band’s practice room a long oblong basement, terribly narrow. The studio producers are upstairs in a metal Portakabin-style box which swings on chains.
Does the play have an unsatisfactory sense of justice? Well, that reflects the injustice against black Americans in the 1920s but it arguably leaves the evening less than cathartic.
Director Dominic Cooke extracts such good performances from his cast, however, that you still leave richly satisfied.
5. Kit Harington in “Dr. Faustus” at the Duke of York’s Theatre
Well now I was going to see what it was all about. I have to hand to Mr. Jamie Lloyd he is a visionary and a great director. The production of the Christopher Marlowe Play was brought up to the present day with an adaption by Colin Teevan. Kit Harington spends the whole of the second act in his underpants, which is sure to bring in thousands of his fans from “Game of Thrones” and also quite a lot of the gay community who will be fighting with the fans for front row seats. My admiration to Jamie Lloyd exceeds no bounds. He is astute, clever, commercial and artistic, what more can one have in a director. He rightly deserves his position as Artistic Director of the Jamie Lloyd Company.
Kit Harington as Dr. Faustus.
The whole production had the feel of a Jean Genet play, and I expected to see Lindsey Kemp appear from “Flowers”, which was another Jean Genet play, floating about the stage. Kit Harington gives a fine performance as Dr. Faustus, but I felt that there was something lacking in his vocal range of the Marlowe text. But I’m sure this will improve with more classical work. You have to hand it to him, he is star quality as you can see.
Kit Harington before his shower scene in blood.
Kit Harington post shower.
6. “Kinky Boots” at the Adelphi Theatre.
I never got to see it when I was in New York last year, so I was very happy that I included it in my Marathon. The film I loved and this musical sticks closely to the plot. The cast are brilliant, the staging unbelievable, it has all the glitz and glamour that you would expect from an American musical with an English plot. If you haven’t seen it, go! go! go! You will love it.
Killian Donnelly, Amy Lennox and Matt Henry “Kinky Boots”.
7. Uzo Aduba, Zawe Ashton in “The Maids” at the Trafalgar Studios.
Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant!
By now you must gather that I think that Jamie Lloyd is the bees knees, and you are right! What a brilliant director he is. To be able to invoke such terror and excitement into a play is something I have never in all my years’ experience in the theatre seen before. This play is so powerful and the performances of both Uzo Aduba and Zawe Ashton so exceptional, that I doubt that I will ever see such class acting again in my lifetime. To ask me to say which was the stronger performance, I am at a loss because the magnetism between them both was equal and if awards were to be given and there was only one, split it in half, equal, equal. Or go to the extra expense and have another made, like an Olivier. They deserve it.
Zawe Ashton and Uzo Aduba
Laura Carmichael, Uzo Aduba and Zawe Ashton
The stage set was an open ended 4 poster bed, so that you had a mirror image of another audience sitting watching the play unfold on the other side of the stage. But, they were for real. It is important that I explain this, as it is integral to what I have to say. So that although the theatre is so versatile it can be in the round, or 4 sided. This time it was 2 sided facing one another, with the stage in the centre. Maybe I haven’t explained it too well but the following photos may explain it better. At first I couldn’t believe that the people sitting facing me were real, until I saw a rather large fat lady who was sitting front row in the centre isle with a gentleman friend, drinking what I took to be wine from a very large plastic glass. So the play has started and the drama unfolds, it ran, I think, for 90 minutes with no interval. At odd times I would see the lady sipping the wine, but I was so caught up in the play that it did not really distract. After about half an hour into the play, I caught sight of her refilling the glass from a bottle in her bag, and by this time the wine was beginning to take effect. She was slowly sliding down in her seat and her head was beginning to loll. It finally finished up on her gentleman friend’s shoulder and she must have fallen asleep. Meanwhile the drama is unfolding and being in C Row centre, I was literally in the play and enjoying every moment of it. Much later I caught sight of her fidgeting and moving around in her chair and of all things she takes her phone out, and starts texting and the light from the phone is going on the stage. We are reaching the pinnacle of the play, High Drama! She has meanwhile fallen asleep again with the phone still switched on in her lap and the light still on. No-one on her side of the theatre said a word. What was the matter with them? Were they all asleep or just dummies? No usherette or management came to scold her and take the phone away. Meanwhile Uzo Aduba and Zawe Ashton are acting their tits off, and that stupid bitch was allowed to sit there and no-one admonished her. I just cannot believe that people can be so rude. But then with all that was happening, and the high drama on stage, it made a very memorable night for me in the Theatre, and every time I think about it, I see the funny side of the whole situation. She was a light relief with such high drama.Thank you Drunken Fat Lady!
This is what it looked like, before the play started, so I had no idea that there was another audience facing me.
If you look closely, to the back of this photo. This it what I saw from my seat in C Row Centre and the drunken fat lady was siting facing me, front row centre isle at the back of the stage.
This will give you a better idea of the layout of the Theatre.
Uzo Aduba, Laura Carmichael, Zawe Ashton.
Here is another interview with the fabulous actress Uzo Aduba.
Here is an interview with the brilliant Jamie Lloyd, about “The Maids”.
8. “Nell Gwynn” at the Apollo Theatre
This was one glorious romp from beginning to end. Such wonderful Theatre, in such a beautiful theatre.
9. Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon in “The Painkiller” at the Garrick Theatre.
“THE PAINKILLER” with Kenneth Branagh and Rob Rydon
A Farce by Francis Veber and adapted by Sean Foley. Why is it that the French are Masters at writing Farce? For example, Feydeau, Moliere and Labiche and now we have Francis Veber. Well first you need a simple but clever plot of mistaken identities, and lost virtues, a split stage showing maybe 2 or 3 rooms. Plenty of very solid doors for running in and out and slamming. Windows for climbing out and maybe coming in, and a cast of master actors. Well, with “The Painkiller” you have just that. It was a laugh from beginning to end.
Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon.
Rob Brydon, Kenneth Branagh and Mark Hadfield.
Well that is the end of my Theatrical Marathon, and it was so varied, and great fun. I thoroughly enjoyed every one. Okay, there were a few that I didn’t think came up to standard, but all in all the Theatre in England is wonderful. Remember that the criticism’s are mine alone, maybe you don’t agree with me, but I have tried to be fair. Stay happy. E.L.