Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill

Enter into the Wyndham’s theatre and you will be transported back to 1959 South Philadelphia. On the front of the stalls and the sides of the stage are cabaret tables for the audience to sit back in and soak up the atmosphere of this small, run down bar. And why are we all gathered in this dive? Because the act about to take the stage is the legendary Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

Set just four months before her premature death aged just 44, the play sees Holiday perform some of her best-known numbers, chat to the audience about her life and reveal some of the horrors and tragedies to have befallen her.

Throughout the play, Holiday regales the audience with tales of her family, her personal life and her experiences with racism. She is a lady who has experienced the highs of being a high selling recording artists and playing sell out concerts at Carnegie Hall. These are overshadowed by the lows in her life. Working as a teenage prostitute, spells in prison and a dependence on alcohol and drugs.

All of this is highlighted through a use of Holiday’s music, used to great effect to emphasise themes and emotions throughout. Holiday recounts a story of being asked to use the back entrances of venues she was playing and her encounter with a particularly racist maître’d. The stories have a poignancy but are told with great humour and pleasure. The audience respond with laughter and relish the tales. It is then bookended with a performance of Strange Fruit, Holiday’s trademark anti-racism song. The effect is incredibly powerful, intensifying the already vivid lyrics.

Holiday is played by six time Tony award winner Audra McDonald who offers, not an imitation of Holiday, but an embodiment. She exudes a magnetic charm, ensuring all eyes are on her, with graceful effortlessness. McDonald paints an image of a true star nuanced with the tragic facets that eventually led to her death. McDonald is every inch the record breaking, award winning Broadway star.

I entered the theatre not knowing much about Billie Holiday; I was aware of her reputation as a jazz icon and knew a handful of her songs. What Laine Robertson’s play has done is to make Holiday both a real person, showing her flaws and humanity, and cement her reputation as legendary. Seeing this play is to be in the presence of two masters –  McDonald and Holiday.

The Wind in the Willows – London Palladium

Much has been made of this new adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic novel The Wind in the Willows. With music by Stiles and Drewe and a book by Julian Fellowes surely this is set to be a big hit. After all Fellowes now has three west end musicals running (School of Rock and Half a Sixpence) and Stiles and Drewe have a back catalogue of hits including Soho Cinders, Mary Poppins and Half a Sixpence (with Fellowes) currently running at the Noel Coward.

The story and characters are familiar, for many The Wind in the Willows is a favourite whether you are a fan of the book or the countless adaptations. New audiences can expect a warm tale of friendship set in the idyllic country side of Edwardian England.

Into this peace and tranquillity comes the boundless Mr Toad and antagonism from the Wild Wooders, eager to displace Toad from Toad Hall. The plot of this new musical revolves around Toad and his love of speed, starting with a boat, then a caravan and ultimately his infamous obsession with the motor car. After stealing a car, Toad finds himself sentenced to 20 years in prison giving the weasels and stoats the chance to move into Toad Hall, steal an otter and fatten her up ready for a banquet.

The pace and action of the show are well reflected in the musical numbers. Spring is a gentle, meandering affair whereas The Amazing Mr Toad is loud, bright, colourful and fast – perfectly matching the character and energy of the eponymous Toad.

Other musical treats come from The Hedgehog’s Nightmare a delightful, quirky number that sees a family of hedgehogs try to cross the road. Their costumes, designed by Peter McKintosh, are characterful and fun with a nod to the eccentricity of the English countryside that pervades the show and source material. In act two a chorus of field mice sing The Wassailing Mice, a homage to carol singers, evoking the cosiness and warmth created on those long winter nights.

The show’s main theme, friendship, is perfectly summed up in the rousing A Friend is Still a Friend by the stoical Badger, Rat and Mole. It is that message that is key. Even though a friend may have acted foolishly, they are still a friend and reconciliation is possible – a pertinent message.

Rufus Hound excels as the irrepressible Mr Toad, energetically bounding around the stage displaying Toad’s zest for life. Hound provides his scenes with pace and energy and a sense of childlike fun. As an audience, because Hound (and Toad) are having fun, so are we. He enthusiasm and curiosity is infectious, wanting to try new experiences and make the most of life.

Simon Lipkin and Craig Mather as Rat and Mole respectively are well cast and balanced. The unworldly timidness of Mole provides a perfect companion for the river and picnic loving Rat, keen to share the beauty and wonder of his home life.

A new addition to this adaptation is the rather shoe horned in female lead, Mrs Otter. Played by Denise Welch, the character feels under developed in terms of her relationship with the four leads and it feels like her role is somewhat nominal in the male dominated story.

Some critics have been quick to claim that the show contains no moral message and no clear musical style, branding it unforgettable. The show is for families and necessarily for the seasoned theatre goer. The show is vibrant, fun and contains elements of spectacle as well as some good music that will be sure to have an impression on younger generations. Children making their first visit will remember this show as being bright and bold, the joyousness of the vaudevillian Mr Toad and the possibilities of what can be put on stage. It falls into the same bracket as a Christmas pantomime in that three generations can enjoy a shared experience. It’s true it doesn’t contain complex moral themes such as Macbeth or the metaphysics of a Stoppard but then it never pretends to. Audiences will vote with their feet and I believe this show will be a family favourite. What do we say to the critics? Poop poop!