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!

#TheatreIS

Theatre is an experience like no other. It is deeply routed in all of us to share stories, to communicate thoughts, feelings and information to each other and we have been doing this, theatrically speaking, for thousands of years.

When watching a performance you are sharing a moment, something which is ethereal and will never be again. It is in the moment, now, but it is also of all time, a connection to our past. There is nothing quite like sharing a moment where an actor on stage can make 2,000 odd people feel the same through words and expression. Regardless of your age, gender or background at that moment, in that time, you are all the same. All thinking and feeling the same and living the magic of the live performance.

And that is what is it. Theatre is magic. Whether you are in the glitziest of west end theatres, or a local arts venue, or even a space not made for theatre but where it is happening, the sights, the smells, the anticipation create an electric wave that ripples through us all.

Beyond it being an experience, the theatre is where some of the most profound writers and thinkers have come to communicate, to help audiences reach a level of understanding, of tolerance for each other and discovery about themselves. Good theatre is transformative and it has the power to alter individual’s ideologies and temperament.

The theatre is also a place that people want to work in. You don’t end up being an actor or designer or director by mistake. You work hard, you devote your life to your craft and when you share that with others you do it with every ounce of your fibre, disseminating the love and passion that you hold for theatre to everyone in the room and that is a tangible feeling.

If you get the chance to see something then please do and share in that love and passion. Share in the tradition of your ancestors dating back beyond the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. Share in someone else’s story and it will tell you something about your own. We are all human and all driven by the same emotions and motives. Share in what it is to be human and to be alive

Rotterdam

Theatre has always been used to initiate conversation, debate and thought. Reflecting its contemporary society, the theatre has been a place for writers and artists to explore themes affecting the outside world and, through the medium of live performance, seek to find reason and understanding.

Theatre has always been used to initiate conversation, debate and thought. Reflecting its contemporary society, the theatre has been a place for writers and artists to explore themes affecting the outside world and, through the medium of live performance, seek to find reason and understanding.

There is no shortage of performance that seek to examine political or social issues. Recently we have seen a timely production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar Warehouse. Lenny Henry’s portrayal of Brecht’s Chicago Gangster had overtones of Hitler, the original source material for the play, and Donald Trump. The National Theatre’s My Country: A Work in Progress, has just completed a national tour after a stint in London. A verbatim play on the issues arising from Britain leaving the European Union, the play looks at all sides of the argument and leaves the audience with more questions than answers. In terms of social issues, David Baddiel’s run at the Playhouse has just drawn to a close. His revival of My Family: Not the Sitcom seeks to find understanding in the death of a parent and the on-going dementia suffered by another. Not the recipe for comedy, right? Wrong. What Baddiel did so brilliantly is paint a portrait of his deceased mother, a human portrait, and remember her for who she was, foibles and all. The same with his father’s condition requiring 24-hour care. He has found a way to cope with the unfairness that is old age and the inevitability of death and that is to celebrate life and help others in similar situations.

Similarly, Rotterdam, which has just opened at the Arts Theatre to a wave of 5 star reviews and deserved standing ovations, seeks to use theatre to provoke thought and conversation on the topic of transitioning. According the programme notes the writer, John Brittain, wrote the play after the realisation that, having seen some his friends transition, there ‘were barley any trans narratives on stage or screen’.

The play follows a lesbian couple, Fiona and Alice. It’s New Year’s Eve in Rotterdam where they have been living together for the last seven years. Alice is finally about to come out to her parents (via email) when Fiona informs her that she wishes to transition and be known as Adrian. Adrian’s story charts the ups and down encountered from acceptance by his parents and strangers, to confusion projected from his girlfriend and verbal abuse in the street.

Alice struggles to deal with the situation, partly due to questions over her own sexuality but also because of a lack of understanding. It seems that Alice reflects the majority of society in struggling to find the right vocabulary. This is unknown ignorance. Alice does not mean to be hurtful or spiteful through choosing wrong words, names and pronouns but, as a human, she is a creature of habit and it is difficult for her to change overnight. It is then how she deals with the mistakes that become important.

Neither Alice nor Adrian are innocent parties, both lacking understanding from the other person’s point of view. Adrian becomes angry and violent, Alice too inward focused and self-absorbed. What they are lacking is dialogue between each other to seek understanding and move forward.

And that is what Brittain has provided here, a dialogue with many different permutations worked through. Rotterdam will help audiences to understand that transitioning is different for every individual and there is no one path. What the play shows is that communication, education and understanding are the best ways to support those who are transitioning. Support for the LGBTQIA+ community needs to come, not just from friends and family, but society as a whole. Changes, such as use of pronouns and introduction of gender neutral bathrooms in all public buildings (after all, they are gender neutral at home, aren’t they?) are small, simply things we as a collective can do but it will make a huge difference.

Rotterdam is only at the Arts Theatre until July 15th. Be sure to get a ticket and see this outstanding, funny, touching play that will be sure to go down in history alongside the likes of Angels in America and Beautiful Thing.

The Wipers Times

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s play finally makes it way to the stage, after a 2013 detour into a film for television. The play tells the story of the Wipers Times, a publication made in the trenches of the First World War, edited by Captain Fred Roberts.

The chance find of an old printing press, coupled with a sergeant who was in printing during his civilian life, led to the production of a satirical magazine, full of trench humour, pastiche and the ubiquitous poetry. All of this takes place under the heavy shelling from the German trenches and the ever-looming threat of the ‘Big Push’.

In spite of this, and in line with the content of the Wipers Times, the play is packed full of fun and humour from start to finish. The writing of the play makes the subject matter seem fresh so even though it is set 100 years ago, the play has an allegorical feel.

The Arts Theatre is a great setting for the piece (although space is limited so be first in the queue for the bar or the loo or face a long wait). Unfussy, good sightlines and an intimate feel, the theatre really is a gem in the west end, able to support smaller, touring productions. The company all work well together, with a good rapport and chemistry that is important for comedy but also helps to emphasize the camaraderie of soldiers at the front.

While all should be commended for their roles in bringing the production to the stage, the applause should be reserved for Captain Roberts and his unit. Men who went through the worst horrors mankind has ever known, but found the comedy and used it to alleviate the situation. Through a mixture of lampoon, parody and good old-fashioned taking the piss, the legacy left to use by these soldiers, is one for all time.

 

 

Drury Lane Theatre Tour

If you are looking to do before a show and are feeling the need to immerse yourself in the history of theatre, what better way to do it that to undertake a tour of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Currently home to 42nd Street, the theatre runs tours at various times throughout the week (be sure to check their website before visiting).

There has been a theatre on the site where the current building stands since the Restoration, the days of Charles II. Indeed it was here Nell Gwynn, Charles’s mistress began selling oranges before taking to the stage and becoming the toast of the town. With such a rich and diverse history, there is plenty to whet your appetite.

The tour takes in all parts of the theatre, From front of house, to the Royal Box, a tunnel underneath the theatre which dates back to the 1600s and even below the stage. If you are lucky, as you go around the venue, you will get to see glimpses of the current production, including the cast. While sat in the auditorium, Sheena Easton walked across the stage and gave us all a friendly wave.

But if you miss out on seeing some of the current residents, never fear, there are plenty of former ones milling about. For example, if you happen to be up in the circle watching a performance, have a look out for a man in grey. It is said that he walks along the aisle and often makes an appearance if he thinks the show is good and will be a long runner. After making his way along the stairs, he turns and vanishes through a wall. When that wall was remodelled many years ago to make way for a new bar, part of it was taken down. Bricked into the wall was found a skeleton with shreds of grey cloth hanging off him and a dagger between his ribs. Perhaps the man in grey was an actor killed by a jealous rival. If you spot him, why not ask him?

He is just one of many who haunt the various parts of this enormous complex. But it’s not all about those who have shuffled off this mortal coil. You will stand in the retiring room used by the royal family and discover which royals had a fight in the rotunda leading to their being two royal boxes in the theatre. It was in the retiring room that an actor, who so impressed the king with his performance, was summoned after the curtain and knighted there and then – with a prop sword.

The theatre also boasts the claim of being the longest continuously running playhouse in the world, preforming even while the theatre was being rebuilt. It is also home to a lot of firsts. The first theatre to use an iron safety curtain, first to use coloured light and an early pioneer of equal rights.

At one point, men were able to pay to see the actresses get changed, a practise that was stopped by David Garrick when he took over the management of the theatre. Legend has it, he ripped up the contacts (for the actresses had it written into their contract that they would do this) and had new ones drafted.

There are tales to tell and stories to uncover at every turn in this theatre that has had a colourful and fully theatrical history. It is in the heart of London’s theatre scene, both historically and emotionally. Many actors long to play ‘The Lane’ and after a journey round it on one of these tours, you will be able to appreciate what is so special about it.

Matilda: Cambridge Theatre

Roald Dahl’s writing created a world of wonder and fun, a place where children were important and some adults reprehensible. His world is filled with awe and adventure and is a place many of us would desire to visit. Thanks to the enduring appeal of Tim Minchin’s collaboration with the RSC, we can.

Matilda, is still enjoying full houses at the Cambridge Theatre almost six years after it first opened in the west end. When you enter the auditorium, you are first struck by the colourful and quirky set, bursting out from the proscenium arch and surrounding the stage. It sets the tone for the whole production that is bright, colourful and engaging.

Dahl’s familiar characters, indeed caricatures, are brought vividly to life. The story follows the plight of the titular character, born into a resenting, crooked, telly obsessed family and her escapism through books and reading. When she is able, she starts school, presided over by the former shot put throwing champion – the formidable Miss Trunchball.

The story is supported by Minchin’s brilliantly inventive music and playful, witty lyrics. His musical style is well suited to Dahl’s writing (perfectly adapted for the stage by Dennis Kelly). Joyous and uplifting, this show is a perfect example of a creative team all working exceptionally well together on a shared idea.

The show is a delight for people of every age. There is something for everyone to everyone to enjoy. I challenge anyone to visit the show and not leave feeling uplifted, smiling and wanting to be a little bit ‘norty’.

West End Live 2017

Now in it’s 13th year, West End Live is a free two-day event in Trafalgar Square celebrating London’s musicals. Here is a brief roundup of Saturday’s offerings.

 

The Basic Info

West End Live took place on Saturday 24th and Sunday 25th June this year. The dates are always around the same weekend so be sure to check ready for next year’s event. The day starts at 11am, gates opened at 10.30am but it’s best to be prepared to join the queue early, especially if you want a prime location. This year I joined the line at 8.30am but the time soon passed and before you know it, you are in.

The event takes place in Trafalgar Square with entrances along the north terrace in front of the National Gallery. Previously, West End Live took place in Leicester Square but it soon became so popular it had to move.

 

Highlights of 2017

West End Live provides the chance to revisit some old favourites. This year, audiences were treated to Killian Donnelly singing Bring Him Home, having just opened as Jean Val Jean in Les Miserables. Continuing his run in Phantom of the Opera, Ben Forster sang the titular number along side Celinde Schoenmaker followed by Music of the Night.

These two shows have clocked up almost 62 years between them. More recent classics include Matilda, Mammia Mia and Wicked. Willemijn Verkaik delivered an outstanding rendition of Defying Gravity eliciting cheers from the thousands gathered in the Square.

West End Live is also a chance to see new arrivals in the West End and also some of the smaller productions. Among the new arrivals in town were Wind in the Willows which has just opened at the Palladium, Annie that recently opened at the Piccadilly Theatre and Hair which is set to celebrate its 50th anniversary with a transfer to the Vaults in the autumn.

 

What else is in the Square

As well as the performances on the main stage, around the edge of the Square there are lots of tents with different competitions, activities and freebies in. Disney Theatricals had their own tent for the first time with costumes from The Lion King and Aladdin. Glitter face paint was available from the Oxford Street tent while Everything’s Rosie were giving away free candy floss.

TKTS also had a pop up shop where you could purchase tickets for a show, either matinee or evening so if you loved what you saw on stage, you would get your hands on a ticket straight away and see the full production.

 

What to look forward to in 2018

Each year West End Live finds new ways to grow. For next year’s event, there was a hint that a much-anticipated musical might be making an appearance. Hamilton arrives in London in November so who knows, could it be making an appearance at next year’s West End Live?

David Baddiel’s ‘My Family: Not the Sitcom’

The theatre is a place to be entertained, of course, but it is also a platform for conversation, thought and reflection. A place where ideas can be shared and challenged and concepts created. Whether what you are seeing on the stage is fictional or based on truth, there is something we can learn from this shared experience to help enrich our own existence.

This is, in part, what David Baddiel achieves in his new live show, My Family: Not the Sitcom. On paper, the premise is rather melancholic for the show is about the death of Baddiel’s mother in 2014, and the process which follows in dealing with the loss of a close family member, and also about his father, suffering from Pick’s disease and in receipt of 24 hour care.

There is an irony to the title of the show, in that what Baddiel presents is the making of a fine sitcom. His parents, Sarah and Colin are fun, vibrant characters, full of life. Add into the mix a prolonged and public affair, an obsession with golf and a handful of well-chosen expletives and what you have are people you would want to invite into your home for half an hour a week to create laughter and mayhem in equal measures.

In the show, Baddiel talks about people at his mum’s funeral coming up to him and saying, ‘your mother was wonderful.’ While the word is perhaps accurate, the sentiment that people offer in these occasions are rather bland and banal, not wishing to cause offence or upset and hoping to add some comfort to the grieving family. Here, Baddiel spends two hours saying, ‘yes she was wonderful, but she was also a sex mad, erotica writing, obsessive, Jewish refugee cake arsonist.’ In short, she was a real person who was many things and to reduce her to a simple adjective is not enough. She lived and breathed and her joy of life is something still tangible and she lives on the laughter of the hundreds watching her middle son (who went to Cambridge University), on stage in the west end, sharing her spirit.

But what of his father, Colin? Actually Dr Colin Baddiel to be precise. Dementia is a complex illness, something that is not uniform in its affects of symptoms. Colin has Pick’s disease that has, it seem, polarised a particular part of his personality. So rather than destroy who he is, it has magnified that part of his persona that will flick the vs and tell you where to go (it rhymes with cough). Sadly, as is the case with the disease, there will be a decline and deterioration that is unavoidable. I hope that, when the inevitable arrives, David Baddiel will be able to find the laughter in the situation and enable him, and many others in similar situations, to find a way through.

We all know that death is something everyone will face. Let’s continue to laugh in it’s face and make grief that bit easier.

School of Rock – New London Theatre

When taking someone to the theatre, it is always a nervous experience. They have put their trust in you for the selection of the production and you hope that they will enjoy it and get as much from the performance as you.

On a recent visit to School of Rock, I took my little sister. She is 13 and this was to be her first West End musical. Her previous exposure to musicals had been school plays and Sunday afternoon viewing on the television. What was she to make of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest offering?

With no knowledge of the 2003 film, she was to view this show with fresh eyes. She sat and watched, she laughed, she clapped and all seemed well. I waited until the train home to quiz her and find out her thoughts. The verdict – it is brilliant!

She loved the relationship between the kids and Dewey Finn (played superbly by Gary Trainor). The student/teacher dynamic kept her attention and, for someone at school, it is a relatable relationship. The back and forth wordplay is funny and witty, full of asides and references ensuring the pace of the show never drops. My sister is from a generation that is used to the instant. Google, Facebook, Spotify, and other have illuminated the need to wait, to sit still and have provided an array of satellite distractions. What Lloyd Webber and Julian Fellows have done here is offer a show that captures the imagination of this generation without ever being patronising or ignoring the parents and older siblings in the room. The show is for everybody and everybody will enjoy it.

Another point that she found impressive is the fact that the kids on-stage play their musical instruments live. It is great to see young people being empowered to reach their potential and do what they are capable of doing (in this case singing and playing music to packed houses in the west end). Let’s hope the School of Rock’s message spreads and young people will have the chances to engage in whatever activity they excel in and be the best they can be.

One thing that my sister definitely took away from the show is the soundtrack. Full of catchy rocky numbers, Mount Rock and Stick it to the Man being firm favourites, the show will stay with audiences for a long time and it is a welcome bit of fun that everyone needs in their life.