19/02/21 Fredo writes –


by Lolita Chakrabarti, streamed from the Almeida Theatre

The Almeida Theatre in Islington has punched above its weight for some time. Like the Donmar at its best, it acts as an alternative National Theatre, with its programme of rediscovered classics, provocative interpretations of familiar work and stimulating new plays.

That’s why we were excited to see them hosting a live streaming of a new play, Hymn by Lolita Chakrabarti, starring  her husband Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani. Sadly, the planned live run at the Almeida had had to be cancelled, but this intrepid theatre offered live streaming from 17 – 21 February.

It’s a tense two-hander, covering the developing relationship between two half-brothers who meet for the first time at the funeral of their father. In 90 minutes, Gilbert and Ben move from wariness to friendship to betrayal and disappointment, before a late reconciliation. This allows the actors to show the range of their abilities: who knew they could also sing and dance and cavort so freely?

If the play is a more uneven experience than Ms Chakrabarti’s hugely enjoyable Red Velvet (which we took the Group to see at the Kiln Theatre), there was still a lot to enjoy. The narrative contained surprises, and the actors negotiated changes in mood with emotional dexterity. We were glad we’d tuned in.

A bonus on Thursday 18 February was a Q&A conducted by the Artistic Director of the Almeida, Rupert Goold, with the cast and playwright, and the director, Blanche MacIntyre. Lolita had trained as an actor, and said that everything in the play was based on her observations of friends and family. She felt that non-familial and non-romantic relationships between men hadn’t been portrayed on stage, and this prompted her to choose this subject. She admitted that she had had Adrian and Danny in mind for the roles, and sometimes asked her husband if he had certain skills, which she then incorporated into the play. She and Adrian had known and admired Danny’s work for a long time, and were aware of his abilities. 

Both Adrian and Danny were conscious of not having an audience to react to them, and felt deprived that they didn’t have a preview to adjust their performances to the audiences’ reactions. They had come dangerously close to cancelling the play when both Lolita and Adrian had Covid at Christmas. Regular virus tests were carried out during the rehearsal period. Blanche hadn’t directed for the camera before , and had felt that she’d been on a steep learning curve, especially having to ensure 2m spacing was kept between the actors throughout.

They were united in thanking Rupert and the Almeida for making the production possible. It was an achievement, and we were grateful too. But we still wished we could have seen the performance live on stage.

Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani in HYMN

(Photos : Marc Brenner)

18/01/21 Eric writes –

Full Stream Ahead

A few thoughts on live Jazz during lockdown, by Eric Boa

David Newton
Practicing in Eric’s garden
Alan Barnes

Around the country countless jazz societies continue to thrive, even in these concert-less times. Once bitten by the bug – and it is a varied wee beast – the desire to listen to syncopation, improvisation and shifting rhythms never goes away. My wife and I are spoiled for choice but chose Guildford Jazz an odd choice at first sight since we live in New Malden. But it’s easy to reach by car and, more importantly, they put on regular concerts at remarkably affordable prices. Maybe that’s why jazz musicians drive old Minis rather than new Mercedes.

GJ has faced the same challenges of all events organisers, yet has continued to present up-lifting and thrilling music in novel ways. Find out more at this LINK. We went to their first concert at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre after the first unlockdown. I say ‘at’ rather than ‘in’ because the musicians were perched on an external staircase with punters suitably spread out on the patio below. But it worked. As did the live stream from the BOILEROOM in Guildford earlier this year. (This should be shortly available on the GJ website.)

The BOILEROOM live streams owe much to the energy of Marianne Wyndham, regular bassist at GJ. But there are many other aficionados behind the scene working within the limitations of current restrictions and bringing cheer to the monotony of house arrest. Marianne told me there were over 300 people listening in (and paying a small fee for the privilege), many more than would typically attend concerts and extending the audience in ways that once seemed unimaginable.

These rare live stream gigs are a lifeline for musicians stuck at home and a Godsend for anyone who loves music. Not just jazz fans. If you’re still not convinced, then look up Alan Barnes and David Newton for tasty samples, including our back garden (at this LINK). You might recognise this tune, based on the original Tea for Two. There’s solo stuff (at this LINK) and more great jazz via concerts held in a friend’s house in Cheadle (another sample in this LINK).

Let me add a few other suggestions to nudge you jazz-wards. I’ll start with a good friend Phil DeGreg (access several special performances at this LINK), an American pianist and sublime player. Try the guitar duos of Martin Taylor and Julian Lage with Some Day My Prince Will Come (LINK) – preferably not Andrew. Or vocalise with the young and glorious Sant Andreu Jazz Band with Alba Armengou (LINK). Start ‘em young (and make us oldies despair of ever being this good). Some of these tasters will appeal more than others – my wife’s not a fan of nasal singing from Brazil. I know what she means, especially when the exuberance of Musica Populeira Brasilia (classy pop music from Brazil) descends into schmaltz and introspection. (Here’s even a LINK to that.)

But I hope there’s something here to engage and enthral. Give it a go. And when live music comes back, go to a jazz club (or a neighbour’s garden).

Phil DeGreg
Martin Taylor & Julian Lage
Alba Armengou
Sant Andreu Jazz Band

Below are reports on our mini theatre season of five visits to contrasting performances, traditional and less so, over six days. They all manage to bring theatre back to life in the most difficult circumstances. The performers have gone that ‘extra mile’ to protect themselves in required bubbles, to distance themselves from fellow pals putting on the show. Theatre managements, with no chance of making any profit, have organised deep-cleansed theatres, spaced-out seating, hand gel, and even masks for those who forgot them.. We thank everyone for their diligence and concern. We thank fellow audience members for making the effort to attend, to enjoy, to return, to the venues we cherish for the pleasure they give us. We look forward to returning again to theatreland after Lockdown Two, for the new dawn of the vaccine age….if enforced restrictions and isolation have not decimated that urge to tread the boards (them) or be seated in an auditorium (us). We intend to be back as soon as we can and we hope you will too. (Read all about our theatre-going week below, most recent at the top.)

15/12/20 Mike writes

Pantoland at the Palladium

Julian Clary
Dame Gary Wilmot
Paul Zerdon and…
Elaine Page

Rating: ****

Oh, Christmas Joy! Here it is, the traditional panto in all its gaudy sparkle. You can’t get more traditional than the London Palladium Panto, and around the proscenium are displayed posters through the years for every panto title you have ever known. There’s the one for Norman Wisdom in Aladdin which I saw as a child, maybe the time I fell in love with the theatre (and Norman Wisdom too!). There’s another poster for Aladdin, this time with Danny La Rue, probably the last panto I saw at the Palladium. Ah, memories!

But this show is actually Pantoland, a variety show lovingly assembled from favourite previous Palladium panto ingredients. The recipe is unchanged – colour, glitter, phantasmagorical costumes, laughter untapped, and all mixed with a rich seasoning of decibels and innuendoes.

The band and sound system ensure the former, but it’s Julian Clary who’s master of the double entendres – and how! Other Panto regulars, Nigel Havers and Dame Gary Wilmot, are joined by ‘stars’ Beverly Knight and Elaine Page, all sending up each other and themselves. There’s also the agile group Diversity adding gymnastic synchronicity to the mix, and two principle boys, Charlie Stemp and Jac Yarrow from Mary Poppins and Joseph (sadly under-used). But undoubted star of the show for us was a ventriloquist, Paul Zerdin, and his puppet (certainly no dummy). Their act, together and apart (yes, really!) was not just clever, fun and hilarious, but surprisingly original too.

An overlong interval in a show with turns but no plot (characters in search of an author) meant the second half took a while to reignite, but we had plenty of fun as did everyone, just as happy to be back at the Palladium as were the cast.

Not for long however. The show opened on Saturday and sixth performance into its run was forced to close when London was moved into Covid Tier Three. Every theatre has taken extraordinary measures to make their spaces safe with no reported Covid infections as a result. Now entertainment venues must close, whilst schools and universities, centres for the spreading virus, can remain open and continue next year when theatres cannot – yet another government miscalculation to ruin livelihoods and perhaps inflict a fatal blow to many theatrical careers. But I would say that (quite rightly), would I not?

14/12/20 Mike writes –


An installation by Vox Motus at the Bridge Theatre

Rating: *****

Flight tells a graphic tale in much the way a graphic novel would tell it. But in 3D, with models.

Two brothers, one older one younger, flee from the war zone that is Afghanistan to find a better life, or perhaps life at all, in the safety of England. Their flight takes them on land through hostile countries encountering some kindness but mainly rejection. And we watch it all happen in tiny model form, conveyed in carefully lit boxes on a moving belt just inches before our eyes.

This is intimate theatre in tableaux form, and as personal as it could possibly be – we each watch in an individual cubicle, listening to the voice-over and sound effects through headphones. Have you ever experienced theatre like it? Me neither, and it was an impressive and affecting experience.

Think of those who have died trying to cross the Channel in a small boat or have hidden in a refrigerated lorry – those are the stakes involved and, surprisingly, we can identify with the tiny realistic and detailed model figures risking their lives within a hand-stretch of where we are seated. Of course we mustn’t touch, but the detail and design achieved in the making of these models, perhaps more than a hundred boxed scenes, is truly amazing. It’s a unique show.

Plaudits to the Bridge for allowing us in, COVID safety precautions in place, to its basement area for an epic journey with no live actors involved.

13/12/20 Fredo writes –

Love Letters

by A.R.Gurney, at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.

This picture is deceptive – the two actors were always appropriately distanced on stage!

Rating: ****

FIRST CLASS POST – The plays of the distinguished American playwright A. R. Gurney don’t seem to travel very well. His natural home is in the bijou off-Broadway theatres, and he has only had two plays open in the West End. One of them, Sylvia, hardly lasted a week, despite having Zoe Wanamaker in the title role (she played a dog – it’s a comedy).

He describes Love Letters as “hardly a play.” It’s a two-hander and it does what it says on the tin: two actors read out an exchange of letters. It requires a minimal set, and little rehearsal. Consequently it’s become one of the most performed plays in America, with starry actors dropping in for a few performances at a time. More than 30 years ago, it enjoyed a successful run at Wyndham’s Theatre, with pairings such as Robert Wagner and Stephanie Powers, and Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neil. In the past it’s been treated with some disdain by the critics; it’s a star vehicle, and its characters are unforgivably privileged people.

Nevertheless, it seemed an obvious choice as an entertainment to present in this forlorn year, and I expected an enterprising fringe theatre to seize the opportunity. Perhaps it’s too WASP-ish (that’s white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant) to sit comfortably in today’s woke agendas on the smaller stages where it would fit comfortably.

Mike and I found ourselves making our way to that most traditional of West End playhouses, the Theatre Royal in the Haymarket, on a Sunday afternoon. Our tickets were a bargain at 2-for-the-price-of-1, with a free programme, and a note from producer Bill Kenwright saying that as we’d paid for our tickets to be here, we needn’t pay for the programme! The audience was spaced out very comfortably, with the theatre staff delivering ordered refreshments to our seats (we didn’t partake). I settled down for a cosy afternoon.

Our star performers were Martin Shaw and Jenny Seagrove, actors who’ve worked together before and who clearly have a rapport to build on.  They sat at desks on either side of the stage and started reading from the correspondence, which begins with an exchange of childish letters, and reaches an awkward and unfilled teenage romance by the interval. Just like life, there are complications in the second act. I expected a witty and slightly superficial entertainment, but as I bit down on the play, I encountered a surprisingly hard centre.

Disappointments in life, love and marriage, infidelity and divorce, compromise and betrayal and alcoholism, all are confronted in a carefully constructed and literate script. Perhaps the playwright lingers too long in the youthful years, before getting to the meat of the drama in the later years; perhaps Jenny Seagrove misses some of the recklessness that Elaine Stritch might have brought to the role. Nevertheless, she rises to the occasion as the play progresses, and Martin Shaw is totally in command of his character. 

The small audience had greeted the actors with a round of applause when they came on stage at the start, and gave them a deserved  ovation at the end. The actors were pleased, and clearly grateful that we were there, giving us applause too. It seems that the critics have become aware of the play’s merits on this showing – it has received much more respectful reviews than it had in the past. And it made me want to hurry home and dash off a love letter.

12/12/20 Fredo writes –

Jenna Russell at the Hippodrome

HELLO, JENNA! We’ve been leading sheltered lives: we didn’t know there was a cabaret room secreted inside the Hippodrome Casino. You have to brave the doorman, sign in for track-and-trace, pick your way through the gamblers at roulette and baccarat tables (all shielded from each other with Perspex screens) and make your way upstairs to the Sports Bar. Where am I? Is this Blade Runner or a Guy Ritchie movie?

When you get there, the room isn’t very impressive – it looks like the set for a honky-tonk Country & Western musical, no Christmas decor. But the stage is comfortably high, so we can all see the performer from the socially-distanced seats, and we note that even the microphone has an aerosol shield. We cradle our drinks (cranberry juice), the pianist Nigel Lily mounts the stage: all we need now is – Jenna Russell! 

She makes her way to the stage crooning “Hello, Audience!” to the tune of Hello, Dolly!, the show that she was scheduled to appear in at the Adelphi Theatre earlier this year (you remember, we had our group tickets). She explained that she had been going to play Irene Molloy to Imelda Staunton’s Dolly; now she has heard vis Twitter that the show will take place in 2022. It was an emotional moment for Jenna, and for us, as she reacted to appearing before a live audience for the first time this year, and – surprise, surprise – doing her very first cabaret. In fact, she has done everything else: Shakespeare at the RSC, Chekhov at the Royal Court, Sondheim in the West End, David Hare, Alan Ayckbourn, sit-coms on television, a Tony nomination on Broadway, and a stint on EastEnders. If you still can’t place her, we’ve taken our group to see her in Grey Gardens at Southwark Playhouse, and The Bridges of Madison County at the Menier Chocolate Factory. We also saw her with Maria Friedman in a Cole Porter concert at Cadogan Hall: her rendering of Down in the Dumps on the 90th Floor sent me scouring YouTube to hear the song again, but no-one sang it as well as she did. Although she claimed to be nervous, we knew that we were in for a treat. She is vocally very secure, and she’s a conscientious performer who prepares her material thoroughly. Added to that, she has a natural warmth and exuberance, and a mischievous sense of humour.

She assured us that she had chosen a programme of familiar songs, because we all needed a bit of cosiness at the moment, a warm hug in song. And a lot of Sondheim, starting with Waiting for the Girls Upstairs followed by Broadway Baby, both from Follies. Between numbers, Jenna confided some anecdotes from her long career: auditioning for Michael Grandage for the role of Sarah Brown in Guys and Dollsbut hoping to get cast as Miss Adelaide – she wasn’t, but had the compensation of being kissed by Ewan McGregor; being cast in Martin Guerre (“God help me”); auditioning for Trevor Nunn for Les Miserables and being told to prepare a pop song, and instead choosing Sondheim’s I Remember. “What is I Remember?” asked Alain Boublil. “It’s by Sondheim.” “Sond’eim ‘urts my ears,” replied M Boublil. “I shouldn’t have told that story,” said Jenna. “He’s a very nice man” – extravagantly crossing her fingers.

There was much humour and many emotional moments in the show, none more than the closing song, Losing My Mind. If there was a dry eye in the house, it certainly wasn’t mine. And for an encore, an odd coincidence: Jenna chose the same song that Hadley Fraser used at Crazy Coqs – Charlie Chaplin’s Smile.  Thanks, Jenna (and Charlie) for lighting up our faces with gladness.

Rating: ****

10/12/20 Mike writes –

The Dumb Waiter

by Harold Pinter, at the Hampstead Theatre

Rating: ***

The play’s the thing, isn’t it, when we go to the theatre? Well, possibly not at present as first we need to know all the C-19 precautions the theatre is taking. Top marks to Hampstead for its safety measures – temperature check, plenty of hand-gel, and well-spaced seating with no one sitting in front, behind or either side of each ‘bubble’ booked. I was even told not to wait in part of the foyer, not here but there – happy to oblige.

This visit really was “a matinee, a Pinter play”, his early One Act two-hander which perhaps, in its day, introduced us to the Pinter pause and his chilling moments of tension, all present here. We have two guys confined in a windowless basement, both with guns, awaiting orders from above. But when the dumb waiter makes its rattling descent, it’s to order food from the café no longer here. The waiting game reminds me of Waiting for Godot, but the small-talk and bickering is Laurel and Hardy, here with undertones of unspecified threat. There’s some uneasy laughs but we all watch silently, expectantly, waiting…

We’ve seen more personality driven performances in these two roles but Alec Newman and Shane Zaza are well matched, letting Pinter lead them up his path to…history. Yes, this is a 60th anniversary production of when it was first staged at Hampstead. It is usually performed as part of a double-bill and we last saw it in February 2019 as part of the Pinter Season at the Pinter Theatre. Did we feel short-changed seeing it as a single 55 minute performance? I shall just say it was well worth it for being back at a live performance again in a theatre reopened after nine months, not the first to reopen but another……for now.

Note: The unused seats were covered by poster-size images of actors from previous Hampstead productions, comfortably surrounding us with friendly faces.

28/11/20 Fredo writes –

Joe Stilgoe: out of the shed

Streamed from the Chichester Festival Theatre

NO ORDINARY JOE – We’ve enjoyed performances by the gifted jazz pianist and singer Joe Stilgoe since we first saw him in High Society five years ago at the Old Vic. He’s an entertainer  to his fingertips, and those fingertips can certainly tinkle the ivories. During the lockdown this year, he has delighted his followers with broadcasts from his shed, where he has his piano. Last Sunday, he was released from his shed into the cavernous Chichester Festival Theatre to stream a concert into our homes. I suspect that when Artistic Director Daniel Evans scheduled this performance, he had hoped to sell tickets to a live audience. In the event, Joe was marooned with his drummer and bass player on the stage of a 1,000-seater theatre. This was an obstacle that any performer would struggle to overcome, and inevitably it cast a shadow on the evning. Nevertheless, Joe has an amiable and charismatic personality, and played and sang with his usual flair. He provided a witty opening number, one of several of his own compositions in a programme that included Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, a medley of Irving Berlin’s Top Hat and Putting on the Ritz, and Jimmy Webb’s Wichita Lineman, and more. Where the evening faltered was in the patter between the songs. With no audience to bounce off, the jokes had nowhere to go, and the banter with the band seemed to consist of in-jokes (a fault that I’ve noticed that jazz musicians in particular are prone to). Even so, it’s always a pleasure to spend time with the gifted Mr Stilgoe; he’s no ordinary Joe.

New use of a face mask

(Photos taken of the computer screen by Mike)

Rating: ***

Rating: ****

24/11/20 Mike writes –

Marry Me A Little

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, streamed from the Barn Theatre, Cirencester.

A Sondheim jukebox show is not such a rarity these days with many performers eager to air his songs in concert. But a show which puts old songs into a new plot is more of a rarity (think of Mamma Mia! being an obvious example.). Marry Me A Little is not only the title of a song originally cut from Company, but it’s also the name of this plotted compendium, put together by Craig Lucas and Norman Rene back in 1980. It can be treasured for giving us about 20 of Sondheim’s lesser-known songs dropped (and in some cases picked up again) from his best known earlier musicals. But does it work as a ‘new musical’?

Hmmm…it works as a minor small scale musical in its own right (two players, one split set) but mainly it’s a reminder of just how good Sondheim’s other shows are. He is better known for cynicism than sentiment, and a plot featuring a couple splitting up is a better choice than, more usually, one bringing them together. There is no happy ending, of course, but we all know splitting up is hard to do, so much angst features in these songs. The difficulty, perhaps for Sondheimites more than for others, is that we are less concerned about the couple singing about their love problems (there is no dialogue) than the unanswered questions “what show does that song come from?…Why was it dropped during previews?…and This song it too clever to be forgotten!”. That last statement is very true of some, but putting all the songs together reveals that many have a repetitive theme and are similar in form; fairy tales were an obsession; his rhymes are tongue-torturing; his songs written to develop character and tell a story fare less well out of context; and plums with no pudding do not make a satisfying meal.

I do not mean to sound ungrateful, and having seen this show several years ago, I knew exactly what to expect. What surprised me was just how well this staged streaming from the Barn Theatre worked on screen, how expertly it had been directed, and how cleverly it had been updated with the texts and snapshots that any couple with happy and sad memories, following the break-up of a relationship, would retain on their iPhones today. Both Rob Houchen and Celinde Schoenmaker have strong voices, appealing personalities, and win us over to believe in what they are singing, but of course it’s Sondheim who still owns the show. I may have misgivings about the concept, but for fans, collectors of rarities, and those looking for a light and easy entertainment with a sweet’n’sour flavour, it works.

There are two other Sondheim compilation shows waiting in the wings for someone to stage and/or stream for us. Side By Side by Sondheim was a revue first staged in 1976 and this was the show that first introduced us to so many of his songs. It began at the Mermaid Theatre and then transferred to Wyndhams, giving us the first LP of every Sondheimite’s collection of albums, and whetting our appetite for every Sondheim show which followed. Putting It Together (1992) is another with no plot but just a lets-have-a-party theme. It was first produced at The Fire Station in Oxford. I have a poster signed by the cast and Sondheim himself – I remember chasing him down the road and him, rather nervously, agreeing to take my pen, sign, and get rid of me asap! While the man himself is paused to think about a new show for his 90s, we would always welcome his career plums for our theatrical jukebox. Marry Me A Little was an appetite-whetter for more.

Rating: **

19/11/20 Mike writes –

What A Carve-up!

adapted by Henry Filloux-Bennett from the novel by Jonthan Coe, and streamed from the Barn Theatre, Cirencester.

If only good intentions guaranteed success. Perhaps in some quarters they do – my homework for this streamed production lead me to Google and the Guardian’s four-star reviews of both Jonathan Coe’s book (1994) and this special small-screen adaptation for our locked down times.

A satire on 1980s politics has become a murder mystery, cleverly turning the original inside out, achieving plaudits for its timely intentions but, for me, losing track of the original in the process. What we now have is nothing theatrical (despite being commissioned by three theatres) but pastiche investigative journalism, a cross between Panorama, Who Do You Think You Are? and Channel 4 News. The humour has evaporated too. No, there’s no connection to the same-titled film (1961) with Sid James and Shirley Eaton – pity about that!

It’s certainly ‘clever’ with its interviews, story-telling and montage of photos and film-clips, but the narrative gets lost in a fog of biographical details. This recollection whodunnit, this butchery of a whole powerful and corrupt family, is all connected to fictional political scandals of the Thatcher era and echoed in today’s events. Even Cummings was mentioned so my ears did prick up then, but generally this family saga just fails to grip.

The on-screen characters do their best to convince us but fall awkwardly between the two required concepts of drama and naturalism. What may read convincingly does not transfer easily to headshots on the small screen. The live actors (Tamsin Outhwaite, Fiona Button and Alfred Enoch) do their best in restricted direct-to-camera performances; the celebrity voice-over actors are wasted – I only recognised Derek Jacobi. It all plods along confusingly, explaining itself at too greater length, and losing the political satire in murderous complications.

With so much effort put into creating jobs and entertainment in these difficult times, I really do wish I could have liked it more.

Daniel Evans / Jenna Russell / Hannah Waddingham / Clive Rowe / Gabrielle Brooks

Rating: ****

05/11/20 Fredo writes –

Sunday in the Park with Daniel

streamed from Chichester Festival Theatre

SUNDAY IN THE PARK was an irresistible combination: a Sunday evening concert of songs by Stephen Sondheim from Chichester Festival Theatre, starring Sondheim veterans Daniel Evans, Jenna Russell, Hannah Waddingham, Clive Rowe and relative newcomer Gabrielle Brooks – all seasoned and assured performers. Daniel and Jenna together had broken our hearts – several times – in the Menier production of Sunday in the Park with George, as well as individually delivering unequalled performances of Cole Porter songs in separate concerts at Cadogan Hall. Daniel’s rendition of Night and Day was a dramatic highlight of that year, and no-one (yes, I’ve searched YouTube) has ever sung Down in the Depths on the 90th Floor as exquisitely as Jenna. Last year Clive reminded us how he lights up the stage in Blues in the Night at the Kiln Theatre, and Hannah was a feisty lead in Kiss Me, Kate as well as an alluring Desiree in A Little Night Music. Gabrielle has worked her way steadily through musicals (she’s been Dorothy in two productions of The Wizard of Oz) and she is certainly an artist I’ll look out for in the future. 

Do you remember the time when Sondheim was an eclectic taste, and the only way to hear his songs was at compendium concerts like this? In recent years, there have been ground-breaking and popular productions of shows like Follies, Company, Sweeney Todd and Merrily We Roll Along, and they have have given these songs a comfortable familiarity. Now it’s a joy to hear a singer soar her way through The Miller’s Son (Gabrielle) or to hear an unexpected male rendition of Broadway Baby (Clive) or a heartfelt Marry Me a Little (Daniel) and a blood-chilling The Last Midnight (Hannah) with Jenna exposing the heartbreak in Losing My Mind. 

There were a few mishaps in the two hour concert: Jenna is an experienced performer but was thrown by the lyric at the start of  Getting Married Today, and Hannah’s decision to semi-talk her way through Send in the Clowns was ill-advised. Nevertheless, it was a generous programme which we enjoyed – and we brushed away a tear at the timely finale With So Little To Be Sure Of. 

Sadly, we weren’t live-and-in-person at Chichester. We streamed the concert at home, and that wasn’t ideal, as the link failed on my computer, and we had to squint at the i-Pad instead. Inevitably, this diminished the impact of the concert, and occasionally dim lighting obscured the performers on the small screen. But as well as a reminder of the genius of Sondheim, it was a reminder that there is no substitute for live theatre.

02/11/20 Fredo writes –

Champagne Super Divas

at The Crazy Coqs

We couldn’t resist a socially-distanced invitation from friends to join them at Crazy Coqs for an early evening performance from the self-styled Champagne Super Divas, Tiffany Graves and Izzy van Randwyck.  The two performers met when they appeared in last year’s The Boy Friend at the Menier, an evening that came as close to perfection as any I’ve ever spent in the theatre. That successful production was due to transfer to Toronto, with Kelsey Grammar joining the cast, when suddenly in March, all our lives changed.

A little champagne sparkle was what we need right now, and these two ladies were ready with a plentiful supply. This was their tribute to the 90s, and their songlist ranged through the Spice Girls, Alanis Morrisette, Britney Spears,  the title song from Friends, and You’ve Got a Friend in Me from Toy Story. The arrangements by pianist Lee Thompson transformed these pop songs into cabaret anthems, and the divas delivered them with panache.

As they reminisced about their 90s past – Tiffany started her career touring with Adam Faith in A Chorus Line and Izzy toured with Fascinating Aida (both visiting the Cliffs Pavilion, Westcliff on their travels!); Tiffany then spent most of the decade playing Velma in Chicago with Marti Pellow among others while Izzy joined Judi Dench at the national in A Little Night Music – they brought out their souvenirs from an on-stage bottomless bag and box. This section of their show was a bit protracted and under-rehearsed, and the divas would be well advised to do a bit of editing here. But it was their songs and personalities that gave the show its fizz.

It was a generous programme of some 13 songs delivered with confidence, humour and pizzazz. It felt like the night they invented champagne.

Champagne Super Divas –

Rating: ***

Rating: ****

15/10/20 Fredo writes –

Hadley Fraser and Will Butterworth

at The Crazy Coqs

What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play!

It’s been a long year, empty of live entertainment, so when we saw that Crazy Coqs at Brasserie Zedel had re-opened for their cabaret performances, we immediately booked to see Hadley Fraser and Will Butterworth

You don’t know who Hadley Fraser is? Yes, of course you do! He’s a talented singer and musician, equally at home in musicals and drama. You’ve probably watched him in the concert of The Phantom of the Opera (he was Raoul). His career spans Marius (and later Javert) in Les Miserables, the title role in Young Frankenstein, Tullus Aufidius in Coriolanus with Tom Hiddlestone at the Donmar, and City of Angels also at the Donmar. In fact, the revival of that production at the Garrick was in preview and was cruelly cut off by the lockdown in March.

Crazy Coqs is a small and intimate room. At a squeeze, it can hold up to 80 people, but it’s more comfortable with 70. Given the restrictions at the moment, capacity was reduced to half that number. But – “Humans!” Hadley exclaimed, regarding his audience. It was an emotional moment for him, and he confided that he hadn’t realised how much he had missed performing to a live audience.

He started his act with Jerome Kern’s Look for the Silver Lining, an encouragement that we all badly need right now. He picked up this theme later, with a caressing rendition of Smile  in an exquisite arrangement by pianist Will Butterworth.

Hadley, like many of us, had been looking forward to seeing South Pacific at Chichester this year. He extolled the merits of that great score, and then surprised us with This Nearly Was Mine, rearranged in 5/4 time.

Highlights? I have to choose between the fusion of God Only Knows and She’s Leaving Home, (see a recording at this LINK) and the ethereal Once Upon a Time.

The evening ended with Stephen Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle, and a sincere thanks from Hadley to us for attending. We’d heard that Maria Friedman at the same venue had been overcome with emotion at seeing a live audience again. Performers need to perform; the air is rarefied in the spotlight. We can’t wait to support more evenings like this again.

Mike adds – The songs were not so much arranged by Will Butterworth as rearranged, deconstructed, and it was bliss. Like Fredo, I keep remembering God Only Knows, a phrase turned into heartbreak and rendered here with such feeling and intensity that tears trickled into my Negroni. Hadley has volume and a passionate delivery when needed but also a tenderness and that ethereal quality Fredo mentioned which steals one’s breath, slows the pulse, and brings unexpected emotion to a familiar lyric. The Crazy Coqs is an intimate venue, but the intimacy of this performance was a privilege to cherish.

(Don’t forget the recording at this LINK!)

Boys in the Band By Mart Crowley Directed By Joe Mantello
Jim Parsons Zachary Quinto
Matt Bomer Andrew Rannells
Brian Hutchinson
Michael Benjamin Washington Charlie Carver Robin De Jesus
Tuk Watkins
David Zinn – Set and Costume Design Hugh Vanstone – Lighting Design

Rating: *** (F) **** (M)

06/10/20 Fredo writes –

The Boys in the Band

by Mart Crowley (filmed by Joe Mantello for Netflix)

“Let’s hear it for the boys in the band!” was the frequent entreatment from singers like Doris Day and Frances Langford in their days of singing with Harry James and Glenn Miller. This was an incentive to audiences to acknowledge the men who made the music in the background while the glamorous blonde in the foreground picked up the applause. 

Mart Crowley used this as an analogy of the similarly unacknowledged gay men in 60’s America in his 1968 play, The Boys in the Band. This started life on Off-Broadway, but transferred to the Great White Way, and became a hit. The London production, at Wyndham’s Theatre in 1970, was a success as well. It arrived at the right time, when gay men  – acknowledged but at best politely overlooked – were asserting their presence. It was a seminal work: it sounded a voice, and acted as  a catalyst for discussion, and it opened a door for other dramatists such as Tony Kushner, Kevin Elyot, Matthew Lorez . The movie version didn’t play the local Odeons, but was a success on the art-house circuit. 

Then the play disappeared, apart from being resurrected as a curiosity by regional theatres and amateur companies. It looked old-fashioned: what was all the angst about? So you’re gay, so you lead a double life, so you’re in the closet – get over it! Come out! Life, and gay life, had moved on.  The constraints and the pressures of bygone years were forgotten. And then in 2016 the enterprising Park Theatre at Finsbury Park staged it to some acclaim, and it transferred for a very limited season to the Vaudeville. A Broadway production followed 2 years later, to mark the play’s 50th anniversary. 

The new movie of The Boys in the Band on Netflix is based on that award-winning (for Best Revival) Broadway production, directed by Joe Mantello, with a well-publicised all gay cast. It provided an interesting talking-point as it divided opinion in the Theatreguys household. 

The play is more than 50 years old now, and it’s time to reassess it both as drama and as a document of its time. Of course, factored into that is the particular setting and its niche group of characters; not just 1968 New York gays, but Greenwich Village gay men, with an ethnic mix of Jewish, Catholic, black and, in this incarnation, Hispanic gays. The play’s value was always in giving airtime to the lives and attitudes of this demographic, though it’s debatable how narrowly or accurately it’s represented here. And from the more enlightened 21st century, it may be difficult to empathise with the angst of being a visible but ignored and disapproved of minority. 

It was the first mainstream gay play, and it was this, and the zinging dialogue, that disguised the fairly wobbly structure that it sits on. In the theatre, with high-definition performances and an audience already rooting for it, it gets by. On screen, in this version, it falters. Mantello wisely sticks to the apartment setting, with a few brief and well-considered flashbacks, but the rhythm is off. The long opening scene between Donald and Michael, establishing their bond, is played at speed by Jim Parsons and Michael Bomer as though they were on speed; the zingers fly, but they don’t land. There isn’t an audience out-front to respond, to laugh; the actors can’t relax into the performance, and neither can we. The delivery needs to be more considered, more arch, more pointed to make the point. 

Parsons (recently seen in Netflix’s Hollywood) suffers most from this: there are inconsistencies in the character he’s playing,  and good actor though he is – and he’s never boring on screen – neither he nor Mantello provide a satisfactory arc for Michael’s story. He’s the centre of the drama, and we should be on his side, but the performance lacks development; as a result, the character lacks conviction. Michael’s dilemma – his unhappiness about his sexuality, his relationships and his Catholic faith – are unresolved at the end, and the play is his tragedy. The other characters are there to show alternates to his life, and he rejects and alienates them. Parsons is a subtle and charismatic actor, capable of exploring this complex character, but he isn’t allowed to open up. 

Another weakness is the miscast Zachery Quinto as Harold, who’s given a build-up by the other characters in the first act of the play before his late entrance. Harold, we’re told is Jewish, neurotic and bulimic, and self-conscious of his ugliness. We also sense that his friends are slightly afraid of his aggressive take-no-hostages attitude to them. Mantello tries to give him a big screen entrance, but the editing isn’t sharp enough, and he blows it. The entrance is an anti-climax, and the performance a disappointment. Quinto has only a slightly odd appearance (he’s played Dr Spock in Star Trekbut he’s no Gollum, and he doesn’t have the weight to dominate Michael in their stand-off. It’s a shame: the other actors do well with their material, and though the play strains credibility (Why do these people stay at this party? Couldn’t they call a cab?) the movie holds our interest. 

But not as well perhaps as the original movie by William Friedkin all those years ago. Friedkin edited the dialogue, so each line was sharp and crackled with viciousness. The performances (by the original Broadway cast, “some of whom were homosexual” we were told) convinced us that this was a group of men who had known, loved, fallen out, and irritated each other for a long time. It had rawness, edge, excitement.

Yet this version is worth a look. The play was a great hit  first time around. It may seem diminished now, but it remains a seminal work. It meant an awful lot to an awful lot of people at the time. 

Or was it just that we were boys then, and now we’re men?

Mike adds – The division in the Theatreguys’ opinion was not so dramatic as the on-stage drama, but I just enjoyed it all more than Fredo did. Maybe I always have done as I was eager to see the play again at the Park Theatre while Fredo opted out. This movie version of the Broadway production has its faults (I disagree only a little with Fredo’s criticisms) but it still holds my attention (aghast but amused) as it did way back then.

Were we really like that? No, no, no, well I hope not, but some were! And to see ‘people like us’ out of the shadows and up there on stage, was some sort of exhilarating release, especially as we were only recently ‘legal’. 

Nowadays, the OTT dramatics seem…er…staged. And definitely contrived. Years later came My Night With Reg, The York Realist, and other plays, all more realist than this melodrama, but TBITB was an early gay milestone on the road to where we are today. I’m still grateful to it for that.

It’s interesting to compare the trailers for the 1970 film version with the 2020 remake. The earlier one looks much more fun. In the background “Anything Goes” is playing then there’s a stern announcement – ” Mart Crowley’s hilarious play is now a movie. It’s not a musical!“. The current Netflix trailer makes it look less amusing than it actually is – are gays now more humourless and depressed than back then, or is the new movie just trying to reflect the mood of the time it is set? The 2020 version does not accentuate the 1970 period so perhaps times are supposed not to have changed so much. Compare the two trailers – here is the 1970 LINK and this is the 2020 LINK.

(You can currently see this film of the play on Netflix.)

Rating: *****

Fredo writes 20/0920

Faith Healer

by Brian Friel (streamed from The Old Vic)

The Old Vic has been very enterprising in producing and streaming live performances for a limited number of dates. This was the third, and the second one that we watched. Like Nicole and Margaret, we were impressed by Andrew Scott in THREE KINGS (who wouldn’t be?) but I felt that FAITH HEALER might be more of a challenge to the actors and the audience.

This famously is the play that was rejected by the RSC with the dismissive “it’s not really a play” but has since become one of the most sought-after plays by production managements. The format – four monologues by three actors – suggests that it’s an easy play to stage, but it requires concentration, and actors who can grip and involve the listeners.

I’ve seen three Faith Healers now: the tortured, self-doubting Donal McCann, the mercurial, spell-binding Stephen Dillane and now the compelling Michael Sheen, slightly more charlatan than healer, but still plausibly with a gift. Sheen is a commanding actor, and in this transmission, master of the close-up as well. He seized our attention and his narrative was relentless.

The actor playing Frank, the Faith Healer, has to be matched by the other two, and Indira Varma and David Threlfall didn’t falter in their delivery of the sad stories that conveyed the destruction that Frank had wrought on their lives. The contradictions in the stories showed the tensions in the relationships and the memory, and we returned to Frank to finish the chilling, tragic tale.

I remember at the Royal Court that Donal McCann held the audience in thrall, and I felt we were all breathing in and out at the same time. I had a similar sensation watching this interpretation.

This play was more unforgiving of the actors that the recent Talking Heads series on television, as the monologues were longer, and had to be performed without cutting away. I was impressed by the voice work; Michael Sheen was distinctly from Limerick, and Indira Varma contrastingly from Tyrone.

Not really a play? No, it’s a towering achievement.

Rating: ****

03/09/20 Fredo writes –

Beat The Devil

by David Hare (at the Bridge Theatre)

I half-dreaded revisiting the Bridge Theatre in case it seemed empty and echoing, with its seating capacity reduced from 900 to 200. How could we pretend to be an audience and participate in a performance, and how could even such an accomplished actor as Ralph Fiennes fill so much space? We arrived early, and had our temperature taken at the door (Question: if a small organisation such as the Bridge can arrange this, why can’t the Border Agency do this at airports?) and with our hands sanitised – and masks available in case we’d forgotten to bring our own –  we entered the auditorium.

Lo and behold, it had been transformed. Surplus seats had been removed, and seats were set out at a proper distance in groups of two, three and four, with a single one dotted here and there. It looked and felt like a safe and comfortable distribution; congratulations to the Bridge for their imagination and organisation. 

David Hare has been a playwright for 50 years, and recently has tended towards the documentary and overtly political. This hasn’t always improved his standing as a dramatist, as a hectoring tone has crept in. Given the events of the past 6 months, and his serious illness with Covid-19, his 50-minute play Beat the Devil might be hard-going rather than hard-hitting. I underestimated him.

His account of his illness is vivid – that’s the devil he didn’t know until now. Then he turns his attention to the devil that he knows all too well. His anger at the government’s response to the crisis is sulphurous, with scorching rage justly directed at Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and the tone-deaf and insensitive Pritti Patel in particular. After months of confusions, contradictions and obfuscation, this is clear-sighted journalism and a cleansing polemic. 

Does it work as drama? Yes, definitely. After 50 years, Hare knows how to shape an argument, how to give a narrative rise and fall, how to place a funny line to lighten the darkness. The ace in his hand is Ralph Fiennes, our author’s representative on stage. His confident, authoritative delivery matches the tenor of the writing; he seems to be thinking the words and weighing them up before he speaks. He plays the audience and places the humorous lines to give them their full value. 

It was great to be back in the theatre at a live performance. I was  entertained, enlightened and refreshed. Life begins again.

Rating: ****

11/08/20: Fredo writes –


by Simon Stephens from the book by Jose Saramago (at the Donmar Warehouse)

I swear I felt Juliet Stevenson’s breath on my cheek as she leaned in to whisper a warning to me in the darkness. The disorientation and tension increased as my imagination filled in the uncomfortable gap between what I heard and what I could not see.

In truth, I expected Blindness to be more visual, but of course it makes sense that most of it takes place in profound darkness. It’s a play about a blindness epidemic after all. Lighting comes intermittently from florescent tubes overhead, sound through headphones (truly state of the art) – so is it different from listening to an audio book at home?

Very different: there are a couple of coups de theatres, and although it’s dark, it’s a shared experience, and we realise how much an audience is part of the performance. Stevenson’s recorded voice accompanies us through the mounting panic as the population succumbs to the epidemic. She gives a sensational performance, exercising her voice to its full extent, and demonstrating her imagination in infusing every syllable with subtle inflexions. You hear her from all around, amidst the enveloping soundscape.

It’s a short (70 minutes) presentation. but you wouldn’t want it to be longer – it is discomfiting, and relates closely to our own recent experiences (well, not literally, thank God!)

And the Donmar had organised it all very well indeed: masks, hand sanitiser and water all provided (don’t forget the water, it was a hot day!) The staff were welcoming and solicitous. Congratulations to them all.