A log of my MANY theatrical adventures...

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Richard III

Saturday 16th August 2014, Trafalgar Studios

Poster boy
This week’s theatrical adventure was a grand anticlimax. You win some. You lose some. As you know, I was scheduled to continue in my quest to ‘collect them all’ – ‘them’ being theatrical appearances by the illustrious cast of Sherlock. In March, I saw Mark Gatiss (the marvellous Mycroft) in Coriolanus. In May, I saw Moriarty himself, Andrew Scott, in Birdland. Next year, the infamous Mr Cumberbatch is on the cards. But on Saturday, it was time for Dr Watson, Martin Freeman, to present his take on Richard III.

The day started well. At a frankly ungodly hour, my oftentimes theatre buddy, Jacqueline, and I succeeded in dragging our friend, Jackie, out of bed and onto the bus to London. Our aim was to reach the big smoke nice and early, in order to visit Highgate Cemetery. (And yes, once again, my blog diverts into some cemetery tourism!). Highgate, founded in 1839, is probably London’s most famous graveyard. It’s one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries built in the Victorian era on the outskirts of the city to prevent overcrowding. Over 170,000 people are buried at Highgate and it is well-known for its architecture and for its notable residents. In the nineteenth century, Highgate quickly gained a reputation as a fashionable place in which to be laid to rest. As the twentieth century wore on, the cemetery fell into disrepair and suffered considerable vandalism. In 1975, it was rescued when local people founded the Friends of Highgate Cemetery in order to ensure its preservation.  

Entrance to the Egyptian Avenue
The cemetery is divided into two. The older West Cemetery is only accessible via a guided tour. It boasts numerous fascinating monuments and architectural features, including an Egyptian-style Avenue, the so-called Circle of Lebanon with burial chambers surrounding a huge Cedar tree, and terraced catacombs. The tour was hugely interesting. Our enthusiastic guide outlined the history of the cemetery, explaining Victorian funeral fashions and introducing us to some of Highgate’s most intriguing residents, including the poisoned Russian secret-serviceman, Alexander Litvinenko, and Adam Worth, the master-criminal who inspired the character of Moriarty. (Got to have a Sherlock reference somewhere!)

Workers unite! 
The East Cemetery is less architecturally striking, although it does house probably the cemetery’s biggest names, George Eliot and Karl Marx. Visitors are free to wander. Marx’s huge memorial presides over what could be best named, ‘Communist Corner’ – a collection of graves of his followers and admirers, including the historian, Eric Hobsbawm.

The headstone reads 'The glorious SHEILA GISH'
From a thespian perspective, several stalwarts of the theatre are buried at Highgate. I visited the graves of Sir Ralph Richardson and his wife, Meriel, Corin Regrave, Sheila Gish, Antony Shaffer, and Max Wall.

One feels that Highgate’s stories are endless. The Friends of the cemetery have worked hard to engage visitors with tales of the people who are buried there while ensuring that the cemetery remains a beautiful and peaceful final resting place.

Once we had wandered around Highgate, we trekked over to the West End for some much-needed refreshment. Fed and watered, we popped by my favourite theatre bookshop, David Drummond in Cecil Court, where I bought some goodies - more about those in a future post! We then toddled over to Trafalgar Studios to collect our tickets for the evening’s show. The matinee was just exiting. Time for some more Sherlock spotting! Among the crowds was Holmes and Watson’s neighbour, Mrs Hudson – in real life, Una Stubbs. This was the second time, Jackie, Jacqueline and I had run into Una. We’d clocked her in the audience at Coriolanus too. She too must have been attempting to ‘collect them all’. I also spotted Claire Skinner (probably best known as the mum in Outnumbered). She didn’t look too happy. A bad omen...

A few minutes later, Jacqueline returned from the box office with the shell-shocking news that Martin Freeman was unable to perform that night! Richard III would be without its star.

Now, I go to a lot of theatre. I am fully aware that to the well-enlightened mind, this should not have been a tragedy. I am fully aware that the theatre’s management cannot guarantee anything. There’s not much a theatre can do if their headliner has caught the flu or ate a dodgy whelk. That is, of course, what an understudy is for. The show must go on. I am also fully aware that to the culturally superior, ‘the play’s the thing’ and that I should be led by the script, not the cast list.

Yes, yes... but we all know that’s not really the case. Look who's all over the posters! Only last week, the Barbican’s Hamlet did not become the quickest selling production in history simply because punters were eager to hear the tale of the Prince of Denmark. Would those who flocked to see the National Theatre’s famous production of Othello, back in 1964, have given up their evenings so readily if the Moor had been played by an unknown?  Theatrical runs bask in the glow of superstardom and struggle in its absence. In his autobiography, Christopher Plummer recalls the demise of the North American premiere of The Royal Hunt of the Sun after he was hospitalised with a blood clot:  

[The production] staggered on for a while, but its producers refused to pay for a “name” actor to replace me and with just my understudy valiantly carrying on night after night, good as he was, there was no “draw” to keep it running, so in a matter of weeks this gorgeous production closed.’ (In Spite of Myself (2010), p.429). 

When Elizabeth Taylor was unable to perform during the infamous run of Private Lives - her reunion with Richard Burton - the Lunt-Fontanne theatre was shut down until she recovered. Nobody, it was reasoned, had bought tickets to see the understudy.

All of this is to illustrate that when news of Martin Freeman’s indisposition reached our ears, we were naturally disappointed. We had come to see the man himself and were keen to see his interpretation of the Bard’s great villain. Nevertheless, understanding that there was not much to be done, we still went to see the show.

I did not enjoy this production. I do not think that this was simply because of Martin Freeman’s absence. His understudy, Philip Cumbus, who usually plays Richmond, gave a perfectly assured performance. It was more to do with the staging. Jamie Lloyd has chosen to locate this Richard III in the 1970s, just after the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’. He seeks to draw on the period’s deep political divisions and rumours of a planned aristocratic coup against Wilson’s Labour government. The set itself looked like something from an episode of Life on Mars – a 1970s office with typewriters, Bakelite phones, and henchmen in tank tops and flares. Queen Margaret, dressed like Maggie Thatcher, shouts her curses to the accompaniment of flickering lights and pyrotechnics (the result of a power cut, perhaps?). Richard strangles Anne with a telephone cord to the tune of cheesy elevator music.

I am unashamed to say that I just didn’t get it. Linking the political feuds of the 1970s to Gloucester’s attempts towards the throne requires rather too much of leap and, I think, too much prior knowledge on the part of the audience. It was only when I read my programme afterwards that things became much clearer! So the class war explained the (rather dodgy) regional accents adopted by some of the cast!

The play itself felt rather underpowered. Clarence was drowned in a bloody fish tank. Queen Elizabeth was strapped, kicking and screaming, to a chair. Yet, strangely, there didn’t seem to be much energy between the actors. Philip Cumbus seemed far too restrained as Richard. Looking at the reviews of Freeman’s performance, it seems that this is the production’s intent rather than Cumbus’ own choice. His Richard could be cruel and calculating and sometimes violent, but he lacked any glittering malevolence – the strange charm and charisma which renders the audience (and indeed Richard's followers) both repulsed and transfixed. Some of the speeches were played for laughs. ‘A horse, a horse’ became a last-minute joke to the audience when Richard was facing the barrel of a gun.

At some times, the use of music drowned the words of the actors. At others, their own elocution left something to be desired. I had trouble understanding Maggie Steed at Queen Margaret. Yet, the special effects continued apace. There were bloodied heads, bangs, crashes, flashing torches, blinking lights, flapping elevator doors, and even toilet flushes. As Jacqueline put it, it was oddly like a ‘Carry On’ film in parts: ‘Carry On Dick.’

The reaction of the audience was mixed. The couple next to me left at the interval. Yet I overhead other audience members remarking how much they had enjoyed the show. Mr Cumbus was given a warm round of applause and (by some) a standing ovation.

Back in Oxford, we discovered that Martin Freeman had been off for most of last week. Ought we to have been warned? We had been told by the Box Office on Saturday that they had no information regarding refunds or the possible re-booking of tickets later in the run, once Martin was back on his feet. Instead, Box Office staff gave out slips of paper with the email address of the producers. If Martin had been away all week, surely they ought to have had more information than this?

And so the question of star-power rages on. What will be the result of dropping the producers a line, I wonder? Is there anything they can do? Clearly, they’re not obliged to come up with a solution for disappointed ticket holders. Any Martin Freeman fan, whether travelling from Canada or Canada Water, should have known that the theatre could not guarantee his appearance. Yet, will the producers acknowledge that many ticket sales for the production were made only because of its star? People do, after all, like to see a range of actors' interpretations of Shakespeare's greatest roles.  

Richard III will be played by Laurence who? 

I did a twitter search yesterday. Martin Freeman was back on stage:

Now is the winter of my discontent

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

In tribute to Lauren Bacall

16th September 1924 - 12th August 2014 

Lauren Bacall, who died yesterday aged 89, was smart, sexy, sophisticated; a Hollywood goddess who could floor the most self-assured gentlemen with an elegantly raised eyebrow; a woman with whom one did not trifle. Betty Perske (as she was born) was a rare thing in tinsel town – a beauty with a brain and an always ready wisecrack. Men wanted her, albeit from a somewhat awestruck distance. Women wanted to be her. 

I first came across her in my teens when reading about the Oliviers with whom she was close friends. I read her autobiographies, By Myself (1978) and Now (1994), learning about her ascent to stardom at the tender age of nineteen, her electrifying partnership with Humphrey Bogart (twenty-five years her senior), her prodigious stage and screen appearances, and her encounters with the glitterati of old Hollywood: Leslie Howard, Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin... you name ‘em. A great storyteller and comedienne, I was struck by her candour and the underlying melancholy in her writing. Bogie had left her a widow at thirty-two. Although Bacall had a long career, continuing to appear in blockbusters into her eighties, the four films they made together, To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo (1948), remained her most famous and best. As her great and glamorous friends and colleagues, many much older than herself, died off, she carried on with increasing loneliness. An icon from a bygone age.

There are plenty of classic Bacall moments to savour on screen and off. She was wonderfully alluring. Her deep, husky voice contrasts with the high, wavering voices of so many cinematic damsels of the 1940s. I love the story of her trademark, ‘The Look.’ Auditioning for To Have and Have Not, in order to quell her nerves, she kept her chin pressed to her chest, staring upwards at the camera – the sultry stare that this produced was utterly unintentional. I remember a small scene from The Big Sleep where she sits on a desk, slightly lifting her skirt to scratch her knee. It’s hardly risqué but it’s mesmerising. Today’s Hollywood knows nothing so subtle and so effective.

Though I love her films with Bogart, some of my favourites were made without him. In How to Marry A Millionaire (1953), Bacall’s gorgeously cool and haughty, a perfect ally to the ditzy and loveable Marilyn Monroe and the eager and chaotic, Betty Grable. Though penniless models, they hire a plush Manhattan apartment and plot to ensnare rich husbands with varying and hilarious results. In The Shootist (1976), famous for being John Wayne’s last film, she is a strong and determined woman of character in a violent world, providing refuge to the dying gunfighter. It’s a quiet and dignified performance and deserves to be better known. I also love Bacall’s much louder performance as the relentless Mrs Hubbard in Murder on the Orient Express (1974). She is very, very funny as this American grande-dame, ever-advancing down the compartment, demanding the attention of dear Mr Poirot with her foghorn voice and the phrase: ‘My second husband always said...’

Off screen, Bacall wasn’t afraid to give her own opinion either. She was a staunch defender of the old Hollywood – a time when stars were stars and cinema was truly pushing the boundaries. Her trip to the pictures to see one of the recent Twilight films with her granddaughter has been much reported in the newspapers. Completely unimpressed at her granddaughter’s suggestion that this trash was the definitive vampire movie, Bacall recounted: ‘I wanted to smack her across the head with my shoe.’ Avoiding such action for fear of motivating a posthumous biography, Grannie Dearest, she instead presented her granddaughter with a DVD of some proper cinema: Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). ‘Now that’s a vampire film!’

Though a cinematic icon, Bacall was also a star of the stage. She twice won Tony awards for appearances in Broadway musicals: Applause in 1970 and Woman of the Year in 1981. In 1995, she came across the pond to appear at The Chichester Festival Theatre, in the aptly titled, The Visit. This was a mixed success. The VIP apparently caused a bit of a stir in town, complaining that the Cathedral church bells were disturbing her slumber! I’m lucky enough to have in my memorabilia collection a programme from the performance, collected strangely enough from a bric-a-brac sale in Somerset! Oh, if only I could have seen the show itself...

Lauren Bacall was great because she was different from the usual Hollywood ingénue. She was unique and so she became, and remained, a star. Statuesque, sharp-witted, and smart-mouthed, she didn’t need a man to rescue her and sweep her off her feet. She’d choose her own man and he’d have to be up to the mark! She was the perfect foil to the rough, gruff, hard-talking, hard-drinking Bogie and together they created cinematic magic. How odd to think that her first thought on hearing he might be her co-star was: ‘Cary Grant – terrific! Humphrey Bogart– yucch.’ We will remember their magic and we will remember Betty – a cracking actress, a genuine diva, and a shining star.

She taught us how to whistle...

Bogie and his Baby
Picture from Golden Age Hollywood on twitter

Monday, 11 August 2014

Great Britain

Saturday 9th August 2014

Soggy apple strudel. Hmm...
Hello, hello! I’m back! Did you miss me? Do not fear; theatrical activity has now resumed for the summer. It was on momentary hiatus while I jetted off here and there for business and pleasure. I made a trip to Austria for a few eventful days – alas not the trip but a work-related jaunt to Vienna. My attempts to swan about glamorously à la Baroness Schraeder, eat copious amounts of crisp apple strudel and stuff myself with schnitzel ‘altogether too delicious for my figure’ was somewhat thwarted when I caught a rather unpleasant lurgy. I’m quite sure nothing so indelicate ever happened to the Baroness. Perhaps I should have drunk more pink lemonade? Nevertheless, I did manage to sample a delicacy or two and to go on a tour of the famous Staatsoper. Do you know why it’s unlucky to whistle in an Opera House? Answers on a postcard...
Inside the Staatsoper
I then popped off to beautiful Lourdes for a glorious week. Curiously, this trip included several renditions of the ‘Sound of Music’ – on a French train... in a cafe... and in the hills themselves...

The hills are alive...
So, back in the UK, back to work, and back to the theatre. On Saturday, Terry had organised one of his famous trips to the National, this time to see Richard Bean’s new play, Great Britain. A swift, snappy take on the phone-hacking scandal, this was a late addition to the summer schedule, announced days after Andy Coulson’s sentencing.

The very dashing Anton Walbrook
My happy return to the National was preceded by a peaceful afternoon in Hampstead. I went to visit the grave of the magnificent Austrian actor, Anton Walbrook, at St John’s Church. Saturday was the forty-seventh anniversary of his death (though this was pure coincidence – I was unaware of this planning my trip). Born in Vienna in 1896 as Adolph Wohlbrück, Anton became a star on stage and screen in Austria and Germany in the early 1930s. One of his most famous films was the original, Viktor und Viktoria (1933), upon which, much later, Blake Edwards would base a musical. Half-Jewish, Walbrook fled the Nazis to England in 1936, anglicising his name. He quickly became well-known, appearing as Prince Albert in Victoria the Great (1937) and Sixty Glorious Years (1938) and as the manipulative husband in the original version of Gaslight (1940). He then made a series of films for the Archers team of Powell and Pressburger. I first became aware of him when, as a child, I was terrified by his portrayal of the cruel impresario, Boris Lermontov in The Red Shoes (1948). More recently, I have been blown over by his performance as the kindly and perceptive German officer, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). This is an extraordinary and very moving film about Anglo-German friendship in the midst of war. Walbrook lived in Hampstead and requested in his will that St John’s would be his final resting place. When he died in Bavaria from a heart attack at the age of seventy, his ashes were brought there. He deserves to be better remembered as a fine actor – dashing, mysterious, and mesmerising – who brought tremendous realism and intensity to his roles.  

Anton Walbrook's grave
St John’s is also the final resting place of several other famous names, including the artist, John Constable; the politician, Hugh Gaitskell; the actors, Gerald Du Maurier and Kay Kendall; and the author, Eleanor Farjeon. It’s a beautiful, leafy, peaceful spot in the midst of a bustling city.

I liked Hampstead a lot. I found a lovely Hungarian patisserie called Louis’, which served tea in china cups. Splendid.

And so to the National... Great Britain is an irreverent, hilarious, and relentless satire about the insidious power of the press. It follows the fortunes of a leading tabloid, The Free Press, and its ambitious news editor, Paige Britain (Billie Piper). Keen, determined, and seemingly without scruple, Britain is presented with journalistic gold dust by a rather doddering and naive source, who blithely lets her know the secret of accessing voicemails on another person’s mobile phone. She now has access all areas: to the murky world of forbidden love affairs – celebrity crushes, homosexual police chiefs, and politicians with prostitutes. Her ill-gotten gains give her great power. The Free Press wins the election for a Tory posh-boy, Jonathan Whey (Rupert Vansittart), but Paige has his secrets at her disposal. She also has the Metropolitan Police by the balls. Piper is bursting with energy as Britain, almost giddy with adrenaline. She thinks quickly, not deeply. She’s only interested in now, and now, and now, and more and more and more – the next story, the increasingly daring scoop.

The depiction of the Metropolitan Police Chief, Commissioner Sully Kassam, by Aaron Neil almost steals the show. Chosen for his ‘ethnic diversity’ rather than his intelligence, Sully is a liability. Self-labelled ‘the Gay Terminator,’ he is in a precarious position for a number of reasons. He’s being pursued by an angry Welsh lover; his force shows a dangerous aptitude for shooting innocent black guys; and, while attempting to be politically-correct, he suffers from chronic foot in mouth syndrome. When he’s not suggesting that more white men are shot to redress the imbalance, he’s voluntarily getting taser-ed on national tv. Aaron Neil plays Sully brilliantly – innocently and stupidly walking into every trap to the dismay of his second in command, Donald Doyle Davidson.

The newsroom set in the Lyttleton is built around three screens – when not being used as office partitions, they are put to great effect showing television clips and newspaper headlines. We live under attack from a constant barrage of rhetoric. The smug lecturing of ‘the Guardener’ and the farcical hysteria of the red-top press are parodied: ‘IMMIGRANTS EAT SWANS!’ Sully and his inane pronouncements are remixed as YouTube pop videos. We are also treated to extracts from trapped phone conversations. There’s an especially funny segment about the royals, in which Prince Charles is overhead telling Camilla that he hasn’t had a bath for a week, in order to experience what a real farmer smells like!

Although she’s wheedled her way into Westminster and Scotland Yard (gloriously rebranded New Mary Seacole Yard by Sully), Paige doesn’t have everything her own way. She does not get her hands of the editorship of The Free Press. Paschal O’Leary, the newspaper’s Irish proprietor, replaces the foul-mouthed, no-nonsense, Wilson Tikkel (Robert Glenister) with a vapid magazine editor from New York, Virginia White (whiter than white, perhaps?). Paige is angry, but in effect, Paschal has given her free reign. White is far too busy campaigning for horses’ rights in her Executive Suite to keep an eye on her phone-hacking hacks. How can she be expected to know what they’re up to?

Of course, we know these hacks went too far. The downfall of The Free Press comes with the kidnap of twin girls from a trailer-park. With insufficient evidence to convict the girls’ layabout father, the police are hamstrung, until Paige volunteers her ‘superhero’ services. Not only can she dish the dirt on Kieron Mills, she can successfully secure Davidson (by now her lover’s) appointment as Commissioner. Yet, several folks have become more than a bit suspicious. Other policemen have started sniffing around. A famous cricketer’s solicitor alleges his phone was hacked and his relationship consequently destroyed. A canny PR consultant plants a trash story about the Queen’s past in the Hitler Youth and it ends up in the paper. Then, everything crashes around Paige’s ears. The innocent Kieron Mills, branded a paedophile through trial by press, is murdered in jail. The girls are found dead and it’s revealed their phones were hacked. Davidson commits suicide. The Free Press is shut down and its journalists arrested. Is Paige sorry? Not very.

The cleverness of this play is that it’s bold and outrageous. The characters may be brash but they’re not only stereotypes. Yes, we aren't offered many insights into their lives outside the newsroom or their consciences (or lack thereof). Yet, their actions are all too familiar. The desperation of the over-privileged politician, seeking the support of the press to appear ‘normal’ to the masses is particularly recognisable. Bean is deliberately provocative and non-PC. The famous cricketer’s solicitor, Wendy Klinkard, has dwarfism – cue many groan-inducing jokes about disability, some made by Wendy herself. One can feel the audience deciding whether it’s appropriate to laugh! This in itself serves to highlight the overriding theme of the play. Bean is asking us: What is funny?  What is going too far?

In spite of all the laughter, Great Britain leaves a rather bitter taste in the mouth. This is not just because it exposes the dubious motives and methods of the press – we knew about them already – but because it also emphasises our – the readers’ – hypocrisy. As Paige herself states, nobody cared when the law was broken to expose two-timing celebrities or money-making politicians. We like hearing about the downfall of the rich and powerful. It sells papers. Paige corrupted a civil servant to buy a hard drive, exposing MPs’ abuse of their expenses and was hailed a heroine. Yet, everyone cared when the phones were hacked of two dead twins and she was named a criminal. If the twins had been found alive, would this still have been the case? Or would the illegality of hacking have been overlooked and The Free Press acclaimed? Where is the line between right and wrong? If we don’t like the gossip and scandal, why do we buy the papers? Are journalists simply giving us what we want, nay demand?

After the play was over and we gathered in the foyer to say our goodbyes, I spotted a familiar face in the crowd. Why did I know that man? I stared at him for a bit. He smiled slightly and I tried to be less obvious. A few minutes later it dawned on me. It was Hugh Fraser, a.k.a. Captain Hastings. Oh dear, my leetle grey cells were not on the ball. Poirot would have been unimpressed.


So there we are, back in theatrical business. Next stop, Trafalgar Studies on Saturday for Richard III... And today, today (after five hours in an online queue), I got tickets to see another Sherlockian in Shakespeare. Benedict who? 

Sunday, 15 June 2014

An evening with Julie Andrews / Julie, Madly, Deeply

Saturday 24th May 2014 / Saturday 14th June 2014 

I love Julie Andrews. I love Julie Andrews. Did I mention that I love Julie Andrews?

This is a well-known and celebrated fact. There is a picture of Julie in my living room (courtesy of a birthday present from my friend, Demelza). There is a picture of her on my kitchen cupboard (courtesy of a newspaper cutting from my housemate, Anna). There’s a picture of her in my work inbox (courtesy of Jacqueline trying to cheer me up during a tough week). Julie is simply one of my favourite things!

My love of Julie is not simply limited to her most famous films: the glorious Sound of Music and the outstanding Mary Poppins. No, I am far more of a Julie-fanatic than that. I am an admirer of all of her work from her magnificent performance in Victor Victoria (1982) as a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman, to her hilarious television specials with the wonderful Carol Burnett (1962, 1971 and 1989), to her heartbreaking portrayal of a violinist crippled by Multiple Sclerosis in Duet for One (1986). Itunes informs me that I have nine Julie Andrews’ albums. I suspect it might be more!

I cannot really explain why I love Julie so much. It's partly because I grew up with her, but I think it’s also because of the sincerity that she brings to each performance. Watch her sing in those Austrian Alps and your heart soars with joy. Watch her speech-making as Genovia's Queen and you want to curtsey. Watch her struggle to hold it together in Blake Edwards' That’s Life (1986) and you want to cry with her. She inspires you to sing, to get up and dance, even to tidy your bedroom (spit, spot), and, in recent years, after the devastating loss of her singing voice, to grit your teeth and carry on, no matter what.

A new poster for my collection!
The moment I learned Julie was returning to the UK this year for a series of speaking engagements in Birmingham, Liverpool, London and Bournemouth, I rushed to book my ticket. And so, a few weeks’ ago with my mummy and brother in tow, I saw the great lady herself at Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena.

The audience at the NIA was a delightful mix of golden oldies, children, families, young couples, mums and daughters. The excitement was palpable. Even before Dame Julie appeared on stage, the woman in front of us was in tears of joy at the opening clip from The Sound of Music. Others chatted merrily about their admiration for Julie. A pair of women behind us concluded that she was indeed ‘practically perfect in every way,’ except for her hair, which was sometimes a little flat!

The NIA was set up in auditorium form with a simple platform and lectern from which Julie spoke. Very importantly, this tour was described as a series of speaking-engagements. Julie would be in conversation. I say ‘very importantly’ because I have seen Julie before. I was there at the O2 arena in 2010 when she brought her concert tour, ‘The Gift of Music,’ to the UK. This was a celebration of the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, coupled with a musical adaptation of one of Julie’s own stories, Simeon’s Gift. Julie was accompanied by several Broadway singers and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. These concerts had proven extremely successful in the U.S. The UK, however, was not so friendly. In fact, if you google ‘Julie Andrews’, you can easily find the Daily Mail’s assessment of proceedings: ‘Julie Andrews’ great comeback? But no one told fans she can’t sing’ shouts the venomous headline. The press almost universally slated the show, stating ‘fans’ were angry and disappointed that their heroine had not been singing, and had demanded their ticket-money back.

Julie at the O2 in 2010
Even writing about this event makes me angry! I think at the time, I even wrote to The Telegraph to protest! I am not suggesting that the evening at the O2 was perfect. It wasn’t. The venue itself is cavernous and was wholly unsuited to a concert of this sort. It needs to be filled with loud rock or noisy sport. Although the supporting singers were hugely talented, they were largely unknown to a British audience and therefore a connection was missed. What upset me, however, was the notion propagated in the press that Dame Julie had somehow deceived her audience. For a start, whatever the tabloids say, no genuine fan of Julie Andrews could fail to know that she tragically lost her singing voice in 1997 as the result of a botched vocal chord operation. Secondly, even if some admirers of Julie had still been unaware of this in the spring of 2010, there were so many interviews on television and in the newspapers prior to the concert, in which Julie spoke frankly about her vocal surgery, that you’d have to be living in a cloister to have remained uninformed. Thirdly, Julie did sing at the O2. She even sang two songs by herself, ‘My Funny Valentine’ from Babes in Arms and ‘A Cock-Eyed Optimist’ from South Pacific. Of course, the gorgeous soprano of her golden days was gone, but she gave a brave and beautiful performance. One verse from the latter song struck me as particularly poignant:

I could say life is just a bowl of jello,
And appear more intelligent and smart,
But I’m stuck like a dope with a thing called hope,
And I can’t get it out of my heart...
Not this heart.

For Julie Andrews, the show always goes on. In spite of the bad press, she returned to the UK this summer, and I’m very glad she did.

The evening at the NIA began with a series of clips from Julie’s career, including – to the joy of my brother who’s very much a Carol Burnett fan – the hilarious tea-drinking scene from Julie and Carol’s last reunion, Together Again (1989). If you haven’t seen Julie and Carol in action, YouTube offers a wealth of delights. This, folks, is what you call true entertainment. (The tea-drinking scene can be found here.) Julie then arrived on stage to rapturous applause and began telling us tales of her life. She described her upbringing in Walton-on-Thames; her childhood stardom in the music halls alongside her mother, Barbara, and her stepfather, Ted Andrews; her show-stopping appearance as a twelve-year-old at the Royal Variety Show; and her first trip to Broadway at nineteen to join the cast of The Boyfriend. She took us through her first starring roles as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, opposite the difficult and oftentimes unfriendly, Rex Harrison, and as Guinevere in Camelot alongside the attractive, unpredictable, and oftentimes drunk, Richard Burton. She told us anecdotes from Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, as well as details of her charity work for Operation USA and her role as a children’s author with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton.

Many of the stories I had heard before and appear in Julie’s wonderful autobiography, Home. I really recommend this book. Focusing on her childhood and ending just before she went to Hollywood for Mr Disney, it’s very different from the standard, self-indulgent celebrity memoir: well-written; at times, shocking; moving; and very funny. Julie’s stories don’t get old. I could hear some of them one-hundred times and still find them amusing! She described how she was dropped 100 feet from a studio roof during the making of Mary Poppins; how she was distracted on stage by Robert Goulet’s marvellous legs; and how her husband, Blake Edwards, would admonish her when directing sex scenes: ‘Cut! Very nice dear, but I know you can do it better!’

In the second half, we were treated to more anecdotes, though this time the conversation was led by Aled Jones. Yes, that’s right: Aled We’re Walking In The Air Jones! Julie delightfully announced that we would be joined after the interval by ‘her dear friend, Alec Jones.’ This gorgeous slip only makes me like her more! Aled asked some questions of his own and read out questions submitted by audience members. Some of these (who does your hair?) were hardly challenging, but others provoked a more insightful response. We learnt that Julie had a serious (though unconsummated) passion for her co-star in The Americanization of Emily, James Garner, which made it difficult to act during the bedroom scenes. Julie spoke movingly of her late husband, Blake, and talked us through a clip from their movie, Darling Lili, explaining the innovative and stunning camerawork. (You can see it here). A yelp of joy was emitted behind us as a young teacher had her question on children’s books chosen.    

It was hardly an exposé. Jones is no Paxman or even Parky. Julie glossed over the more difficult parts of her life – her mother and stepfather’s alcoholism; her mother’s revelation that the man she thought was her father was not her biological dad; her divorce from her childhood sweetheart, Tony Walton; and of course, the loss of her four-octave voice. The latter omission, in particular, I think is characteristic of Julie’s attitude to life. Since she became the main breadwinner for her family as a child singer, she has worked, worked, worked, and carried on regardless. Beneath the sweetness, Julie is a woman of strong backbone, who doesn’t sit and feel sorry for herself. She wasn’t dubbed ‘the nun with a switchblade’ for nothing. She has simply refused to let the loss of her voice defeat her and I greatly admire that. As she put it in Victor Victoria:

Ev’ryday the same old roller coaster ride
But I’ve got my pride
I won’t give in,
Even though I know I’ll never win.
Oh, how I love this
Crazy world.

Towards the end of the Q&A in Birmingham, Aled had a proposal for Julie: perhaps, if she felt up to it, they could have a little singsong? Of course, the audience was simply ecstatic! In the interval, my brother had overhead a young woman chatting to her companion. ‘I don’t care if it’s bad,’ she said wistfully, ‘I just wish she’d just sing.’ Well, she wasn’t bad, but even if she had been, it wouldn’t have mattered. We all joined in and sang ‘Edelweiss’ with Dame Julie Andrews. It was simply magical.

This evening was one hundred times better than the O2 concert. The setting was warm and intimate. While at the O2 I needed binoculars to see the stage, I paid considerably less for my ticket in Birmingham and was in the seventh row. There were no other players as distractions. It was all Julie! There is undeniably something mesmerising about her. You feel that you could watch her reading the telephone directory and still be interested! She exudes star quality. It was a privilege to be there and to hear her reflect on her career.

Of course I wish I’d been able to see Julie in her glory days on Broadway. Top of list of theatrical dream tickets would be a seat for Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall. To hear her spectacular voice at its peak must have been breathtaking. Thank goodness for all those movies and the many, many CDs.

Thank goodness too for Sarah-Louise Young. Last night, I was privileged to see her show, Julie,Madly, Deeply, at the Cornerstone Arts Centre in Didcot. After running to much acclaim at Trafalgar Studios in London, this show is now on nationwide tour. Sarah-Louise is an award-winning cabaret performer and a self-proclaimed Julie Andrews superfan (though I think I could give her a run for her money!).She has penned this marvellous show in tribute to her icon. Together with Michael Roulston on piano, and dressed in an Andrews-esque wig and Von Trapp dress, she takes us through Julie’s life and career. There are stories, impressions, audience interactions, dance routines, and songs galore. Unlike Julie herself, Sarah-Louise explored the rough and the smooth, triumph and disaster. She started the show with a letter she wrote to Julie as a child and brought it to a close with a letter of support she penned after the O2 performance. She had no props apart from a chair, a microphone, Michael(!), the piano, and a rather spectacular Alpine costume, yet she kept the audience hugely entertained for nearly two hours. Her admiration for Julie and her joy in performing this tribute shines through.

I had so many favourite parts of this show, I almost can’t begin! It reminds me of watching The Sound of Music with my mum a few years ago. I sat on the sofa grinning inanely: ‘I love this bit’ ... ‘I love this bit’... ‘Ohhhhh.... I love this bit.’ After a while, my mum turned to me and said: ‘Andrea, is there actually a bit in this film that you don’t love?’ Quite.

Sarah-Louise was a veritable encyclopaedia of fascinating facts about Julie. The extent of Julie’s professionalism and drive was emphasised. As Eliza Doolittle, without even the help of a microphone, she belted her way through 2000 performances, then went straight into a live-television broadcast of Cinderella, shown to over 107 million viewers. Over three and a half decades later, at nearly sixty years of age, she battled bronchitis, pneumonia, and gall bladder surgery to continue with the Broadway run of Victor Victoria. And who else but Julie Andrews could have had Liza Minnelli as her understudy? Sarah-Louise’s impressions were priceless, particularly of Minnelli and of Audrey Hepburn, who famously stole Julie’s role in the film version of My Fair Lady (but not Julie’s Oscar)!

I very much enjoyed the audience participation! Sarah-Louise asked whether any of us had ever seen Julie live. Of course, I waved my hand frantically in the air and got to tell everyone about my experiences! A very nice man called Gareth had also seen Julie twice – at the O2 and on her recent tour at the Hammersmith Apollo. (I had a wonderful chat with him and his partner in the interval about all things Julie!). As the show continued, a cheerful chap in the front row was given custody of an imaginary penguin. We were also allowed to practise our singing. In the best Julie Andrews fashion, the show ended with a sing-along. Not ‘Edelweiss’ this time, but a medley of songs from The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, and Mary Poppins.   

I loved little Julie’s interaction with her singing teacher, Lilian Stiles-Allen. I loved Sarah-Louise and Michael’s duet, You and Me, summing up the relationship between Julie and Blake. The most touching part of the show for me was, however, Sarah-Louise’s exploration of the events surrounding Julie’s ill-fated vocal surgery and the loss of her voice. She mimed the surgeon carrying out the botched operation, finishing off with a grim and whispered ‘FUCK!’ Then, using real dialogue from Julie’s heartbreaking interview with Barbara Walters in 1999, where she admitted that her voice was gone, she highlighted the operation's grievous consequences. You can watch this interview on YouTube here, though you’ll need some tissues. Walters is not the most sympathetic of interviewers and Andrews’ pain is evident through her stoicism.

‘Julie, if you can’t sing anymore, how will it change your life?’

‘God, you’ll have to ask me that again, another time... Right now, as I said, I simply cannot contemplate it. I don’t want to say that I never can.... So ask me again in a couple of years, okay?’

‘And then if it’s still ‘no’.’

‘Oh... then I think it’ll change something inside of me forever...’

Sarah-Louise removed her wig at this point and sang the haunting ‘Crazy World.’ How eloquent. If only the tabloid hacks and disgruntled punters at the O2 could have seen this.

Happy Passes in Birmingham on the way to see Dame Julie
The real Julie’s trips to the UK are all too brief and infrequent – rare and special treats. The famous voice might be gone, but the warmth, good-humour, and star quality of Dame Julie continues to radiate. And if you’re missing her, and longing to hear that four-octave voice soar again, do not despair, for thanks to Michael Roulston and Sarah-Louise Young:

The hills fill your heart
With the sound of music   
And Julie sings once more...

Monday, 9 June 2014

Clarence Darrow

Saturday 7th July 2014

Clarence Darrow is Kevin Spacey’s swansong at the Old Vic, and boy, what a swansong! This one-man show about one of America’s most famous lawyers – a defender of the defenceless – provides plenty of opportunity for an electrifying final hoorah.

Probably one of my favourite dresses
worn by HM The Queen
And so, to the Old Vic, went Jacqueline and I on Saturday night, after a diverting afternoon at Kensington Palace. As a brief nod to the glorious theatre of monarchy, I very much recommend the current exhibition, ‘Fashion Rules,’ showing royal gowns worn by the Queen, Princess Margaret, and Princess Diana. The Queen’s dresses from the 1950s were by far my favourite – small-waisted and full-skirted, creating the perfect silhouette. These were strangely timeless, unlike Princess Diana’s dresses from the 1980s, which though the height of fashion at the time – shoulder-padded, bright-coloured, and sparkling – now seemed dated and outlandish.

The nicest of Princess Diana's dresses -
very Dynasty
A few years’ ago at the V&A, I saw an exhibition of ball-gowns, including Princess Diana’s pearled Elvis dress. I had two criticisms – one, without their original wearers, the dresses lost their character; two, the dresses were far bigger than most of the mannequins used to display them – a reassuring reminder of the curves and contours of ‘real women.’ This was not the case at Kensington. The mannequins fitted the dresses. The information panels showed the Royals wearing each dress. There were also video clips of The Queen, Princess Margaret, and Princess Diana in the fashions of each decade, restoring a sense of personality to the display.

Filled with cake and plenty of ice-cream, we made our way to the Southbank. Strangely, curtain up was at 9pm. After the shenanigans of the previous week, we made sure our phones were well and truly switched off for Mr Spacey.The Old Vic has been arranged in a round for this show. The proscenium arch stage has been replaced with tiers of seats. This had the fortunate result of making our seats in the front row of the gods seem much less far away than usual! In the centre of the round was a small square of set, containing an untidy office, full of unpacked boxes and unorganised paperwork. From underneath the desk in this office, Mr Spacey emerged to kick-start the play...

While sorting through boxes and discovering memorabilia from his most famous cases, Darrow tells the audience about his life and career in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. We learn about his childhood in Ohio, his freethinking parents, and his first steps towards the law. He describes his marriage and move to Chicago, and his growing involvement with the Unions. He talks us through his renowned battles: his representation of James and John McNamara, accused of dynamiting the headquarters of the Los Angeles Times; his defence of Dr Ossian Sweet, a black man charged with killing a white man when protecting his home; and his role in the Scopes Monkey Trial, when a Tennessee teacher was put on trial for teaching Evolution Theory in a state-funded school. Darrow expounds his opinions of the law and the origins of crime in poverty. The play ends with the spectre of the Leopold and Loeb trial, where two privileged teenage boys were accused of murdering a fellow classmate, simply for the thrill.

Kevin Spacey has played Darrow twice before – in a 1991 PBS movie, Darrow, and in Inherit the Wind at the Old Vic in 2009. He certainly inhabits the role, capturing the audience’s attention from the first and holding all spellbound. Here was a man with an extraordinary story to tell. I was startled by how quickly each half passed. At no moment did the momentum stop and attention wane. Spacey’s physicality helped. His Darrow was always pacing about the stage – tidying boxes in his office, gesticulating, shifting furniture, showing round photographs of defendants. He was also unnerving. What an experience it must have been to be sitting in the first few rows, closest to the set! Darrow immersed the audience in his tales, using them as props, whether as all-white jurors in the trial of a black man, or Presbyterians, dismissed from an ideal jury for inflexibility. He pointed at audience members; he shook their hands; at one point, he even sat down in the front row, between two terrified girls. This unpredictability kept everyone, even those in the gods, at the edge of their seats.

Spacey is very effective at portraying Darrow as the tireless hero: a clever, driven defender of those oppressed by the powerful. In one of the most moving episodes in the play, Darrow re-enacts his cross-examination of a witness, who has lost a leg working in gruelling conditions in a mine, and who has been denied help by the wealthy mine owners. ‘How old are you?’ he demands, addressing a stool in his office, ‘And when will you be eleven?’ The audience gasps audibly in shock. Darrow is also, however, struggling for something more than justice. He knows some of his clients to be guilty – the McNamara brothers, Leopold and Loeb – yet, he strives to defend them from the death penalty. At the end of the play, he gives an impassioned speech on the importance of mercy above justice.

Spacey, and perhaps David W. Rintels' play itself, is less adept at showing us Darrow’s flaws. Darrow tells us of his divorce from his first wife – her loneliness and his growing indifference. He explains his initial crisis of conscience when coming to the conclusion that the great labour heroes, the McNamara brothers, were guilty. He speaks of the accusations he faced of bribing jurors. Yet, perhaps because these tales are told in the light of experience, it is difficult to fully portray the immediacy of Darrow’s feelings: his soul-searching, self-doubt, and fear. For a man famed for seeing all sides of the story, sometimes he seems far too assertive in his judgements. A little more vulnerability would further enhance the magnetism of this performance.

All in all, however, Spacey is a joy to watch. I cannot think of a better way to bow out from his directorship.

While you might think that Spacey could provide sufficient star-wattage himself for an evening, the Old Vic audience was not devoid of celebrities either. Sneaking in at the last moment, surrounded by minders, was Iron Man himself: Robert Downey Junior. I was curious to note that he seems much less bulky in real life and that he seems to possess two phones – one, no doubt, a superhero device. Hmm... who knew that Iron Man was a friend of Lex Luther..? I’m sure that’s not canon!   

Not listening to Queen Clarisse in
The Princess Diaries!
'A Queen never crosses her legs'
Following standard practice, Jacqueline and I gathered merrily at the stage door after our show to pass on our congratulations to the great man. It soon became clear, however, that Mr Spacey does not sign autographs. Nor does he even leave from the stage door. A cheerful security guard told us so. (We tried not to listen). A rather less cheerful sign on the stage door told us so. (We still shut our ears). An extremely cheerless stage door manager told us so... (We all went home). We were not too disappointed, however. We did meet a lovely bunch of committed Spacey-fans, including some who had travelled all the way from Holland to see their hero and queued up for standing tickets at seven in the morning. We also spotted Tracey Emin, who looks disappointingly ordinary in real life and was probably on the way home to her unmade bed...

It was three o’clock before we made it home, and it was a good job that the Queen was in France because there was much singing of musical theatre, going down the Mall! One may not have been amused!   

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Birdland / Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Saturday 10th May 2014

'Nothing is ever the same, once you've been on tv'

You could be forgiven for thinking that as this blog’s been quiet for a few weeks, I’ve been saving my pennies and shying away from thespian exploits. Wait! Are you kidding? Of course, you would be wrong!

In fact, I have simply been indisposed and overworked. Two weeks’ ago, my friend, Jacqueline and I enjoyed a Saturday of such theatrical adventure that it frankly finished me off. I retired to bed, snuffling. Feeling sorry for myself and watching repeats of Kavanagh QC, I remembered that Noel Coward wrote Private Lives when suffering from the flu. My attitude, tucked up in bed with a hot toddy, merely echoed a line of Victor Prynne’s. I looked at my computer, contemplated writing, then shook my head and muttered: ‘It’s very nice here...’

Two weeks’ ago, Jacqueline and I headed to see Birdland at the Royal Court. It was a matinee performance – not very usual behaviour for me and something we regretted almost from the moment of booking as it allows less time for cake-eating and general pre-show antics. In the event, however, it was a fortuitous choice.

Birdland is a new play by Simon Stephens. The plot is not particularly novel. It’s a study of the perils of fame. Paul is a pop star. He’s young, successful and rich, but as we watch, he becomes more and more self-involved, hurting those around him and losing touch with reality itself.

I’ve started losing all sense of who I am anymore. I do things that feel like they come out of nowhere. I check into hotels and I can’t remember my own name... Other people remember. They tell me. They know who I am. Everybody knows who I am in real life. I walk into a room and they all recognise me. They look at me. Their faces light up.

While the plot may not be exceptional, the play itself is engaging and at times, mesmerising. Andrew Scott is very convincing as Paul. He glitters and gyrates – the ultimate, posturing popstar. His greed is nauseating; his selfishness repulsive. He betrays his best friend and band mate, Johnny, sleeping with Johnny’s girlfriend, Marnie. He drives Marnie to suicide, idly suggesting he tell Johnny of the affair. He tries to buy his way out of this tragedy, offering Marnie’s parents money to assuage their grief: ‘Would that help? To pay for the funeral or anything like that or just to have a bit of money. Maybe you could go on holiday or something?’ Yet, he is an electric presence on stage. It’s difficult to take your eyes off him, and easy to understand why others – including the kind and sensible waitress, Jenny – are seduced by his charm.

The cult of celebrity:
my copy of Birdland signed by Andrew Scott
Scott deftly portrays Paul’s inner desperation and increasing vulnerability. A particularly touching scene comes late in the play when Paul is reunited with his father, Alistair, who he has not seen for several years. The play’s title, after all, draws inspiration from the Patti Smith song, ‘Birdland,’ about a boy’s wish to be reunited with his dead father. This reunion is awkward. Paul and Alistair struggle to find common ground to converse with one another. Alistair tells Paul news of his old school-friends, now living lives far removed from super-stardom: ‘Degs was going to come down... I saw him last week. In Currys. He couldn’t in the end. He had to work.’ He grudgingly confesses to his son that he is in debt after falling back on his bills and borrowing money from an internet site. To Paul, the sum - £960 – is a trifle, but Alistair is deeply ashamed. Paul tries to reach out to his father, to grasp the lifeline that his father offers, but he cannot give voice to his emotions. He cannot enunciate his cry for help. The moment passes and one feels, with regret, that Paul has lost his last chance of salvation.

The language of the play is a real strength. Paul and Johnny have the kind of languid, vacuous conversations that one imagines from bored stars on a tour bus.

‘Have we been here before?’
‘Not to this place.’
‘Have you seen anything here?
‘I like the, the, the fucking, technicians.’

I very much enjoyed Paul’s vapid and amusing interview, where almost all he says is: ‘It’s great, yeah.’ I think we've all seen showbiz interviews like that! 

The supporting cast are also strong, some playing multiple parts. Daniel Cerqueira is especially good, particularly as Alistair, and as David, Paul’s impatient manager. The set too is interesting. The play is one continuous act. As Paul spirals towards doom, the floor gradually fills with water. By the end, the actors are paddling about. And Paul is drowning... drowning in fame... drowning in money... drowning in worthlessness.

All in all, in spite of its unoriginal premise, Birdland was unexpectedly thought-provoking and entertaining. The irony was yet to come, however...

A marvellous picture of Andrew Scott
from our first encounter at
the National Theatre last year! 
As most of you will know, Birdland’s star, Andrew Scott, is best known for playing Moriarty in the BBC’s Sherlock, alongside the infamous Mr Cumberbatch. The audience at the Royal Court was not universally young and female, but almost! After the show, I heard mention that Mr Scott always comes out of the stage-door to greet his fans. Naturally, Jacqueline and I set off to investigate. There was a large crowd of teenage girls – with, in some cases, their parents – at the side of the theatre. Andrew Scott emerged, clad in sunglasses in the middle of a London downpour. The crowd reached frenzy. To do him credit, Mr Scott was tireless in his acknowledgement of his adoring fans. He put his arm round trembling girls as they shrieked requests for photographs. He autographed programmes, given to him with shaking hands. He waited patiently while skittish parents snapped the requisite mementos.  

I must confess at this point that Andrew Scott has form when it comes to Jacqueline and I. Back in November, we were privileged to be outside the stage door on the night of the National Theatre’s 50th Anniversary celebrations. It was a truly magical night - a night of a thousand stars. Once again, there were some Sherlock fans in the crowd, who were ecstatic to see Andrew Scott amongst the thespian throng. Once again, he made his way gamely round the autograph hunters, pausing for a photograph with a girl who was so overcome at his presence, she burst into tears. As he carried on signing away, an unassuming car drew up and its door opened. In a flash, the crowd’s attention was diverted and poor Mr Scott forgotten. I have never seen anything like it... 

MAGGIE!’ we cried as one!  

Almost as if Mr Scott remembered us and knew we had forsaken him for a Dame of the realm, our second encounter with him was sadly anticlimactic. We waited until the crowd of Sherlockians had died down, then approached and thanked him for his performance. His exchange with Jacqueline had something of the Lionel Bart about it:

She: ‘Thank you very much.’
He: ‘Thank you very much.’

I said: ‘Thanks for a great show,’ and got a ‘Yeah’ or suchlike in return. It was almost as if poor Mr Scott was taken aback that we didn’t want to throw ourselves at him and demand an embrace. Feeling rather ashamed and somewhat underwhelmed, we slunk away...

Subsequently, I can't help wondering what Andrew Scott really makes of it all. How deliciously, and terrifyingly, ironic to be starring in such a play and subject to similar fame! 

They know who I am. Everybody knows who I am in real life. I walk into a room and they all recognise me. They look at me. Their faces light up.

Our theatrical day out was not over, however. Here, going to the matinee proved an unexpected advantage. We wandered through Eaton Square, past the one-time home of Vivien Leigh. I wouldn’t mind living there myself! An evening in the West End was on the cards, and how better to spend an evening in the West End but at the theatre. Twice in one day? I hear you ask. Why, of course! 

For a long time, Jacqueline had cherished an ambition to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We popped into the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and were able to secure two reasonably-priced seats for that evening’s performance. We then made a slight detour to our favourite cake shop in Covent Garden for some much needed sustenance (see Exhibit A).

The Theatre Royal is absolutely beautiful. I should think that unless one is wearing a ballgown, a diamond necklace and glittering tiara, it is impossible to feel anything but under-dressed. It made one long for the days where patrons dressed up to go to the theatre. Soon, we were to long for the days where patrons shut up at the theatre...

Exhibit A
The curtain went up on the visual delight that is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The scenery was magical; the costumes, sensational; the young actors, charming. Unfortunately, our enjoyment of this spectacle was marred by the fact that we were sitting in front of ‘the family from hell’ – as Jacqueline would later describe them. There were four children and a similar number of adults, and they talked continuously from the moment the musical began. By ‘they’, I mean the parents! The children were largely quiet, although the child behind me amused himself by kicking the chairs. Being the best of British, we huffed and puffed. We turned around and glared. Overcoming my natural urge to avoid confrontation, I was so angry that I even asked them – yes, actually asked them – three times to be quiet! PLEASE! ‘They’re not going to shut up, are they?’ said Jacqueline, in desperation. Alas, this proved to be correct.

In the interval, we attempted to collar one of the front of house staff. This proved a little more problematic than expected, but we eventually managed to declare our woes. Laurence Olivier himself would have been proud of the level of drama we managed to inject into this performance! It helped that, by this point, I was positively incandescent with rage! We were moved seats – further back from where we were previously sitting but mercifully, in an empty section away from any other theatregoers.

And so the second half began, and this time we were transported into a ‘world of pure imagination.’ The show is a veritable chocolate box of delights. There were some rather beautiful songs (Music and Lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Lyrics by Scott Wittman). My particular favourite was the gentle, ‘If Your Mother Were Here,’ sang to Charlie by his father.

The outstanding feature of the performance was the sets, however. They were quite simply breathtaking. Especially inventive was the giant television in the Bucket’s house, upon which Charlie heard news of the first four winners of golden tickets. Inside the giant television, the respective actors conjured up the family homes of Roald Dahl’s bizarre and beloved characters. The various rooms of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory were a series of excitements from the Chocolate Room with its river to the Nut Room with its savvy squirrels. The Oompa-Loompas dance with television screens in the Television room was dazzling. My favourite scene, however, was when Charlie rides with Wonka in the great glass elevator. Outlined in fairy lights, the elevator rose above the stage, while Charlie and his mentor sang ‘Pure Imagination’ – the only song from the 1971 film which remains in the musical. It was a truly magical and a moving moment.

The cast did not have a weak link from Grandpa Joe to Charlie himself. Douglas Hodge was wonderful in one of his final performances as Willy Wonka. (He’s now been replaced by Alex Jennings). The prickly, slightly sinister nature of Wonka’s character, evident in the book, was beautifully portrayed. Here was a man who couldn’t care less about the fate of the greedy Augustus Gloop or the selfish Veruca Salt; a man who had little patience with ignorance or humdrum normality, but who was attracted by Charlie’s infinite curiosity and zest for life. Special mention should also go here to the child actors, who exuded energy and style. Luca Toomey was making his final appearance after a year of playing Mike Teevee, and was rewarded with a special curtain call at the end.

The second half was not without incident, I must say. At one point, the usher had to dash down the steps of the Grand Circle to ask a woman to switch off her phone. She was sitting there, texting away, not paying the slightest bit of attention to the spectacle in front of her. Such behaviour! It didn't spoil our evening, however. While we felt rather short-changed at having struggled through the first half, it was a case of all’s well that ends well. 

Perhaps our day was really summed up by the wise Oompa-Loompas! When Mike is transformed to pocket size, they comment: 'Nothing is ever the same once you've been on tv.' Maybe today's audience members are too used to tapping away on their phones or gossiping in front of the gogglebox to concentrate on a show? For Andrew Scott, life is certainly not the same either!