Review – Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Taking on Priscilla, Queen of the Desert as an amateur production one imagines poses a choice. Strip back the elaborate West End staging and focus on the music or just go for it. West Wickham Operatic Society takes the latter approach with its latest production and succeeds magnificently.

All the required elements from the original are in place: Flying ‘Supremes’ style trio – check; light-up full scale bus – check; sky-high platform shoes with stretched flares – check, outlandish moulded foam wigs – check; giant shoe on top of bus – check. Fortunately all these production values are matched with pitch-perfect performances by a cast really allowing their camp side to shine through.

Cory Wordlaw sets the tone as he introduces the cabaret in flamboyant style. Leading from the front the trio of Bernadette, Tick and Adam are brought to life as real characters with depth and emotion by Adrian Smith, Adrian Morrissey and Thomas Fitzgerald. Bernadette has perhaps the most complex character and her journey through the show is no less challenging than the physical road trip and that of Tick who has to learn to accept what fatherhood means. Adrian Smith brings huge warmth and sympathy to the part as Bernadette falls for Bob, an ideal role for Kevin Gauntlett, who also directs.

It’s difficult to see how an amateur production can be better than this.

Review – Betty Blue Eyes

It’s 1947 and a somewhat self-effacing chiropodist and his social climbing wife connive to acquire an unlicensed pig from the local big-wigs in an attempt to secure themselves a place on the parade for Gilbert’s surgery and, importantly for his wife, an invitation to the social event of the year, a banquet celebrating the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip.

There’s something essentially British about this musical based on Alan Bennett’s film A Private Function (which provided early starring roles for Maggie Smith and Michael Palin). And that probably accounts, at least in part, for its sadly short run on its West End debut in 2011, despite outstanding reviews.

But the West End’s loss is amateur theatre’s gain as the show provides an ideal vehicle for Petts Wood Operatic Society with lots for the chorus to do and numerous meaty cameo roles. Much of Bennett’s script survives and consequently there are poignant moments and laughs to be had. The George Stiles score is packed with great tunes and deftly witty lyrics from Anthony Drewe. These are names familiar to anyone interested in musical theatre as Stiles and Drewe are responsible for the current version of Half a Sixpence, the stage version of Mary Poppins and the up-coming Wind in the Willows.

The piece asks a lot of its leading man and lady – they are in almost every scene – and in Hannah Ockenden-Rowe and Neil Stevens as Joyce and Gilbert the production was served royally. An early number, Magic Fingers, evidences both the trauma the locals have been through and Gilbert’s compassion. Simply staged with delightful close-harmony and touching performances this was a tear-jerking moment. At the other end of the dramatic spectrum there was the rousing joy of the big Act Two opener, Another Little Victory, and the farce of Pig, No Pig, caused by Gilbert and Joyce trying to hide the stolen pig in their house and explain the situation to Joyce’s mother.

The direction by Jamie Hemingway kept things moving with scenes flowing nicely from one to another. He encouraged broad performances from his cast, allowing them to stand out by setting them against a cleverly austere set built from recycled materials in true ‘make do and mend’ style.

This is one of the great British musicals of recent years and it’s a delight to see it on the stage once again.

Review – Stewart Lee, Content Provider (on tour)

Stewart Lee seeks to divide his audience. His own biography is evidence of this, ending as it does with two quotes:

“One of the top three or four living stand-ups..” – Time Out

 “The worst stand-up I have ever seen”  – Graham Simmons, Chortle

He begins his set by complaining about the type of audience he gets in the provinces, claiming that those who are there as ‘friends of the theatre’ or as guests of someone who actually bought tickets won’t understand his material. He complains about the theatre (the air conditioning is too noisy) and about people who couldn’t get their act together to see the show when it was on in London, claiming it was much better there because the audience all agreed with him. He then complains about people who agree with him saying they don’t laugh at the jokes but simply clap material if it expresses a view matches their own.

Having neatly set-out to alienate everyone in the room he then begins to lay into other comics, pointing out that the stage set he is standing in comprises DVDs of live performances by comedians, all of which were bought online for just 1p each. His own live DVD, he points out, is currently priced at £3.67.

His material, he says, is based around politics, language and history. But if you don’t agree with the politics (especially if you voted leave) you may have a hard time getting through to the other two elements. But he professes not to care, deliberately setting-up material for fans to like, only to under-cut their ‘metropolitan liberal elite views’. Being a Stewart Lee fan is not easy because it seems he’s just as likely to dislike people for agreeing with him as anyone else.

But all this is (surely) a front. He’s playing with the stand-up norms, deconstructing his jokes and techniques as part of his act – in the same way Penn and Teller show how their magic tricks work. And throughout he is expertly and apparently effortlessly manipulating the room for the precise effect he wants. Apparent ad libs and random interjections from the audience are woven in. Or are they as carefully planned and rehearsed as everything else? Who knows? It’s hilarious comedy that credits you with some intelligence and rewards you accordingly, provided you don’t mind that sneaky feeling that Mr Lee doesn’t really like you at all!