Review – 42nd Street

42nd Street reminds us, should we have ever forgotten, what a great performer Lulu is. Returning to a West End musical for the first time since she was Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls (1984 – I was there!) she is ideal casting as the imperious Dorothy Brock, a Broadway diva who’s long-in-the-tooth career depends on the success of just one more hit show. Her general stroppiness is ignored by the crew and cast of Pretty Lady because the financial backing for the show is coming from her sugar daddy, Abner Dillon (Bruce Montague in cowboy hat, drawling and drooling over his prize star, just the right side of sleazy).

Fresh off the bus into the Big Apple from the sticks comes wannabe star Peggy Sawyer (Clare Halse – a stunningly brilliant dancer who also sings and acts!) who stumbles her way into the chorus and then, when she accidentally causes Ms Brock to fall and break her ankle, into the leading role. We, of course, never doubt she’ll make it from the moment she steps onto the stage complete with large suitcase. We’ve seen this before in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Cathy Seldon in Singin’ in the Rain. Because although 42nd Street nominally pre-dates both those shows – it’s set in depression era 1933, when the original film was made – it only first saw life as a stage musical in 1980.

The original film had just five songs (music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin) but the stage version adds numbers the pair wrote for other 1930s films as well as one by Warren and Johnny Mercer – the brilliantly witty ‘There’s a Sunny Side to Every Situation.’ But that’s not all they’ve added. This show is the most glittering, spectacular cliché of a Broadway musical you’ll ever see. If you like to get value for money for your West End pound then this show delivers. Theatre Royal Drury Lane has the biggest stage in London and this show uses every bit of it, with the biggest cast you’ll ever see. The costumes are colourful and designed on the basis that there isn’t anything that can’t be improved by adding more sequins. And it’s the chorus that’s the real star here. From the iconic opening moment when the curtain lifts just enough to reveal a row of tap dancing feet to the spectacle of the finale when a suddenly unfolding staircase has hordes of dancers tapping their way down it, they deliver jaw-dropping moments repeatedly and on a grand scale.

The tough director of the show within a show is Julian Marsh, played by Tom Lister. His previous claim to fame is having been in Emmerdale, which is not a bad thing but doesn’t necessarily provide transferable skills for this kind of lynch-pin part. I have to say, though, that he is first class. He has a lovely singing voice and he deftly handles the difficult nature of his part (is he exploiting the young Peggy when he pushes her into the lead role, or does he really have feelings?).

Of course the problem with these shows about show business is that we’re invited to sympathise with the problems of people whose entire lives are founded upon make believe and their desire to be loved by people they don’t know (us!). Goodness knows there were people in the 1930s with real problems more deserving of our sympathy. The weak point in 42nd Street is that we don’t really worry about our heroine because it’s clear from the opening moment she’ll end up a star. There’s no real mystery or suspense created. The production overcomes this by throwing every musical theatre trick at you, but done bigger and better than you’ve ever seen before.

42nd Street is at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Lulu appears as Dorothy Brock until 7 July 2018.

Review – 20th Century Boy – The Musical

Pop stars burn bright and briefly. Often we only see them at their brightest but this musical story of Marc Bolan sheds light into his life before fame – although even as a child he dreamed of becoming ‘bigger than Elvis’ we are told.

It’s a form that has worked well since ‘Buddy’ told the story of a similarly young, short-lived and influential star. We begin after Bolan’s untimely death in a car crash at just 29, with George Maguire as Bolan pondering his own legacy. This device enables a quick flash-back to school boy Marc and his adoring mum. From here on we’re on a ride through his life with generous helpings of his greatest hits.  Early on the simple but effective set unfolds to reveal the (excellent) real live band, who crop-up later as T. Rex. For the most part the songs appear only as natural performances at gigs, concerts, recording studios and so on. Occasionally they are placed into the narrative Mamma Mia style to illustrate the story and character. But Bolan’s music is simple in its form and lacks the variety to work effectively as an illustrator of emotion and plot so is wisely not used in this way often.

The Bolan we meet in this version of his life is cocky but charming as a youngster. When his mum complains about the noise he comes back with, “It’s rock and roll, mum. It only comes in loud.” His heroes have a habit of dying young in car crashes, most notably James Dean. Only when he latches on to Cliff Richard does he find someone who he thinks “might live forever.”

This supreme self confidence leads to his marriage when he meets his future wife, who is it seems some sort of receptionist or clerk at a record company, and plays his demo song to her. “It’s left a strange buzzing in my head,” she says. “That’ll be me, then,” he replies and proposes almost on the spot.

The story is told in the usual efficient way of these things. Characters are well played by the hard working and enthusiastic cast. George Maguire, though, shines. He makes us fall for Bolan as we would an over enthusiastic puppy. He may be badly behaved but he’s so cute and charming we can’t be cross with him.

Then there’s the music. Clearly many in the audience were serious devotees of T. Rex. Someone brought along a white swan (a toy one, obviously!). Another had an original Marc Bolan/T. Rex scarf from the 70s. That’s before you get to the feather boas. Their devotion was well-rewarded with outstanding renditions of all the classics both throughout the show and in the obligatory encore. And even if your knowledge of T. Rex extends only to ‘I want to boogie’ as featured in Billy Elliot, you’ll soon discover that you know much more than you think. His music is so straightforward in its construction, but the sound is something he worked on. Hearing it now 40 years on sounding so fresh and original it’s clear there is something genuinely unique and special about it. The simplicity really works, as does this musical.

20th Century Boy is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until 13 June 2018 and on tour until the end of the month.


Review – Ghost About the House

How exciting to be at the press night of a brand new play and to discover something that straight away feels like a classic! Matthew Campling brings us a delightfully deft and satisfying comedy set in two distinct periods with the eponymous ghost being the one character who appears in both narratives. As the neat plot is revealed we gradually discover the connections between the ghost, the characters in the past and the characters of today.

Well I say today. The contemporary action takes place as the EU referendum looms in 2016. The setting is the same grand Islington house, in 1936 and 2016. The 1936 story sees Ian, the young master, in love with the butler, Leonard, but also seduced by Eddie, a handsome friend of the family, who is also wooing Ian’s mother Lady Millicent. Henry, Millicent’s jealous and too young suitor, plays a desperate hand. In 2016 Ian is the ghost whose mischievous haunting antics have split the relationship of new owners Edward (a respected MP in the midst of the Remain campaign) and Alex. Edward brings to the house Leonard, a young man he’s picked up – much to the annoyance of his former partner Alex. The ghostly Ian, meanwhile, perceives a great likeness between Leonard and his long gone love, so does his best to keep Leonard at the house whilst putting Alex off . Nita, Alex’s sister, is a manic yummy mummy adding her own anarchy.

Joshua Glenister is the only actor playing just one character, albeit he’s very much alive as Ian in 1936 but appearing as Ian’s ghost in 2016. Other members of the cast have two characters each – one in each time setting. As well as being a showcase for the cast’s talents it must also keep them mentally and physically on their toes as the story switches scene by scene between 1936 and 2016, resulting in quick changes in the cosy confines of the Kings Head Theatre, Islington. Even Mr Glenister doesn’t escape the quick changes as the convention is immediately established that the ghost Ian appears naked apart from a distinctly sturdy pair of white Y fronts, despite which this ensures he is possibly more attractive dead than alive!

Each other actor’s pairs of characters are distinctly drawn by Campling’s script and further enhanced by clever character work from the cast which avoid lazy stereotypes and present fully rounded characters which are all by turns attractive and flawed.

There are elements of farce but the big laughs come from the brilliant creation of a grande dame/matriarch in the Wildean tradition in the shape of Lady Millicent, played with aplomb and a sure-fire comic sense by the wonderful Sioned Jones. She has or is the subject of some brilliant killer lines. There are also some touching moments. When 2016 Leonard senses the presence of the ghost Ian the scene culminates in a moment where Leonard and the ghost reach out and touch hands. Sincere performances from Joshua Glenister’s ghost and Joe Wiltshire Smith as Leonard mean this simple moment catches you out with its sudden power.

Matthew Gibbs is suitably aloof as remain campaigning MP Richard, worried about being caught out having picked up another young man. But despite having constructed a fool-proof speech on the evidence for remaining in the EU he fails to see the evidence of the ghost’s existence. His 1936 alternate is Eddie, an Australian of similarly doubtful morals engaging in an upstairs/downstairs romance. The presence of Brexit in the piece brings a different tone to things that doesn’t always sit comfortably with the subtle drawing of human relationships or the sophisticated language and clever plotting.

Working hardest in the two character game is Timothy Blore who’s 1936 Henry is desperate for the affections of Lady Millicent. In 2016 he is Alex (MP Richard’s ex boyfriend), struggling with the presence of his usurper and the irritating attentions of the ghostly Ian, the upshot of which being he finds himself on stage in just a towel and covering his modesty as even that is taken away by the ghost.  Full marks for a brilliant in-character ad lib during this scene on press night.

Director Scott Le Crass brings the physical and emotional elements together with super pace and brings out the best from his cast and the sparkling and witty script.

This is exactly what writer Matthew Campling promised – a hilarious, sexy, haunting gay comedy!

Ghost About the House is At The Kings Head, Islington until 30 June 2018.