Wednesday, 24 November 2010

A Star is re-Born

Tracie Bennett (yes, Rita's adopted daughter from Corrie) fairly strips the skin and the bones off of that there Judy Garland. The 5* accolade is for an impeccable impersonation, maybe the production and script deserve 4 ... there's clearly a giant, or possibly a Giant, movie to be made from this excoriated life and in giving us only the last five weeks the stage show does Garland a disservice because there's no background or explanation of how she got into this terrible state.


Playwright: Peter Quilter
Director: Terry Johnson
Designer: William Dudley
Musical Director: Gareth Valentine
Sound: Gareth Owen

Reviewer: JohnnyFox

TPR score: 5 stars

Can you imagine what it would be like if Judy Garland were still alive? In her late eighties would she be shuffling from one tacky daytime chat show to the next still living off ancient glories like The Wizard of Oz and Easter Parade, trotting out the same old stories of booze and drugs to any daytime host who’ll listen and favouring audiences with her uncontrolled vibrato?

Or perhaps she’d have got sober, like Elaine Stritch, and be twinkling her way through A Little Night Music on Broadway or could it have been Judy instead of her parodic daughter officiating at the schlock gay wedding in Sex and the City 2?

'End of the Rainbow', Peter Quilter‘s smartly-scripted play shows a snapshot of this giant ego undermined by wracking self-doubt as she heads for a final meltdown in 1968 struggling to repay debts with a five-week season at the Talk of the Town in London buoyed by the romance of her newly acquired fifth husband (and allegedly third gay one) Mickey Deans.

In a gloriously inaccurate Richard Mawbey wig (for London, Garland had cut her hair in a gamine style like Peter Pan) Tracie Bennett has the face, figure, body language and voice of Garland as well as both the flame and the warmth of her fiery, funny character pierced by crystal shards of incessant need for reassurance and fear of separation.

Surely this is an Olivier award-winning impersonation and she carries the evening with power and sinew worthy of Judy’s own survival technique.

William Dudley’s richly pretty set mutates slickly between her suite at the Ritz and the Talk of the Town revealing a band of stunning capabilities thrashed to a frenzy by MD Gareth Valentine when Bennett takes the stage in a range of numbers from brassy You Made Me Love You and the Trolley Song to painfully reflective Over the Rainbow and The Man That Got Away. She’s in such fine, belting voice, that the reverb added to simulate the ‘stage’ acoustic is almost excessive.

In one sense, Bennett fails Garland because in performance she’s just too good. Judy’s London appearances were uneven to say the least: contemporary critics referred to her cracked, flat notes, her apparent lack of concentration, that her voice had ‘taken a beating’, or that the show was only successful because of her defiant personality, enduring popularity and ‘instant hysteria among an audience determined to clap itself silly’.

Although this is only a ‘slice’ of the fruit-loaf that was Garland, indeed - being the end slice it’s effectively the crust, Bennett measures the progress from the funny, smart, madcap Judy excited at the prospect of a season in London to the Ritalin-raddled wreck at the end with tremendous control and such authenticity that when, in a faultless best-supporting actor performance delivered with wit and affection, Hilton McRae as her loving gay pianist suggests a quiet mutual retirement to seaside domesticity, you almost believe Judy might take it.

At 2 hours 30, it’s arguably one ‘I’m not going on’ too long, and there’s a sense of cyclical repetition which is perhaps why Get Happy was trimmed from the list of songs.

Garland’s long dead, and when the audience rose to its feet to hail the star at the curtain call, the cheers were for Tracie Bennett, not Judy, and thoroughly deserved.

This review originally written for

Sunday, 21 November 2010

We are dainty little fairies ...

Union Theatre, Southwark, London SE1

Book and lyrics: W.S. Gilbert
Music: Sir Arthur Sullivan
Director: Sasha Regan
Musical Director: Chris Mundy
Choreographer: Mark Smith
Designer: Stewart Charlesworth
Lighting: Steve Miller

TPR rating: 4.5 Stars

Whilst The Mikado and Pirates of Penzance have had a number of recent and successful modern treatments, wresting the rest of the Gilbert and Sullivan canon from the dead hand of D’Oyly Carte and its historically reverential staging has proved more difficult, so Sasha Regan and her all-male company at the Union Theatre are to be congratulated on a production of Iolanthe which is quite so inventive and engaging.

If you need to trouble yourself with the plot – well, the ones in underwear are fairies and the ones in dressing gowns are Peers, there’s a half-breed Arcadian shepherd who becomes a member of Parliament, and a ward of court who wants to marry him, and the Lord Chancellor is married to a friend of the Queen of the Fairies who has been banished to live at the bottom of a river … it’s all too silly for words, so relax and enjoy the ride.

And a ride it is – joyous, uplifting, funny, sweet, occasionally sentimental but mostly comic with moment after moment of sheer delight in both the musicality of the performers who strive for high accuracy in their falsetto and coloratura, but mostly for a genius theatrical device which allows the young cast to drive along the story and the musical numbers without bothering to age up.

It’s smart and sharp and whilst it doesn’t emphasise the satire on politicians which Iolanthe often invites, it brings in references from Harry Potter, and Peter Pan and Narnia which make the story even more accessible, and the ensemble numbers enormously enjoyable, particularly with Mark Smith’s complex and fluid choreography.

There are some remarkable voices: Gianni Onori as Strephon the romantic lead has a Scots accent which is sometimes impenetrable in the dialogue, but his singing is elegant and tender and Matthew James Willis, an Australian tenor making his London debut is outstanding as Earl Tolloller, with impeccable diction and a richly resonant tone almost too powerful for the tiny Union theatre.

Although for me the falsetto works best in the ensemble numbers, there are some highly skilled singers among the ‘girls’ – Alan Richardson as Phyliss reaches high and clear into the soprano range and Kris Manuel, in between stealing scenes as the Geordie fairy queen, exhibits a well supported contralto, especially in the aria ‘Oh Foolish Fay’.

Production designer Stewart Charlesworth’s costumes are a highlight, well matched with the battered attic set and carefully individualized for every character in the chorus. There’s no orchestra and on one piano musical director Chris Mundy emulates everything from fairy bells to trumpeting fanfares.

This is a gorgeous evening.

This review written for

Monday, 15 November 2010

Thoughts on the Tinterweb

photo copyright Laura Babb,

Fellow Londonista, professional photographer Laura is working up a project on how the internet has (or hasn't) changes people's lives.

Check it out here

These are the questions she asked me:

What is the main influence that the internet has had on your life?

It’s so much easier in a half-hour to stroke, poke, comfort, cajole, encourage or merely check vital signs for your entire human entourage. I now have to make a superhuman effort to ensure I’m as conscientious with my non-facebook friends in enquiring after their loves, lives, jobs and dogs.

In other news, it changed my love life.

Emerging blinking into the daylight aged 47 from a long relationship about the time of the internet explosion, I had wondered if I’d ever date again but after a period of slutdom - which at times felt like I was hanging a ‘to let’ sign out of my bedroom window like some sort of sexual Foxtons - I was first stalked by then introduced to a partner so different in age, background, interests and energies from anyone I’d ever considered before the web broadened my horizons.

This led to three delightful years of romantic involvement (and resignation from all the dating sites) before I eventually released him back into the internet wild.

Has this influence been positive or negative?

Mostly positive, in terms of feeling connected to the wider world – particularly when travelling, which I sometimes do alone: on a long trip through the Caribbean which I didn’t entirely enjoy, I felt much better about it because I was blogging daily and getting feedback from friends and home.

If it has been positive, have there been any negative aspects?

It’s addictive, not always pleasantly, and too consumptive of time. I don’t seem able to do the internet equivalent of Matron’s ward round and skip through the sites and contacts in a brisk morning half-hour, but keep coming back to the facebook comments, and checking various sites for messages all through the day. I can make myself late for appointments by having one last hit before leaving the house.

I don’t like this, and I don’t like myself for doing it.

If it has been negative, have there been any positive aspects?

It keeps up my multi-tasking skills. As a Gemini I’ve always been able to do two things as once, like read with the television on, but now I can monitor tv, cooking and the internet all at the same time. Although I burn more things than before.

I also think that email/texting and online messaging has brought a smidgeon of literacy to a generation I thought had completely skipped it: now even teenagers can form a sentence, of sorts.

If the internet was a person and you met them in a pub, what would you say to them?

Let me buy you a drink and look over your shoulder to see if something more interesting’s happening.

Pink and juicy, and that's just the rack of lamb

Parked midway between the Kit Kat Club from 'Cabaret' and a jollier, ruddier Fat Sam's Grand Slam Speakeasy from 'Bugsy Malone', Burlesque and Blues at Volupte is one of the best things you can do on a Wednesday night in London.

Remotegoat reviews are meant to be about performance, but it's impossible to overlook the delicious cocktails whipped up by the friendliest of bar staff, the restaurant-quality food (pink and perfect rack of lamb, delicious fish) and the whole seductive atmosphere which on a windy and wet Wednesday welcomed everything from youngish couples on date night, to a team outing which could have been an episode from 'The IT Crowd'.

About the time your main course is served, the music starts with Pete Saunders' powerful attack on the ivories, literally driving the rhythms along Route 66, and his own 'Don't Say You Love Me' where stamping every beat on the floor is perhaps unnecessary when you're accompanied by a talented drummer like Jonathan Lee. But the music really builds the mood up to the entrance of Vicious Delicious whose comic timing is every bit the equal of her burlesque.

Also known as circuit standup Leah Shand, Ms. Delicious handles the audience brilliantly, and both her renditions of 'I'm Tired' from 'Blazing Saddles' and a wickedly funny version of 'Ne Me Quitte Pas' were excellent. What's all the more surprising is how well she also interprets the dancing and burlesque, this is a very classy act.

For both Vicious and her partner Bouncy Hunter, the choice of material is intelligent and hugely entertaining: 'Whatever Lola Wants' from 'Damn Yankees' works very well, and whilst Sondheim's 'Making Love Alone' is hilarious, I'd have preferred it taken at a more sultry pace, particularly before the rousing finale of 'Tool Man'.

The costumes and jewelery are lovely, the lighting flattering even to the audience, and the professionalism and confidence of the performers can't be understated.

Clever, funny, charming, friendly, elegant, sexy but not in the least bit sordid, this really is an outstanding evening delivered with charm, wit and polish.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Wanking in a Winter Wonderland

The Reindeer Monologues
written by : Jeff Goode
director : Matthew Lloyd Davies
venue : Above The Stag, London SW1
TPR rating : 2.5 stars

Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?
In the lane, snow is glistening.
A beautiful sight, but there’s rape here tonight in Santa’s pervy wonderland …

At North Pole Central, a traumatized Rudolph beats his hooves softly against the walls of his padded cell, Cupid admits his masochistic taste for the whip and describes Santa’s grotesque penile tattoo, feminist Blitzen stages a walkout, kosher Dancer wants time off for Hannukah, ex-hell’s angel Comet finds salvation in St Nick and foxy Vixen explains how she has been taken from behind in the way only Santa knows how …

It’s a brilliant concept, but lamely developed in Jeff Goode‘s script which accuses Santa as a sadomasochistic freak with penchants for everything from bestial rape to child abuse, and his wife as an alcoholic nymphomaniac. One by one the eight reindeer fill in the details of the horrific violation which has led to strike action jeopardizing the Christmas sleigh run.

There are two ways to play this: out and out ‘Jerry Springer’ confessional where the reindeer are snow-white trash dishing the dirt on a monster and the characters exaggerated for comic effect, or here as in Matthew Lloyd Davies‘ flatly directed production where the monologues sound more like courtroom evidence.

Part of the problem is the material which doesn’t seem to have been updated: in 1995 it may have been smart and edgy to use the word ‘vagina’ repeatedly onstage, or to make nudgy jokes about rape and paedophilia, but with a slew of press reportage of everything from Michael Jackson to the Catholic Church, sexual abuse hasn’t exactly retained its rib-tickling appeal.

The structure of the reindeer team is interesting, as are the glimpses of how the Santa industry is run, but apart from revealing that the elves were formerly towel boys in an Irish brothel, there’s very little satire of the Christmas business.

The performances are enthusiastic and earnest: I liked James McGregor’s earthily Northern born-again Comet, and Heather Johnson’s plumply Bristolian Dancer coming dangerously close to the work of Matt Lucas whom she somewhat resembles. Domenico Listorti’s lisping queerdeer Cupid is the easy scene-stealer, but only because the others don’t play up nearly enough and their characters are less obviously drawn.

It’s an evening of missed opportunities: the crime scene is a bare room with three sets of antlers on the walls, the colourless lighting is appalling, there’s almost no music, and the costumes are cheap and dowdy. The audience knows the show’s intentionally funny, but the laughs are few and you can feel the actors straining for them as the monologues grow increasingly repetitive, building too slowly towards Vixen’s anticipated but obvious final testimony.

Sometimes, reindeer don’t know how to fly …

This review written for The Public Reviews