Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Come The Day

Saturday 29.3.14 : Same Sex Marriage Equality in the UK.

It's a lovely, bright slightly misty morning on the river and a moment to reflect on today's big gigs to celebrate Equal Marriage first at the Royal Festival Hall thence to a Channel 4 recording for broadcast Monday night. Too late for me? Possibly. Although I've as good as been-there-done-that with 12-year and 8-year relationships. If we'd had equal marriage in 1979 or 1992 when I met them, we'd have done it. Of course, by now one would be under the patio and I'd have driven the other into a mental institution … marriage is not for everyone. But if it's for you, be happy, be proud and be thankful for the generation who brought about the changes that made it happen today.

We gathered on the South Bank before 9am and rehearsed outside in the sunshine to the amusement of passers-by hanging off the balustrades.  We have a new choreographer this season, who was due to coach us in the more intricate movement, but he didn't make it.  It didn't matter because we were so collectively enthusiastic and eager to get it right.

Which we did.  This was not just one of the best-attended performances I've done in recent years, but also one where both singing and movement were accurate and, apart from one chap in the front row persistently wriggling and overselling it like a cheap stripper, together.

I had expected to be entertained by any event involving Sandi Toksvig, but I had not expected to be so moved.  The ceremony involved readings and an exchange of renewed vows between Sandi and her long-time partner Debbie, but was largely conducted by their children, from 8-year-old Mary to medical student Megan and with a massive degree of un-cocky self-confidence and charm.  When their son Theo spoke of his early experience of explaining his two mums to school friends, you could touch the warmth and pride in the auditorium.  

I thought fondly of my ferociously capable Manchester friend Helen Lawson who with her partner Sarah adopted two children who had not had such happy childhoods but who now have blossomed and grown into loving and trusting kids through the stability and support given by two intelligent and balanced parents. This weekend is also Mothers Day and the card they received from their son affirming they are the best mums in the 'intiya' world would make even the most rigorous spelling Nazi celebrate the triumph of enthusiasm over orthography. 

Lots of great and good in the audience, too.  Peter Tatchell, with whom I once skipped hand-in-hand down Oxford Street at Gay Pride in 1978 and doubt whether either of us anticipated this day would arrive, and Mary Portas who had to spend most of the ceremony outside because her small daughter couldn't stay still.  Christopher Biggins with whom I've shared - well, let's just say a 'friend'. 

And then parts of my life flashed before me.  We had not been told much of running order or guest participants in the event but I had some tenuous connection to each of them.  The event was introduced by Jude Kelly, director of the South Bank complex.  Thirty-seven years ago (sorry, Jude, you don't look old enough) when we both lived in Southampton and used to dance together in its one gay club, the Magnum, Jude was a struggling actress just setting up Solent People's Theatre, I was the youngest elected member of the City Council and my arts committee gave her her first ever grant.  

The first reading in the ceremony was delivered by Sheila Hancock, a long-time friend of the Toksvigs.  In 2008 Sheila and I were thrown together in the same weekend 'singles' holiday in Budapest. I'd bought it as a last-minute special offer (discounted by £100 because 'an actress' would be on board) and she was covering it for the Daily Mail.  Sharing a dislike of over-organised group tours we struck out on our own one afternoon for the celebrated Gellert spa baths complex.  It isn't very foreign-tourist-friendly but without a guide or much grasp of conversational Magyar we managed to buy our entrance tickets and through sign language indicated we'd like a massage.  When ushered in to a severe white tile room in the deepest recesses of the building and with what looked like a large mortuary slab it took an extra and urgent session of signing to explain we didn't actually want a 'couples massage' but sequential ones.  

Rick Wakeman played the Festival Hall organ for a couple of numbers including the wedding march in 'Get Me To The Church On Time'.  It reminded me that I was a hastily-recruited backing singer on his 2004 'comeback' album 'The Wizard and the Forest of All Dreams' when his usual group English Chamber Choir were momentarily short of tenors (as I then was).  We recorded it over one weekend in a studio in Wembley while Rick was upstairs writing it, and we got the pages warm from the printer and sight-read them straight onto the recording.

I have history with Sandi, too.  She compered the LGMC's Christmas concert in the Barbican in 2006 and in one of the most precarious last-minute things I've ever done, she and I and my friend Daron Oram co-wrote a comedy song in English and Danish during the afternoon rehearsal and sang it with her the same evening.

Our gig was brought to a fantastic climax by the glorious soul diva Sharon D Clarke who led us in 'River Deep, Mountain High'.  Apart from the fact I'm a huge fan of her musical theatre work from her more-raucous-than-Whoopi Oda Mae in 'Ghost' to 'The Amen Corner', she's my dear friend Helen Smith's sister-in-law.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Light Opera In The Piazza

A review of Do I Hear A Waltz at Park Theatre

I cannot in all conscience recommend DO I HEAR A WALTZ to any but the most forensic Sondheim fans.  It does contain a version of ‘We’re Gonna Be Alright’ but it’s the heavily cut and anodyne one where the couple actually may get along together rather than the acid picture of a disintegrating relationship when David Kernan and Millicent Martin delivered the sharper lyrics in Side by Side by Sondheim.

Not restoring this song gives a clue to Charles Court Opera’s production at the Park Theatre – it’s all about the singing, the staging feels very low-budget and the comedy isn’t given the free rein it should be to make the show more palatable.  

The story is curious – several American couples holiday in Venice but the plot revolves around maturing singleton Leona.  There are some good lines about getting by on one’s own, although she could use a song which reinforces that, but eventually she meets a Venetian shop owner who isn’t the handsomest of men, but she falls for him.  In a pleasantly un-saccharine ending he turns out to be in some ways false, but also accusing her for the way she treats him as a trophy to be acquired like a holiday souvenir.  If the music matched the modernity of the plot it would be better, but casting mostly opera singers makes many of the numbers sound forced.

As Leona, Rebecca Seale is the least operatically-trained member of the cast and after a shaky start is smart-mouthed and engaging; as her lover Renato, Philip Lee - a wonderfully starched Mr Snow opposite Sarah Tynan in Opera North’s gorgeous Carousel at the Barbican - is the best singer in the show but he knows it and his solos are over-posed and unbalanced. Although he sings the beautiful ballad ‘Take The Moment’ at the end of the first act perfectly and with passion, it lacks the delicate tenderness with which Mandy Patinkin infused it on his 2002 Sondheim album.

Rosie Strobel turns in a nice cameo as the voluptuous proprietress of the Pensione Fioria with Carolina Gregory as her non-English-speaking and very reluctant maid.

It's all a bit uneven but the original collaboration was something of a mess anyway: this was a Rogers and Hammerstein chamber musical where Sondheim was drafted in as lyricist after his friend and mentor Oscar Hammerstein’s death.  It borrows heavily from Noel Coward's four-years-earlier 'Sail Away', a vehicle for Elaine Stritch as the travelling singleton, and had been designed for Mary Martin to play Leona but by the time the show was ready in 1965, Martin was 51 and Rogers felt her too old for the romantic role. Franco Zeffirelli was engaged as director but Dick Rogers, who was drinking heavily at the time, fell asleep in their first meeting. Rogers later described Sondheim’s lyrics as “shit” which did little to cement their working relationship.

Bit of a wasted opportunity, they really could have done The Light In The Piazza.