Six days, five shows, some dancers and a requiem

After Monday’s attendance at Richmond Theatre for Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, this has turned into a theatre-packed week.

On Tuesday, I went to the Soho Theatre to review gay theatre legend Bette Bourne being ‘interviewed’ by Mark Ravenhill. The inverted commas are because, although the evening was based on transcripts of interview conversations between the pair of them, Ravenhill then took those transcripts and cut them down into scripted conversations. Last year, the conversations took place over three evenings: this current production further cuts them down to a single evening. It’s not a particularly successful approach to investigating what is a spellbindingly personal story — but being in the presence of Bourne recounting tales from his life is a privilege, in any case.

Wednesday’s outing was to the West End transfer of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem from the Royal Court to the Apollo. I saw it in its original staging, and I have to say it’s one of the few theatrical productions where a second viewing not only brings out new levels of understanding of the script’s many layers, but also suggests that a third visit would reveal even more. As a metaphor for the changing state of England, some of those levels on my Australian friend Chad. Ah well, his loss.

Thursday was an odd day. During the day, the wonderful feeling of experiencing the St John’s College, Cambridge Choir in the college chapel singing elements of Fauré’s Requiem was tempered by the performance being part of the funeral service for my uncle John, a Fellow of the College, who passed away a couple of weeks ago after a long battle with cancer. Family pre-Christmas trips to the West End helped fuel the interest in theatre I’m lucky enough to be able to draw upon in my working life today, so that’s thanks in part to John. Further connections emerged in that Jez Butterworth went to St John’s, Jerusalem was one of the hymns during the service, and the chaplain ruminated on the implicit meanings of Blake’s words during his sermon.

Later in the evening and back in London, it was off to Hampstead for a performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods by the MA Music Theatre students of the Central School of Speech and Drama. A creative use of clothes racks and storage trunks showed that you don’t need a huge set budget to convey a sense of place. The whole piece was characterised by some imaginative staging, from quick changes and disappearing witches to expressionistic dance allowing the ensemble to represent the woods and the beanstalk. The quality of performance did vary quite a lot, though — while we may have seen one or two future West End stars, I won’t feel too disappointed if one or two others decide to pursue other careers.

Tonight sees a break from the relentless theatregoing, which starts up again tomorrow with a trip to see Ghosts starring Lesley Sharp and Iain Glen (who is also directing), in previews at the Duchess Theatre. It will be by first experience with Ibsen, I have to admit, and I don’t know what to expect. After that, it’s back to television, and the grand final of So You Think You Can Dance, which I’ll be live tweeting and writing about, especially after the week’s offstage dramas, which saw finalist Robbie White felled by a dislocated shoulder, briefly replaced by last week’s loser Alastair Postlethwaite, and now replace by Alastair and two other, non-competing, dancers to couple with the three remaining competitors.

And that’s most likely the end of this particular glut of theatrical outings. But there will, in the weeks to come, doubtless be more…

Quick theatre round-up

I know I haven’t been blogging here much lately: these things tend to come in fits and spurts, so I may do some more posts for a bit. That said, it’s coming up to my annual attempt to participate in NaNoWriMo so I may go quiet on the blogging front again.

Anyway, over the last few weeks I’ve had quite a few theatre trips, either for work as a reviewer or — gasp! — for fun. I’m so far behind that I can’t possibly review everything I’ve seen, but here’s a quick round-up:

September 26: Into the Woods, Landor

My first encounter with this Sondheim classic, and it wasn’t a disappointment. One of the most imaginative uses of the Landor’s restricted space, turning the stage into a giant bookshelf from which the classic fairytale characters sprang to life. A joy — Robert McWhir and the Landor team are never better when dealing with Sondheim.

September 30: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical, Palace

My second time seeing this musical (with tickets won via a competition held by the show’s Twitter account). The set pieces are just bonkers (in a good way), the costumes as inventive as ever, and in many ways it’s the perfect way to take a film with lots of music and turn it into a stage musical.

A couple of niggles: Jason Donovan seemed, in a couple of numbers, to be slightly disinterested, almost as if he were channeling a slightly more interested version of Terence Stamp (who scowled through virtually every dance number in the film). The same malaise seemed to be affecting two of the three backing dancers, which made Zoe Birkett’s enthusiasm all the more bizarre.

There were a disconcerting number of hearty laughs from the audience at some of the demonstrations of homophobic abuse, which was worrying in a show which embraces difference. And the boy who was on when we saw it wasn’t anywhere near as good as the lad who played the role on our first visit, who was breathtakingly good (I wish I knew what either of their names were).

October 11: Scott Alan, Leicester Square Theatre

As a birthday treat to myself, I took Paul and myself to see New York-based composer Scott Alan in an all-too-rare visit to the UK. Scott played a number of his songs, accompanied by a number of West End luminaries, including Patina Miller (Sister Act), Ramin Karimloo (Phantom of the Opera), Oliver Thompsett (Wicked) and Alison Jiear (Jerry Springer: The Opera).

I love Scott’s music, so I was rapt from start to finish — even through the first number, when the sound blew midway, forcing Patina and Scott to skip to a hastily-improvised acoustic performance. However, Scott did tend to concentrate on the more intensely emotional numbers in his repertoire. While they are what he’s most known for and certainly part of the reason I adore his two albums Dreaming Wide Awake and Keys, the inclusion of one or two of his lighter numbers, such as Seventeen or What Was His Name?, would have provided a greater variation of pace, which I know Paul (a Scott Alan virgin) found a bit wearing by the end.

October 12: The Unimportant History of Britain, Above the Stag

I didn’t have this down in iCal and wasn’t reviewing it, so forgot about this when I first wrote up this post. Which maybe gives you a clue as to how memorable this sketch show, which purports to portray the history of Britain from the stone age to the present day, is.

Most sketch comedy is hit and miss — sadly, this was more miss, miss, miss, could be a hit with a bit more work, miss, miss.

October 14: The Woman in Black, Fortune Theatre

Ade and I won tickets to Susan Black’s thriller in the Show and Stay theatre pub quiz (a live version of their weekday quiz – follow @WestEndUpdates to join in Monday-Friday at 2.10pm). Ade had seen the production before with a different cast, so some of the “surprises” were not new to him — I don’t think it’s really a show you can see more than once. We were also quite far back in the stalls, such that we were bathed in permanent emergency lighting, which doesn’t really help the atmospherics.

And for me, any sense of suspense was completely eradicated by the behaviour of the large number of teenage girls in the audience. If they weren’t talking to each other in loud stage whispers, they were screaming at anything that might possibly be considered slightly creepy. It was happening so often that anything that could have genuinely be a frightening moment was drowned out. When you get an audience ready to scream at the dimming of the house lights at the start of Act 2 there really isn’t anything you can do.

Still, to the audience’s credit, no mobile phones went off during the show. Well, one did — but it belonged to a very embarrassed member of the front of house staff. Oops.

October 18: Crazy for You, London Palladium

A one-off charity performance, organised by Showtime Challenge. Although roles had been cast in advance and cast had received scripts and scores, rehearsals only started 48 hours before curtain up (while everyone was expected to be off-book by then, they had been forbidden from rehearsing with one another). Sunday’s show was a miracle by any standards.

In many ways, Crazy For You is a perfect show for the format, its “let put on a show right here” themes allowing for a few rough edges here and there. Not that it really needed them: there were a couple of moments where things headed towards the am-dram end of the scale, but mostly it was an incredibly impressive show by any standards. And the sight of 130 actors tap-dancing in unison on the Palladium stage is a sight that remains with you long after the final curtain call.

October 20: Silence! The Musical, Barons Court Theatre

My first exposure to this musical version of The Silence of the Lambs was in Above the Stag’s Blink!, which featured a couple of numbers. The show suffers from not quite deciding if it’s going to be a complete send-up of the film or to be a faithful retelling in song and dance. Other faults included burying the most able cast members in the chorus while giving the lead roles to people who struggled to live up to the iconic portrayals by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins on screen.

There were also some quite bizarre blocking decisions, including a whole solo number delivered with the singer’s back to the audience. A discussion with a couple of the production team suggested that at least one of the badly blocked moments was unintentional, but overall the impression one was left with was of wasted opportunity.

The Above the Stag theatre is mounting its own production in the New Year, with the assistance of some of the original New York team, so hopefully we’ll see a production which doesn’t succumb to the same pitfalls.

October 21: Sister Act, London Palladium

Back to the Palladium for Alan Menken’s new work. I think I’ll in all likelihood do a full review of this, as there’s a lot I want to say about it. For now — the first act drags a lot, never really taking flight until Raise Your Voice (the number in which Patina Miller’s Deloris Van Cartier takes charge of the nuns’ choir). The second act is joyous throughout, although the cartoon villainy of the gangster, Shank, and his henchmen, limits the range of the show.

October 22: Zombie Prom, Landor

The one piece of my recent theatre marathon to require a professional review for The Stage. I won’t repeat that here.

October 25: Proud to Say I Love You, Above the Stag

A revue of gay love songs from the shows, performed by my good friend Josh as part of a company of four. By turns side-splitting and heart-breaking, it was an hour of unalloyed pleasure. This was the last of a series of one-off performances: I hope that a longer residence might emerge in 2010, as it’s a cabaret show that deserves to be seen by a wider audience.

October 26: Scenes From My Love Life: A Year of Above the Stag, Above the Stag

A compilation of highlights from Above the Stag’s first year as a producing theatre. Excerpts from some of the musicals and plays that have occupied this new, adventurous space helped accentuate how adventurous the programming has been. We were also treated to a preview of Busted Jesus Comix, which opens next week, and Silence! — which, as I said above, also featured in Blink! before it returns in the New Year.

Which brings us more or less up-to-date, full review of Sister Act notwithstanding. Coming in the next few weeks: a gala concert showcasing the songwriting talents of Michael Bruce, Busted Jesus Comix at Above the Stag, Scouts in Bondage at the King’s Head, my umpteenth visit to Avenue Q, and no doubt much more.

Oh, and I was a guest on Nick Ferrari’s LBC radio show earlier this week. Really should write that up as a blog post, too… (Update: I have)