Leslie Jordan: My Trip Down The Pink Carpet, Apollo Theatre

If the name Leslie Jordan isn’t familiar to you, the sight (and sound) of the American character actor may well be. Standing tall at 4’11” and with a characteristic Tennessee drawl, Jordan has played supporting roles on many TV series opposite actors including George Clooney and Mark Harmon, coming to greatest prominence with his Emmy award-winning role as closeted Republican Beverley Leslie in the sitcom Will and Grace.

Jordan’s tales of Hollywood struggle – being called upon to try and “butch up” and developing crushes on his leading men – could fill the whole of the show’s 1 hour 40 minutes, but would soon begin to pall. But there is a deeper story being told here: the attempt of one man to break free of his internalised homophobia, to overcome his alcohol and drug dependencies, to be able to stand tall and be comfortable in his own skin.

Jordan’s monologue is delivered in a cannily crafted, deceptively haphazard series of recollections and digressions. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Ronnie Corbett’s monologues from The Two Ronnies, which appeared to be rambling, improvised whimsy but were in fact highly scripted and structured.

Jordan’s one man show grew out of a book tour to promote his memoir and toured small cabaret-style venues across America before crossing the Atlantic. I was concerned that opening the show out onto a West End stage might have robbed it of some of the intimacy it needs, but such thinking did not account for Jordan’s ability to hold an entire audience’s attention.

If there’s a downside, the inclusion of many gay pop “anthems”, while fun, on occasion did trample on some of Jordan’s anecdotal punchlines. But at the end of the evening, the entire audience was justifiably on its feet, applauding a man who may be short of stature, but who delivers a huge life lesson from which we can all learn.

When We Are Married, Garrick Theatre

First published in 1938 and set 30 years previously, J B Priestley’s comedy of manners is as delightful as ever.

Three Yorkshire couples, who fancy themselves as being at the higher end of society, are each celebrating their silver wedding anniversary, having been married in a joint ceremony 25 years earlier. After a quarter century, each seems happy in the place in which they have settled, be it in their respective marriages or among the town’s social strata. But when their chapel’s new organ master brings some news that means the weddings were never official, and so for 25 years they have not been married at all, each is forced to reappraise their position.

Like all good comedies, the story is a hair’s breadth away from drama. One could easily imagine Priestley’s script being played with a wry, bittersweet, Alan Bennett-style pathos. Here, though, under Christopher Luscombe’s direction, the production goes for out and out comedy, with a cast that is able to wring out every laugh with every line, every look, every finely judged bit of comedy business.

Of the three couples whose marital lives face upheaval, Sam Kelly stands out as Herbert Soppitt, a man who for two and a half decades has been hen-pecked by the imperious Clara (Maureen Lipman) but who finally finds his voice, while Susie Blake is magnificent as the woman who is most prepared to stand by her “husband” until she finds that he may not have been so upright in the meantime.

While all six of the main characters impress so much, the ensemble around them excels also. In any comedy that revolves around class (or the lack of it) the servants often get the best lines and that is especially true here: in the hands of Lynda Baron as eavesdropping charlady Mrs Northrop and particularly Jodie McNee as motormouthed maid Ruby Birtle, Priestley’s dialogue sparks along superbly.

Roy Hudd’s intoxicated photographer and Rosemary Ashe’s blowsy Blackpool barmaid are excellent cats to put among the Yorkshire pigeons, and designer Simon Higlett has created a sumptuous Victorian drawing room set for the farce to unfold in. But the major star of the night is McNee, who steals every scene and deservedly so.

Doctor Who Live, Wembley Arena

On television in 1973, Jon Pertwee’s Doctor encountered a travelling showman who entertained his public with a device containing miniaturised versions of intergalactic monsters. The BBC’s new stage extravaganza uses a similar conceit to explain why creatures from Cybermen to Venetian vampires are invading the country’s arenas.

Gareth Roberts and Will Brenton’s script openly acknowledges the heritage of their carnival of monsters. It is let down slightly by their new character, the duplicitous Vorgenson. Starting out as little more than a narrator, Nigel Planer struggles to keep a sense of momentum through a succession of walk-on monster appearances. Men stomping around in character suits gets tired quickly, although the recreation of the terrifying Weeping Angels provides some genuine heart-stopping thrills.

It must be hard for any single actor to hold an audience the size of Wembley in his thrall. Nicholas Briggs manages much better than Planer in his brief cameo as Winston Churchill, but the show only really comes alive when the current Doctor, Matt Smith, interjects via a series of often hilarious prerecorded video sequences.

The real star of the show is the music. Murray Gold’s incidental score for the series is not to everyone’s tastes, but as performed here it mostly works. Some foreshadowing by the reuse of a sixties sound effect as a bassline will delight hardcore fans.

Given Smith’s limited participation, the denouement to the story could not be anything other than a little anticlimactic. Despite its faults, though, it does at least capture much of the charm of the TV series.

La Bête, Comedy Theatre

Written in 1991, Peter Filichia’s comedy is a satire on, and tribute to, theatre in the age of Molière.

A troupe of actors, led by the purist Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), is desperate to retain the royal patronage of Joanna Lumley’s Princess. So when she insists that they admit the vulgar populist Valere (Mark Rylance) into their midst, the company is torn between principle and security.

The undoubted highlight of the production is Rylance’s performance. From the minute he staggers onstage, the worse for the wear after over indulging at a royal banquet, it becomes Rylance’s show. Valere’s opening monologue lasts for a good 25 minutes. It starts off funny, quickly becomes hilarious — but then becomes infuriating. At which point it starts to become all the funnier, because every point at which we think he is drawing to an end, he starts up again. Throughout, Hyde Pierce’s role is reduced to dumb reaction: but it’s the role that ten years on Frasier has shown he was more than capable of.

It’s not just the duration of the monologue that creats such mirth, though. The content — poking fun at actors, at critics, at pretension in general — takes profusive aim and generally hits every target.

In truth, once that monologue does draw to a close, the quality of the play dips substantially, becoming a poor imitation rather than the pastiche it wants to be. It never quite regains the heights of that monologue, and by the time the closing curtain comes there’s much more a feeling of relief than there should be.

Such Tweet Sorrow: website-specific theatre that works

I have to admit that when I heard a modern day version of Romeo and Juliet was to be ‘staged’ on Twitter, I was sceptical. Not necessarily that it would be possible to play out a series of characters posting online as if they were real — that has been done before. YouTube had lonelygirl15, which continued for some time before being revealed as fictional. On Twitter itself, the characters behind web-only crime thriller Girl Number 9 conversed with each other in the run-up to the release of the first episode online.

That latter experiment didn’t really work for me, because it involved characters I did not know talking to each other about a crime case I knew even less. As such it proved hard to get drawn in.

And I thought the online Romeo and Juliet, punningly entitled Such Tweet Sorrow, might actually suffer a reverse problem. The story of Verona’s two houses both alike in dignity is so well known that it couldn’t possibly work.

Not for the first time, I was incredibly wrong. Such Tweet Sorrow (aka @Such_Tweet) is an utterly compelling retelling. But the kicker is that for it to work, you have to have it playing alongside your existing Twitter conversations. If you dip in via the official website, it just doesn’t work.

You may have heard of site-specific theatre, a “performance which can only be done in a particular place or site”. Such Tweet Sorrow is the first, truly successful, online version – website-specific theatre.

In its first few days, it was hard to adjust to some of the representations of the characters we know from Shakespeare’s play. Most of the characters’ names have been retained from the original — but apart from Juliet @julietcap16 (and, to a far lesser extent, Romeo, @romeo_mo) none of the characters’ first names really work in a modern context. When was the last time you met a Tybalt (@Tybalt_Cap) or a Mercutio (@mercuteio)?

That disparity, between medieval names and dialogue that fits in naturally with life in 2010 London, provides an initial barrier to suspension of disbelief. Some of the other characters’ integration to the storyline required more massaging. Friar Lawrence becomes @LaurenceFriar (not the most common of surnames), an internet café owner and small-time drug dealer. More successfully, the Nurse becomes Jess, Juliet and Tybalt’s older sister, who had to take on a more matronly role towards her siblings when their mother died ten years ago (explaining her @Jess_nurse username)

And just reading the characters’ tweets, either on the Twitter list page @Such_Tweet/such-tweet-sorrow or on the official website timeline, doesn’t really present the story in the correct light to get over that feeling, because it removes from the narrative the most important aspect of Twitter — that it’s a real time messaging system.

Instead, I elected to follow each of the characters, so that their tweets would show up in my own Twitter timeline, jumbled up amid those of everyone else I follow. It means that events play out at a more believable pace: Romeo had to be coaxed onto Twitter because he was too busy playing an online game with an American girl called Rosaline, and didn’t even show up in the ‘play’ for the first couple of days. A brawl between some of the Capulet and Montague boys saw abuse being hurled long after the event, just as it would in real life.

Throughout Friday, Juliet started to stress about her 16th birthday party that night (coincidentally, the youngest Capulet shares her birthday with the Bard), while the Montague boys debated whether to crash it. It may sound trite, but with events unfolding alongside your own friends planning their own Friday evening jollities, it works surprisingly well.

The story has bled out onto other websites, too, just as non-fictional conversations on Twitter do. Sites devoted to sharing photos and videos via Twitter make regular appearances, while a Tumblr-driven blog provides some insights from @Jago_klepto, a classmate of Juliet’s who provides some additional commentary.

As it stands, Romeo and Juliet spent the night together after bumping into one another at the birthday party, so we can expect the fall-out any day now. Which brings another factor into play. In the latter stages of the play, much of the tragedy comes about through the main characters’ ignorance of the others’ intentions and motivations. Juliet fakes her death; Romeo, believing her dead, poisons himself; a waking Juliet, seeing her dead lover, stabs herself.

Given the way the play has unfolded so far, I feel sure that the people planning Such Tweet Sorrow have worked out how to cope with such big secrets in an arena that is intrinsically open to everyone. It’ll be a test of their creativity, for sure — and if that closing act fails online, it will have an effect on how this venture is remembered. Right now, though, to steal a phrase from one of Shakespeare’s other masterpieces, Such Tweet Sorrow is a palpable hit.

Lord Arthur’s Bed, King’s Head

There are moments during this short play by Martin Lewton that seem to border on genius, only to be followed by several more moments of utter bewilderment.

Spencer Charles Noll and Ruaraidh Murray play gay couple Donald and Jim, who celebrate the first anniversary of their civil partnership by re-enacting tales of two Victorian cross-dressers and their relationship with Lord Arthur Clinton. The court case of Edward ‘Stella’ Boulton and Frederick ‘Fanny’ Park, while little known today, is something of a landmark case in the course of England’s ambivalent attitude to homosexuality, and is one of the first recorded instances of the word drag being used in its now familiar sense. Lewton’s script presents the case in an interesting way, only failing to work when he tries to create parallels to 21st century gay life in Britain.

Noll in particular displays a flair for character transformation, playing each of his multiple roles with precision – a quality useful for an audience that has to cope with a story that bounces around time frames and storylines at a fair pace.

Murray has the harder problem, coping with a contemporary character who is saddled with a neurosis about his own homosexuality that comes and goes at a whim. His fear of being outed at work seems out of place with his modern London lifestyle in a way that devalues any sense of peril the script tries to imply. The faults with the creation of that character are ultimately this otherwise promising play’s undoing.

_Reviewed for [The Stage](http://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/27439/lord-arthurs-bed)_

King’s Head Theatre, London, March 2-April 10
Author/director: Martin Lewton
Producer: Theatre North
Cast: Spencer Charles Noll, Ruaraidh Murray
Running time: 1hr 10mins

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…

A Life in Three Acts

Now aged 70, gay actor Bette Bourne, gloriously bedecked in what he terms his “Golders Green drag”, delivers an inspirational evening as he recounts stories from his life in response to gentle prodding from Mark Ravenhill.

A condensed version of last year’s scripted conversations, originally spread over three nights, the structure does tend to hamstring Bourne’s tales of post-war Soho, discovering drag and the foundation of his ground-breaking Bloolips theatre company. Tales of his father’s violence sound flatter than they should when read from the page in front of him. Having Ravenhill’s offer of a tissue after a particularly harrowing recollection delivered as a scripted direction rather than a genuine moment of concern lends an unnecessarily manipulative air to a scene that deserves greater impact.

In his role as interviewer, Ravenhill does a good job of keeping the subject matter on track. His occasional dips into portrayals of other characters in Bourne’s life, however, are too brief and too scattered to work as intended, becoming instead unwelcome distractions.

It is when Bourne goes off-book, either staring wistfully into the distance or moving downstage to perform to his audience, that the evening comes alive. His determination, forthrightness and good humour come to the fore, keenly demonstrating why he is one of the few people truly deserving the epithet of ‘gay icon’.

A Life in Three Acts
Soho Theatre, London, until February 27, 2010
Authors: Bette Bourne, Mark Ravenhill
Producers: London Artists Projects, Soho Theatre
Cast: Bette Bourne, Mark Ravenhill
Running time: 1hr 50min

Reviewed for The Stage

Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, Richmond Theatre

Under Richmond’s magnificent, Matcham-designed proscenium nestles another, more gaudy one. This has the air of a Victorian children’s toy theatre, with its simplified, painted-on swags and crudely-drawn ornamentations.

The effect is amplified once the small theatre’s curtain rises, revealing sets constructed from painted flats and characters ripped straight from the Big Boys’ Book of Wildean Archetypes. There’s the imperious dowager who is the fulcrum of society; the absent-minded vicar for whom devotion to God is not top of his list of priorities; the foppish aristocrat who can’t help but get himself into trouble; and his fiancée, whose only role seems to be the prize the aristo will receive for relinquishing his foppish ways. If the actors had lengths of wood attached to their feet, running off into the wings to be controlled by the hands of giant children, it would be no surprise.
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Scouts in Bondage

Every sketch show has scenarios which, while amusing in moderate amounts, outstay their welcome. Imagine such a sketch stretched out to the best part of two hours and you have Scouts in Bondage.

Glenn Chandler’s comedy, a sequel to last year’s Boys of the Empire, sees a troop of 1930s Boy Scouts crash land in Afghanistan while on their way to a jamboree. They end up caught in a plot between British intelligence and the local warring factions in one of several satirical swipes at 21st century attitudes to Britain’s involvement in the region.

Narration is provided by Mark Farrelly as the editor of Scout Magazine, whose increasingly anarchic performance is the highlight of the evening. The scouts, though, work on a more one-note level which, although it pastiches the Boys’ Own stylings of the era, quickly begins to grate and actively works against any attempt to portray anything deeper.

On several occasions, the production seems unable to find the line between lampooning the casual racism of the age and just joining in. And while there are good laughs to be had throughout, the overall impression is of a production that got too carried away with the title’s double entendre to tighten up the script as much as needed.

King’s Head, Islington
November 12-January 10, 2010
Author: Glenn Chandler
Director: Terence Barton
Producer: Boys of the Empire Productions
Cast: Brage Bang, Christopher Birks, Mark Farrelly, Christopher Finn, Alastair Mavor, Timothy Welling
Running time: 1hr 50mins

* Reviewed for [The Stage](http://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/26254/scouts-in-bondage)