Tag Archives: tour

He Is What He Is


Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Sunday 30th June, 2019


He arrives on stage to a rousing welcome from the Birmingham audience and the appreciation never dips from that point.  Shimmying around in a blue suit and black shirt, Barrowman exhorts us to ‘Celebrate good times, come on!’.  This is a party as much as a concert.  The premise is a retrospective of his thirty years in The Business – he deals with his stage and screen appearances in a jokingly curt manner, but I am reminded of his early days on Saturday morning television, and a younger, nervous me going to the stage door after a matinee performance of Sunset Boulevard and meeting a younger, just-as-handsome him.  There were about three of us at the stage door on that occasion; nowadays there are mobs.  He signed my programme and I stammered out a couple of compliments.  (I met him again years later, at a pantomime launch, and managed to get my words out that time!)

There is an emphasis on fun.  Barrowman swaps dick jokes with the on-stage sign language interpreter.  He shows us photographs and video clips of his family and his pets.  And he sparkles and shines every minute.  There’s a bit of Q&A about his time in the celebrity jungle, and there’s more upbeat numbers so we can clap along.  It’s a bit wedding singer at times, but Barrowman can pull off the cheese by dint of energy alone, and the support of his excellent band.

What works best though are ballads like Barry Manilow’s I Made It Through The Rain and the Perry Como classic, And I Love You So – the latter being perfect, beautiful in fact.  Songs like these and show tunes are better platforms for Barrowman’s vocal stylings.  He performs a doctored version of The Wizard and I (from Wicked) and I prickle with shivery nostalgia.  His Doctor Who character, Captain Jack Harkness, was a ground-breaking representation of non-heterosexuality in prime time TV and gave the openly gay actor’s career a jump start.

Barrowman gets us all to wave our hands in the air while he records a clip for Instagram with a rainbow flag in the foreground.  It’s World Pride Day, after all, and we gays (especially those of us who are no longer twinks, twonks or twunks) should be proud of the positivity Barrowman represents.

In the second half, he brings his octogenarian parents on stage.  No ‘slosh’ from them this time, but Barrowman père can out-sauce his cheeky son any day of the week, while Barrowman mère surprises us all into a standing ovation for a well-sung, beautiful song.  She may be visibly frail but there’s clearly nothing wrong with Marion’s vocal pipes.  And we see where he gets it from: the humour from his dad, the singing from his mum.  There is also an appearance from Barrowman’s handsome husband Scott – clearly not at home on the stage, Scott acquits himself with a decent and enjoyable rendition of Quando Quando Quando.

I can do without the In Memoriam section for audience members’ dead dogs; I’d much rather he invited us just to think about loved ones we have lost while he sings Goodbye My Friend – but that’s just my taste, I suppose.  He makes up for it with a gobsmacking performance of the empowering anthem, I Am What I Am.  ‘Fabulous’ has never been more applicable.

The show overruns – we won’t let him go – and it finishes with a soaring version of Loch Lomond.  You can’t accuse John Barrowman of not giving value for money – although at fifteen quid a pop, the souvenir programmes are a bit steep!

Uplifting, funny and inspirational, Barrowman is one of our finest entertainers, with talent as big as his onstage personality.  I can easily imagine being back in another thirty years for more.

To revert to an earlier catchphrase: Fantastic, fantastic, fantastic!






IAN McKELLEN on Stage: with Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others and YOU

The REP, Birmingham, Friday 21st June, 2019


It begins with a reading from The Lord of the Rings; you know the bit, where Gandalf faces down the Balrog on that narrow subterranean bridge so that the rest of the Fellowship can get away.  McKellen treats us to a vivid piece of storytelling – the first of the night – the battered paperback merely a prop.  He has it by heart and puts his heart into it.  It’s spellbinding stuff and I’m almost sorry that he doesn’t do the entire saga!

Gandalf is the role that brought one of our finest actors to global attention but, as McKellen reminds us, his career has been long and varied.  The first half of this retrospective brims with anecdotes, from film and theatre, of his early life in Bolton – a three-year-old McKellen visiting Manchester’s Palace Theatre proves fateful, when a production of Peter Pan alerts the young boy to the magic of the stage…

From a huge cardboard trunk, plastered with stickers from theatres this tour has already visited, McKellen takes out souvenirs, prompts for each anecdote.  A young man is beckoned from the audience to try out Glamdring, Gandalf’s renowned sword.  At other times, McKellen is keen to include us, en masse, because of our shared love of the theatre.  Audience members murmur in nostalgic recognition as he throws out names of actors, many of whom are long since gone.  The REP itself merits special mention for its history and influence on many a career.  The story of receiving his knighthood is played out with delicious comedic skill.  A real treat is to get a glimpse of his Twankey, as he recalls his time in pantomime at the Old Vic.

Using only the warmth of his personality and, of course, that marvellous voice, McKellen has us in the palm of his hand.  There are no video clips, no projections, just the objects from the trunk.  The stories often come with punchlines, delivered with exquisite timing;  the readings, of works by T S Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins, are captivating, electrifying.  The story of how, after many years, McKellen came out, driven to it by Section 28, is inspiring and heartening.

The second half is devoted to Shakespeare.  McKellen unpacks stacks of books from his trunk and invites us to name all 37 of the plays.  Each title comes with an anecdote, an interesting titbit, or a performance of a key scene.  Hamlet and Macbeth get especial attention with lengthy extracts, but it is the eulogy from Cymbeline (Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun) that is especially powerful.  It’s an absolute treat and again I am almost disappointed he doesn’t recite the complete works!

Designed to commemorate the actor’s 80th birthday, this tour is a wonderful opportunity to spend some time in the presence of a national treasure.  It’s a privilege to hear him perform, entertaining to listen to that wicked sense of humour, and a joy to see him in action.

A thoroughly lovely evening, joyous, poignant and life-affirming.  We need more positive forces like Sir Ian in these benighted times.  We need more nights at the theatre to bind and unite us during these dark days of division.

sir ian

Boot Camp


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 17th October, 2018


Based on the film of the same name, the hit musical with book by Harvey Fierstein and songs by Cyndi Lauper hits the road for its first national tour.  Having enjoyed the movie and being well aware of the show’s West End reputation, I take my seat with eager anticipation.

It’s the story of Charlie, a young man who feels trapped into taking over his father’s shoe factory after the old man pops his clogs.  Times are hard and it seems that lay-offs and a shutdown are inevitable.  Staff are facing the boot.  Unless, a new kind of product can be found…

At first, it seems a bit humdrum and run-of-the-mill.  Like a new pair of shoes, it takes a while to wear in.  By the time queen of the drag queens Lola appears, things lift and stay lifted.  Lola (played exquisitely in this performance by Kayi Ushe) gets all the best tunes and all the best lines.  Ushe is utterly captivating, dignified, strong and vulnerable, and sassy to perfection.

The factory shifts production to the manufacture of boots for drag queens, designed by Lola, and the plot shifts from saving the factory to include the growing friendship between the two leads, Charlie and Lola (most definitely NOT the Cbeebies pair!)

As Charlie, Joel Harper Jackson is not without intensity but tends to get a bit shouty in his big musical moments.  Other than that, though, he and Ushe are a great match, their voices blending beautifully in the searing ballad, Not My Father’s Son.  Among the factory workers, there is strong support from Paula Lane as the smitten Lauren, and Demitri Lampra as Don, the embodiment of outdated toxic attitudes – a crowd favourite here in Wolverhampton.  Adam Price is also a lot of fun as middle-aged George.

The chorus of ‘Angels’ – Lola’s drag queen friends – is stunningly glamorous and camp – and agile too.  Jerry Mitchell’s choreography shows off their assets in the best possible light.  Mitchell also directs, balancing a down-to-earth, East Midlands flavour with showbiz glitz.  There are plenty of laughs here and a lesson in acceptance to boot, a recognition of the humanity behind the falsies or indeed the attitudes the characters present to the world.  You can’t help leaving the theatre feeling six inches taller.

If you’re looking for the best musical set in Northampton, this one’s a shoe-in.  A real feelgood show which, dare I say it, has heeling properties.  And the music has sole… I’ll stop now.

k boots

Where There’s Not A Will


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 26th November, 2013


Due to illness, Mr Will Young will not be appearing.”

A cry goes up and fills the auditorium will dismay.  So many people have booked tickets precisely because Mr Will Young is top of the bill.  But that’s live theatre for you.  Another aspect of live theatre is that such an eventuality allows the understudy to step up and have his moment in the limelight.  Enter Simon Jaymes who is more than up to the rigours of the challenge.  In fact, without the star player, I am reminded that the Emcee is an incidental role.  He and his raucous troupe of chorus girls (and chorus boys in this production) function as something of a Greek Chorus, providing musical interludes and commentary on the main action.

The main action concerns the arrival of American novelist Clifford Bradshaw (Matt Rawle) in 1930s Berlin.  He is a not-so-innocent abroad and, having rented a room, meets and has flings with all sorts.  Rawle is the most ‘normal’ (perhaps ‘grounded’ is a better term) figure on stage.  We encounter the other characters and Berlin through his eyes.  He is the ‘straight’ man, so to speak, although Bradshaw (suggested by the real-life adventures of Christopher Isherwood) evidently climbs both sides of the ladder.  Rawle’s rich singing voice is always a treat and he brings an easy, up-for-it-ness to the role.

Bradshaw finds himself in the KitKat Club, a venue named after not one but two chocolate bars (not really) where he meets the redoubtable Sally Bowles.  Siobhan Dillon imbues the divine Miss B with an irrepressible Englishness and energy.  Her musical numbers are the highlights for me.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of Lyn Paul but I’m afraid her German landlady, Fraulein Schneider, has more than a hint of Liverpool to her.  I keep expecting her to turn out to be Frau Johnson in a production of Blut Brüder.

Her paramour Herr Schulz is sweetly portrayed by Linal Haft, warbling about a pineapple and keeping his kopf in the sand about the rising tide of anti-Semitism all around him as Nazism infects the minds of the German populace.  Director Rufus Norris knows we know what happens historically and within the story.  He makes the rise of the Reich ironic – the Emcee is a satirist.  In Tomorrow Belongs to Me for example, rather than trying to catch us out with an invitation to sing along, here the Emcee is shown as a puppetmaster, pulling the strings of his chorines in traditional German costume.  The Nazis tug at the patriotism of the people, making it easier to pick out ‘others’ as scapegoats for the country’s problems.  (Cut to the news today where our own PM is employing exactly the same tactic, playing to people’s fears about immigration rather than giving us any facts).

Cabaret not only reminds us that terrible things happened, it is also a stark warning against the resurgence of the right wing.  The show ends with the chorus, who haven’t been wearing very much more than leather shorts and straps anyway, naked and vulnerable, clawing against a wall.  The satirists and ‘deviants’ of the KitKat Club have been rounded up and taken to the showers…  It’s the most downbeat and chilling ending in musical theatre.

I always forget how funny Joe Masteroff’s script is, and Kander & Ebb’s score, owing a lot to Brecht & Weill, is always great to hear.  Rufus Norris gives the show a sharper, more aggressive tone, reinvigorating the piece and redoubling its power to shock.

So put down your knitting, your book and your ipod and catch the production on tour; with or without Mr Will Young, you’re in for a thoroughly engaging and entertaining evening.

PS.  Get well soon, Will.


Open House


The REP reopens with the National Theatre touring production of Alan Bennett’s People, a hit comedy.  It concerns two sisters, one a former model, the other an archdeacon, squabbling over the fate of their ancestral seat, a crumbling pile with a leaky roof that the ex-model still calls her home.  In fur coat and pyjamas, she huddles under blankets in front of an electric fire, singing Petula Clark with her companion.  There are interested parties: the National Trust wants to open the house to the public; the representative of a shady yet powerful group, “The Concern” is keen to buy up house and contents and move it from South Yorkshire to Dorset; and a maker of adult (i.e. “mucky”) films is scouting for locations.

Sian Phillips is Dorothy the former glamour girl and socialite, now a virtual recluse, still catching up on current events in 30-year-old newspapers.  She is the beating heart of the house and also the play.  Phillips imbues Dorothy with the right amount of eccentricity, tempered with likeability, vulnerability and glimpses of her former beauty – in fact, when she dresses up in her mothballed haute couture, it is clear she is still a striking woman.   She is reluctant, to put it mildly, to allow people to traipse through her home.  This is the main bone of contention between her and sister June – Selina Cadell in a superb comic performance, as the stuffy clergywoman, flabbergasted and disgusted in turn.  She even brings on a comedy bishop (Robin Bowerman) for one of the funniest scenes.  The bifocaled bishop squints at the cast and crew of a porn film, taking them to be the W.I.  In scenes like this (and the shooting of the porn movie) Bennett gives us crowd-pleasing comedy, along traditional lines.

But the play has other riches to offer.  Despite Dorothy’s assertion, the house is a metaphor for England.  England repackaged and sold off as a version of itself it never was, a “serving suggestion” England.  On one level it’s throwing into question the practices of the National Trust, but on another, the wider view is that ‘everything has a price’ and ‘if it’s worthwhile, it has to be paid for’.   June is plotting to sell off Winchester Cathedral to the “Concern”.  She is David Cameron in a tweed skirt, peddling the NHS to the highest bidders.

Phillips and Cadell are both excellent.  So is the third of this play’s three leading ladies.  Brigit Forsyth is Iris, Dorothy’s lifelong companion, in hacking jacket and slippers and unwashed in living memory.  She is the antidote to Dorothy’s glamour, another aspect of the faded quality of the house.

Among a very strong ensemble, I particularly liked Alexander Warner’s porn star, Colin, struggling to ‘perform’; his Latvian co-star Brit (Ellie Burrow); and their director Theodore (Paul Moriarty) an old flame of Dorothy’s.

Bob Crowley’s set is absolutely magnificent, evoking the solidity and permanence of the stately home, and the clutter and decay accrued by just sitting there – it in turn is a metaphor for Dorothy and Iris, who are decaying just sitting there.  It is when they let people in that they are revived to some kind of life, even if it’s not the life they would have chosen.

A high quality play in a high quality production, People is particularly apt for the reopening of the Rep after two years dark.  As Artistic Director Roxana Silbert points out, quoting a line from the play, “The house has come home.” Unlike someone’s home, however stately, a theatre needs people traipsing in to have a look.


Brigit Forsyth and Sian Phillips sing Downtown

Back Story


Derby Theatre, Thursday 5th September, 2013

London Classic Theatre’s latest tour kicks off in Derby but already it feels like a production that has had more performances.  The cast of four seem well bedded in their roles – and I use the term advisedly: Pinter’s Betrayal is the story of an affair.

On the face of it, “Man sleeps with best friend’s wife” seems unremarkable as a storyline.  It is a staple ingredient of every soap you can think of.  What sets Pinter’s version apart is the structure.  The action happens backwards – I don’t mean in some comic rewind kind of way.  We meet the characters in nine scenes, each scene occurring before the previous.  This is a device that has since been used in more than a couple of films, but few examples are as effective as presented here.

And so we first meet Emma (Rebecca Pownall) and Jerry (Steven Clarke) sometime after their affair has ended.  Gradually we track their relationship right back to the pivotal moment of their decision to embark on it.  Along the way, husband Robert (Pete Collis) gets wind of it.  Such is the effect of the structure, the tension is almost palpable.  Earlier (or later!) Emma reveals that Robert has hit her a few times.  When we come to the scene when the truth comes out, the possibility of our witnessing such violence is very real.

The cast run the gamut of emotions.  As Emma, Rebecca Pownall is brittle, strident, vulnerable, happy… but, as if often the case with Pinter, her most powerful scenes are when she says very little.  She squirms in her Venetian deck chair as Robert skirts around her infidelity during a holiday.  Her silence speaks volumes.  It is remarkable.  Lover Jerry is a bit of a prat; Steven Clarke imbues him with likeability along with his selfishness and impulsive nature.  Pete Collis’s Robert is, by contrast, quite a static figure, but his stillness hints at the emotion he is restraining.  The fourth member of the cast is Max Wilson as the Italian waiter who gets the brunt of Robert’s annoyance, as anger is deflected from his best friend across the table.

It all runs like clockwork.  The script is undeniably Pinter.  The drama is leavened by the unconscious humour of everyday interaction, the highly charged subtext contrasts with the banality of the characters’ middle class existence, emotions are articulated between the lines, and an underlying sense of tension bubbles along throughout.

Director Michael Cabot has got it spot on in terms of pace and tone.  Bek Palmer’s set evokes ruined buildings, in a war zone, perhaps: scenes take place among partial corners, doorways and windows.  The characters lives are in ruins, after all!  Andy Grange’s lighting design helps differentiate the locations – the final moment, when the affair begins, owes as much to the designers as it does the performers.  The colour palette is muted, greys and browns.  This is the 1970s.  Touches of colour appear the closer we revert to the 60s.  It’s very subtly done through costume (designer: Katja Krzesinska) making for a quality production in all respects.  The only nit I would pick is that the hairstyles need 70-fying a bit more.  Perhaps as the tour goes on, this will happen naturally as the actors’ hair grows! Image

Top Cat


Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 4th July, 2013

I love Disney – if you don’t believe me, I’ll show you my Mickey Mouse tattoo – but for some reason unknown to me, I have stayed away from the stage adaptation of one of the Magic Kingdom’s most successful animated features.  Until now.  Now the show is touring the country and has set up shop only a few miles from my house, I finally got to see it.

How do you translate animation to the stage?  How do you show the beautifully painted landscapes that enrich the film and give such a sense of place?

Director Julie Taymor answers those questions with puppetry and costume.  It really is the most inventive production design I’ve ever seen.  A slatted sun rises upstage while a woman/baboon (the brilliant Gugwana Dlamini) sings to us in soaring Swahili the spine-tingling Circle of Life – to be honest, she could have been singing Shaddup You Face – the song is almost lost in the audience’s astonished delight as a parade of animals progresses down the aisles, congregating on stage at the foot of Pride Rock – the seat of the lions’ power.  The elephant gets the biggest gasp but for me, the giraffes are the most effective, elegantly presented by performers on two sets of stilts.

This is a fantasy world.  The lions are humanoid figures sporting headgear with masks like tribal chiefs and elders.  Other animals are puppets in a variety of methods – the human operators are always visible.  Through choreography, they act out the famous story, with African-esque rhythms and even a hint of the Far East in some of the techniques used.  It is one of the most beautiful shows I have ever seen.  And inventive!  Taymor doesn’t stint herself: the stampede of wildebeest is remarkably, breath-takingly clever and there are singing plants to rival Little Shop of Horrors.

Unfortunately, the dialogue lets it down.  Lifted directly from the screenplay, it seems to be the poor relation at this spectacular feast.  Quick fire gags and bug-eyed reactions are perfect for an animated figure.  On stage, in highly stylised costumes, the banter doesn’t come across as well.  Taymor needs to direct her genius towards the script.  The language could do with heightening to match the theatrical splendour of the storytelling.  Ditch the Americanisms (or at least give the English kids American accents so the cadence sounds natural) and dump the pop culture references.  What the hell an allusion to DIY SOS is doing in there, I can’t fathom.  It’s cheap and cynical and makes the comedy seemed forced.  I also couldn’t work out why Zazu the bird was inexplicably Scottish and babbling about IKEA.  The show doesn’t need this.  With a more poetic, timeless script, the show could be perfect.

Along come Timon and Pumbaa – this camp comic duo are the most like their animated counterparts and although they are expertly performed by John Hasler and Mark Roper respectively, it feels like they’ve wandered in from a theme park ride.  They don’t fit with the rest of the production.

When so much creativity and effort has gone into making The Lion King a sublimely theatrical experience, it’s a pity that the flaws in the film (the patchy dialogue and the misplaced pop culture references) have made it onto the stage too.

The music though is wonderful, with the best tunes coming not from Elton John but from Hans Zimmer’s score, including the best number of the lot, Shadowland, performed with passion and verve by Carole Stennett as lioness Nala. It is the music that stirs the blood when Simba finally ascends to his rightful place at the top of Pride Rock.

I left the auditorium exhilarated by this display of production arts and theatrical invention.  With a better script to match the stylised representation of these Shakespearean events, the show might have moved me to tears.


It’s a puppet!

WAR HORSE Press Launch

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 14th January, 2013


I saw the West End production of this marvellous show not long back and today I had the chance to get up close but not personal with the star of the piece, Joey the titular war horse.

It was a strange moment.  There I was, in the Hippodrome’s bar, sitting among journalists and bloggers and what-have-you.  We had been welcomed by Stuart Griffiths, the Hippodrome’s chief executive, and we had seen a stirring video, a trailer for the touring show.  We were being addressed by Toby Olié, associate puppetry director, when in came Joey, trotting happily to meet us.

Joey is a puppet.  There is no denying it.  You can see the puppeteers.  You can see the cane and aluminium framework he is made of.  But he is life-sized.  He moves and behaves like a real horse.  He breathes!  In fact he does everything but blink and poo on the carpet.  It is astonishing to behold.  The artistry of the puppeteers makes him life-like and naturalistic.  Given that the show is built around a puppet as its central character, something very special is required, if the audience is to have an emotional investment in the story.  This isn’t Punch & Judy, Sooty and Sweep, or even The Muppet Show.

Toby explained how Joey was constructed by South African outfit, Handspring Puppet Company, and how the three puppeteers share physical and emotional aspects of Joey’s performance.  One operates the head, the second the heart, and the third the hind.  It turns out you can be a professional horse’s ass without being a member of the cabinet.

We followed Joey outside for a photo-opportunity.  Passersby marvelled at him as he – well, I won’t say posed.  There is nothing anthropomorphic about Joey.  He behaves as an equine should.

Having seen the show, it was a treat to get to see the puppet up close and to learn about what goes into his operation.  Not only is the form of the show remarkable, the content is also powerful stuff.   There is a reason why it’s now in its sixth year.

It is encouraging to see shows of this magnitude touring the country, and indeed other countries.  You don’t have to go down to London to see everything.

War Horse comes to Birmingham in October.  You can check out where else it’s playing here.  I can’t wait to see it again.  It delivers an experience that Spielberg’s film version doesn’t quite manage to pull off.