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Take #2 (Life in Lockdown)

Take #2 (Life in Lockdown)

By Paul Johnson

Thursday, 12 March was a day I’ll remember for the rest of my life. That is the day I travelled to Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre to watch Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson in the 40th anniversary tour of Willy Russell’s seminal play, Educating Rita. After the matinee – possibly featuring an auditorium of more walking-sticks than books in Frank’s onstage study – I interviewed Stephen and Jessica, the result of which is in our previous issue (no.48). Four days later everything closed.

However, five months later and following the Government’s announcement on 4 July to restart outdoor performances (albeit with social distancing), the ‘tour’ is back and scheduled to play under the stars at Cornwall’s beautiful Minack Theatre.

In fact, the production may be in full swing as you read this, with performances scheduled to take place from 18 – 29 Aug.

Olivier and Tony Award-winning producer David Pugh explained the decision to play on the famous cliff-top: “I am a producer, so I should produce. The idea of playing Educating Rita at the Minack Theatre is not only exciting but also a step towards re-opening all of our theatres. I do worry about the rain but when I mentioned this to Willy Russell, he said ‘Don’t worry, I’ll just add a line. Rita can say: There’s a leak in your ceiling, Frank.’”

Zoe Curnow, Executive Director of the Minack Theatre added: “We are delighted to be able to reawaken the Minack from its lockdown sleep and put the soul back into our theatre with live performances. Having sadly had to postpone our previously scheduled 2020 season, we are delighted to be forging new friendships with producers like David and are really excited to welcome Willy Russell and Stephen and Jessica to our beautiful theatre. Our fingers are crossed that the sun shines on us for the remainder of the summer.”

Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson said of playing the Minack Theatre: “On March 16, we thought that was it, that we were never to perform in our favourite play ever again. Now, we are beyond excited to be doing Educating Rita one more time at the Minack, the stunning open-air theatre in Cornwall.”

Educating Rita tells the story of married hairdresser Rita, who enrols on an Open University course to expand her horizons, and her encounters with university tutor Frank. Frank is a frustrated poet, brilliant academic and dedicated drinker, who is less than enthusiastic about teaching Rita. However, Frank soon finds that his passion for literature is reignited by Rita, whose technical ability for the subject is limited by her lack of education, but whose enthusiasm Frank finds refreshing. The two soon realise how much they have to learn from each other.

Willy Russell’s play was originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and played at the Warehouse Theatre, London in 1980, starring Julie Walters and Mark Kingston. Julie Walters reprised her role in the BAFTA, Golden Globe and Academy Award-winning film opposite Michael Caine. The set, as they say, is history.

This ‘new’ production is full of energy and provides potential amateur performers with the perfect masterclass in not only how to play these two complex characters but also how to social distance onstage!

Read more at: &


More rescheduled productions
Companies and societies have been cancelling and postponing shows all over the place, including most of the big ones…

Although Chichester cancelled all of its 2020 Festival shows on 4 May, the Chichester Festival Youth Theatre production of Pinocchio is still scheduled to play from 12 – 31 December.
Back in May, Kathy Bourne and Daniel Evans, Executive and Artistic Director, respectively, told us: “We are working on a new schedule for 2021 which we hope will include some of the planned Festival 2020 shows, in addition to South Pacific and The Unfriend. Ticket holders will be contacted with the option of exchanges, credits, refunds or donations in good time.”
While The Unfriend has yet to confirm any rescheduled dates, South Pacific will now play 5 July – 28 August 2021.

After more push-backs than a game of American Football, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s brand-new musical will finally world premiere at The Gillian Lynne Theatre in London on 7 April 2021, with previews from Friday 19 March 2021.
The production, a complete reinvention of the classic fairytale, is based on an original idea by Emerald Fennell, the Emmy Award nominated lead scriptwriter of the second season of Killing Eve, with a brand-new score from Lloyd Webber and lyrics by David Zippel.
Carrie Hope Fletcher will play Cinderella in the highly anticipated production. She has starred in Heathers (West End), The Addams Family (UK Tour), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (UK Tour), Mary Poppins (West End), and most recently played Fantine in Les Miserables at the Sondheim Theatre. She is also a bestselling author and social media personality.
More at:

Joseph… will neatly defer its dates exactly 12 months, and Jason Donovan and Jac Yarrow are both confirmed to star again in the acclaimed show next year. Performances will now begin on 1 July 2021 for a 10-week season to 5 September.
Andrew Lloyd Webber said: “The team and I are working hard behind the scenes to get the world’s most beloved theatre The London Palladium open and entertaining audiences this Autumn. We will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to find a safe route to provide access both backstage and front of house. I am delighted that Joseph will be back on The London Palladium stage next Summer.”
Joseph… enjoyed a completely sold out season last year. Audiences and critics were unanimous in their acclaim for the legendary musical – the first major collaboration by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber – as it returned to the Palladium.
More at:

The photo above was taken by Sardines back in February at the launch of Michael Ball’s West End return as Edna Turnblad. Originally, the feel-good musical was due to open at The London Coliseum on 23 April before being pushed back to the autumn. However, the musical will now play rescheduled 2021 season dates with the originally announced cast which includes the aforementioned Michael Ball alongside Paul Merton, who makes his West End debut.
Acclaimed West End star Marisha Wallace will take the role of Motormouth. Marisha won rave reviews when she took over from Amber Riley in the smash hit Dreamgirls (West End) and also starred in the original West End cast of Waitress (West End). Lizzie Bea will make her West End debut in the role of Tracy Turnblad and Rita Simons (EastEnders) and Jonny Amies will also star as Velma Von Tussle and Link Larkin respectively.
The production will now begin performances on 22 April 2021 and play a 19-week season finishing on 29 August 2021.
More at:

The 2020 UK tour of Baz Luhrmann’s musical, starring Kevin Clifton and directed by Craig Revel Horwood, has been rescheduled and will now begin in Autumn 2021.
Kevin Clifton said: “I’m really delighted that the Strictly Ballroom tour has been rescheduled. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s my all-time favourite film and Scott Hastings is my dream role, so I can’t wait to bring this musical to theatres across the UK next year. In the meantime, please stay safe and keep well everyone.”
Craig Revel Horwood added: “I’m thrilled that our new production has been rescheduled for 2021/2022. The tour may be a year later, but you can still expect those same sexy dance moves, scintillating costumes and a simply FAB-U-LOUS show for all to enjoy, starring the one and only Kevin Clifton!”
Featuring a book by Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce, a cast of over twenty world-class performers, Strictly’s iconic songs include Love is in the Air, Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps and Time After Time. More at:

The West End revival starring Imelda Staunton at the Adelphi Theatre has been postponed, with the production now not set to open until 2022!
New season details and all further info will be announced at a later date. Ticket holders do not need to do anything. The point of purchase will be in touch with ticket holders soon about refunds.
Dominic Cooke’s new production will have a cast of 34 and an 18-strong orchestra.
When it does eventually begin its run, multi Olivier and BAFTA Award-winning Imelda Staunton will play meddlesome socialite-turned-matchmaker Dolly Levi, as she travels to Yonkers, New York, to find a match for the miserly, unmarried ‘half-a-millionaire’, Horace Vandergelder. But everything changes when she decides that the next match she needs to make is for herself.
According to the producers “plans are already underway for the new season … Dolly will most certainly be back where she belongs.”

Rescheduled dates for the world premiere of My Best Friend’s Wedding The Musical will see Alexandra Burke as Julianne Potter.
The show will open at the Manchester Palace Theatre on 20 September 2021 ahead of a UK and Ireland tour.



Whoopi Goldberg’s highly anticipated return to her iconic role as Deloris Van Cartier in Sister Act has been rescheduled at Hammersmith’s Eventim Apollo exactly one year later than first planned.
The show’s London dates have now been rescheduled to open 20 July 2021 where it will play until 29 August 2021. Original tickets purchased for this year will be valid in 2021.
Multi award-winning actress, comedian and writer, Jennifer Saunders, will join Whoopi onstage as Mother Superior – the part played by Maggie Smith in the original 1992 film.
Current ticketholders for the London run have been moved into the same seats for equivalent performances by day of week for the 2021 run. Patrons will be able to use their current ticket for performances next year. Performance times remain unchanged.
Based on the iconic movie, this sparkling tribute to the universal power of friendship, sisterhood and music tells the hilarious story of the disco diva whose life takes a surprising turn when she witnesses a murder. Under protective custody she is hidden in the one place she won’t be found – a convent! Disguised as a nun and under the suspicious watch of Mother Superior, Deloris helps her fellow sisters find their voices as she rediscovers her own.

The Pillowman:
Written by the multi Olivier, BAFTA and Academy Award-winning playwright and screen-writer Martin McDonagh, the play which was due to make its West End premiere this Summer, is to be delayed to 2021.
New season details and all further information will be announced at a later date.
The play will star Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Steve Pemberton.

Coronavirus / Covid-19 (Foreword)

We hardly need to point out how we all find ourselves on untested ground right now, with the situation changing daily (or even hourly)… and the schools have just closed!

For all we know, Government advice may have been updated by the time you come to open our new issue. And with ‘theatre’ falling into the leisure and entertainment sector – where crowds of more than 100-500 people often assemble (for amateur shows) – societies up and down the country are having to make some difficult decisions regarding production schedules. Even rehearsing is impossible at the moment, with casts and creatives around the UK including many of the more vulnerable members of society.

On 17 March, the UK Government ‘asked’ rather than ‘ordered’ the public to stay away from all public meeting places, including theatres. The subsequent instant closure of West End, regional and amateur theatre productions may present an insurance nightmare, with such action possibly seen as ‘voluntary’ rather than ‘compulsory’ by insurers. We hope that it doesn’t threaten some venues with bankruptcy but, at the moment, many social media posts are extremely worrying. UK theatre closures appear to represent an opposite of what happened on Broadway five days earlier, when: “Under the direction of Governor Andrew Cuomo, Broadway shows in New York City will suspend all performances immediately in support of the health and well-being of the theatregoing public, as well as those who work in the theatre industry.”

In line with the advice, all producers and venues took the decision to cancel production plans and, likewise, nearly all amateur theatre societies decided to shelve or postpone part of their current season of productions. As we go to press, even our cover story – the tour of A Bunch of Amateurs – has been postponed until later in the year… and Hairspray’s London return is certainly delayed! So, please check respective society websites and social media posts for all the latest up-to-date information before booking tickets and/or attending performances.

Like all of you, Sardines is monitoring the situation daily and, for now, we’ll be carrying on as usual (whatever that means!) – perhaps employing a bit of ‘the show must go on’ spirit. Let’s hope that by Summer the crisis will have passed but, for now, we hope you all stay safe and well.


Paul Johnson, Editor-in-Chief, Sardines

You Can’t Stop That Beat!

You Can’t Stop That Beat!

By Paul Johnson

Almost thirteen years after 60s musical Hairspray hit the West End’s Shaftesbury Theatre, it’s back for a limited eighteen-week run (from 23 April) at the magnificent London Coliseum. What’s more, the new production reunites original director Jack O’Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell with the one and only Michael Ball in the role of Edna Turnblad.
Mr Ball spoke to me about his return to the musical in which he not only starred in London but also toured after its 2010 closure: “I knew, with the final performance of Hairspray I did on the road, that it wouldn’t be the last time I’d wear the heels and boobs. In fact I still have them at home… and the frock.”

His involvement with the show formed a lasting bond between singer and the famous larger-than-life stage persona. “I’ve been involved in a number of shows and I don’t think I have ever enjoyed myself so much as in Hairspray. I’ve also never seen audiences enjoy themselves so much; it’s a magical musical, and is one of the best crafted and best constructed,” he enthuses with genuine excitement. Since John Travolta starred as Edna in the big screen adaptation (also 2007), Michael Ball has arguably made the role his own in Britain. “I remember seeing it on Broadway, five years before it came over here, and thinking, ‘I would give anything to play that part.’ But I thought nobody would ever cast me. Probably five years earlier they wouldn’t have but, when I eventually heard it was coming over, I literally begged for an audition. Thankfully, I’ve never looked back.”

Photo: Paul Johnson

The musical star is looking forward to bringing Edna to London’s biggest theatre. “I’m beyond excited that we’re doing it again. I’ve worked at The Coliseum a few times and I think it’s my favourite theatre. It’s epic and the show is going to look magnificent there.”

Whatever your political leaning, we can all probably agree that the world is somewhat skewed right now. “I think it’s also the right time to do Hairspray, he affirms. “With the stuff that’s going on in this country and around the world, we really need a dose of Hairspray… not only for the joy, the magic, the excitement and the laughter, but for the message it gives us. That message of inclusion and love… and family.”

Set in Baltimore in 1962, Hairspray is about Tracy Turnblad, a chubby girl who not only sets her sights on school heartthrob, Link Larkin, she also wants to star on the local television station – a place where black people aren’t allowed to appear… something the teenager doesn’t understand. In the new London production, American actress, Lizzie Bea, plays Tracy.

She is a big Hairspray fan: “My first experience of Hairspray was watching the musical film and I instantly became obsessed with it,” she discloses, before openly talking about her size. “To be in the casting bracket that I am – as a bigger girl, I’ve being chubby since I was very young – to see the lead in a film look like that and fall in love with the boy at the end, without being a joke character, was so powerful. People have constantly said to me, ‘You should play Tracy Turnblad!’ But I didn’t think the show would come back and give me the opportunity to do it, so for it to be opening at the Coliseum is kind of crazy, and I’m so excited. It’s my first West End show and is a massive deal for me.”

Michael Ball is such a big fish in today’s musical theatre world, he got to sit in on the all-important casting process. He asks Lizzie if she is prepared for the huge physical requirements of the upcoming musical. “I’ve had a personal trainer to get me ready for the demands of the show – don’t worry I’m not going to be thin!” she laughs, to which Michael responds: “…Welcome to my world!”
“I just want to be ready for the challenge so I can put 110% in. I feel really lucky to be honest,” continues Lizzie, before Michael gives her a friendly heads-up: “I’ll warn you about one thing that happens. Jerry Mitchell, our choreographer, every day as we come in, makes us do probably the greatest finale of any musical… You Can’t Stop the Beat. Fifteen minutes non-stop, full-out… and then, before you can catch your breath, he makes us do it again! The reason for that is because the finale is probably the most important part of the show and you have to have the energy.”
“The finale is one of the greatest moments in theatre,” agrees Lizzie. “Every single character gets their pay-off and no-one is going to leave the theatre without a huge smile on their face; and that’s exactly how you should feel, leaving any show. This is the best for doing that.”

Playing TV producer, Velma von Tussle, Rita Simons has, by now, successfully flushed all of Albert Square’s negative storylines from her system. “Oh, yeah. I flushed those out three years ago when I drowned in that swimming-pool,” ex-EastEnder ‘Roxy Mitchell’ laughs. Legally Blonde and, more recently, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, have proved Walford’s blonde bombshell to be an accomplished musical theatre performer. What’s more, playing a baddie comes easy to Simons. I’m up for Best Panto Baddie for the third year in a row. Then I played a homophobe in Jamie, so I’m really looking forward to this; I love playing baddies. If I feel that the audience hate me then I know I’m doing a good job.”

Rita knows exactly what she’s getting herself into: “Hairspray is set at a time when they weren’t ‘down’ with integration, she informs. “In fact my character, Velma, who is a TV producer, doesn’t want to tolerate any form of integration whatsoever – ‘Not on her show!’ It’s so appropriate to talk about this stuff now… and to be honest the 60s wasn’t that long ago anyway. We’ve come such a long way in a short space of time; not only was it commonplace to be racist back then, it’s entirely inappropriate to behave like that in the age we’re living in now.”

It wasn’t long ago that Simons was trapped in the jungle on ITV. Hopefully her diet will improve somewhat in Baltimore. “If I do end up eating any bugs or kangaroo’s testicles, then it means something has gone very wrong with the show!” she jokes.

Filling the shoes of Tracy’s father, Wilbur Turnblad, and the owner of a joke-shop, is comedian Paul Merton. “This is my first musical,” he tells me. “I was in a pantomime at Wimbledon Theatre a couple of Christmases ago – which had music in it – and I’ve already met the choreographer and told him this is a professional challenge which he won’t be able to meet, because I am one of those people who can’t dance.” With talent like this it’s little wonder Have I Got News for You marks its thirtieth anniversary in 2020. “Not only am I not aware of what I should be doing, I’m also not aware of when I should be doing it!” he continues, gathering momentum. “Anyway, he said it’s ‘walking to music’ for my part, so I’m quite happy about that. It’s amazing how one person can ruin an entire production… There’s actually so much going on in this show, that if anybody even notices what I’m doing then we’re in trouble.”

Paul is actually familiar with Hairspray, although he’s yet to experience the Ball-effect: “I have seen the show in the last ten years, when Phil Jupitus was playing Edna at the Shaftesbury Theatre,” he remembers, before explaining about his leading role in the show: “It’s very much about a bloke who runs a joke shop, and there’s some ‘family’ involvement for other members of the cast, but that’s not really important. Everybody’s, basically, supporting me! Ha, ha! My ego tells me that when I’m not onstage everybody else is thinking about me. That’s a first for some people!”

Paul Merton leading a West End musical would indeed be a sight to behold. Of course he knows the real score… “To be serious for a second, one of the first things I remember seeing in the theatre, that really knocked me out, was Michael Crawford in a thing called Billy in the early 70s. When good musical theatre works it really is astonishing; it transports you more than any other form of theatre. And what this show is all about is the ability to transport you to another place. This is going to be a magnificent production. You come out feeling ten foot taller than when you went in. This is why we’re in show business; for moments like this. If you can’t get excited by a project like this then you should be working in the Civil Service – which I did, until they kicked me out, I kept being funny and didn’t concentrate enough on the work.”

He’s back to making us laugh soon enough: “When the producers asked me to do this I was a bit bemused but, as I said, it is the major role… I resisted it being called ‘Wilbur’ because I think it’s unfair to the rest of the cast. Actually I am pleased to be playing a small part, which is not what I’m used to but I am a stage performer and I have played Widow Twankey in pantomime. In fact people still talk about that around Wimbledon. They say, ‘There’s no point in ever doing that again!’ I think it’s the ‘Never again!’ bit that they keep repeating!”

Paul then makes a good point: “After a did Widow Twankey, I was keen to do something bigger. I’ve been doing Have I Got News for You for a long time, and like anything, when people see you do something for a long time, you sort of become part of the furniture. So I was very happy to do something which gets me out from behind a desk answering questions about Michael Gove. Really it’s a chance to use other skills I might have. I’m looking forward immensely to making this work. It’s really not something I ever thought I’d be doing, or ever considered to be perfectly honest.”
The regular Friday-night panellist is under no illusions of the calibre of performer he’s going to be sharing the stage with. “It’s also great to be working with people with such skills and discipline; singers, dancers, choreographers, musicians… In a world where we constantly gaze at tiny screens all day, to be in a massive theatre, watching a big production like this… with big performances, big singing, big wigs, and me! It doesn’t get any better than that. As I’ve said, musical theatre, at its best, is the most awe-inspiring and powerful thing there is.”

Being one of the wittiest comedians in the business certainly seems to open the right doors. “It’s a bit like in the pantomime I did, where a comedian gets to actually work with somebody who isn’t making comedy themselves,” Paul tells me. “Going back to the days of Variety, I think you’d expect to be working with people from different genres of show business. I asked Michael Ball how many times he’s played the role, and he said about seven hundred times! But he’s still as enthusiastic as anybody to be doing it again. That’s an indication of how powerful an experience it is, not just for the audience, but for members of the cast as well. Either that or he just loves dressing up… I think it’s a bit of both!”

Paul Merton is well-known as being one of the great improvisers; a skill that was fully utilised during his run in Aladdin. However, a musical has a script, and your fellow cast members won’t be too pleased if you go offscript every time you’re onstage. Michael Ball asks Paul about this aspect. “In some ways it’s easier because there’s a sort of safety-net in the form of the script, choreography and direction,” explains the comedian. “The challenge in that is to make every show work to the best of its ability. We even share a song together – and I really don’t know why you’re risking your reputation in this way because there’s no way you’re coming out of this unscathed!” Michael Ball laughs and looks worried in equal measure. “But there will be parts in every show where we’ve got to hit that dramatic moment or that comedy line, so it’s a different discipline. The discipline is obviously to perform as if it’s the first time you’ve ever done it. I’ve been to see some long-running shows – not necessarily musical – where you see the cast and, despite their best efforts, look as if they’re walking through it a bit. So you need to fight against that every time; make sure that you’re doing it for the audience. You’re certainly not going to be bored with this show. It’s great even though it’s a different kettle of fish which I’m used to. I feel as if I’m in very good hands.”

To directly answer the question about improvising, Paul adds, “The only time I’d ever have to ad-lib is if something went drastically wrong and I had to get us back on track. In the early days of the pantomime, some of the cast were a bit shaky on their lines so I was always able to improvise us out of a mistake and get us back onto the script. I don’t think that’s going to happen in this. The producers would be tearing their hair out.”

Playing Paul’s wife, Michael then gets exactly what he deserves as he throws in: “The most important question I think I can ask is, are you a good kisser?” to which Paul replies: “Yes, but not to music; we’ll practise out of hours.”

Michael Ball’s final addition to the cast really is one of the West End’s current leading ladies. Marisha Wallace has been in Dreamgirls and Waitress, so Hairspray will make a nice hat-trick for the American when she takes on Motormouth Maybelle. I ask Marisha what she’ll be bringing to the party. “You’ve obviously gotta be sassy!” she tells me in no uncertain terms. “I’m a comic, but I can break people’s hearts too. It’s also a great family show which covers some difficult subjects at that family level. Kids will be able to ask questions and discuss the issues from the show with parents. And we’re talking about issues which are still very relevant today.”

The singer, who may threaten to steal the show on a nightly basis, is not a newcomer to the musical, as she explains: “I actually played one of the Dynamites in a version of Hairspray when I was twenty-one years old, and also I understudied Motormouth. Now, fourteen years later, here I am. I think it’s the right time. I came over from America to do Effie White in Dreamgirls for three weeks – I ended up over here for three years! Ha, ha! It was a whirlwind experience; they told me to fly here in four days, and I was onstage in five, leading a West End show. I always wanted to play Effie, but you can’t really predict the detailed journey that life takes you on. London was seriously not even on my radar. That led into Waitress and now Hairspray. Everything about it is so important now as things are so divisive in the world; we kind of have to remember where we’ve been to know where we’re going. This is a great reminder of what it was like and how we can overcome it… today!”

Divisive or not, the big question remains about those delicious apple pies, the aroma of which wafts into the Waitress audience during every performance. You’ve gotta miss those, right? “Ha ha! You know what; I never got to eat a single one. I was serving them all the time and never got to eat any.” Well that’s me put in my place.
Hairspray opens at the London Coliseum on 23 April for eighteen weeks. For more info and tickets visit: