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Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer


Steeped in G&S all my life and Flanders and Swan for most of it of course I’m also a Tom Lehrer admirer. It’s all in the same tradition after all – biting satire, wonderful wordplay and all wrapped up in accomplished musicianship. But Tom Lehrer, who had a day job as a maths lecturer,  is now 93 and hasn’t performed since 1960 simply because he got fed up with doing it, apparently. And his oevre consists of just 37 songs – which he has generously agreed to allow to be performed without hassle by other people. There was a 1980 show Tomfoolery produced by Cameron Mackintosh, for example.

Enter Stefan Bednarczyk, a cabaret artist who discovered these songs when he was a 14 year old church organist (he explains the circumstances to the audience) and has, it seems, been singing them ever since – including coming close to expulsion form school when he substituted  Lehrer’s Vatican Rag for Flanders and Swan’s The Gasman at a school concert. Vatican Rag was written to send up the Catholic Church’s attempt to modernise its practices. Even today it is make-you-gasp, hilariously irreverent (“Ave Maria. Gee it’s good to see yer” and Bednarczyk, performing at the piano, as Lehrer always did, has a field day with it.

Another high spot in this 70 minute show which features 23 songs hooked together with short anecdotes is Clementine in which Lehrer, who hated folk songs and thought they’d have been better if written by talented composes, gives us verses in different styles. The Mozart verse had me laughing until tears ran.

Most of these songs are, of course, wittily critical of the  American establishment, And Lehrer – a fine musician (as is Bednarczyk) loves to explore different musical genres. Thus we get various subversive  takes on love songs, lullabies, opera, military music and much more. I was pleased to hear the Elements song included, though. Satirically neutral it simply lists all the elements to Sullivan’s Major General’s tune – and I think Bednarczyk takes it even faster than Lehrer’s recording.

The extraordinary thing about this entertaining little show is that these songs are 60 years old and yet many of them are still timelessly current. The delightful number about passing on a common cold could have been written for Covid. Pollution (cue for a calypso rhythm) is, if anything, even more apposite than it was 60 years ago and, of course, we’re still worrying which country is developing which weapons … and the USA is still sending in the Marines. It makes you laugh. It also makes you think.

What the Ladybird Heard

What the Ladybird Heard

When I first saw this production in 2017 I described it as a mini-musical for pre-schoolers and I stand by that, four years later. But there are differences: I think the show has settled, the present four actors have a palpable onstage rapport with both the audience and each other and Nikita Johal is delightful as the reassuring, very smiley Lily who also sings splendidly.

The show works on the assumption that the children in the audience are already very familiar with Julia Donaldson’s rhyming adventure story about a ladybird who thwarts a burglary on an idyllic farm. But the show also offers its young audience new things which they’re not expecting: songs by Jon Fiber and Andy Shaw with additional lyrics by Howard Jacques, for instance. The words are witty, simple and clear – in the hands of four actor-musos – and the melodies very simple so that children can pick them up easily.

Another imaginative idea is the use of puppets – assembled from farmyard bits and pieces – to bring to life Donaldson’s cast of animal characters and Lydia Monks’s illustrations for the original book. Monks was involved in the development of the stage show which includes a horse created from a bicycle, an inverted long tin bath and a bucket while a hen emerges from an old brown cushion and a red rubber glove and a goose from a white watering can. It makes good theatre as children are invited to identify each animal as it is realised on stage.

Roddy Lynch is a solid, warm-voiced, comforting figure as the farmer and I enjoyed his sound effects on violin. Matthew McPherson is full of character as Hefty Hugh and a useful guitarist while James Mateo-Salt is an entertaining Mr Bean-ish comic character initially pretending to be a theatre usher drawn into the show because they are one short.

All this is played on a small set, designed by Bek Palmer,  which sits inside the Harry Potter set at the Palace Theatre and it’s good to see very young children in such a historic building acquiring – we hope – a taste for live theatre.

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Love’s Labour’s Lost

All photos: lhphotoshots

Whenever I see Love’s Labour’s Lost I’m struck by what a good play it is, in so many ways – so many interesting roles – and I wonder why it has never garnered the popularity of, say, Twelfth Night. It’s a pretty appropriate choice for now too since, as the opening song points out in this production, the starting point is four men choosing to self-isolate.

The King of Navarre and three courtiers vow to eschew the company of women and to live as self denying ascetics for a three year study period. Of course this doesn’t last long once a French princess turns up with three attractive ladies. Then there are subplots involving the lower born Costard and Jaquenetta and a ludicrously flamboyant Spaniard, named Don Amardo. To achieve all this with just four actors as Open Bar does is a rather stunning piece of imaginative versatility, which includes some witty homespun puppets.

It is also striking that the textual cuts are quite light so that the show runs well over  2 hours 30 minutes. That means that each member of this talented quartet has to work very hard but the energy levels are such that they make of each of them having to speak  as many lines as Hamlet seem effortless.

Each actor does a whole range of voices and the doubling is often fast and furious as well as gender-blind. Stuart Turner adeptly switches from earnest King to deliciously camp Boyet to the ridiculous Moth. Grace Kelly Miller gives us a warm princess, a hilariously pedantic Holfernes and has a field day as Don Amardo. I really liked the gently subtlety of Charlotte Worthing’s Costard alongside her deep-voiced Longaville and her determined Rosaline.

And as for Adam Courting as Berowne, he makes him plausible and charismatic although my judgement of any actor playing this role is impaired by very fond memories of seeing David Tennant do it with the RSC in 2008. Courting’s Sir Nathaniel is fun and, like all this cast, he is very good at flirting with the audience and making remarks which pretend to be out of role and off-the-cuff. Thus we get references to masks and Matt Hancock as well as nice injections of modern English and a commentary on the play as a running gag. David Knight’s jolly songs at the beginning of each half and at the end are part of this.

This engaging show is produced by Fullers and tours its pub gardens – hence the company name: Open Bar. It’s an enlightened idea which both brings people into pubs to buy food and drink while also providing work for actors and theatre creatives. I approve heartily of such an initiative given the challenges currently faced in the hospitality and performing arts industries.

South Pacific

South Pacific

Photo: Gina Beck (Nellie), Julian Ovenden (Emile) in Chichester Festival Theatre’s SOUTH PACIFIC. Photo: Johan Persson

Well it certainly was Some Enchanted Evening. The press night audience applauded loudly and at length as soon as the lights went down, so delighted were they to be – at last – in a real theatre for a much-loved old favourite.

But  there’s nothing clichéd about this production. Tt is different from the first note. As a fine fifteen piece band, high above the stage out of sight, conducted by MD Cat Beveridge, launches into Richard Rodgers’s evocatively scored overture, we watch an otherworldly solo ballet sequence by Sera Maehara alone on the big round thrust stage. Then she is surrounded by American GIs, marching. It’s a neat way of signalling the serious and dark cultural clash which lies at the heart of this ever topical piece.

Daniel Evans, Chichester Festival Theatre’s artistic director and director of this show, is a man of many talents – one of which is making vivid spectacular use of CFT’s capacious playing space and exploiting its revolve to maximum effect. The opening sequence was just one example of that.

Full as it is of hummable melodies, South Pacific is a profoundly political piece and this production brings that out: Racism and the need to overcome it is, if anything, more urgent now even than it was in 1949. Of course you can’t dismiss a man (or wash him right out of your hair) simply because his late partner was Polynesian. And despite, their need to repel the invading Japanese, what right have these Americans to be in this ocean paradise anyway – criticising local people and their culture?

Julian Ovenden is the best Emile I’ve ever seen. He is self-effacing, charming, attractive and, clearly, an attentive father. And that voice! No wonder his “This nearly was mine” – mellifluous, beautifully balanced and richly warm – won a massive round of applause of press night. Gina Beck is a lively match, shifting convincingly from loving to critical and from embarrassed to contrite. Her account of “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” is, as ever, an all singing, all dancing show stopper although I always think of Mary Martin in the original Broadway production who famously washed her hair for real on stage hundreds of time. Beck dances with a shampoo bottle and then ducks in the shower for a few drips. Radio mics (and health and safety?) have a lot to answer for.

The support cast is strong too with Joanna Ampil standing out as Bloody Mary and Keir Charles bringing oodles of character to Luther Billis. It’s good to see something which a large cast too and I note that several are recent ArtsEd graduates which is good news all round.

This sensitive show is much enhanced by Peter McKintosh’s set which consists of one hydraulically controlled balcony platform to represent Emile’s house and a series of push-on units to change scenes.

All in all a pretty remarkable achievement considering the circumstances under which this production has developed. It was originally scheduled but 2020 but had to be cancelled. Rehearsals have had to be masked and distant – and CFT has conducted 27,000 Covid tests in the making of it.

The Importance of Being Earnest (Students Stream Wilde in support of Acting for Others)

The Importance of Being Earnest (Students Stream Wilde in support of Acting for Others)

Students from the Newcastle University performed Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at the magnificent Empire Theatre, Sunderland in aid of Acting for Others.

Oscar Wilde wrote this play as a ‘trivial comedy for serious people’ following previous successes which had a serious edge to them at a time when other playwrights – George Bernard Shaw, for instance – were presenting theatregoers with plays that had a ‘message’.

His most popular play,  this is an ambitious project for a young cast.

Generally speaking they have been successful. Algernon Moncrieff, an idle young man, is played with urbanity and aplomb by Jay Robinson; his friend Ernest Worthington JP (Max Brennan) a contrasting study in his seriousness (naturally) and expressed sense of what is right and wrong. Contrasts is also provided by the upright and serious  Gwendolen Fairfax played very ably by Bugsy Bannon and  Cecily Cardew, presented with just the right amount of light-hearted and flirtatiousness in Martha Watson’s captivating performance.

The older characters present a challenge for young actors. Bearing that in mind I felt they made a very satisfactory fist of it. On the face of it Lane is just the butler but his ‘I’ve seen this all before’ attitude is an important part of the comedy of the piece and  Finlay Worrallo  captured this very well. The role of Lady Bracknell is one of the best-known in English theatre and, in spite of her youth I felt that Louisa Rimmer brought her snobbery, snootiness and extraordinary self-belief to the fore. Two other great roles in this play are Miss Prism and Dr Chasubel, played by Ellie Denton and Harry Higgins respectively. I enjoyed Ellie’s portrayal of Miss Prism though I would have liked to have seen a little more dizziness from her, especially when confronted by the gauche charms of Dr Chasubel, played with a nice characterisation and delightful mannerisms by Harry Higgins. Sean Kavanagh carried off the small part of Merriman with skill.

The set is quite simple but carefully thought out with appropriate period furniture and props. The cast were immaculately dressed in well-chosen period costume.

I hope I don’t sound old-fashioned and conventional in saying that I was not comfortable with the setting – looking out into the auditorium of the mighty, completely empty Sunderland Empire – though the reason for this, commemorating a miserable and empty year for theatre, was justified, especially since the production is a fundraiser for Acting for Others. Nevertheless, because of this the play lacks the intimacy I think it needs.

That said, I enjoyed the skillful camera work used in this streamed production.

The conversation between Oscar Wilde and his great friend Robbie Ross (written by director Adam Kinneen), part of which is set after the first night of his play in London, piecing together Wilde’s thoughts on life, literature and the increasingly difficult situation he found himself in at the time of ‘Earnest’,  interspersed between the acts of the play worked very well, though might also have been as effective at the start as an appetiser for this relatively short piece. Conor O’Hara as Robbie creates a suitable foil for Leo Mac Neill in the role of Oscar Wilde, though at times I felt played with a little too much gravitas for this celebrated wit.

All in all, though, a very good production for a good cause.

  • : admin
  • : 09/07/2021
Sh*tfaced Shakespeare – Macbeth

Sh*tfaced Shakespeare – Macbeth

Have you ever been to a show where an audience member was handed a cross-bow and told to shoot a small child?

I hadn’t either, until last night. 

Thankfully, the small child was a rather frightening-looking dummy stuck to a remote-controlled car, but that gives you just a taste of how ridiculous Sh*tfaced Shakespeare does Macbeth can get. 

At the start of each show, one member of the five-piece cast is chosen to get, well, sh*tfaced, which is just as ridiculous and entertaining as it sounds. Whilst the troupe perform a just over an hour-long version of one of the most famous Shakespeare plays, they must deal with one member of the cast forgetting lines, improvising, and generally being snozzled. 

It’s glaringly obvious which member this is from the start. This time it was James Murfitt, playing various roles, including Malcolm, who drew the short straw and got increasingly drunk throughout the show, making all kinds of off-the-cuff quips about The Guardian, medieval stairlifts, pizza delivery boys, and Duncan’s Jamaican bob-sled team. 

I thought the cast did a fantastic job of picking up jokes and growing them, making sure the audience were in on the joke at all times. Despite the comedic nature of the entire thing, the cast did a stellar job of delivering powerful dialogue, particularly Stacey Norris as Lady Macbeth, and John Mitton as Macbeth. 

There were moments of effective lighting, the sound effects during the Witches scenes made it a bit difficult to hear exactly what was going on and it was easy to miss the joke, but it definitely delivered a creepy atmosphere.

Overall it was a fantastic piece of comedy with a great concept that the cast seemed to genuinely enjoy, which made the audience enjoy it even more. With a different member of the cast playing the drunk every night, I could happily watch it again and again without getting bored or seeing the same jokes twice. 

I think Shakespeare himself would be proud.

  • : admin
  • : 08/07/2021
Hotel Paradiso at Rose Theatre

Hotel Paradiso at Rose Theatre

Photo: Nino Giuffre

Theatre can be a little unpredictable at the moment, and that was certainly the case for leading new circus company Lost in Translation as they prepared to present Hotel Paradiso at the Rose Theatre, Kingston. With only a day to go before the performances, two members of the company were required to self-isolate. Luckily, Hotel Paradiso is not a new piece and exists in a number of different forms which have been developed during its successful exposure at the Edinburgh Fringe and elsewhere.

At the Rose, then, it was the cabaret version of the show (lasting just under an hour) that was presented by the remaining company members. The last-minute changes had little effect as far as the audience was concerned. The motley crew of grandparents, toddlers, family groups and the odd singleton (like your reviewer) greatly enjoyed the performance. It helped that we also felt totally safe in our isolated bubbles around the theatre with the intervening seats blocked off with some very superior Rose-specific sashes – quite the most attractive version of this necessary seat marking I have seen to date.

The show is set in a hotel where the concierge – Serge, of course – welcomes us and introduces the guests, including the wicked banker who has threatened to repossess the hotel. That’s about it as far as the story is concerned (at least in this cabaret version), but it doesn’t really matter as it serves to tie the various acts into a loose narrative held together by a warm and engaging performance from the actor playing Serge.

Serge, it turns out, is not just a concierge but a magician and a very good one too. It was somewhat paradoxical that what I was expecting to be an afternoon of new circus was actually rather more of a magic show interspersed by circus acts, but this was no bad thing as it was Serge who built up the rapport with the audience that soon had them in the palm of his hand. His ability to control the volume and location of applause from the audience brought to mind some of the great circus clowns who used to make a feature of this, and he also has the ability to speak directly to all ages, including some ironic asides for the older people present which landed well.

His magic was well thought-through and made great use of the audience – in a socially-distanced and Covid-compliant way of course. The hotel guests he introduced were three different aerial acts and a hand balancer, all fine performers but perhaps there would have been more variety if there had been some juggling or performing duos: but perhaps that would have been the case without the sudden need for some members of the company to self-isolate.

The hard-working cast of 5 are all to be congratulated, but it was the ever-present Serge who made the whole performance so successful and helped to present all the performers at their best. Let’s hope the full company will soon be back together so that Lost in Translation can once again perform in strength.

Piaf (In Person)

Piaf (In Person)

All photos: Marc Brenner

There´s much to enjoy in Pam Gems´s musical theatre biography of Edith Piaf although, set on a big stage, and presumably rehearsed with social distancing it sometimes feels a bit remote.

Piaf´s life story is pretty well known and Gem leans quite heavily on the motherless childhood and youth in her grandmother´s brothel, her work as a street singer, an international career and and many men. Of course she was vulnerable and pitiful and her short life – 47 when she died in 1963 – was tragically bedevilled by alcohol, drugs and personality flaws.

Adam Penfold directs an ensemble of nine which includes several accomplished actor musos so that the music, with MD Gareth Valentine on stage at the side on piano, becomes a seamless part of the action. And there are, naturally, a lot of songs.

A show with a lot going for it then but there are problems. There is always a difficulty when you try to present very famous, distinctive people in a theatrical way – Kenneth Williams, Frankie Howerd, Margaret Thatcher for instance – because we all know exactly how they sounded and looked. Laura Pitt-Pulford us a talented actor-muso and good in other roles here but she does not cut the mustard as Marlene Dietrich. And sadly Jenna Russell – although her acting is at masterclass level especially at the end – hasn´t quite got Piaf´s gravelly, sexy, vocal pathos which so many people found so captivating for so long. It requires, therefore, an effort of imagination to understand what the fuss what actually about.

There´s some sensitive work from Louis Grant as Theo Serapo who fell in love with Piaf and looked after her lovingly at the end of her life. And Sally-Ann Triplett is raucously, outrageously entertaining as Piaf´s old friend Toine.

All Piaf´s famous songs were, obviously, sung in French when she preformed and recorded them. In this show there is a mixture of French songs with passages of English. And all the dialogue, some of which seems a bit forced and unnatural, is in English with Russell using earthy street speak. This feels a bit odd when she then sings in French and none of the French in this show sounds convincingly like anyone´s first language.

Nonetheless it´s a strong story and a moving piece of musical theatre which certainly worth seeing.

Mr and Mrs Nobody

Mr and Mrs Nobody

Keith Waterhouse’s 1983 play is based on the hilarious, quintessentially English Diary of a Nobody (1892) by George and Weedon Grossmith of G&S fame. The play has quite a track record although I’d not seen it before,

The novel, which I’ve read more than once over the years, gives us the thoughts of Charles Pooter, a pompous lower middle class man, humourlessly blind to what the people around him are actually thinking and doing. Waterhouse’s take on it shares the diary narrative with his long suffering wife, Carrie. And in the hands of director Gabriella Bird and actors Miranda Foster and Edward Baker-Duly, it becomes a very funny two hander with some witty doubling to represent other characters as required.

Foster gives us a stressed character trying hard to tolerate and love her impossibly tiresome husband who is in thrall to a city boss who clearly sees Pooter’s talents as middling like everything else about him. She grits her teeth, smiles gamely, soldiers on despite the noisy, dirty trains at the bottom of the garden and her rendering of a badly song at a party is a moment to treasure in the Florence Foster Jenkins tradition.

Baker-Duly, who has a wolfish Hugh Grant look about him at times, is plausibly ridiculous as Pooter and strong as Lupin, their useless foppish son and several other characters distinguished by a brief change of voice and/or body language. These two actors, moreover, work together with quickfire slickness most of the time.

I was, however, puzzled by the quite long section of Act 1 dialogue which is repeated (presumably deliberately?) in the second half. Whatever point Waterhouse or the director is trying to make it falls flat here. And maybe this is difficult dialogue to manage anyway – at one point on press night they needed a prompt which is unusual these days.

Nonetheless it’s an evening full of laughter and so clean and sparky that you really could take your great aunt if she happened to up from the country.

Pippin at the Charing Cross Theatre

Pippin at the Charing Cross Theatre

All photos: Edward Johnson

Pippin, the eldest son of Charlemagne, doesn’t know what to do with his life.  Having completed his education, he meets a travelling circus troupe, who encourage him through his endeavours to overcome his despair and find fulfilment. He tries joining his father and brother on a crusade against the Visigoths, but baulks at the rape and pillage; he attempts hedonism at the encouragement of his rather racy Grandmother; leads the people in rebellion and rules as a fair and just king; explores the idyllic pastoral life with the widowed Catherine, her son Theo and his pet duck and ultimately he is encouraged, by the circus ringmaster, to make the final sacrifice and immolate himself.  Doesn’t really sound like a bundle of laughs and sadly Pippin himself has no redeeming qualities to make you like him.  In fact, I would quite happily slap him and tell him to either get a grip or get a psychiatrist, because he really is an annoying, whinging brat.

Director Steven Dexter’s production is set in the 1960s, with minimal props and a simplicity of staging that provides space for a high-octane performance exuding energy and enthusiasm. The concept works well, with ‘flower-power’ hope for a better future present in the set dressing and costumes. Paper fans and dream catchers, joss sticks and patchwork greet the audience on arrival, while a solitary Pippin sits at the side of the stage awaiting the start of the show.

The narrative pushes the piece forward at a rapid pace, with the audience constantly being reminded that we are watching a story within a story told by the circus players.  The fourth wall is broken with abandon and the audience at the Charing Cross Theatre revelled in the sing-a-long song sheet, the encouragement to clap and even cheered the announcement to turn off their mobile phones and wear a face mask.  This was one group of people who were keen to return to theatre and enjoy themselves.

A talented cast of three musicians and eight actors bounce their way around the stage, beautifully choreographed by Nick Winston, the dances radiate acrobatic vitality   Of particular note are Genevieve Nicole as Berthe, whose advice to Pippin to enjoy your youth, and all the pleasures the senses can afford, is followed by her number ‘No Time At All’, where she has the audience like putty in her hands, and Daniel Krikler as Charlemagne, whose character is perhaps the most likeable with his constant denying of requests for his subjects and his prayer for strength, understandable when you are responsible for uniting half of Europe!

Immersive and pacy this show is something that will welcome you back to theatre with its liveliness and warmth.  However, despite the clever transposition to the 60s, fantastic casting and amazing choreography, the premise of Steven Schwartz’s ‘Pippin’ leaves a lot to be desired.


  • : admin
  • : 05/07/2021