July 2009

Well it’s been a while since I last wrote one of these. No I haven’t been ignoring you; I’ve just been travelling a little further afield. Majorca in 2007, Memphis and Las Vegas in 2008.

So to this trip and with brother having moved back to Wales a good few years ago, it was to the train. Oh and about 100 Police! Well I thought “nice of them to come along to wish me well on my first trip to London in a while”. Even if it resulted in them cordoning off half the car park at Cardiff Central station, as a result meaning I nearly missed my train as I had nowhere left to park. But no they were there for someone else. As it appeared that no sooner had I planned my trip to London, Gordon and the whole cabinet de-camped to Wales! Now not sure if it was something I said but I thought what the heck, I’m going anyway!

So I’m a little way outside Newport settling into my FRIENDS marathon, well I had to kill a just under 2.5 hour train ride so I loaded a couple of seasons onto my iPod. When the train comes to a rather abrupt halt, we here nothing for a while and then a woman’s voice comes on the speaker “will the train manager please contact the driver” … nothing … then “will the train manager please contact the driver”. About 30 seconds later a rather frazzled looking man in uniform walks purposefully through the carriage towards where the driver was… at least I HOPE that was where the driver was, as he was heading for the front of the train! ;o)

About 15 minutes later and we’re back on our way, and about 20 mins late we get to London. Now one thing I learnt during my last trip, buy an Oyster Card. In fact if I were to record a record like “Always wear Sunscreen” it would be “ALWAYS buy an Oyster card!” As is saves you money and means you can waltz through the turnstiles at your leisure, or at least you can when you’ve put some money on it.

So I arrive at Charring Cross tube station, disembark, and stride along the Strand to my hotel for this trip The Strand Palace. My previous hotel having fallen victim to the credit crunch. Shame as I really liked staying at the Royal Adelphi, and if any of the staff read this I hope you found alternative work and thank you for all the care you showed during my stays with you.

I check in, eventually. This is a big hotel and to be honest the check in could have done with some work, either a few more staff or a little streamlining. I will say however that this is my only complaint, as my room was ready, exactly as described and was clean and secure. Basically all you could ask for at a London Hotel. Well all I look for is a bed, a TV and on-suite facilities, together with the facts as mentioned above that it’s clean, secure and as central as possible. Well I don’t pay for sea views!

So having been away for a while I decided to treat myself, my evenings and Saturday matinee sorted in advance, I headed to the TKTS booth for a short notice matinee for today. Oh Thursday 23rd July, forgot that bit, sorry.

I came away, as I had half planned with a ticket for BLOOD BROTHERS. Now this is a show that I’d seen about 4 times before, but I really enjoy it and had heard good things about the current leading lady Niki Evans (her of X-Factor fame).

For those that don’t know, BLOOD BROTHERS was written by Willie Russell and first performed professionally in Liverpool in 1983, a school production (it’s original inception) apparently having been performed 2 years earlier.

It has had many stand out Mrs Johnstones’ including Barbara Dickson, Kiki Dee, Stephanie Lawrence and most of the Nolan Sisters, on the other side of the pond Petula Clarke and Carole King, amongst others have played the role.

The things I’d heard were right, Nikki was mind blowing, her version of “Tell me it’s not true” was spectacular. It even managed to overcome the 60 – 80 giggling school kids who surrounded me at this matinee. No wait a minute, that’s not fair, there were at least 60 school kids, but most appeared to know how to behave in a theatre. It was a small but unfortunately NOT SILENT minority that wouldn’t SHUT UP!

The show was as I remembered it, touching, funny and if anything at this time of increased unemployment figures, even more relevant than it has been for a while. Stand out songs have remained the same for me at each viewing, “Tell me it’s not true” (obviously) but also “Easy Terms” and “A Light Romance”. I would also say that if “Tell me it’s not true” didn’t actually stop the show it certainly would with Niki singing it!

So I’m back in London, I’ve seen my first show there in over 2 years so what could I do next? I went back to my hotel, quick change and out again to see another one. This time HAIRSPRAY, now, this was one of the reasons for the timing of this trip, the other being that I could actually get leave for this time.

I knew that Michael Ball was leaving HAIRSPRAY after a twice-extended run of nearly 2 years. I’d seen the movie … okay the musical movie … okay the movie of the musical … Oh let’s start at the beginning.

HAIRSPRAY was originally a low budget movie made by John Waters back in 1988 starring the late Divine and Sonny Bono, together with Debbie Harry, and Rikki Lake who was discovered for the role of Tracy Turnblad.

In 2002 it became a musical on Broadway, and in 2007 they re-made the film as a musical starring John Travolta as “Edna Turnblad” and Christopher Walken as her/his husband.

So HAIRSPRAY then came to London and Michael Ball gives his interpretation of the role of Edna in the West End. By the time you read this Brian Connolly will have taken over.

This show is FUN, FUN, FUN, it may not be great art, but it is fun, catchy and has enough energy to feed the National Grid! Stand out performances for me were Michael Ball, no surprise there then. But the next one may be, for me the other stand out performance was Verity Rushworth as “Penny Pingleton”. Don’t get me wrong all performances were faultless, but this lady really shone for me.

Stand out numbers “Good Morning Baltimore”, “I can hear the bells” and “You can’t stop the beat”.

The performance I saw also contained a wonderful bit of “business” between Michael Ball and Nigel Planner as his/her husband, it involved a Jewish phrase an “unrehearsed” extra kiss and a fit of the giggles for them both, if it was a scripted part of the show then it certainly appeared spontaneous.

This theatre also had some of the most comfortable seats I’ve been in. Okay I arranged it to be in a row that had no seats directly in front of it, but still it was great.

So first day over, it was a leisurely walk back to the hotel with a stop off at McDonalds. Well a guy has to eat!

Next morning I awoke after a good if short sleep. Not the hotels fault, I have an in-built alarm clock when it comes to London, so I was wide-awake by 6:30 and showered and on the streets by 9:30am.

Walking around I couldn’t help but notice two things, the building work going on, it was everywhere. If not the water board saying they were replacing over 250 miles of pipes then the new multi-storey buildings that were springing up around Leicester Square.

It was in this very square that I half noticed the other phenomenon that had either previously escaped me, or was a new thing. As I wandered along I started to notice lots of guided tours, groups, wandering along behind a guide who was holding aloft variously an umbrella, big yellow sign or a folded piece of paper…

I decided that I couldn’t fit another matinee in, the one I would have gone for AVENUE Q< not starting till 5:30pm. Whatever happened to the time when all matinees started at 3pm?

So I decided on a visit to the cinema. After circumnavigating Leicester Square … can you circumnavigate a square?? Well you get the picture. I decided on Star Trek, the new J.J. Abrams reboot of the long running series. So I bought my ticket and stuck close to the cinema, as I’d noticed the clouds that were gathering were an ominous shade of black and loud claps of thunder could be heard. I entered took a seat in the foyer area and had a hot dog.

The film stars: Leonard Nimoy & Zachary Quinto as Spock (don’t ask… suffice to say it’s Sci-Fi), Chris Pine as “Captain Kirk”, Karl Urban as “Bones” and our own Simon Pegg as “Montgomery Scott” not forgetting the absolutely GORGEOUS Zoe Saldana as “Uhura”. The story tells how the main characters met and the first mission they undertook together, involving Romulans. I must admit that I was a little put off by all the “this is not for Start Trek fans” comments that were flying around during the build up. I mean if it wasn’t for Star Trek fans then call it something else and change the names, but I needn’t have worried. I really enjoyed the movie. To give specific scenes would be to spoil the surprises, but needless to say this will find it’s way into my DVD collection.

So it was out of the cinema into bright sunlight. I really was lucky this way during the trip, most of the time the weather was great. Hotel, quick change and to my Friday night’s entertainment.

PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT, now this show is of course based on the Australian film of the same name. This stage musical version also originating in Aus, it’s first performance being in October 2006.

The West End cast stars: Jason Donovan as “Tick / Mitzi”, Tony Sheldon as “Bernadette”, and one of my countrymen, Oliver Thornton as “Adam / Felicia”.

Also deserving of mention are Zoe Birkett (she of X-Factor fame), Kate Gilespie and Emma Lindars as “the Divas”. They supply the voices of the drag queens, as when in their female alter-egos they (as apparently real Drag Queens do) mime to someone else’s voices, usually a record.

Now I must admit I was a little nervous entering this theatre, and the obligatory announcement about the taking of photos and use of mobile phones starting “Ladies and … Ladies” did nothing to allay my fears. I think I can say with some certainty that this show has a large camp following. The three gentlemen sat next to me LOVED the show, and very vocally expressed this fact at frequent points during the performance. A situation that left me with one ear ringing. In fact as I would go so far as to say that this particular show is camper than a row of tents (oh COME ON… it was the best gag I could come up with!) ;o)

I would say that the audience was very prominently swayed towards the camp and female sections of the spectrum. The four men in frocks stood outside the ladies loo during the interval reinforced this.

That’s not to say that the show wouldn’t appeal to theatregoers in general. Okay it would probably not appeal to more senior or reserved theatregoers as some of the jokes and performances were a little near the knuckle. But I enjoyed the show, thought that the performances were good, and that I would return to see it again. However, I will this time be going with my friend Nicole as I think it is the perfect example of a show best enjoyed with a friend or friends, rather than as a sole visitor.

Oh and one other thing, if you buy a seat please don’t leave your coat, jacket over the back of the seat in front (my seat) not very polite, and sorry to the lady who did this and who certainly ended up with a heavily creased garment, well I’m not the lightest of patrons.

Stand out performances for me were “the Divas”, Oliver Thornton and Tony Sheldon, who brought great pathos and vulnerability to the role of Bernadette, a role he created in the original Australian production. I thought that the other cast members were very good but no-one else stood out for me, with the possible exception of Kanako Nakano as “Cynthia”, who was very good as the Ping Pong loving Thai wife of “Bob”, and very pretty to look at after all the “***** in frocks” to paraphrase one of the more famous lines from the film!

Now what about “Scott” I hear you cry, or those of you old enough to remember the start of Neighbours anyway. Jason Donovan played “Scott” in the soap; well to be honest I wasn’t blown away. I had heard comments that he sometimes appeared to “walk through” the performance; well to be honest I can see where they are coming from. He was there, he said all the lines, and showed some great comic timing, especially with the throw away lines like when he said that he “always fancied Scott more”. He involved himself in all the dance numbers, but for me it lacked a spark. Finally the “improved voice” I’d heard mentioned was not really visible to me on the night that I saw the show. I know they can and frequently do adjust things in the studio but for me on the night he was not as good as his recordings, my only previous experience of his singing. Not bad but not as good as I’d hoped.

Stand out numbers for me: “Macarthur Park” and “Don’t leave me this way”. Stand out SCENES The Shoe on the Roof of the bus, and the bus transformation.

This was my late night of the trip, so I headed back to the hotel and dropped off my programme and headed back across Leicester Square to the Comedy Store for the midnight show. This was something I had treated myself to for the last few trips. The comics tonight included: Paul Zerdin, probably the most talented ventriloquist I have ever seen, and a VERY funny man.

There were four other acts, three of which were very funny and then a lady that did a (mercifully) shorter spot. As I think, unfortunately for her, she could have been put on to illustrate the fact that stand up comedy isn’t easy. A great night and somewhere I will visit again and again. Oh and sorry but I don’t have the other performers names as there are no programmes and the website doesn’t have an archive feature.

So to the second full day for me, and my last day. It’s Saturday so it must be a two-show day. I had pre-booked both shows as I really wanted to see them and wasn’t too sure how easily I could get a ticket on or nearer the day.

I went for a walk around in the morning, Leicester Square and Covent Garden, never seen so many street entertainers! (Oh and the dog in a basket guy was very original). It was here that I eventually realised what I had seen previously, in some of the tour groups. They were re-enacting a scene from (I think) the Jungle Book, each person had hold of something of the one in front, a strap of their rucksack, their hand or something. So it reminded me of the scene of Mowgli holding the tail of the animal in front. Now this was not only children but also in some cases adults … very strange.

I also called into Trafalgar Square to check out the “Live Art” statue and was treated to 20 minutes of a man groping four large inflated bin bags roughly in the shape of fingers … well that’s art for you!

So quick change and head out for my first taxi ride of the trip, as I mentioned earlier I am now the proud owner of an Oyster card and had used the Tube to get from the train to the hotel. However this next show was in the Menier Chocolate Factory.

The Menier really is the answer to a prayer, a London equivalent of Off-Broadway. A small independent space that can take chances and showcase smaller productions. They have a remarkable record with previous shows including: LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (transferred to the West End and then a National Tour), SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (subsequently transferred first to the Wyndhams Theatre and then onto Broadway where it found a home at Studio 54), A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (currently playing at the Garrick Theatre) and LA CAGE AUX FOLLES (currently at the Playhouse theatre).

While this venue is a little further out, over the river in fact, it really is a gem. Anyway Off Broadway wouldn’t be off Broadway if it was ON Broadway would it! The Chocolate Factory is a brilliant addition to the London theatre scene.

The show was FORBIDDEN BROADWAY, created by Gerard Alessandrini; it ran on/off Broadway for many years until earlier this year when it took a sabbatical, hopefully not for too long. This is a small-scale cabaret style performance with just four members in the cast and a pianist, plus some recorded sound effects.

The UK version stars: Anna-Jane Casey, Alasdair Harvey, Sophie-Louise Dann and Steven Kynman. All seasoned performers with a wealth of experience, wonderful voices and great comic timing. Accompanied by (I believe) Joel Fram as Pianist. Sorry for the vagueness of this last statement the programme isn’t that clear.

It is really a VERY quick fire series of comedic versions of famous theatre songs or skits relating to theatre performers. Stand out “scenes” for me included WICKED, LES MISERABLES, CHICAGO, and OLIVER! Oh and the “tributes” to Lord Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh were very good as well.

This is a venue that I will continue to watch closely, as if this show is an example of the quality of their work, together with the pedigree of previous productions they are the new Big (small) thing in (near) the West End!

A quick taxi ride back to the hotel, change and I head for where in know my next theatre is. The Prince Edward next to the old Regent Palace Hotel. I know it was there as I’d seen so many shows there before: NOISES OFF, JAILHOUSE ROCK and SPEND SPEND SPEND. So I wander along quite happily and am greeted with the façade for GREASE!

Oops… okay so I should have turned right at LES MIS not left, and the Prince Edward was where I had seen MAMA MIA! Not the shows listed above; well I never claimed I knew where the hell I was going. :o)

I get to the theatre, and take my seat for my final show of the trip JERSEY BOYS. The story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, a band made up of 4 guys from a “blue collar” (manual worker) background in New Jersey near New York. Who worked their way to become one of the most successful bands in popular music history. Incidentally they also managed to achieve their greatest sales in the year that the Beatles “invaded” the U.S.

Now I’d seen a version of this show previously in Las Vegas last year, and knew right away I wanted to see it again, especially as I knew that shows in Vegas are routinely shortened for the Casinos.

Originally performed at the La Jolla Playhouse, JERSEY BOYS transferred to Broadway, Las Vegas and then London. Productions are also running in Australia and Canada.

The London production stars Ryan Molloy “Frankie Valli”, Stephen Ashfield “Bob Gaudio”, Philip Bulcock “Nick Massi” and Glenn Carter as “Tommy DeVito”. Deserving a special mention amongst a strong supporting cast is Jye Frasca as “Joe Pesci” (yes THAT Joe Pesci) and Stuart Milligan “Gyp DeCarlo”.

To be honest it would be easier to list songs I didn’t like as opposed to stand out songs in this show, as even if you don’t think you know many Four Seasons songs YOU DO. “Sherry”, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Walk Like a Man”, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”, all brilliant and almost show stoppers in their own right, but for me it was one I hadn’t heard of before this show which is now my favourite, “Fallen Angel”.

This is the epitome of a Juke Box Musical a story told around existing music. However where it differs is that the music was written and performed by the people whose story is being told. For this point alone I think it deserves credit and this is one show that I could (and hopefully will) watch again and again and again.

The show finished and I’m left thinking about my next trip. Hopefully it won’t be as long a gap as there was between my previous visit and this one.

However with the increasing costs, something that even FORBIDDEN BROADWAY saw fit to pastiche. I am not sure how frequent these trips can possibly be. I mean I know that if I had sat one row further forward in PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT I would have paid approximately £95 for a seat a matter of inches from the one I paid £60 odd pounds for. To be honest I can’t say that there are many, if any shows that could justify these prices. But what can I say I’m Rob and I’m a Theatre addict and can’t help it. So, somehow… somewhere (there’s a song in there somewhere) I’ll find the money.

As I always say if anyone wants a chat about theatre, shows anything really, my e-mail is rob@robokeefe.org

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed my ramblings.

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