Act 2

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At last, the interval is over, and we are back in the theatre for Act 2! So often in the theatre, the second act is more exciting than the first, and for me, this certainly was the case with the shows that I am about to describe. These shows, mostly in the West Midlands, in Birmingham, Coventry and Solihull, were a real treat. Different in so many ways, and a real extravaganza of theatrical productions.

One of my favourite Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals opens this second act. I first saw Sunset Boulevard shortly after it opened in the West End in 1993, with Patti Lupone playing the part of Norma Desmond, the former Hollywood star of the silent screen. Since then I have seen others, including Glenn Close, play that part, but in the latest touring production that I saw in Birmingham, Ria Jones takes the lead. She was superb; not only capturing the character of the delusional fantasist that is Norma Desmond, but also filling the theatre with her wonderful soprano voice. With One Look and As If We Never Said Goodbye, were sung with such clarity; here was a leading lady who owned the stage, ably supported by Danny Mac playing the part of Joe Gillis, the young Hollywood writer, and an enthusiastic cast and orchestra. The standing ovation, not always deserved in theatres, was in my opinion, rightly accorded to this cast and this production.

From one big musical to another, and for me, a first, as I have never before seen a live theatrical production streamed to a cinema. This was Follies, the Stephen Sondheim musical currently playing at the National Theatre on London’s South Bank. Unable to get tickets for that show in London, I was able to see it streamed live to a cinema here in Coventry. Sondheim’s musicals are never the easiest, and Follies, rarely performed because it is such a big show requiring such a large cast, has nevertheless been a triumph this year at the National Theatre. Again, I saw Follies at its last West End incarnation back in 1987, and really wanted to see it again. Live streaming is such a wonderful way to do this. Admittedly, there is not the same atmosphere as there would be at a live production in the theatre, but the sound quality, the close ups, and the camera angles more than make up for that. Two and a half hours, without an interval as Sondheim directs, is quite a feat, and takes a lot of concentration, but it was worth the effort!

The cinema is not somewhere I go often, as I prefer live theatre, but having read reviews in the newspapers and heard film critics speaking of this film, I felt compelled to see it. Call Me by Your Name is already well ahead in the race for this year’s Oscar nominations, and deservedly so. I read the novel by André Aciman, on which the film is based, in the week before seeing the film. It is a coming-of-age love story between a precocious Italian teenage boy and a slightly older American man. Beautifully filmed during an Italian summer in a cultured multi-lingual household, it deals with their difficult relationship, and their relationships with other local young women, without being seedy, sensational, or offensive. The atmosphere is one of culture, music, antiquities and lazy summer days, but beneath the surface there is the not-so-secret emotional and sexual turmoil. The chemistry between Timothée Chalamet as the young Italian boy Elio and Armie Hammer as the older American Oliver, is fantastic. The pain and the pleasure of first love is dealt with sensitively, but the climax is inevitable, the sadness is real, but above all, the tenderness of this film is its star quality.

A friend of mine is a member of a local amateur theatrical society, who this year were producing the well known musical Fiddler on the Roof. Set in Russia in 1905, it tells the story of Tevye, a father of five daughters, and his attempts to maintain his Jewish traditions in the face of outside influences, and his headstrong daughters who wish to marry for love and move away from their Jewish traditions, and all this at a time when an edict of the Tsar is evicting Jews from their village. We were treated to a very polished performance of this classic at a theatre in Solihull, as we heard the well known songs, Matchmaker, Matchmaker, If I Were a Rich Man, Sunrise, Sunset, Miracle of Miracles, Do You Love Me? and Anatevka, but perhaps the highlight of the show was the wonderfully directed scene of Tevye’s dream, but maybe I am biased as my friend was playing the part of Grandma Tzeitel, and I shall never see her in the same light again!

More years ago than I care to remember, when I was a fourteen year old at an all boys Grammar School, I was in the cast of the annual school play. That year it was Hobson’s Choice, Harold Brighouse’s play about a shoe shop proprietor with three headstrong daughters, set in Salford in 1880. Seeing the play advertised at The Crescent Theatre in Birmingham recently, I just knew that I had to see it, if for no other reason than to re-live my boyhood memories. Obviously the script had long since left my memory, but words and phrases came back to me, and it was wonderful to take myself back all those years ago and remember the days when I “trod the boards”.

Spalding Grammar School Play “Hobson's Choice” 1961

(School Play production of Hobson’s Choice, 1963)

And so to the Grand Finale! Every year just before the Christmas Pantomime Season, the Birmingham Hippodrome, the city’s largest theatre, stages a production of The Nutcracker by its resident ballet company, The Birmingham Royal Ballet. This magical production, choreographed by Sir Peter Wright is set at a family party on Christmas Eve. A visiting magician brings gifts for the children including a Nutcracker Doll for the daughter Clara. When the guests have departed Clara creeps downstairs to look for the Nutcracker, but as the clock strikes midnight, the room seems to grow and giant rats attack Clara. The Nutcracker doll springs to life, and aided by the toy soldiers given as a gift to her brother, defends her. So we are transported to a land where the Nutcracker is turned into a handsome prince and dances with Clara as he takes her to the Land of Snow. In this fantastic world, the magician puts on a grand entertainment for Clara, where she joins in many of the dances and is finally transformed into the Sugar Plum Fairy, the ballerina of her dreams. The Nutcracker Prince dances with her and as the dancing reaches a climax, so the dream ends and Clara wakes up at the foot of the Christmas tree where she had gone at midnight to find her Nutcracker doll. This really was a beautiful production in every way, the dancing, the music, the costumes and the set, and for me a fitting climax to a few weeks of theatre and film of so many different kinds. Hopefully you have enjoyed your trip to the theatre with me as much as I have enjoyed being there, and telling you about it!

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Act 1

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There is a common saying that you can wait all day for a bus, and then three come along together! That saying has particular relevance to what I am writing about today for two reasons. First of all, regular readers of my blog will have noticed that nothing has appeared from me over the past three weeks. I apologise for that, and at the same time inform you that this is the first of two or maybe three blog posts on the same theme, which although not appearing together like the buses, will be ready for your perusal within the next seven days! The second reason that this saying about buses has relevance is that, having been in France for much of the summer, I have not be able to have my regular fixes of theatrical entertainment, but within the space of these three blog free weeks, I have been to the theatre eleven times! Just like the buses, I have waited all summer, and then eleven productions come along at once! So I want to share with you, some of my thoughts on these shows.

Witness for the Prosecution is a play adapted from an Agatha Christie short story first published in 1925 called Traitor Hands. It was in 1951 that the story was adapted as a play. It is currently been staged in London in the unique and most unusual setting of the Council Chamber of the former Greater London Council at County Hall, on the South Bank over the river from the Houses of Parliament. Whoever had the idea of staging it in this chamber certainly hit on a winner. The play itself is riveting, and without giving away the ending, there is a real twist in the tale, which my friends and I never expected, but it is the setting which gives the atmosphere, and for the courtroom scenes the legal dignitaries sit on high in the officials’ seats in the chamber, whereas the other scenes take place in the round on a stage built for this production in the centre of the chamber, around which we all sat in the former Councillors’ seats. The acting was superb, indeed at times it did not feel like a play that one was watching, but that one was actually sitting in a courtroom witnessing a real court case, and wondering how this is all going to end. This production runs until next March, and if you enjoy a good thriller, and can get a seat, this is a play not to be missed. I am so glad that I had the chance of seeing it here.

The following day, since we were staying in London, we went to a West End Show that I had wanted to see ever since it opened back in 2013. I had bought the CD some years ago, and love the music. Sadly, I was disappointed with the show. The Book of Mormon has been very successful on Broadway and in London, it has endeared many people to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and the Church itself has mounted a huge campaign to promote itself on the back of this show, even buying advertising space on the sides of London buses and in the programme, but for me the mockery of someone else’s religion, however strange we may consider that religion to be, went just that bit too far. With modern day theatre, one is used to strong language, sex, nudity and all kinds of strange things happening on stage, and I would never want to go back to the days prior to 1968 in the United Kingdom, when the Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household had the power to censor any play wishing to be licensed for public performance, it is just personally that I did not like the mockery and the crude language. I am sure that I was in a minority that night in the theatre, as most of the audience were loving every minute of it, but it just did not do it for me! Well, you win some, you lose some!

Four days later, I was back in London to see another play. Many years ago, I had read Michael Campbell’s novel Lord Dismiss Us which is set in an English boys’ public school in the 1960s and which deals with the love affair between two boys, together with the internal politics of the school itself. Carleton, a sixth former loves Allen, a boy two years his junior. At the same time, the headmaster is trying to enforce a policy against such liaisons. When the book was written it was a contemporaneous work, now however, it depicts a school at a period in history because the book was published in the same year, 1967, that homosexuality between consenting adults was legalised in the United Kingdom. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of that legalisation, the novel has been dramatised and after a spell at the Edinburgh Festival, Lord Dismiss Us was playing in London for a short season. This is not a production aiming to shock or sensationalise the subject, but following the direction of the novel,  just seven actors tell the story very cleverly with pathos and humour, and present the characters in the school, both staff and boys, in both a realistic and yet tender manner. The Headmaster’s wife, played brilliantly by Julie Teal, strives to support her husband in his quest to enforce his policies throughout the school, and at the same time wanting to support the Chaplain, who has a rather different agenda. The Headmaster and the Chaplain, it should be said, never appear together on stage, and these two characters were played by the same actor, David Mullen, which really heightened the tension that one felt was present in the school. Two huge parts, but ones that he portrayed so differently and yet perfectly. Like the novel it is a play about power struggles, and who is in charge, the masters or the pupils? It is about bullying, falling in love, and being forced out because of what you are, and in all this the play succeeds. It was a wonderful evening of theatrical entertainment, but one that asked the audience serious questions.

The fourth show that I saw, was a local amateur group’s production of the musical Happy Days. This is a show based on the American television series of the same name which aired in the 1970s. The story of the musical is taken from the original sitcom, and concerns the kids’ plans to save Arnold’s malt shop (akin to an ice cream parlour), from demolition by hosting a dance contest and wrestling match. It is rather a silly story, but given the popularity of the original series and the making of the character Fonzie, or Arthur Fonzarelli, and the actor Henry Winkler into a big star, it is not surprising that it was turned into a stage musical. I can’t say that I really enjoyed this show, and I cannot remember one of the songs apart from the title song, but it was a brilliant choice for this company. Here in Coventry, we are very fortunate to have a flourishing amateur theatrical scene. One of the groups, which has produced a number of West End actors, singers and dancers, is the Coventry Youth Operetta Group, which puts on two major shows each year. In this production, the leads were strong, having worked their way up over the years, but what made this the ideal choice this year was the fifty strong younger members of the company who were all given roles and who quite obviously enjoyed what they were doing. If nothing else, the exuberance and the joy which this cast showed, was something that everyone will remember, and of which they can be really proud. If local amateur theatre is to continue and flourish, then this is something to be encouraged and supported.

From amateur theatre, to a West End musical on a UK tour, and the production of  Beautiful, The Carole King Musical at the Birmingham Hippodrome. In recent years there have been numerous musicals, which showcase the songs of various artists. Buddy, the story of Buddy Holly, opened in 1989, and was the first of these so-called ‘Jukebox Musicals’. I enjoyed Buddy back then, because it told the story of Buddy Holly and incorporated his songs into his life story. For me, others since, have just been an excuse to sing the songs of individuals or groups; some successful, others not. Beautiful, in my opinion, falls into the category of those that succeed. Before I went to this show, I had obviously heard of Carole King, but did I know much about her? No not really. Did I know which songs she wrote? Again, no not really. But I came away thinking, of course I knew those songs, I was brought up with many of them, and those well known songs were cleverly woven into the story of her life which was told on that stage. On Broadway, The Locomotion, You’ve lost that loving feeling, It might as well rain until September, Up on the roof, Take good care of my baby, You’ve got a friend and Oh! Carol, to name just some of the songs from the show. The night we went to Birmingham, the Hippodrome was packed, all one thousand eight hundred and fifty seats, as it was all week. So popular was it, that it is returning to Birmingham in February for another week.

I called this post Act 1, which means, of course, that there is more. So there now follows a short interval, after which I will be back with more shows in Act 2!

Cats in Coventry

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A scene from the Jellicle Ball at the production of CATS at The Albany Theatre, Coventry (photo used with permission)

Jellicle Cats come out tonight,  Jellicle Cats come one and all,

The Jellicle Moon is shining bright,  Jellicles come to the Jellicle Ball.

(T.S. Eliot)

Last night I attended the Jellicle Ball! And what a Ball it was! You may have read a previous post of mine back in April, when I wrote a review for a performance of the musical Fame, which was produced by a local Youth Theatre Group here in Coventry called Wing-It Theatre. Over the past few years they have produced a number of musicals including Spring Awakening, Hair, 42nd Street, West Side Story, Hairspray, Rent, and The Little Mermaid. This week they have presented their summer production and it was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, a delightful show based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. To my mind this was their most ambitious and most successful show to date.

The musical tells the story of a tribe of cats called the Jellicles, and the night that they make what is known as the Jellicle choice, and decide which cat will ascend to the Heaviside Layer, and then come back to a new life. One by one the cats tell their stories, and poor old Grizabella, the Glamour Cat, tries to join in but is shunned by the other cats, she is, however, able to have her say as she sings her song, Memory. Eventually she is the one chosen to go to the Heaviside Layer by the leader of the tribe, Old Deuteronomy, to be reborn to a new Jellicle life.

It is strange that a series of poems about cats should be turned into a piece of musical theatre, but it works, and it gives the performers ample opportunity to showcase many different styles of song and dance. Last night’s performance was superb, there simply is no other word for it. The youngest performer was eight years old, and the oldest in their early twenties; add to that the fact that the production team are all twenty somethings themselves, and we are talking about a very young company, but the wealth of talent meant that this production was worthy of a professional company.

Photo on 18 Aug 2017, 22_15_05The actor who played Grizabella brought the house to its feet with her rendition of the song Memory. I saw Elaine Paige play this role in the original London production back in the 1980s, but last night, Grizabella’s clarity and pathos were equal to that of a West End performer. Indeed the musicality, the diction, the choreography, and the simple but important mimicking of the feline gestures were all first class, and in one sense it is unfair to single out one character, because there were no weak performers in this production at all.

It was great fun to hear the stories of Bustopher Jones, the cat about town, Gus, the theatre cat, Skimbleshanks, the railway cat, Macavity, the mystery cat, Mr. Mistoffelees, the conjuring cat, Rum Tum Tugger, Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, and all the others as they told us their stories, with their dancing, their antics and their gymnastics.Of course, none of this happens without guidance and the very talented and inspiring young production team which provides that, all have a background in musical theatre or choreography. My friends Callum and Hannah the producers and directors of Wing-It Theatre are professional actors, Andy the choreographer is a member of Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures Dance Company, and Charlie has just finished a run in the West End. They can be justly proud this week that the nearly sixty strong cast pulled the proverbial cat out of the bag and gave us an experience that we will not forget!Photo on 19 Aug 2017, 15_06_40

 

A little bit of history!

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It’s hard to believe, but we have lived in this house for nearly twenty years! Situated on the east side of the city centre, it’s not like  the districts to the west of the city, which have some lovely old houses, many of them quite grand. But it does have its good points. A friend once described this house and others in this road as faded Edwardian splendour. The Edwardian is not quite true as the house was built in 1913, making it just over one hundred years old, and strictly speaking it was built in the reign of King George V. As for the faded splendour, well that makes it sound a bit like Satis House, the home of Miss Havisham in Dickens’ novel Great Expectations, and I assure you it is not!

But it is a good place to live. The local Residents’ Association works hard to improve the quality of life for all of us in this corner of the city which includes Gosford Park, Stoke Green and Stoke Park.

It’s a place full of history too. Just a couple of hundred metres from this house is Gosford Green! And it was there in the fourteenth century that a famous incident took place which involved single combat between the Duke of Norfolk and the Duke of Hereford. I quote from the website of our Residents’ Association: The dispute arose after one of the dukes was said to have uttered treasonable remarks against King Richard ll. Large numbers, including up to 10,000 soldiers, gathered to witness the event on Gosford Green, but at the last moment the king halted the duel and both dukes were banished.

The Duke of Hereford, otherwise known as Henry Bolingbroke, (remembered in a local road name) returned, took Richard prisoner and forced him to abdicate. The king was subsequently killed and Bolingbroke took over the monarchy as King Henry lV. This treacherous act led to the Wars of the Roses and during this period Parliament sat in Coventry.

Henry lV‘s son, Henry V, in later years won the Battle of Agincourt. So the duel that nearly happened at Gosford Green in Coventry proved to have a significant part to play in English history.

We can see Gosford Green from our house, and it is fascinating to imagine those thousands of soldiers gathered where this house now stands, and the importance to the history of the Succession of the English Monarchy and British history in general that this little corner of Coventry has played.

The photographs shared from the website of Gosford Park Residents’ Association show something of the very attractive nature of the place that I am pleased to call home, and are reproduced here with permission. Just click on “Pictures” below, and you will be taken to the GPRA website.

Source: Pictures

Wing-It Theatre

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Does anyone else remember the television series Fame which aired during the 1980s? I used to watch it, and remember following the lives of the students and faculty at the fictional New York City High School for the Performing Arts. The series was based on the film of the same name released in 1980, and after the television series ended the whole thing was turned into a stage musical, and the show has been produced around the world in almost every major language.

An amateur production of the show was produced here in Coventry last week, and although it is not my favourite musical by any means, I do think it worthy of a mention here. It is worthy of a mention, not just because it was an excellent production, (more of that in a minute) but also because of the way it was produced. Coventry seems to be blessed with a great deal of talent in the sphere of musical theatre; there are a number of amateur companies which regularly put on great shows. One is the Coventry Youth Operetta Group, known as YOG, which has a very good reputation, and a number of West End and television actors and dancers started their acting careers in that company. The other is the theatre group that I want to focus on here, the Wing-It Theatre. Founded back in 2009 when a group of drama students wanted to put on a final show together before beginning their professional careers, it has developed into a theatre project for youngsters who come together, after auditions, for ten days of intensive rehearsals, after which the show is produced in a local theatre. Obviously a lot of hard work and preparation goes on in readiness for that fortnight’s activity, but the fact that a musical production of such high standards can be achieved in that short time, says a lot for the commitment, dedication and talent not just of the creative team, but of all the youngsters who are aged  between about eight and twenty two. Over the past few years the company has produced Spring Awakening, Hair, 42nd Street, Hairspray, West Side Story, The Little Mermaid and Rent.

I saw this year’s production Fame, on its second night, the theatre was full and the cast, as well as the audience, were obviously enjoying every minute of the performance. The principals were a very strong team, with some powerful singers and superb dancers, in fact the whole youthful cast brought a wonderful vitality to a plot which (let’s face it) doesn’t have much depth. The staging was inventive, and the technical side of the production, sound and lighting, was slick, where every word could be heard and every movement picked out by a clever use of the vast array of lighting equipment. The choreographer and musical director brought out the best in the youngsters, but it is my friends Callum and Hannah, Executive Producer and Artistic Director respectively, who deserve high praise for helping about eighty youngsters discover and develop their talent, and in a short space of time produce something as good as they did last week. Some young people are criticised for their behaviour, their indifference, and their lack of purpose. This group, not only put on a show which entertained their audiences, but they also did their generation proud. Their enthusiasm, their confidence, their ability to work together as a team and their talent, are all things of which they can be very proud. As someone whose youthful days are over, and who ceased to tread the boards many years ago, I am delighted that theatre groups like these exist, and I look forward to the next production of Coventry’s Wing-It Theatre Company.

Thursday Thanks #1

Blogging is fairly new to me, I’ve only been doing it for just over a week, and thankfully I’m enjoying both the writing and the responses that I’ve had. Today I want to start what I hope will become a regular feature every Thursday. Like all of us, I have so much in my life for which I am thankful, and quite simply this is going to be my way of putting my words of gratitude in the public domain.

  1. Friends are so important to us all, and I know that I’m really blessed in having many good ones. Last Friday evening, my partner and I, (just so that you know when I use the word “we” in the future) had supper with friends who live in a village on the border of Warwickshire and Leicestershire. They had prepared us a lovely meal, which included paella and a good bottle of Rioja, for which I’m always grateful, but it was the time just sitting and talking and catching up on news, sharing thoughts, and reminiscing which was priceless.
  2. Food will be a common theme through a lot of what I write, and we enjoyed a lovely lunch on Sunday when another friend celebrated her seventieth birthday. Another good meal, and more good friends, but on Sunday it was the stunning view that I was really thankful for. We had travelled into the Cotswolds from our home in Coventry, not far, just about forty minutes away; but we could have been a world away from this city. The lunch was at Charingworth Manor near Chipping Campden, and with glorious weather we enjoyed on Sunday, which was the hottest day of the year so far in these parts, we could see for miles over the rolling hills of South Warwickshire and Gloucestershire. I remember saying to someone how many shades of green there were in that view. I know its a simple thing, but very often those simple things leave a lasting impression.
  3. Those signs of Spring are all around us now. This year the Magnolia tree in our front garden has been absolutely full of beautiful blooms, and the blossom on the pear tree at the back survived longer than usual because there was hardly any wind, and certainly no rain to ruin it, and this morning I had to do a double take at the vast amount of pink blossom on a flowering cherry tree that I passed in the park on my way to the shops. Signs of Spring and signs of rebirth after the winter.
  4. Of course, this coming weekend we celebrate that greatest of all Christian Festivals, Easter, which is all about new life, the new life of Jesus Christ after his resurrection. As a Christian, this Holy Week is very important to me, and I have been sharing in the worship of the church as we remember the events leading up to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Last Sunday was Palm Sunday, and like many Christians we were able to witness to our faith with an outdoor procession. We have that freedom to do that in this country as in many countries, and we feel safe doing it, but at the same moment that we were witnessing to our Christian faith in the streets of Coventry, two suicide bombings killed at least forty Coptic Christians, and injured many more, in churches in Egypt. I am thankful for the freedom we have in this country, and as I remember those who died in Egypt, and other Christians who have given their lives for their faith throughout the Middle East, I am thankful for their witness in such difficult and dangerous circumstances.
  5. Yesterday was a family day. My brother and sister-in-law visited us, and brought with them two American students from the University of Evansville in Indiana. That university has a British campus in the unlikely setting of a Victorian stately home in the village of Harlaxton just outside Grantham. The students come for a semester to do British Studies and experience something of the life and culture of the United Kingdom, with opportunities to travel around the country and neighbouring European states. They came yesterday to see Coventry, its cathedrals, all three of them – the medieval foundations of the first cathedral destroyed by Henry Vlll, the ruins of the second cathedral destroyed by German bombers in November 1941, and the third modern cathedral consecrated and opened in 1962, which stands as a sign of peace and reconciliation. Living here it is easy to take these things for granted, but yesterday was a reminder to try and see them through the eyes of visitors. They were impressed with our city and our cathedral, and that IS something to be grateful for!IMG_1322