I’ve had a (relatively) restrained Christmas week. Of course December 25 was a day off — in London, at least, where the town goes dark for the entire day, unlike on Broadway where on Christmas day itself this year you could have seen some 20 shows! (The full list is here on playbill.com) More shows were dark the day before on Christmas Eve than on Christmas Day, with only a handful of shows playing matinees. But many bounced back over the weekend with two show days on both Saturday and Sunday.
No wonder I’m usually in New York myself at this time of year — I can go to the theatre basically uninterrupted! (I’ve spent the last five or six Christmases at least there). But this year, thanks to my hip replacement surgery, I’m not allowed to fly for six weeks — a restriction that comes to an end later this week, but I’ve also had to allow a little extra time for further recovery, especially since I managed to dislocate my new hip, so will not be flying till the end of next week. And then I’ll be consciously avoiding the theatre anyway — we’re going to have a week in Barbados first, ahead of our postponed week in New York.
Meanwhile, though, I made good on my inability to get on a plane by getting on several trains instead. Last week I caught the opening of the new tour of The Rocky Horror Show at Brighton’s Theatre Royal (starring Liam Tamne and Diana Vickers, pictured right, and which I reviewed for The Stage here), and was surprised by how fresh-seeming a show I know so well — and has been around for 42 years — felt. I wish I knew the show’s secret to look this good — not to mention its title character Rocky’s secret to look as buff as Dominic Andersen manages to. (Answer: hard work! A visit to his Instagram account, as Gay Times did here, proves that gym plays a big part in his life!)
And on Sunday I travelled to Manchester to catch the Royal Exchange’s new production of Into the Woods, and then yesterday over to Leeds for the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, ahead of its national tour. I had been due to review the openings of both of those for The Stage before my hip displacement took me out of action, so it was great to finally get to them.
Reviewing Matthew Xia’s in-the-round production of Into the Woods for The Independent, Paul Vallely observed:
Twice upon a time. Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods is, to borrow from football commentary, a play of two halves. But unlike Waiting for Godot – in which, famously, nothing happens, twice – the first and second parts of Sondheim’s musical are entirely different. Usually part one is far more successful dramatically than part two. It is a singular triumph of Matthew Xia’s production at the Royal Exchange in Manchester that the second half is the more compelling by far.
That’s when the entire action is transplanted to the eerie woods of Jenny Tiramani’s design in which the trees grow visibly in front of you. Those woods are populated by such familiar faces as Alex Gaumond, Gillian Bevan, Cameron Blakely, and Michael Peavoy (the latter giving us an extra treat in his Wolf disguise wearing just a jockstrap; I’m getting used to seeing this actor stripped down to his underwear, as he also made an appearance in his Y-fronts in Billy Elliot when he played Billy’s brother Tony in the West End). But it was the unfamiliar faces that also made a big impression on me, including David Moorst (Evening Standard newcomer award winner for Violence & Son, which I missed) as Jack, Natasha Cottriall as little Red Riding Hood, Franecsca Zoutewelle as Cinderella and Amy Ellen Richardson’s wonderful Baker’s wife.
London’s original baker’s wife when Into the Woods first played at the Phoenix Theatre back in 1990 was Imelda Staunton, and after seeing the matinee at the Royal Exchange of this revival, we went back to our hotel in Manchester for an evening in with the incredible Staunton, who — just 25 years later! — is now a bona fide theatre superstar thanks to her blazing performance as Momma Rose in Gypsy, a filmed version of which was transmitted on BBC4 that evening. In the close-up of the high definition television screen, Staunton’s performance made Rose, yet again, alternately wrenching, desperate and disturbing. “You’ll be swell, you’ll be great, I can tell, just you wait”… we can do it, momma is going to see to it,” she tells Louise as she shifts her focus from making a star of June, who has deserted her, to her older, shyer daughter.
But really she’s channelling her own failed ambitions through her children. ” I made you…I made you!”, she screams at Louise. “And you wanna know why? You wanna know what I did it for? ‘Cause I was born too soon and started too late, that’s why. What I got in me, I could have been better than any of you! What I got in me, what I been holding down inside of me, if I ever let it go, there wouldn’t have been signs big enough. There wouldn’t have been lights bright enough.” But if Rose has missed her moment, Staunton seizes hers to show a jolting vision of ferocity and finally self-knowledge. What did it get me, she asks. “Scrap-books of me in the background.” But then she shrugs: “If I could have been, I would have been… and that’s showbusiness.” It’s a terrifying truth and Momma Rose has stripped herself emotionally bare, just as her daughter does physically.
But the joy of this production of Gypsy is that it is no one-woman show, either, but filled out with brilliance throughout: as Louise, Lara Pulver has to bide her time, but the slow burn pays off when she catches fire and sizzles though her own strip show.” At these prices I’m an ecdysiast!,” she declares. And a star in her own right, too!
So are the ecdysiasts of Louise Gold, Anita Louise Combe and Julie Legrand, who between them are a hilarious vanity-free zone. Legrand also doubles up as producer Granzinger’s secretary, and gives the most brilliantly deadpan performances of utter disdain.
The show also offers the best Herbie and Tulsa I’ve ever seen in Peter Davison and Dan Burton. Davison’s Herbie makes his deep love for Rose palpable, but also his exasperation; he is cracking from the start. Burton’s Tulsa (pictured left with Lara Pulver) is an effortless ballectic mover, lovely singer and charming actor: a triple treat!
After the dead-on-arrival Sound of Music Live on TV the Sunday before, which I reviewed for The Stage here, this was proof of how a theatre show can be translated for TV.
Meanwhile over in Leeds — which I managed to get to despite dire reports of floods in the city centre the day before that also led to the cancellation of the train I was originally booked onto from Manchester, but fortunately there was one half an hour later — Chitty Chitty Bang Bang took flight again in a brand-new production at West Yorkshire Playhouse, in this gloriously tuneful slice of English eccentricity, complete with flying car that might have been a useful mode of transport yesterday.
There are times you wonder what sort of drugs its original creator Ian Fleming was on to concoct this weird story of xeno and child phobias, or its composer/lyricists the Sherman brothers with such demented numbers as ‘Me Ol’ Bamboo’, or ‘The Bombie Samba’ . But James Brining’s production is so wittily staged you put such doubts to one side and just enjoy the sheer sincerity, relish and gusto of the performances, brilliantly led by Jon Robyns as Caractacus Potts.
It’s only weird (and stupid) that Robyns (photographed right with the company) is only doing Leeds and not rest of the UK tour that follows its run there; he’s instead being replaced by Jason Manford, then Lee Mead, on the road. Meanwhile, Stephen Matthews, Don Gallagher and Tamsin Carroll, all brilliant as the Childcatcher, Baron and Baroness Bombhurst respectively in Leeds, will be replaced by Martin Kemp, Phill Jupitus and Michelle Collins.
I understand that star names are needed on the road to sell a tour; but you also need actors who can sell a show. Not that their replacements won’t — I saw Jason Manford in The Producers and he was excellent — but surely the biggest star of this show, from a recognition point of view, is the car anyway, so why mess around with the rest of the casting?
In London, meanwhile, I revisited a couple of shows I’d seen before: the entirely re-cast Bull (returned to the Young Vic) and the entirely unchanged Mr Foote’s Other Leg, and also caught up with Linda at the Royal Court, which had a last-minute casting change of its own when Noma Dumezweni stepped in for the originally announced Kim Cattrall just before previews began.
I’d seen Mike Bartlett’s Bull in its original 2013 premiere at Sheffield’s Crucible Studio, when Lyn Gardner’s Guardian review mysteriously dubbed it a three-hander, even though there her review makes it clear there are four actors onstage. Then it starred Sam Troughton as the bullied man trying to hold onto a job that his colleagues Adam James and Eleanor Matsura were trying to outwit him from, with Adrian Lukis as the boss; I saw it again when it transferred to London’s Young Vic in February, with Neil Stuke replacing Lukis. Now it is being played to painfully pertinent perfection by Marc Wootton as the bullied salesman and Max Bennett and Susannah Fielding as his colleagues, with Nigel Lindsay as the boss.
It was also great seeing Mr Foote’s Other Leg in its home territory — the Theatre Royal Haymarket is where much of it is actually set. It’s one of the best new plays in town, with a fantastic cast led by Simon Russell Beale (pictured left), Dervla Kirwan and Joseph Millson and featuring a scene-stealing turn from the ever-irrepressible Jenny Galloway.
And I’m also glad I finally caught up with Linda at the Royal Court — in this case, it was good that I waited as Noma Dumezweni, who was originally on-book at the press night and friends reported understandable stumbles later on, now completely owns the title role, of a woman facing the crisis (and increased invisibility) of middle-age. Dumezweni, of course, is only going to become more visible in the months to come: she’s recently been announced to star as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. There are times when Penelope Skinner’s play becomes a little overwrought, but Dumezweni rages with an astonishing, ferocious and painful intensity that makes it a must-see.