I feel like I’ve been at the St James Theatre and Studio all week — I went to three consecutive nights of Scott Alan performing his own work from last Sunday to Tuesday (joined by a host of guests in his first night in the main house, then just Cynthia Erivo and one more guest a night on each of the other more intimate gigs in the downstairs Studio), then also saw Paul Baker on Friday and tonight I’m seeing Jamie Parker. All that, and Alison Jiear on Britain’s Got Talent, last night too — what a week it has been for cabaret.
All of them (except Ali, of course, on BGT) were presented under the umbrella auspices of the London Festival of Cabaret: more a brochure than a festival, really, linking disparate cabaret events across different venues, a bit like the Assembly/Underbelly/Pleasance brochure groups together a vast number of different shows into the same publication at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Seeing Scott quite so much was partly an act of friendship, but hardly an act of penance, either. Not that his shows are exactly easy going, for him or us: they’re hugely emotional events, since his songs speak so personally of his private griefs and struggles (particularly with depression, something I share with him and indeed it was a conversation that he and I once had over coffee in a New York bakery that led directly to “I’m in pain”, one of the songs he performed on Tuesday and dedicated to me).
But as with all great art, there’s something unique and thrilling in hearing one man’s trailblazing honesty that speaks to others very directly, too. On every night I saw him, you could cut the attentive silence with a knife, only disrupted by the sounds of stifled sobs. Scott, too, is often in tears as he tells us of his losses, particularly of his late lover Kyle. But there’s something naturally cathartic to the reaching out he does to those of us still living — and urging us to continue doing so, however bleak it sometimes feels.
He also has an incredible generosity, both professional and personal: on Sunday, he drew well-known names from the West End (Anna-Jane Casey, Miss Saigon’s Eva Noblezada, Oliver Thompsett, Sophie Evans, Carley Stenson etc) and even the X-Factor (last year’s winner Sam Bailey) to sing his songs, but also threw in a total unknown, until then: just two nights earlier, he’d been surfing youtube for those who had recently sung his songs there, and chanced upon a young Irish troubadour Niall O’Halloran (pictured left; his youtube rendition of ‘Again’ is here). He sent him a message — and by the next morning, O’Halloran replied and booked a flight for the next day to come to London!
Though there are times when Scott threatens to be the Ken Dodd of cabaret — his first night ran for nearly four hours, the second for nearly three — it’s never too much of a good thing. We’re in this thing called life together, and being at a Scott Alan concert we are in it together, too — and we don’t want either to end. Which is the exact opposite of how you feel when you’re devastatingly depressed.
Alison Jiear wasn’t on the Scott Alan bill this time — though she has in the past, and has recorded one of his most beautiful and haunting songs ‘Goodnight’ on her gorgeous solo album In Your Eyes (recorded live at Pizza on the Park back in 2009). Last night the world got to see what some of us have known for years — in my case, nearly thirty years — that Ali is one of the great voices in musical theatre, period, when she appeared, on the eve of her 50th birthday, as contestant on Britain’s Got Talent.
She left a message for me a few days ago to tip me off that she was going to be on it and when I called her back she told me that it was just as well I wasn’t on FaceTime with her: she was in the middle of a bikini waxing! That’s my Ali — one of the funniest people I know! But she’s also one of our greatest cabaret performers, too. Last year I saw her at the St James Studio — funnily enough, with Scott Alan this time as her guest, not the other way around — and she was also joined by our mutual friend Johnny Barr; and they knew I was in a depression at the time. Ali and Johnny duly sang ‘That’s What Friends are For’ — and dedicated it to me. It was one of the most moving cabaret experiences of my life.
And last night on BGT, she delivered a roaring performance of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ which is exactly the message of Scott Alan’s work, too: we may feel alone sometimes in our darkest moments, but there’s always, ALWAYS, light at the end of the tunnel. And last night Ali herself lit up the sometimes ridiculous talent show parade that included a dog with a talent for popping balloons. Yes, really!
The best cabaret, on the other hand, is an artform that requires performers to pop only their vanity and expose their vulnerability. There’s nowhere to hide on the cabaret stage — and on Friday, Paul Baker – another West End veteran of shows from Starlight Express (he was Rusty for three years) to Taboo (he won an Olivier Award for the original production), didn’t hide, either, again at the St James Studio (now simply the best cabaret room in London). The impish, personable Paul offered a musically rich, diverse set, from Boy George to Sting, Anthony Newley to gems from rare musicals like Lucky Stiff and The Far Pavilions.
My week also involved interviews with two more people who are Broadway and West End royalty respectively, and whom I have both seen more than once in great cabarets, too. Chita Rivera, now 82, is appearing on Broadway in The Visit — and giving one of the greatest performances of her amazing career. We caught up by FaceTime the other day. The same day I also met Maria Friedman at the Old Vic, where she is currently following up her directorial debut of Merrily We Roll Along that transferred from the Menier to the West End’s Pinter Theatre two years ago with a new production of High Society, that opens this coming Thursday. Both interviews will run in The Stage in due course.
In the midst of all this cabaret and interviews, I’ve “only” seen six real shows this week, but I’ve also been to two more run-throughs of shows ahead of their opening. So this has been a particularly busy week: I think my score card since Monday is four cabarets, six shows, and two run-throughs; I’ve also done three interviews (a phoner, a Facetime and a face-to-face), and one more public post-show Q&A.
The latter was at Carrie, after I re-visited the current production at Southwark Playhouse on Thursday that I’d already reviewed for The Stage here; after the show, I was joined onstage by director Gary Lloyd and producer Paul Taylor-Mills, as well as the stars of the original ill-fated 1988 RSC production of Carrie and its current incarnation: Linzi Hateley, who originated the title role, and her successor Evelyn Hoskins; Sally Ann Triplett, who originated the role of Sue; and Kim Criswell, who is now playing the role of Mrs White, originally played in turn by Barbara Cook (at Stratford-upon-Avon) and Betty Buckley (on Broadway).
Hateley, who was just 17 at the time, was particularly poignant and revealing of the overwhelming experience of being catapulted to the front ranks of a troubled musical straight out of Italia Conti; while Sally Ann Triplett, who returned to Broadway just last year in The Last Ship, pointed out a number of crazy coincidences of her own: she was 26 when she did Carrie, and her return was 26 years later, which makes her 52 now — the street on which stood both theatres that Carrie and The Last Ship played at directly across from each other. And in The Last Ship Sally was playing a character called Peggy White – the same surname as Carrie!
I was also personally thrilled to see no fewer than four of the students I taught in my first year teaching at ArtsEd making their professional debuts in Carrie: Gabriella Williams, Patrick Sullivan, Olly Dobson and Bobbie Little. It’s wonderful to see them all starting out in the world towards their goals; Gabriella has also already got her second job lined up, when she joins the cast of Mamma Mia! as Sophie from June 8!
I was also at ArtsEd itself, besides my teaching afternoon on Thursday to the first year acting students, two days earlier to catch the matinee of the 3rd year Acting course production of Two Gentlemen of Verona — directed by none other than Trevor Nunn! What a serious coup for ArtsEd to have one of the world’s great theatre directors come to work with them! It’s the only Shakespeare play he hadn’t directed yet, so it was the completing of a cycle for him. But it also felt like a liberating return to form for him, too: working with young actors released a new youthful energy in him. The production was fleet of foot (it clocked in at only two and a half hours, not the 3 hour plus that Nunn’s work typically does), but also youthfully contemporary, too.
And talking of youthful: I also belatedly caught the Young Vic’s current revival of Eugene O’Neill’s rarely seen early work Ah, Wilderness! — and a comedy, too! I went a bit out of morbid interest: my colleague Michael Coveney had given it a one-star pan in his Whatsonstage review, in which he gave us some historical context to declare how bad it is:
There’s a history to this ground-breaking play, O’Neill’s first on Broadway: the legendary George M Cohan played Nat, Lionel Barrymore and Mickey Rooney were in the movie, and it holds a continuing and crucial place in the American repertoire. The Young Vic turns it into a wannabe “European”-style reading that is frankly embarrassing.
Well, I had to find out for myself. And I was thrilled to find a really warm hearted, lovely and loving play, given a true sandy glow here.
Finally, there was no glow to the shock election result when I woke up on Friday morning. But if politics has been the elephant in the room all week, the Donmar made its own surprisingly light-hearted contribution to the election fever by staging a novelty item The Vote, both for stage and then TV in a live broadcast on More4 at exactly the time the play itself is set, namely the last 90 minutes before polls close at a polling station. I reviewed the live theatre experience for The Stage here while my colleague Natasha Tripney reviewed the television one here.
The coming week promises another week of addictive theatregoing — I’m going to first nights for Hay Fever (transferred from Bath to the Duke of York’s), Alan Ayckbourn’s Communicating Doors (revived at the Menier) and High Society (at the Old Vic), the 10th anniversary performance of Billy Elliot on Tuesday at the Victoria Palace, and playing catch-up on seeing Everyman at the National, Carmen Disruption at the Almeida and Clarion at the Arcola. Another busy week, as I say!(But then I’m off to South Africa for two weeks…. where I hope to find no theatre at all, even though that is where I first discovered theatre for myself as a teenager growing up in Johannesburg).