It’s the lull before the storm: now that the Edinburgh Fringe is over, and so are the Olympics (but not, of course, the Paralympics, which kick off with tomorrow’s opening ceremony and I’m actually going to be at!), the theatre world seems to be taking a temporary breather this week and next.
So it’s time to catch my breath a bit, too. But I’m still catching up on some of the shows I missed during my six-week hiatus from London, so I’m not going to be idle. I’m looking forward this week, for instance, to finally catching the Landor’s London professional premiere of Kander and Ebb’s last Broadway musical Curtains on Friday (which I saw both in its original Broadway incarnation and a Guildhall student production a couple of years ago), just as Chicago reaches the end of its 15-year run this weekend, too.
I’m also finally getting to the Ayckbourn double bill of Absurd Person Singular and his new play Surprises at Chichester on Saturday, which originated at Scarborough and returns there next week after its run down south. And next week, I can’t wait to finally catch The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-time at the National’s Cottesloe, which many people have told me is the play of the year (at least so far).
I’ve also got a few repeats on my schedule: tonight there’s the West End transfer of the Royal Court’s Jumpy to the Duke of York’s as part of their residency there; on Thursday I’m taking my brother and his wife to see Penny Arcade’s Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!, now transferred from the Arcola Tent to the Old Vic Tunnels, and if anyone can light up that dismal, smelly collection of subterranean tunnels it will be the divine Penny; and I’m also seeing the National Theatre’s internal transfer of London Road from the Cottesloe to the Olivier not once but twice in the next fortnight — tomorrow afternoon and again next Tuesday.
Last weekend I finally caught up with Soho Cinders at Soho Theatre, which I’d previously seen in a one-night concert performance at Shaftesbury Avenue’s Queen’s Theatre down the street last year. On the one hand it was great to see it in a full production; but equally strange to see it ‘progress’ from a West End showcase down to the studio Soho, albeit at inflated West End prices (a staggering £37.50 for unreserved, uncomfortable seats).
But the scale, if not the prices, suited the show perfectly, and it is good, at last, to see original British musicals being given a platform again in different places. The UK regions, too, are being used as a try-out for new musicals again, which is extremely welcome: new shows need time to bed down, grow up and find their form.
I welcomed Loserville when it ran in Leeds in June, noting then, “It’s not quite yet a ready-made West End hit, but for freshness, boldness and introducing an original and authentic rock musical voice to the theatre, there’s been nothing quite like this since The Who’s Tommy was first brought to the stage.” Now it is making a relatively fast West End transfer to the Garrick, so I trust some work has been done.
But is it being given its best chance? Though Baz Bamigboye revealed the transfer on August 10, it took until August 23 for a press release to finally be released — you get the feeling that the producers didn’t want us to officially know about it. Now they’ve got just five weeks before they actually begin performances: not long to get to the word out.
I realise that the producers lost their original Leeds star Gareth Gates — who is doing the tour of Legally Blonde — the Musical instead — but even without replacing him, they could have at least announced it was happening. The announcement, when it came, was hardly hold-the-front-pages news; stepping in for Gates is Stewart Clarke. Stew who? In fact, I discovered via a Twitter message from his dad, that he is the son of the brilliant Paul Clarkson and Julia Hills: a couple who met and have been together ever since starring in the original West End production of another great British musical, The Hired Man, at the Astoria in 1984.
I love the fact that their son is now following in their footsteps to star in a major new British musical in the West End; and equally touched by the news that Paul is soon to direct a student production of The Hired Man for North London’s Mountview drama school, running September 10-17 at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre. I can’t wait to see it.
Clarke may be a star of the future. So might the hopefuls in Russell Scott’s New Talent Spotlight concerts; the next one is at Leicester Square Theatre on September 23. Russell is a busy professional himself as well as promoting new talent; just last night I saw him onstage the Royal Albert Hall in the John Wilson Orchestra’s BBC Prom, appearing as part of the chorus.
Paul Clarkson won the 1984 Olivier Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical (and Julia Hills was nominated for the Outstanding Actress in a Musical Olivier the same year); two years later, Lesley Mackie beat out over Maureen Lipman (in Wonderful Town), Elaine Paige (in Chess and Angela Richards (in Side by Side by Sondheim) to scoop the Outstanding Actress in a Musical Olivier for starring in the West End in Judy, a biographical show about Judy Garland that came to what was then the Strand (now the Novello) after out-of-town runs and at Greenwich Theatre.
That long predated Tracie Bennett’s more recent triumph as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow, which Bennett originated on the London fringe over a decade ago but finally found herself Tony nominated for on Broadway earlier this year after finally getting to the West End two years ago. When Bennett’s show opened at the Trafalgar Studios, I blogged at the time, “I just hope that she doesn’t suffer the Garland curse now. In 1986, Lesley Mackie won the Olivier for Best Actress in a Musical for playing Judy in a biographical stage musical, simply entitled Judy, that transferred from Greenwich to the West End. She has been barely heard of since.”
Earlier this year, entirely out of the blue, I heard from Mackie myself — she’d stumbled upon those words online, and contacted me via Facebook. We exchanged a number of messages, then met for coffee when she came from Perth in Scotland to London to visit her daughter, a drama student at Mountview. But far from disappearing, as I inadvertently suggested, Leslie has simply been doing other things; looking after her parents, raising her children, and working steadily in theatre and television in her native Scotland. Sometimes real life takes over from the bright lights of the West End.
But this week she’s returning to Judy, too, at home in Perth, appearing in a revised version of the show at Perth Theatre from tomorrow to Saturday. I wish I could see her in it, and hope that these performances are just the beginning of a new chapter of her long association with Garland, not the end of it.
Finally, we are also in the midst of the Arcola Theatre’s annual Grimeborn Opera Festival; and although I can’t get there myself as I’ll be in New York that weekend, I wish I could see Alexander S Bermange’s Thirteen Days there on September 7-8. Alexander is a prolific composer/musical director who pops up everywhere from Radio 4 to playing piano for Janie Dee at the Hippodrome, and has also released an all-star CD of his work.
The company for Thirteen Days includes Grant Neal (currently in Chicago in the West End) and Nadim Naaman (currently in The Phantom of the Opera); you can hear two songs from the show on YouTube here.