West End Christmas – Cadogan Hall, 9 December 2018

First thing’s first. The reason I originally booked this was that Sharon D Clarke was due to appear. And I adore Sharon D Clarke, but have somehow missed ever seeing her perform live. Sadly this continued as she was missing from this performance. However, that is the way it goes and there is fair warning on all the publicity that no star is guaranteed. It was still a great evening of entertainment.

Bringing together a number of West End stars for a charitable Christmas concert must be quite an undertaking, but the production team delivered a really fun and festive night. The first half was quite formal, with various stars coming on stage to perform Christmas songs with the 18 piece orchestra and small choir of singers.

The performers included Jenna Russell, Michael Xavier and Trevor Dion Nicholas and they were all great. The outstanding moment of the first half for me though was from Danielle Steer. Her rendition of O Holy Night was one of those to give you goosebumps. Really powerful and affecting.

The second half was a bit more relaxed, with fun duets and the audience invited to participate. Sheila Atim blew me away with her solo and I was not expecting Trevor Dion Nicholas to take on a Chris Rea song, but he did a fab version of Driving Home For Christmas. (I am a Middlesbrough girl, a Smoggie, so that is something of a Chris Rea connection. I think my Dad went to the same school as him.) We all began to join in with Reeve Carney when he did I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday and then it was proper singalong time.

There was more Jonathan Bailey, after seeing him in Company the day previously, and by the time we all tried to join in with 12 Days Of Christmas, we were all feeling very festive indeed.

I would happily make this part of my Christmas routine. Very happily. Well done Alex Parker for holding it all together as musical director-you all did a great job.

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Company – Gielgud Theatre, 8 December 2018

B97D7105-5842-420D-A2AE-34954071CBD3I hadn’t planned another West End trip in 2018. J and I have just moved house, so we should be concentrating on unpacking boxes. However, when I heard about this production of Company, with its shift to a woman as the central character, I knew I had to find a way to see it. And it is my reward for surviving the autumn term at work.

I haven’t seen Company before, so I had no preconceptions about the casting or staging. I was a little familiar with the story, centring on Bobbie, single amongst coupled-up friends, and that it is more a collection of scenes rather than a continuous plot. And I knew a few of the songs, with ‘Being Alive’ the most familiar.

The trip was most definitely worth it. Highlights were numerous and the performances amazing. Rosalie Craig carries the whole thing through with her central portrayal of Bobbie. It is a demanding part, on stage for the vast majority of the play, and her energy never lowers. Vulnerable and strong and funny and poignant; brilliant in every way. What a star.

The whole cast is fabulous, but I must also draw out Jonathan Bailey as Jamie. His physicality and comic timing in the pre-wedding kitchen scene of ‘Getting Married Today’, when Jamie is doubting whether he can marry his long term partner Paul, was a definite high point. It was my favourite scene of the show. And it wouldn’t have worked without Jonathan’s ability to perform the choreography expertly and deliver the dialogue so precisely. J was also struck by this scene, to the point where he is still mentioning bits that he liked now, two days later.

The choreography across the entire play is complex and meaningful. Your eye can be drawn to any number of character interactions in just one short period of time. In ‘Another Hundred People’, train carriages and the relationships playing out in them are intricately portrayed in the background, as the song is performed up front, and it was so affecting I wanted to be able to focus on every single person.

It says something about a production’s quality that I have got this far into my ramblings about it and I haven’t mentioned the legendary Patti LuPone yet. Of course she is brilliant. Of course her rendition of ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ is biting and outstanding. It is Patti LuPone for goodness sake!

The production has specifically focused on making the original more inclusive, with the central character now a woman, and one of the key couples rewritten as two men. This cannot happen enough. It is vital that society is reflected in what we see on stage. Much much more of it please and thank you to Elliot and Harper for the improvements here.

Essentially, if you can go and see this before it closes in March, do it. Every single part of the production is worth it. Do it!

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Kinky Boots – Theatre Royal, Newcastle, 3 November 2018

I’m going to start off by saying, how the heck have I managed to go so long without seeing this marvellous show? It is magnificent. The joy, the sparkle, the boots!

I did see the film of Kinky Boots, way back when J and I were first dating – that is a LONG time ago. So I know the story. And I’d seen snippets of the show with performances on awards and TV shows. But I had never seen the show live. I am so glad I have.

If you don’t know the story, it focuses on a failing Northampton shoe factory, inherited by Charlie. He sees a chance to save it when he meets Lola, a drag queen, who complains that the boots they need to wear aren’t up to the job and keep breaking. A gap in the market, a new niche they can fill. Charlie sets about making kinky boots, with Lola as the designer.

The two leads, Callum Francis as Lola and Joel Harper-Jackson as Charlie are amazing. They made me cry and laugh and whoop and cheer. Both grieving, both with battles to fight, both fighting through with determination. Callum’s dancing, in those heels, in fabulous dresses, is mesmerising and brilliant. The two of them provide strong individual performances and also work as a lovely double-act.

The cast as a whole is one of the strongest I can remember seeing. Witty acting, fabulous dancing and quality vocals. I’d also like to mention Adam Price as George – a really funny and affecting performance.

If you like to see great dancing, feel the effects of great acting, and hear some quality singing, get yourself to see this. And, you know, in a world where fascists are in charge of countries and division seems to be everywhere, there was something really moving about an audience of various ages, genders, races, backgrounds and sexualities, all cheering on a drag queen of colour. More of that please, much more.

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Dirty Dancing – York Opera House, 13 October 2018

I am just home from the matinee performance of Dirty Dancing, which is on tour across the UK. And for once, I am really unsure of what to say! On the way out, my mum described it as the most bizarre theatre experience she had ever had. I am inclined to agree. It was weird.

First the good. Penny, played by Simone Covele, proved to be the heart of the show. As in the film, the character’s mix of outward toughness and internal tragedy and desperation came across brilliantly. And Simone is a charismatic dancer. Whenever she was on the stage, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Similarly Kira Malou as Baby/Frances portrayed the innocence and optimism that we also saw in the film, and I was impressed with how she danced ‘badly’ as Baby took her first steps with Johnny. Actually, that came across more than in the film – you saw the progression.

The dancing generally was good and fun; the choreography matched that of the film, and I love the film. The actor playing Johnny Castle obviously knows how to move, although personally I didn’t get any emotion from him, beyond the decent dance moves. I can say that there were plenty of women in the audience who did find him attractive, if the whoops were anything to go by, but I like connection between movement and emotion. Or maybe I just wanted Patrick Swayze and that is frankly an almost impossible task to set anyone.

I think the main problem with the production is that it couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be sexy or funny, and it didn’t manage to be both. The famous lift-in-the-water scene was obviously played for laughs (or I hope it was) and seemed self-aware that it was a bit cheesy as they couldn’t have proper water on a touring stage. Conversely, the scene where Baby stays overnight with Johnny for the first time, as they dance in his room, seemed to be played for maximum steaminess. And there was a lack of clothing, and a lot of grinding, but I’m afraid I was also trying not to laugh at that as well. The dancing was fine, and the two leads are clearly very attractive people, it just didn’t have the necessary heart and feeling behind it for me (and for many around me, if the interval conversation was anything to go by).

The script is almost identical to the film, with just a few extra scenes, and I am not sure that is to the play’s advantage. People in the audience were mouthing along, and later talking along, with the actors. And there was also singing. This is where I turn into a bit of a grumpy old woman, so brace yourself.

I think it is maybe time for me to stop going to musicals where the songs are well known, because I am a bit fed up of hearing the out-of-tune singing of fellow audience members instead of the professionals on stage, and it seems that this is now the norm. The attendants didn’t step in when phones were out, or singing was happening, so it seems the management are happy for this to go on. Fair enough – I think I will have to find other forms of production to go to instead. If I knew I was going to a sing-along-a-musical experience, I think I’d have been much happier, and joined in more. As it was, it felt more like a hen night than a theatre experience, and I wouldn’t pay £50 per ticket for a hen night.

Good grief, I don’t like being this negative. I am much more hopeful for my next musicals experience, which is Kinky Boots at a different theatre. Fingers crossed.

Dave Gorman: With Great PowerPoint Comes Great ResponsibilityPoint – York Barbican, 11 October 2018

I have been a Dave Gorman fan since I watched the Dave Gorman Collection on the telly whilst a university student. In fact, it was on as I revised for my finals, as I remember, so it was much needed comic relief. I was immensely jealous of my friend and then-housemate Sue when she got to go to a recording of its follow-up, The Important Astrology Experiment. I finally got to see Dave live, at the Edinburgh Fringe, in 2003. That was when he debuted the amazing Googlewhack Adventure. It was the first comedy show where I experienced laughing until I thought I would pass out. Thankfully I didn’t, and I got to meet Dave, and he was lovely and signed my book. I wish I could find the photo, but it was in pre-digital days, and maybe I don’t really want to be reminded of how I looked as an optimistic 24 year old!

I have even used clips of Dave in my teaching at work. There is a brilliant excerpt from his Modern Life Is Goodish television show where he shows how lies can be perpetuated with good faith referencing from sources that can’t substantiate their facts, using his own Wikipedia page as an example. As someone who works with university students on issues such as the importance of forming arguments from multiple viewpoints and sources, it’s an absolutely spot-on example.

Anyway, back to the point of the blog. I have seen quite a few of his shows over the years. The thing is, they all rely on the power of surprise. They always have. There was a massive surprise in Googlewhack Adventure, and if anyone had ruined that for me in advance, I’d have been raging (although probably not as much as Dave raged in that very show). This latest offering is no different. So it is a bit difficult to know how to sum it up here without ruining it for anyone who plans to go.

I think I can say that, if you are at all familiar with Dave’s work, you would expect checked shirts, graphs and ‘found poetry’. And you would not be disappointed here. I can also say that I laughed until I ached, from start to finish. Beyond that, I just don’t want to spoil it, so I won’t. But do go and see it – it’s great.

The giraffe joke though. Oh. My. Word.

King Lear – NT livecast at City Screen, York, 27 September 2018

This time of year is always a bit sparse on the theatre visit front for me. I work in a university and the start of the autumn term is full on, so I deliberately avoid organising too much. But the chance to see Ian McKellen as King Lear was too good to pass up. And it was another livecast to cinemas, giving us who live some distance from the West End the chance to see productions without the expense of travel and accommodation on top of the ticket price.

I am so glad I booked. This was a powerful production of a play I am pretty familiar with. It was my favourite A level text (much preferred it to A Midsummer Night’s Dream) back in the 1990s and I have seen a few versions since. The preamble set out how the team had deliberately designed it for an intimate setting in Chichester, and how they had tried to recreate that in the West End. This worked in making it suitable for the big screen too – you felt you were seeing as much of the action as the people in the theatre.

McKellen as Lear was as awesome as I expected. The way in which he portrayed Lear’s inner turmoil was spellbinding, but what really hit me was the way in which he was able to elicit humour in the tragedy. In fact, the cast as a whole were spot on with this. I laughed much more than I ever have before at the play. This made the tragic scenes all the more powerful.

It seems unfair to pick out particular performances, as the entire cast was spot on, but some need highlighting. Firstly, Sinead Cusack as Kent, with despair and loyalty pouring out of her. The three sisters were strong, especially Anita-Joy Uwajeh as Cordelia,  bewildered at Lear’s decisions and then coming back to fight. Similarly Danny Webb’s Gloucester was mesmerising as he struggled with his relationship with Lear and with Edgar and Edmund, his sons.

That brings me on to James Corrigan as Edmund. This was my stand out performance. Scheming, with perceived rejection turning into revenge, and using his charm to seduce and deceive. Brilliant.

As was the whole thing. Brilliant.

Not a theatre ramble – reaction to Holby City’s mental health story

I started to write this as a series of tweets, but the length was getting silly, so I have decided to use my blog. This isn’t likely to happen often, so the focus will return to theatre, fear not. However, I was surprised at how much I wanted to say in response to this Holby City episode. It was announced a couple of weeks ago that the character of Sacha, a much loved doctor, was going to be the centre of an episode on mental health, and the audience would see his struggle with depression. My initial reaction (as expressed on my twitter account) was it was great that this was being covered. I have had problems with anxiety and panic attacks in the past, but that was clearly linked to a chronic bowel condition I have been living with for over 20 years, and I had support to help me through linked to that. So I don’t think it was this that provoked my reaction. Although, there is the case of how prominent Crohn’s was in this episode for me to process too (I haven’t got Crohn’s, but my condition is bowel related), so…

What hit more is that I have recent experience of two men I love dearly going through severe mental health crises, to the point that I consider us very lucky that they are still here. I am not going into any further detail, as they are not my stories to tell, but I did want to give my input as one of those family members or friends that help to deal with the struggles. And my second thought, after that initial reaction, was that I hoped the team behind the story had a good handle on their responsibility in using mental health as the centre of a story-line; that it is a massively important issue and shouldn’t be used cynically as a way of getting better viewing figures.

I am not naive. I know that a television serial is concerned primarily with its ratings, with keeping on screen, and ensuring enough story-lines are attention-grabbing enough to gain viewers. I do think they have a responsibility to do so in a way that doesn’t exploit marginalised or vulnerable groups though. It is an issue that has also raised its head, in relation to Holby City in the past couple of years, with its promotion of itself as pro-representation with the relationships of Serena and Bernie, and Dom and Lofty, and also the intersex character of Han. I’m not going into that here, but I would point you in the direction of this tweet that sums it up better than I can. I have said it is refreshing to have such characters being happy and facing challenges that don’t end tragically (hoping I have represented the views of my friends who are part of the LGBTQ+ community accurately with this) and I hope that continues on the show for a long time to come. Anyway, I digress…

As I said, I have recent experience of being one of those family members or friends that people turn to when they have a mental health crisis. Even as an information professional, I found it difficult to know where to go for the most appropriate advice, especially in such an emotionally-charged situation. Mental health services in England are severely under-funded, to say the least. Emergency care is often left to paramedics, or increasingly the police, and then where you go from there is muddled. Charity input is vital at this point, and I was relieved to see that Mind had been heavily involved with the production of the story, and its promotion.

I tuned in to BBC Breakfast on Monday 27th August to see the actor who plays Sacha, Bob Barrett, being interviewed to promote the episode. He was with a representative of Mind, as well as a paramedic who had been through a mental health crisis. The presenters were very good at pointing out how important it is to have these stories played out in popular drama, as was the Mind representative, as it helps people recognise and pinpoint their own issues. This could indeed save lives. However, when it came to giving advice to those in a position to potentially help…nothing. The presenter referred to a helpline, but the details didn’t appear on the screen. A quick note to viewers to go to the BBC website didn’t exactly give directed advice. I felt a vital part of the support here was missing.

Likewise, Bob and Hugh Quarshie (who plays Ric Griffin) appeared on The One Show just before the episode went out. The presenters made no reference to what should be done once someone opens up. Indeed it was Bob who insisted on saying that charities such as Mind and The Samaritans can offer support in this – he did a great job getting that in.

The episode itself was powerful and represented well the long-term effects of depression. How it can be hidden, how it affects everything, how others misunderstand the signals, how it can recur at any point. I thank the writers and actors for getting that across – there really is no quick fix. And oh good grief, Bob Barrett broke my heart. I hope this isn’t the end of the story-line though.

Another friend broke their arm badly at a similar time to one of the mental health crises happening, just over a year ago. She had emergency care, follow-up outpatient appointments, physiotherapy, and a detailed plan of exercises to follow, in order to get the limb back into as healthy a shape as possible. All of this was offered from the local hospital. She still hasn’t regained full strength, but it has definitely recovered well. This is in sharp contrast to the muddled follow-up offered for mental health. Trying to access the various options in terms of medication and counselling therapies, and figuring out what needed to be done, was a minefield, took a lot of time (and money), and all of this whilst trying to ensure that people were safe.

I am not sure what I am trying to achieve with this ramble. It really is a ramble and a reaction to emotions I didn’t realise were bubbling until I saw the first advert for this episode. And even as I type I am not sure if I will publish it. But I guess what I am trying to say is that I am really glad that this is being tackled in one of my favourite shows, but it very much needs to be done in the context of the wider issues, otherwise it is just cynical viewer-grabbing. I am all in favour of the message that talking about mental health problems is a key way of ensuring they are tackled. However, that is only the start of a very long process. And it would be really great if the drama reflected that and the surrounding advertising promoted the services available for all those affected.

I don’t say I look forward to seeing how the story progresses; that doesn’t seem right. What I do hope is that it doesn’t go away. That we see how it plays out long-term. And that we see that opening up is only the beginning. There needs to be consideration of the lack of funding for mental health services when story-lines like this are promoted so heavily. It isn’t reflecting reality if it isn’t there.

There was an action line for more info at the end of the episode, so that was something.

Edit – I have checked the Holby City Twitter and Instagram accounts, and they both put out lots of help info. That obviously doesn’t address the issue of long term help, but it is much better than the pre-programme advertising on the other shows I mentioned.

Mind – https://www.mind.org.uk/ 

Samaritans – https://www.samaritans.org/