Our final jolly in old London Town at the end of 2019 was a trip to see Wicked – the stage prequel to The Wizard of Oz and a show every friend of Dorothy should see before they reach the end of the rainbow.
Bizarrely, neither Liam nor I had seen the musical before even though it’s been a firm West End fixture for donkey’s years and one of the rare few that just go on and on, pulling in the punters night after night. The trouble with many a classic on a long run is it can all get a bit tired. Fine wine to vinegar? Actually, no. The big scenes are still big and the current lead – Nikki Bentley, as Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the East – has a belting voice. And the political subplot – the rise of fascism – is as relevant now as it’s ever been. There was a standing ovation at the end. All in all, not a bad gig.
The hunky young chap who provided our removals quote was Loddon born and bred and so we had a long chat about village life. His pearls of wisdom were illuminating. ‘People will stare,’ he said, ‘because you’re new. But don’t be put off. It’s their way.’ He also said we won’t be considered locals for decades. Since we’ve not got that many decades left, I suppose that means we’ll always be the strange gays in the village. That’s fine with me. I’ve always been on the outside looking in.
So far everyone’s been delightful – friendly and helpful – but yes, some do stare a bit, but they smile too. We intend to chuck ourselves into village life. And so when we found out our neighbour’s daughter was in the Loddon Players production of ‘Annie, the Musical’, we thought, let’s give it a whirl. Liam popped down to Funky Feet, the local dance studio, to pick up our tickets. The lady at the desk was very welcoming and talkative. It seems the village drums have been banging all over the parish. As the old saying goes, it’s better to be looked over than overlooked.
As we’re car-less (and hope to remain so), our neighbours kindly gave us a lift to the venue at the local school. Our very own local pub landlord co-directed and played the male lead with a wonderfully theatrical flourish, ably supported by a classy cast. But the really big gong has to go to the kids’ ensemble whose joyful funky feet danced and sang their way across the stage. The talented young lady who played the eponymous redhead has a bright dramatic future ahead.
Business has been brisk; we’ve been working late to meet immoveable deadlines and we needed a little light relief from our labours. It came in the form of camp and cheery French-language film, The Shiny Shrimps (or Les Crevettes Pailletées).
The story goes like this:
After an Olympic swimming champion at the tail-end of his career makes a homophobic remark on TV to a gay reporter, he is forced to do penance by coaching an amateur water polo team trying to make it to the Gay Games. His charges are unruly, uncompetitive and unapologetically flamboyant. It’s a tough gig but he whips them into shape. Along the way, it’s a journey of revelation and reconciliation to a soundtrack of Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out for a Hero and Sabina’s Boys, Boys, Boys with a bit of Celine Dion chucked in for good measure.
Billed as a cross between Pride and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the film isn’t nearly as good as either and a bit lightweight pathos and politics-wise. Nevertheless, it was feel-good jolly romp at the end of a hard-slog week. Here’s the trailer…
I love the Lion King. I love the original Disney animation. I love the musical. And when I saw the trailer for the ‘photorealistic’ computer-generated remake, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. So there was a lot riding on our return to Pride Rock. The film is technically brilliant – a visual masterpiece that dazzles with intricate detail and epic scale. It’s sure to do very well at the box office. But, on the whole, I was left strangely unmoved by the spectacle. The film lacks much of the charm and expressiveness of the ‘hand-drawn’ original. And the re-worked music seemed under-powered, particularly the African chants and rhythms which underscore the story’s very essence. Beyoncé’s breathy rendition of Elton John’s ‘Can You Feel Love Tonight’ was really disappointing. Gifted as she is, the song doesn’t suit Beyoncé’s range and, in my humble view, Elton’s ballads should never be warbled, X Factor-style. But, I guess that’s the modern way and my musical tastes are distinctly old hat.
I was a huge Elton John fan as a teenager. I had all the albums, lots of the singles and a large poster of Elton in over-sized star-shaped glasses on my bedroom wall. So it was with great anticipation that we saw ‘Rocketman’, the new EJ biopic. So what’s it like? Well, in summary, the beginning (child protégé to blossoming musical genius) is heart-wrenching. The middle bit (meteoric rise to global super-stardom and descent into rock star excess) is, well, middling. And the finale (reformed addict to legendary national treasure) is foot-tapping joy. Elton’s no-holes-barred lifestyle and multiple neuroses are laid bare – delivered by ingenious scene-stealing fantasy sequences set to his best-known songs. And, there’s no ‘straight-washing’ either to placate the censors in less enlightened lands. It’s all out there in sequin-studded, piano-beating, coke-snorting, vodka-swilling, bed-hopping glorious Technicolor.
Taron Egerton as the Rocket Man is perfect, capturing, though not caricaturing, Elton’s mannerisms, shyness, petulance, sulkiness and explosive presence – both on and off stage. And his voice ain’t bad either. The film is good, rather than great, entertaining rather than profound. My only real criticism is, while Elton’s pain is front and centre – honestly told – it’s a tad self-absorbed with little insight into the hurt and mayhem caused to others by the swirling emotional tornado that is Elton Hercules John. But, I’m still a fan.
Sir Ian Mckellen, star of stage, screen and gay bar, turns 80 this year. To celebrate this remarkable milestone, he’s trolling round the country on a nationwide tour of theatres big and small, illustrious and humble. The boards don’t come more illustrious than the Old Vic in London or more humble than the 300-seater Maddermarket Theatre here in old Norwich Town. It was to the Maddermarket we trolled to catch his one-man show.
And what a show he put on – from Gandalf to Shakespeare via Gerard Manley Hopkins and TS Eliot, all sprinkled with intimate memoir and gossipy anecdotes – like spending the evening with your favourite uncle, the one with a racy past and funny tales to tell. Wise, witty and utterly charming, Sir Ian (or Serena as he’s affectionately known to the brethren) doesn’t hide his light or sexuality under a bushel. He’s very matter of fact about both – modest about his immense talent and a ‘so what?’ attitude about his love life. How he can drop into character, instantly recalling long, complex soliloquies from the Bard is beyond me. His campy, high-pitched Juliet was pure joy.
There are many wonderful stories about Serena but perhaps my favourite is the time he arrived in Singapore to roll out his King Lear. Man-on-man hanky-panky was (and still is) illegal in the city state where the punishment is the cane and up to two years in Sing Sing. He was being interviewed on breakfast TV and asked the host where he might find a gay bar. I suspect one or two viewers choked on their muesli.
Come Valentine’s Day, romantically-minded Liam likes to put on a show and the show in question was the Calendar Girls musical at the Theatre Royal, Norwich. And what a show it was too. Adapted from the 2003 film, it’s based on the real-life story of a group of middle-aged Yorkshire lasses from the local Women’s Institute who bare all in a naughty calendar. The husband of one of the racy ladies had died from cancer and the modest aim was to raise enough cash to buy a new sofa for the relatives’ room at their local hospital. The plucky troop battled against their own considerable anxieties and stiff resistance from their local chairlady, horrified as she was that the squeaky-clean, jam and Jerusalem reputation of the WI would be badly sullied. Eventually though, the ladies triumphed. The calendar was a runaway international success and it, and the sequels, have so far raised over £2 million for Leukaemia research. And the ladies bought the sofa. I call that a result.
The musical version, with a score by Gary Barlow from Take That, is emotional without being soppy, tuneful, uplifting, joyous and very, very funny. The touring cast of well-knowns and less well-knowns really know how to belt out a song or two. Like us, the audience lapped it up and gave a standing ovation at the end. For some, though, it was all too much. The lady next to Liam sobbed the whole way through. Cancer, as we all know, is a serious business.
For a taste, here’s the trailer (from the West End production)