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.
While we’re away in sunny Corfu chomping on the mutton, slapping on the sunscreen, gassing the bugs and gagging on the retsina (despite sage advice to go easy on the hard stuff from Annie at Back to Bodrum), here are a few snaps to remind us of home sweet home. It’s not been a bad summer, all things considered. By the way, Liam cheats at Scrabble.
I’m a sucker for an old dame, particularly those two old Dames Judi and Maggie. They light up my screen. My all-time fave is Tea with Mussolini, a regular winter warmer on a chilly night. But any film with them in will do. I’m not fussy.
A less well-known screen outing for the pair was Ladies in Lavender, a tender tale of two elderly sisters living quietly in a Cornish fishing village during the thirties who scoop up a handsome young Pole from the beach after he was swept overboard during a storm. They nurse him to health, causing a stir among the locals – and the stirring of long repressed feelings for sister Ursula, played by Judi. The whole thing is a joy to watch, a moral tale of a rescue without hesitation or fear of an economic migrant washed up on a foreign shore. Rather relevant today, don’t you think? And there’s a real Billy Elliot moment at the end that gets me every time. So, when the stage version of the film came to Norwich’s Maddermarket Theatre, we just had to see it (even though neither Dame was in it, obviously).
It was a sterling effort from the cast with the best lines reserved for the housekeeper and delivered with great comic timing. The performance got an enthusiastic hand at the end but I couldn’t help wondering if the message was lost on the mostly elderly audience with their curls, pearls and comfy lives. I hope I’m wrong.
Friday night was theatre night and Liam fancied a slice of am dram at the Maddermarket. When he announced we were to see Urinetown, I thought he was taking the pissoir: a show about a public loo? Fortified by a large glass of white and resigned to grin and bear it, I took my pew and surveyed the crowd. On most cultural excursions we’re generally surrounded by the good and the grey of the county. This audience was decidedly younger and trendier. Perhaps they knew something I didn’t.
Turns out they did. The production was foot-tapping fun but with a dark edge, an everyday tale of environmental degradation, unfettered capitalism, corporate greed, rampant public corruption and a restive mob – all set to a score of soaring tunes that parodies some of the more pompous musicals like Les Misérables. I spied a nod to Romeo and Juliet too. The mob triumphs but, alas, it doesn’t end well. Urinetown is a show with a message.
It may have been am dram from the Sound Ideas Theatre Company but you could hardly tell. The live band was a classy touch and there were several stand-out performances from the cast. But for me, the star of the show was seventeen year old Nicola Myers who played ‘Little Sally’ with pathos and humour accompanied by a cracking set of pipes. I predict a great future.
All the images are courtesy of the Sound Ideas Facebook page.
A damp and dingy Saturday afternoon saw us at the Maddermarket Theatre for an am-dram matinee courtesy of the Norwich Players. We were Maddermarket virgins and I fancied a peek at the converted Catholic chapel. A striking Sixties’ add-on foyer looked better on the outside and led us to the interior of the church, reconfigured as an Elizabethan playhouse. We took our pews for The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s loud and densely scripted account of the Salem Witch Trials in colonial Massachusetts at the end of the Seventeenth Century. I looked around the audience. Many of them could well have sailed on the Mayflower. By now, we’re used to mingling with the grey herd at Norwich’s cultural events, but the care homes of Norfolk must have been deserted that afternoon. When the over-generous use of dry ice to create the misty ambience of a midnight glade threatened to gas the first four rows, I feared some of the punters might not make it back to the coach.
Miller’s now iconic play is a story of rampant fundamentalism, ignorance and the abuse of power. Mass hysteria is whipped up to impose religious orthodoxy and settle old scores. Miller wrote the piece as an allegory of Fifties’ McCarthyism when the U.S. government hounded and blacklisted alleged communists (and socialists and liberals and anyone else who didn’t tow the party line). Sound familiar? Just take a look around the world. The play’s core message is just as relevant today as it was then. The talented thespians did well to deliver the difficult drama with conviction leaving us with the real sense of a menacing world gone completely bonkers. Sadly, the message was all lost on a few. As we queued to leave the auditorium at the end of the performance, an old Norfolk broad turned to her companion and announced:
“Didn’t understand a word of it. Not a word. Marvelous, wasn’t it?’