The End of the Yellow Brick Road

Our move date from city to country coincided with tickets to see Armistead Maupin’s one-man show at Norwich’s Theatre Royal. Maupin is the author of the Tales of the City series of novels set in San Francisco which chronicle the lives and times of an eclectic group of residents passing through the Barbary Lane boarding house turned apartments owned by Anna Madrigal. We love the books (and subsequent TV serialisations) so it was with heavy hearts we had to give Maupin a miss.

Liam was determined not to miss the next big thing – gay icon-wise – to come along. And they don’t get bigger than the late, great Judy Garland. Liam is a BIG fan and was virtually hyperventilating as we took our seats at Norwich’s Cinema City for ‘Judy’, staring the wonderful Renée Zellweger in the title role. Liam loves a dead diva.

Covering the brief period when the down-at-heel legend arrives in London in the winter of 1968 to perform a series of last-chance concerts, ‘Judy’ is not exactly a feel-good film. We all know what happens in the end and watching Judy’s descent into drug and drink-fuelled hell makes grim viewing. But the film is strangely compelling and Ms Zellweger is mesmerising – interpreting rather than parodying Judy’s magical stage presence –  and all in her own voice. No miming needed.  I hear Oscar knocking.

Calendar Girls

Calendar Girls

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)

Bugger the Bigots

la-cage-aux-follesIf Christmas was sedate and tranquil, January was an exploding glitter ball. The month began with the high flying Cinderella at the London Palladium, the middle featured La La Land, the bookie’s favourite at the Oscars, and the grand finale was a splendid performance of ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ at Norwich’s very own Theatre Royal. Literally meaning ‘the cage of crazy women’ – in fact ‘folles’ is French slang for screaming ladies of an entirely different gender. ‘Cage’ enjoys a glorious pedigree – the original 1973 French play, the 1978 (my coming out year) Franco-Italian film, ‘The Birdcage’, a 1996 Hollywood remake starring the late, great Robin Williams and a multi-gonged stage musical. The latest revival is now doing the rounds in the provinces. After Trump’s depressing God’s own country speech at his inauguration, it certainly revived me with its delicious ‘I am what I am’ bugger the bigots message. John Partridge’s performance as Albin, the ageing drag queen, was a revelation – totally OTT one minute, delicately poignant the next. The Norwich crowd gave him a well-deserved standing ovation.

Jack and Liam Move to Norwich

Jack and Liam Move to Norwich

Hardly breaking news is it? But it’s the title of a little something I wrote back in the summer of 2014 for the Visit Norwich City of Stories website. I was chuffed at the time when it was chosen as the opening piece in a series showcasing different aspects of Norwich life. I even pitched up at the red carpet launch and helped myself to one too many cocktails. The website has recently gone from literary showcase to shop window and content has been updated to feature the best the city has to offer. My article still stacks up I think, so I’m posting it here for posterity, with a few images to give it life.

City of Stories

Jack and Liam move to Norwich

Jack and Liam took up pole position outside a coffee shop to sup their lattes and people watch. The passing footfall was a bumper crop. A warm summer’s afternoon had delivered coaches of North Folk and charabancs of tourists to Norwich’s cobbled streets. Dutch lowlanders in sensible shoes mingled with happy snapping Koreans; local gentry in waxed jackets weaved through the hipsters in vintage garb; busy bees in smart suits hurried past, glued to their smart phone and a jester-hatted Big Issue seller competed with a line of smiley charity workers collecting direct debits for the cause. In the middle of the rainbow crowd, two men with well-fed midriffs and trendy whiskers paused to take in a busker crooning for his supper. They grinned as the Frank Sinatra tribute segued from New York, New York to a local interpretation of My Kind of Town (‘Naaridge is’) and when the final chords faded to nothing, they tossed some coins into a trilby perched on a Fender amp and vanished into the throng holding hands. Like everyone else in the surprising city, they were doing it their way.

Norwich Buskers

Jack ran his fingers along the cartoon tourist map. The tapestry of streets was weaved with familiar names of old London Town like Charing Cross, Blackfriars Bridge, Bishopsgate, Spitalfields, Haymarket, and Pudding Lane, threaded with roads of goats, cattle, dogs and a rampant horse, and stitched with more holy places than a mitred man could shake his crook at. But clearly this was not London. What the boys from the Old Smoke heard was an altogether different soundscape, just distant enough to escape the orbit of the great metropolis and the relentless surge of Estuary English. Somehow, Norwich had preserved a unique linguistic heritage, a melodic sweep of bouncing vowels and dropped consonants pickled down the centuries.

The inquisitive strangers downed their coffees to roam the streets. Their meandering took them to the Assembly House, a gorgeous pile of Georgian elegance and the perfect stage for Regency debutantes in ribboned bonnets to chase Mr Darcy and his magnificent britches around the courtyard fountain. Next door, the architectural show continued with the Theatre Royal, its modern overcoat disguising 250 years of board treading. A quick circuit of the front-of-house posters revealed an eclectic tradition of new and old, high-brow and kitchen sink, top hats and tutus, laughter and tears.

Back down the hill and along Gentlemen’s Walk, they passed neat rows of multi-coloured market stalls lined up like beach huts marooned at low tide. The vast City Hall, looking down on the medieval guildhall it replaced, provided an over-imposing backdrop.

Jack and Liam scampered down a maze of lanes and alleyways, a treasure trove of independents – shops, pubs and cafés. Norwich had bucked the national trend of sameness. Maybe the city’s relative seclusion had bubble-wrapped it from the commercial onslaught of identikit chains or perhaps wise burghers had protected the endangered. Whether by accident or design, it was a window shopper’s dream.

The most complete medieval city in Britain boasted the guide book, and as they pounded the streets up Saint This, down Saint That and along the lazy winding river that caressed the city like a feather-leafed boa, Norwich oozed the ages from every brick, paving stone and stained glass window. The city, it seemed, was triple dipped in history.

Finally, Jack and Liam came to rest on the far side of a handsome stone bridge and sat under the shade of a sprawling tree outside the Playhouse, the Theatre Royal’s little sister. A tree-top teapot in vivid yellow wafted in the breeze. The walk-weary old Londoners rested with a bottle of Merlot in the Playhouse beer garden. Close to the newly elevated University of the Arts, the bustling bar was the trough of choice for young fashionistas and their arty mentors. Jack and Liam took their seats in the refectory and imbibe an ambience that overflowed with naive optimism.

And that’s how it happened. One heady afternoon in the garden of the Playhouse Theatre Bar, Jack and Liam found somewhere new to lay their hats. An offbeat, theatrical, cosmopolitan, romantic, open-minded and open-hearted place set beneath the true-blue skies of Norfolk. Norwich, a surprising city. A place to live and a place to start living.

A random sample of Norwich’s medieval churches…

Dispirit of the Dance

Spirit of the Dance

Liam dragged me along to the Theatre Royal to see Spirit of the Dance, a cross-cultural burlesque with a strong Celtic twist. It may be an international smash, seen by over ten million people, but I’m afraid I wasn’t terribly impressed. The enchantment of Irish country dancing is in the regimental coordination and parade ground precision. One wrong step and the spell is broken. Sadly, there was quite a lot of wrong footing going on by the mismatched little and large chorus line. The lighting was so poor, they might as well have been barn dancing and when they got to the fake Folies Bergère routine, I’d lost the will to live; more can’t can’t than Can Can. Added to this, the score sounded like it had been run up on a Roland in a shed. I didn’t see too many people shelling out for the CD during the mercifully long interval. A stout tenor with a Jagger-swagger was rolled on now and again. Why? His voice was fine but it added nothing to the show and just got in the way. And, hasn’t Nessun Dorma rather been done to death? Norwich audiences are very forgiving but, every time he strutted on stage, you could hear the groans from the herd of grey. His face didn’t fit and neither did his baggy tux. Riverdance it ain’t.

Nine to Five

Nine to FiveDespite a head cold that had me supping on the gin and Lemsip, Liam managed to get me to Dolly Parton’s  ‘9 to 5’ at the Theatre Royal, Norwich. Adapted from the 1980 movie comedy starring Dolly, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, ‘9 to 5’ is a high-energy musical farce about three overworked and overlooked female office workers exacting delicious revenge on their lazy, lecherous, sexist, misogynistic boss. We had terrific seats for a terrific show with some terrific tunes and terrific lines (“You’re just a typewriter with tits.”). Amy Lennox* was uncanny in the Dolly role. If you closed your eyes, you’d think it was the chesty chanteuse on stage. Natalie Casey as Jane Fonda was superb with sharp comic timing and a tremendous voice. Slightly more disappointing was Jackie Clune in the Lily Tomlin part; a few more dance lessons might help. Veteran trouper, Bonnie Langford, almost stole the show in her supporting role as the boss’s fawning assistant.  Bonnie can throw her legs higher and wider than anyone I’ve ever seen on stage, screen or porn flick. The gorgeous Dolly has quite a following among the gay fraternity and the audience was liberally sprinkled with fairy dust, including the man next to me whose shocking hair don’t would have him run out of Soho. Dolly herself appeared as narrator on a large clock-faced screen above the stage. Saying “thank you” to Norwich was a nice touch and Dolly brought the house down when she launched into the familiar ‘9 to 5’ theme at the end.

*We saw the talented Amy Lennox in ‘Soho Cinders’ last summer and she was superb in that too.

Take it away Dolly…

Life is a Cabaret, Old Chum

Liam has made friends with the Theatre Royal which means he’ll be dragging me along to every passing production doing the provincial rounds. As a taste of things to come, we popped along to catch the latest re-working of a treasured old favourite. Deliciously dark and tragically ironic, Cabaret is poignantly set within the doomed metrosexual decadence of Weimar Berlin before the monstrous social cleansing of Nazi Germany. These days, it takes big money to put on big shows and the best way to get bums on seats is to roll out the big names. This time round, the Kit Kat Club starred Pop Idol winner and grannies’ favourite, Will Young, as the Emcee and ex-Eastender, ex-Bionic Woman, Michelle Ryan as Sally Bowles. Putting pop names in the frame isn’t always a recipe for success. Young Will was a tasty revelation. He stepped along with camp Teutonic aplomb and wowed the audience with voice and perfectly paced pathos. Michelle Ryan, on the other hand, was barely serviceable as Sally. Her voice simply isn’t strong or distinct enough to carry off the big numbers and her Julie Andrew’s impersonation had to be propped up by a more talented chorus line. In between the big budget numbers, the dislocated scenes with the run-of-the-mill supporting cast were pedestrian and the deliberate pregnant pauses gave the impression that lines had been fluffed or forgotten. Of course, I’m a small gun critic so what do I know? But I suspect that when the show hits the West End, the big guns may well turn on at least one of the the big names.

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