Unlike many of the stately old homos of my generation, I never quite developed a taste for the torch-song trilogy of Garland, Minnelli or Bassey. And I can take or leave the new old girls on the block – the fallen Madonna, nip and tuck Cher or crazy Diana (Ross not Spencer). But, my spot is very soft for a classy dame from Surrey, a woman who first hit the streets in the year war broke out. Then, she was performing with an orchestra in the entrance hall of a Kingston-upon-Thames department store for a tin of toffee and a gold wristwatch. She was seven. Seventy four years on, she is still going strong and is currently on national tour. I am, of course, referring to the iridescent and timeless Petula Clark – child protégé, forces favourite, Hollywood starlet, Sixties pop princess, chanteuse Française and West End superstar.
Autumn was fashionably late this year but made quite an entrance when it did eventually arrive. We were battered by brolly-snapping weather as we wandered the windy streets of Ipswich in search of the Regent Theatre, East Anglia’s largest. We had a stiff double at the bar while we dried off. The drench did nothing to dampen our spirits and as we took our third row seats in the auditorium, the crowd buzzed with anticipation. Miss Clark has been treading the boards for a very long time and this was no better illustrated than by the giddy silver-haired fans who surrounded us. Every care home in Suffolk must have been drained that night. I swear I spotted a St John’s Ambulance crew on standby just in case the excitement got too much; mercifully, we were spared a medical emergency. Still, our Pet raised the blood pressure with a superb performance, giving those X Factor wannabees, a fraction of her age and a fraction of her talent a marathon for their money. From Gershwin to Lennon via Elvis and Gharls Barkley, Miss Clark stepped through her set with style, humour and remarkable agility. Naturally, ‘Downtown’ got the biggest cheer but, for me, it was ‘I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love’ that got me all dewy-eyed. You see, I’d chosen it as the soundtrack to the champagne reception at our Civil Partnership (“Ah,” I hear to cry in unison).
Come the finale of the two-hour gig, the wrinkly congregation got to their feet for the much-deserved standing ovation (though, in truth, it was more of a slow stagger than a youthful leap). Even a wheelchair-bound man in a turban found his legs, Twas a miracle from the lady who famously played Maria Von Trapp’s favourite singing nun. Hallelujah, sister.
Get your hankies ready…
Liam’s birthday is coming up so I treated him to a night at the rock opera. Players from local not-for-profit entertainment company, Mixed Voice, were strutting their stuff at the Playhouse Theatre trying their hand at ‘Rent.’ It may be a bit of a gay cliché but Liam loves a musical and ‘Rent’ is a musical he loves. Loosely based on Puccini’s ‘La Bohème,’ the tale focuses on an eclectic troupe of impoverished young artists and musicians in the late Eighties struggling against a bitter wind in Alphabet City, the once avant-garde (but now ruthlessly gentrified) district of Manhattan. While Puccini laced his opera with consumption, Rent is stalked by AIDS, the kiss of death back in the day. As the characters try to make ends meet, some meet their end. Despite the misery, Rent is neither depressing nor sugar-coated. But it is tough to stage and perform. A hugely complex, multi-layered score is punctuated by irregular rhythms, constantly changing tempos and complex harmonies which, if poorly delivered, could be a total dog’s breakfast. I had wondered if the cast would pull it off. Well, they pulled it off with some polish, receiving a well-deserved standing ovation. Even a normally reticent Liam leapt to his feet wanting more. Shame there wasn’t an encore.
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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.
We ventured down to the Smoke during the big freeze for a night at the theatre. Surprisingly, our train ride both to and from London was untroubled by the threat of snow drifts wafting across the frozen flatlands. Our West End treat was Matilda, the RSC musical adapted from Roald Dahl’s dark parable of good and evil. The gong-drenched pantomime was a slick, visually stunning, superbly staged, brilliantly choreographed, foot-tapping extravaganza that left a warm glow like a vintage brandy on a chilly night. The performance was only slightly marred by the quartet of ladies sitting immediately behind us who provided a running commentary while rustling their way through a hundredweight of Maltesers. Every appearance of a cute child on stage was greeted with an “aah” and, since much of the cast is made up of cute kiddies, there were a lot of aahs to sit through. A word of caution, the deafening crescendo of pre-pubescent sopranos singing in perfect harmony might crack your glasses and make your ears bleed.
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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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