May saw us at the same number of plays as musicals for the first time in living memory and we’re even play heavier in June. We’ve already booked Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy at the Menier Chocolate Factory, the intriguing Children’s Children at the Almeida, Last of the Haussmans at the National starring Smethwick’s own Julie Walters and finally a musical birthday treat for me, a trip to Chichester to see my favourite musical theatre leading lady Hannah Waddingham in Kiss Me Kate (June 30th if you were thinking of sending a card). We might manage to squeeze a few more in along the way, especially if they include a-singin’ and a-dancin’.
The results of May’s poll to find your favourite Norma Desmond are in and Betty Buckley stormed it, romping home with a massive 42% of the vote. National treasure Elaine Paige was a worthy runner-up with 12% and tying at 11% saw the bronze awarded jointly to Patti Lupone, Glenn Close and Petula Clark.
Here's the divine Ms B with "As If We Never Said Goodbye".
Here's the divine Ms B with "As If We Never Said Goodbye".
This month we are looking for your favourite musical written or co-written by a pop star (or stars), excluding juke box shows. I was going to wait until Lily Allen’s shot at Bridget Jones had opened but that is looking increasingly unlikely to see the light of day any time soon. Towards the end of the year we could be having a separate poll on juke box musicals as the Spice Girls’ Viva Forever has finally announced that it will replace Ghost at the Piccadilly theatre with previews beginning in November.
The world and his wife have been compiling lists of their favourite theatres so, for what it’s worth, here are mine (and my old man’s). Many are influenced by shows that we particularly enjoyed, as that inextricably influences our fondness for the venue. None are traditional West End theatres which have increasingly become homes for idle chitchat, texting and tweeting during the performance, ending up with me doing a “Lupone” or a “Shenton” and wishing we’d stuck to the fringe where punters know how to behave.
1. Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre – my favourite place in the entire world. Obviously the vagaries of the British weather can sometimes put a dampener on the proceedings, but on a warm dry summer’s evening there is no place on earth I would rather be. Plus you can arrive early with your own picnic and alcohol. Timothy Sheader’s reimagining of Into The Woods is my all-time theatrical highlight, so good that we went three times. We already have tickets for Ragtime and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but not until the end of July, beginning of August when the weather is slightly more reliable.
2. The Landor – officially the best pub in the universe. This friendly inclusive Clapham hostelry always has something going on, barbecues in the garden, cup-cake decorating for the kids, live music in the bar, sport on the big screen and it also serves great food. If that wasn’t enough, it has a first floor theatre which, under the watchful eye of manager Andrew Keates, specialises in producing top notch musicals. What’s not to like?
3. Menier Chocolate Factory – the first of the many great spaces in SE1 that make my list. I love the building, the restaurant, the gallery and the theatre and have seen so many great productions here, including their marmite “Pippin” which divided audiences, but I loved. Has any other fringe theatre produced so many West End and Broadway transfers?
4. Almeida – a beautiful Victorian building steeped in history. Originally the Islington Literary & Scientific Society, it had a chequered history until it was converted into a theatre 40 years ago. Despite pillars sometimes affecting sightlines, at £8 the restricted view seats are exceptionally good value and the calibre of plays produced here with internationally renowned actors is extraordinary. Despite the fact they never mount musicals it is our local and we love it.
5. National Theatre – specifically the Olivier and Cottesloe. This hard to love example of brutalist architecture transforms once you enter the public spaces and the grain of the wood used to form the concrete building blocks reveals warmer more organic textures. The Olivier is such an amazing auditorium, a virtual indoor roman amphitheatre on the South Bank. The intimate Cottesloe, soon to be refurbished, feels like a hidden treasure as you make your way down a darkened alley past rubbish bins only to find yourself transported once you enter the tiny, adaptable space.
6. Donmar Warehouse – a truly innovative theatre slap bang in the middle of Covent Garden. With A list stars clamouring to perform in the converted brewery, it is an opportunity to see them in innovative classic works up close and personal. They even have a pop at a musical about once a year.
7. Chichester Festival Theatre – we only discovered this once middle age had crept up on us and then regretted not taking the train down to this wonderful Sussex town long before. We fell in love with the town and theatre immediately, making plans to retire there once we couldn’t manage the stairs at King’s Cross station. The theatre, to be extensively remodelled over three years starting in 2013, has developed into a major producing house with many productions finding their way into the West End. The first three rows at the side of the thrust stage are also always to be had at a bargain price.
8. Southwark Playhouse – soon to be moving to a temporary venue, rumoured to be in Elephant & Castle, while a new permanent space is developed at London Bridge. The current set-up of two flexible spaces in damp arches with a comfy bohemian bar in between has been the setting for some joyous evenings for us.
9. Union Theatre – another recent discovery. We kicked ourselves for not venturing here previously. The quirky bar-cum-box office and toilets so ancient that they should be preserved for the nation may not be to everyone’s taste, but they push our buttons. They may have been higher on the list if they only stocked ice for our vodka and tonics.
10. Charing Cross Theatre – a wonderful venue hidden beneath the arches of Charing Cross station. Unlike the other “railway arch theatres” this has been converted into a traditional auditorium with a stage, well-raked stalls and even a small dress circle. Formerly used as a music hall, the productions here can be hit and miss, for every Thrill Me there is a Tale of Two Cities, for every Legacy Falls there is a Bowl of Cherries, but the amazing late night piano bar more than makes up for the odd disappointing production. It is also, together with the Donmar Warehouse, one of only two on my list that are in the West End.
Finally, wearing my heart on my sleeve, here’s a grainy clip from my favourite “pop star” musical, Closer To Heaven by Pet Shop Boys and Jonathan Harvey, featuring the ever wonderful Frances Barber.