Monday, 22 October 2012

The Last Session - Tristan Bates Theatre - Sunday 21 October ****

Darren Day playing a suicidal, gay, HIV positive, Christian crossover one-hit wonder (the Baptist Barry Manilow no less)? Actually this is a whole heap better than it looks on paper. Loosely based on the show’s lyricist and composer Steve Schalchlin’s own experiences, his partner Jim Brochu wrote the book and the show became on off-Broadway hit in 1997.

Set over one evening in a disused nuclear fall-out shelter that has been converted into a studio, Gideon, Darren Day, is recording an album’s worth of songs reflecting on the last ten years of his life and his struggle with AIDS. The equilibrium is upset when one of his backing singers is unexpectedly replaced by an aspiring singer from the south who is Gideon’s biggest fan but also a fully signed up member of the fire and brimstone bible bashing fraternity. Previously unaware of Gideon’s sexuality, he makes it his mission to save Gideon from the hell and damnation that is certain to await him.

With two feisty females making up the backing trio, Tryshia, who sacrificed her career for her family, and Vicki, who sacrificed her career for good times and innumerable husbands, sparks fly with only world weary Jim, the studio owner, to calm stormy waters with his well intentioned witty interventions.

One by one the gorgeous gospel infused songs reveal Gideon’s struggles with his sexuality and his illness, the support and unconditional love of his partner Jack and the blackness that has bought him to this one last recording session.


The cast really is faultless. Day has probably the hardest role as his is the central story and there is little levity to break the gloom, but he proves to be the flame around which all the others flutter. I had previously dismissed Day out hand simply because of the tabloid inches he seems to fill, his notoriety coming before any assessment of his talent, but there is a reason he is successful and his singing voice is a rare gift, ably conveying emotions in a line that would otherwise take pages of dialogue. I just wish he was able to accompany himself on the piano, as his miming to an off-stage pianist is unconvincing, especially at such close quarters. He is supported by four great actors. Lucy Vandi and Simone Craddock sparking off each other and scoring points as Tryshia and Vicki; Ron Emslie’s world weary Jim a masterclass in subtle underplaying, anxious and worried about his friend but with a wry quip never far from his tongue; and finally A J Dean, sensational in an almost thankless role as the blinkered Christian homophobe Buddy, eventually letting his guard slip as the humanity of the situation outweighs his staunch Baptist beliefs. It would be tough to convince an enlightened metropolitan audience that Buddy deserves anything less than excommunication so extreme are his views, but Dean allows the vulnerability of the small boy alone in the big city shine through so that both Day’s Gideon and us behind the fourth wall of the studio can glimpse the chance for his salvation from bigotry. This in turn gives Gideon hope that his redemption from the dark recesses of his soul is achievable with the love of Jack and his friends.

If I’m brutally honest, there are occasions when the book does slip into mawkish sentimentality that is difficult for us Brits to stomach, but these are few and far between and are more than outweighed by the wonderful songs and the truly magnificent performances from the 5 strong cast. The first act closer, Going It Alone, has stayed with me ever since I left the theatre. There are apparently both dvd and cast recordings to come in January and I will be first in the virtual queue at Amazon.

Booking until 27 October 2012, this is the final week and it's one not to miss, so be quick - The Last Session

Monday, 15 October 2012

Taboo - Brixton Club House - Sunday 14 October *****

Unused as I am to revealing my hand this early in the game, I would like to state from the off that this new production of “The Boy George musical” (that always makes me smile, don’t ask me why) is quite simply the best show in London at the moment. From the ideal setting in a club above KFC in the heart of Brixton to Anne Vosser’s perfect casting, including the return of Paul Baker in his Olivier award winning role as Philip Sallon, an incredible score (who knew the boy formerly known as George O’Dowd had it in him?) and a warm, funny, engaging, newly revised script by Mark Davies Markham, I cannot recommend it more highly. With Baker’s Sallon as a big hearted bitchily camp MC the audience are often wittily involved in the action (we get a round of applause for managing to put up with each other for 20 years) and I cannot remember ever having this much fun at the theatre.

A fictionalised account of a fledgling romance between photographer Billy and fashion designer Kim, their lives are intertwined in the real stories of the leading players in the early 80’s gender bending new romantic movement in London, Boy George, the aforementioned Philip Sallon, Steve Strange, Marilyn and Aussie interloper and living work of art Leigh Bowery.

With George’s rise to global superstardom and eventual heroin fuelled fall from grace as a backdrop, we watch Billy outgrow his suburban roots and Kim gain strength as an independent woman, both eventually inspiring Billy’s downtrodden mother Josie, an intensely emotional characterisation from Sarah Ingram, to do the same. Along the way there are two and a half hours of laughter and tears. Oh my god the tears. The story movingly covers Leigh Bowery’s death from AIDS and Kate Kerr’s simply gorgeous requiem for Leigh, the hauntingly beautiful Il Adore, has the two of us crying like babies, make sure you have a box of autumnal shades under your seat for act two. However, it is more than anything a lovingly fun show, with the laughter far outweighing the more sombre reflective moments.

Costume designer Mike Nicholls and hair and make-up designer Christine Bateman have the time of their lives painstakingly recreating the excesses of the flamboyant 1980’s, with Leigh Bowery’s living art statements making the century we are now in  seem so grey and dull. 

All the performances are to be commended, with two astonishing professional debuts from Matthew Rowland as Boy George and Sam Buttery as Leigh Bowery. Alistair Brammer and Niamh Perry make a beautiful Billy and Kim as they traverse the difficult terrain of sexuality and love, taking the audience on the journey with them. Katie Kerr makes her mark and breaks hearts in the relatively small role of Big Sue. Then there is Paul Baker as Philip Sallon. What can you possibly say about this man? He simply is Philip Sallon, actually scratch that, he is Philip Sallon and then some. No wonder he won an Olivier the first time round, if he could be nominated again he would walk away with it hands down. Put it this way, look out for the Fredas in the New Year, it would take a brave man to bet against Baker.

Director Christopher Renshaw has given us something truly magical. This is one show that neither of us wanted to end. By the time we got to a euphoric mass rendition of Karma Chameleon we felt 19 again and longed to go on to the Mudd Club caked in pan stick, clad in Oxfam’s finest.

Forget Colour By Numbers, this is Boy George's masterpiece.

Booking until 23 December, fabulous creatures, fabulous songs, fabulous script, fabulous performances, fabulous costumes, fabulous make-up, fabulous venue, fabulous evening - Taboo

Saturday, 13 October 2012

King Lear - Almeida Theatre - Saturday 13 October ****


We really are so lucky living where we do with the Barbican, Old Red Lion, Kings Head and, of course, the Almeida all within a few minute’s walk, so there was no way we were going to miss Jonathan Pryce’s stab at Lear.

Firstly, I have to mention the row F stalls restricted view seats of which there are two pairs. At only £8 a pop and with only a slender metal pillar in front, they have to be the best bargain to be found in any London theatre and we always swap seats at the interval for the sake of fairness.

With the memories of Derek Jacobi’s career crowning performance at the Donmar in 2010 still relatively fresh in our minds, Pryce is following a hard act.

The Almeida always gives good set and designer Tom Scutt has stripped back the entire interior of the auditorium to bare brick with functional industrial lighting piercing the gloom, a not too subtle hint at what the next three hours have in store.

Pryce’s Lear is a tough angry man still in possession of a fierce sexual energy, as a shocking clinch with his daughter Goneril attests. He offloads his kingdom to Goneril, a haughty Zoe Waites hurtling headlong to the inevitable fall, and Regan, a manipulative and scheming Jenny Jules. These two are of course the evil daughters that manage to pull the wool over their father’s eyes, when only sweet gentle Cordelia, Phoebe Fox, loves him unconditionally but is sent into exile when her proclamations of adoration are not effusive enough

Lear’s gradual descent into dementia and his alienation of those who care about him is accompanied by a soundtrack of crashes and bangs which proved too much for one old dear in the front row who walked out in the middle of act one proclaiming “it’s too loud” as she did so.

Act two sees Lear eventually reconciled with those who hold him dear and all the baddies get their comeuppance, actually they all meet brutal deaths but it is Shakespeare so only to be expected.

Trevor Fox imbues his Fool, Lear’s conscience, with an insightful world weariness, seeing through the truly foolish behaviour of his “betters” and Clive Wood’s Gloucester, Lear’s best friend and touchstone, has an integrity and honestly that are his undoing.

This is a bloody, exciting Lear that rattles along at breakneck speed. Jonathan Pryce is a sensual, masculine King with only his mind eventually broken, not his body or spirit. Pryce’s physicality belies a man confronting madness, making Lear’s ever decreasing moments of lucidity ever more poignant.

If you can manage to get a ticket (some are released at 11am on the morning of each performance if you are quick, so don’t despair of the “sold-out” run) you will not be disappointed.

Booking until 3 November 2012, bloody exciting - King Lear