What A Drag

Saturday night at the London Hilton Hotel, the end of September and “Drag’s Biggest night” — or was it? Initially advertised as “the season’s most glittering occasion” the ‘Theatre Arts Ball’ was meant to pick ‘Miss United Kingdom (Drag) 1972’. However, we found this exotic title had been altered to ‘Miss Female Impersonator (International) 1972’ (our condolences to the organisers for the lack of foreign entrants!)

Mr Jean Fredericks, as always, supplied a good evening’s entertainment. Jean must be well known to most of London’s gay crowd as being the organiser of most of London’s drag balls held at the Porchester Hall. Now Mr Fredericks has taken us up a step in the world to the world renowned Hilton ballroom, and has worked very hard with his friends to provide us with what should have been (definitely) a “night of nights”. So what went wrong?

Well, on arriving at the Reception Hall outside the main Ballroom, with three friends, I endeavoured to present my tickets. The reception table was lost in a large group of well dressed and exotically perfumed young ladies(?!). In order to find my table number for dinner, I approached the well known Mr Steve Francis, whom I found to be trying hard to cope with an impossible situation. Small things like lack of tickets and seating arrangements to name but a few. Full marks, Steve, for coping in what should not have been any problem in the first place. The staff and management of the Hilton could have been more co-operative.

Tickets settled, we then swept into the bar for that longed for first drink. Prices of the drinks were reasonable for the said establishment. Full marks again!

Trumpets heralded dinner. And then continued, as we were ushered in, two by two, and announced into the main ballroom. Chaos commenced. Standing, wide-eyed at all around us, we were then left to find our own way among some 500 guests to our own tables, while waiters, dressed in black and looking like vultures, waited to descend on us. The problem was that they didn’t! — or at least until such a time as one had quite forgotten what they were there for. The only thing worth mentioning about the meal was the lamb (or carré d’agneau rôti). Delicious!

Our wine waiter, such a sweet man, was completely lost by being surrounded by such abandoned beauty. Until he was in such a state that the poor fellow ended up addressing all the gentlemen as ‘Madam’ and the ‘ladies'(?!) as ‘Sir’. Still, I am sure that the mind does boggle. Following the meal came the awaited moment, possibly a little too early — as the meals were only just finishing.

Our glamorous hostess, (with the mostest) Mr Jean Fredericks, took the floor to announce that all those who were to take part in the Beauty competition should vacate the hall and collect their entrance numbers. Only about fifty actually did — very disappointing as some beautiful costumes could still be seen sitting around the hall, while the usual collection of entrants could be seen lining up in expectation

The walk on, up, over and off the stage was judged by none other than Mr Lee Sutton, world famous impersonator. Also actress Jean Hampton and Mr Vuron Brewer. From these fifty odd competitors (you can read that how you like) eighteen were chosen for the semi-final stages of the competition.

At this point I would like to mention the efforts of some of the contestants in the hard work they had in producing their elaborate designs.

Princess Tinsel was “glittering” and well photographed by ‘Sunday Mirror’ and other papers. Barry — the cheeky chef with the dream topping – as described in the Sunday Mirror (one edition — lucky Barry — nice photo) paid £200 for a stunning two-tone wig. John, from Ruislip, was seen in two stunning creations which Miss Shirley Bassey would have been proud of — (or green with jealousy, as the resemblance was effective.)

Helping to keep things equal we had two colourful Arab costumes, plus Ali Baba, minus forty thieves — and, fresh from the museum, came Tutankhamun looking his age. My own young lady was none other than ‘Chelsea’ from Los Angeles, known to London as Simon of My Father’s Moustache Restaurant. She was wearing a two piece trouser suit in gold lamé, with hair style, rings and jewellery to match, the general effect being such that even Richard Burton could have been excused for mistaking her for we all know whom. And Dominic — or ‘Natasha’ (she certainly looked the part) was dressed in clothes from the Victorian era, and styled her looks to match.

So let us now turn to the Main Event — the final line-up of the “contest of the year” – judged in a fair and objective manner by representatives of the British Theatre, including Mr Richard Jackson, Miss Vicki Richards, Miss Dulcie Gray and Mr Michael Denison.

Miss Fredericks was pleased to announce as winner Mr Leslie Porter, who now reigns as the first Miss Female Impersonator (International), wearing a simple and elegant black dress. Leslie’s natural ease and poise carried her easily into the much coveted position. For Leslie, the winning prize of £100 in cash, and a further £100 worth of prizes.

The second prize was carried away by two contestants – who shared second place. The first wearing an ultra-feminine pink ensemble with matching ostrich feathers and a ‘Twiggy’ hair-do – quite charming — and the second of the duo wore a vampish outfit of see-through black, strongly contrasting with her blond hair. Striking – if nothing else. However it was suggested that had they teamed up before the contest, they might have carried off the first prize as ‘Beauty and the Beast’. In third place came Mark Cardel, looking as appealing as ever in a rather sophisticated costume in classical black and gold.

Once the contest was over we were all entertained by Mr Lawrence Daury of Paris — or somewhere, who sang “No Regrets”. I wish we could have all said the same. Mr Jean Fredericks entertained in her own cabaret, as usual.

In general people enjoyed the evening, and most people seemed to consider the price of £6.60 a ticket as money well spent. Mr Barry Scott, an international professional female impersonator, was quoted as saying that the evening was well thought out by Mr Fredericks, who, in his opinion, is a great artiste, but that unfortunately due to a lack of organisation, much of the evening was spoiled. Of Leslie Porter, the winner of the competition, he said: “Leslie really deserved to win.”

Summing up the evening, Mr Scott said, “A nice time, but I definitely won’t come again.” On reflection, neither shall I.

An Incredible Lady

In a month of frenzied musical activity, what to leave out? (Our editor has a space, not to say size, problem, you see). Dare I omit the Munich Philharmonic under Rudolf Kempe, who at one of their three Prom concerts gave a demonstration of how an anaesthetised performance of a Mahler symphony sounds or maybe Boulez’ cool, precise, and yet remarkably moving performance of Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’ (why does everyone still insist on treating this work as a religious observance? Wagner did call it a festival drama) or even the Berlin Philharmonic at the Edinburgh Festival?

The answer’s all three. For Rita Hunter’s back in town. The remarkable dramatic soprano, who so far has only appeared in a major role at Covent Garden by default (remember that incredible ‘Flying Dutchman’ story, complete with hair-curlers, mad, head-long dashes from quiet Norfolk home and German airline strikes?) returned last month to the London Coliseum to give what must undoubtedly be her most devastating performance to date. And the memory of her singing as Brunnhilde in the Sadlers Wells ‘Gotterdammerung’ has by no means begun to fade.

Rita Hunter sings the role of Leonora in the new Coliseum production of ‘Il Trovatore. It is scenically spectacular (though I did feel that Stefanos Lazardi’s costumes were a shade too lavish, possibly even garish) and vocally impressive.

There is practically always in this theatre a feeling of intense excitement which Covent Garden can rarely match. Perhaps it has something to do with the regular ensemble playing which is just not possible in a house like Covent Garden, where so many of the singers are imported temporarily from abroad.

The individual performances (with the exception of Miss Hunter’s) were not always faultless, but no matter. There was always a sense of involvement, of the true passion befitting Verdi’s most tuneful and grandly romantic opera.

My admiration of Norman Bailey’s dark-toned bass-baritone has always been high; from his masterly Hans Sachs, in the ‘Mastersingers’, his tortured Gunter in ‘Gotterdammerung’, through to his commanding, yet still fallible Wotan in ‘The Rhinegold.’ But here as Di Luna he did not seem fully at his ease and his voice occasionally came over jagged.

The Canadian mezzo-soprano, Gabrielle Lavigne making her first appearance in this country gave a fiery portrayal of the gypsy woman Azucena, who holds all the secrets of the plot, but her voice also tended to ‘spread’ and she was apt to sing sharp.

John Sydney, a young tenor from Australia looked every inch the part of Manrico; dashing, impetuous and handsome. But he could not always cope with Verdi’s taxing music, his voice turning throaty under pressure, though in the final dungeon scene he seemed to find better form. It is unfortunately in this scene that the staging seriously came unstuck with Manrico and Azucena manacled with elaborate and disturbingly noisy chains to opposite sides of the stage, so that in the normally beautiful duet ‘Ai Nostri monti’ their voices vie rather than mingle.

And what of Miss Hunter? Well, her voice is strong, metallic and true. It is also incredibly powerful. With those who are keen on pure limpid tone, Miss Hunter will not score high marks. But for those who like a soprano with a robust heroic timbre in her voice, astonishingly combined with a suppleness and instinctively well-timed musical phrasing, then I don’t think there is anyone else around at the moment to compare. And she can act!

Hers was a performance of perfectly judged dignity, which still displayed the moving spontaneity which distinguishes her interpretations of other parts. Always credible, she gave dramatic expression to every aria. Her duet with Di Luna came across with uncommon force. Whether heroic or tender, the artistry and musicality with which she moulded and phrased the music was superb.

I shall be very sad if, after her debut at the New York Met in December, we lose this incredible lady to more illustrious foreign opera houses. Let’s hope she likes Northolt. Perhaps if we put our minds to it we could even find her a reasonable pad in London Street! Think about it.

Night of Fame

Bakke’s Night of Fame by John McGrath at the Shaw Theatre

At the Shaw Theatre till the end of October is a new play by John McGrath titled BAKKE’S NIGHT OF FAME. It is set in the condemned cell of an American prison on the night that Bakke is to be executed for the murder of a woman. On coming into the auditorium the curtain is already up and the prisoner and two guards are on the set before the play commences. After establishing early on that it was taking place during the last hours of the prisoner’s life, I began to wonder how the play would progress. Were we to see a last minute reprieve coming from the governor, or would the prisoner be dragged off screaming for mercy like one of those old James Cagney films.

Well, a plea against capital punishment was certainly made, but the main part of the evening was spent on a character study of this anti-hero Bakke. Somewhat like a character out of an Edward Albee play, we watch him goading first his warders, then the priest, and finally his executioner. Throughout the play he is asking to meet the man who will pull the switch on the electric chair – ‘My buddy’ as he refers to him. When they finally meet it is somewhat anti-climactic to fine Bakke using the same technique towards his executioner as he had done to others throughout the evening.

Hywel Bennett plays this complex character to perfection, once and for all destroying his past image of the young hero in all British films. With a crew cut and quite authentic American accent he is one minute humorous, and the next moment very ferocious as the compulsive liar Bakke. He is ably supported by David Healey and Nikolas Simmonds. The content of this play is not a pleasant subject and its chances of a transfer to another theatre are slight, but for an interesting look at a complex character, I urge you to see it whilst you have a chance.