Theatre For Christmas

Someone in the editorial collective decided it would be a nice idea if I would select what I thought were suitable shows for our readers to see at Christmas, as that’s the time of year a lot of folk take an occasional visit to the theatre. Firstly take into consideration that we go to press 3 weeks before the actual Christmas week so do check the daily papers to ensure the show you wish to see is still running.

Now it rather depends on the type of show you want to see, and who you are going to take along (if anybody) so I’ll try and categorise those that I consider the best ones.

If you are considering taking along a parent, aunt or anyone approaching middle age, settle for GONE WITH THE WIND at Drury Lane Theatre which has enough glamour to appeal to them, or if you feel a straight play would be preferable I suggest one of the following:

LLOYD GEORGE KNEW MY FATHER at the Savoy Theatre which is a light comedy not likely to offend anyone, and skilfully played by Celia Johnson and Sir Ralph Richardson. Another safe bet is CROWN MATRIMONIAL at the Haymarket Theatre which is the story of Edward VIII’s abdication and would especially appeal to people over 40 who can recall the era when this story took place, and THE DAY AFTER FAIR* at the Lyric Theatre stars the lovely Deborah Kerr in a charming romantic drama.

There are quite a few shows that you can take a child to and that won’t bore you in the process. TOAD OF TOAD HALL is playing at the Jeanette Cochran Theatre, ALICE IN WONDERLAND performed by 10 foot puppets at the Mercury Theatre, Notting Hill Gate sounds interesting, and a new musical version of THE WATER BABIES is due at the Cambridge Theatre, starring Neil Reid of ‘Opportunity Knocks’ fame, with music by John Taylor, the talented composer of ‘Charlie Girl’.

If just you are involved in this theatre trip then let me first mention what is still, in my opinion, the best straight play in town, THE PHILANTHROPIST at the Mayfair Theatre. This forerunner of ‘Butley’ is also set in a college and is likewise all about one of the ‘losers in life’ and it’s an extremely enjoyable evening. Certainly the next best production in town must be LONDON ASSURANCE* at the New Theatre. If you fancy a ‘period piece’ and enjoy first class ensemble playing, this cannot be bettered. My third choice for straight theatre is undoubtedly PRIVATE LIVES at the Queens Theatre, for its witty script and star performance by Maggie Smith, but whether or not you’ll be able to get a seat is another matter entirely.

Which leaves us with the musicals and one revue. HULLA BALOO* at the Criterion Theatre is a fun evening and Rogers and Starr with their blue tinged material will give you a lot of laughs. The two religious musicals are still with us: GODSPELL* at the Wyndhams which I found delightful, and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at the Palace Theatre, which I didn’t care for but everyone else did so I might be wrong. THE DIRTIEST SHOW IN TOWN* is still running at the Duchess Theatre and though I missed a few of the jokes along the way I found it at all times enjoyable. APPLAUSE at Her Majesty’s Theatre is hard to get tickets for, but worth the effort to enjoy Lauren Bacall’s star presence, and as we go to press Tony Newley’s latest musical THE GOOD OLD, BAD OLD DAYS is about to open at the Prince of Wales Theatre and if the score is anything to go by ought to be worth the visit.

One last word regarding theatre prices which are getting higher each year. If you really find front stalls too expensive, but don’t care to be sitting a mile away, I can recommend the back dress circle at those shows marked * as not being too expensive and not too far away. Also the back stalls at Mayfair Theatre for THE PHILANTHROPIST are inexpensive and of course both the Jeannetta Cochran Theatre and Mercury Theatre with their children’s shows are reasonably priced.

Coward and How to Play Him

Two of the biggest hits in London theatres today are works by Noel Coward. At the Mermaid a compilation of many of his songs, sketches and writings for an evening’s entertainment titled COWARDY CUSTARD, whilst the Queens Theatre in the West End houses his 42 year old comedy, PRIVATE LIVES.

Back in the 40’s and early 50’s a generation of theatregoers were able to enjoy many intimate revues starring such talented people as the Hermiones (Gingold & Baddeley), Henry Kendall, Betty Marsden, Max Adrian, Moira Fraser, Ian Carmichael, Joan Sims, Dora Bryan and Joan Heal. With the advent of BEYOND THE FRINGE, the whole style of humour in revue changed overnight. All of these artists knew their craft well. They could wring humour out of a mere sentence by the tone of their voice, or the expression on their face. Which brings me first to COWARDY CUSTARD and what I think is wrong with it.

Coward’s material in the main is still very funny but the handling of his works in this show is unworthy of him. I have enjoyed Una Stubbs comedy playing in several TV shows, and like Elaine Delmar on records. Richard Waring is a fine stage actor, as is John Moffatt. But none of these people seem able to adapt themselves to revue playing. The direction is pretty poor and the cast enters and leaves the stage so frequently one gets dizzy watching them.

The one shining light in this production is Patricia Routledge. It has been said of some performers that they could give a reading of the telephone directory and it would hold an audience. In Miss Routledge’s case, she could read the same book and manage to make it funny. She is indeed a very funny lady, and rightly stops the show with the old Beatrice Lillie song ‘I went to a marvellous party’ – but for myself ‘one performer does NOT make a show.’

On the other hand if you enjoy sophisticated comedy and would like to see it brilliantly performed, I urge you to join the queue at the box office to see PRIVATE LIVES at the Queens Theatre. This slim tale of a divorced couple who have both remarried and find themselves in adjoining suites on their second honeymoons with their respective new partners is played for all it’s worth by four fine players who understand the art of playing Coward.

Robert Stephens as the twice married man is ably supported by Polly Adams and James Villiers as the new partners. Which brings me finally to the star performance of Maggie Smith. She began her career in intimate revue and it certainly shows in her portrayal of Amanda. Watch what she does with a line like “who’s yacht is that?” and you’ll see what I mean. On two occasions she lunges forward for a cigarette, and lighting it, puffs furiously in a Bette Davis take-off. Her costume in the third act, particularly that hat, is alone worth the price of admission. A superbly funny performance in a gem of a comedy.

The Legend Continues

01-197205XX 9For the past two weeks at the aptly titled Queens Theatre a 70 year old woman has been holding packed audiences spellbound nightly, and on 4 occasions twice nightly. The orchestra plays a medley of the tunes associated with her and finally she appears from the wings, immaculately gowned with a huge chinchilla coat almost carelessly draped around her. Her opening song ‘Look me over closely’ is an invitation that everyone in the audience takes up. We all looked closely, some through their opera glasses and those of us with the cash to sit in the front stalls could see with our own eyes that all was well, that the face looked exactly the same and the legend was still intact.

Marlene then spoke of her early days in films, how she auditioned with an American song, won the role of Lola and ended up in Hollywood. In this segment she gave us Porter’s ‘You’re the Cream in my Coffee’, ‘My Blue Heaven’, the rollicking ‘Boys in the Backroom’ and her song from ‘Stage Fright’ ‘The Laziest Gal in Town’. Strutting arrogantly to the wings she discarded her coat and returned to give us one of her best performed songs that evening ‘When The World Was Young’. I have seen this song performed many times but never so movingly, and perhaps this is part of the secret that she knows how to think and feel a song so well.

Her selection continued with ‘Go Away From My Window’, her touching version of ‘I Wish You Love’, the sombre ‘War ls Over’, a quite terrible ‘Boomerang Baby’ which bored me last time she sang it in London, ‘La Vie En Rose’, and ‘Sentimental Journey.’ By this time the audience was so involved that when she announced the song from ‘The Blue Angel’ people were calling out various titles until she corrected them, announcing the rousing ‘Lola’.

‘Don’t Ask Me Why’, ‘Marie’, ‘Lilli Marlene’ and Seeger’s ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone’ are all songs she used last time in London but somehow nobody seemed to mind. We were all happy being in the presence of this glamorous star personality. Her version of ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ continues to confuse me and if anybody knows the significance of her repeat of the word ‘Rose’ perhaps they’d enlighten me.

When she winds up her 75 minute show with the inevitable ‘Falling In Love Again’ the audience rose to their feet in appreciation. Many people have wondered in the past exactly what it is about Marlene that attracts a predominantly gay audience of both sexes. Certainly on the night I attended there were many young men dashing up to the footlights to throw little posies at her feet and to clutch her hand. The more exhibitionistic of them held her hand for a longer while, some kissing it gallantly. One wonders about this hold she has on both young and old alike. Unlike Garland whose sheer emotional approach to songs was an obvious draw to the gay crowd, Marlene by comparison just stands there almost mockingly saying “take me or leave me – that’s how I am””… Finally you have to satisfy yourself that her attraction is made up of many things, glamour, a certain sense of high camp, but above all supreme artistry.