Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Audience - filmed performance shown at Greenwich Picturehouse, Wednesday 19th June 2013

For sixty years, Elizabeth II has met each of her Prime Ministers in a weekly audience at Buckingham Palace - a meeting like no other in British public life; it is in private.  Both parties have an unspoken agreement never to repeat what is said, not even to their spouse. The Audience breaks this contract of silence and imagines a series of pivotal meetings between the Downing Street incumbents and their Queen.  
From young woman to grandmother, these private audiences chart the arc of the second Elizabethan age.  Politicians come and go through the revolving door of electoral politics, while she remains constant, waiting to welcome her next Prime Minister.
HM The Queen – Helen Mirren
Anthony Eden – Michael Elwyn
Margaret Thatcher – Haydn Gwynne
Harold Wilson – Richard McCabe
Gordon Brown – Nathaniel Parker
John Major – Paul Ritter
David Cameron – Rufus Wright
Winston Churchill – Edward Fox
James Callaghan/Private Secretary – David Peart
Equerry – Geoffrey Beevers
Princess Elizabeth – Nell Williams
Creative team:
Written by Peter Morgan
Director – Stephen Daldry
Designer – Bob Crowley
Lighting – Rich Fisher
I sometimes worry about Him Indoors.  Firstly, this show completely failed to register on his radar.  Given that he is often to be found crouching over the PC like some kind of demented puma at 0859hrs waiting for the booking season for something obscure to open at 0900hrs, this is in itself a matter for some concern (although when this was brought up in conversation, the story subtly changed to “I saw it mentioned and didn’t think it would be the kind of thing you would be interested in”  Personally I think this is a poor attempt at trying to get out of not having realised it was opening.  He always was a terribly poor liar).  Secondly is that he seemed to think that Mary Hopkins was in this.  I think he is losing his mind.  It comes to us all, some earlier than others. 
Every time the show has been mentioned in the media over the last couple of months, I have made vaguely distressed whimpering noises, which markedly increased in volume and frequency when I found out that, due to Ms Mirren’s contractual obligations elsewhere, The Audience would be closing shortly.  So it was with considerable relief on both parts that he managed to get tickets for a filmed relay of this into Greenwich Picturehouse.  Not live, unfortunately, because the show has already finished its run.  But still a performance, nonetheless; hey, sometimes we have to take what we can get. 
So, it was on a hot, sticky and very sultry lunchtime that we headed off on the bus down to Greenwich, humming “Those were the days, my friend”, and finding that we were the youngest people in the auditorium by a long shot.  Well, I was, anyway.  I wasn’t best pleased to find that we were in the front row; granted there was space for me to stick my still poorly old foot out (apparently I will never dance Giselle again, according to my GP), but it did mean that we were so close I could see that some of the actors hadn’t plucked their nose hair recently and I ended up with a major crick in my neck).  One of the disadvantages of watching a filmed performance is that you have to look at what the director wants you to look at; I would have preferred it if there had been a fixed camera somewhere offering a complete view of the entire stage (so you could watch the show from the point of view of an audience member in the stalls).  Needless to say Him Indoors disagrees; he does this now and then but I try to ignore him as best I can.  Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad had we not been so close to the screen. It can be quite disconcerting looking up the Queen’s nose.  I couldn’t see Mary Hopkins though, however hard I tried. 
It cannot be denied that Dame Helen gives a tour de force performance as HM.  After a six-month run of this eight times a week, the poor cow must be exhausted as, apart from a couple of short exits for costume changes, she is on stage for the entire 2 ½ hours.  Even so, I did notice a couple of slightly fudged lines.  For obvious reasons, she is somewhat less convincing as Queenie in the very early days of her reign – even an experienced actress like her cannot make a mature voice sound young. As Queenie from the 1960’s onwards, however, the performance is astonishing, helped (of course) in part by remarkable wigs and costumes.  From a distance, it would be incredibly difficult to tell the Dame and the Queen apart – although the Dame has a bit of a conk on her which is obvious in profile.  Every gesture, every facial expression, every posture – its truly uncanny.
Most of The Audience is played strictly for laughs, and I thought it would have been better had it been less funny.  The Prime Ministers are, almost without exception, played as pantomime caricatures (mostly villains).  Richard McCabe plays Harold Wilson as a genial, bumbling fool and Hayden Gwynne’s performance as Mrs. Thatcher and Paul Ritter’s as John Major have  both seemingly been lifted straight from Spitting Image. Gwynne’s is a star turn – a cross between Cruella de Vil and Iago.  I was somewhat shocked at the sheer lack of physical resemblance depicted by some performers; Nathaniel Parker doesn’t really look very much like Gordon Brown at all, and Rufus Wright bears no more than a tangential  resemblance to David Cameron (he’s got the hand gestures right, but looks too sharp-angled and ferret-like; Mr. Cameron has got slightly pudgy-faced over the last six months).   Robert Hardy was to have played Winston Churchill but was taken ill during rehearsals so Edward Fox can be forgiven for not looking very much like him.  David Peart looks even less like James Callaghan, but is only on for a couple of minutes or so and does us all the favour of announcing that he is James Callagham, so no worries there. 
Again, a full company bow with a solo bow from the star.  I do so hate all this “communist bowing” as Him Indoors calls it – I fully believe that every member of the cast deserves their own bow and their own applause.  I was slightly shocked that Dame Helen didn’t take her bow in character – it was all that was needed to make the illusion complete (perhaps apart from the sudden appearance of Mary Hopkins). 

What the critics said:

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The Cripple of Innishmaan - Noel Coward Theatre, Friday 14th June 2013

Set on the remote island of Inishmaan off the west coast of Ireland just before the outbreak of WW2,  word arrives that a Hollywood film is being made on the neighboring island of Inishmore. The one person who wants to be in the film more than anybody is young Cripple Billy, if only to break away from the bitter tedium of his daily life.  Billy forges a doctor's letter saying that he has TB and only months to live in order to get sympathy from Babbybobby and a ride in his boat over to Inishmore, where he is spotted by the Director and taken to Hollywood for a screen test.  Having failed the test, Cripple Billy returns home to find that life will probably never be the same.  Finally finding  out the truth regarding his parents' apparent suicide, Fate has a couple of surprises still in store for him.

Kate Osbourne - Ingrid Craigie
Gillian Osbourne, her sister - Gillian Hanna
Johnnypateenmike - Pat Short
Billy - Daniel Radcliffe
Bartley McCormick - Conor MacNeill
Helen McCormick, his sister - Sarah Greene
Babbybobby - Padraic Delaney
Doctor - Gary Lilburn
Mammy, Johnnypateenmike's elderly mother - June Watson
Creative Team:
Written by Martin McDonagh
Director: Michael Grandage
Set and costumes - Christopher Oram
Lighting - Paule Constable

I think if you were any member of the cast other than Daniel Radcliffe, you would be really quite peed off with both the Noel Coward Theatre and Mr. Grandage.  Not only is Mr. Radcliffe’s mug plastered up all over the outside of the theatre and all over the programme cover (just him, mind you), but he is the only member of the cast given a solo bow at the end of the show.  Full company bow, solo bow by Mr. Radcliffe, full company bow, solo bow by Mr. Radcliffe, curtain.   Yes, I know he’s young, pretty and Harry Potter (there were at least two sad middle-aged women having their picture taken outside the theatre of them draping themselves over the pictures of Mr. Potter) and a very bankable star name, but this play is very much an ensemble piece (and, frankly, the role of Billy is not actually a very big one).  There are other people in it, is what I’m getting at.  But you wouldn’t know it. 

From the same pen as The Beauty Queen of Leenane, this is  quite a slight play, but with similarly dark overtones and lots of the same kind of comedy.  Like Beauty Queen, there are several points where the plot turns on a sixpence, and you are sit there thinking “Oh my god [this] is going to happen” but then it suddenly doesn’t and the plot twists away in another direction, and you are left sitting there feeling that you have been taken up the garden path and then dumped among the hydrangeas feeling stupid.  There seemed to be very little actual plot, and I’m not entirely sure what the audience were expecting but there were an awful lot fewer people in the auditorium after the interval.  I could have done with two fewer people in the auditorium all the way through – the two idiot teenage boys sitting next to me.  One of them tried to get past on his way to his seat and then barged by before I had managed to get up (narrowly missing poorly foot) and had not yet learned how to blow his nose on a handkerchief and treated everyone in the vicinity to a loud and bubbly nasal symphony every five minutes or so, and neither of them had worked out how to get sweets out of a small cardboard box quietly nor how to drink through a straw without a) blowing bubbles in the drink first and  b) making that loud slurping noise you get when the drink is running out and you are chasing the dregs of fluid around the bottom of the cup.  Needless to say, one of them had a mobile phone which went off during a quiet bit in the second half. 

Most of this play is very, very funny – leaning towards the “Craggy Island” style.  And a certain amount is very, very dark.  And the stage is very, very dark for a lot of the time as well – off towards the wings everything fades into obscurity  - thankfully most of the action is well centred on stage but there is at least one (non-essential but funny) part involving a bible that you may well miss unless you have been eating all your carrots.  The funny lines come so thick and fast that you could miss a lot of the jokes because you are laughing so much, and then it all gets very serious, and then very funny again and then very serious – leaving me feeling rather like I was sitting on a rollercoaster.  It gets a little tiring eventually.  Mr. Radcliffe's accent wanders a bit now and again.

It would be invidious to pick out any individual performance because, as I said before, this is an ensemble piece – unless you are Daniel Radcliffe – and everyone is very good.  Sometimes the Irish brogues are a bit too thick to be penetrable and sometimes the dialogue goes too fast for comfort, but overall its well-paced and slick throughout, which is fortunate because it could become self-indulgent at a slower pace.  The lighting  could be better at times, but all in all it’s a fun evening out, even if the plot is essentially unrealistic.  Why people walked out at the interval I don’t know – perhaps they were expecting Mr. Radcliffe to be whizzing round the stage on a Nimbus 2000?  Apparently he was handed a pile of scripts by Mr. Grandage and told “pick one you fancy being in and we’ll do it”.  It is to Mr. Radcliffe’s credit that he picked something which didn’t supply him with a  “star vehicle” to the detriment of the rest of the cast.  I would still have liked to see everyone get their own bow at the final curtain, however. 

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Whodunnit [hobbling] - Greenwich Theatre, Monday 10th June 2013

Act 1
A collection of characters, apparently drawn directly from classic English detective fiction, arrive for a party in an old country house. Among them there is a Rear-Admiral, a lawyer,  a pair of "Bright Young Things" , a lady archaeologist,  and a flamboyantly eccentric butler who keeps trying to serve up his own cocktail creation, the "Zombie Whammy". There is also Andreas Capodistriou, a smooth talking serpent of a man who demonstrates to each guest in turn that he knows something compromising about them and is intent on blackmailing each one.

The act climaxes as each guest, having a reason to want Capodistriou dead, conceals his or her self on the set to lie in wait for the victim, who arrives alone and kneels to perform his evening prayer. As he does so, a collection of sword-wielding hands appear around him. One blade falls, removing his head, and the curtain falls.
Act 2
The act opens on an incongruous scene. Policemen in modern dress mingle with the archaically dressed guests. They are investigating the murder that ended the first act. The Rear Admiral sneezes and loses his fake moustache in the process. He reveals that he is actually an actor, and was hired to participate in a role-playing party for the owner of the house, who would act as detective and solve the mystery. It transpires that all of the "guests", and the butler, are also hired actors. The entire affair has been orchestrated in order to murder the man who played "Capodistriou", who in turn is revealed to be Gerry Marshall, a theatrical agent who held the contracts of all the actors. Each actor hated Marshall, but all deny knowing it was him playing Capodistriou. The organizer of the party was apparently Marshall himself. It is up to Inspector Bowden to unravel the tangle of relationships, real and unreal, to unmask the killer.
Perkins, the Butler: James Pellow
Andreas Capodistriou, an oily Levantine: James Murphy
Silas Bazeby: Paul Cleveland
RearAdmiral Knatchbull Folliat; Robert Hannouch
Lady Tremurrain: Ellen Verenieks
Lavinia Hargreaves, a Bright Young Thing: Stephanie Wilson
Roger Dashwood, a Young Man About Town: Thomas Barron
Dame Edith Runcible, an archaeologist: Lillie Collier
Inspector Bowden: Damien Tracy
Sergeant: Andrew Beckett

Creative Team:
Written by Anthony Shaffer
Directed by Paul Taylor-Mills
Designer - David Shields
Produced by Kyle Vilcins

Him Indoors was in a lather of anticipation - he had seen the original production of this at Her Majesty's Theatre back when God was a boy, and when it was called The Case of the Oily Levantine. Apparently the cast was reasonably stellar for the period, the set was enormous, the production values slick - and it sank like a stone. 

I think this production would best be described as "endearingly awful". It did rather smack of a wet afternoon in Frinton-on-Sea watchng the local repertory company die on its arse in front of an audience of about 2 dozen punters, most of whom have only bought a ticket to get in out of the rain for a couple of hours.  The play smacks of "repertory company" anyway, with a vast array of parts for people of wildly differing ages.  That is no bad thing in itself - being "in rep" was a true apprenticeship which taught you your craft through long hard slog and experience; rehearsing one play during the day and appearing in another during the evenings every week really honed your expertise.  You developed your acting muscles and could play the leading man one week and a walk-on with three lines the next.  If there wasn't a part for you, you either helped out backstage, manned the box office or took a wildly unsuitable part if nobody else was available.  There were a couple of instances of people taking on wildly unsuitable parts in this show.

Whodunnit? is very much a "repertory company play" anyway - the "detective thriller" genre was one of the rep system staples.    And this play calls for each person to demonstrate two very distinct acting styles - in the first act, the audience has to be tricked into thinking that they are watching a "period thriller" in the style of the early stories of Agatha Christie, whereas in the second, it becomes apparent that the setting is contemporary.  This was actually pulled off very well in this production.  What wasn't so successful was that a couple of roles taken by people decades too young to play the parts convincingly, which could do nothing for the credibility of the production or the actors concerned.  White makeup plastered all over your hair does not make you look old - it makes you look like someone with white makeup plastered all over your hair.  Playing an old person and bounding about the stage like a boisterous puppy is not convincing - just embarassingly amateurish.  If you are going to use a walking stick, watch someone who has to use one and observe how they move.  Don't just flail it about. 

This is a well-crafted and intelligent play, and better production values and considerably better direction would have helped it immensely. The constraints of the set did not help the production but merely showed up its deficiencies.  I am not entirely sure that the Director was entirely up to speed with what was needed at several points.  Scrutinising the set, I could only make out one reflective surface (the glass of the French windows) when, at one point, every character on stage needs to be looking into one - no mirrors were in evidence, nor shiny silver trays, nor powder compacts.  When someone pours a drink, unless it is whisky or port (and most certainly if it is referred to as orange squash), more than an inch of fluid needs to be put in the glass.  The "voiceover", which narrates the viewpoint of the murderer, and which must not be identifiable as any member of the cast, was so garbled and obscured that it was supremely difficult to make out what was actually being said.  When your entire cast are meant to be holding swords, it looks daft to give one of them a golf club.

James Pellow really rather walks away with the acting honours in a stand-out turn as Perkins the Butler, transmogrifying into an evil old queen much in the style of Derek Jacobi in Vicious.  Paul Cleveland as Bazeby showed a complete inability to do anything with his arms - in fact, for at least the first ten minutes of Act 1, I was convinced that, for some reason to do with the plot, he was wearing false arms inside his jacket (he wasn't, but it looked like it).   Robert Hannouch, who cannot be out of his 20s, did not make a terribly convincing Old Sea Dog, and wearing a false moustache over a real one is just bizarre.  Mr. Hannouch, the Court finds you guilty of putting white makeup in your hair. Likewise, Lily Collier is far, far too young to play Dame Runcible (a role that was taken on Broadway by Hermione Baddely - Mrs. Bridges to you and me - when she must have been well into her 60s).  Thomas Barron is smoothly plausible as Roger Dashwood - full marks, Mr. Barron for correct period hair and pencil moustache.  And bonus points for wearing calf-length socks; nothing is so "unperiod" as being able to see a bit of white leg over the top of a short sock when a man is sitting down - at least two male cast members guilty of this.  Andrew Beckett gives a nice comic turn as the outrageously camp Police Sergeant, but the team is let down badly by Damien Tracey's Inspector Bowden, who looks like he needs a hairbrush, a razor, an ironing board, a needle and thread and a good night's sleep, as well as closer and more detailed direction - at several points I felt he was just wandering aimlessly and rather pointlessly about the stage.  Better direction would certainly have helped in the second act which is very wordy and liable to drag for the audience if they are not being visually entertained. 

I enjoyed this play, but am afraid that I didn't enjoy this production of it.  I stick by my claim of "endearingly awful".  It could have been so much better. I wanted it to succeed and be funny and sharp and slick and make me laugh and pack in the punters.  As it is, I found it all faintly embarrassing.   And I have to take issue with the "programme". One sheet of folded A4 paper inside a cover made of one sheet of folded A4 card does not constitute a programme, in my mind, particularly when a) it covers three plays being performed over a 12-day season, b) it contains nothing but cast and creative team biographies and mentions nothing whatsoever about the plays, their production histories and so on and c) it costs £2.  I've had more informative bus tickets and feel somewhat ripped off. 

Friday, 7 June 2013

The Amen Corner [shortly coming off crutches] - National Theatre, Wednesday 5th June 2013


The Amen Corner takes place in two settings: a ‘‘corner’’ church in Harlem and the apartment dwelling of Margaret Alexander, the church pastor, and of her son, David, and sister Odessa. After giving a fiery Sunday morning sermon, Margaret is confronted by the unexpected arrival of her long estranged husband, Luke, who collapses from illness shortly thereafter. Their son, David, along with several elders of the congregation, learn from Luke that, while Margaret had led everyone to believe that he had abandoned her with their son years ago, it was in fact Margaret who had left a dysfunctional Luke and pursued a religious life. This information precipitates confrontations between Margaret and her son, her congregation, and her estranged husband, regarding what they perceive as the hypocritical nature of her religious convictions, and the breakup of her family.
After an important conversation with his dying father, David informs Margaret that he is leaving home to pursue his calling as a jazz musician. On his deathbed, Luke declares to Margaret that he has always loved her, and that she should not have left him. Finally, Margaret’s congregation decides to oust her, based on their perception that she unjustly ruined her own family in the name of religion.
David - Eric Kofi Abrefa
Ida Jackson - Naana Agyei-Ampadu
Brother Washington - Delroy Atkinson
Sister Rice - Katrina Beckford
Brother Boxer - Donovan F Blackwood
Sister Boxer - Jacqueline Boatswain
Sister Douglas - Miquel Brown
Odessa - Sharon D Clarke
Margaret - Marianne Jean-Baptiste
Luke - Lucian Msamati
Sister Moore - Cecilia Noble

Creative team:
Director - Rufus Norris
Set Designer - Ian MacNeil
Costume Designer - Joan Wadge
Lighting Designer - Paul Anderson
Music Supervisor and Vocal Arranger - The Rev Bazil Meade

Tickets to preview performance kindly supplied by Jenny Woods at

Praise de Lawd, I am soon going to be off these crutches.  Actually, at a couple of points in this show, the gospel singing was so goddamned wonderful that I could happily have got up from my seat, hurled them into the aisle and shouted "Its a miracle! I can walk!"  But perhaps that might not have gone down too well with the rest of the audience, certainly not with the couple to my right who stank of cheap wine to the high heavens, or the couple to my left who quaffed pints of lager all the way through.  I came out afterwards smelling like I had spent the evening in a brewery (yes, I know wine isn't made in a brewery, but work with me on this one, brothers and sisters, and forgive me the sin of mixing metaphors).  I like gospel singing - its so jolly, even when its mournful (I once lived round the corner from a gospel church, and I used to run a hot bath on Sunday afternoon and open the bathroom window so that I could listen to the singing and soak away my sins. The odd glass of wine and rubber duck would feature sometimes - in the bathroom, that is; I don't remember any songs about wine and rubber ducks.  In fact, I think it was probably only the prospect of some gospel that got me to go to this play, because on paper it sounds downright depressing.  But hey, free tickets and all that. The life of a theatre review blog writer, eh?  Its a tough life but someone has to do it. 

Aaaaaanyways, I didn't realise that this play was going to be funny as well. I'm not entirely sure that its meant to be funny, but sometimes the inflexion of a line or phrase can make something funny when the playwright didn't mean it to be.  Sometimes, however, I think that one of the lead peformances tipped very dangerously towards the line that divides humour and parody, actually crossing that line several times, to the character's detriment.  At least one of the lead performances wasn't very good at all, but there were three stunning performances to compensate for this, and the singing was fecking amazing. And one of the lead performers acted like a dream and sang like a saint, so double bubble.  And the theatre was packed.  Which is nice.

Now, I'm going to be contentious here for a moment.  And some of you are going to raise your eyebrows and some of you are going to say nasty things and I'm telling you here and now, brothers and sisters, that any nasty comment is going to be ignored and deleted so save yourself the bother.  My comment is about black people at the theatre.  Not on stage; in the audience.  Theatre audiences, in my experience, are predominantly white.  In the main, black culture has not (until relatively recently) really embraced theatre; there are historical and cultural reasons for this which are beyond the scope of this blog.  My point is that this is a play by a black writer, featuring a black cast of characters and which deals with black issues and gospel music.  And yet there were so few black faces in the audience.  I counted a dozen, maybe.  Why?  If the remit of the National Theatre is to present theatre for everyone, why can I find no publicity for this production in The Voice?  Why isn't the National reaching out to black audiences and saying "come and see this play"?  Yes, yes, I know - you are going to wonder why I think black audiences would be particularly interested. Well, I think they would be.  And I was slightly bothered that there seemed to be so few black faces in the audience. And that, brothers and sisters, is the end of the contentious paragraph. 

I swear that a lot of the scenery from this show was recycled from the Lenny Henry version of The Comedy of Errors from 2011 - which I saw but cannot see that I reviewed, for some reason.  Possibly because it was so bad I couldn't bring myself to experience it again by writing about it.  Certainly a lot of the architectural backdrop I am sure I have seen before somewhere.  Still, it is nice to see the National re-using stuff. 

The central performance of Pastor Margaret is stunning. Marianne Jean-Baptiste takes on a character which, when you sit back and think about it, is terribly unsympathetic; cold, intolerant, inflexible, unforgiving, unheeding of those nearest to her.  And yet I wager that there was not one person last night who wasn't 100% on her side by the end of the play.  The play is essentially about a power struggle and even I sat there thinking "Oh lordy, is she going to pull this one off?  Or not?"  She is magnificently supported by Sharon D. Clarke, who gives one of the "realest" performances of the evening - understated (not really that difficult when surrounded by caricature, granted) and focussed, and when she sings, I am sure that there are angels above weeping with joy.  Jeez, can this woman give it some. I am still not entirely sure what her character is actually making in the kitchen in the second half - three eggs, a good slosh of milk and what appears to be salt and pepper are whipped up with an egg whisk and then returned to the fridge.  Scrambled eggs perhaps - but would you put them back in the fridge uncooked?   Lucian Msamati is also amazing in the small but pivotal role of Luke.  Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Eric Kofi Abrefa as David - probably the least convincing performance of the evening.  Cecilia Noble's performance as Sister Moore is going to divide people, I think.  Some will love it, some (like me) will think that her performance tips over the line into caricature just that once too often.  Jaqueline Boatswain hasn't yet managed to cover up her London vowel sounds, which keep popping through her accent; this is annoying.  There was one point where I swear her accent went completely for an entire paragraph.  Naana Agyei-Ampadu does an extremely good job with an extremely small role. 

Chapeau to the London Community Gospel Choir who provide the music.  Amazing. Simply amazing.  And worth the price of the ticket alone (it was free, but you know what I mean).   

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Billy [still on crutches] - Union Theatre, Thursday 30th May 2013 (preview performance)

A young clerk in a gloomy North Country undertaker's office, Billy's humdrum job, wild imagination and unhappy family life, leads him on frequent flights to "Ambrosia," a mythical kingdom where he is crowned king, general, lover or any idealized hero the real situation of the moment makes him desire. His vacillating commitment and immaturity have created situations which make Ambrosia all the more attractive.

He's succeeded in becoming engaged to two different girls simultaneously, while in love with a third, Liz. He's in hot water with his employer, having spent a rather large sum of postage money on his personal frivolities. And last, but not least, his dream of becoming a highly-paid, famous scriptwriter in London seems doomed to failure. The only person in his life capable of bringing him down to earth is Liz, and she's having a difficult time of it.

Finally, he gets his life sufficiently in order to leave for London with his true love. Billy still hasn't come to grips with the real world by the end of the film. He leaves the train to buy milk from a vending machine and watches the train slowly pull out for London with Liz aboard. He returns to the more comfortable shelter of his parents home, Ambrosia and his imagination.

Billy Fisher – Keith Ramsey
Geoffrey, his dad – Mark Carroll
Alice, his mum – Ricky Butt
Gran – Paddy Glynn
Cllr Duxberry – Mark Turnbull
Shadrack, the Undertaker – Michael Adams
Liz – Katerina Stearman
Barbara – Rosie Clarkson
Rita – Laura Bryars
Arthur – Adam Colbeck-Dunn
Creative Team:
Based on “Billy Liar” by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall
Music by John Barry
Lyrics by Don Black
Book by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais
Director: Michael Strassen
Musical Director: Richard Bates
Costume: Elle-Rose Hughes
For chrissakes be well-behaved if you decide to go and see this, because the Director is a real cow, and you are liable to get a slap (or, at the very least, a detention and 250 lines) if you misbehave in any way.  I KNOW that audiences these days have little consideration for performers and fellow audience members and are liable to either forget to turn their mobile phone off (so that it generally goes off during the quiet bits) or, even worse, sit there fiddling with it because nobody has an attention span of more than 7.3 minutes any more, but I really don’t expect to be treated like a naughty schoolboy while sitting waiting patiently for a show to start.  I know that preview performances are an anxious time for a director, who has probably not had a decent night’s sleep for a week or so beforehand, and it can't have helped that someone very audibly complained to their companion that they thought it was going to be Billy Elliott but I don’t expect to be told “Right everyone, turn your mobile phones OFF and NO sitting there texting or updating Facebook or whatever, OK?”.  The audience cowered slightly and collectively and Herr Direktor stalked off towards the wings, trailing a nervous stage manager in his wake like an anxious tugboat bobbing around a cruise liner.  It was then that anxious tugboat pointed out to HMS Direktor that there had been a spillage of some kind in one of the voms (luvvie-speak for vomitorium, ie one of the places where the cast make their entrances and exits and access backstage) and he was off again: “WHO spilled this drink here?  Has someone spilled their DRINK HERE??!!!” (pointing).  The audience sat there in that slightly dangerous silence you used to get when everyone knew that someone had put a fake dog turd in the teacher’s drawer, most of you knew who had put it there but nobody was about to own up and wouldn’t point the finger for fear of being called a Grass for the rest of term.  Tugboat steamed off for a mop and HMS Director sailed off into the sunset covered in outraged righteousness.   So just be warned, OK, don’t upset the director or you may find yourself spending the rest of the evening in A&E at Guy’s just down the road. 
I hope that HMS Director had a word with his cast afterwards.  C’mon people, this is supposed to be a professional show.  There are standards, even at the Union.  It doesn’t take much to give your trousers a quick press, make sure your shoes are clean, find a pair of socks that aren’t more hole than sock and think ahead and wear a white jockstrap under your white Y-fronts if you are going to take your trousers off in front of the audience, because a black jockstrap under white Y-fronts really don’t look classy.  If your leading man’s tie is outside his collar and at half mast, put it right for him rather than leaving him looking like a reject from the gallows. And, Mr. Tugboat, if your cast are sitting round a table with a cloth on it which is referred to in the score as being stripey,  have a bit of a rummage around for a stripey tablecloth rather than chucking on a plain one and hoping nobody will notice. Give it a rinse through in the sink first.   If one of your props is a coffin, for Pete’s sake at least DUST IT even if you can’t be bothered to give it a wipe over with a damp cloth and a squirt of Mr. Sheen.   If one of your cast has to dress as Marilyn Munroe and you have a limited budget for wigs, either learn to dress your wig yourself or take it to a good hairdresser and say “This currently looks like a dead gerbil that died after a long and protracted struggle with mange but I need it to look like Marilyn Munroe”. 
In its first professional incarnation, this show apparently filled the Theatre Royal Drury Lane for nearly two years.  God only knows how, because it seems such a little show.  I really can’t imagine it on an enormous stage – there just doesn’t seem to be enough of it.  Most of the settings are domestic – the dining room of a small terraced house, an undertaker’s office, a provincial nightclub – and even in the confined space of the Union they didn’t seem to fill all the available space.  Perhaps its just this production that makes it seem small.  Even the fantasy sequences, set in Billy’s mythical kingdom of Ambrosia, look and feel cramped.  The show itself feels horribly dated, yet not yet old enough to feel period.  Its quaint, homespun, almost parochially English, with comedy Northerners being jolly and singing ditties about “When a’wur a lad”.  Fortunately no whippets, cloth caps or brass bands, but I can’t see this show ever making it on Broadway.  It would need a glossary in the programme or simultaneous translation. 
It really doesn’t help when your leading man, playing an unsympathetic, gormless character, plays it so gormless that you would gladly get up and throttle him with his own underpants.  Keith Ramsey as Billy has a terrible habit of tilting his head, adopting a strange leer and looking out of the top corners of his eyes.  Whether this attitude is supposed to represent dreamy indecision or sheer gormlessness I don’t know, (or even whether it is merely done to avoid making eye contact with any of the audience) but it’s done to excess and it drove me fecking mad.  Rosie Clarkson as Barbara does a nice job of repressed virginity, and  Ricky Butt gives a sterling performance as Billy’s harassed and bewildered mother (and she can tap like a dream, too).     Katerina Stearman, in her first acting role as Liz, seemed really, really hesitant and unsure at first but seemed to warm up towards the end and possesses the rare and amazing ability to make herself cry (properly, mark you) on demand. 
So there were a few (a very few) bright points in this production but its general lack of polish, coupled with a dreary plot, unsympathetic lead character and major downer of an ending made me relieved when it was all over. I know that the Union works on a budget that wouldn’t even keep The Mousetrap in fake snow but I’ve seen shows here that knock Billy out through the window and into the street in terms of production values, and certainly I’ve never been harangued by a director before.  There must be better shows to do than resurrect this dreary old museum piece.

The highlight of the evening, undoubtedly, was finding a pair of RayBan sunglasses down the side of my seat as I got up to leave.  Thank god that HMS Director didn’t see me put them in my pocket or I’d be in detention from now until Michelmas.