The wonderful thing about revolting children

How better to mark World Book Day than with a review of a musical based upon a book, featuring one of literature’s greatest bibliophiles? In fact, how better to celebrate a friend’s 30th than with a trip to what is unquestionably one of the best British musicals ever…

Matilda, stage

The last time the RSC produced a musical about a telekinetic child, it became the quickest, most expensive flop in Broadway’s history – Carrie the Musical is a classic, but for all the wrong reasons. [Though, in its defence, and having listened to the soundtrack multiple times, there are some gems there…] In fact, I was geekily pleased that The Stage referenced it in its review of Matilda:

“A quarter of a century ago, the RSC co-produced Les Misérables, which has turned into the West End’s longest-ever running musical and a worldwide hit. Now, via an unfortunate detour with Carrie, one of the most notorious Broadway flops when they transferred it from Stratford to New York, they’ve finally hit the musical jackpot again.”

 Musical jackpot it indeed is. It does a rare job of attracting and entertaining adults and children alike. Last night’s audience seemed to consist of vast swathes of children, and hordes of adults around my age. It’s quite possibly a happy coincidence that many of Tim Minchin’s (writer of the musical) fans are a generation that were the right age to read Matilda when the book came out in 1988.Discovering that we were sat in the middle of a massive school group filled me with terror, but it’s testament to the genius of the production that they stayed (pretty) quiet for the duration. Sure, Jo had to explain why we don’t kick seats or predict lines loudly, but most of the time you barely knew they were there. In fact, early on I was worried that the pace of dialogue and clever literary references might have been beyond a crowd of 8 year olds, but as was pointed out to me, there was also an entire scene focused upon ‘the biggest, most chocolatey burp in the world’, which you probably have to be 8 (or male) to truly appreciate. Looking behind me as the theatre was filled with laser beams, I saw a sea of enraptured faces – beautiful.

For those of us who grew up with Dahl, the texts are almost sacred. I doubt you’d find a British child of the 80s/90s who approves of the Matilda film – it’s not even set in England, for goodness sake! The Witches was a good effort, but they changed the ending; and I can’t ever complain about Jonny Depp so Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is ok, but it says something that Dahl himself didn’t like any of the adaptations he lived to see made. The musical is more faithful to the book than the film – the characters look like they’ve stepped out of Quentin Blake’s illustrations (especially Mr Wormwood and Miss Trunchbull) and the key plot elements are there. Yes, there’s the addition of a glorious story about an escapologist and acrobat used a device to tell the audience about Miss Honey’s parents, but it’s so beautifully done that I couldn’t possibly hold it against them. (Matilda tells the story to the librarian and at one point it’s depicted with shadow puppets, which is simply stunning.)

The script and songs also faithfully adheres to Dahl’s distinctive language. The reason why kids love Dahl is because he speaks like they do – or how they’d like to, if they were allowed. The language is often beautifully disgusting, or taps into the ‘nice naughtiness’ you wish all children had. I’d forgotten just how much of a childhood crime it was to call someone stupid, until Mr Wormwood used the word in reference to an adult member of the audience – the children near me gasped at it!

Before I left for the theatre, a friend commented on my Facebook status and said that she predicted I’d be a Bertie Carvel fan before the night was out – she was right. Bertie is the man – yes, man – who plays Miss Trunchbull, and he’s phenomenal. Pam Ferris was a very masculine Trunchbull in the movie, but the musical goes for a man playing a woman as an effeminate gay man angle, which works spectacularly well. Can you picture the Trunchbull doing rhythmic gymnastics with a ribbon? No? Trust me, it works perfectly! [There’s a glimpse of it in the trailer below.] Listen to her song about throwing the hammer, and you’ll start to understand…

The most important element in a musical has to be the songs, and they are marvellous. If you’re a Tim Minchin fan, you’ll know the range of his style, if you’re not then you’re in for a treat. There’s a real mix of raucous lively numbers and beautifully moving ones. Two of my favourites are helpfully ones that are available on YouTube – the winner of ‘best use of swings in a musical’, When I Grow Up which is almost tear-jerkingly lovely; and the guaranteed to have you clapping and cheering Revolting Children.

That boy who kicks off the song is Bruce Bogtrotter – of chocolate cake fame. There’s an entire song dedicated to that scene – called, aptly, Bruce – one could say that only an Australian could write such an awesome song about a Bruce…

I know I’m a massive musical theatre geek, but this is no niche musical. I’d go as far as to say that it’s one of the most accessible pieces of theatre I’ve seen (although One Man Two Guvnors would come a very recent second), and isn’t something parents should begrudge seeing. In fact, I suspect they might enjoy it more than their children do. The major challenge is acquiring decently priced tickets. Last night was clearly a sell-out – unusual for a mid-week evening in term-time – and ‘cheap’ tickets must be nigh-on impossible to come by. But persevere, you won’t regret it.

Friday Fun with musical geeks

As I shared yesterday, I’m in the midst of a few weeks of fabulous musical fun, at the cheesy end of the spectrum. Tomorrow will see me enjoying an entire day of musical theatre geekiness, beginning with free excerpts from shows in Trafalgar Square courtesy of West End Live and ending with Alex Gaumond’s final performance as Emmett in Legally Blonde. [Yes, we’ve seen the show before; yes, we may have developed a teeny-tiny crush on the hot Canadian; yes, we waited after the show to meet him; yes, we’re losers for having bought tickets for this specific performance; but do we care? Not a jot!]

Anyway, it therefore seemed particularly apt for The Hairpin to choose this run to run an article in which you could judge your personality type based upon classic musicals from the 1980s. There may have been a small squeak of excitement when an e-mail from Annabelle about it arrived in my inbox…

There was a limited (and predominantly West End originated – whoop!) list of four musicals: Les Miserables, Phantom, Annie and Cats, with a description of personality type embodied by those that love them. It’s a fun read, but had me torn between two – Les Mis and Phantom.

Les Mis’ attributes included:
“Your Liberal Arts major ensured that you ended up working in some kind of publishing/non-profit/teaching job, so you live in a bit of squalor.” – How very true. Though only my mother would perhaps describe my flat as ‘squalid’.

“Oddly enough, you are now the type of person who would be extremely reluctant to publicly admit that you spent many a night singing along, word for word, with the entire Original London Cast recording while wearing your worn-in Les Miz [err, with a ‘z’ – what’s that about??] t-shirt.” – Not so true. How could I ever be ashamed of a singalong? But yes to the owning a complete OLC recording and t-shirt from c.1996 (though sadly it got lost in a move). 
As for Phantom…

“You were Christine. Even if you didn’t pursue a life in the theater, you still have a drama queen inside of you.” – I definitely have the potential for Drama Queening.

“You had at least one boyfriend in high school that turned out to be gay.” – If crushes count, I’m there.

“You like candles and have a not-so-secret obsession with Celine Dion.” – I love candles and I own, let me see…at least three Celine Dion albums? (In my defence, I own nothing she’s released this millennium.)

As I’ve not actually seen Phantom properly (i.e. on stage – I know, shocking!) I’d have to choose Les Mis – if only for the fact that I seem to forever identify with Eponine and appear to spend my life walking in the rain singing On My Own – I just need the beret & trench coat to complete the look.
Sorry, for those of you who aren’t musical theatre geeks that won’t have been particularly fun and for those that are, you’re probably at this point highlighting all the other classic 80s musicals that would suit your personality better – Little Shop of Horrors, Starlight ExpressFame, or even the world’s most disastrous Broadway musical – Carrie. [Yes, that’s a musical based on the Stephen King book/film and actually, the soundtrack’s awesome – it originated at the RSC in fact. Actually, if you want some additional fun, listen to some of the songs from the show.] 
Having written the above in advance of Friday, I hoped to find something non-musical to appease those of you who don’t consider several hours of dancing and prancing entertainment. Then I got caught up in work (shocking!) and was subjected to an insulting tweet complaining about Friday Fun’s absence – so gave up. 
Instead, I offer you this encouragement from Neil Patrick Harris’ opening number at the recent Tony Awards. You see, Broadway isn’t just for gays any more… 

Honestly, it’s worth watching and has cheered my afternoon up no end – not just the musical theatre satire but Brooke Shields making a complete hash of her ‘improvised’ interjection. And when was the last time you heard Angela Lansbury referred to as hot? Fabulous.

So, I finally went to the ballet

Or rather, I went to see contemporary dance – strictly speaking what I saw wasn’t traditional ballet. Whatever, ballet’s one word, whereas contemporary dance is two…

When I wrote my original 2010 Firsts post, I included: ‘Watch live ballet (Matthew Bourne for preference)’. One of the comments that followed was from the lovely Jules, who is a dancer and therefore enjoys watching such things, who suggested I go with her. After 7 months, she took matters into her own hands and inside my birthday card I discovered a promise of a ticket to see Bourne’s Cinderella this Christmas.

You might be surprised that I’d managed to avoid ballet for over 29 years, given that I’m usually such a culture vulture. I’d wondered myself. True, I wasn’t shipped off to ballet lessons age 4 (the ballet teacher of classes in our church hall smoked cigars, my mother didn’t like her), but I did read ballet books voraciously – especially the Drina series by Jean Estoril. My sister somehow managed to rebel and finally got lessons aged 11, resulting in her taking both GCSE and A-level dance. [Yes, such qualifications exist and are not the dossy option they may sound. Like English you have set-texts; like Music you have to learn a whole new language of notation; and like Biology, you have to know a heck of a lot of anatomy.]

Anyway, I digress. The real reason why I never got to see ballet growing up was revealed when I was chatting to my mum en route to the theatre – apparently neither of my parents liked it, so they didn’t want to take us. Fair enough, and it may also explain why they never took us to musicals, instead finding willing friends who would.

So, Saturday was the day – exciting stuff, made all the more exciting with the frisson of danger provided by a mid-morning blizzard. Would I get to Sadler’s Wells? Would Jules? Would the cast be able to make it?  Would it snow more while we were in there? Would we get stranded in Islington? On reflection, walking to London Bridge was possibly an error, though certainly beautiful…

Reaching Islington (and with the snow no longer falling) we felt as though we were in a Richard Curtis film. One day, when I am married to a rich man and have children clad solely in Mini Boden, I will live on a street like this:

Apologies, I appear to have gone off on another tangent. Anyway, eventually we got to theatre, found our seats (and my GBF who’d taken up our spare ticket) and waited for the curtain to lift. I’m not going to lie, I was a little nervous that I wouldn’t like it or that I’d be bored – but by the time the first scene was over, I’d pretty much got the hang of it.

“Got the hang of it”?? I know, it sounds odd, but really, the concept of a story told solely by dance with no speech (or singing) was really rather alien! It took a while to get used to the fact that no one was going to speak or explain what was going on. Plus, the stage was so full (at some points) of dancers doing different things that at times it was tricky to work out who you ought to be watching to make sure you followed the story.

In typical Bourne fashion, although this was Cinderella, it was Cinderella with quirks. Set during the London blitz it incorporated the bombing of Café de Paris and used the classic venue for the ball. There were no ugly step-sisters, instead there were two glamorous step-sisters and three step-brothers. The fairy godmother was a male angel and the prince was an injured RAF pilot. [In fact, there were considerable similarities with A Matter of Life and Death with dream sequences and a heavenly figure only certain people could see.]

The biggest quirk, as far as I (and GBF) were concerned was that Cinderella jumped into bed with the pilot and it was from there that she disappeared, leaving behind her sparkly shoe. To quote GBF as we left, “that Cinderella was a bit of a whore, wasn’t she?” – and I’d always thought that she was such a nice girl…

What else to say? The costumes were stunning, with gorgeous long skirts and evening dresses (though GBF felt that Cinders’ ball gown wasn’t sparkly enough) and the set design impressive and true to life. How many ballets include a large motorbike and steam train? Not to mention a scene set on an underground platform? The music was Prokoviev, which meant that it didn’t match the swing style dancing of the era, but this didn’t really matter and it all fitted. Knowing little about choreography, I probably can’t comment further on that aspect.

A Christmas trip to the ballet is traditional, but I was surprised by quite how many children were there. Bourne is known for having his risqué moments (as I mentioned, Cinders was a bit of a floozy) and there was a sex scene (discreetly done) with a prostitute as well as a weird foot fetish on the part of one of the step-brothers. But perhaps when you’re 6 and entranced by the music and sparkling lights you don’t notice such things?

One final note on Sadler’s Wells itself. It’s a thoroughly sensible theatre with plenty of toilets. This may sound like an odd quality to note, but it’s highly important. Do you know how many ladies loos a typical West End theatre has? Approximately 6. At the Savoy (home of Legally Blonde) there were 3 for the entire stalls, meaning a queue for the whole interval that wasn’t worth bothering with. At Sadler’s Wells our level had 12 very nice ones meaning you could go to the toilet and the bar during the same interval and still have time for a good chat.

Just when you thought the geeks couldn’t get geekier…

It’s no secret that I adore musicals. It’s also no secret that, as far as musical theatre is concerned, all my inhibitions seem to fly out the window – singing Defying Gravity at the top of my voice while standing on a picnic bench in the middle of the park on a hot summer’s day? Not a problem.

Generally, this geekery has been characterised by obsessions with particular shows – like Wicked – seeing them multiple (so far 3) times and gathering as much related paraphernalia as possible. Once, I even queued for 2 hours, in the rain, to meet the show’s star (and Queen of Broadway) Idina Menzel. At that time, I thought that was the geekiest I’d ever get. Last night I discovered I was wrong…

Long-time musical companion Morv was in town, and a few weeks ago I’d tried (unsuccessfully) to acquire cheapish tickets to Legally Blonde for her stay. During the course of the day, we realised that the Savoy Theatre is unique amongst West End theatres, in that it runs a lottery for front row seats every evening (something common on Broadway). All you had to do was show up at 5.30, hand your name in and come back 30 minutes later to hear if you’d been successful – success meaning a right to a £25 front row ticket.

We won. Well, rather I won – my name was third out of the hat and our two seats were secured. Until we entered the theatre and found them, we weren’t aware that we’d be on the front row. Initially, I was concerned that we’d have a rubbish view – but then I spotted the orchestra pit. How could any musical nut not be fascinated by having a huge xylophone displayed in front of them (especially when played by a rather hot percussionist)? Other benefits of front row seats included:
– Ability to see facial expressions of actors in excellent detail.
– Literally within spitting distance of actors.
– Brilliant view of costumes, or lack of. If you like looking up skirts, it’s a great place to sit. If, however, a male actor taking their clothes off gets your attention, then you had a good view of this too.
– Opportunity to make eye contact with actors – particularly during curtain calls.

Sitting on the front row (and enjoying it) is rather geeky, but it got a whole lot worse once the show had finished…

The show was great. Sheridan Smith (playing Elle), even though I once intensely disliked her (for personal reasons – rather bizarrely she once got between me and a man…) was fabulous and the life of the show – thanks to the way she plays Elle, the show really doesn’t take itself seriously, and that’s a good thing. The music’s catchy, hilarious and lovely – but I’ve mentioned that before.

But most of all, the actor playing Emmett (who helps Elle turn her life around at Harvard) was dreamy. That’s not a word I use often, but it’s a perfect one for how both Morv and I felt. Great actor, beautiful singer and a script/character that would make any girl’s heart melt (oh, and we got to see him in his pants…). This would be a typical scene:

He had me at “are you ok?”. *Swoon*

So, what did we end up doing? Well, despite the freezing night, we were in no hurry to head home, so we thought we’d pop round the back to the stage door to see if we could catch a glimpse of anyone. I may have hung around stage doors before, but only when I’ve been friends with someone in the production – never to get a programme signed or – God forbid – have a photo taken with a cast member. I cringed just at the thought of it. But last night, in the hope of meeting our new crush, we waited…

And were not disappointed. The lovely Alex Gaumond was out soon after we got there and after watching lots of others get autographs, and having befriending an American pair, Morv got an autograph and we got a photo [he touched me – twice – squeal!]. Having waited for him, we figured we’d see who else we could meet – so the UPS guy followed (who willingly did the bend & snap for some fans – fantastic) as well as a former star of Hollyoaks, who we were relieved to see was none the worse for her recent on-screen death. Then we did something truly pathetic – we met Sheridan, got photos and had a chat. Pathetic. (Not least because I also name checked our mutual friend, which may get me into trouble later.)

You know what though? Yes, it was geeky. Yes, it was quite sad. Yes, we squealed like small girls and spoke at a pitch only dogs can hear. But it was fun. It’s made us laugh all day – when we haven’t been swooning over the lovely Alex singing Bublé’s Home in this video.

I guess you probably ought to see the photo too. Please bear in mind that this was a spontaneous theatre trip – had we planned it, we’d have been in much better outfits/hair styles and probably wouldn’t be clutching bags holding new ski jackets [that’s a story for another day].

Geeks and proud – honest. 

Green Eyes

Unfortunately, I have a bit of a tendency to give in to the Green Eyed Monster. It’s not a great trait, but hey, there are worse ones.

Today I’m jealous of one particular friend who’s recently moved to San Francisco to work for 6 months. This in itself is a reason for jealousy. Earlier he showed me the amazing views from his apartment via the wondrous medium of Skype – Alcatraz from your bedroom window anyone?? The sun was shining brightly, and though it’s been sunny here today, we’re lacking some really good heat. Our chat was cut short by the arrival of his running buddy, they were off for a run to the Golden Gate Bridge…I may have strolled past Tower Bridge on my way home tonight, but I can do that any day. I’ve never seen the Golden Gate Bridge. Hmmmmmmm.

I’m even more jealous of this friend today because of what he got up to last night. [Fear not, this isn’t heading in a dodgy direction!] He and his fellow cast members (Did I mention this is a theatrical friend? That fact becomes more important later in this story.) had been given tickets to a performance of Wicked, which, as you may remember is my most favourite musical. He’s not so much of a fan, (though he would obligingly be my pianist for all the best songs, which was useful when he lived around the corner) and is the person responsible for the Elphaba Complex theory. Anyway, he told me in advance that he was going and then when he got home let me know what he’d got up to…

He’d tried on Elphaba’s hat.
This might not sound like a big deal to you, but if in your wildest dreams you imagine yourself flying high, defying gravity clutching a broom in one hand and having a cloak billowing out around you with your skin a shade of verdant green, then this is seriously jealousy inducing. [If you have no idea what I’m talking about, watch this.]

Admittedly, he has no photographic evidence of this exploit – apparently such photos are severely verboten – but he did get one with the Wizard’s head. He and his chum also spent some time searching for ‘the spellbook’ (he laughed at me when I corrected his terminology, it is in fact ‘The Grimmery’) but to no avail. Ah well. I’m touched that as he was engaged in this ridiculous activity he was thinking of me and how envious I would be.

Last year there was a possibility that this friend might get an audition for the London production. He told me this prefixed with “don’t get all excited, but…”, and sure enough, I got very excited. It went something along these lines:
“If you get a part in Wicked, can I come backstage when I come and see it?” [Fairly reasonable.]
“If you get a part in Wicked, can I get on the stage and sing Defying Gravity when no one’s there?” [Beginning to get a little geeky.]
“If you get a part in Wicked, could I try out the thing that raises Elphaba up at the end of Act 1?” [Very geeky, but a logical request from any true fan.]
“If you get a part in Wicked, could you trap either Elphaba or Glinda and their understudies in a broom cupboard so that I could cover for them?” [Very, very weird and possibly a little desperate.]

Ack, jealousy – it makes fools out of all of us!