Review: MAME

IN BRIEF Tracie Bennett’s star wattage lights up this shimmering revival of Jerry Herman’s feel-good Broadway hit

We all love a survivor.

Unseen in the UK since its 1969 London debut (when it ran at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane for almost 500 performances), Nick Winston’s stripped-down production works well because it understands that Mame is the show and with the casting of Bennett, the show is secure. The show’s intimacy of scale has not limited its ambition- or indeed, its success.

The show is set in New York in 1928. When ten- year old Patrick arrives at the door of his only living relative, it’s is up to high-living auntie Mame to take the boy in and teach him about life -and what a job she does! Together, they weather the depression, Wall Street Crash, stuffed-shirts and bourgeois bores, skilfully side-stepping humdrum reality whenever possible. Mame gaily makes her own authentic way through good times and bad, hard times and good, all with her indomitable spirit untarnished. Mame is a gold-plated survivor.

Bennett concocts her Mame with all the skill of a mixologist. Two parts heart, two parts optimism, one part zany, with a twist of Tallalulah Bankhead in the vocal delivery. It’s deliciously intoxicating. Coupled with a five-star voice with power and sophistication, it’s an unbeatable combination and she justified her standing ovation from the audience I was with.

Lochlan White as younger Patrick authentically expresses his sweet innocence coupled with a playfulness which enhances the chemistry between him and Mame. He more than holds his own with his number “My Best Girl”.

Harriet Thorpe gives a delightfully overblown Vera an appealing mix of Martini- haze and sharp- tongued sass, to the audience’s pleasure.

The cast of 20 all give value, and the big chorus numbers are of a size which still satisfies.

Winston’s acute direction and choreography allows numbers like Open a New Window, to both tell a story and add also atmosphere, value and interest to the extended number. He wisely reins back on numbers like Bosom Buddies, that nicely affectionate bitch- fest where the words do the work, which raises just the right laughs.

The cleverly minimalistic set relies on a few well selected pieces to create an atmosphere and that is all that is needed. Costumes again are good, with the spending wisely done where it is best seen- most particularly in Mame’s sparkling and stylish wardrobe changes, which are a delight.

Any musical with Alex Parker as MD is a winner from the start, and as usual he works wonders with a small band to Jason Carr’s orchestrations. (Just a side note here, I was very disappointed to see that the musicians received no credit in the Royal & Derngate programme- credit where its due, folks, please!).

This two- week extension to the show ‘s original run palpably misses Tim Flavin’s playing of Beauregard; but in truth this is Bennett’s show from start to finish and she gives audiences just what they want.

MAME received the warmest reception from the Northampton audience (on Saturday 11th January), proving that not only do we all love a survivor, but that also we all love a good story with great music done with heart and flair. Producer Katy Lipson has scored another direct hit with a Broadway classic, proving yet again that she is a formidable force for the future of musicals both old and new.

MAME next plays Salisbury Playhouse from 20-25 January. For information and tickets click here


Remembering Jill Hudson

Stage Doorkeeper Jill Hudson was the first person I met walking into the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1986. For the next 31 years she was the first person most people saw.

Jilly was a smart lady with a big heart and an even larger presence; she ruled the Stage Door with a friendly smile, a quick mind, a calm demeanour – and considerable authority.

The news that Jill has died on January 6th after living with cancer for some time, just a few days after her birthday (on New Year’s Day), is a sad moment for myself and all those thousands of show-people who came across her, and recognised her as a happy part of Drury Lane’s glittering history.

She started at Drury Lane like me, in 1986, on the original five-year run of 42nd STREET, an incredibly happy show which had a real family atmosphere thanks to the warm-hearted management of General Manager Bill Cronshaw. Jill left in late 2017 due to illness, interestingly during the revival of 42nd STREET (which ran at the theatre for nearly two years until January 2019). She did say to me in 2017 that she wanted to retire on the last night of the show, but sadly that wasn’t to be.

For 31 years a favourite with the large casts which filled the Lane, the stage door was really Jilly’s home, with assorted cards and gifts from previous celebrity (and non-celebrity) friends, soft toys and of course Chelsea FC memorabilia. Visitors buzzed in and out constantly, always welcomed and the kettle was always on for a brew and a chat whenever time permitted.

Jilly knew how to be firm whilst being pleasant, qualities which many a visitor appreciated, and in terms of working relationships you knew just where you were with Jill- and it worked both ways. She was the best.

She will not be forgotten by those many people who met her, laughed with her and enjoyed her warm and happy Tannoy messages- especially keeping people up to date on sports event back in the days before mobile phones. Indeed, Twitter and Instagram have lit up with tributes since the news of her passing emerged – proof, if any were needed, that Jill was more loved than even she may have even known!

My thoughts and heartfelt wishes go out to her family and loved ones.

Thanks for all the happy memories, Jilly. Drury Lane will never be quite the same again.


Review: THE ARRIVAL

IN BRIEF Haunting, raw drama of family estrangement and male communication lingers in the mind

Bijan Sheibani’s intense play about male relationships focuses on two brothers- one given up for adoption as a child, the other kept, when they meet again in adulthood. Set on a blank revolving blue disc of a stage, this 70-minute show strips the brothers’ encounters down, examining the fractured connections that still haunt them both and the changes they have to make to go on with their lives.

Between the scenes, the two circle and glower at each other, nicely suggesting underlying tensions and unexpressed emotions.

The audience starts out with very little information and quite gradually we build up certain impressions, rather like Tom building up his own half-forgotten picture of the family that left him behind.

The brothers’ reunion upsets a fragile status quo. Things that have long been buried are dug up again, again dealing with all the repressed guilt, powerlessness and anger about things not of their making.

Tom, the adopted brother is weighted with large and small questions, desperate to reclaim his family ties and make sense of it all, but his drive to move things on quickly grates with quieter, more moderate Sam, who favours a slower approach, not just for the sake of his parents.

There is a palpable desire for physical and mental connection, yet the closest they come to sustained physical contact is when they fight at Sam’s wedding. This is complex, messy stuff focusing on male role models and the pressure from both within and without about how men act and react.

Writer/Director Sheibani gives his work intrigue, accessibility and humanity. Both of these characters are hurting, but their resolutions seem very distant, and certainly not hinted at by the conclusion of this play.

Scott Karim carefully portrays Tom as driven, unsettled, positively glowing with repressed rage and resentment.

Irfan Shamji plays Sam as more cautious, slower, on the defensive. Both actors give committed and intense performances that do the material justice. Towards the end of the play, Tom’s quiet line resonated with me on the way home. “I just thought I’d found you…but I hadn’t”.

THE ARRIVAL plays The Bush Theatre until January 18th. Details and tickets here


Goodbye, Jerry

“There are only a couple of us who care about writing songs that people can leave the theater singing.”

Jerry Herman, composer of tune-filled big Broadway crowd-pleasers such as HELLO, DOLLY!, MAME, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES and MACK AND MABEL, has died aged 88.

Herman’s biggest successes were based on other people’s stories, which makes sound sense. If they like and know the story, why would they not want to see it again as a musical? Thus, Thornton Wilder’s delightful THE MATCHMAKER became HELLO, DOLLY!, Patrick Dennis’ novel AUNTIE MAME became MAME , and Jean Poiret’s stage farce turned France’s most profitable-ever movie LA CAGE AUX FOLLES came to the musical stage and worked a new kind of magic with its story.

Many tributes have already been penned, so I shall not duplicate for the sake of duplication. I shall just content myself with remembering my connections with the man and his work.

I was lucky enough to be a House Manager at the Palladium during the original London run of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES in 1987. A truly lavish spectacle, this Allan Carr-produced extravaganza wowed audiences nightly with its glamour, humour, heart -and of course those priceless songs which sent audiences home happy and singing. The mischievous Cagelles were legend around the building- for all the wrong (right?) reasons. The magnificent George Hearn and Denis Quilley starred and it was a very happy show. There was some resistance to the show’s chosen theatre of residence, in that the Palladium was a family house and the fact that such a risque, adult show had come in was seen as something of a misplace. Certainly the venue’s vast capacity of 2200 was a factor in the show’s only running for one year. But what a year it was!

What was also very touching about LA CAGE was the audiences. All ages, types, everyone had a whale of a time, although I recall seeing no children as the show was aimed at adults. It was a time of social upheaval regarding attitudes towards homosexuality. As you may recall the world was in the grip of the HIV and AIDS crisis, with no effective treatment then in sight. Songs such as The Best Of Times took on a deeper resonance. Somehow, the show became a focus of energy around this upheaval.

I particularly remember older audience members wanting to talk with us on the outgoing- they had gay friends and they wanted us to know they valued and loved them. I can clearly recall conversations with people in their sixties and seventies who spoke lovingly about their gay friends and how difficult life had been for them. It was very moving and I felt honoured to be entrusted with their words. As I mentioned, the show closed after a year, and everyone was rather disappointed it had not gone on for much longer. Thankfully the show has had a large number of revivals since. But nothing will rival that no-expenses spared glamour-filled year at The London Palladium.


The one time that I met Jerry Herman was at a lavish benefit performance staged at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in February 1988, MACK AND MABEL IN CONCERT. Tickets were like gold dust. Rumours had been flying about the guest list and they mostly proved true. Barry Mishon produced one of his star-studded extravaganzas (he specialised in American star-laden tribute shows on Sundays in London in the 80s). Presenting a concert version with an (as I recall it) fifty-piece orchestra.

The performance was recorded for sound but not filmed, sadly. Some great performers graced this gala, the likes of George Hearn, Georgia Brown, Stubby Kaye, Debbie Shapiro, and in a spectacular roof-raiser, Tommy Tune and a company of dozens and dozens of glittering chorines all in white, singing and dancing to Tap Your Troubles Away, the ovation for which I have never heard louder in a theatre. You can actually hear the sound distort on the recording at the physical force of the applause and the house went truly crazy with a standing ovation and people crying and hugging themselves. I was on duty but even I couldn’t resist seeing this. A truly memorable show. We even got to hear Jerry sing, when he took a section of I Promise You A Happy Ending towards the end of the show.

After the bulk of the audience had departed, the post-show party was held upstairs in the Grand Circle Saloon, an expansive and elegant hall, and the company mingled with VIPs and others. Jerry Herman was there with his small entourage, and on his arm was the dazzling Lauren Bacall, a special friend, who appeared in the show as one of the featured narrators of the story, in between the songs.

Halfway up the stairs to the Saloon (I was following behind) I noticed that Ms Bacall stopped and seemed to panic. Jerry was concerned about his friend. I raced up to ask if I could help. Ms Bacall said that she had left a very special pair of gloves in her dressing room and was upset to be without them. I reassured her that we would locate it and asked the party to continue on. The items duly retrieved, I brought them to her in the Saloon. She was very relieved and kissed me on the cheek, and Jerry thanked me genuinely. She later told me that “a very special person”, now deceased, had given them to her and she considered them a kind of talisman.

Chatting later to his friends who had accompanied him, they were all delighted at the success of the event and the fact that it had raised a huge amount for the Royal Marsden Cancer hospital in Chelsea. The recording, released later in 1988 and still available today, also generated funds for the hospital’s cancer fund.


VIEWS: Que?

Image courtesy National Theatre website.

Recently I was organising some theatre tickets for a Spanish friend for her Mum’s visit to London. We met for drinks beforehand and I realised that her Mum spoke very little English. I asked about how she would connect with the show and her daughter said “It’s OK. I just whisper in her ear the important bits”.

It made me think back to times at the theatre when I have been sat near whispering translators, which is usually OK for musicals but it can be very distracting for plays.

It seems unkind to ask them to stop, as their companion may not know what is happening, but also it is a distraction for the rest of the audience, as well as a burden for the person doing the translating. Besides which, the person receiving the translation may also feel uncomfortable about the whole process- grateful but acutely aware of the disturbance to others. In short, it’s a lose-lose-lose situation.

So what can be done?

I am proud that our UK theatre attracts so much interest from visitors from all parts of the world but I feel that we are not doing enough to allow them to enjoy it

You may have heard of the recent development of “caption glasses” which the National Theatre has now introduced successfully across all its auditoria. (For my earlier article about these, click here). These glasses were designed to provide the service of captioned dialogue for those who are deaf or hard of hearing and is already proving a  great success. Unlike the previous captioned performance, the glasses are available at all auditoria for every performance- a real advance.

As a logical extension, if people are already reading captions in English, why should others not be able to read captions in other languages too?

Imagine how much more of a fulfilling experience theatre could be for those who speak little English if they could follow the show with captioned glasses in their own language?

I appreciate that these improvements take time and money to implement, but just imagine being able to welcome visitors from around the globe and make them feel at home with access to one of the UK’s proudest achievements – our incredible theatre.

I aim to talk to the National Theatre about this and will let you know of any developments