Monday 8th July – Guildhall School of Music and Drama final year students’ graduation show at the Silk Street Theatre, Barbican. Sondheim and Furth’s bittersweet musical complimented by an excellent 20-strong band, as always at Guildhall.
THE LAST SONG OF OLIVER SIPPLE
Sunday 14th July – The Last Song of Oliver Sipple (at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington) tells the story of a forgotten American hero tortured by prejudice, hypocrisy, media intrusion and the rift created within his own family.
“I loved my country, but my country didn’t love me”, laments Oliver (Billy) Sipple, a decorated Vietnam veteran who bravely averted an assassination attempt upon US President Gerald Ford in 1975. An invitation was planned to the White House to thank him. But Oliver Sipple was gay. So the invitation was withdrawn and Sipple received a tiny note of thanks from Ford instead. Sipple’s life story and death at an early age from drink in 1989 after years of media hounding and being preyed on by opportunists makes for a rather sketchy 50-minute play as presented here. It feels like there is a deeper story to tell, but not knowing what research this work is based on it is impossible to say whether anyone connected with the play actually knew Sipple.
The meat of the story is in the central incident, with the rest feeling very much like supporting material. The stories about meeting and working with Harvey Milk are interesting but go no further than a sort of diary entry, so it is difficult to know this character further. What is undoubted is that he was a national hero who was not respected. We hear a lot about what happened but the bio doesn’t leave much time to explore the feelings of this private man reluctantly thrust into the public eye with all the attendant challenges.
Here is another show with no specific
theatrical, visual component until the final moments. This would make a fine
radio play but I do not see what bringing it to the stage added to the script.
Whilst being grateful to writer David Hendon for bringing Sipple back to the public eye, this show itself is an historically interesting but sketchy introduction to an ordinary man who happened to be in the right place at the right time to avert a potential crisis…and happened to be gay.
THE OFSTED MASSACRE
Monday 15th July – LAMDA final year graduating students’ show. A specially commissioned new comedy by Phil Porter and directed by Joe Murphy. Acting was generally of a very high standard (particularly the leads) and a majority of these actors are clearly stage-ready. The script was relatable and funny, although sadly it ran out of steam halfway through act two, and would have perhaps played better if it was shorter. Nevertheless, by this time the actors had mostly been seen to good advantage.
FERNANDO AND HIS GRANDMOTHER
Wednesday 31st July – At Clapham’s Omnibus Theatre, Out of the Wings ( https://ootwfestival.com/ ) is presenting its fourth annual festival, exploring untapped theatre from the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking world. Over five days, a series of staged readings bring to life new English translations of works by playwrights from six countries, alongside workshops, talks and events, in celebration of theatre in translation.
“It’s the voices, boy, the voices.”
In a dance across the generations, the legendary Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa duets with his irrepressible grandmother Dionísia Seabra. Spanning almost a century, their meetings continue despite illness, distance, and even death. Come what may, some bonds refuse to be broken.
Fernando’s a troubled boy, haunted by his private terrors. From an early age the only refuge is his intimacy with his demented grandmother. They are a conspiracy of two. They are complicit. Faced with a disapproving and seemingly threatening world, they share a private universe of make-believe games and songs.
Are genius and insanity as close as this? These two both spend their lives in different ways as outsiders. Dionísia hears voices in her madness. Fernando as a child is already inventing alter egos which as an adult become the fully fledged fictional “heteronyms” – the many writers under whose names his work is eventually published – and considered among the greatest of the twentieth century.
Written by Armando Nascimento Rosa , translated by Susannah Finzi and directed by Almiro Andrade
IN BRIEF Smart and compassionate contemporary musical soars when sung but flags when script takes over.
There’s a lot to like in Alex James Ellison’s and Tom Lees’ London-set FIVER, playing at the Little space at Southwark Playhouse.
The neat premise involves the complex
journey from one hand to another of a humble five pound note, a sort of
financial LA RONDE if you like. Comprising a series of musical snapshots of (very)
varying length, the show is at its best when singing, and the music is of a
quality that stays with you after the show.
A street busker (Alex James Ellison, the show’s composer) tops and tails the show and interjects at various points; he is well-qualified to do so, having the ability to work a room. His neat trick is to ask for the titular fiver from an audience member, and its return at the end of the show is neat too. As for the scenes, most are relatively short, involving one key song, and the show moves along nicely. Unfortunately, the pace falls off when we get to some over-extended dialogue scenes (at a party, and a park proposal) which made me long for the music’s return.
Along the journey we meet a wide variety of young characters all with issues to cope with, trying to find their way in the big city. Playing multiple characters through the show, the four singer/actors (plus Ellison) are at their best when signing, the often-layered vocals performed with aplomb. The music is varied in style but engaging, and deserves its space in the show. Highlights for me included an entreaty by a wife to her husband to talk about his grief in the plaintive but empathetic “Whisper it To Me”, beautifully sung with skill and restraint by Hiba Elchikhe. Aoife Clesham’s song “Press Hash to Rerecord” was a comic highlight, charting the escalating un-success of a recently dumped woman attempting to leave a relaxed voicemail for her ex. Also worthy of note, the heavy but hopeful “For Your Light to Shine” was a lovely shaft of light in the midst of world-weary uncertainty. The cheeky fast-forward into the interval (“A Fiver’s Destiny”) was also very funny and well-done.
London can be a lonely place,
and the struggle to connect with others and feel “at home” is a key theme that
runs through this show. Its view of London as having threats and challenges as
well as shafts of kindness, thoughtfulness and hope is a potent mix which the
audience responded to. The episodic nature of the script avoids having to delve
into issues too deeply, but in contrast to this approach the recurring sub-plot
about a stalker seemed out of place and unresolved.
The capable band of four are MD-d by Tom Lees (the show’s book writer/ director), frustratingly they are sometimes over amplified to the point that in several of the songs the singers have to struggle to be heard which takes the edge off the enjoyment of the lyrics. At times this makes it a struggle for the audience to engage with the songs which is unfortunate.
London theatre needs more smart and compassionate musicals like FIVER, and I am sure that with a reworked book this could have a much longer life ahead.
FIVER runs at Southwark Playhouse until July 20. Information and tickets here