Kinky Boots

I first saw Kinky Boots over two years ago. Now, as its closing date in the West End is announced, I paid another visit with my auntie and cousin, and wished I had seen it more often over the last couple of years.

Based on the film, with music by Cyndi Lauper, it is the story of Charlie Price, who is faced with rescuing his family’s failing Northampton shoe factory, and his partnership with drag queen Lola, who inspires him to make glamorous shoes for the drag queen market.

Having watched the film only recently, I was able to appreciate how well the musical condenses the events of the first twenty minutes or so into one song. Indeed, the show as a whole is very well paced, with not a dull moment.

Simon-Anthony Rhoden is superb as Lola, conveying her passion, charisma, liveliness and also her vulnerability. The musical shines most when Lola is on stage. I wasn’t always convinced by Oliver Tompsett’s acting as Charlie Price, but he has a brilliant singing voice, making the most of his solo numbers. Natalie McQueen is also fabulous as Lauren, bringing the house down with her humorous solo track.

The serious side to this musical is that it is about loyalty, friendship and accepting people for who they are, as well as questioning traditional notions of masculinity. What makes it so fantastic, however, is the superb score and the excellent cast. The West End will be poorer when it goes.

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Eyam

My last play at the Globe this summer season is Eyam, a historical drama about the Great Plague of 1665. Written by Matt Hartley, it is based on the true story of the Derbyshire village that quarantined itself until the plague – which had entered the village via a consignment of cloth from London – had died off, along with around three quarters of the village.

It begins with the entrance of well-meaning vicar William Mompesson (Sam Crane), who arrives with his wife (Priyanga Burford) to the tiny village of Eyam, greeted with distrust by most of its inhabitants. When the plague begins, however, Mompesson seems to grow in stature and instigates the famous quarantine, to which the villagers – mostly – adhere.

The play is peopled with a rich cast of characters – the matter-of-fact sexton, the abusive husband, the spirited daughter, and the lord of the manor, who flees even though it’s his wife’s cloth that brings the plague to the village. It’s far too long, really, especially when you’re standing in the Yard – the exposition takes almost the entire first half. However, this long lead-up does mean that you grow to care about the characters, and feel sorry when they begin to die off like flies. There’s still room for humour, however, and a nod to known practices of the time, such as the selling of quack medicine to desperate citizens.

The ending is the most striking part of Eyam, as Crane/Mompesson reads out the names of all 277 villagers who died, out of a population of 356. The list includes entire families and several babies as yet unnamed. The enormity of the death toll is palpable as Crane appears steadily more exhausted, as if he is reciting the list with the last of his strength. It’s incredibly powerful and moving, and is a reminder of the real human cost of the plague.

Hogarth’s Progress: The Art of Success

The work of eighteenth-century artist William Hogarth has made its presence felt during the time I’ve been living in London, so I was excited at the prospect of seeing a pair of plays about his life. Written by Nick Dear and performed at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, they look at Hogarth and contemporary culture at two important periods in his life. The first, The Art of Success, sees Hogarth in 1730, desperately seeking the acclaim already felt by more ‘traditional’ artists, and looking for a new way to make his work available to the masses.

This rowdy, boisterous play begins in a tavern, where Hogarth (Bryan Dick), politician Robert Walpole (Mark Umbers) and writer Henry Fielding (Jack Derges) are sharing food, drink and ideas. Meanwhile, Hogarth’s wife Jane (Ruby Bentall) is seeking her own place in the world, determined not to become merely her husband’s muse, refusing to sit for him. When Hogarth seeks the company of prostitutes and female prisoners, including the murderess Sarah Sprackling, he unwittingly brings the underworld of London and his home life together.

There are some strong performances and the play is often very funny, but it also seems peculiarly dated in a way that has nothing to do with the eighteenth-century setting. It was originally performed at the RSC in 1986, and it’s age shows in some of the attitudes and incidents. Hogarth isn’t shown as a particularly likeable character – in itself not a problem, but one of his actions in particular seems particularly cruel and nobody seems to bat an eyelid. For someone who sought the acclaim of ordinary people, he treated them rather badly – which perhaps is the point.

There’s plenty of bad language in the play, but I can’t say that it bothered me – if anything, it was probably toned down from what would actually have been used in the eighteenth century.┬áI liked the set, in which a large screen resembling a canvas is moved to hold props or reflect the setting. The play also does a good job of capturing the feel of the age. While I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped, I was intrigued enough to book for the second play.

The Penguin and I

A couple of years ago, I was supposed to be going to see The Penguin and I by Living Room Circus, but the traffic was bad and I ended up missing it. Finally I’ve been able to catch a performance of this piece, which took place in the Crossrail Roof Garden in Canary Wharf.

This is a surreal piece set in a man’s living room; when he comes home, strange things start happening. Hands reach out from beneath the sofa, odd characters emerge and start to perform random moves, and a figure in a penguin mask watches silently.

The performance was surreal, bizarre and impressive, with incredible feats of movement being undertaken by the performers. I’m glad I eventually got to see it.

The Merry Wives of Windsor

Oddly, The Merry Wives of Windsor is one of the few plays I’ve seen twice at the RSC – once back in 2012, and once now in 2018. This production, directed by RSC newcomer Fiona Laird, stars David Troughton as Falstaff and is set in an era that mixes traditional Elizabethan with contemporary Essex.

Tradition has it that Queen Elizabeth I asked for this play, owing to her fondness for the character of Falstaff; the production runs with this theory in a humorous Prologue which imagines Shakespeare receiving his orders from Her Majesty. Unlike most of Shakespeare’s other plays, Merry Wives features no royalty or nobility, just ordinary middle-class folks – doctors, tradesmen, tavern owners – and shows the women of the title getting their revenge on their would-be seducer, Falstaff.

This is a modern spin on the play: Mistresses Page and Quickly talk over their plots in a beauty salon, and the Fords’ back garden boasts a golden barbecue and a swimming pool. Falstaff is forced to hide in a wheelie bin, instead of the usual laundry basket, wheeled away by a pair of bemused Polish binmen. Yet the cast wear costumes and live in houses inspired by the sixteenth century, and they still evoke the legend of Herne the Hunter at the play’s end.

Merry Wives has got to be one of the funniest Shakespeare comedies, and the cast make the most of it. David Troughton is a superbly entertaining Falstaff, and Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingly as Mistresses Page and Ford are a match for him. The supporting characters provide great entertainment – Jonathan Cullen as Dr Caius, David Acton as the Welsh Parson, and Charlotte Josephine as Bardolph, as well as┬áIshia Bennison as Mistress Quickly.

I loved this production – it was hugely entertaining and great fun, and should appeal to those who are unsure about Shakespeare as well as those who love his work.

Sonnet Sunday

Sonnet Sunday poster

The Globe hosted its first ever Sonnet Sunday recently, and I went along, excited about experiencing something new. There were two options available – Sonnet Lover, which allowed the ticket holder entrance to two hours of sonnets in the Globe itself, and Sonnet Completist, which also included two hours of sonnets prior to that around the building. Obviously I had to go for the Completist!

The first couple of hours was so much fun, wandering around the entire building (including the exhibition space), hoping that an actor would come up and recite a sonnet to you, after which you would be given a special ribbon. I managed to amass quite a few of these, although I’m sure there were plenty more. The experience was oddly intimate and took some getting used to but in the end you just had to go with it… the fact that everyone else there was so enthusiastic about it really helped.

Ribbons I collected

Ribbons I collected

The second half involved more sonnets spoken on the stage of the Globe itself. This was fun too, with sonnets spoken in various inventive ways and in different contexts. It was nice to see the staff of the Globe getting involved too, although I do think perhaps they should have been told to project more, as sometimes it was hard to hear what people were saying – especially with the sound of helicopters overhead.
Still, overall I did have a really good time!

The Importance of Being Earnest

I’ve seen The Importance of Being Earnest so many times that I probably wouldn’t have bothered going to the latest one, except that it was part of Dominic Dromgoole’s Classic Spring season of Oscar Wilde plays at the Vaudeville Theatre, and I’m a bit of a completist – so was determined to see the lot.

As it turned out, the production was quite different to any I’ve seen before. Director Michael Fentiman has created a production that subtly – and not-so-subtly – nods to Wilde’s homosexuality; the tale of the two friends, Algernon and Jack, who variously impersonate the nonexistent Earnest in order to get away with their behaviour could be read as the kind of subterfuge gay men might have needed to take part in to be able to live their lives. The surprisingly stark set nods to Victorian decor without being anything like as overpowering as the real thing.

Jack has invented a roguish younger brother, Earnest, as an excuse for going up to London, while his friend Algernon decides to pretend to be Earnest in order to visit Jack’s young ward, Cecily, in the country. Meanwhile, Jack is in love with Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen, but Aunt Agatha – Lady Bracknell – is having none of it.

Fehinti Balogun and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd give good performances as the two friends, and one thing I really liked was that their speeches – even cringily outdated phrases such as “My own one!” – sounded natural instead of stilted. Gwendolen and Cecily, too, are clearly marked in their differences – Cecily the clever but naive young country girl, Gwendolen the more worldly city woman. Pippa Nixon was strong as Gwendolen, Meg Coombs – who played the role on the night I attended – excellent as Cecily. Some might argue that removing the Victorian stuffiness from the play dilutes the impact of Wilde’s message, but I felt that this just underscored the sharpness of Wilde’s wit. In the context, I did feel that Sophie Thompson’s performance as Lady Bracknell was a little overdone and out of place, though it would have worked wonderfully in a different production.

Sometimes the best productions are those of plays you are familiar with, as they can give impressions you hadn’t thought of before. This is on of those productions – a worthy conclusion to the Wilde season.