Johnny Johnson


Lillian Baylis Studio Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, Sunday 5 July 2009


review by Emma Shane

©July 2009


Going to see one of Ian Marshall-Fisher’s Discovering Lost Musicals Charitable TrustTM Shows always has a certain element of excitement and apprehension to it. What undiscovered gems are there in the script? What familiar songs might we hear in their unfamiliar original setting? Are the actors doing the piece going to be ones who do musicals frequently, or ones who are usually known for turning up on TV cop shows, in other words not known for singing. Will they be familiar stalwarts, or new to the gang?

One thing we can be sure of, is that whatever the piece is it will have been extensively researched (in some cases painstakingly pieced back together), and performed to a generally high standard. But sometimes we get shear brilliance, perfect casting, and consistently excellent performances. 

Having seen these shows for nearly fifteen years sometimes I find myself thinking “Yes but they are not as good as they were back in the old glory days at Barbican”. Then I wonder, “Am I being fair?”  And yet occasionally, just occasionally a Lost Musicals production will come along, where there is absolutely no doubt the standard is being maintained. This surprising show is one of those occasions.


Johnny Johnson is a very unusual piece for the Discovering Lost Musicals gang anyway, as Ian Marshall-Fisher makes very clear in his fascinating pre-show talk. For a start it is more a Play with Music (and songs), than a Musical. It was also originally written for and produced by The American Group Theatre, which explains in part why this bizarre anti-war satire is so refreshingly radically left-wing.

The show has a large number of characters, one which will push even the Lost Musicals. Ian Marshall-Fisher has assembled a cast of fourteen, playing over forty seven characters, so a lot of the actors have to play several roles. Around half of the actors have done Lost Musicals shows before, and these trusted old hands, as one might expect, take the lions share of the principal roles. They include among their number two of the Magic Quintet, whose presence I think is usually guaranteed to raise the level. These two Myra Sands and James Vaughan have been in more Lost Musicals than anyone else. Myra has been in over thirty. While James has appeared in at least eighteen of the shows, (actually I think this one might be his twentieth!) However, for the title role we have a surprise, an actor, who not only rarely does musical type shows, but who has never done a Lost Musical before (though his indefatigable big sister was in about a dozen of them some years ago), Max Gold. Still his resume lists an impressive array of Shakespearian credits and a good few left-wing ones.


So the cast come on stage to take their places in a quiet orderly fashion, sitting at the back of the stage, while Ian-Marshall-Fisher gives his talk, with no obvious shtik from the performers. It hasn’t always been so at Lost Musicals pre-show talks, I recall once only three years ago, when our producer-director got upstaged by a pianist; as well as two or three incidences several years ago involving a certain madcap muppet.

Act 1 opens with the whole company rising to play the townsfolk of a small American town in 1917, who are gathered to unveil a tombstone monument to peace. James Vaughan as His Honour The Mayor opens the proceedings with Over In Europe, a song about how Europe is being torn apart by war, but America will stay out of that. This is to his usual high standard of performance. He then introduces the man who caused this monument to be erected, the stone-mason Johnny Johnson. At this moment, Max Gold, who until now standing on the stage had appeared to merge quietly and unobtrusively in with the rest of the company suddenly turns his extraordinary stage presence on full, as he takes command, grabbing hold of the scene.  This is our leading man, playing the title role, and quite suddenly we are all very much aware of him. So much so that for the rest of the scene whether he has something to say or not, we are very focused on him. When his character is asked to make a speech one of his first lines is “I’m better working with my hands anyway”. Max makes this a memorable line, because he delivers it with such conviction and feeling, he is a brilliant actor, he also happens to have had several close relatives who were rather good working with their hands. Could that have had an impact, who knows? Just as the townsfolk are about to go and get their pictures taken (for the newspaper) and unveil the monument, a messenger turns up with the news that America has entered the war. In a flash the peace-loving attitude of the townsfolk is change, to one of being pro-war. All except Johnny, who cannot comprehend this sudden change, not can he understand why on earth Woodrow Wilson has entered into this foreign war. He for one feels that they should get their “pictures took” and unveil the monument. But everyone else answers Democracy’s Call by deciding that can be done another time, not in a time of war. Grandpa Joe explains it with Up Chickamunga Hill, thereby giving Tim Thomas a small chance in the limelight as an elderly American warmonger. While Lauren Ward as Minnie Belle Tompkins (a girl trying to choose between two men, Johnny Johnson and Anguish Howington) goes war crazy, very much like those awful British girls who gave out white feathers so unthinkingly, would have done (admittedly she doesn’t go quite that far).

Johnny is completely bewildered by this suddenly change in the political atmosphere.  The scene ends with our leading man expressing his puzzlement with Johnny’s Song. Here Max Gold demonstrates that he can sing nicely, and sing the lyrics with feeling as though he means it. Vocally the Lost Musicals have many actors who may be far more versatile and in many ways superior singers. However, for this role more superior vocalising is not actually required. Sincerity and simplicity are what is needed here, and both those qualities Max certainly has. His puzzlement over having thought that Woodrow Wilson saw eye to eye with him about peace (and keeping American out of European wars), for a moment also reminded me of a true story I read in Colin Chambers’ book on Unity Theatre; concerning one young lady who initially believed in Chamberlain’s efforts to negotiate peace, and because of this did not appear in Living Newspaper No 2 Crisis (about the Munich agreement). A coincidence to be reminded of that story, perhaps.

Switching the action to Minnie Belle’s house a few nights later, we find Gay Soper as Aggie Minnie Belle’s mother singing Aggie’s (Sewing Machine) Song. I was not exactly keen on this character, nevertheless versatile Gay Soper plays her well. Interestingly although the character is not an easy one to like, she is one of the kindest to our hero, she may not be too keen on him as a potential son-in-law but at least she is pleasant to him. Perhaps also, in a funny sort of way, she kind of respects his pacifist views.

Gay Soper rather comes into her own when Aggie has an amusing scene with Anguish Howington, played by Richard Stemp, during which, she tells him how her various relatives, while supporting wars, dodged military service on medical grounds, sometimes by doing themselves “accidental” damage. She suggests Anguish’s eyesight is not good enough for a soldier, especially if he has a spell of wearing her cross-eyed glasses. Anguish falls in with the hypocritical idea.

Minnie Belle returning home, promptly assumes Johnny has enlisted and will soon be off to Europe, and launches into Come Back To Me. Lauren Ward sings well, but what really makes this number is Max’s portrayal of Johnny reacting to it in shock horror at Minnie’s warmongering attitude. Max Gold is one of those actors who really can convey a lot with just a look or a gesture. Johnny has finally received a locket he ordered for Minnie, he reaches into his pocket, takes it out and gives it to her. I notice that Max and Lauren both mime so well one could believe they were holding a locket. It also made me think of Oh Kay, when the lovely likeable Kay dropped her locket, and spent a good deal of that show crawling around on the floor looking for it (only on that occasion the cast did have a piece of costume jewellery to represent Kay’s locket). Of course in that show as in this the title character was portrayed by a likeable performer with a strong stage presence too. Johnny and Minnie decide to get engaged. The is a tenderness in Johnny’s face and manner as he kisses Minnie. It could almost be soppy, and yet somehow Max manages to carry this performance with conviction. The happy atmosphere does not last long, as Minnie insists Johnny goes to fight.

 I was momentarily reminded of certain moments in Strike Up The Band, where a girl refuses to love a man she perceives as “not a patriot”. Perhaps one inspired the other. However, this satire has a slightly different message, Strike Up’s hero wouldn’t fight in that war because he knew the grounds for it were incorrect. In this drama Johnny is a pacifist, but he will fight if given a good reason, and just at this moment the newspaper arrives. In it Woodrow Wilson explains that America has no argument with the common German solider, it is those higher up the line of German command who are warmongering, and that is why American wants to stop them. Woodrow Wilson’s America is in a sense trying to liberate Germany from The Kaiser’s pro-war Government. With a good reason to fight, such as a war to end war, Johnny is at once keen to sign up; though he’s still pretty horrified at Minnie’s hope he kills lots of Germans. However at least they part engaged, with Minnie singing the sweet Farewell Goodbye.

In the Recruiting Office we find Captain Valentine and Dr McBray, Michael Hobbs and Rafe Beckley respectively, anxious to get enough men to make up Captain Valentine’s company, so they won’t have to spend another night stuck in this town. Michael Hobbs sings Captain Valentine’s Song and does so decently, but it isn’t a particularly remarkable song. Having just had yet another man fail the medical, they are getting anxious to pass the next man who comes in, if it all possible. The recruiters ask Johnny for his profession, he replies “I’m an artiste” and explains he carves tombstones for both people and pets. That leads to a few lines about pets in general and of all things cats in particular. They can’t help but wonder if Johnny is crazy, especially with his logical responses to their aptitude tests. How deliciously Max delivers the line “Oh I know what you’re doing, riddles, I’m good at these”. As an actor our leading man soon proves he’s certainly good a delivering lines, rattling off a lot of dialogue at quite a speed. Yet still delivering the lines with clarity and conviction. I doubt even as accomplished actor as he clearly is could have delivered those lines so quickly, accurately and convincingly all at the same time if he was merely reading from the text. Either his sight reading is tremendously good, or he had in fact more or less learned those lines. Either way it’s jolly impressive. Max really carries this scene, so much so, I had to check back in the programme to remember who on earth had played the recruiting officer and the doctor, they were rather overshadowed by our leading man’s stage presence.

Max’s command of the stage really comes into it’s own in the next scene, set on board a ship a few nights later at the entrance to New York Harbour. He well he presents his character’s wonderment at travelling (to New York). This is the kind of moment that in almost any other musical a character would express themselves in song, but not in this one. Johnny Johnson here has a spoken piece, like a soliloquy rather than a song, vowing to be good, upright, honest and above all true to himself. With no other actors at present in the scene, he is basically addressing the audience with his thoughts, or is he addressing the Statue of Liberty? or New York? Whoever he is actually meant to be addressing Max certainly commands the audience’s attention, just as a good leading actor should. He also makes tremendous use of his expressive sparkling brown eyes, to tell the audience so much more than mere words could. I have only come across one other performer in the Lost Musicals shows who could speak to the audience with their eyes in this way, and even then not to extent that Max Gold can. He concludes his part in the scene, by first kneeling and then lying down on the stage, to indicate the character going to sleep! It’s an extraordinary performance, because one just never stops paying attention to him. Valda Aviks, as The Statue Of Liberty, coming on to sing the Song Of The Goddess, has a hard job competing with that stage presence. The song doesn’t seem to suit her so very well either. There is nothing inherently wrong with her performance, except that is fails to really grab the audience, and generally isn’t one of her best. It’s her big moment, but one which just doesn’t quite come off.

The next scene, a few weeks later, finds us in France, most of the man in the company set the scene with Song Of The Wounded French Soldiers. It is a moving number, with the kind of music people would expect from Kurt Weill. The men all act the number well, giving their characters limps and other defects, thereby bringing the number to life, purely on the strength of their acting, remember this is a concert staging, so all are dressed in evening suits.

For Scene 6, set In a Trench, there are not enough men in this production to play all the roles, so four of the women (Gay Soper, Valerie Cutko, Myra Sands, and Valda Arvicks) have to pitch in too, playing male roles. A contrast to Around The World In Eight Days (when there weren’t enough women, so some of the men had to play women). The most notable of these is Gay Soper, as a very convincing cockney male, and she doesn’t even get a credit in the programme for it! The scene opens with Michael Hobbs reprising Captain Valentine’s Song. This number could possibly have been some sort of forerunner to certain Stratford East pieces, or was it inspired by a certain J P Long and Maurice Scott music hall song of the period? The soldiers in the trench are a combination of British (including Irish) and American, Fabian Hartwell gets a moment all to himself, as Private Harwood singing a Cowboy Song, which he does decently. Ian Marshall-Fisher has a knack for being able to find decent male singers for his shows. A problem with a German sniper results in the soldiers drawing lots (burnt matches) for who will go and deal with it. Captain Valentine doesn’t want Johnny to go so makes him draw last, but as Johnny declares “I’m lucky with these things” and correctly predicts he will draw the match. To everyone’s surprise he chooses not to take a gun with him. For this scene most of The Company, have positioned their chairs at the front of the stage, backs to the audience, and are sitting across the chairs, using the backs of the chairs to represent the top of the trench over which they have positioned their guns. Of course we don’t have any props in this production, so the actors have to mime holding their guns. Some of them are less convincing than others. It probably depends in part on experience. Two gentlemen in particular stand out, but then again if you happen to have among your cast the actors responsible for ARV PC Shelby in The Bill, and the villainous Dougie Briggs in East Enders (the armed robber in The Vic Siege of 1994), then you are bound to have some actors who should to be able to mime holding a gun convincingly, and even remember to carry on miming properly when they have to put their gun down or pick it up. The scene concludes quite bizarrely with Song Of The Guns, this is sung by most of the men in the cast, who come and stand in front of the chairs to sing this number, which actually personifies the guns. Have you ever heard of guns singing a musical number? I don’t think even The Muppets ever tried something quite as bizarre as that! (And they weren’t above bringing furniture to life, - who remembers the Longboat’s figurehead in that Viking Number ‘In The Navy’ on The Muppet Show?).

The Sniper is in a nearby Churchyard, Johnny approaches softly. For an actor with such an abundance of stage presence, Max is really astonishingly creepily good at slinking about the stage with great subtly, so that you can be almost unaware of him until he is in position, then suddenly, bang! He’ll turn that presence on full. It’s a peculiar trick, I’ve only seen done by one other performer on stage, Phyllis in the RFH production of Follies managed to creep up behind Ben and Sally in a manner not dissimilar, but even then not down to as fine an art as Max has it. On this occasion Max turns his stage presence on full with something that might have been a karate move. Well this is the actor who got singled out by the critics on not one but two productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for his “Karate kicking Demetrius”.

Johnny, with his artiste’s eye, is also quite horrified at finding the churchyard, with is beautiful statuary being used as a sniper’s hideout. Max, excellent actor that he is portrays this side of Johnny’s character so well, though given his mother’s artistic family, perhaps that isn’t so surprising, maybe something rubbed off there, who knows.


Having floored the terrified sniper, played surprisingly well by Christian Walker, we see just how quickly Max can change his character’s manner, literally in the blink of an eyelid (what an accomplished actor)., as Johnny suddenly realises that the German sniper is “nothing but a boy”, he’s quite horrified that someone so young has been sent to war. Suddenly he becomes very gentle, we see just how kind and moved Johnny is. Slipping his right hand into his trouser pocket he mimes pulling out a packet of chewing-gum, and offers one to the sniper (whose name is Johan). During the conversation he learns that the sniper’s commander was once his schoolmaster, and that some of the German middle commanders really want peace. At this Johnny pulls out a bunch of papers from his jacket (again miming), a number of press cuttings of Woodrow Wilson’s speeches about peace, and some of his own articles on the subject, which he claims are better. With what conviction Max delivers those lines, like someone who really knows what it’s like to take pride in their own writing. Letting the boy go, with instructions to spread the message of peace, Johnny returns to the trench, to everyone’s astonishment. Just as everyone is wondering what to do with him (over him letting the sniper go), he gets hit in the backside by a stray bullet. “Ain’t that a hell of a place to get hit” And thus our leading man concludes the first act, with a memorable line. However good a line is, when performed it is only as good as the actor delivering it. But Max is a terrific actor, who really knows how to make a great line memorable. What a leading man this show has!


The second act opens with yet another unusual departure for the Lost Musicals. The cast comes on stage to take their places, but before starting the show, the pianist Chris Walker, addresses the audience, to explain the meaning of the title of the next song. Although I now can’t remember his explanation, it made sense at the time.

The chairs have always been a feature of Lost Musicals productions, often adapted to serve a variety of purposes, some how or another positioned to represent a variety of pieces of set. Two together side by side can represent a bed (DuBarry Was A Lady), Two opposite each other represent a rowing boat (Sweet Adeline), Two or three  pairs opposite each other A railway carriage compartment (Nymph Errant, and Around The World In Eighty Days), or two pairs opposite each other for a horse drawn carriage (Around The World In Eighty Days). But usually the chairs remain upright. However, on this occasion one chair is positioned upside down, with it’s back sloping towards the audience, Max, again down on the floor of the stage, leans against it, to represent the hero lying in bed. A second chair is positioned next to it (stage right) representing a table. Valerie Cutko, as a French Nurse, stands beside this, talking to her patient, she sings a romantic song to him Mon Ami My Friend. trying to be seductive, the character does not entirely succeed. It’s a good little part for Valerie Cutko, one which suits her talents well. The scene also involved James Vaughan as a hospital orderly, and Tim Thomas as a doctor, examining the soldier’s wound. The doctor initially tries to give him laughing gas, but later orders him “not to touch the gas”. Then another character, played by Valda Arviks enters. Billed as a Ward Sister, she is really more of a lady do-gooder, offering to put on an entertainment for the wounded soldiers. She is quite horrified by Johnny’s wound, on the basis that it is a coward’s place to get hit. She is even more appalled by his account of letting the sniper go. This comes out, after he hears it said there is to be a big battle tomorrow, as German prisoners have revealed there is discontent among their ranks.  Johnny has to do something quickly or he will be in trouble. He accidentally-on-purpose turns on the laughing gas. This sets the characters laughing and gives him a chance to make his escape. He concludes the scene, by more or less addressing the audience directly (how like Shakespeare can you get) “Think I’d better take the laughing gas, just in case” he says, his distinctive brown eyes sparkling almost with glee as he speaks. As an actor Max really does have an amazing stage charisma.

The next scene is set in a French Chateau, during a meeting of The Allied High Command. Again with there not really being quite enough men, some of the roles here are played by women, most notably Myra Sands as The American Commander. We also have Valda Aviks as the Belgian King, and Gay Soper as the French Major General. Among the men we have Michael Hobbs as the Belgian Major General, Richard Stemp as the jolly British Brigadier General, and, Fabian Hartwell as the British Premier. The company is headed by James Vaughan taking the role of Chief Of The Combined Allied Forces leads the company with The Allied High Command. Although in the programme the song is simply attributed to The Company, James does rather stand out in this number. He proceeds to get the various commanders to give their estimated losses for the coming battle, how many men are they going to sacrifice? They seem to be trying to outdo each other in this matter. It’s quite ridiculous of course, but does bring out the futility of war. Our leading man enters, immediately our attention is on him (that stage presence), but no one else takes any notice until he pulls out the laughing gas canister, which they mistake for a bomb. That gets their attention, then he releases the laughing gas. Immediately everything becomes a bit confused, it’s one of the funniest scenes in the play, as all fall about laughing, except our hero, who sits quietly on a chair, expressive brown eyes peering over his script book. Is he trying not to laugh at the spectacle his colleagues are creating, or is his character trying to avoid succumbing to the gas, or could it be both? At last with them all rather silly, he has their attention, climbing onto a chair and speaking very quickly, but with great clarity and charisma, what a talented actor, our hero seems to convince them of the logic of his arguments. So much so they decide to make him a commander too, the American Commander climbs into a chair and does the honours. So here we have Max and Myra both standing on the chairs miming. Although chairs are always used in a variety of ways in the Lost Musicals, I don’t recall very many instances of actors standing on the chairs (in fact the only one that springs immediately to mind was Mme DuBarry and The King in DuBarry Was A lady). Having been given power, our hero gives orders to stop the battle (in favour of a propaganda war), and then work done departs. Everyone else laughs a little longer, falls asleep, and then wakes up and realises what they have done, and promptly rush around getting the battle restarted. It was really Max who carried the scene, though Myra stood up to his stage presence well, as one might expect, she’s encountered a very similar kind of stage presence quite a bit, over the past seventeen years.

The next scene takes place on the edge of the Great Battlefield, at Dawn. A Captain and his Lieutenant, Rafe Beckley and Myra Sands respectively are busy telephoning orders, first orders to stop the battle, and then after two other commanders rush in and explain about a Private who stole a general’s uniform, they have to ring round giving orders to commence the battle, its a sharp contrast. An American Priest and a German Priest, played by Fabian Hartwell and Richard Stemp respectively, then give us a narration about the appalling results of the battle, the numbers killed, they also mention the young sniper (from earlier) who was killed. The scene ends with our hero taking centre stage, “I had this battle stopped once” he remarks sadly, and then he gets apprehended and arrested.

A brief scene back in New York harbour follows. It is somewhat eclipsed by the next scene.

In a Psychiatrist’s Office in a State Hospital, we find the psychiatrist Dr Mohodan, and his secretary Miss Newro, played by James Vaughan and Valerie Cutko respectively. While neither role is particularly great, both actors do their very best to make something of the parts, and are very good choices to act those characters. The running joke of the scene is that the psychiatrist himself evidently has mental health problems. But is more concerned about trying to cure his patients than himself. He relies heavily on Miss Newro to give him his medicine and prompt him whenever he forgets things, such as the names of his patients. It’s certainly a comic character, very much the “very silly” sort of role we usually expect to find James Vaughan playing in these shows. He even gets to sing a silly song The Psychiatry Song. By this point, their new patient, our leading man is also present, and sitting on a chair, head cast down, with those sparkling brown eyes closed, magnificent stage presence switched off, so that our attention is pretty much focused on the comic actor singing the song, who is also dancing around trying to turn this song into a comedy classic, making particularly good use (as usual) of his little moveable eyebrows trick. I think James Vaughan has sung far better comedy songs in the Lost Musicals. Nevertheless he is absolutely the right person to sing this song. It also helps that Ian Marshall-Fisher has directed this scene well, while Max Gold clearly understands when to make his tremendous stage presence felt, and when not to; and somehow manages to momentarily turn his stage presence off without doing his own character any disservice. That in itself is quite a feat. I recall a few years ago watching an RSC production of The Cherry Orchard during which a usually vivacious actress (with a similar kind of stage presence) had impressively managed to tone her stage presence down, the effect was surprisingly dull, and did not do her characterisation justice. Apart from that song, during the rest of the scene Max does make his presence felt. Fortunately James Vaughan is adept at standing up to that and not being overshadowed. But then he is particularly well acquainted with that sort of charisma.  The scene also includes Minnie-Belle, played by Lauren Ward putting in an appearance, and learning that her fiancée is supposedly mentally ill, this does bring out an undercurrent of just how conscience objection and things like that were rarely understood back in those days. I was also kind of amused by the way the Doctor referred to his patient as “left-handed” (at least I think that is what he said), he presumably meant “Left-Wing”. I found this funny. mainly because our leading actor is actually right-handed, but the actor playing the doctor in question happens to be a sinestral. Talk about irony.

The penultimate scene is set some years later, by now our hero has been in the asylum for a number of years, and become rather a fixture, though as the scene progresses we learn the authorities are planning to let him out soon. There is a meeting of the asylum debating society. This finds most of the company playing the inmates. Myra Sands is playing Dr Frewd who is running the debate, while Christine Walker plays both an inmate and then later a new young doctor showing a benefactor around. Despite two songs Asylum Chorus, and later Hymn To Peace, this is the most slow moving and dullest of the scenes. Fortunately it’s one saving grace is our leading man. Max Gold is evidently one of those actors who can make even a boring scene worth paying attention to. He manages to make the dialogue sound interesting, and certainly there is a kind of amusement in how these apparent lunatics have actually more or less come to a sane agreement on political matters, with ideas that are probably a lot more sensible than many politicians. Which perhaps prompts the question, what do we really mean by insanity?  Making the audience ask these searching questions are exactly what any good political satire (from Unity Theatre’s Babes In The Wood, to Central Television’s Spitting Image) should do.

The finale scene finds our hero out of the asylum, basically a broken man (probably looking older than his years), once a stone mason, he is now reduced to making and selling children’s toys. A boy, played by Richard Linnell takes pity on him, and asks mother, played by Lauren Ward, if he can have some money to buy a toy. It turns out he wants a soldier “I don’t make toys like that” says our hero simply and gently, still true to himself after all that has happened. The boy gives him the money anyway. There is a tenderness in this scene, it is very moving, especially when Johnny asks the boy’s name and learns it is Anguish Howington Junior, he is of course Minnie-Belle’s son. Our hero really has lost everything, including the girl. In sadness, frustration, anger, he expresses all his emotions in Johnny’s Song. This is a far more noticeable performance of the song than that at the end of the opening scene. Max begins softly, and singing with simply sincerity in a voice and style not dissimilar to several cute Muppets, and very like one of the voices a certain notable lady puppeteer uses for the encore number in her cabaret act. Not that this is in any way a criticism. Because it is a voice that absolutely fits the character. Max sings with feeling and integrity, like he means it. For the finale verse he works up almost to a partial crescendo, I’ve heard louder in the Lost Musicals, but this is a good and fitting finale. Max after all is an accomplished Shakespearian actor, and therefore used to projecting lines. Also growing up around his mother (who triumphed in a striking shouting performance in the film Withanil And I) and his sister (who might be described as An English Ethel Merman), one would guess he’d have to be able to project to make himself heard, sometimes! And so ends one of the Lost Musicals’ more unusual pieces. A moving thought provoking piece of music theatre, given a first rate performance.


This piece is quite unlike anything the Discovering Lost Musicals Charitable TrustTM have done before. For a start it was written for the American Group Theatre, a venerable left-wing organisation, as a piece of political satire. Well there is evidently nothing quite like great left-wing political satire. Now if only someone could bring back to life some of the long forgotten British equivalents (preferably with some appropriate contemporary performers). The political nature of the piece makes it not only especially interesting historically, but also very deep, in terms of human nature, it is quite Brechtian in nature. However while a serious piece it is also funny, with some moments of shear bizzarity, such as singing statues (of course The Lost Musicals has previously done a statue that came to life, in One Touch Of Venus), and singing guns! I thought I’d come across everything from tomatoes to termites, that could be personified to sing, but I’ve certainly not come across singing guns before!

Generally the writing is good. While few songs of the score are what one might call “catchy” they are all well written music and fit the piece well. Kurt Weill after all was already used to writing with Brecht. Paul Green’s book is quite extraordinary, a cross between Oh What A Lovely War, and the work of Bertolt Brecht. There are a few places, particularly in the penultimate scene where it might seem a little long. But generally the actors, particularly the leading man, do such a great job that things don’t really get tedious. The work does have some terrific lines. But however good a line is, in a performance it is only as good as the actor delivering it. Ian Marshall-Fisher’s Discovering Lost Musicals are at there best when the acting standard is high, and this truly is one of his better shows in that respect. In general the actors are well cast, in roles that their particular talents suit. No one, not even the women portraying men, get out of their depth (except possibly Valda Aviks’s Statue Of Liberty) – and that is quite minor). The leads are people who know exactly what they are doing, and the supporting actors provide strong support. Also Chris Walker provides good piano accompaniment, and comes into his own explaining one of the songs.

New to the Lost Musicals Richard Linnell, Fabian Hartwell, Rafe Beckley, Tim Thomas, Michael Hobbs and, Christian Walker all give good supporting performances, mostly in a variety of roles. Young Richard Linnell may only be in one scene, but it is a key moment, and manages not to get overshadowed in it. According to his resume (besides the Jackie Palmer Stage School) he has had some training at the boarding section of Arts Ed, which probably helps (although his resume appears to have a typing mistake making it unclear how long he has been there). Fabian Hartwell does a consistently reasonable job in a number of small roles, being most noticeable as a typical “jolly good old chap” sort of British premier, and delivering the narrative as an American Priest. He also sings decently as Private Harwood. Rafe Beckley also in a number of small roles benefits from playing opposite such experienced old hands as James Vaughan and Myra Sands. Meanwhile Tim Thomas starts off well as Grandpa Joe, but is thereafter a useful though less noticeable member of the company. Michael Hobbs does well as Captain Valentine, managing to make that character into a convincing one. Even thought it is one of the trickier roles to make believable. Christian Walker’s best work is as the young German Sniper. He plays the scared teenager convincingly, and that scene between him and our hero is a moving one.

We then have four supporting players who have all appeared, mostly in supporting roles, in previous Lost Musicals: Valda Arvicks, Richard Stemp, Valerie Cutko, and, Gay Soper. All five are generally well cast, and live up to their already earned reputations as Lost Musicals performers. Valda Avicks’s performance, though not as good as her stellar turn in Around The World In Eighty Days which seemed to suit her so particularly well, generally gives a satisfactory performance. Though her singing as the Statue Of Liberty was not quite to the standard one would expect in the Lost Musicals. But it wasn’t terrible. The rest of the time she made a generally good supporting player. A far better performance is that of Valerie Cutko, doing exactly what she does best in Lost Musicals, play some strong supporting roles (but not a lead). Her performance this afternoon is up there with her contributions to Around The World In Eighty Days, and Park Avenue. I also thought her costume was generally good. Her skirt suited her very well, while her top was just about alright, because it thankfully covered up most of her shoulders (and her appearance is always so improved by covering her shoulders).  As the French Nurse she is good, but her best performance is as the asylum secretary Miss Newro. She also pitches in some decent supporting roles as a soldier in the trenches and an asylum inmate. In only his second Lost Musical Richard Stemp has the uncomfortable task of playing quite a major role, that of the hero’s love rival. This is a fairly unlikeable character, but then it is meant to be. His performance is generally satisfactory. He also pitches in with several bit parts, thereby making himself useful to the piece. Of these four the person who stands out the most is that ever reliably excellent British actress Gay Soper. She has done Lost Musicals before, most notably Nymph Errant where she played four parts. This afternoon she is again in excellent form. I didn’t necessarily like the character of Aggie Tompkins, but I was nevertheless impressed by Gay’s performance of the role. She is one of those actresses with a rare ability for playing something ridiculous, and possibly unpleasant without ever going too far. Over the years the Lost Musicals has been fortunate in including among it’s actresses no fewer than three brilliant voice-artistes. All three ladies are people whose work turns up time and time again on television, so most people will have heard their work, even if they are less familiar with the women themselves. One of these ladies is Gay. Here she puts her impressive vocal range to good use playing a variety of characters. The best of which a cockney soldier in the trenches was actually uncredited in the programme!

Three performers stand out, for amongst other things, actually standing up to our leading man’s stage presence, interestingly while I don’t think any of them have acted opposite Max before, they do all have some experience of his peculiar kind of stage presence, not least because they have all appeared in Lost Musicals with another certain performer who has that distinctive scene-grabbing acting style, to an even greater extent! This afternoon’s  leading lady Lauren Ward is one of only three performers who plays only one part. She strikes a good balance between making Minnie-Belle so dreadfully in favour of war, and yet somehow making the character not unpleasant, we can still kind of be sympathetic to her, and understand why Johnny would love her. Certainly this is a meatier than her previous Lost Musicals role of Alice/Alisander De verney in DuBarry Was A Lady. But perhaps her experiences of the latter adds to her performance this afternoon, this time she knows what to expect with the Lost Musicals. Myra Sands and James Vaughan are both experienced old hands at Lost Musicals. Their work in these shows is always excellent. Myra Sands has appeared in more Lost Musicals than anyone else. It’s always nice to have her in the show. This afternoon is particularly good, because she connects so well with the material. She is not just acting a role, she is acting it with an instinctive feel for how it would have been played by the original actors. Here she is playing a variety of bit parts jolly well. As Dr Frewd she helps to make the penultimate scene a little less tedious. She is also does a pretty good job as a battlefield Lieutenant. But of all her parts by far the best is the American Commander. In that role she does stand out, especially when she and our leading man are both standing on their chairs. Her resume mentions that she has been in over thirty Lost Musicals, as it happens at least eight of those happen to have involved standing up to a certain leading lady with a lot of stage presence, that surely helped her to come across this afternoon. Strangely her resume fails to mention the major West End show she is currently employed in, this seems a startling, and perhaps ironic, omission. The only actor in the Lost Musicals gang who comes anywhere having appeared in as many of the shows as Myra has done is James Vaughan. He is always an asset to any Lost Musical he appears in, and usually plays several parts (just about the only occasions when he did not play multiple roles were DuBarry Was A Lady and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). This afternoon he is playing seven roles. He also manages to get the most solo performances as a singer, two numbers for which he is credited, plus leading the company with The Allied High Command. Of all his roles the one that shows off his talents the best is Dr Mohoden. It is noticeable that in both that role and also as Sergeant Jackson he stands up rather well to our leading man’s stage presence. Though given his experience of Gentlemen and DuBarry as well as three other particular Lost Musicals productions, perhaps that isn’t so surprising... .  James Vaughan, and, Myra Sands are of course two members of what I like to call the Lost Musicals‘Magic Quintet’. So far since the shows came to The Wells, we’ve only had four members of the quintet appear here. Most shows feature one or other of the five, many of the better ones have two. To get three one show then you are on to a real winner. This afternoon we have two. However, we also happen to have one other actor who with his expressive face and magnificent stage presence gives us something of a reminder of the missing member of the quintet.

Playing the title role of Johnny Johnson our leading man Max Gold is truly amazing. To make the whole piece work, it is necessary to have a particularly fine actor for this part. Someone who can carry the show. Over the years The Lost Musicals has had a number of splendid leading actors and actresses on whose shoulders getting a show across could easily rest, performers such as: Elisabeth Counsell, Anna Francolini, Peter Gale, Louise Gold, and, Henry Goodman. As a commanding stage actor Max Gold is up there with the best of them. And this show really does need one of the best. It demands someone who can carry an audience with them, and quickly gain an audience’s sympathy, even when all the other characters in the piece are against him.  After all our hero is a true man of the people, a real mench, and as a result, although he appears meshugge, he is in fact far wiser and sensible than the commanders and politicians for declare him insane, when in actual fact he’s just a peacenik. One of the reasons the character of the hero works so well, and gains our sympathy, is the way Max portrays him, making the character ever so haimisher (he’s got no side to him). His own mishpocheh could even help here. Max is not only a terrifically capable actor, he appears to have such a genuine feel for the material. It is always something extra special to watch a performer do materiel that they really connect with. This piece after all was written for the legendary American Group Theatre, one of the cornerstones of the Workers Theatre Movement, and when you consider that one of the major British cornerstone of that movement was the Unity Theatre (London), it seems uncannily fitting. In fact we may have unintentionally had a little demonstration of one trait much in evidence in some Unity shows. It has been said that a certain Unity actress, who later went professional, “had an amazing stage presence”.  Now film and television performances can only tell part of the story (even if that actress did once act Anthony Booth off the screen in the opening scene of an episode of Daziel And Pasco). Fortunately Max (as well as his sister) seems to have something of his mother’s stage presence.  His stage presence isn’t the only similarity to his sister, there is also that gentle kind wide smile, and those sparkling brown eyes that speak volumes more than mere words could do. In fact he is even more proficient at making good use of his eyes possibly because classical drama and fringe have given him many more opportunities to utilise that skill. Given their stage presence it is surprising that both of them can, when required slink on or about a stage quite subtly, so as to almost be not noticed. Max is particularly good at this too, possibly because (Mutiny On The Bounty excepted) he does not seem to be such an extrovert. His sister may be the more versatile performer, but when Max is good at something he is seriously good Both of them are very capable of playing extraordinary as if it is quite ordinary, and making the ridiculous appear the norm. Another trait these two good looking performers share is having a very wide playing-age range. This afternoon Max is playing a character who is meant to be in mid twenties, around half the actor’s actual age. Yet he is totally convincing, and one would not guess his actual age from that performance. Max also has a wonderfully clear speaking voice, even when he is speaking fast, such as during the riddles, he speaks really clearly, so that every word can be heard perfectly, surely a tribute to his training at The Central School Of Speech And Drama. Few actors in musical theatre have quite such beautifully clear speaking voices. Being musicals the Discovering Lost Musicals shows, tend to quite rightly use actors with strong backgrounds in stage musicals. Max is a rather unusual choice for a Lost Musicals leading man, in that he is primarily an actor. Yes the Lost Musicals have had many far greater singers (including a certain puppeteer) as leads, but for the demands of this particular piece, Max sings more than well enough. This is a role that demands to have a first rate actor, but one who can sing where required. It would be hard indeed to find an actor who could play this complex role well, yet Ian Marshall-Fisher has truly found Gold. In fact in the title role in this musical Max Gold proves to be one of Ian Marshall-Fisher’s astonishingly splendid pieces of perfect casting.

Fifteen years ago, when I first saw one of  Ian Marshall-Fisher’s Discovering Lost Musicals shows (Red Hot And Blue), I well remember being truly stunned, when an extraordinary leading lady, whom I had never heard of before, delivered one of the most amazingly brilliant stage performances I had ever seen, one that just made that show perfect. I remember wondering “Who on earth is she? and why is isn’t she better known?” This afternoon wasn’t quite like that, I had not only heard of our leading man before, I had even seen him in a play, Dreyfus at The Tricycle Theatre. Nevertheless, I didn’t know he was quite such a splendid leading actor, and I do find myself wondering, why on earth isn’t his work better known. He did make this extremely bizarre show something very special. Indeed, how can I sum up this Lost Musicals production of Johnny Johnson, well it’s a mechaieh.






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