RAFA Hall Whitton, Saturday 24 October 2009
It’s a long way from the glitz, glamour, and scale of The London Palladium, to an am-dram charity show in a small RAFA (Royal Air Force Association) hut in West London, about ten miles or fifteen years in fact. Before the curtains opened, I could hear the sound of a well played piano, warming up. Could it be..., a certain West End Musical Director?
The houselights dim, the announcer says all cabin crew ready for landing, and the curtains parted, to find Sam (played by David) in his bar, stage right. Over to stage left is an upright piano, and behind it, Kate the bar pianist (in actual fact none other than Kate Young). Over twenty years on from the reopening of London’s Playhouse Theatre this Musical Director’s piano playing can still get a show off to a flying start.
Near the middle of the stage, marginally to stage left, is Pat, Sam’s longsuffering assistant. There are also two female customers, Lola, and I can’t remember the other one there. A male customer, Bill enters Sam sends Pat to get some glasses from “downstairs”, he seems surprised at her reluctance to do the job. At which our pianist’s Scottish tones pitch in something about perhaps if he paid her. Sam points out to Kate that he doesn’t pay her either. At which Kate has a funny line about how “a piece of paper with the Queen’s head on it would be nice”. Sam retorts “If that’s all you want I’ll by you a postage stamp”.
Bill seemed to be down, over love-life matters, and asks Kate to play him something suitable, she launches into something quiet and slow, to which he then requests something cheerful. At this, with gusto she launches into Irving Berlin’s classic I Love A Piano, which she also sings. Possibly the only occasion in the entire evening when she didn’t have to cope with sudden unexpected key changes (as she was accompanying herself, she knew what key she was singing in). It’s really rather fun to have this catchy number sung by a pianist, I particularly noticed when she sang the line “and with the peddle I love to meddle”, and proceeding to illustrate the line ad-libbed “If I can get it to work”. She does of course. Yes she may have forgotten the odd lyric here and there, but then she is a pianist-conductor not an actress (though she can act a bit if required). Musically she was spot on, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more appropriate version of that song, If you want to have a show’s very own longhaired genius sing a number, then this one is so very apt. I really liked the way Kate illustrated the lyrics with her piano playing, she really brought them to life. Great fun.
One of the difficulties with a revue of this nature, is that the plot is rather slight, and trying to keep track of who went off with who, and when the various customers entered or left. The only two who are always on stage are Sam and Kate. Trying to remember exactly what the songs were, let alone where they all fitted in is tricky. The customers were: Bill, Ron, Lola, Jan, Joan, and there was Lola’s friend (whose name I can’t recall). Then there was Pat (the bar worker), and another miscellaneous man, who was only supposed to be the props man, but stole the odd scene. The women whose name I can’t remember is propositioned by Ron, she responds by singing My Heart Belongs To Daddy. Yes I’ve heard many far far better-sung versions of this song. However, it did have a certain believability of character about it. Legend has it that when Mary Martin first sang this song in Leave It To Me she didn’t know what the lyrics meant. Many singers since them have tried to act that naivety. Tonight we have someone who sings it with no naivety whatsoever, but somehow we do believe this could be a woman being kept by her lover, and someone who for whatever reason might actually want to. At the end of the song she suddenly realises that her “daddy” is out of town, so she goes off with Ron.
Early on in the act, Sam is recalling how when he first opened his bar, The Brewery gave him a bit of an opening, with a song for the occasion. Bill persuades him to demonstrate it, so with Bill as backing vocalist Sam comes out from behind the bar and does so Sam’s Bar. The tune sounds terribly familiar, with obviously rewritten lyrics. I think it might have been I Only Wanna Be A Song And Dance Man. David (playing the role of Sam) does move rather well for a man of his age (whatever that is). The number was put across with an infectious enthusiasm, and a fair amount of talent, by both men, and of course Kate’s very able piano playing.
Musically things step up a pace with the arrival of Joan and Jan. The scenario has them both as possibly out of work showgirls. Fortunately with Jan at least this is plausible. Joan somewhat spoils the effect by attempting a romantic duet, If I Loved You, with Bill. During which Bill comes across as the better singer of the two.
Then the flirtatious Lola takes the stand, for I Wanna Be Loved By You. Well she moved with enthusiasm. I think the best that can be said about this number audiowise is that even the accomplished Kate seemed somewhat floored by the key changes that seemed to be required for this number! Perhaps the less said about it the better.
Rather better was Jan, who actually can sing, though I felt the use of backing tracks for her first big number a shame (because there is nothing quite like the immediacy of live music). Still it was a good performance.
There was also a moment when Sam was persuaded to do a number, and let Bill mind the bar. He is one of the three or four best singers in the show, although one was more aware of his witty dialogue about still recovering from the last time Bill minded the bar, and “half the till ended up in the pub next door”.
I think one of the highlights of the first act, was Bill’s performance of I Won’t Send Roses. Something just seemed to click. Bill, clearly cares about putting a song across, with a genuine feel for the lyrics, he has a nice baritone, totally untrained, but clearly very talented. So much so, that if given a truly professional accompanist (of West End standard), it is possible to end up with a result so good the audience would not have guessed he was an untrained amateur. I really enjoyed that piece.
Towards the end of the first
half, the Irish Bridie enters the bar, asking “Is this an Irish bar?”
Sam kindly agrees to make it an Irish one for Bridie, a reference perhaps to
how at one time the Irish were so often discriminated against in pubs. This
leads on to a number of Irish jokes including one about
The Second Act finds several of the customers have changed their costumes. Clearly this is set on a different night. Sam and Bill still seem to be in the same costumes as before, and Kate is definitely exactly as in the first act, in a sleeveless black evening dress, her blond hair partially half tied back into a pony-tail. Once again Sam and Kate in their respective positions at either end of the stage are the only constants. Everyone else enters and exits according to the plot.
This Act started with several numbers using backing tracks. All well and good, but it just seems a waste of a live event. I can understand that backing tracks can be useful for some types of performance, dance performances for example benefit enormously, because it’s easier to get the timing right. But there’s nothing quite like live music. Jan once again used a backing track for her number, and I couldn’t help feeling that was a shame, but she did it well. However, I was kind of relieved that Lola used a backing track for her number Whatever Lola Wants, not least because in her case it actually fitted in better with her character to do this, as it made it look as though she was doing some kind of possibly half- drunk Karaoke, and it did save Kate from trying to do completely impossible key changes. Meanwhile someone, I think it was Lola’s friend, did that Merman classic A New Fangled Tango also to a backing track (I felt using a backing track for that number was a shame as it’s such a great Musical Theatre song). After a while the backing tracks really got tedious, and it was something of a relief when Bill stepped up to the microphone to sing, wrapping his lovely baritone around Stephen Sondheim’s Send In The Clowns. Bearing in mind that I don’t really like this song being done out of context (I’ve only ever heard two out of context versions that actually worked, and one of those was Judi Dench, the other was the 1999 Chelmsford production of SBSBS), I actually kind of enjoyed tonight’s performance. It was nicely sung, although the lyrics really don’t mean as much when sung out of context, let alone by a man. It was also expertly played. Kate has certain amount of experience with Sondheim’s music (although that tends more to Assassins, twice, than A Little Night Music); and when it comes to her piano playing, well she lives up to the RNCM (Royal Northern College Of Music)’s standard.
Ron with the addition of a wig, that just absolutely would not stay on (oh shades of Lauderdale House), performed a number with a great deal of verve. And Kate, putting all her experience as both a music teacher, and musical director to good use definitely helped the piece along. The rest of the cast helped a lot too. The number may have had more enthusiasm than accuracy, but everyone seemed to enjoy it.
Lola’s friend, the one whose name I can’t remember bemoaned her love life, with the song Ain’t Misbehaving, I think this was also to a backing track, though I can’t remember for certain. I have one problem with this song. It got included in a medley in the musical The Hot Shoe Shuffle, and I can never quite forget the wonderful way it was done on the UK cast album. So really almost anyone’s rendition of the original song just won’t sound quite right to my ears.
Then Joan, at least I think it was Joan, now
dressed in uniform, possible a WAAF or WRAF, rattling a
collecting tin, and carrying a bunch of flyers about “suffering”. She
proceeds to collect coins from all the cast. Most notable among these are Sam
and Kate. When it comes to Kate’s turn, Joan says “If that’s all you’ve got
I’ll only take half”. While when it’s Sam’s turn he suggests asking the
audience. Then on discovering how Lola’s friend is feeling, Joan declares “I
know a song about suffering”, puts her tin down, and takes her place at the
microphone, to launch into You’ll Never Walk Alone. There was a
minor mishap when she started off too high, and asked Kate to lower it, and
then decided “leave it where it is, I started too high”. This Rodgers
and Hammerstein classic is a great song. I have just one problem with it. A
few years ago I was lucky enough to witness
Coming to the end of the performance, Sam brings things to a close by turfing his customers out. Only to be interrupted by the warm Scots tones of his bar-pianist. “But I’ve one number left” says Kate. At this Sam turns to the audience, and asks “Would you like to meet all my customers one last time?” Of course the audience answer resoundingly “yes”. So each comes on one by one to take a bow, Sam/David introducing them by name as they do so. Then Jan leads the company in singing the finale, the only number in the entire evening where she made use of Kate’s accompaniment. All the company joined in with great enthusiasm, a spirit which infected the audience who began to clap along too. And thereby bringing the evening’s entertainment to an end.
This being the last night of the four, which Twickenham RAFA performed, there remained some thank yous to do, before they drew a raffle. Producer Bill Howard led the thank yous, with David interrupting to thank Bill himself (with a surprise gift). The thank yous also included flowers for Kate, who then had to make a speech, in which she complemented them on their friendly spirit and enthusiasm; and the great effort they’ve put into the RAF’s Wings Appeal (which this entertainment was a fundraising event for). After that the raffle was drawn, and so the evening’s entertainment came to a close.
I don’t usually review am-dram shows on this site, although I did review a mixed pro-am production of Follies, and of course there is the Chichester Youth Theatre’s shows. When considering how good or bad a performance is expectation has an important role to play. For example if one goes to see a big expensive West End show, then obviously one expects a very high standard from the performers, even when the understudies are on (after all in the really big shows performers have holidays, during which their covers will have to go on). When those big shows go out on tour, again one expects the West End standard to be maintained, although one will not necessarily have big name stars. Out in the sticks of regional theatre or fringe although one still expects a certain professional standard, depending on the venue, one has to bear in mind that these theatres do not pay West End salaries, so they aren’t necessarily going to get such good actors, though sometimes they get lucky. Expectation can also be governed in part by knowing who is performing, so if, for example, a regional show includes a lead who has led a big West End show, then obviously one will expect that performer at least to maintain a certain standard. However reviewing a small am-dram show one has to adopt a set of expectations appropriate to the production. So knowing that tonight’s show largely consisted of a group of former RAF personal, who put on a once a year charity revue, I knew not to expect too much. Therefore I was in exactly the right frame of mind to just enjoy the evening’s entertainment. Also with that expectation in mind, I decided when writing this review to try and be a little kinder than I would be when reviewing the work of professionals who are paid for what they do. The only one I feel I could be justified in being hard on is the pianist Kate Young, and fortunately her piano playing was well up the sort of standard one would expect, and it was a joy to experience her performing live. CD albums (such as The Hired Man and By Jeeves) are great, but there is nothing quite like a live performance.
Yet the very am-dram nature of the show gave it one or two realistic edges. Sam’s customers actually did sound exactly like the people you might really expect to find having a bit of a sing-song in a bar. Sometimes in musical theatre it can be hard to make pub scenes convincing, simply because professional performers themselves are actually a bit too good to be able to pretend to do something less well; and in any case, if one were watching a professional production one would expect the actors to sing rather well even if they were playing characters (such as drunks, thieves, boxers, prostitutes etc) who probably wouldn’t be so musically adept in real life. Another area where stage portrayals of a bar scene have a tendency to depart from reality concerns when the music starts in relation to when the singing starts. Usually in Musical Theatre convention tends to be that the musicians start first, with the singers following the musicians. In opera in particular, but also often in musical theatre and sometimes in jazz, it is expected that the singers will sing in whatever key has been set (by the composers, arrangers, and musical directors). In jazz, and to a certain extent in musical theatre, it might be agreed beforehand between the singer and the MD what key they will use, but again it tends to be the music which starts first. However, in this production, I soon noticed something very interesting, most of the time the singers started first, and Kate as accompanist would follow. Initially I found this puzzling, and then I realised that realistically in a bar or cafe situation where people are jamming, as in the scenario of this entertainment, that is exactly what would happen. There is a scene in Allo Allo which actually illustrated this very thing (when Lieutenant Gruber was accompanying Private Elsa, he said to her “You lead and I’ll follow”). Because realistically unless they really knew each other very well, a bar pianist would not normally know beforehand what key the singers wanted to do it in, and very probably until they start the customers might not know that themselves (after all even some professional musical theatre singers don’t always know what key they should ask for a song to be played in at auditions). However, it takes a lot of musical skill on the part of the bar-pianist to hear what key the singers are singing in and then play the song in the correct key accordingly. It’s something West End orchestra pit musicians probably aren’t usually expected to figure out quite so much on the hoof (not even at The Palace Theatre). Yet Kate jolly well succeeded in doing just that, well most of the time.
So singing-wise the customers
were pretty realistic of the sorts of folk you might find in a bar, and the
long suffering Pat was certainly the kind of person one might conceivably find
working in such a place. So what about Sam’s efforts at acquiring a dep
bar-pianist recycled from the orchestra pits of such
Perhaps the one thing that really stood out in tonight’s performance, apart from Kate’s excellent piano playing, is how all the performers put so much passion into the show. They all appeared to enjoy doing it, just a like a bunch of customers in a pub might enjoy a good sing song, and their enthusiasm infected the audience. This evening’s performance may not have been exactly in the league of a Saturday Night at The London Palladium, but it had been jolly good fun community entertainment. I’m really very glad I went to see it
Off Site Links:
The RAFA ‘Wings Appearl: http://www.wingsappeal.org.uk/
The Royal Airforce Association (RAFA): http://www.rafa.org.uk/index.asp
Howard Goodall’s WAAF musical Girlfriends (official page): http://www.howardgoodall.co.uk/musicals/gfstext.htm