Six Pictures Of Lee Miller
Jerwood Vanborough Theatre, RADA, 15 February 2013
Review by Emma Shane
© February 2013
It had been seven and a half long years since this glorious musicals first, and only, previous production, at The Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva Studio Theatre, the venue it was commissioned for. I thought when I saw it then that it was a durable piece that ought to have a life outside it’s original theatre and cast. Now at long last London gets a chance to see this piece, thanks to the RADA students.
As the band strike up the first notes of the overture seven and a half years seem to fall away, the sound is so exactly the same, and so it should be, given that the band consists of musicians who all played at The Chichester Festival in the days when composer Jason Carr was Associate Musical Director there. In the title role of Lee, at this point known as Lee Lee (her childhood name), leading lady Jessie Buckley makes her entrance from the back of the auditorium to walk along a long central gangway (which dominates the auditorium) to the main stage itself. She is wearing a dressing gown and is barefoot, by the expressions on her face and manor of movement it is obvious that her character it this point is a child. She portrays the young Lee Lee well, though Harry Jardine and Verity Kirk seem rather too young for their roles, struggling to play the character’s parents, opposite an actress who is really one of their own contemporises. However, Harry Jardine makes a good attempt and generally does well as Theodore, in particular singing Stereoscopic Camera very nicely, and basically doing this rather wonderful the song justice. He seems fairly convincing when he tells the errant teenage Lee Lee to sat in the photographic room and fix their picture, while he goes to deal with the irate parents of one of her classmates.
The title song is Jessie’s first big moment as leading lady. She does it admirably well. Is she on a par with Anna Francolini? Difficult question. After all the song was written for Anna and tailored to that lady’s vocal abilities. Nevertheless Jessie has a fine voice and sings well, and she clearly has excellent diction, as one might expect from a RADA student. There were lyrics in this song which I didn’t recall even Anna singing quite so clearly. But then again even with microphones the acoustics in the Minerva Theatre weren’t exactly brilliant. Jessie also has the task of changing outfits on stage while singing a song, ably assisted by other members of the cast bringing her costume on stage.
Onto the next scene, Paris, and Lee’s first meeting with Man Ray. For a moment or two we do miss Teddy Kempner, perhaps because that actor has a pretty good stage presence (the sort who won’t get too overshadowed whoever he shares a stage with). Nevertheless Peter Hannah does well, and makes the role of Man Ray his own in Artiste Of The Day, While Adam Hartley is also entirely satisfactory as Paul Eluard. Unfortunately when it comes to Verity Kirk’s Gertrude Stein she again doesn’t quite seem to have the finesse with which Beverley Klein played the part, is it her age as it was with playing Florence Miller in the previous scene? Or is it just a difficult part to nail? I couldn’t tell. But if that wasn’t much, Francesca Zoutewelle’s portrayl of Alice B Toklas was even less remarkable. By far the highlight of the number was Freddie Stewart as the rather full of himself John Cocteau. I recall that this musical was originally part of The Chichester Festival Theatre’s ‘Con Artists’ Season. Tonight I find myself noticing that the way Cocteau appears in this musical, he comes across as though he is a con artiste (which he evidently cannot have been), the con-artiste portrayal seems to be more down to Edward Kemp’s script than Freddie Stewart’s acting. - I just didn’t realise what it was before (I thought it was genuinely meant to be a portrayal of a film director). This lengthy song concludes with Harry Jardine’s performance as Picasso, What Is An Artiste. It satisfactory, though not as impressive as I remember Brendan O’Hea doing it, and I am not sure that he entirely did Jason Carr’s lyrics complete justice, though it was not a bad performance by any means. As for Jessie Buckley her performance in this song, while generally good, also contains the only real flaw to her entire performance, namely that for some strange reason she keeps pronouncing “Picasso” as “Picarr-So” , which I find really grates. Now when Anna Francolini sang it she pronounced it “Picaa-So” like everyone else in the song. Nevertheless it is truly thrilling to see and hear this song performed live once again. It has gorgeously catchy tune, and very witty and often very profound lyrics. Oh and I did smile on hearing Verity Kirk sing the Gilbertesque line “Here’s A Howdy Do”, I’m not sure how many of the audience actually noticed that little line, but I noticed it again.
The scenes in Man Ray’s studio were I thought in some ways improved by the intimacy of the Jerwood Vanburgh Theatre, or was it just where I happened to be sitting? I think they were also improved by seeing the show second time round, simply because I “got” more of it, firstly because I know more now about the characters involved (having done some reading up and been to a few relevant exhibitions), and secondly because seeing a musical second time round, I know what’s coming next, and portions of this scene pave the way for the song later in the act Has Anybody Seen Man Ray. That said I felt that Looking At You though performed perfectly satisfactorily by Peter Hannah, somehow seemed a little lacking, but then again maybe it’s the song, in a show whose score is packed so full of great songs maybe this one gets a bit lost.
The part where Nimet is sitting for a portrait, produces a performance where I felt Francesca Zoutewelle actually seemed to be well cast, and not look awkward. Meanwhile Freddie Stewart continues to impress as Cocteau, though he increasingly comes across as a Con Man, but the latter is due to Edward Kemp’s script rather than his acting. Luke Thompson plays Aziz, and I was finding it a little strange to see this part played by a white man (as it was played by a BME actor last time), though his performance was perfectly good.
Onto The Blood Of A Poet song, I found this improved somewhat second time round, mostly because I had a better idea of what it was meant to be about. I also liked Jessie’s costume as the statue, but it’s still my least favourite part of the show. Fortunately we move swiftly on into one of the show’s high spots, namely the song Has Anybody Seen Man Ray? – Jessie performs this fairly well. She did stumble over one of the lyrics, I think. However, when Anna Francolini performed this song at Chichester she delivered a truly storming tour de force, making it a very hard act to follow.
On to Pictures Of Egypt. I enjoyed the Egyptian scenes rather more second time round, I think having seen some of Lee’s work in exhibitions helps here, and knowing more about her life. Again I found it a little disconcerting having a white actor play Aziz, simply because it was a BME actor before. But Luke Thompson, Harry Jardine, and Jessie Buckley all deliver very good acting performances. In fact Harry Jardine really comes across well, possibly better than Brendan O’Hea did in this scene originally. I appreciated the song Pictures Of Egypt so much more this time round, mainly because having seen Lee’s work in books and exhibitions the song meant so much more. It’s carefully crafted well researched lyrics really do reflect specific photographs. Incidentally the line “That wind eroded rock, is a cock, or very nearly” actually means cockerel. It’s not as innuendoes’ as I thought it was when I first heard it. The first Act ends with the sound of aeroplanes. They do not seem as loud and obviously warplanes as they did last time though.
Act 2 opens with the music Portrait of Cynthia. One does wonder why Jason Carr and Edward Kemp choose to name the model in this scene Cynthia (or Cyn for short). The first surprise of the scene is Francesca Zoutewelle as Cynthia. With her own hair semi loose, for the first time she seems to be in control of her performance, not looking in the least awkward, but actually an engaging and good looking actress, perfect casting for the role of a model. The second surprise, is Freddy Stewart’s acting transformation, now playing the role of David Scherman, a completely different character to Cocteau, and one which he acts every bit as well. One of the advantages of seeing a show second time round is the chance to pick up on little bits one didn’t notice the first time, or as forgotten since. For example the little touch of the characters David Scherman, Lee, and Cyn sharing Oreo’s biscuits with a flask of tea,. I also didn’t know that Oreo’s go back to 1912. We’re soon into another of the show’s really great songs, and one of three so far (all in this second act) to have had a little bit of life outside of the show. In this case Death In The Clouds, which Nigel Richards’s recorded on his solo album. It’s just a shear joy to hear the song, and jolly nice to hear it in the show for which it was written. That said I am very glad it is on Nigel Richards’s album, because it’s good it got onto an album, and the more Jason Carr’s songs are around the better.
This scene also finds Verity Kirk coming into her own, playing Audrey Withers. Ok so she’s not Beverley Kline, nevertheless she makes the part very much her own, and unlike her two first act roles, we don’t miss Beverley Klein, at least not for the duration of watching Verity act this character in the show.
Moving on, we get a true musical theatre highlight, Mrs Miller / The Defining Moment. A very tuneful rather catchy piece that says an awful lot about Lee Miller. It’s a long number, a very long number, but it covers a lot of action. Detailing, with a few dialogue brakes , a great deal of her career as a photojournalist. It is a magnificent song about photojournalism, and women reporters during World War II, so perhaps its not too surprising it’s such a magnificent musical montage, seeing as it largely encompasses many of the reasons Jason Carr and Edward Kemp choose to write this musical about Lee Miller in the first place. I love this song, and it has been going round in my head for days after seeing the show this time. The lyrics are super, and of course the tune fits them perfectly. A beautiful piece of craftmanship. Jessie sings this song jolly well. Comparable with Anna Francolini? well yes. After all Jessie is a good singer-actress and this is a great song, , And the band play it beautifully. The other two major contributors to the song are Luke Thompsom as Major Spiros, and Adam Harley as Sergeant Magee. In this casting I think Luke Thompson is actually more plausible than his Chichester counterpart. Of course we are all meant to be colour-blind, but the fact of the matter is, at that time in the US Army a character such as Major Spiros would almost certainly have been white. Of course It is tricky with a role where you need the same actor to play an Egyptian businessman, how do you cast it? One of the dialogue breaks (I now realise) included a reference to Lee’s annoyance at having to work on helping French fashion magazine Frogue get back on it’s feet, when she felt she ought to be covering the war itself.
Great songs are following thick and fast here, and now it’s Verity Kirk’s big moment in the spotlight, as she sings Brave New World. A song which seems even more poignant now, than when Jason Carr wrote it seven and a half years ago, looking forward as it does to the welfare state and the NHS, amongst other things. The most moving of all being the lyric “It will be so thrilling when the doctor rings the bell, scrabbling for a shilling is a memory we dispel.” Verity does an excellent job and really does the song justice, she may not have Beverley Klein’s kind of pipes, but that does not matter, she does the song in her own way and it works as beautifully as ever. A very special song that.
We come to the classic scene in Hitler’s Munich flat, strategically positioned in the middle of the stage are Lee’s boots, are subtle reminder of their appearance in a legendary David Scherman photograph. – in real life her boots would have been with her in the bathroom at this point in the tale. Edward Kemp’s script here involves references to Dachau concentration camp, whose liberation David Scherman and Lee had just reported on. Luke Thompson and Adam Harley make the most of their opportunity to shine in this scene, and then when Lee eventually emerges Jessie Buckley sings Portrait of AH. This is the last of several songs, which have similar musical and sometimes even lyrical motifs dotted in them, motifs that seem to indicate that they all belong in the same musical. The other songs being: ‘Lee’, ‘Looking At You’, and ‘The Blood Of A Poet’. Whereas I seem to recall Anna Francolini sang the whole thing in the AH dressing gown, here Jessie sings it while getting dressed, which seems to distract somewhat from the song, but this is a very minor detail.
From the horrors of Nazi Germany, now for something completely different. I knew what was coming next, but for many in the audience it would be a surprise, to suddenly have glittering lights, and Francesca Zoutewelle’s big moment. Perhaps the bounciest song in the entire score, a catchy one too, and one that, perhaps not too surprisingly has had some life outside of the show, including being sung by the composer-lyricist himself on BBC Radio 3. It’s Looking For A Bear. I have to say that after an unpromising beginning in Act 1, here Francesa Zoutewelle is marvellous, possibly even better than Anna Lowe, bringing a youthful exuberance to the number, and clearly having fun with it. The role of Ariadne (actually based on a real trapeze artiste named Diane Deriaz) is by far the highlight of Francesa Zoutewelle’s performance tonight.
After that high spot of a number the final scene, set at Farley Farm seems long, probably because it is without music, until almost the very end of the show. Nevertheless I found this lengthy scene rather more interesting than seven and a half years ago, quite possibly because I understood more of the context and what it was about (having done some background reading), meaning that I actually noticed some of the little references that Edward Kemp had worked into the script, such as Lee’s love of kitchen gadgets, or the time she entered a competition for gourmet sandwiches. But also too it may be in part the RADA students acting of it, rather than predominantly musical theatre actors acting it. Or maybe it was just that seeing it second time round I knew what to expect with the scene. I have to say that Jessie acted rather well, other particularly good performances were Francesa Zoutewelle, Harry Jardine, and, Freddie Stewart. While Verity Kirk, and, Peter Hannah gave good supporting performances (perhaps not quite up to their Chichester counterparts, but definitely not bad). Another thing I noticed this time, which may be the way Edward Kemp has directed it, or it may have been there before, is that while by the time we get to the Farley Farm scene Lee is clearly an alcoholic, that had been building up for sometime, ever since Paris really. But also not only is Lee frequently drinking, many of the other characters are too. This is very much based on what they were really like. Lee would start drinking at eleven on the morning. Many of the others drank a lot too, but they tended not to start until six in the evening (but would keep asking each other “is it six o clock yet”.
All in all it is a true joy to have the opportunity of seeing this masterpiece of a musical again, and best of all seeing it in London. Overall I felt the cast did jolly well. Yes there were places where their youthfulness seemed to make them a little young for their parts, but generally they coped well, especially bearing in mind that the roles were created with the original actors playing them: Adam Harley – Has an important little role early on and does well as Sergent Mcgee too. Luke Thompson – I found it odd seeing him as Aziz, but far more convincing as Major Spiros. This is not his fault, its actually more the way Edward Kemp has structured the script requiring the same actor to play two such different roles. Francesca Zoutewelle - Initially I didn’t think much of her, during the first act, But she was a complete surprise in the second act by actually being rather good. At her best with the marvellous Looking For A Bear. She also did rather well as a fashion model. Verity Kirk – She was Ok but unremarkable in her first two roles. Maybe partly because she is too young for them, particular the first one. However, she did very well as Audrey Withers, surely the best of her three roles anyway, and for the duration of the performance made it her own. Peter Hannah – he shone as Man Ray, which is no mean feat when you consider that the part was originated by Teddy Kempner. Freddie Stewart – Another actor who played two contrasting characters and played them very very well. First his oily Cocteau, whom one can’t quite be sure if one can trust, and then Davey Schearman – a splendid role, which he did justice too. As good as his Chichester counterpart, well possibly or at least very nearly. Harry Jardine – Seemed to struggle a bit with his first character, but made a very good attempt at it, particularly given he’s probably just a bit young for the role. He was at his best as Roland Penrose, a part he made his own (just as good as his Chichester counterpart). And finally our leading lady Jessie Buckley – She did very very well. Not quite as great a performance as Anna Francolini’s, but then the role was written once Anna had been cast in it, and Francolini let’s face it is a seriously good musical theatre actress and therefore a very difficult act to follow. Jessie was by no means bad, and in many places very good. Though I did find some of her pronunciation, a bit irritating (well the name Picasso). In general she did a fine job as leading lady, a good attempt at making the title role her own. It was only afterwards that I discovered I had seen her on stage once before, in A Little Night Music (the production that Jason Carr orchestrated), but it’s good to see Jessie’s performance here which makes much more of an impact. Of course it’s a much bigger role. But also her acting has become so much more polished.
Overall, I am really really glad I saw the show. It brought back some wonderful memories of Chichester, and best of all it was just a joy that this splendid musical of Jason Carr and Edward Kemp’s had an outing on a stage in London, all be it a student production. it was really a very enjoyable evening. So glad to have seen it.