A Love Letter To Dan

 

The Novello Theatre, Sunday 16th July 2006

 

Review by Emma Shane

© July 2006

 

The show opens, at 19:00, with The Two Mikeís, pianists Michael Reed and Mike Dixon, taking their places and striking up the Overture To Mr Cinders. Then we have introductory speaker Stephanie Sinclaire (Crawford), followed by Katherine Kastin; who acquitted themselves like real theatrical pros.

 

Spread A Little Happiness, sung by Denis Lawson is the first number of the evening. He sings adequately, though I was not too such about The Mikesís arrangement, it seemed rather slow, especially right at the beginning of a gala, when you want something to get things going. The evening picked up tempo with Every Moment, sung and danced with delightful enthusiasm by Diana Martin and Graham Hoadly. The latter was particularly good in this number, and I couldnít help thinking, ďwouldnít he make a great Theodore in Follies?Ē I think Listen To The Rain On The Roof would really suit his talentsĒ.On with the show, or in this case On With The Dance well performed by Diana Martin with a joyful company of: Fleur Bennett, Julie Ann Blythen, Janthea Brigden, Graham Hoadly ,Andrea Kealy, Stephanie Lunn, Eileen Page, Gaynor Sinclaire, Geoff Steer, and, Burnell Tucker, who all try hard with their dancing. However, oneís attention is really drawn to some young backing dancers, literally in the background, namely: Nathalie Clarke, Will Stokes, Will Rogers, Buchi Osuji, Nathalie Millet, Albey Brookes, and, Hanelle Van Wyk who all dance wonderfully, as one would expect from Arts Ed.

 

Without any introduction the stage is cleared for the re-entry of Denis Lawson, now clad in a jungle explorerís sort of outfit, for On The Amazon. A number which out of context is totally silly. Itís funny, but it makes no sense whatsoever. Denis, looking very odd, does it with great enthusiasm, but I think it could have benefited from a but of scene setting narration. Nevertheless, I canít think why The Muppets never got hold of this ridiculous number, it might have suited their peculiar brand of humour.

At the back of the stage is a large screen, on which at various points in the evening excerpts from a documentary about Dan Crawford are flashed up, including interviews with all sorts of people (Celia Imrie, Joanna Lumley, Samuel West, and Victoria Wood amongst others). At this particular moment itís an excerpt of Janie Dee describing how she asked Dan why he hadnít chosen her for a particular job, and he told her because she needed to be more consistent. At which, with a burst of I Cainít Say No, Janie herself enters, from top stage left. She stops, leans against a piano,tells us that it was very hard to say no to Dan, and since then sheís really tried to be more consistent in her work, and promptly launches into Look To The Rainbow. This song really suits her talents. She should sing Yip Harburgís lyrics more often, because she does them with such sincerity and feeling. One tends to think of Janie Dee as playing rather light fluffy characters, but thereís much more to her than that, as it obvious by her handling or Harburgís lyrics.

Enter Peter Reeves with the English translations of a couple of French music-hall-like songs, a genre he obviously has a real talent for. The first of these numbers Belly Buttons (all about a man who wanted to see the belly-button of a policemanís wife) is hilarious, again I canít think why The Muppets never got hold of this in their music-hall excerpts, it might well have suited them. Anyway, Peter Reeves does a splendid job with it. He also does a good job with You Donít See The Time Pass Away, though I did not think that to be as great a song.

The Boy From is given a new slant, by having Anna Nicholas sing it in what I think is a Spanish accent, at any rate in slightly broken English. It was certainly an interesting take, and she sang it quite good. The only problem is, that the incomparable Millicent Martin performed this song on this very stage less than two months ago, and thatís just too tough an act to follow.

Next up, something of a surprising performance. Sally Ann Triplett singing Once You Loose Your Heart. Sorry did I say singing? Performing would be a more accurate description; as this is the best performance I have ever seen Sal (as her fans call her) give in a gala. For once it was up to the high standard of her performances in actual stage musicals. Was she well directed or what? Like a good musical-theatre actress she looked straight ahead to the back wall, with the result that she succeeded in engaging the whole audience and holding them (at least while she was on stage doing her number).

Linda Marlowe takes the narratorís stand, which is position exactly where youíd expect at bottom stage right (like it was for the SBSBS 30th Anniversary Gala); to tell a story about the time she had some friends round to lunch, on her birthday, but got rung up by Dan asking her if she would appear in a lunchtime play at The Kings Head, called Dynamo, in which she would enact being torched, by being strapped naked onto a dynamo on stage. She thought it a bit avant-garde for her, but after Dan kept her talking on the phone for forty five minuets, she realised she was never going to get back to her lunch party unless she agreed to do that show, so she did.

Next up, something of a star turn from Peter Straker, with two songs. First was Jackie, not a song I would normally care much for. However, Peter did perform it awfully well, with a lot of conviction. I was much less enamoured of Carousel, it seemed to be in the style of Kander & Ebb, but not as good as their work. Nevertheless, Peter Straker is a fine singer, who I think is well worth seeing. I wonder if heís ever done G&S? (I think he could be rather fun doing that?).

On to one of the highlights of the entire evening. Enter Jessica Martin from bottom stage right, dressed in a stunning sky blue evening frock. Well actually she entered, with a French accent, in the character of Veronique Raymond (from her one woman show Veronique A Life Long Cult). Then quick as a lighting flash, on announcing that she was now presenting her tribute to Betty Hutton, she switched both accent and characters, to become, the all American, Trudy from A Saint She Ainít, singing (the song written for her) Manitowoc. That Dick Vosburgh & Denis King musical premiered at The Kings Head, with Jessica as Trudy. Tonight she is absolutely stunning. She even got the stage left pianist to portray Willouby, and lift her up. Sheís such a great interpreter of Dick Vosburghís lyrics anyway.The whole number was just super. Really a showstopper!

It was really unfair on Jon Lee that his performance of Iím On A See Saw had to follow Jessicaís tour de force. It was going to take a while for the audience to calm down, and this number may have been decent, but it was rather eclipsed by the previous one.

The audience had more or less got over Jessicaís showstopper, by the time Denis Lawson made his third appearance, this time to sing Someone To Fall Back On. So that as long as he was on stage singing, he held the audience; although ultimately the number was not particularly memorable.

The next number, I Want A Boy was a serious attempt to bring the backroom of the pub theatre of yesteryearinto the West End; for John Barr and Dave Lynn performed in drag. Did it work? Well seeing as this was a gala for The Kings Head (a fringe theatre which is still the backroom of a pub) yes. Unlike some galas, this was a nice unpretentious evening, so yes, that was ok. It did kind of suit the occasion.

 

The stage right pianist (who is himself something of a composer) introduced the next section, a medley from Bless The Bride, performed mostly by Jan Hartley and Jack Rebaldi. I Was Never Kissed Before was a particularly good number, with a matching performance by Jan Hartley. Sheís got a great voice.This Is My Lovely Day followed on nicely, also suiting Janís talents well. Finally they were joined by Alan Tompson, Paul Tate and the convincing graceful Arts Ed seven (Nathalie Clarke, Will Stokes, Will Rogers, Buchi Osuji, Nathalie Millet, Albey Brookes, and, Hanelle Van Wyk ) as Jack Rebaldi them all in Ma Belle Marguerite. I was very impressed by the excerpts from the Bless The Bride score, and if any opera company is looking for something Ďlightí to do, they might want to consider giving this a go, as long as they had singers who were good at cross-over (and an MD who knew to tell them when to do a bit as cross over and when they might use their operatic voices).

 

One thing which really gives a gala something extra is a comic surprise to liven things up. Something unexpected, daring, and even a little bit outrageous. However, one has to be careful. It also needs to be appropriate to the occasion, and must not go too far, or else it will become silly and inappropriate, and thatís a fine fine line. It is not just any performer who could be trusted to provide this sort of OTT element in a West End gala. You need the right kind of personality, one with vivacity, charisma, and yet intelligence. Someone who has the personality to get away with it, and the sense to know exactly how far they may go. Someone who is capable of going right up to the line, but never crossing it. (Two months ago for the Sondheim gala, Louise Gold came up trumps, with some subtle, and sometimes not so subtle upstaging Ė just right for that event). Tonight we have another splendid mazik, Henry Goodman. From the moment Henry enters (bottom stage right), clad only in boxer shorts, socks, plimsolls, and a black tie, we know weíre in for something funny. After remarking that he was told to wear a black tie, so he has, but as this is not a funeral heíll have some fun, ties up his tie. He says that this outfit is uniform for The Kings Head; and goes on to hilariously describe the cramped conditions in the dressing room there. Then he continues with a story about Steven Berkoff writing a play to take into account that dressing room, and how this developed Berkoffís style; in the course of which Henry quotes Berkoff himself saying ďI f***ing double dare you to put this on at The Kings HeadĒ. Ė Wow! that really is a turn up for the books. Henry Goodman live on a West End stage in a gala, minimally clad, swearing! (even if he was quoting Berkoff). Henry goes on to describe taking that play to Edinburgh. Then proceeds to say he recently spoke to Dan Crawfordís agent, who sent the following message. At this point Henry disappears briefly into the wings to fetch a hat, and a case containing a small banjo. He puts on the hat, gets out the banjo accompanies himself with a country and western style song, in the style of Dan Crawfordís agent. An extraordinary display of versatility and outlandish performance. Quite the most unusual, unique performance of the evening. It also made me think how wonderful it would be to see him act in a good farce.

 

If Jessica had been a hard act to follow, Henry was well nigh impossible. I donít really remember if Morgan Crowley even appeared to sing Oh How I Loved You. If he did the appearance was forgettable, coming hot on the heels of Henryís meshugge antics.

Dan Crawfordís mother Edna Crawford is introduced to make a speech. She enters fiddling with an American flag in her hands. Despite finding the microphone difficult to use, she nevertheless makes a funny speech, and well I think the audience all appreciated her coming over, and coming on stage to appear at tonightís gala.

Act 1 is brought to a close by a selection of the assembled company, namely the majority of Act 1ís performers singing Spread A Little Happiness, with a better arrangement than that number had had at the opening.

 

Act 2 opens with The Two Mikes playing the Overture To Wonderful Town. They really know how to play Bernstein in a lush exciting manner. Of course itís also possible that Wonderful Town is a lush exciting score. But if so, their playing did this overture justice. Halfway through, they break off, get up and come to the front of the stage, to speak their own memories of Dan. They say this is not something that accompanists usually do. However, I thought they made a jolly good job of it, not least because they spoke so absolutely from the heart, as well as like consummate professionals.

Lesley Joseph enters bottom stage right to take the narratorís stand. She is a charismatic performer. I think that people do not always realise that there is much more to her than just Dorian in Birds of A Feather. After an amusing apology for wearing odd shoes (a result of rushing out of the house without her glasses on, and so not noticing which shoes she had picked up); she reads a very funny speech by Maureen Lipman (who was unavailable to appear tonight). Lesley first explains that she and Maureen had appeared together at The Kings Head in Wonderful Town. While Maureenís speech does actually refer to, what she evidently considered a somewhat unusual idea of a Jewish girl (namely Maureen herself) appearing in Leonard Bernsteinís Wonderful Town.

With Maureen being unavailable, Why O Why Ohio is tonight performed by Louise Gold (as Ruth), and, Nicola Keen (as Eileen). Iím not entirely sure what connection, if any, either of them, especially Louise, have with The Kings Head; but theyíre good people to have in a gala. They sit on stools front centre of the stage to sing the chorus (Louise on stage right, Nicola stage left), but for the spoken verses, Louise leaps up to her feet as she speaks, followed by Nicola, and both stand beside their stools to stage right for the rest of the verse, returning to sit down for the chorus, this happens twice (two verses sandwiched between three choruses). Nicola wore a simple greyish/off-white evening frock While Louise wore her smart black evening trousers (that have a low cut top as part of them), with her black semi-transparent loose top over it. It seems to be her chosen outfit for this sort of thing, she wore for much of the Side By Side By Sondheim 30th Anniversary Gala. Iím too not sure that top really suited the character she was playing (a young lady journalist?), but she seems to like it, and in galas well anything goes costume wise. This song is very much a double act, and our two performers complemented each otherís talents, or should that be cancelled out each otherís difficulties? Nicola sings well, though her acting was well ... alright. Meanwhile Louise is vice versa, acting brilliantly, but, unusually for her, her singing really did not come across too well. Iíve never heard her struggle as much as that before. Was the song too low even for her wide range, or was it poor sound design or what? The former seems the most likely. Fortunately trusty Louise is not just a singer, she is also a splendid actress, and (as she usually does on the rare occasions when her singing isnít quite up to scratch) she makes up for it with her spot on acting. As in the Side By Side By Sondheim 30th Anniversary Gala (also at this theatre) she is wonderfully inclusive, playing to the whole house, looking all round the auditorium, including up, so that no matter where you are seated you feel part of the action. Being a good actress, she gets totally into character and never stops acting. What is more she acts with her whole body, especially her face, and clever left-hand. (Louise Gold has more talent in her left-hand than some performers have in their whole body). Itís good to see her in a gala. The English Muppet is always an asset to this sort of thing. But why oh why was she trying to sing something so low? Still sheís a game thing, and she canít Ďarf act.

 

We come to a medley from Kurt Weillís One Touch Of Venus. Trying to do a role (from a not often done show) that has already been associated with: Mary Martin (original Broadway cast), Louise Gold (two Lost Musicals productions), Paige OíHara (BBC Radio), and, Melissa Errico (Studio cast album) is no mean feet, so Kim Medcalf really acquits herself rather well singing Iím A Stranger Here Myself, with a passing vocal similarity to Paige OíHara. Meanwhile Peter Landís West Wind is more on a par with Ethan Freeman than Peter Gale. While Michael Gyngell proves to be a good Rodney when he joins Kim for Speak Low. The section concludes with a jolly odd arrangement of The Trouble With Women, performed by: Mark White, Michael Gyngell, Paul Tate, Peter Land, and, Kim Medcalf. Well itís odd if you are familiar with the original. As an out of context performance it is ok, but I thought this was supposed to be in the context in which it was done at The Kings Head. Hence it is jolly but odd.

 

Anita Dobson, in a rather nice sparkling red, white (and either silver or gold) frock takes the narratorís stand to very nicely introduce the rather shy Ann Pinnington. Ann gives her little speech. Then Anita gets to introduce her own husband Brian May who is accompanying on his guitar Mazz Murray. That introduction could have sounded corny, but actually it doesnít, because Anita comes across as so totally sincere (even though her tone of voice suggests that she is also aware she could sound corny).

I felt that Who Wants To Live Forever, and, These Are The Days Of Our Lives were over microphoned. If you like this sort of thing, then I should say this is a very thrilling moment in the gala. But unfortunately musically it is not really to my taste; a lady sitting in my row described the two songs as ďlyrically challengedĒ. However, it is rather a coup for The Kings Head gala, and should hopefully have been a big box-office draw especially given what a well known musician Brian May is; and he does happen to be a rather talented guitar player.

 

Anita returns (without Ann Ė who was credited in the programme) to introduce the next section, a collection of Vivian Ellisís revue songs.

A Fountain Pen For Christmas is a fine underrated song. However, I was not quite sure if it was meant to be dirty. Nicola Keen, now wearing a dowdy long skirt and cardigan generally sang well, however her comic timing was not quite so good. But then very few performers get a chance to learn the art of comic timing properly.

Thelma Ruby is rather more experienced in these things, and tackled Small Abode, perhaps the best known song in this set, with her usual skill. Given that she is getting on a bit she actually did a pretty terrific job. However, one does have to ask whether the song would still make sense if one were unaware of the Jewish history of Hampstead NW3? Fortunately Thelma sensibly adds an extra line after ďI never had margarineĒ to make it clearer, ďunless it was kosherĒ.

The highlight of this set, though, is Why Do They Call Me Lilly? It is a song with a lot of meaning and relevance, and one whose sentiments never age. In any era there will always be children given the most peculiar names, or names which most definitely do not fit them. So yes itís a great song; and it is given an absolutely brilliant performance by Katherine Kastin.

Once again showstoppers are hard to follow. In addition the evening was beginning to drag. I donít really remember much about Fiona Sinnottís performance of Little Boat, or Nicola Keenís third and final number The Silent Heart. Did they do them? I think they did, but I canít be certain.

 

Things livened up as Angela Richards stumps on stage, looking like a bit of a battle-axe (but only a bit of one). ďThe nameís FieldsĒ she barks, by way of what was supposed to introduce a medley, or should that be excerpt, from the revue Dorothy Fields Forever. Without a narrator to set the scene the audience had to figure that out on their own. Angela was soon joined by the ever reliable and ever useful Robert Meadmore, along with Rebecca Lock, who also seems to be proving herself to be a useful West End gala asset. The three of them launch into a reasonable rendition of Sunny Side Of The Street, which is fun, but outside the context of not only the show it was originally from, but also of this revue, itís a bit odd. Rebecca makes Pink Taffeta Size 10 very much her own; and that is In spite of Jessica Martin having sung it in her one woman show Veronique A Life Long Cult. Yes, Rebecca does a fine job with the song. Angela demonstrates her own versatility with He Had Refinement, but again outside both the original context and the context given it in this revue it makes little sense. Nevertheless Angela does sing it well, with an interesting accent. Robertís turn for a solo, and what a solo, a great classic The Way You Look Tonight which reliable as ever he makes very much his excellent own. Finally the trio conclude the section together with a medley, which was billed as Big Spender/Pick Yourself Up, but in actual fact also included Itís Not Where You Start Itís Where You Finish. Which would actually have been a very nice fitting place to finish to show.

 

By now it was getting late, a few of the audience even started to leave, but there was still one more set before the finale, Noel Coward; whose work I am not that keen on anyway, although there were some good performances. This section was introduced by Sheridan Morely and Patricia Hodge; (well mostly Sheridan, thank goodness as we can be sure it was probably accurate). Sheridan tells the story about how he got a distant relative of his (his fifth cousin, Joanna Lumley) to play Gertrude Lawrence in the original production of Noel & Gertie, and then by chance both she and the actor playing Noel Coward happened to be big on television at the time, which ensured that the show did rather well. Janie Dee and Simon Green than sing You Were There rather well. In fact Simon was totally brilliant, giving a most likeable performance. Iíve never seen anyone attempt to play a sort of Noel Coward role so likeably before. He also danced rather well, as did Janie. Was that a subtle reference to Coward and Lawrenceís Italia Conti training? After changing his jacket Simon returned to the stage, with Graham Hoadly for Green Carnation; which is very funny, though a little camp (still thatís quite appropriate in a tribute to fringe theatre). Graham does well, but Simon is amazing; and Iím not too sure how advisable it is to team them together as equal partners in a duet; simply because Simon is such a strong performer, and sometimes one has to be careful who one teams really strong performers with, and for what numbers, as otherwise the balance of power can get rather unbalanced. However, this is just one number in a gala, so itís fine. Next Jan Hartley and Jack Rebaldi return to the stage for one last duet, Iíll See You Again. By now it really is getting late, and although they sang well, I found my attention wandering, actually I ended up thinking of when I saw David Kernan and co sing this song some eleven years ago at Richmond Theatre in Noel/Cole: Letís Do It. Iíll See You Again is followed by something that is oddly out of place in a Noel Coward medley, since it isnít by him, namely Jule Styne & Stephen Sondheimís Roseís Turn/Everythingís Coming Up Roses. Angela Richards enters from back stage right, very much in the character of a disgruntled stage mother. Much as I should really love to hear this song belted over the footlights like a baseball coach belting a fly, by a really first class brassy belter. Iím very glad that Angela quite sensibly didnít do it that way. For the simple reason that she is not a belter (or at least if she does belt she certainly would not be in the same league as say: Kim Criswell, Louise Gold, Rita Mckenzie, Louise Plowright, or for that matter Mary Sarkissian). Angelaís pretty forceful with this song, but rather than attempt a poor imitation of Ethel Merman, she sensibly concentrates on singing it as a convincing character piece, the best way she can. She does it in the way that is absolutely right for her; making it her own. Back to the Noel Coward, and a number that (as Louise Gold once said) is often done by performers because it sums up the way a lot of them feel about their work. Namely, If Love Were All. Given the various people whoíve done it over the years (including Gay Soper and Louise Gold in their respective cabaret acts), Clare Burtís got a tough assignment to make this her own. But, as anyone who saw Passion at The Bridewell (when it was a professional theatre) should know Clare is a great performer in her own right , very capable of rising to a challenge like this. Unfortunately, though, she has been placed, with no introduction, as just another girl singer, right at the end of the evening, in the sort of spot that is usually reserved for a big name guest star performer, which Clare is not. Breaking with convention would not in itself have mattered too much, for Clare has the talent to do it, but it had been a very long gala, and by now the audience is distinctly fatigued, and so does not really give Clare to attention that she deserves.

 

At long last into the finale. Those members of the company who are still present, come on stage to sing Danny Boy with great sincerity. Followed by that rousing Irving Berlin classic Thereís No Business Like Show Business. I think it was intended to be much more rousing than it actually was, given that the lyrics for both numbers were printed in the programme. But by now it was so late, that some of the cast (including: Anita Dobson, Louise Gold, Jessica Martin, and, Brian May) had already left. And I for one am not surprised. Performers have trains to catch too, and no doubt some of them have to work tomorrow, having given up their night off to do the gala. Anyway, for the remnants of the cast and audience, who hung on to the bitter end, it finally concluded at about 22:45. Three and three quarter hours including the interval.

 

It was a great show, nicely unpretentious. There were many fine performances, too many to pick out a lot of individuals, though it must be said that Arts Ed once again showed how it tends to turn out convincing and very graceful musical theatre actors. Of the star turns some of the performances were truly amazing. Highlights include: Katherine Kastin with the timeless Why Do They Call Me Lilly; Jessica Martinís showstopper Manitowoc; and good old reliable Henry Goodman just being well, unique. However, three and three quarter hours even including an interval is rather long. Yes they tried to pack a lot in, gave the audience itís moneyís worth, but it was tiring just watching it; and at the end most of the remaining audience were rushing to try and catch last trains. The finale was not quite the rouser it should have been, what with an audience that was fatigued, and a proportion of the cast having already left. The sheer length of the evening also meant that many of the last few numbers suffered, through the audience paying insufficient attention to do them justice. Clare Burtís If Love Were All being a case in point, after all she really is a good performer, but that position in the show ultimately did not do her talents justice. Another fine singer whose performance also seemed to suffer in this gala was Louise Gold; vocally she appeared to struggle, perhaps the number was too low. However, she did make up for it with her acting. Though given that the vast majority of the performers had some connection with The Kings Head Theatre, Iím still not sure what she was doing in this gala in the first place; but sheís always the kind of versatile performer itís nice to have in a gala anyway. Altogether a pretty bizarre evening, but an occasion worth witnessing, after all, itís something to be celebrating a fringe theatre in a West End gala.

 

 

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