Dress Circle’s Grand Reopening
23rd November 2002, Dress Circle
Account of the day by Emma Shane
First you may be wondering what on earth an account of a shop’s re-opening is doing on this site. But then if you know Dress Circle you will know that for show-fans this absolutely no ordinary shop, it’s a unique institution, and there was a little surprise at it’s grand reopening in the form of The doyenne of Spitting Image puppeteers! You might also wonder what a political-satirical-puppeteer is doing getting in on the act at the re-opening of a showbiz (for that read musical theatre) shop, but then again Louise Gold is so much more than just a puppeteer.
The day of Dress Circle, or as the shop’s online fans call it DC,’s grand reopening started quietly, “quiet and slow with no surprises?” well not exactly. The shop’s numerous supporters soon began to turn up in droves, delighted to see the new light airy shop, but as promised very much with its dear old character pretty much intact. Unfortunately its sense of history has taken a severe hit, but the warmth, sincerity and friendliness of the institution that this shop that is so much more than just a shop shines through stronger than ever. Soon a wide range of musical theatre fans were mingling in the ground floor part of the shop (the basement being out of bounds to us ordinary mortals), and what a range of fans, from those involved with showbusiness themselves to those who are just fans. But we all have one thing in common; we all love showtunes, and Dress Circle. Some of these of course besides being show-fans in general also have their fondnesses for particular performers ranging from Darren Day to Ruthie Henshall and from Louise Gold to Anna Francolini, as events turned out Ms Gold’s fans at any rate were in for a bit of a treat.
It was nearly one o’clock and time for the Grand Reopening. Dress Circle’s fans were all over the ground floor, and out into the street. Also outside were the press. Claire Sweeney came to take up her position, but just before she did so, a quick flurry of activity up the stairs from the basement, and out the “side” exit, as Katherine Ives escorted a surprise figure. Compare Tim McArthur had had the bright idea of introducing a bit of comedy, but this was no inappropriate hopeless comedian, much to the amusement of the press, it was the Spitting Image puppet of The Queen, in the very capable hands of that star of Ian Marshall-Fisher’s Lost Musicals, the musical-theatre-actress Louise Gold (who just happens to be a first rate puppeteer). She also makes a far better and more appropriate job of being the comic element then any inappropriately hopeless comedian would have done. Now at last Claire Sweeney could perform the ceremonial cutting of the ribbon and declare the shop officially open. Which she did with the same style and enthusiasm that saw her presenting the TV series A Week In The West End earlier this year. The lady-opener and her comedy side kick came into the shop and moved through the massed crowd. It was here that Louise seemed to almost get more attention than Claire! I do remember someone making a remark that was a bit dubious and Louise had her puppet react absolutely in character. I wonder how many people here realised that this musical-theatre-actress is actually one of Britain’s top television puppeteers.
Claire remained above ground, while Louise and her puppet disappeared downstairs to the basement. Our host Tim McArthur now takes centre stage, and we give Dress Circle three cheers, which it thoroughly deserves. And now it’s time for the first of two cabarets. Overall I actually felt the first cabaret was the best, simply because it had such a spectacular line-up of performers, all of whom had given their time for Dress Circle. First up Tim McArthur himself performing Rio. I’m very glad he did Rio, because it is one of the best pieces in his repertoire. It also fitted in rather nicely with the party atmosphere. Next up the cast (all two of them) of the Jermyn Street Theatre’s production of Noel And Gertie, sang three Noel Coward songs: London Pride, I Like America, and, Sail Away. They sang them very nicely; London Pride seemed to me especially appropriate. After this came a gentlemen I last saw on stage at a Gala in Wavenden, Robert Irons came on to sing a number. He is a good singer and he did his number very well, but he was somewhat eclipsed by some of the more experienced performers who came later. Next up was Kevin Morrow, Dominic Allen and Paul Hyen from the show 125th Street, who did a song from that show. This although well performed was one of those bits that did not make a vast amount of sense out of context, even though it was good fun. The quality of the entertainment rather stepped up a notch with the next performer, Frances Ruffelle. She was dressed in jeans, but this fitted in nicely with the informality of both Dress Circle and the occasion. She sang too pieces, the first was Being Alive, which she sang very nicely, but the next was just hilarious and piece about Auditions. This was the first number of the afternoon that was almost a showstopper. In fact it was a little hard lines on Denise Solway who had to follow her. Next up was Gay Soper, wearing a feather bow, who sang Can That Boy Foxtrot. Given that the only time I had previously seen this song performed well was when Liz Robertson and Louise Gold did it in both Side By Side By Sondheim and the SBSBS 25th Anniversary Gala, I was pleasantly surprised at how well Ms Soper put the song across, making it her very own, no matter who has done it before. She also rather delightfully attempted to flirt with various men in the audience. It was going to be a difficult act to follow, but follow it they certainly did, with no less a person than Issy Van Randwyck. The Dutch Clog-dancing-Baroness proceeded to sing Tulips From Amsterdam, possibly in Dutch, well it certainly wasn’t in English. Not being able to understand the words, however, really did not matter, simply because she put the number across so darn well. She had brought on a bunch of tulips, and proceeded to toss them into the audience. She finished the number, as one might expect by clog dancing; the audience went wild. Fortunately she was followed by another stellar turn, a woman who earlier this year had in fact been Issy’s replacement at The Hampstead And Highgate Arts Festival, The Queen of Spitting Image puppeteers Louise Gold, now in her singing-actress mode. It was here that Tim McArthur made a little slip-up in his introduction “She did one year in Mamma Mia” “Two” barks a loud distinctive voice, coming up the stairs. Louise proceeded to sing a song about staying in. It proved to be a lovely song, and being the beautifully sincere singer that she sang it really well, and thoroughly believably. Although she is the kind of performer with more than enough commanding stage presonce to fill a big stage, it is really lovely to be able to enjoy her performance in such an intimate venue as the new Dress Circle shop. There is a feeling that she was really and truly singing this both too and for the audience. Louise is a very expressive performer, and in particular she has an incredibly expressive face, which communicates a lot to her audience. Here we are close enough to her for that to be a major factor in her putting her song across, and by the same token she could almost certainly see the audience paying full attention to her. Like Gay Soper there was a real connection between her and her audience, she is not just singing a song, she is performing a number, here, live in Dress Circle! If the others had been hard acts to follow, Louise is almost impossible, as May Daly/Mme Du Barry says in Du Barry Was A Lady “Listen girly, no one can follow me!” But here Tim McArthur came up trumps in scheduling one of the very few performers who actually can follow Louise Gold, namely, Jessica Martin, who proceeded to rise to the occasion by performing an incredibly appropriate song, I Love A Film Cliché Because A Film Cliché Is The Best Entertainment I know, which she dedicated to well, practically everyone here today, those of us here today are all showtune fans. Jessica’s party piece certainly went down well at this party, partly because she performs it thoroughly as though she means it (and in fact she really and truly does mean it) and partly because it just fitted in so well with the whole atmosphere, she also included a special mention for Dress Circle’s Chris Schofield changing the name Steve to Chris in the line “I’m no good for you Steve”. All in all an excellent entertainment, and a delightful welcome home for Dress Circle. One of the microphones failed part of the way through, but this did not matter, because in an intimate venue such as this experienced professionals who know how to project, such as: Frances Ruffelle, Gay Soper, Issy Van Randwyck and above all Louise Gold and Jessica Martin really don’t need a microphone. Simon Beck did a great job as the keyboard accompanist throughout.
A short while later a cake, or rather three cakes, were brought out and placed on the shop counter. Jessica Martin returned to do the honours of cutting one of them, and just as she did so suddenly called out for everyone to “Make a wish”.
The party began to wind down a bit after that, although there was still a lot to enjoy. For instance there was an Open Mike session, where Tim Harding on the keyboard and Tricia Stewart (known to her friends as onemoregoff) singing gave sterling performances. A few other Dress Circle messageboard fans joined in, but those two were the mainstays of the Open Mike.
Eventually, at around 5:53, we had another cabaret, which although great fun did not have quite the sensational impact of the earlier show, simply because the performers although very good, were not quite as sensational. First up Tim McArthur, now dressed in his nun’s habit as Sister Mary McArthur sang I Just Want To Be A Star, a song which I always associate with Dress Circle, because the first time I ever heard the song was when I got someone in Dress Circle to play Anna Sharkey’s excellent recording of it (which Dress Circle still stocks on CD) on their sound system. This is followed by Norma Skiff, who sang too songs, and did them rather well. Now Simon Beck deserted the keyboard, and Nathan Martin took his place, and accompanied himself singing I’m Very Good In Bed. At this point I find myself thinking this man should try and do an act with either Leigh MacDonald or Lizzie Rennihan, they would perhaps be suitably sex oriented. Anyway he did a great job with the song, and sang with conviction, so it was rather believable. He is an accomplished performer with a wealth of experience, like certain other musical theatre pianists he has had his share of unlikely adventures in the performing world (for instance about three years ago, in a revue, he was required to play a piano with a six-months-pregnant actress sitting on top of it!). Simon Beck returns to the keyboard and Chris Coleman comes on stage to sing Better Than I, this was another fine well sung number. It was followed by one of the most memorable of the second cabaret’s performers, Rebecca Carrington, with Joey her cello (Cellist’s seem to like to give their instruments names, I have read of them giving them names such as Cerita and Cherry). Rebecca soon proves to be a versatile artiste, equally at home in classic, jazz, popular music and above all comedy, as she clearly seems to enjoy sending up classical performers. She also quickly won the audience over, her brand of comedy being very much of the send-up variety and never going too far into cruelty. Hers was a hard act to follow. Clegg Price tried hard singing Lost In The Wilderness, but though sang nicely, he was not exactly a sensation. The final act of the afternoon, however, was another hit. This time a double-act, the sisters Grania and Lizzie Renhian singing Everybody’s Kisses Need Lips. The song was written by Lizzie’s guitarist friend Tegs, originally for her, but after he heard Grania sing it, he rewrote it as duet, focusing on Grania. In fact, until I head the Renihan sisters sing this I always thought Lizzie the more talented of the two (though most people seem to reckon Grania is), but now I think, well perhaps they are both equally talented. It was just great to see them in Dress Circle. Last summer I saw Lizzie Renihan in The Jermyn Street Jewels (a show incidentally sponsored by Dress Circle) and afterwards wanted to buy the Renihan sisters’s CD, today it was great to finally walk into Dress Circle and do just that, and so how appropriate to actually see them both performing.
All in all it is just marvellous to see such a truly wonderful musical theatre institution as Dress Circle back home where it belongs. Dress Circle’s fans and friends ensured the shop was given a warm and much deserved welcome home. Tim McArthur and Katherine Ives at Trilby did a terrific job organising the reopening. All the performers who gave their time gave of their best, and some of them were outstanding (there were also some real surprises - Louise Gold’s puppeteering being one of particular note), a whole bunch of showmusic fans had a thrilling day. But the biggest thrill of all is that Dress Circle is back, and long may it reign.