LOUISE GOLD .... By Appointment
16 to 21 December - The Jermyn Street Theatre
Reviewed by Emma Shane
© December 2002
What an extraordinary show, starring an extraordinary performer! Louise Gold: brings her own lighting, does her own stunts, embarks on self-parody, and tops the lot off by upstaging herself!
This show is indeed, as the flyer said, a unique entertainment, and one performed by a very special lady, who has a wide and exceedingly varied career, this cabaret quite literally brings the best of it together. A mere written review, such as this one, can only tell part of the story, it is no substitute for actually seeing the show. But if you are unable to get to see the show it may give you some idea of what you’ve missed, and if you did see the show, then it can aide your memory of seeing it.
The first act opens in darkness, pianist Jason Carr takes his place, our star soon follows, and, lights on, gives us an earful of Gold, launching into an opening medley of four songs. The first of these is by Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn, the others by Cole Porter. Although Louise Gold has a reputation for being ‘an English Ethel Merman’ and the first number An Earful Of Music was inhabited rather well by Merman on a solo album (now that’s something Ms Gold really should be given a chance to do!), she actually steers away from the brassiness of Merman, taking the number more subtly. The Leader Of A Big Time Band, however, finds Gold very much in her latter-day Ethel Merman mode - which it has to be said she does far far better than anyone else - in a small theatre like Jermyn Street, we get her in all her loud brassy unmiked glory. She switches style quickly and effectively again for A Little Rumba Number and begins to bring into play her gift for switching accents rapidly and cleanly, portraying both characters in the song like the true voice-artiste that she is. Can Can is an even better example of Louise Gold’s stunning ability to do many many different voices. Here at last she gets to change accent and style almost every other line of the song. She also gets to indulge, unafraidedly in some of Cole Porter’s most risqué lyrics. But it is not just her singing that puts her opening medley across. Louise Gold is not the kind of performer who just stands and sings. She has an incredibly expressive body, and knows how to make full use of it. Thus she inhabits her songs from head to toe. Sometimes, as in the first two songs she mainly just sings, but in the third she moves from one side of the stage to the other to take on the two personas in the song, and for the final number she is dancing all over the stage, thoroughly acting out bits of the song, such as “Sarah Bernhardt upon her divan”; At other times in the song, indeed throughout the medley, not to mention the whole evening, she makes great use of her expressive hands, her wide expressive mouth, and sparkling communicative eyes to convey her songs. In this way she is able to bring so much more personality to her performance than would otherwise be the case. Louise is dressed similarly to her previous cabaret appearances (the try-outs that went into making this show): Black trousers, black tailcoat white top, and black heeled boots.
Having got the show off to a flying start, with a terrific burst of energy, Louise tells the audience that she has been in the business for nearly thirty years, is that impossible? well, as she’s stage school trained, no it isn’t. Louise goes on to tell us that when they were putting this show together they thought about looking at how social and economic changes have influenced theatre in those thirty years. Louise may then have decided it would be better if she just sang some songs, but in fact, she does work a bit of her social and economic history of theatre of the past thirty years in, with her diverse career the girl can’t help it. Her TV work includes 1970’s famously “second rate” musical variety, and 1980’s political satire. While her theatre work includes: one of the West End’s most expensive flops, a Stephen Sondheim satire that never yet reached Broadway, and the current craze for pop-group back-catalogue musicals.
On with the show, our star tells us about the film Topsy Turvy, and how her efforts to impress Mike Leigh, by suggesting she learn The Mikado, resulted in him looking at her like she was a moron and saying that show hasn’t even been written yet. As it has now been written, Louise sits on a chair and sings a beautiful rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sun Whose Rays. This is the first moment in tonight’s entertainment when we witness Louise’s ability to convey a beautiful song with simple lyrical sincerity. Although she has an extremely expressive face, and uses it to convey a lot of emotion when she is singing, and indeed when she is acting, this was one occasion when her lovely sweet voice did the job quite well enough.
The next number is something completely different again, Lovers For A Day by Marguerite Monnot, Claude DeLecluse and Michelle Senlis. Louise, a seventies girl, informs us she keeps calling the former Madeline Monnot. The number gives her a good opportunity for changing style, the chorus she sings loud and powerful, while the verses are sweet and touching, and then she surprises us, by making the last chorus soft too. This brings into play another aspect of her incredible talent, just because she sings a song, or a single part of it, in one way in a given moment, does not mean to say that she always sings it that way, even within the same song. She is, after all the only member of The Muppet Show team, who could possibly have sung the same song in three different styles one on top of the other. Louise is not just a fine singer, she is also an actress and fortunately she can do both at the same time, which makes whatever song she is singing so much more believable. In this particular instance, for the duration of her rendition of Lovers For A Day, she takes on the character a woman who works every day in a cheap cafe, and has basically seen it all, and yet can still be touched by a situation such as the one described in the song. It is her acting ability that gives the song emotional depth.
There are many songwriters whose work undoubtedly benefits from being performed by singers who can also inhabit their songs as actors, and are probably intended for just those sort of performers. As our star herself notably mentioned when interviewed in a recent edition of Sondheim News (Issue 18, October 2002), Stephen Sondheim is one such songwriter, and Ms Gold has been in productions of several of his shows. The first Sondheim show she was in was the Leicester Haymarket version of Merrily We Roll Along, so Ms Gold gives us her version of the infamous story about sharing a dressing room with Maria Friedman and Jacqueline Dankworth, and finding that Sondheim had sent them all the same card. I was glad to see that she’d put back her “Yes they’ve noticed” (although it’s a little toned down from the way she said it at Lauderdale last February). Sondheim evidently has a great sense of humour. Being a Londoner, Louise also has a terrific sense of humour, in fact, as a performer she can be a right tease; A good example of this comes in her introduction to the next two songs “Stephen Sondheim has written many beautiful and lyrical songs, here’s two that I sang” says Louise, and promptly launches into two songs that are anything but, namely (Sarah Jane Moore’s part of) The Gun Song followed by The Blob. The pair are not mis-placed, it is a deliberate intelligent joke; of course there is always a danger that such a subtle joke could be lost on the audience, although in this case I don’t think it was. She sings both songs excellently and gets very much into character. For the first she has a bag of appropriate props. After taking each prop out, she replaces it tidily in the bag. Her diction, often her weakness, especially on numbers like these, is actually rather good. Her first two Sondheim numbers had been fast, loud and funny, the third, Children Will Listen, is a complete contrast, being actually beautiful and lyrical, Louise sings it as such, demonstrating that although she is a joker, she can sing a song with simple sweet sincerity and very little movement, mainly relying on her expressive face to convey emotion. Interestingly, I saw Into The Woods (at The Westminster Theatre a few years ago) and I barely remembered the song, yet Louise’s version makes a lasting impression, perhaps it works better out of context, or is it the singer?. All this song needs is a singer who can sing it as though they mean it, as Louise truly does, which is made abundantly clear by her sort of dedicating the next number, Kander and Ebb’s Me And My Baby, to her own child.
It is a sort of, because at this point Louise switches back into teasing mode, and picks up a puppet of a baby, which she slips on and off her left hand with practised ease, especially when throwing it about during the number. Most of the audience, should, from the show’s poster if nothing else, have probably gathered that tonight’s entertainment would involve Louise Gold attempting to bring together the puppets and musicals sides of her career. For, in addition to her reputation as a West End actress, Ms Gold is also one of Britain’s top puppeteers, and her contribution to British television puppetry, at least, is quite notable. She is also the only actor who puppeteers, or puppeteer who acts, to have attained quite such a standing in both art forms. But being such a unique artiste puts her in a difficult position, she has to find out for herself what will work and what won’t. The first time I saw this number I wasn’t at all sure I liked it, or even if it quite came off. I liked it better the second time, very probably because I had got used to it. Louise Gold is a very diverse performer, with a tendency to perform numbers in ways and with twists that no one else would do. The danger is that sometimes what she does is so different to what an audience is used to, that we have to get used to the way she is doing the number, before we can decide whether we actually like it. Unfortunately, all too often people don’t take the time to acustomise themselves to Ms Gold’s unique interpretations, before making up their minds on whether they like what she is doing.
The next pair of songs, It’s Alright With Me by Cole Porter and Someone To Lay Down Beside Me by Karla Bonhoff, may have been written thirty years apart, but, as Louise explains, share a similar unsentimental view of love. Ms Gold sings these on top of the piano. For once, perhaps having learnt a lesson last May, Louise (who seems to have something of a reputation for rather risky piano-climbing activities) plays it safe and dignified, by stepping up onto a bench by the piano, sitting down on the lid, and then turning to face the audience. She sings It’s Alright With Me, half sprawled on her front across the piano, gazing out at the audience with a feline-like expression on her face. On the last night the audience was inclined to laugh, and Louise (of all people!) remarked “This is the serious bit”. As she is perched in such a bizarre position on the piano she can only use her face and her voice to convey the song, but fortunately Louise is one of the few actors who really can use their face to convey a character they are portraying to the audience, in fact I can only think of one other actor (the guy who played the armed robber in EastEnders eight years ago) who can use their facial expressions anywhere near as well as Louise Gold can! For Someone To Lay Down Beside Me our star sits up on the end of the piano, in profile (rather like on the cover of the show’s programme). Again she manages to act the song quite well, mostly using her big strong voice.
One of the most wonderful things about Louise Gold is that she is such a diverse performer capable of many different things, From a bit of serious unsentimentally, it’s time for a bit of loveable silliness, and something which only “The Devine Miz Gold” could do in a cabaret act. Jumping down off the piano Louise standing facing the audience, and says “When I was about twenty my agent sent me for an audition which, I didn’t know it then, was to change my life”. That statement could have sounded like a clichéd gimmick, but it doesn’t, because it’s true. That audition, for The Muppet Show, really did change Louise Gold, from being merely a singer-actress, to becoming what she is today, a leading West End singer-actress who is also one of Britain’s top puppeteers; Now in her own cabaret act, after telling Gags Beesely’s funniest joke and holding her hands up to her head to symbolise the bear wiggling it’s ears, the Muppet’s first and most notable British puppeteer gets to pay tribute to that show, in her Around The World With The Muppets medley. When she first sang these songs, she had to learn how to perform them through her hand, as a puppeteer, now this Muppeteer has to back-translate them to the rest of her body. Meanwhile her versatile pianist Jason Carr launches into his one-man imitation of The Jack Parnell Orchestra. Our Muppeteer starts her medley with It’s A Small World (by Richard M Sherman and Robert B Sherman), which she sings in a suitably cute Muppety voice. Next she changes style to deliver The Girlfriend Of The Whirling Dervish (by Harry Warren, Al Dubin and Johnny Mercer). The accent sounds vaguely familiar, I eventually deduced it might be one of her infamous monster imitations. She starts this number simply striding about the stage, but midway through the number goes over to the bench behind the piano, where she picks up her large yellow ‘cordless spotlight’, and announcing “I’ve brought my own lighting”, walks down the aisle, along the back row and across to the balustrade, shining the light on her face. At the corner, by the gate she pauses for a while, then at a key moment in the song kicks open the gate, steps back down onto the stage, and adds “I do my own stunts”. Finishing that song, she launches into one of those Hawaiian War Chant’s that The Muppet Show seem to have been fond of doing (this particular one is by Johnny Noble, Leleiohaku and Ralph Reed). Finally the last song of the medley, Tico Tico (by Zequinha Abreu and Ervin Drake), finds our star singing at quite a fast tempo, as she is not one of natures fast tempo singers this is particularly impressive (though apparently it was sung on The Muppet Show by Annie Sue!). All in all the medley is both a great tribute to her extraordinary contribution to The Muppet Show, and a wonderful end to Act 1. There is just one song in the medley that does not seem to work quite as well as the others, and that is the Hawaiian War Chant, maybe it’s a bit too funny. Yes it is a very good example of the kind of silly songs she often sang, on The Muppet Show, and it’s also great to hear Louise singing in her Annie Sue voice. There is just one tiny problem with the number, namely that Louise is really a bit too much of a giggle-box to sing it. But then again, Louise’s tendency to corpse (at the most awkward moments) has become such a feature of her career, that perhaps it is appropriate, for ‘The drowning muppeteer’!
The second act opens with a touch of seasonality. Jason Carr takes his place and strikes up a Christmassy sounding tune. Shortly after this the star of the show enters. Louise Gold has changed her costume, she is now wearing a low cut evening dress, with a skirt slit at the back, and loose semi-transparent black top over it - the outfit she wore two years ago at The Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio, for the Kurt Weill Centenary concert-staging of One Touch Of Venus - along with mainly black high heeled shoes. In addition she is carrying a wand in her left hand. Louise picks up the verse of the song, Christmas Is New Once More. While singing, she points her wand at a Christmas tree on the stage, and Phil S Hunter lights it up on cue. But this song is not a solo, its a duet, and in the next verse the pianist Jason Carr takes on a Scrooge-like role, with “Simple minds are easily pleased it seems”, and singing about hating Christmas, here Louise gets to throw in many a delightful response, such as “Well we are in Soho”; I particularly liked her response to his singing about hating Pantomime, “My first job” she says. Like many a character in a Noel Streatfeild book (or indeed many stage school kids), that is actually true (in her case Dick Whittington), I can’t help wondering if the wand was also a reference to it. There is also some irony in the line “Cinderella, of course”, since nearly fifty years ago at Unity Theatre, Ms Gold’s parents were involved with an agit prop version of that panto. Meanwhile, Louise having put her wand down, is standing by the piano with a pen, writing and sealing Christmas cards. Coming towards the last verse, she picks up the four envelopes, and walking into the aisle hands them to various members of the audience (much to their surprise). Returning to the stage, Louise stands behind Jason, to conclude the song by kissing him on the head, and saying “Merry Christmas Jason”. Taking her place centre stage she reveals all “That song was actually written by Jason “Ebenezer” Carr”. Although Jason sings his parts of the song well, Louise, with her big powerful voice and sheer presonce can’t help overshadowing him; But then it is her show, even if it is his song.
On with the show Louise slips her shoes off, and kneels down in the centre of the stage to sing Angie Baby (by Alan O’Day). Louise is back to relying on her voice and her expressive face, which she can do very well. It is interesting to see how quickly and cleanly she can switch styles, rather like an actor playing a nutter having to switch personality rapidly. It is also interesting to witness the wide variety to styles in which Louise can and will sing. Ethel Merman claimed to be unique, and impossible to imitate, because she didn’t bother with style at all. Louise Gold does sing in styles, but rather than confining herself to any particular style she sings in many styles, rather like an architect not caring to belong to any particular school.
Now it’s time for another change of style. Leaning on the piano, to put her shoes back on, Louise tells us that she and Jason like to support new work, because they know how “...hard it is to get new shows on” - on opening night she said “bloody hard”, on closing night she said “very hard” and Jason repeated the “very hard” in possible surprise. Louise is clearly in joker mode, she then says with sweet irony “So it’s always great regret when I hear that a show I auditioned for is about to close”, and with that Louise and Jason, two consummate professionals, launch into Kander and Ebb’s I Told You So, with much feeling. I particularly liked it when Jason sang lines such as “With a little sneer” and Louise would then sing the line “I told you so” in whatever manner his line had suggested. At the numbers conclusion, Louise explains she only feels qualified to laugh at flop shows having been in them. One of the nicest things about the jokes Louise tells in her act is that the person she makes fun of the most is herself. One of these flops, was Bag, by Bryony Lavery, which, Louise informs us was so badly attended the cast gave up and went for a Chinese meal, - the show apparently became a question in trivial pursuit, as well as getting into the Guinness Book of Records; Another mega flop she was in was Ziegfeld, which also made it into the Guinness Book of Records. Louise and Jason act out a little scene from Ziegfeld, about finding glowing quotes from dreadful reviews. If you’ve ever tried to pull quotes out of reviews, it may well strike a chord. Actually Miss Gold is one of the few performers in that show who got quite good notices. Ziegfeld may have been a flop, but it did have some good old songs, now Louise sings one of them, namely the beautiful More Than You Know (by Vincent Youmans, Billy Rose and Edward Elison), which she didn’t sing in Ziegfeld, because Haydn Gwynne did. It has also been sung in musicals by singers ranging from Billie Burke to Bronwyn Bard. But Louise Gold gives it a performance all her own; Even when she is familiar with another performer’s way of doing a song, Ms Gold always sings things her way, which is very often completely independent of anyone else’s way of doing the song, rather like an embroidery worker being independent of printed transfers and designs.
Having paid tribute flops, now its time to pay tribute to a hit, Mamma Mia! The ex-dynamo explains she wanted to include a song from it, but Jason thought it might be difficult because of the pop arrangements, however “Sometimes because of those arrangements you actually don’t hear the words”. I have to say she is absolutely right, especially when those arrangements are sung, in an energetic show, by actresses whose diction is apt to go awol if they are tired. Not that there is anything remotely awol about Louise Gold’s diction in this week’s show at Jermyn Street, on both first night and last night at least it’s just fine, and on the latter even her tendency to corpse didn’t seem to particularly affect it. Anyway, Louise and Jason have decided to attempt an unplugged version of Dancing Queen (by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus). Unlike many singers, Louise Gold has never been the kind of performer to stick to just one way of doing a song, she can quite readily do it in a variety of ways, and be prejudiced in favour of none of them. Having sung a verse of Dancing Queen, it is time for a surprise. From the bench behind the piano, Louise picks up a recorder, and starts to play the chorus on it (while Jason plays the harmony on the piano). It has been said that in cabarets performers throw in anything they can possibly do. I certainly had no idea that Louise could play the recorder! She’s actually rather good at it. Next Louise says, and it’s her show, “as it’s Christmas we’ve got to have the obligatory song sheet”. But here again Louise’s teasing nature has given us a twist. To celebrate the opening of the Japanese production of Mamma Mia, the song sheet is in Japanese, Jason begins to play, and then Louise flips the sheet over, to the other side, where it is written out phonetically, and leads the audience into singing it. She certainly carried this off with panache. Louise Gold is one of those powerful singers, Anna Francolini is another, whom you can always hear when they are leading a chorus.
Louise starts her next medley of songs: Mon Homme, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, Odds And Ends, Some Of These Days, and, So Long Dearie, sitting on a chair, when she gets to Odds and Ends she gets off to stand centre stage. With Some Of These Days she ups the force of her performance, and by the time she gets to Jerry Herman’s So Long Dearie, she is standing on the stage belting it out like The Queen of West End Ghetto Blasters (or should that be The English Ethel Merman) that she is. Her performance is a striking, unmiked tour de force from one of the most powerful singers in the business. Decibel for decibel I don’t think even Kim Criswell would be able to rival let alone top that! And I for one loved every moment of it. In addition, with One Of These Days and So Long Dearie, Louise Gold proves once and for all that when it comes to singing great revenge songs she is every bit as good as Millicent Martin or Louise Plowright.
The next piece, is introduced, as it were, by the director Nigel Plaskitt saying “Louise, she’s here”, the pair of them disappear backstage, with Louise calling to Jason “the chair”. He obligingly moves it, rushes back to his place, and strikes up The National Anthem. Very soon a familiar sculpted head pokes its way out from the curtains, The Queen of Spitting Image Puppeteers soon follows with the actual Spitting Image latex puppet of The Queen on her left arm. The first time I saw Louise do The Queen in her cabaret act, I wasn’t sure whether I liked her incorporating this in, but now I most definitely do, sometimes it really is important when watching Louise Gold’s performance to get accustomed to her before being judgemental. The accent she uses is the one she invented on Spitting Image for The Queen, I think it sounds a bit like a certain character in the film Bleak Moments, but as that character was played by a noteworthy Unity Theatre actress, perhaps it is unintentionally appropriate. Here we get some real topical jokes, such as “We’ve invented some lovely new games to play over Christmas: What The Butler saw, who did he tell, how much did he get for it, and was Michael Barrymore involved?”, then, in the form of a preview of a Christmas address, a satirical version of Class (by Kander and Ebb), which is far funnier than when that song is done in the musical Chicago. I particularly enjoyed the topicality “All you read about today is rape and pillage and bloody Cherie Blair”. I also find the line “There’s only pigs and whores” rather funny as Louise has played a pig as a puppeteer (The Muppet Show) and whore as an actress (The Bill). What really makes this scene, and makes it something incredibly special, is that Louise Gold, one of Britain’s leading puppeteers is performing, live on stage, one of the actual latex puppets built for and used on a very well known TV puppet show. This bit of her act is really a moment of puppeteering history. On the last night she made that abundantly clear, returning to the stage as herself she points out that she helped to set up Spitting Image “Hoping it would bring down the Thatcher Government”. Louise Gold, after all, is not just a first rate puppeteer, she’s quite literally, a child of the political theatre movement.
The show is coming to an end, wisely Louise does not try to joke about that, but moves swiftly into introducing her finale beginning and ending with If Love Were All (by Noel Coward), and sandwiched in the middle I Am What I Am (by Jerry Herman), which she sings with the utmost conviction and enthusiasm. This number really sums up the whole show. In Louise Gold...By Appointment this incredibly versatile actress singer and puppeteer at long last gets an opportunity to truly be everything that she is and has been in three decades of performing: From stage school child-actress in pantomime, to West End super trouper, and, most importantly, including such major television shows as The Muppet Show and Spitting Image. In her occupation as a puppeteer, this girl has (to quote a lyric, from another song) “Gone forward in her trade or occupation, to help the nation”, or at least she’s tried to. But in the end, as this song says in the end the most she has is just a talent to amuse, and what a talent to amuse her’s is.
Louise and Jason get well deserved applause, and swiftly disappear off stage, they soon reappear, with Louise wearing Binkie in her left arm. Binkie, a muppet-like hand-and-rod built by Paul Jormain, is one of cutest puppets I have ever seen, but then puppets are a bit like songs, if a builder constructs one for a true master of the art, it had better be good, because if it’s not everyone is going to notice it anyway. Binkie is orange with green feathers on its head and wrists. Now Louise sits in a chair, centre stage, and Jason strikes up a truly beautiful song, Rainbow Connection (by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher). This song is so beautiful, and was written for such a specific person and purpose (Jim Henson as Kermit The Frog in The Muppet Movie), that I would not normally think it an appropriate for a cabaret artiste to do it. However, Louise Gold is absolutely no ordinary West End actress turned cabaret artiste. She is the first and best known British puppeteer ever to work for Henson’s and the only British member of The Muppet Show Eight, so if anyone (other than Jim Henson and Steve Whitmire) truly deserves an opportunity to make this song their very own, it is her; and that’s exactly what she does. In fact this number is the icing on the cake. I think it is the most beautiful number in the entire show, but what really makes it special is that Louise, the actress-puppeteer sings it as a duet with herself, or rather with Binkie. Being such a flexible little puppet, Binkie is the perfect vehicle to demonstrate just how good a puppeteer Louise Gold has become in twenty-five and a half years of puppeteering. Even when Louise is singing as herself she has Binkie respond, with head, facial expressions and right arm. These responses certainly make the audience laugh. Yes Binkie actually manages to upstage Louise! A feat which if I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would have thought impossible for anyone, let alone a little puppet, to achieve. But then Binkie has a very familiar subtly upstaging manner, akin to The Muppet Show’s Annie Sue Pig (Miss Piggy’s Sweet young talented rival, and Ms Gold’s first major puppet character). The composer Stephen Sondheim once said, in an interview in the New York Times, part of which was quoted in Sondehim News (Issue 16, May 2002), “I love puppetry on stage”. After seeing Louise Gold perform Binkie, I too have come to see how truly beautiful good puppetry is on stage, I only wish someone would try combining puppetry and a Sondheim song together (although to work it would have to be really good puppetry), as Louise Gold herself is a notable singer of Sondheim songs, perhaps she would be a suitable person?
All in all Louise Gold...By Appointment gives a unique artiste a welcome opportunity to demonstrate just what an extraordinary career she has. From her debut as a pantomime fairy, right up to the past couple of years as a Mamma Mia dynamo, she includes a selection of the usual Musical-theatre stuff one might expect from a West End actress of her standing, but given some of her own special twists; and includes such diversity as The Muppet Show and Spitting Image. But that is not all, there is so much more to Louise Gold than just an excellent singer-actress, with a warm funny personality; The added extra special dash of diversity is provided by her skilful use of puppetry. Truly this is much much more than a mere singing-actress-doing-a-cabaret. Louise Gold is in her element her own very special creation of an entertainment, showing us just what an incredible, sensational, inspirational, muppetational, performer she truly is. If you ever get the opportunity to see her in her own show, then take the chance to see such a unique performer, she’s well worth it.