The Regents Park Open Air Theatre 70th Anniversary Gala
Regents Park Open Air Theatre, Sunday 1 September 2002
Review by Emma Shane
© September 2002
What an incredible line-up! To mark the 70th Anniversary of The Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre artistic director Ian Talbot certainly gathered together a bunch of names, including: an Operatic librettist, and a Dutch Baroness, along with one of Britain’s foremost puppeteers, and that was just his 1997 Kiss Me Kate cast! The glamorous line up assembled for this gala also variously include: at least three major British television voice-artistes, some notable (or perhaps not so notable) comedians, a Blue Peter dare devil, two notable portrayers of Eliza Dolittle, a Donmar Diva, two honorary citizens of Memphis Tennessee, a Broadway lyricist’s widow, several famous film actors, and a large number of major West End performers, among the latter Judi Dench’s 1991 The Boy’s From Syracuse representatives alone included amongst their number two Ex-Mamma Mia dynamo’s (the original Rosie, and the actress who “improved” Tanya).
The gala started with The Fantastics, played by Catherine Jayes (referred to throughout as “Cathy”) and her team. Then on comes Ian Talbot leading a selection of the company in a performance of Comedy Tonight from A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. It has to have been one of the truest renditions of the line “hundreds of actors out of sight”, (if you include the various people who introduced numbers as well as those actually singing) the company in this production numbered about 70. To open Ian started with himself, and was joined during the first half of the number by a selection of about ten or so members of the company. These included: reliable Jessica Martin, mad-cap Su Pollard, and bouncy Louise Gold. The latter seems to be making a habit of singing Sondheim this year (what with including him in her cabaret act, then Follies and now this). Comedy Tonight is an excellent choice for an opening number (for a start it has opened not only Sondheim’s first completely ‘own’ show, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, but also, David Kernan’s fabled compilation, Side By Side By Sondheim). It is particularly funny to see the company look en masse at Su for the line “She plays Medea later this week”, but overall I felt Ms Pollard was a little too much over the top. A far far better example of how to be extrovert, but without descending too far into becoming camp, can be seen in the performance of the delightfully enthusiastic Louise Gold (dressed in a red top, jacket/blouse, and stylish black trousers), both her manner and her timing are marvellous, I particularly liked the way she showed off her (clothed) buttock for the reference about something bawdy.
Having had an introductory number Ian Talbot gets down to introducing the evening, and the only joke of his in the entire evening that was completely unconvincing, he said that the cast had been locked in here for a week. It fell flat, not least because two of them (including one of the opening number’s performers) were appearing at The Royal Festival Hall in the last night of a three-week run of Follies only last night. Then he introduces a girl, who first came here on ‘work experience’, to bring Cathy some flowers, and on comes Dame Judi Dench (referred to throughout most of the evening as “Jude”). Now it is time for a number, and as he has to rush off to catch a train, first up is Clive Rowe in the role of Gus Esmond, singing Bye Bye Baby from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, as his Lorelei isn’t here, Jude stood in, briefly. He sang the number quite well, as one would expect from a performer of his reputation.
Next we had the first of the evening’s guest speakers, Natasha McElhone, to talk about her film roles and introduce the next number, Liz Robertson and Brian Cox as Marin Paroo and Harold Hill singing Till There Was You from The Music Man. Actually it was not Brian Cox but Harry Burton, a point which the two performers had to adlib their way round. Meanwhile the display board at the back of the stage had managed to flash up a photograph from The Card rather than The Music Man. Liz Robertson sang the lyrics well, although she did not seem to be in quite the same key as Catherine Jayes. However, Ms Robertson, successfully captures the feel of the show as being a Broadway musical from the era immediately post My Fair Lady.
Having had some possibly accidental mis-haps, Ian Talbot proceeds to act out a tale about the early days of using radio mikes at the open air theatre. For this he enlisted Judi Dench to play the role of the actress (I think she’s supposed to be Carol Royle) singing My Funny Valentine, while he himself went off-stage to play the role of the (unnamed) off-stage actor whose radio mike was still on. Returning to the stage he also recounted a story about how that same year in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania ad-libbed “Jesus Christ” into one of the floating mikes, at the end of a speech. It is nearly time for another number, and to introduce it two more guests, Mr Medwin and Judi Dench’s goddaughter Rachel Kavenagh. At last we get Jessica Martin as Bunny Byron, to sing The Lady Is A Tramp from Babes In Arms. Jessica starts by telling us that her character Bunny, would have absolutely hated a luvvie gala event like this, but she’ll sing the song anyway. This proves to be one of the very best singing performances of the evening. Jessica Martin is a wonderful singer. She also has a genuine gift for accents, and by and large knows how to incorporate this into a song. Tonight she did it perfectly, using accents for emphasis where appropriate, but not overdoing them. She is one of those wonderful performers who doesn’t just sing a song, but becomes the character singing it. Tonight it was made all the more special by the updating of some of the lyrics, with references to OK magazine, and Regent’s Park lake. I’d love to know who did the excellent rewrites, could it have been Jessica herself? Those original Lorenz Hart lyrics that do remain are also brilliant, especially: “I love the theatre, but never come late” a reference to the fact that in the 1930’s there was a custom amongst Society people to arrive late to the theatre, so that the entire audience would see what they were wearing. An understandably annoyed Cole Porter insisted I Get A Kick Out Of You appear very early in Anything Goes, so that people would miss it if they were late. Come to think of it, that could be a means of linking these two songs, for example in a cabaret or on a radio programme. Another lovely lyric in this song is “I don’t go to crap games with Barons and Earls”. (I can’t help thinking that lyric would go wonderfully in this song if it was sung by a good down to earth singer, such as Jessica Martin, or Louise Gold, with say Issy Van Randwyck and Timothy Bentinck as backing singers - well it’s an idea?). But whatever ideas one has about how this song might be done, it has to be said that Jessica Martin’s performance tonight was perfect anyway, and very well suited to the occasion.
Ian Talbot next tells us about touring their 1994 musical The Card. The tour went Warwick, Moscow and Edinburgh. Their Moscow visit managed to coincide with a diplomatic scandal, when Yeltsin touched The Queen’s bum. On with the show, we have another guest, Haley Mills, telling us about her mother, Mary Haley Bell’s attempts at playing Peasblossom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Regents Park, over sixty years ago, unfortunately she wasn’t much of a dancer. On with the music, we have Jenna Russell as Nellie and Peter Duncan as Denry Machin singing Opposite Your Smile from The Card. They sing passably well, and that born actor Peter Duncan (he grew up with Britain’s last travelling theatre companies) really can do a cockney accent.
Another guest, Saeed Jaffrey has a few things to say about civilised acting jobs, and, Bollywood directors not knowing anything about Shakespeare, and then it’s time for a bit more culture, Gilbert And Sullivan’s The Pirates Of Penzance. The Open Air Theatre has had several touring companies for this show, so tonight they have an amalgam of these, starting with two major generals, Paul Bradley and David Alder to duet A Modern Major General, which they do with great enthusiasm, and just about pull off. This was followed by Lucy Quick and Mark Umbers as Mabel and Frederick singing Fa La La, which was quite pleasant, and then the tempo stepped up a pace, as various Pirates came on to sing With Cat Like Tread. This company apparently included: Su Pollard and Gay Soper as two Ruth’s, Jimmy Johnson and Gary Wilmot as two Pirate Kings, and, Joshua Dallas and Mark Umbers as two Fredericks, however, I didn’t notice Gay Soper, because she slipped on and switched places with Su Pollard very unobtrusively. Flashed up on the screen at the back are various photographs from the production, from which it is clear that the costumes they used were just like the ones in the 1982 film version.
Samantha Spiro is the next guest to do an introduction, though not dressed as a canary, as that costume has mysteriously disappeared. But she does introduce an extract from Lady Be Good. First the extremely talented Joanna Riding, as Susie Trevor, performs Fascinating Rhythm, and she really does perform it, dancing and singing her heart out, so much so that on entering the stage, veteran performer Bernard Cribbins says “I’m surprised you didn’t sing I Could’ve Danced All Night”. Then he, as Wally Watkins, takes over, assisted by Joanna for the title song, Lady Be Good. I have long admired Bernard Cribbins. In fact I grew up hearing his wonderful voice-work, and I think it gave me an appreciation for really good voice-artistes (such as Jessica Martin, Louise Gold, and, Jerry Nelson), so it is a real thrill to see Bernard Cribbins in person, and he is such an old pro he does not disappoint. It is really something to see him singing live on stage. Like every excellent voice-artiste he knows just when to use his gifts to make the song that bit more interesting, and when not to.
The first half ends with Paint Your Wagon, and an introduction from Paula Wilcox, who was in it. I’m only surprised, as it was such a stellar occasion, they didn’t get the lyricist’s widow to do the honours, since she was taking part in the show. First up we have Claire Carrie as Jennifer Rumson to sing I Talk To The Trees, which she did nicely. Then Tony Selby as Ben Rumson, leads a selection of the company’s men in a rousing performance of Wandering Star, which they dedicated to the late Gavin Muir.
The second half opens with various maidens and police from The Pirates Of Penzance singing Go Ye Hero’s, most notably Karen Evans as Mabel and Giles Taylor as the Sergeant. Of this group Giles Taylor’s performance stood out as the best, but I’m afraid the others, though they did well, did not to my mind quite live up to the amazing Joseph Papp/Wilford Leach film version, this was perhaps be coloured by the knowledge that the actress who played Edith on the screen twenty years ago just happens to be somewhere backstage tonight.
Gary Wilmot enters, and proceeds to warn us that the second half won’t be as good as the first, and so gets the audience to take a vow of enjoyment. Somehow, I don’t quite believe him, we haven’t had the Shakespeare musicals yet. Then Su Pollard tells a joke that was not only pointless but rather cruel. This is followed by Christopher Biggins recounting the time he was “The best Puck in the park”, and a tree on the stage caught fire in middle of his performance (it reminded me of hearing a WWII amateur actress’s account of a rehearsal where incendiary bombs came through the roof). On with the show, we have Donmar Diva Janie Dee as Sandy to sing My Heart Stood Still from A Connecticut Yankee. This is a another of the great female singing performances of the evening, by one of those woman who might have been made for singing sweet 1920’s and 30’s musical songs. Whether it’s Porter or Gershwin or Rodgers she does it well. What could possibly follow it?
What in fact followed proves to be a real delight. Denis Quilley came on to do the introduction, recalling his experience in the original London production of the same show, and then “Here to sing for their supper Gillian Bevan, Jenny Galloway, and, Louise Gold”. On the trio come, as Luciana, Luce and Adriana respectively. Louise Gold is now wearing that black dress with the ra ra-like frill. Funnily enough it’s the same dress she wore last time she did this song in a charity gala, A Lost Musicals Occasion. Only there she didn’t have her original The Boys From Syracuse co-stars, but two other singers. The very special thing about tonight was how many winning teams from past Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre productions were reunited, to perform one more time whatever their speciality was. In this number tall magnificent Louise Gold dominates the action, leading the trio with her sheer energy, enthusiasm, and vibrance. Here she seems as fresh and funny as ever, waving her clever hands about, as if they too are joining in the close harmony trilling. Comically the shortest, and well used to being in that situation, Jenny Galloway too makes herself noticed. I found the bit where she tried to step forward only to be pulled back by Louise Gold’s strong hands on her shoulders particularly funny. Gillian Bevan is the least remarkable of the three. She is a very good performer, but it is perhaps unfair on her that she has to co-star with Galloway and Gold, for she gets rather overshadowed. The only downside to the number was Louise Gold’s radio mike (which did not seem to be exactly one of the best) and Emma Laxton’s sound design, but Ms Laxton was making it up as she went along, and overall we just swept up by the wonderful performance, and the chance to actually witness, Louise Gold, Jenny Galloway and Gillian Bevan perform their famous showstopping version of Sing For Your Supper. It is one of the highlights of the entire evening.
Throughout the evening Judi Dench has had the task of reading out the details of which Regents Park musicals were nominated for Olivier awards. Now she comes to Kiss Me Kate and that show’s three nominations (Best Actor In A Musical, Best Supporting Actress In A Musical, and Best Musical Revival). I still can’t help feeling that that show’s wonderful leading lady, who we have just seen performing so excellently in The Boys From Syracuse extract, gets rather left out here. Rhys Ifans then does a dreadful job of introducing Andrew C Wadsworth singing Where Is The Life That Late I Lead (I think that was the worst introduction of the entire evening). By contrast Andrew C Wadsworth’s performance as Petruchio is among the best, possibly even better than when he actually did the number five years ago in the show! Dressed in an outfit of his own choosing he also looks rather handsomer than he did on stage as Petruchio, and all in all it was a thrilling reminder of Kiss Me Kate, and sort of appropriate as the previous number, though from another Shakespeare musical, had included his shrew. From one Kiss Me Kate number to another, Maria Atkin comes on to introduce “a lot of names, Issy Van Randwyck, Paul Bentley, Graeme Henderson, and , Paul Thornley in Tom, Dick And Harry”; I am only surprised she did not include the Baroness’s title amongst all of that! The number, as one would expect from performers like these, compared very well to their performances five years ago, as Bianca, Gremio, Lucentio, and, Hortensio. Of course some of the lyrics are a little unbelievable out of context, after all Issy Van Randwyck is hardly likely to give a social lift to her position by marrying.
This is followed by one of the best linkage pieces of the evening, Carol Royle reading her poem about playing Titania in The Park. I love poetry that is accessible in its subject matter, about something one can understand. So this was just super, and a very fitting contribution to the evening, she even included a reference to the problems using microphones, which linked very nicely with Ian Talbot’s earlier story. Camoron Blackey’s performance, as Charley, of Once In Love With Amy, from Where’s Charley, though well sung did not quite follow on from the last three showstoppers, or it’s introduction, perhaps it suffered from being placed in the wrong place in the running order, an inherent danger in these sorts of compilation shows.
It is sometimes appropriate in compilations such as this to end up to date. So in this case the gala ended with an extended excerpt from their current musical, Oh What A Lovely War. Somehow I did not think the scene extract, performed by John Hodgkinson as the Drill Sergeant with Daniel Crossely, Dominic March, Tatu Mutu and Harry Peacock quite worked out of context. At last it was over and they were joined by a selection of the Oh What A Lovely War company to sing the title song. They departed the stage, Ian Talbot said a few words, and then the entire company marched on stage for the finale, a reprise of the song Oh What A Lovely War (well the only other song that could have been appropriate was Brush Up Your Shakespeare, as they are The New Shakespeare Company, but really Oh What A Lovely War was a fitting enough finale). Some of the past cast members seemed to outdo the current ones in their march on. From where I was sitting I could see that Louise Gold marches on firmly, in a manner that might be showing the Pirates girls how they should have done it in Go Ye Hero’s. All in all it was a glorious evening, and so thrilling to have such an incredible line-up, giving their all. There were some downsides, but by and large this was outweighed by the good bits. It was also a wonderful chance to see some of the highlights of the last dozen years of musicals in Regents Park, recreated by the very same brilliant performers who did them in the first place. A fitting way of marking 70 years of Open Air Theatre in Regents Park.