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An eclectic weekend

In October 2018, I went to a concert called ‘The Best of the West End’ and, alongside thousands of others in the Royal Albert Hall, was aghast at remarks by Ruthie Henshall as John Owen-Jones was unable to perform as scheduled. According to Henshall, his face was swollen as a result of an adverse reaction to something he had eaten at a branch of Pret A Manger. The punchline was judged to be particularly insensitive in the light of two deaths reported on in the news at the time – completely separate cases – arising from severe allergic reactions to food purchased from Pret.

I’d missed Magic at the Musicals in 2018, opting to checkout the understudies at ‘Bat Out of Hell The Musical’ instead – the Magic Radio event pulls in a number of principals from a number of musicals, so the West End becomes Understudy Central for a night. Anyway, I found it amusing that Magic FM had, for their headline musical theatre concert in 2019, Henshall reading off an autocue, ostensibly to mitigate against embarrassing gaffes, especially as Owen-Jones was on this line-up as well.

I had a direct message on Twitter from an unknown (to me) person claiming to be a friend of Lucie Jones, wanting to know what the programme said about her. It probably goes without saying, but if she were a genuine friend of Lucie Jones, why didn’t she just get in touch with her friend Lucie Jones? Anyway, I indulged her and sent her a photo with Jones’ headshot and biography in the programme. But talk about moving an inch and being expected to run a mile: she wanted me to get my phone out during the performance and record Jones’ performance of ‘She Used To Be Mine’ from Waitress. When I told her that I was sat too near the front to do so, she persisted: “can u audio?” I didn’t bother responding. Of course, I wouldn’t have filmed it even if I was in the back row of the circle. But it is extraordinary how entitled some people think they are – it is one thing to discreetly record something for one’s personal collection (though I am not inclined to defend those who do). It is quite another to expect someone else to do it on one’s behalf because one couldn’t be bothered to buy a ticket and attend.

I had no idea Lucie Jones singing one song from Waitress was causing so much ‘news’ – apparently the production’s social media channels said nothing about their show being featured in a musical theatre concert at the Royal Albert Hall (most of the other productions at least mentioned it), and with weeks to go before Katharine McPhee completes her run as Jenna Hunterson in Waitress at the Adelphi Theatre, the rumour mill went into overdrive with the news that Jones was singing a song from the show to a near-capacity crowd in South Kensington.

The other bizarre thing was that some crackling noises were heard immediately before John Owen-Jones was about to sing ‘Who Am I?’ from Les Misérables, precipitating an early interval, which then went on for over an hour, because they had trouble sorting out whatever technical problem it was. As the performance was being recorded for broadcast on Magic FM, it wasn’t feasible to carry on regardless. When the show finally got underway again the sound remained slightly distorted from my front row stalls vantage point, and, I’m told, significantly distorted for others sat further away from the stage. Henshall and her co-presenter, Trevor Dion Nicholas, rattled through the script and the hall started gradually emptying the later it got. A surreal experience overall, which had much of the audience doing a Mexican wave during the overly long interval.

A number of students from Mountview formed the choir for the event, almost bookmarked by children’s performances – with ‘Revolting Children’ from Matilda The Musical near the beginning, and ‘Teacher’s Pet’ from School of Rock the Musical near the end. Yet another outing for ‘Defying Gravity’ from Wicked, this time sung as ably as ever by Louise Dearman, and Natalie Paris was another standout for me, with ‘Heart of Stone’ from Six. It would be lovely if some day, a symphony orchestra were to do all of the songs from that show.

There was more John Owen-Jones to come, in the form of the latest round of a series by Edward Seckerson called Comparing Notes, part-interview, part-concert. The High Holborn branch of Pizza Express doesn’t quite have the same ambience as the Royal Albert Hall, and as someone who usually takes advantage of the three course meal deal thing at Pizza Express, the bill at the end of the show is always a bit of a shocker for me, because the meal deal thing doesn’t apply when attending a live music session. I think it’s the main reason why I don’t go to more of Seckerson’s events – they used to be at Charing Cross Theatre, which was far less painful for the current account balance, mostly because those ones started at 3pm and so one had already eaten lunch beforehand. Anyway, I learnt a fair bit about John’s background and vocal techniques. And here’s a name to watch out for: Ryan MacKenzie, a Scottish pianist and the musical director for the event.

On Saturday evening I ventured a little past the Oyster card zone into leafy Surrey. The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre is one of those places that I’d heard about repeatedly over the years but had never been. On the train to Guildford I was reminded of an altercation I had with a man who had significant involvement with the Guildford Fringe. I met him having attended a show at the Bread and Roses Theatre in Clapham. He had insisted and insisted he had seen me review a show in Guildford, and at that point (at least a couple of years ago, I think) I had never set foot in Guildford – going past it on the A3 doesn’t count as having actually gone there. As he was so persistent, I asked him which show it was that I had apparently reviewed in Guildford. Naturally, he said he couldn’t recall. “Well, there you are then. I’ve never reviewed in Guildford.”

I’ve still never reviewed in Guildford, because I wasn’t asked to review in Guildford. I was merely asked to go along to a show and provide verbal feedback afterwards, which I stuck around for longer than I normally would after a show to do. Way Upstream, an Alan Ayckbourn play, is quirky even by Ayckbourn standards, and like some of his other comedy plays, there’s some sympathy for a couple of characters come the end of proceedings. In this case it’s the rather hapless Alistair Wingate (Jaymes Sygrove) and his wife Emma (Megan Scott, making her professional debut in this production). It’s not revived often, although Chichester Festival Theatre did it in 2015, and the National Theatre in 1982. The NT production became infamous for delaying its opening from August to October, because they had recreated the river on which the play is set, sound effects and dialogue apparently not being sufficient as it was in Guildford in 2019. Some tank or other burst, flooding the National Theatre.

There was a bit of a kerfuffle going in, because I hadn’t been there before, and thanks to the feat of civil engineering that is South Western Railway, I didn’t get to the venue until three minutes before the show was due to start. I went into the venue, the Mill Studio, which doesn’t have a box office, so I had to go into the main house and speak to someone there. The box office was immensely helpful, though technically I went in as a ‘student standby’ because nobody could work out where on earth the ticket price (I was on a company comp thanks to the co-producer) was meant to be costed to. By the time I got back to the venue, at one minute past the official starting time, the front of house staff there had already allocated ‘my’ seat to someone else, so rather than sitting in ‘C9’, wherever C9 was supposed to be, I was in the back row instead. But it was a studio space, so it wasn’t as if I needed binoculars or anything. And the show? Very amusing in many ways, and a longer run (I believe this one was only three days long) may have resulted in ironing out some of the stumbling over lines that went on.

Back on home turf in Wimbledon, Jack Whitehall (as seen on TV, etc) had brought his latest show, still a ‘work in progress’ to the New Wimbledon Theatre. I’d have paid less if he’d did it at the Pleasance Theatre in north London, where quite a few ‘work in progress’ performances take place, though thinking about it a little further I’d have paid nothing at all, as I wouldn’t have bothered going. But this was walking distance from my front door, so I went. Someone called Tom, a member of staff at the theatre, greeted me by name and hoped I would enjoy the show. He probably expressed the same wish to everyone filing in, but still, it was nice to be welcomed personally, especially at a theatre that I seldom attend because their press night invites always come through far too late (their latest one, for American Idiot, came through very late on Friday for the following Tuesday, hours after I had already pre-booked for the NT Live screening of All My Sons at the Odeon Wimbledon cinema up the road on the same night!).

Someone else called Tom, Tom Ward, did the warmup act, which was pleasant enough but largely unmemorable (sorry Tom). There was something about being a single man, with all the pluses and minuses that kind of lifestyle came with. Ward ultimately wants a companion, and that’s still, as it were, a work in progress. In fact, Whitehall touched on a lot of similar themes that Ward did, though the toilet humour was ramped up significantly, including (spoiler alert but I don’t care) a systematic demolition of the wording of a sign next to a door to a hotel swimming pool asking customers to ‘please refrain’ from using the pool if they have ‘active diarrhoea’.

As he has done for some time, Whitehall poked fun at his own privileged upbringing, attempting to change the narrative of previous shopping trips by namedropping a supermarket called ‘The Lie Dell’ (a deliberate mispronunciation of ‘Lidl’), and recounting the time he approached ‘the concierge’ at Primark. An ode to the television series Jack Whitehall: Travels with My Father ended proceedings on yet another note about bodily emissions, and that was pretty much it. A show about farts, sex and whatever else goes on down below. But like the stubborn Britishers that Whitehall spoke about (his reason as to why he believes Brexit will still happen), I still don’t regret going along. I couldn’t make over a thousand people roar with laughter while talking at length about passing wind, but I’m glad Whitehall can.

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