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Broken Dreams and San Francisco, Tea and Scones, My Fair Lady and Melania Trump

The Americans were out in force in London over the weekend, and not just because there were some baseball games going on at the London Stadium. On both evenings I found myself using the rail replacement bus service home, only marginally slower than the District line which it substituted – and to be honest, on a particularly warm Saturday night it was probably better to be on a bus above ground with every window open than on the stuffy Underground network.

I had never seen Tony Bennett perform live in person, and as he is (at the time of writing) 92 years young, it could only be my own fault if I didn’t correct that wrong before he enters into the great hall of fame in the sky. As I had no previous gigs to compare this one with, I could only accept without further comment remarks from fellow concertgoers about a reduction in the sheer strength and assurance of his voice. I also had the ‘privilege’ of sitting next to a woman who complained that the show even had an interval, demanding to know “why they can’t just get on with the bloody show” and giving me the dirtiest of dirty looks because I whipped my phone out briefly before the show, only for her to loudly unzip her handbag during the show, turn on her phone and start recording.

Then, of course, she didn’t know what she was doing, so loudly asked her husband for assistance, and other times she had no hesitation in declaring at full conversational volume how much she loved a particular song (in which case, kindly shut up and enjoy it!). But even Madam Hypocrite failed to dim my enjoyment of the performance, and there was a moment of karma (or Mother Nature, or divine intervention, or whatever) when the chatterboxes in the row behind left early, only for Bennett to start singing ‘(I Left My Heart In) San Francisco’ immediately after they buggered off. At Bennett’s time of life, whatever there is to say about him has already been said, so the focus here was very much on the music.

A quartet was on the stage with him – pianist Tom Ranier, Gray Sargent on guitar, Marshall Wood on bass and Harold Jones on drums. The jazz singer Donna Byrne was the support act, setting the scene for what was to come quite marvellously, particularly helpful for people like me who don’t knowingly have any Tony Bennett albums in their collection but came along to this concert regardless to see what it is that makes him enduringly popular with his fanbase.

“I’m old fashioned,” he crooned (this is someone who not so long ago recorded an album with Lady Gaga). For a man of 92 to move around for 80 minutes solidly singing – and doing that thing some performers do where he introduces and re-introduces and re-re-introduces his band as they play – is a remarkable achievement. A relatively brief concert, it was still worth every penny.

​As I was only tagging along with the editor of Love London Love Culture, I wasn’t in reviewing mode for a visit to ‘A Right Royale Tea’, so went right ahead and stuffed my face with various sandwiches, scones and a lemon tart, plus generous top-ups of tea and water. Tickets to this immersive event aren’t cheap, but for this kind of experience in the posh Amba Hotel next door to Charing Cross Station, aren’t overly extortionate either – a ‘Servants Package’ is at £69.95 while the ‘Lords & Ladies Package’ is at £77.50, the only difference being a glass of prosecco, which can in any case be bought on the day as we discovered. Still, cheaper options are available in London for those who are content to entertain themselves.

Lord Right (Jason Taylor) and Lady Right (Giselle Summers) are the audience’s hosts, though it is their lawyer Richard (Bruce Chattan-McIntosh), who first bids us welcome. The Right’s butler, Patrick (Carl Christopher), made a point of referring himself to in the third person, which confused the hell out of his master. The Right’s daughter Ginny (Chloe Brown) was typically rebellious: she is more interested in going off to university and pursuing a career rather following in the upper-class revelry of her parents. Quite why a lawyer is present is because of the crumbling nature of the Right’s estate, Crawley Hall – there are, the audience must imagine (suspension of disbelief, etc) the roof leaks when it doesn’t rain, let alone when it does, and this tea party is therefore a fundraiser.

Some better signage wouldn’t have gone amiss to find the section of the hotel where the event would take place. The concierge had to be consulted on the ground floor, and then another member of staff upstairs had to be found. All part of the experience, one could say. But I was grateful for the lack of pretentiousness in the food options – a lemon tart was a lemon tart, and a scone was a scone (and so on), and it was good to connect with the other guests on our table, most of whom were from the United States and were captivated by the mannerisms and deliberately out of touch remarks from a bygone era (the play is set in 1922).

On Sunday evening I enjoyed a concert at Cadogan Hall by Laura Benanti, a very versatile singer and performer whose career to date includes a run of ‘My Fair Lady’ on Broadway and a recurring role as Melania Trump on CBS Television’s ‘The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’. It was a lot of fun, with banter that was off the scale (even one of the venue’s security officers noted at the interval that she could tell the audience was laughing out loud regularly). In the end, the concert overran by twenty-five minutes – not that anyone was complaining given the 6:30pm start.

Like many Americans, Benanti was very taken with the British accents that surrounded her during her stay in London (she even got to hear mine after the concert, courtesy of the show’s producers who had arranged a ‘meet and greet’ for certain members of the audience that I didn’t know about until I arrived for the show). I wasn’t wholly unfamiliar with Benanti’s career, which is Brit-speak for ‘I might as well have worn a T-shirt with the words, “Who the f—k is Laura Benanti?” written on the front’. This wasn’t the polished and overly obviously scripted “banter” of certain other performers (no names) – this lady has the gift of the gab, establishing an excellent rapport with the audience that never faded.

And there was a lot of detail in the show, which had plenty of anecdotes, including ones about Patti LuPone and a re-enactment of her first night nerves in a production of The Sound of Music. Her musical director, Todd Almond, was equally up for a laugh, providing the audience with a surprisingly delightful Dolly Parton/Johann Sebastian Bach mashup. Bianca Del Rio was brought on for a politically slanted reworked ‘Send in the Clowns’ (setting: the White House) to great comic effect.

Somebody somewhere decided she should wear a ridiculously over-the-top dress for the second half, one of those over-embellished gowns that are evidently difficult to walk in. This was a highly eclectic evening in terms of musical offerings, too, ranging from the likes of Tori Amos and Joni Mitchell to ‘Vanilla Ice Cream’ from She Loves Me and a song which I’d never heard before, ‘Mr. Tanner’, written by Harry Chapin (1942-1981), a detailed and rather sad tune about Martin Tanner, from Dayton, Ohio. His friends persuade him pursue a singing career because of his natural talent, and he uses his savings to hire a venue in New York City. The New York Times review was not encouraging. “He came well prepared, but unfortunately his presentation was not up to contemporary professional standards. His voice lacks the range of tonal color necessary to make it consistently interesting. Full time consideration of another endeavor might be in order.” So, he goes back to Dayton, resumes his old life, and doesn’t sing in public ever again.

Thank goodness for all the laughs elsewhere in this highly enjoyable show. Jeremy Jordan returns to Cadogan Hall later in 2019 – I do hope Laura Benanti returns to London at some point too.

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