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New musicals, The Land of Lola, Mary Poppins and Gandalf


It was a weekend away from the reviewing circuit but as per usual I couldn’t resist saying something about what I enjoyed – ‘enjoyed’ being the operative word. I dropped into MT Fest UK, a musical festival theatre of new writing, to sample a couple of their ‘taster’ sessions. These were 45-minute extracts of musicals, presented in front of paying audiences to solicit feedback with a view to developing them further. The Astonishing Return of… The Protagonists had a number of superheroes (or, rather, people with extraordinary powers) from a previous generation who – because history repeats itself and all that – feel it necessary to regroup and make a comeback. But it’s been a while since they last exercised their powers, and in the meantime, they’ve started families and gotten on with their lives.


This, of course, shouldn’t actually be too much of a problem (if a problem at all) given their superpowers. But the narrative insists they are older now than they were then, and it appeared to me that most of the battle against making a comeback was of a mental and psychological nature, rather than any doubts about their older selves being less agile than they were decades before. They are facing not only the resurgence of an old enemy but things like the menopause and children who are growing up and going off to university. I found it very amusing, though, with a good variety of musical styles included in its repertoire. It’s the old adage of good versus evil, triumph over adversity, and I wonder if it really has anything new to offer that hasn’t been seen in something like the Broadway show Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, the off-Broadway musical The Toxic Avenger, or the lesser known Edinburgh Fringe superhero show Vulvarine.


Killer Queen does not, alas, ride on the back of the success of the motion picture Bohemian Rhapsody, or indeed of the rock band Queen itself. Marie Antoinette is not an idiot – when some fraudsters attempt to sell her some fake jewellery, she’s having none of it and dismisses them from her court. The musical is, apparently, at an earlier stage of development than any of the seven other musicals being showcased in the festival. The use of rapping and talk of a ‘revolution’ means that the extract came across as trying to sound like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, but not quite reaching the lyrical sophistication of that show. But the musical theatre director and choreographer extraordinaire Drew McOnie was nodding his head in time to the music and seemed to think it has potential, so we’ll see what becomes of it.

​A friend of mine is a regular visitor to the historic city of Oxford, and while I was sat in London sampling new musicals, he had already made his way over to drink in what Oxford has to offer. Making the (sort of) short walk from The Other Palace Theatre to the Oxford Tube pickup point outside Victoria Coach Station, the coach came quickly enough, but heavy traffic at Hangar Lane and then again on the M40 meant we pulled into Oxford rather later than intended, with just enough time for a quick meal before meeting up at the New Theatre to catch the touring production of Kinky Boots. There were only minor modifications from the West End production but otherwise the show is just as tremendous as it was on the Strand. The stand-out for me was Kayi Ushe as Lola/Simon, and Joel Harper-Jackson does well as Charlie Price.

​I think the first time I knew anything about Laura Michelle Kelly was when the London megachurch Holy Trinity Brompton published a testimonial in her own words as part of their promotional material for the Christian educational programme ‘The Alpha Course’. Kelly was brought up in a family that practised religion, and it appears she never lost her faith, telling the New York Theatre Guide in 2010 that if she were stranded on a desert island, the three items she would take with her would be, “My Bible, iPhone and my guitar”. She had, of course, won the 2005 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical, having played the title role in a West End stage production of Mary Poppins.


At the Cadogan Hall, she was utterly delightful. She’d garnered a fair few fans over the years, who had come from various places, including the Isle of Wight, where she grew up, to see her (though the hall wasn’t quite sold out, probably because she stayed in the United States for some years after playing Mary Poppins on Broadway that she wasn’t exactly the hottest ticket in London). A good variety of songs, stretching from ‘Our Time’ from Merrily We Roll Along to The Bodyguard’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, were beautifully performed, and there were some anecdotes to enjoy, stretching from her upbringing right through to the present day. The most recent significant event is that her second marriage took place only last month.

​Another highlight of this (extended) weekend was a Monday night trip to the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, to catch Sir Ian McKellen’s 80th birthday tour of the country – by the time he finishes his travels later in the year he will have gone as far south as the Jersey Opera House and as far north as the Orkney Theatre. He had an offer to perform at the Queen’s decades ago but then had an offer to perform at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry for more money, so went there instead. “At last,” he mused at the end of a two-and-a-half-hour spectacular display of extracts, anecdotes and a remarkable memory, “I have played Hornchurch.”


The first half was partly about Tolkien and various people who he encountered whilst filming The Lord of the Rings, most of whom apparently had a habit of reading the book once a year. Some personal stories involved name-dropping a whole load of actors and directors who he had the privilege (the word ‘privilege’ sometimes in inverted commas) of working with. The second half was almost entirely given over to the Shakespeare canon. I do not have sufficient knowledge to say with any authority whether he did write, without collaborators, every scene in each of the 37 plays considered to be his: suffice to say, there has been considerable speculation and suspicion over the centuries, and further details are available elsewhere online for anyone interested.


I also cannot claim to have anywhere near the depth of knowledge of the Bard’s plays that McKellen has, and even he admitted to not being able to say much about one or two of them. It was far from the sort of fare the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch usually puts on (their current production is called Kiss Me Quickstep, for instance) but I found it hugely entertaining. I believe his tour is more or less sold out but if you are able to go, it’s worth the financial and geographical inconvenience.

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