Michael Billington thinks that Yorkshire has a lot to teach New York when it comes to musicals
Michael Billington sings the praises of musicals with heart
How often does this happen? Twice in one week, I saw new musicals set in Yorkshire and showing people defying sexual convention. But —and here’s the rub—both evenings ended with the real-life inspirations for the shows coming on stage and embracing the actors. Never have I seen art and life so closely intertwined.
In the case of The Girls at London’s Phoenix Theatre, the ladies from Rylstone and District women’s Institute, who once famously posed for a nude calendar, appeared decked with sunflowers to endorse this heartwarming musical.
The first night of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie at the Sheffield Crucible ended with the befrocked Jamie Campbell coming on stage in tears to applaud this lightly fictionalised account of his desire to wear a dress. Even though the show has now finished, I make no apology for writing about it as it’s certain to have a longer life (if you want to hear more, you can buy the soundtrack album at www. sheffieldtheatres.co.uk).
If I preferred The Girls, it’s because its optimism is hard won and because it shows the many obstacles the wi ladies had to overcome to achieve their ends.
You might assume that, by now, the subject would have been exhausted. First, there was the 2003’s Calendar Girls, starring Julie walters, and five years later came a popular stage play. Everyone must know the story of how a group of Yorkshire wi women bravely posed in the nude for a calendar to raise money for charity following the death of the husband of one of their members. Their efforts paid off as an astonishing £5 million has been donated to Leukaemia Research.
However, the musical version of the tale, written by Gary Barlow and Tim Firth, beats the film and the play hands down because it’s far better structured and because it suggests the story is one of triumph over self-doubt and understandable inhibition.
The key figures in the story are Chris, a cheerful soul who first comes up with the idea of the calendar, and Annie, who is bereft at the loss of her husband. whereas in the film, the calendar shoot comes at the start and in the play halfway through, in the musical, it’s the climax of the evening. That matters hugely. It not only gives the show a rousing finale, it also confirms that this brave gesture is important, in different ways for each of the women. For
Annie, it’s a way of coping with her grief; for the others, it’s a means of dealing with age, depression or self-consciousness.
The musical also works beautifully as a portrait of an English village. It starts with a choral number, Yorkshire, about the apparently unchanging nature of life in the Dales. By the end, everything has been overturned through the action of the women.
In Mr Firth’s production, they are also played without a hint of condescension or caricature. Joanna Riding is very touching as the stoical Annie, Claire Moore radiates good-heartedness as the enterprising Chris and there is first-rate support from Claire Machin as a resourceful single parent, Debbie Chazen as a lonely vodka-swiller and Sophie-louise Dann as a golf-club Delilah. Do see it.
I’d be the first to admit that
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie had a similar effect on its audience and is an undeniably feel-good show. Based on a 2011 BBC documentary, it’s the story of a 16-year-old schoolboy—originally from Durham, but now from Sheffield—who enjoys wearing towering platform shoes and who determines to go to the school prom in a dress. He has long been disowned by his absentee father and meets some token opposition from a teacher. In the end, he wins out, loyally supported by his mother, his friends and a local costumier, who was once a celebrated drag queen. The songs by Dan Gillespie Sells are first-rate and he writes especially well for the female voice: Josie Walker as Jamie’s mum delivers two big numbers with a raw power that would slay them in Carnegie Hall and Lucie Shorthouse as a devout Muslim who learns to embrace her femininity also knows how to put a song across.
John Mccrea captures all of Jamie’s pride in being true to his own instincts. What is lacking from Tom Macrae’s book, however, is any real sense of drama, but that didn’t deter the Sheffield audience who sent the show off in a blaze of glory that suggests we’ll be talking about Jamie for some time to come.
If people go to musicals seeking affirmation and joy, they will be hard-pressed to find them in
The Wild Party. This is an American show, dating from 2000, that has been chosen to open The Other Palace: a rechristened version of the St James’s Theatre that Andrew Lloyd Webber has acquired as a venue for trying out new musicals. It seems perverse, therefore, to open with an old one that signally failed to set Broadway alight.
It’s based on a once notorious 1928 poem by Joseph Moncure March that describes the dirty deeds that take place at a raffish showbiz rout. The poem itself has a rhyming swagger, but the musical, with book, music and lyrics by Michael John Lachiusa, is a dark, gloomy affair that becomes monotonous in its portrait of hectic depravity.
Frances Ruffelle shines as the party’s vaudevillian host and John Owen-jones radiates thuggish menace as her lover, but this is one party I’d be happy to miss.
‘The Girls’ runs until April 22 (0844 871 7627); ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ closed on February 25; ‘The Wild Party’ runs until April 1 (0844 264 2121)
The bare necessities: the WI ladies of The Girls rally round Annie (Joanna Riding, centre) in a show that will make you smile
The Wild Party boasts good performances, but is nothing to celebrate
Dress code: Everybody’s Talking About Jamie was a feelgood hit for Sheffield