Amanda McBroom: Up Close and Personal

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 Amanda McBroom makes a welcome return to Crazy Coqs with another of her shows Up Close and Personal. The inspiration for this latest creation came from Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, which exhorts us to keep only those possessions that bring joy, much like the philosophy of our own William Morris: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

She started on her music studio and excavated rhymes she’d forgotten writing, but re-discovered how good they were e.g. “We fell in love too soon or met too late,” from Beautiful Mistake written in 2004, and It’s Still Spring describing “skin tone and chances fleeting” in a woman who, “like fine expensive red wine is ready for tasting”, with which she opened the show.

It was in 1974 that she and Michele Brourman, her accompanist/arranger/fellow song writer first met, introduced by a record producer living in the same block of flats. McBroom wrote a Western style song Amanda and Brourman wrote the music, where Amanda is the song of the wind in the open plains. Haunting and evocative, the piece was the start of their deep friendship and fruitful collaboration. It was, in fact, Brourman who dared suggest the title Amanda. McBroom protested: “I can’t put my name in a song!” “I can”, was the reply.

Included in the show are a couple of Cole Porter numbers, ordered by McBroom’s singer husband George Ball: “For God’s sake, sing something they know!” They are Under My Skin and Just One of Those Things, both featuring excellent original piano arrangements by Brourman.

The patter between songs and personal stories are great, but it’s the poetry of McBroom’s lyrics that captivate. There are old favourites, including Wheels about the vicissitudes of life and homelessness, together with material that is as new as 3 months old.

For me, the two new pieces that particularly stand out are Brourman’s brittle and funny You’re Only Old Once, which is offered to us as a taster for Brourman’s own cabaret show on Monday 9th May, and a lovely gentle ballad London in the Rain, McBroom’s gift to us.

I have seen these two perform together many times, each time special, but this is truly a memorable evening. If you are interested in the arts of cabaret and song writing, you really must not miss this.

Fiona-Jane Weston

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My Mother Said I Never Should

My Mother Said

Charlotte Keatley’s award-winning My Mother Said I Never Should, written in 1987, has since been translated into 23 languages, is studied in schools and has become one of the most often performed plays by a woman writer. Telling the story of four generations of women in one family the piece examines themes of mothers and daughters, with all those relationships’ complexities, love, sacrifice and aspiration. This latest revival at St James Theatre is directed by Paul Robinson , and produced by Tara Finney.

The main action begins during an air-raid in World War ll with emotionally distant Doris (Maureen Lipman), a former teacher, emphasising the values of hard work and self-reliance to her young daughter, Margaret (Caroline Faber).  However, the best laid plans of mice and women go astray, and Doris later admits that mothers often do what they think best for their children at the time, only to find it was not what their offspring needed or wanted. These mistakes, each in their own way, are repeated by the following generations, and the original errors resonate and have consequences for both Margaret’s child Jackie (Katie Brayben, fresh from her award winning role of Carole King in the musical Beautiful), and her daughter Rosie (Serena Manteghi).

Their stories are told in a non-linear, fragmentary way, still unusual in theatrical form in the 1980s. The play opens with three young girls playing with fantasy and plotting to kill their Mummies. Far from sentimental, these children are sinister. The ages and maturity of the children is altered, reflecting their eventual roles in real life. Doris, the oldest adult, is now five, the youngest; Rosie is eight, while Margaret and Jackie are both nine, the eldest but the same age as each other, symbolically equal.

Their movements build to a chilling ritualistic crescendo, as though part of a witches coven, reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

Signe Beckmann’s sparse minimalist set is a bare stage with televisions scattered in piles, the screens of which convey to us the dates and locations of the scenes, together with some interesting archive news shots and footage, and three carved wooden legs representing a piano, all of which adds to the general feel of stark choices and uncomfortable despair.

There are moments of comic relief, though, not least from the waspishly witty lines from Doris, a no-nonsense Northern woman with a “get on with it” attitude, delivered with assured aplomb by Lipman, and there is warmth and solidarity between the characters alongside the smouldering resentment and disenchantment.

All the cast is good. Brayben delivers a fine performance in Jackie, the first of the women to pursue a career of her choice, yet also unable to express her love and loss appropriately; Faber arguably has the most difficult role to portray with its self-sacrificing restraint, but does so with quiet dignity, and Manteghi gives an energetic depiction of the young idealistic Rosie.

Despite some (though by no means all) of the gender politics of the time of its writing having moved on, the family tensions, specifically those between women, remain timeless. Hence, the play remains relevant. This production is well worth seeing.

Fiona-Jane Weston

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Lily Atkinson: Song Collection

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It is not often one gets the call to review a genuinely young emergent cabaret artist, so it was both pleasure and a sense of curiosity that drew me to see Lily Atkinson at the newly refurbished Pheasantry. Lily is comedian Rowan Atkinson’s daughter, very recently turned 21 and is pursuing a career in soul, R and B and pop singing.

Both parents, despite being recently divorced, were in attendance to support, as was family friend Jeremy Clarkson.

An attractive young woman, Lily explains in the show that whilst her childhood was steeped in many styles of music, it was especially with soul that she fell in love, and particularly admired Aretha Franklin. Hence, her current show focuses mainly on that genre.

She moves beautifully, and has a good flexible voice which she uses well, though with a little too much emphasis on vocal fry for my taste, and has a strong stage presence. Ably accompanied by Musical Director Sam Cable and 3 piece band, she has fun singing 3 Cool Cats and other jazz and R&B classics, and pays tribute to Amy Winehouse by singing a song she revived, Mr Magic.

A standout item was a medley of Why Don’t You Do Right, with her climbing on to the piano giving a languid delivery and moving into a more raunchy I Got Trouble.

It is a well paced evening with a fairly good show structure, although her abrupt departure for the interval jarred rather. As her initial nerves settle, she is able to share a joke with the audience and enjoy some repartee. Nevertheless, I felt this is an area for her to work further on to gain more clarity and fluency. Very sensibly, Lily has sought out cabaret training from Excess All Areas.

Her greatest successes of the show, though, were when she sang her own material, some penned at the tender age of 16. Experiencing her first heartbreak led her to write What She Got, “..for 16 year olds all over crying in their bedrooms”. Far from being trite or sentimental, it touched the audience more directly than the soul numbers, not least because it was directly from the heart, and we felt we were able to get to know her a little on a more personal level.

The second half brought more such moments when her band left the stage and she performed an acoustic set with guitarist Joel sitting next to her. Once again, the connection with the audience was much more direct and satisfying. Down, her song of defiance to those who showed a lack of belief in her had us enthralled.

This is an interesting artist showing considerable promise, but she has not quite found her own voice yet. Much of the work shown tonight is derivative, admittedly from very fine artists, but with only the occasional placing of her own stamp on the material. One exception was her version of Pussy Cat Dolls Stickwitu.

At just 21, this is entirely forgivable. It is no accident that most cabaret performers come to the artform later rather than earlier in their careers. There are still a few rough edges to polish, but I look forward to seeing her development as she matures both personally and artistically, perhaps most particularly as a singer/songwriter.

Fiona-Jane Weston

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Liliane Montevecchi

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French actress, dancer and singer Liliane Montevecchi is appearing once again at The Crazy Coqs with her show telling the story of her life from her days as a Prima Ballerina to Hollywood and Broadway.

Beginning in Roland Petit’s Ballets de Paris, Montevecchi went on to a film career in Hollywood and later The Folies Bergère, though she never appeared naked.  She “had too much talent for that!”, she asserts.  But, she is perhaps best known now for her roles in Grand Hotel, for which she was nominated Best Actress in a Musical , and Tommy Tune’s Nine, garnering her Tony and Drama Desk Awards .

Now 83, Ms. Montevecchi remains as slim, feline and, truthfully, nearly as lithe as in her younger days. With enormous presence, she slinks on to the stage gesturing with hands and long fingers she employs like delicate, expressive instruments.  At one point, she does a ballet barre lifting her leg high on to the piano, and does a full port de bras (long low bow to the floor).

Although she did a dance routine with Fred Astaire (sadly cut from the film) and had fun going duck hunting with Clarke Gable, Ms. Montevecchi did not really enjoy making films, preferring the immediate contact with an audience – so, she is ideally suited to the intimacy of cabaret.

She had the privilege of knowing legendary French cabaret artists, such as Josephine Baker, Édith Piaf and Mistinguett (a cutlery thief, apparently!), and pays homage to them with a medley of their songs. The first set of the show also includes some standout material, namely the saucy I Never Do Anything Twice, a sensitively sung Les Feuilles Mortes and a rarely heard Cole Porter song Si Vous Aimez Les Poitrines.

Her deep-throated husky voice with French accent still beguiles her audience as much as her feline fascinating movement. Slithering through the audience singing Je Cherche Un Millionaire, she later invites a man to join her on stage to dance in Newfangled Tango.

Whilst her self-deprecating wit and comic timing are impeccable, I found her ballads the most mesmerising, notably Boulevard of Broken Dreams and Irma La Douce (which she played on Broadway).  Ably accompanied by Nathan Martin, musically, her medleys work well as story-telling devices, flowing seamlessly and hardly appearing to be medleys at all.

Ms. Montevecchi went on to describe the extraordinary good fortune she had to win her most recent roles on Broadway, her singular audition, and concluded the evening with Bonjour Amour from Grand Hotel and Follies Bergere from Nine.

A star not to be missed.

Fiona-Jane Weston

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Natalie Douglas: The Nat Pack: Sammy & Nat & Stevie & Joe

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Natalie Douglas is appearing in London once more at the Crazy Coqs with a new show written especially for the occasion.  Together with her Musical Director Mark Hartman, of Broadway’s Avenue Q & Sondheim on Sondheim, have created a program of song honouring the extraordinary talents of Sammy Davis, Jr., Nat “King” Cole, Stevie Wonder & Joe Williams.

Opening with a sultry version of For Once In my Life, she sets the tone for the evening – subtle, from the heart and sophisticated. We are treated to works from amongst others Billy Strayhorn, Stevie Wonder, and Irving Gordon, sprinkled with histories of the songs themselves, Natalie’s personal relationship to them and how her parents’ eclectic tastes shaped her knowledge and appreciation of this collection.

I have written several times about Natalie Douglas, and each show she does is exemplary, not only of the particular genre or artist she is paying tribute to, but in terms of artistry. She has the voice to raise the roof off any venue, but this is never used gratuitously or simply to display her prowess. There is always a narrative or artistic choice behind its employment.

This show is no exception. One example is her rendition of Mr Bojangles. Understated for the most part, and all the more powerful for it, one could feel the collective emotion of the audience welling up.

Natalie is from a political family, is comfortable with the topic without bombast, always with a dash of humour, and helps the contemporary audience appreciate the role a particular song may have played in American history. Searingly, she used Stevie Wonder’s You Haven’t Done Nothin’ – his attack on Nixon and Watergate – to make her own commentary on Donald Trump and the current election.

Interestingly, two songs that she treated us to, Gonna Build a Mountain and Once in a Lifetime came from British artists Leslie Bicusse and Anthony Newley.  Bricusse is an English composer, lyricist, and playwright, most prominently working in musicals and film theme songs, and Newley was the English actor, singer and songwriter he very often collaborated with, most notably on Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.

She saved the best till last, however.  Ol Man River was her encore, with sublime accompaniment by Mark Hartman, and brought the house down.

 

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Tom Carradine: Carradine’s Cockney Sing-A-Long

Tom Carradine CD

Tom Carradine launched his first album of his Cockney Sing-A-Long at the wholly appropriate setting of Wilton’s Music Hall, one of the few Victorian Music Halls left standing in London. The album, recorded at the Bull and Gate in Kentish Town, is attractively produced, with an accompanying booklet of words, featuring the songs in his repertoire, a selection of which are performed in his shows.

Wax mustachioed and suitably dressed, Carradine took his place at the piano amid great cheers from what transpires to be a regular, dedicated and growing following of quite a diverse age range.

Starting straight into the sing-along, with little introduction, Carradine really gets the atmosphere going. The evening features songs from Music Hall, Wartime, West End and some pop songs from various decades. The second half also includes ‘guest medleys’ of various themes, which change from show to show. Tonight featured a sitcom medley which included the Dad’s Army song , One Foot in the Grave, and Only Fools and Horses; and also a medley of love songs (Valentine’s Day is just around the corner) and songs from ‘Cockney’ musicals such as Oliver and My Fair Lady.
He explains that apart from song and the ‘joanna’, there are 3 main elements to a cockney sing-along – a) drink – the bar is open throughout, b) dancing – there is room at the sides and in the balcony for a knees up, and c) interjection – which he provides with gusto.

The audience need no encouragement to join in, not only singing, but gesturing, getting up on their feet, the lot. During the Wartime section, Union Jack bunting is produced and hung around the hall. The group of elderly people beside me were among the most active, but the younger audience in the rows in front were smiling and singing with enthusiasm also. This is very much a family affair, with some dressed in old cockney outfits for the occasion.

As well as an accomplished musician, Carradine is a good showman with a charming personality and very nice singing voice. The audience clearly love what he does.
Wilton’s is beautifully restored, maintaining a somewhat ‘ruined’ feel – not too polished or glitzy, very atmospheric and keeping the rough- hewn walls. The twisted pillars are particularly noteworthy. The stage is tiered and the words for the sing-along are projected on slides onto the back wall between the red velvet curtains.

This is ultimately a very simple idea – just a lot of people round a piano led by the musician – an extension of a family get-together. It has possibilities of growing, not only in terms of larger audience numbers in bigger venues, but artistically. Personally, I would like to see it enhanced by adding guest performers, interspersed with stories, and perhaps histories of the songs themselves.

It is refreshing to think that in this day and age of digital, instantaneous and over-produced everything, there is still a market for such an old-fashioned concept as a sing-along and knees-up. And well done to Tom Carradine for making it happen, especially in such a perfect venue for it.

Fiona-Jane Weston

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Stefan Bednarczyk: Beyond a Joke

Known for his solo shows of Noel Coward and Flanders & Swann, Stefan Bednarczyk is back at The Crazy Coqs performing his new show, “BEYOND A JOKE”.

He says he now focuses on ‘the rest of his education’, and some of the other influences on his development during his early teens, many of whom had records “Humour” section of his local record shop in the 1970’s.

Opening with a nice unexpected take on Second Hand Rose, the tone of surprise and wit is set for the evening.

Apparently, Tom Lehrer had a theory that folk songs were particularly atrocious because they were written by the people, and had they been written by professional songwriters, they would have had far more merit. Bednarczyk goes on to display his versatility in taking the song My Darling Clementine to render each verse in the styles of Cole Porter, Mozart, jazz and Gilbert &Sullivan.

Gershwin’s music is featured, but the evening is largely given over to Allan Sherman, the political parodies of Tom Lehrer, whose songs are almost shockingly relevant today, even though many were written in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, and the keenly observed social commentary of the far less renowned Jake Thackeray.

Thackeray was a Yorkshireman, with a humour as black and dry as dust, whose cannon deserves to be much better known.  As Bednarczyk himself says, the narratives run like a one-act play, the lyrics of which are quite often somewhat rude e.g. Beware the Bull and the sardonic yet tender Lah-Di-Dah.

For Lehrer lovers, we were treated to his Masochism Tango, Vatican Rag written in response to Vatican ll) and the wonderfully witty Oedipus Rex.  There were also songs from Alan Plater’s Close the Coal House Door, composed by Alex Glasgow aka the Bard of Tyneside. This part included one of my favourites of the night, As Soon As This Pub Closes.

Bednarczyk would be the first to admit his voice, whilst enjoyable and flexible, is not the strongest in the business, and he confessed to feeling a little ‘second nighty’ the evening I saw him, but his performances are always highly engaging and a lesson in lyric delivery – sharp, pinpointed with crisp articulation with a light or biting touch, as the situation demands. And all with immensely skillful, atmospheric and at times virtuoso self-accompaniment on the piano.

If these vicious lyrics were his early influences, he must indeed be a bit twisted!  A delight, as ever.

Fiona-Jane Weston

 

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