I’d always been told that a visit to London isn’t complete without seeing a show.
I couldn’t understand why so many friends were so keen on “theatre shows”, by which they meant, musicals. I always thought they weren’t for me. That has all changed.
The drama snob
My idea of an exciting theatre trip had always been a Shakespeare play, or a bit of Marlowe or Webster. My literary background demanded an evening listening intently to archaic verse, delighting in the twists a director might add to a classic play. I needed my entertainment to be as abstruse as possible, no matter how dissatisfying this might be to any friend I dragged along who’d usually prefer a bit of Disney over Dryden (the clue is in the name, they might add).
I couldn’t imagine that watching a singing and dancing spectacle (that wasn’t a favourite band) would be in any way entertaining. I mean, I’ve never been to a ballet, seen an opera or any such high-brow diversion. They’re on the list of cultural things you should do, right? But I never had musicals on my list of things to do.
Cats, Les Misérables, Joseph – I could name a few, but could I tell you their plots? The closest I’d got to seeing a musical was the obligatory viewing of Grease as a child. I’d also enjoyed the film versions of Little Shop of Horrors (the Steve Martin version) and Rocky Horror, but they all seemed like wacky, ironic, exceptions to the rule. I love irony. I live my life ironically. It’s the only way I can get away with being me; call it irony and it’s ok. The Irony License.
This all changed last summer. One of my friends announced to our group of girlfriends over pizza and wine one evening that our next girl’s gathering would involve taking a cheap weekend break. I was completely delighted. I needed a holiday, and the idea of a bit of tourism in a European city sounded like a fabulous way to spend time with my favourite girls.
Then she dropped the clanger. We were to stay in London the night before we flew off to our 4 star Barcelona hotel. That was fine. But, “oh you’re kidding?” I groaned, as she added, “we’re going to see a show!” Nobody took my side. All the girls had been forced to attend some impenetrable play with me at some point. It was my turn to leave my comfort zone.
And my goodness, I planned to wriggle and moan my whole way through. I hoped they served lots of wine at these theatres. Maybe Les Misérables would be less miserable with a vat of fermented grapes inside me.
History of the musical
On the day, I reminded myself that musical theatre dates back to ancient Greece. Some of my favourite plays are broken up with a musical interlude to relieve tension. Ben Jonson and Shakespeare included “masques” in their plays. With this in mind, but still certain I’d hate the whole thing, I steeled myself and entered the beautiful Queen’s Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. With its stunning Edwardian ceilings I felt a thrill at being in a building where the likes of Fred Astaire and Laurence Olivier had trodden the boards. I swallowed my pride that evening and knew I was a convert to musicals.
Oh my goodness! Why didn’t anybody tell me about this show? (Admittedly, many people had, repeatedly). I suppose it being the longest running and most popular musical ought to have told me something about its quality.
This adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel absolutely enthralled me. I had no idea the story involved revolutionaries, prostitutes, street gangs- all my favourite themes! What an emotional rollercoaster. I had no idea a bunch of people singing at me could be so moving. I was blubbing, laughing, completely spellbound. I didn’t even care that my friends teased me ceaselessly the rest of the evening for sniffing loudly into my tissues. This first experience of musicals created a total addiction in me. I am determined to see as many musicals as I can.
This year, the cast of Les Mis (see, I’m using the colloquial terms now) includes, as Jean Valjean, David Shannon. He’s even been in some “straight theatre” productions like Macbeth, so any snobs like me out there can rest assured. As Fantine, Caroline Sheen (Mary Poppins, Grease, Chitty Chitty Band Bang) is captivating, and her “I Dreamed a Dream” is just incredible.
I’ve made a list of shows I must attend this summer and plan to spend my summer exploring the many fabulous shows London theatre has to offer. Have you been a theatre snob like me too? Maybe you too can be converted. Go on, just try one! It won’t be your last, I promise. Here’s a few to get you going:
1. Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball come together in what looks to be an astonishing reworking of Sweeny Todd at The Adelphi, The Strand. This 1930s Art Deco style theatre itself is worth a visit, I can’t wait to go along in June and check this out.
I may not be a Disney lover, but there is something so gorgeous about the story of The Lion King. Maybe it’s the Hamlet parallels. Who could resist this touching story of the cyclical nature of life, with themes of conflict, coming of age and revenge? This multi-award winning show, with deeply evocative African beats and Elton John and Tim Rice’s genius song writing, has certainly made it to my list of must-sees. I can’t wait to see how George Asprey (New Tricks; Waking The Dead; The Bill) tackles Scar’s character. With its beautiful white columned entrance and rococo interior, The Lyceum has seen many changes, but remains one of London’s grandest and most alluring theatre buildings.
Secretly, I’ve always wanted to see the triumphant tale of Billy Elliot. I’m definitely going to the Victoria Theatre – take a virtual tour here – to check it out this summer. Of course it’s won awards, what a stirring story; I love it already and I’ve never seen it! The powerful story of a mining-town boy striving towards his unconventional goal of ballet dancing tells me that this musical will be inspiring and perhaps even a little bit life changing. I can’t wait to see Harris Beattie, Ryan Collinson, Harrison Dowzell and Adam Vesperman depict Billy as he grows up. Dad is played by Deka Walmsley, and with Animal Farm, Cooking with Elvis and Blood Brothers under his belt, plus appearances on Eastenders and Holby (come on, THE best soap operas on the TV, and that coming from me, the snob!), I think we’re in for a treat!
That’s just a tiny selection; London has an abundance of opulent theatres in its famous West End. Newly converted as I am to the idea, I can wholeheartedly agree that a visit to London is incontrovertibly incomplete without “seeing a show”.