One Week. One Writer. Two West End Shows.
Despite the fact that it was getting to the tail end of winter, it was still dark when I awoke, way before my normal time, at seven in the morning. However, I was far too excited to be tired, and the fact that today would my second West End experience of the week did not lessen my excitement. Though still grey, it was bright enough to see when I walked out the door to meet my friends outside our local pub.
Buzzing with excitement, the group of us took the walk down Romsey Road and Winchester High Street to await the coach to London. Later that afternoon, we were to see the matinee performance of Les Misérables, the West End’s longest running musical.
‘Would this be a good time to mention my stand-in curse?’ I asked brightly, grinning from ear to ear, whilst we waited by the bus stop. ‘Every time I go to see a West End show there’s a stand in. It was Marius last time!’
The announcement earned me several glares. Half the group seemed to have bought their tickets if only to witness the Phantom of the Opera himself, Ramin Karimloo, alongside Hadley Fraser in the lead roles of Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert, respectively. I shut my mouth and the ensuing wait for the coach was filled with conversation about the nearby public toilet, of all things. Either my friends are more random than I realised, or the tiredness was starting to get to us. I (alongside most of my fellow travellers, it seems) am not a morning person, so it’s no surprise most of the coach trip to London was spent either snoozing, listening to iPods, or debating the nostalgia factor verses the actual literary merits of the ‘Harry Potter’ books.
Once we had arrived in London, I once again had the pleasure of experiencing the London Underground. I despise the underground; it’s one of few things that actually scares me, thanks to the combination of underground tunnels, enclosing boxes and the crushing crowds at rush hour. I was utterly terrified that I was going to be separated from the group and lost. On top of this, there was the lift at Covent Garden, a necessity thanks to the lack of escalators. It didn’t help my anxiety that one girl chose this moment for a scare story about lifts. The rest of the group quickly (and thankfully) shushed her. I spent the entire thing buried amongst various arms and shivering like a child. A quick visit to the Disney Store did wonders for my nerves, but I had too little money and too much sense to buy anything.
I will say this for the underground though, it fascinates me how some stations are beautifully decorated with colourful tiles, and others just rely on giant advertising billboards for any kind of feature.
It’s also a useful shelter when the weather isn’t so nice. We didn’t exactly pick the best day for our pre-Les Mis picnic. A desperate quest for somewhere the rain couldn’t reach us ensued. It hadn’t been raining at Victoria Station, or even as we reached Covent Garden, but started about half-way to Trafalgar Square and only got heavier. The wind didn’t help, making umbrellas useless. It was at this point that I wished I had a hood on my coat.
We finally took shelter in perhaps the oddest shopping centre I have ever seen to eat our sandwiches. This was probably the most “interesting” part of the day. After all, how often do you find yourself in a building that looks half abandoned, a hole in the wall several floors up, looking like someone tried to build the London Underground in the sky? At least the cinema to our right looked open. The “Funland” arcade and bowling alley a floor up was several cobwebs away from a horror film set. No one but our group set foot on the floor with the café for the full half hour we were there. It’s easy to forget that this was just lunchtime.
All these events seemed like mere distractions, however, compared to the main event of the day: the show itself. With only twenty minutes to spare, we power-walked down the street to the Queens’ Theatre. It wasn’t hard to miss. There’s something wonderful about striding down any theatre street in London, seeing the signs and pictures displaying the show you’re about to see, but the Queens’ probably tops them all. The huge images, displaying the logo and tagline – “Dream the Dream” – alongside more iconic scenes, were like a beacon, drawing us towards it with fascination and anticipation. I could feel my heartbeat increasing all the way down the street, and I’d already seen this show once before!
All this was a hugely stark contrast to The Garrick Theatre, where I’d seen the musical Chicago with my parents and younger sister the previous Saturday, the first of the week’s theatrical experiences. For a start, my family and I circled Trafalgar Square what must have been three times trying to find the right road (and yet my sister still needed Nelson’s column pointed out to her). Once we got there, the posters were fairly understated. Stylish and sexy black-and-white stills of actors posing, still managing to conjure up images of Bob Fosse’ choreography despite being static. Yet these just as accurate to the show as the Queens’ display.
I can’t help thinking the contrasting posters, and my reactions to them, almost reflected the day leading up to each one. Saturday had been quiet, if a laugh, as it so often is with my family. We gave the underground a miss, thank god, walking from Victoria Station and past Buckingham Palace to reach Trafalgar Square. The few hours before the matinee were spent eating sandwiches in the National Gallery café, before having a quick walk round, admiring Van Gough’s ‘Sunflowers’. I decided I liked them much better than the ‘Mona Lisa’, no matter what my sister said. Being the non-art geeks that we are, we amused ourselves by giving captions to some of the paintings, putting words into the mouths of the subjects, before perusing the shop for enough postcards to make up the five for three pound offer. Even the epic search for Charing Cross Road was undertaken as a leisurely stroll.
The theatre interiors too are very much suited to their shows. The Garrick was smaller than I had expected, conjuring up an intimate feel suitable for Chicago’s vaudeville style, whilst the Queens’ pretty much has to be huge in order to contain the sheer epicness of Les Misérables.
The irony here is that in terms of content, the shows are practically reversed. Sure, Les Mis has the spectacle. Its music is louder, its costumes grander and more colourful; it is at least an hour longer…. But its themes and story are played with an immense subtly, for something with so much plot. It carries itself and takes itself entirely seriously. Chicago, however, is played with a wink to the audience, a wonderfully black humour and disregard of the fourth wall to the point where it falls just short of audience participation.
‘Hello suckers!’ Velma Kelly greeted us at the start of Act Two, perched on a ladder that had just swung out at stage right. ‘Welcome back!’
If anything, the monochrome promotional material of Chicago is very appropriate. Almost everything in the show is black. The costumes, the minimalist staging, the humour, but the show is not worse for it. The theme fits extremely well. The staging was probably the aspect of the show I was most impressed by, and sitting at the front of the circle, I saw everything. The only feature other than occasional chairs is the structure that houses the orchestra. This had been the subject of much debate between my sister and myself (my parents were busy pouring over the programme) before the show began.
‘That’s a soprano sax!’ she announced after hearing one note in the distant background. I simply raised an eyebrow and trusted to her musical judgement. Another note sounded. ‘What was that one?’ she demanded of me.
‘I don’t know!’
‘Clarinet,’ she sighed at me, as if I were stupid for not guessing it. ‘Where are they anyway?’ There was no sign of an orchestra box from where we were sitting.
‘I don’t know, maybe in a box at the side of the stage where we can’t see them?’
Ten minutes later the curtain rose to reveal the orchestra right there on stage, interacting with the characters, the conductor seemingly spending most of the performance trying not to corpse. At the reveal, I turned to my sister and we both grinned.
Not to say that I wasn’t smiling for Les Mis. From walking down the street to sitting in my chair and waiting for the curtain to rise, I was smiling, and I felt a grin spread across my face every time the music picked up… Unlike the rest of the group, most of whom were in tears before Act One was even over. The show is long, but in Act One you can’t tell at all, because the pace never lets up, one scene and one song after another, impressive scene changes thanks to the revolving stage and a real feeling of scale.
I’ve seen Les Mis once before, with my family, and we were sitting in the balcony. This time round it was the stalls, and that did provide an issue, as they aren’t very staggered and as a fairly short individual any heads in front of me have the risk of blocking parts of the stage. This isn’t a huge problem in the active songs where there’s always something happening and people are moving around, but I found that Eponine was blocked from my view during much of the beautiful solo “On My Own” because the staging is largely static. As a side note, Eponine was played by Alexia Khadime, who I’ve seen twice as the lead in Wicked and is generally brilliant.
All the cast were great, as expected (there were no stand-ins!), especially Karimloo and Fraser. I even got both their autographs at the stage door! I hung back, having never done this after a show before and feeling a bit like I was invading the actors’ space even standing ten feet away. Karimloo in particular seemed to be in a hurry. In the end, I found myself examining the windows of the Bubble Shop at the end of the road from a distance, wanting dinner, but I swear some of my more star-struck friends were practically glowing as they had their photos taken with the actors. Finally, feeling we’d gained enough autographs, we went on another epic power-walking quest in which we utterly failed to find a Nandos with seats.
And yet, out of the two shows – and despite all this insanity surrounding Les Mis – it was Chicago that I enjoyed the most.
Perhaps it was that I’d seen Les Mis before, perhaps it was where I was sitting, perhaps it was the lack of tears being shed around me, but Chicago – in its genre, in its minimalist staging, in its dark humour – just appeals to me more. If Les Misérables is quiet historical commentary, then Chicago is all-out satire, with a message that is still relevant in this day and age told in a fascinating, and fantastically choreographed, way.
I am not choosing between the two days themselves. That would be impossible. The Saturday’s art-and-culture-appreciation (and mocking) with my family and Wednesday’s Disney Store, coach anecdotes, M&Ms and weird, half-abandoned shopping centres with my friends? No, I have had two very enjoyable days. In fact, I can hardly call them days. They were experiences. And god knows I’ll be humming the songs from both shows for weeks to come!
(written in 2012 for a Creative Non-Fiction assignment at the University of Winchester)