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Palace of Varieties

by on 31 July 2018

Spice on the Red Peppers

Palace of Varieties

Blue Fire Theatre and full supporting company at Mary Wallace Theatre, Twickenham, 28th July.

Review by Mark Aspen

Oh, the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd! You are in a music hall variety show, ready for your act to wow the waiting audience. George and Lily Pepper bicker in the dressing room, but here we are watching from the wings as the adrenaline mounts. And so it is was for Saturday’s audience at the Mary Wallace Theatre waiting for Noel Coward’s Red Peppers in Blue Fire’s preview of its forthcoming Edinburgh Fringe offering.

The surprise first course before the spicy dish of Red Peppers, was a visit to the Palace of Varieties at that gritty mill town where George and Lily’s show is on tour. Our Compere was Daniel Wain, introducing the turns with his wonted style of punchy panache, mainly musical entertainment from a wide range of gifted performers.

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The pace was set by the full throated jazz singing of Hannah-May Lucas, “The Mistress of Song” with Kander and Eb’s All that Jazz from Chicago the Musical. The description of 1920’s Chicago, “where the gin is cold, but the piano’s hot!”, could have applied equally to the Mary Wallace, where musical director Carole Smith’s electric piano accompanied all the singers. Then a more lyrical Thelonious Monk standard, ‘Round Midnight before returning to Kander and Eb’s edgy musical Cabaret.

Further down the programme was our second lady singer, Heather Stockwell, “The Sophisticated Songstress of Shepperton”, in a beautifully contrasting songs-from-the-shows style, and wearing a cool flowing dress that tumbled like a multi-coloured waterfall. The approach now was soft and honeyed, numbers from The King and I, back to 1951 and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical: the lyrical Hello Young Lovers, the warm tone crisp and firm; the uplifting Shall We Dance and the reflective piece, Something Wonderful, which at the lower end of the singer’s register showed the wide range of Heather Stockwell’s voice.

 

 

But the girls did not hog all the limelight, for the last item on the Palace of Varieties bill was Andrew Truluck, from oop North – North London that is – disputing that London exists South of the River. (He was on safe ground, the Mary Wallace Theatre is north of the Thames.) Introduced as the “Virtuoso of the Vocal Chords”, we were treated to yet another approach to the songs of the musicals … and of the music halls. Genial and gentle voiced, he guided the audience, and indeed invited them to join the choruses in Second World War standards such as the soft crooning, How About You, and (somewhat challenging for the audience) A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. Then back to the First World War with This Heart of Mine, Let this Great Big World Keep on Turning and Peg o’ My Heart. (For musical buffs, there is an interesting link between Peg o’ My Heart, which featured in the 1913 musical Ziegfeld Follies and This Heart of Mine from the 1941 film of Ziegfeld Follies.)

The singers parenthesised an entirely different musical genre, classical guitar, played with remarkable dexterity by Luke Taylor. In a complex piece and with concentrated precision, he evoked a vision of sparkling water on hot summer’s day that was the reality outside of the theatre. Although by the 18th Century Italian composer, Domenico Cimarosa, it was very reminiscent of the well-known Spanish guitar composers of a century later such as Albéniz or Granados. It was amazing to watch Taylor play, and clearly not for nothing did the compere introduce him as “Donald and his Dancing Digits”.

As the Palace of Varieties was intended as lead in to Blue Fire’s Red Peppers, Noël Coward was never far away, and the musical offers were interspersed with excerpts from another of Coward’s cycle of the short plays from the Tonight at 8:30 series, Ways and Means. The main protagonists, heiress Stella Cartwright and her gambling-addicted husband Toby, were played by Mia Skytte-Jensen and Daniel Wain, described modestly by Wain (in his compere role) as the Olivier and Leigh of Twickenham, tongue firmly in cheek.

The Cartwrights are irresponsible social parasites, living in a borrowed villa on the Côte d’Azur by their wits and their witticisms. Wain and Skytte-Jensen delivered the brittle quick-fire dialogue of the self-indulgent couple with the coolly detached insouciance that Coward demands of the stereotypical socialites.

Ways and Means forms a nice scene-setter for Red Peppers, for both concern a bickering couple in a jaded marriage, although I felt a bit less sympathy for Toby and Stella Cartwright than I was about to for George and Lily Pepper. (The Peppers actually work hard for their living.)

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As an appetiser for the course of Red Peppers, about to be served after the interval, Palace of Varieties whetted the appetite in a satisfying manner. It was the gin and tonic freshener accompaniment before the full-bodied red wine was opened to go with the Red Peppers.

Mark Aspen
July 2018

Photography by Wolstenholme Images

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