Apparently audiences are staying away from theatres almost en masse at the moment, preferring instead to sit in front of big screens, biting their manly nails in collective frustration and leaking testosterone all over the shop.
So the Whingers decided it was high time they put their feminine sides on the back burner and explore their combined powers of machismo with a trip to Upstairs at the Gatehouse to see that apperceptive dissection of gender roles and sexual identity: Calamity Jane.
Calamity Jane started on a big screen too, of course, and the Whingers engineered a lads-only (plus 1 token woman) expedition, all fully geared up and clutching their vuvuzelas for an evening of shrieking shouting in delight. Oh, and of course they fuelled themselves with copious quantities of alcohol.
And so it was that we found ourselves in Deadwood (a reference to the England squad?) where Henry Miller (Anthony Wise – very funny), owner of the Golden Garter saloon, has sent for a beautiful “actress” to entertain the menfolk of the town. But Francis Fryer (Ted McMillan, also very good) turns out to be a man. With the crowd worked up to a fever pitch, Fryer is persuaded to drag up to perform the innuendo laden “Hive Full of Honey” (one of Andrew’s party pieces, incidentally).
When the deception inevitably unravels Calamity calms the unrest by heading off to Chicago with a promise to return with no-one less than the menfolk’s actress of choice, Adelaide Adams. Actually she returns with Adams’ maid Katie Brown (a charming Bonnie Hurst) who nonetheless wins the hearts of the town’s men including Calam’s sparring partner Wild Bill Hickock (David Anthony, a very fine voice) and the object of her affections Lt. Danny Gilmartin (Jonathan Vickers).
Calamity Jane is packed to the rafters with great songs (“I Can Do Without You”, “Secret Love”, “Just Blew In From The Windy City”, “The Black Hills Of Dakota”, “The Deadwood Stage (Whip-Crack-Away!)” and is way overdue for a major revival. But for now director Thom Southerland who made such a good job of Call Me Madam in the same venue achieves similar wonders with limited resources: this is a well-costumed, lively production, terrifically choreographed by Phyllida Crowley Smith. Sutherland puts in lots of clever touches, “A Woman’s Touch” is particularly wittily realised and he even turns the overused idea of having performers form a vehicle on stage (in this case a stagecoach) into a delightful twist on the idea. It’s almost up there with the train in last summer’s Hello Dolly!
There are good performances (including a terrific character performance from Frances Campbell as the stagecoach driver Rattlesnake), some lasso spinning and decent singing. The choral contributions are superb and the three-piece band provide a surprisingly full accompaniment. The wardrobe people might, however, want to re-think the rather unflattering underwear that Adelaide Adams and Katie Brown perform in. We’re no experts on women’s nethergarments but surely these can not be the last word in 1889 feminine allure?
But where the production is vitally let down is the sound. Criminally Paul Francis Webster‘s often hilarious lyrics are frequently lost along with much of the dialogue. Some of this seems due a lack of power in some of the leads (Katherine Eames is a suitably winning and perky Calamity but her combination of Wild West accent and rather highly pitched voice often renders her inaudible). The acousitcs don’t help, though, and nor does some of the staging. It’s a shame because if it were fixed this show would be twice as enjoyable.
Goodness knows what the sound must have been like from the seating at the sides of the stage; no wonder so few people chose to sit there, further proof if proof were needed that audiences dislike thrust staging. It doesn’t work! Stop it! Thrust stagin’ – that”s nothin’ more than female thinkin’.
The walls of the staircase up to the Gatehouse’s auditorium are decorated with posters from previous productions and the Whingers particularly enjoyed one for a 2008 production of The Fool Who Dared to Dream which starred “David Boyle as the inimitable Anthony Newley”. Poor David Boyle – he really didn’t have a chance then.