A week of various London-ist pleasures this week took in musical theatre and musical theatre. Last Thursday, after the union strikes had littered the West End with coppers and the Strand was filled with vans full of them, sitting around pressing buttons on i-phones, waiting for the violent protest excitement that would not come, I saw Legally Blonde at one of the West End’s smallest theatres. I think it is strange that the Savoy Theatre invites musicals at all; it seems more suited to some drab play or other, as the auditorium is possibly the dinkiest in the West End. But it was, as a blue sign on the side of the building told me, the first building in the world to have electric light installed. And electricity is what you need if you want to look at the lovely Lee Mead and a succession of teeny stage dogs that threatened to upstage our Lee with their charming barking and on cue-cuteness.
We have shared the Lee love before here on the London Bluebird, as myself and Theatre Buddy follow his award-winning buttocks (which look as though they had been moulded by angels at twilight using a combination of warm steel and young flesh) from theatre production to concert, and then from concert again back to theatre production. I don’t need to inform you of his Meady’s wonderful-ness again (the interested of those among you can check it out at https://thelondonbluebird.wordpress.com/2010/06/03/the-tale-of-two-musicals/ and https://thelondonbluebird.wordpress.com/2010/06/29/a-night-in-albania/) but will say that this production is another success for our boy – a sort of Joseph in corduroy trousers, an Ivy League version, if you will. And Lee is so darn helpful, spending most of the Act I finale trying to tactfully help the leading lady, whose waldrobe malfunction meant her dress was not done up and therefore she ended showing the audience more than her equity card.
In a week, about 8,000 people see Legally Blonde. In eight days over the last week or so, half a million people have seen Take That, another quite astonishing bit of musical theatre that took place in a stadium so large that I immediately lost my sense of perspective and nearly had a giddy turn when I took my seat. With the exception of the Iraq War and /or the arrival of American’s first black President, five lads from the north west playing Wembley was more or less the event of the century. Ladies got their hair done for it. They had policemen on horseback for it. The entire event sold out in approximately 0.0001 seconds in March. You could practically hear Boyzone grating their teeth all the way from Dublin. Through my Jazz Buddy we had corporate seats, although the idea of corporate seats is nothing to do with the reality. If you want to see Robbie Williams in concert and you are a lady of the female variety, you want to be close enough to see him – or smell him – or lick his socks – or….oh sorry. You want to be in amidst the sweat and torrid fabulousness of the standing area near the stage. As Jazz Buddy observed, if the event you are seeing is more than 100 people away, you can’t really see it. So, you watch the big screen instead. And you sing along – and that’s the stuff. That’s what you’ve paid all that money for. It’s the tribal feeling of singing Never Forget with another 99,999 people who understand why you love it. It’s admiring the greeny-blue shimmering screens of thousands of i-phones directed to the stage. In stadium rock the audience see themselves in a different light, as the observers become the thing to be observed. The experience becomes a near-orgy of nostalgic fever. In India thousands of people go to the Ganges, in England, thousands of people went to Brent.
The strange thing about corporate seats, is you pay more to experience less of the event. You pay to not be close. You are heightened – whizzed off and up to the sides and – disastrously – further from the stage than you would have been in the old Wembley structure. Height gives you some advantage in that you have a better view of the crowds below you, but Take That were each as high as a fifth of my little finger. I am not sure they were even in the room. Mark Owen is three foot six inches tall. It doesn’t matter how many lightbulbs are flashing on his bizarre neo-Victorian suit, or how long he spends holding on to long notes, in the deluded hope that we will forget he is a squalid sex pest, further than 100 people back, it is all lost.
Which leaves me to the show itself – yes there was an Alice in Wonderland theme which this passionate Carroll-ite adored. Yes there was a series of explosions, fire, yellow confetti, white balloons, dancers dressed in black and white as human chess pieces executing complex dance routines in wonderful headresses. There was all of this, and yet only one main stage, and Stage B – an extension to the original stage, stretching out about 50 feet into the standing audience in the central area. In Wembley Stadium terms, 50 feet is about four inches. Why not take a leaf from Prince’s design at the fastidiously grim O2 four years ago? Why not have a stage constructed in the shape of a giant cross, that at least stretches out to some of the sides of the auditorium? Yes, it was pleasant to have Mr William’s gyrating on a strange metal plinth, shaped like one of those Terry’s Pyramint chocolates from the 1980s, but why have this plinth extend only fifteen feet out from the stage above people’s heads? Why not take another leaf out of the book from that aforementioned chap from Minneapolis, and have a flying contraption brought in that really makes the audience (all of them) feel involved? In 1988, Prince drove a purple convertible around an Arena in the Lovesexy tour. Simple – relatively cheap – a sort of funky, sexy pop Top Gear – yet remarkably effective. And that was 23 years ago, when Take That were 7 and should have been researching these things. Sloppy, I call it.
This was a show in Wembley Stadium that wasn’t for Wembley Stadium. And – here’s the thing – for the same price and with just a little more foresight and planning – it could have been. The metal robotic man who slowly stood up at the end of the show after a nearly orgasmic build-up seemed wasteful. Surely, after the initial focus on him he would do something – a barn dance perhaps? But he just stood – half in and half out of the Progress-themed structure. Most of the audience didn’t see anything. The show, like Mr Owen, needed to be 80% bigger than it was. Or at least that was the view from the Club Wembley section (although the champagne was very nice). There was also the astonishing mis-fire of getting the audience to sing the national anthem, as we were in the national stadium. I thought The That had lost the plot, and that all that post-alcoholic therapy had fried their cute little Cheshire brain cells. I don’t care what Take That think I should sing. I have, however, paid £95, and they should care what I think they should sing. That’s how it works. How thoughtful to put the words on the large screens, however, so that the monarchly-challenged of those amongst us could be reminded of the words. But what a woefully inappropriate piece of bunkum. The justification for this was that we were in the national stadium. But the national anthem is only sung at national events when a national team or representation competes. And as much as Barlow and co would like to Rule the World and have their well-coiffeured heads on coins and stamps, they are not our national representatives or kings or emperors. Yet. A public display of Take That songs was what I signed up for. I am not entirely sure I signed up for Robbie Williams’s shouts of “I’ve never felt more fucking patriotic than I do tonight! Be English! Be English! Be strong!” Any more jingoistic lunacy from him and we would have been goosestepping out of there. Plus the Queen wasn’t in the room (Was she?! Was she? Bopping to Relight One’s Fire at the back?) so what’s the farking point? I sung it at Ascot coz the old dear was going past in some knackered out old carriage or other getting rained on after she’d gone to the trouble of wearing a yellow hat. But our feelings about the monarchy, like our feelings about politics and sex and faith, are private. And if those feelings are about having sex with the monarchy then – please – I beg you – keep it private. I have said it before, and I shall say it again – I’ll stand up when the national anthem’s Jerusalem and not a moment before. Anthems should be about this ‘ere green and pleasant baby of a country, not about a quite nice German person in a hat. Oh, and I could have done without the lady next to me loudly labeling my friend and I “LOSERS!” when we didn’t stand up to Mark Owen’s command with the anthem either. Being called a loser was ironic, considering Mark Owen is the one dressed like an 1840s bell hop with a warbly voice and a haircut like a hamster, I thought, but you can’t explain that to people when they’re fizzing with royal fervour.
The verdict was I enjoyed singing along to the old Take That hits in a room full of hysterical women, but the band themselves were almost an accessory. The atmosphere was truly splendid, because of the audience. In a way, if a massive sound system had been placed in the centre of the stage and just played out the greatest Take That hits it would have been an identical experience. From the vantage point then of Wembley Park station, when we were herded out along with 99,999 other women, all of whom stopped to pet the pretty Metropolitan Police horses, with dirty feet from dancing, and feeling hot, sweaty, dirty and thirsty, the idea of going to the theatre with several hundred other people to see Lee Mead singing and watching dancing and cute dogs seemed wistfully innocent and desirable. I loved Legally Blonde when I saw it – I loved the score, I loved the acting, I loved the show. But as for Take That, I don’t know. I’ll tell you when I’ve seen them.
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