Curzon Cruising & West End Wendy

Do not worry readers, this is not a tale of sharking for sexual activity in lugubrious Mayfair.  Curzon Street is not just the home of mad sexual deviants, you know, nor just the grand, snooty home of Vanity Fair’s Rebecca Crawley.  It is also the home of our smartest and most cosmopolitan range of independent cinemas.  On Monday, filling the gap between work and going out to forget about work, I went to the Curzon Mayfair.  It’s an odd place.  The door handles are constructed of  imitation marble like some 1970s nightmare, with “LADIES” and “GENTLEMEN” in italicised, capital script written vertically along the massive handles.  It is the only place in the last five years where, on buying a ticket, you are asked to sign for your card transaction rather than key in the usual pin.  It’s a Euro-friendly time-slip.  In the main lobby of the Curzon Mayfair you could be in Rotterdam. Or Anywhere.  Liverpool or Rome. 

After sitting in the plush seats for two hours, with sleek adverts for high end products bleating out at you (“Our feature film starts in five minutes!  Still time to buy a Berry Bros & Rudd fine wine before the presentation…”) and being repeatedly told there is a iced Madagascan vanilla yoghurt concoction with organic everything called YooMoo in the foyer, it is easy to believe that you aren’t in London at all, but are instead in some European city of bizarre monied decadence, like Geneva.  The sense of geographical discombobulation was worsened by the fact that the film I saw was set in Paris in three time zones.  As I left the Curzon, leaving behind the thick as velvet carpets and the sense of cocooned comfort the cinema promotes, I walked back into Shepherds Market.  I was surrounded, for some reason, by five people all speaking French.  Shepherds Market is – like Soho – one of the very few areas of London that feel terribly Parisian. I wasn’t – for that moment – in London atall.  I had slipped into an imaginative hyper reality of pavement cafes and Romance languages that could place me anywhere in the continent. 

Of course, shortly I was in Ronnie Scotts grappling with a fatty rib eye steak alongside a diner complaining about her cold shallots, so it wasn’t long before I was reminded of the fact that I was in London.  After a night in the next day, Tuesday, I realised I’d had enough of this “night in” bollocks, frankly, and went out again, this time to see Crazy For You, the show I saw in repertory at the Open Air Theatre and which has now transferred to a particularly ornate and beautiful theatre at the wrong end of the Strand, The Novello.  Those of you who know me know that I find fortitude from shows featuring pink gingham, backflips and shuffle hop steps, but I had reservations about this transfer.  The kind of alchemy that must be in place to render a show successful is a delicately balanced combination of timing, casting, atmosphere and economic optimism.  It’s a brave (or foolhardy) investor who backs a show at the wrong end of the Strand at the wrong end of an economic boom but the preview performance of Crazy For You was oddly brilliant. 

In the Open Air Theatre, the set looked too anachronistic – 1930s Broadway theatre names in small white rectangles made by white light bulbs on a stage where the background is trees and where the musical cues are underlined by a wallop and a whoop from a creature in the nearby zoo.    It also seemed to grapple and grasp for space on what is not only a small stage at the Open Air Theatre, but a shallow one as well.  The Novello, I thought, wasn’t big enough.  It was going to be wrong on all kinds of counts.  Well, I was proved wrong  – the theatre, strangely, seems to suit the set much better than the stage it was originally designed for over in the Regents Park.  The actors aren’t forced to do battle with an over-zealous wind or gusts of rain.  The band, however, seemed to forget there was a roof on, had their amplification racked up to the max, and seemed to drown out half of the lyrics.  I could see the neck veins straining in the ingenue who was trying to make herself heard.   But this technical problem was my only criticism and one that I imagine this week’s preview performances will swiftly iron out.   The actors looked shattered when I first saw this production in August.  Now, settled into their roles and pleased as punch with the West End transfer, the cast has discovered the exuberance which is intrinsically vital to the show’s nature, and have injected the evening with a jolt of shimmy and glitter.  The Greek chorus (or cameos, rather than chorus really, although I’m not sure if you can have a Greek cameo) was particularly effective as Bobby Childs’ conscience, dreamscape and interpreter of plot.  There isn’t a dramatic scene I can think of that can’t be improved by ladies arriving in feather headresses and silver shoes.

The bar was – as always in the West End – woefully understaffed and woefully overpriced, I was stuck behind a large Russian woman in scarlet crepe du chine and an immoveable hair-do who manoeuvred her way into the bar area to order about seven Courvoisiers with ice.  There was a propensity of Europeans in the audience of course, a mark of how the consistently international patrons of West End musicals have changed in the last 30 years.    In the 1980s it was the Japanese and American market, bristling down the Haymarket in large shoulder pads rocking up to The Phantom of the Opera.  Today it’s the new European rich, who are like the Old European rich but without the breeding and snobbery.  The audience are less comprised of the Far East today and more compromised of the near European East; and thank god they are.  Not only are they having a fine old time, but as domestic markets struggle to keep theatres full, to keep actors in work and to keep producers in made to measure suits, the West End is surviving on a constant drip feed of cash injections from patrons East of Berlin.   No one else seems to have the money to spend £60 on a theatre ticket.   I certainly couldn’t have afforded to spend £60 on mine, so had to trawl the internet like a ticket whore, sharking for 2-for-1 deals to grab my piece of vaudeville.

The composer and lyricist of Crazy For You, George & Ira Gershwin, were Russians too, whose parents emigrated from St Petersburg to New York in around 1895, thereby unknowingly exposing their two sons to the Eastern Seaboard’s unique combination of European and American musical fusion and a hungry young Tin Pan Alley in a hungry young country.  And the rest as they say, is serendipitous American musical theatre history.  I suppose precious little has changed in 100 years.  This quintessentially American show is, much like living a cultural life in London today, a European experience.   A hundred years ago, as today, the vibrancy of our cultural life was vitally dependent on money and youth and vigour and hunger coming to the UK from overseas.  As soon as I thought of London’s cultural world as not being in England, I realised that, of course, none of it ever has been.   The show may have rhythm, may have music, may have its girl and its daisies in green pastures, but eighty years after it was written it seems that it still needs its Russians. 

Please return to the London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

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