Review – Hugh Laurie – Hammersmith Apollo

A period structure, with a pinkish dome and a peculiarly mid century look about it.  Well, that’s Hugh Laurie for you, but what about the Hammersmith Apollo?  I first went there in 1991 when it was yet to be rebranded by Labatts and was still known as the Hammersmith Odeon, even though a film hadn’t played there for many years. I sat three rows from the back and watched Lou Reed, who was so dull I slept through the last hour.   But it is an extraordinary building, with a ceiling in the auditorium that looks like an Art Deco dream of pink blancmange, rippling up and up and adding some delicacy to the acoustics.  Large, conical drop chandelier lights dazzle from either side of the stalls, giving the auditorium the illusion that its wearing earrings.  There is, however a odd, murky episode in Hammersmith’s past , the key scenes of which occurred here, in the glamourous, rose-carpeted confines of the Hammersmith Odeon, which to locals must have been like an exquisite slice of Hollywood magically transported to West 6.

During the last autumn of the Second World War, a dancer and Hammersmith resident named Betty Jones met a US private called Karl Hulten in a cafe in Hampstead.  Both were fantastists who instantly pretended to the other they were someone else.  Betty Jones pretended to be a glamourous rising British film star called Georgina Grayson, whilst Private Hulten pretended to be Lieutenant Ricky Allen of the US Army, and a criminal with links to Al Capone.  She lived in King Street, Hammersmith, and met Hulten outside this Odeon, where she would indulge her passion for exciting film noirs, often viewed with her landlady, Mrs Evans.  In six days in October 1944, Hulten and Jones (both still successfully tricking the other into believing they were far glamorous people) went on a crime spree in Hammersmith.   In his (stolen) army truck they knocked over and robbed a woman on a bicycle, picked up a hitchhiker who they then attempted to murder and threw into the Thames (she survived) and finally after a night of dancing at the Palais, hailed a cab and shot and killed the driver, George Heath, robbing him of a silver cigarette lighter and £8.  The case was sensational and became known as The Cleft Chin Murder.  None of their crimes appear to have had any motive, except the thrill of the crime and so tragic and pathetic seemed the Jones / Hulten case (not least because of their desire for each to see the other as a milk bar version of a glamourous hoodlum and his daring gun-toting “broad”) that George Orwell focused on them in his essay “The Decline of the English Murder”.   Murder – ain’t what it used to be, said Orwell.  These couple of loons lacked the finesse and accomplishment of the proper murder,  appearing so stupid as to drive about in the murdered man’s car for a day or two, as if begging the police to take them in.  They were a putrid, sad, ration coupon, Turnham Green kind of Bonnie & Clyde.   Karl Hulten remains the only US serviceman to be tried and hanged by the British in World War II.

Something of the wartime austerity lingers about the inside of the Hammersmith Apollo.  Somewhere beyond the shard of light reflecting from a plastic beaker filled to the brim with Merlot, you can sense and taste the escape this building must have represented to 18 year old Betty Jones during the last drab days of the war. The period lighting, the pre-war tiles of the ladies loo, the luxurious sense of space,  the leather banquette that draws a large seating circle on the Dress Circle level of the building – and of course the auditorium.  This is a gem, and Hugh Laurie, we know is not a dancer called Betty, nor is he intent on coming to Hammersmith and pretending to be a Chicago gangster before going on an ill-planned killing spree.  What he is intent on doing is bringing something else of America in – the Copper Bottom Band, which he fronts whilst playing the piano and singing the blues for a vastly entertaining 90 minute set.  His set was littered with quips and chats to make the audience laugh, but Laurie seems plagued by the idea that he really shouldn’t be doing what he is doing.  “An actor.  What am I doing?  What am I doing?”  he asked us during the opening section.  “I feel like a Saudi Arabian playboy given keys to a Ferrari that he doesn’t know how to drive,”  he muttered, before proving that although he might not be top drawer at driving Ferraris he certainly knows his way around the piano.

Laurie understands both his own strengths and his own limitations, the understanding of both of which being invaluable.    He knows the Copper Bottom Band are the stars, and not him, and spent as much time as he could championing them, kicking us all off with a “Come On Baby Let The Good Times Roll” singalong.    It was clear that this band were his backbone or, as Laurie preferred to call him “my trousers”.  They are a remarkable cluster of musicians that soon had the place clapping along, although it must be hugely depressing playing raucous blues music to an audience sitting down.  It wasn’t until the end that Hammersmith stood up.  According to Laurie, blues music is nothing short of “America’s gift to the world”, although he did spend some time discussing whether his Englishness (perhaps he also meant his class) acted as being preventative in accessing blues, not in any real terms, but in the public eye.

Half way through we got a particularly delicious, and practially a cappello version of “Up A Lazy River” and were also treated to a guest appearance from Chris Barber, amongst the Bessie Smith songs and the Buddy Bolden covers.  At this stage, women of a certain age, blissfully entranced by Laurie in “House” began throwing red roses onto the stage at him.  Cue humble English, attractive, cringeing.

In accenting his Englishness, Laurie also accents his lack of professional qualifications as a musician : “I can’t join in musical jokes.  I have no musical training”.  But I thought he had had some classical piano training as a child, and why should he, a more than competent musician, single himself out in this way?  Perhaps he is trying to deflect criticism, but I do not see that criticism coming to him.  Hugh Laurie and The Copper Bottom Band are a successful outfit because of the juxtaposition of Hugh’s Englishness against the Southern American sound and style of the band, not despite it, and this was a splendid evening.   They – and he – were brilliant. I don’t think that there is any reason for Laurie to feel he needs to continue the self-effacing act.  He should allow the way he sings and plans to stand alone.  Because it more than did on Friday night, even with the echoes of Hammersmith murderesses standing in the historical wings of this odd venue.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so our next blog will be on Thursday July 4th.  Thank you!

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Review – Barbra Streisand – O2 Arena

Babs

Somewhere, in an exclusive corner of Malibu sat a 71 year old, Donna Karan-draped pensioner,  who decided to give it another small whirl.  So here was Barbra Streisand in London for two nights as part of her mini-tour or, as she joked on stage, her micro-tour, which took in only 7 European locations. On Monday night, en route to the O2, I had some trepidation about my first live encounter with the World of Barbra.  Sometimes I imagine the World of Barbra and what it is. Usually, I settle on the image of a Space Oddity, another planet screeching around the solar system with different gravity laws to our own, a solar mishmash of expert tailoring, shuddering vibrato and French manicure, a place where the walls are different and the words are different and the rooms are colour co-ordinated to match the sweet wrappers.  The stature of her stardom, and the occasional swirling stories of perfectionism, professional control and goldfish in her orchard pond chosen only because their colour matches the tiles in the nearby steam room etc, are in danger of obliterating Barbra the artist.  For reasons that are not clear, people are more interested in gawping at the fish-matching-room-tiles and colour co-ordinated sweets in bowls than they are in the output of an extraordinary star with half a century of singing behind her.   Barbra World is cultivated solely by Barbra, whose tight band of promoters and marketers control her perception in the public eye.  If she was a man they’d call her approach one of dedicated professionalism, but they don’t.  She’s a woman, so they call her modus operandi insane, obsessive and decide she must be a bitch because of it.  Barbra doesn’t give a shit, of course, because she’s so damn Barbra, but what is this constructed image of her and what does she do with it, when presenting only her 94th public performance in 50 years?

The O2 arena is a rather unpleasant place, glued onto the fag end of the Jubilee Line in mawkish, industrial wasteland.  Like Dulwich, it doesn’t matter where you start out from, it will always take you an hour and a half to get there.  Once inside, its a lot like the interior of the Harlequin Centre in Watford; Pizza Expresses jostling for trade amidst Wahacas and sushi bars, the air tremulent with the stench of fried meat and money, the sweeping swoosh of the moving escalators clotted with people who have, in this instance, paid £470 for their peek into Barbara World, toilets that reek with industrial fluid and a host of middle aged people blinking in a distressed way at the toilet signs.  My own feelings about Barbra are pretty deep-rooted but veer off drastically after about 1975.  I grew up watching and absolutely delighting in Funny Girl and What’s Up Doc?  She was, and remains, an inspiration and a beacon of hope for Jewish girls everywhere.  I didn’t encounter the downright perplexing The Way We Were until I was 21 and ended up watching it in my Finsbury Park kitchen one winter night, berating Babs for her lack of get-up-get-over-it-and-move-on sentiment when Robert Redford dumps her.  I was disappointed in this.  Babs is a feisty little number, Babs has steel and molten fluid running through her Brooklyn veins, where other people have doubt and tears, but here she was, fumbling over a 1940s telephone, a mass of scarlet nail extensions and towelling dressing gown, begging that the warty Redford come over and sit with her until she falls asleep.  Yentl I sacrificed, as my brother and I were given the choice of going to see that or Herbie Goes Bananas instead, and obviously opted for Herbie.  I love Barbra Streisand, even for the maddening oddness of The Mirror Has Two Faces.  But I had no idea what to expect.  Had Barbra’s mojo been subverted and destroyed by Barbra World?  I was already disappointed by reviews referring to the entrances on stage of both her sister and her son and, at one stage, her dead mother.  Barbra is now 71 years old, and has spent 50 of those 71 years as a star.  Exactly how much humanity was it reasonable to expect when you take a singer out of Brooklyn and let her live in isolated fame and grandeur for the next 50 years?

Mostly, I feared a plethora of sparkly, boxy jackets, an endless “Woman in Love / Enough is Enough” medley with Barbra gurning at the helm, like someone on a never-ending hen night in Totteridge, all botox and post-menopausal spiritualism.  I worried about the jumpsuit years and the frightening perm.  I wasn’t sure about her judgement, and I, regretfully, prepared myself to be underwhelmed.  But what happened was this:  Barbra sang for nearly three hours, following a rousing medley from Funny Girl.  She emerged, sylph-like, from under the ground in SE10,  with a sleek helmet of milky-coffee coloured hair and wearing a natty black trouser suit.   She was accompanied by a 60 piece orchestra and, in the World of Barbra, this is not extraordinary.  Her arrival was preceded by two large screens on either side of the stage presenting a video montage of the life of Barbra from gap-toothed cross eyed child to uber-superstar.  This, in the World of Barbara, is not extraordinary.  What is extraordinary in the World of Barbra, is Barbra.  The interpretation of every lyric was faultless, and it was the truth of her interpretation of the lyric that went a long way to creating an unmistakeable air of intimacy between her and another 26,000 people in this aircraft hanger type space.  I assumed this would be impossible in the O2.  But she did it.  The true brilliance of Barbra lies in her vocal rawness – she is, of course, largely untrained – and her intuitive phrasing.  This is the mark of a true artist : she sings her songs and not only addresses the sentiment of them directly, but seems to be singing to each individual directly.  I saw Sinatra sing in his 70s and he seemed to have lost the ability to do this.  Streisand has not.  She is as loyal to the lyric as ever, and as technically adept at drawing out an emotional response from the audience as ever.  When she arrived on stage, she launched directly into “On A Clear Day” and it was remarkable.  It was as if someone had tapped you on the shoulder and said, “Watch that : there’s someone who knows precisely how to do this.”

We were taken most of the way through the back catalogue, the first half featuring a tribute to the songs of her friends Alan & Marilyn Bergman (“Nice & Easy” etc), Rodgers & Hart (A vulnerable sounding “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered”, where all the molten steel of Babs got melted down to excitement and the thrill of newfound love) and a duet with her sister, Roslyn, who perhaps is not gifted with Barbra’s true vocal talent.  Roslyn entertained us a bit more whilst Babs went off and got changed into another black dress showing a bit of leg and returned for “The Way We Were”, “Some People”, “That Face”, and brought the arena to a standstill with “Don’t Rain on My Parade”.  This was only the first half.  The second half, which started with another video segment of Funny Girl featuring an alarmingly made up Omar Sharif, showed Barbra in a scarlet dress and cape, with which she stalked the stage during her feature section on trumpeter Chris Botti (a massive error of monumental proportions) and a slightly Freudian duet with her awkward-looking son, Jason, for “How Deep Is The Ocean?”  during which they pledged their love to each other in a decidedly odd way.  The second half lost a little structure, and the Leonard Bernstein song at the end advocating ecological awareness using a 100 strong local London choir felt tagged on the end and, surprisingly, was not at all entertaining.  Alas, I can forgive Barbra this.

Having witnessed the technique of her performance, I think that Barbra Streisand is our greatest living interpreter of popular song.  The voice has mellowed and become richer with age and lost none of its power or control.   In the toilet queue at half time, I spoke to three ladies, all of which had been to see her 19 years before, all of which said her voice had got better since then.  “She hasn’t lost it, has she?”  said a permed lady in her sixties, as we both stood, legs crossed for the industrial-smelling O2 arena toilet.   At the risk of sounding crass, there was some dynamic aspect of her performance which was a little bit like magic.  Certainly, there was a sense that this was a display of a dying art, an indefatigable dedication to the song, rather than the singer.  And that’s the most extraordinary thing – it does not seem unfair to guess over the years that Streisand is a narcissist.  The gurning rumour mill from filmmaking anecdotes of her obsession with her “right side”, the onslaught of stories relating to details of her cosmetic demands and her apparent preoccupation with the projection of her type of image.  But when she starts to sing a song, she does this strange, shoulder shrug and humming thing,as if orientating herself, and then projects herself into the melody.  At this moment, she sort of subsumes  into it and although the eerily long fingers are still there, the even longer nails are still there, the slightly boss-eyed glance is still there, the superstar isn’t.  She sort of disappears, distilling herself down until the singer becomes the song.   And you realise that she doesn’t need to think about her “right side” or her hair, or the Donna Karan tailoring.  She never did.  All she needs to do is stand there and sing.  And I for one feel lucky I saw her do it.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so we hope to see you again on 20th June.  Thank you!