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My Fair Lady – London Coliseum

My Fair Lady - London Coliseum (by Marc Brenner)

Henry Higgins is a problem. The question facing the creative team behind the London transfer of Bartlett’s Sher’s production of My Fair Lady, which opens at the London Coliseum this week, is what do you do about a lead character whose attitudes to women, to the sacred preservation of language and to poverty are at best dismissive and at worst, openly offensive? One of the greatest stage and screen musicals of all time, the comic extremes of Higgins views, aired frequently throughout the story, are easy to dismiss as being of their time and, even in the context of the narrative, shown to be of step with others. But a contemporary production of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s story cannot avoid the conclusion than Higgins is the very epitome of a toxic bachelor and Sher’s team must decide whether he should be rewarded for it.

Last year, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre faced a similar dilemma with its portrayal of Billy Bigelow in Carousel who, in the original score and romanticised Hollywood movie, is able to gain entry to heaven despite repeat acts of domestic abuse. Not so in Timothy Sheader’s production and Billy was given a slightly different kind of ending. Higgins is even more overt in his disdain for other people, and the snobbish superiority of his manner to Eliza – that he would treat a Duchess the same as a flower girl – may give him plenty of humorous lines, but in this entirely faithful adaptation, Sher’s production asks whether Higgins really learns anything about himself in the course of his encounter with Eliza Doolittle and whether his attachment to her is anything more than a personal indulgence.

It has been more than two decades since My Fair Lady was last seen in London in a fateful production that paired Martine McCutcheon with Jonathan Pryce, and the show itself in many ways is exactly the same as it was in 2001 and in 1956. Purists will be delighted that Sher’s production is true to Lerner’s lyrics and book while a full orchestra fills the Coliseum with Loewe’s unparalleled score. From Wouldn’t It Be Lovely to I’m Getting Married in the Morning, I Could Have Danced All Night to On the Street Where you Live, visually and musically, Sher’s production is entirely traditional, retaining the same period setting, full Edwardian costumes and every recognisable line.

The surprise here is in creating a show that is in look, feel and style exactly the My Fair Lady we all know, even if only from the indelible 1964 film, and without changing a single word, making the audience think again about the characters and their behaviour to one another. This is a story that pivots on the choice and pronunciation of language so hearing again Higgins’s repeated use of ‘baggage’, ‘guttersnipe’ and ‘squashed cabbage leaf’ feel uncomfortably different in 2022. This Cinderella story of a young woman’s transformation from ugly duckling to swan becomes mired in Higgins’s problematic insistence that Eliza has no feelings of note, that she has no right to live if she ‘utters such depressing and disgusting sounds’ and that credit for her triumphant appearance at the Embassy Ball is his alone.

Sher presents Higgins exactly as he is, a man who believes women are vague, eager to be married and objects to be dispatched, that they are ‘exasperating, irritating, vacillating, calculating, agitating, maddening and infuriating hags’ and that men are intellectually and culturally superior. None of this is softened or altered, and although he is a character that audiences have only ever been asked to take semi-seriously in his rants – particularly in Rex Harrison’s charismatic performance – and who is deeply affected by the presence of Eliza in his life, he still curses her intention and scoffs at her liberty until almost the last moment in I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face while still wanting her around to continue to support his lifestyle, locating his slippers and liaising with the housekeeper on his breakfast choices.

What you see in this production is, then, in some ways what we always see, a man of his time and an eager bachelor. Yet, a barely perceptible shift has occurred where inclusion, individuality and class are no longer tightly controlled by white Oxbridge-educated men who determine what is considered an ‘acceptable’ speech pattern and dialect, or the eugenicist undertones that imply one life is more worthy than another. In a subtly cast contemporary light, Higgins’s attitudes are far more damaging and deplorable than their surface comedy suggests. And while Eliza expresses precisely the same sentiment that Willy Russell’s Rita would later experience, that education leaves her in a no man’s land between one class and another, the swan Higgins has created is far less content or at ease with herself than the young flower girl he met in the Covent Garden piazza.

So is Higgins a villain? Well not quite. Although selfish and driven by a Leopold and Loeb feeling of superiority over his fellow men, his motives are reasonably pure and he genuinely believes that what he offers Eliza will improve her life and give her the kind of choices she lacks in her original state. That she feels far more caged after her transformation is an unforeseen outcome of their experiment and his growing feeling for her is testament to a respect that grows between them. Higgins is capable of some change, moving towards a more generous acceptance of the capacity for growth in others than he previously possessed. However, like Billy Bigelow, does Higgins learn or do enough to earn a happy ending? In 1964, George Cukor and Hollywood clearly thought so, in 2022 that is not so clear and in creating a final ending for Eliza and Higgins that weighs-up the balance of morality across the three hours of performance, Sher consults George Bernard Shaw’s original script for Pygmalion.

So while Higgins becomes more ambiguous, Eliza is given greater clarity, with an enlarged spirit of independence and personality that give her far greater agency. When she arrives at Higgins’s door, Eliza is already a woman who has financially supported herself since her father abandoned her years before, who moves without fear around the late night streets of London and is confident in herself. Unafraid to ask for what she wants or to fight back when being maltreated, her quest for self-improvement is presented as a determination to take control of her future and a reflection of the respect with which she wants to be treated. Language, for her, is the tool for that but Eliza retains her savvy natural instincts. It is a shame that Sharif Afifi’s Freddy is played as a buffoon, rather than a credible suitor, throwing away both Lerner and Loewe’s sublime On the Street Where You Live but also the realistic prospect of marriage for Eliza, no one in this production could believe for a second that such a shrewd woman would consider this Freddy as a realistic option.

And while he may not think so, the audience is encouraged to see her as Higgins’s equal from the first, a woman who disregards social convention and the expectation of others as highly as her tutor prizes them. She scowls and scorns him repeatedly during their lessons, standing up to his bullying and refusing to broken by either his methods or his overbearing nature. The more he treats her as a semi-invisible living doll (as Mrs Higgins notes), the more unyielding Eliza becomes and the more determined to succeed, as much to spite him as to work towards her floristry shop aspiration. In Sher’s production, we note that while Eliza’s speech pattern may change, she holds on to a connection to the woman she was six months before, retaining the better part of her courage and self-sufficiency that allows her to face a different kind of future – far more bravely than Higgins does in fact. That instinctual ability to find her own way and to make a final choice that will be of most benefit to herself is an indication of her essential resilience and her intellect, underpinning the notion that the only person who transforms Eliza is Eliza herself.

Amara Okereke is outstanding as Eliza with a vocal that rivals Marnie Nixon. While it would be so easy to play her like Audrey Hepburn, Okereke finds entirely her own beat, exploring Eliza’s multifaceted personality while using both songs and scenes to create her own, distinct version of the character. Her cockney accent is authentically rooted in South London while her transformed voice retains a nicely false note of refinement, slightly over-pronounced, that makes Zoltan Karpathy’s suspicions of her origin more credible. But Okereke’s biggest achievement is to make Eliza feel real, a women plagued by self-doubt and aspiration in equal part, entirely sympathetic, scrappy and determined to forge her own path, and while she accepts help from Higgins, she never needs him or allows herself to rely on him.

Reprising his Lincoln Centre performance, Harry Hadden-Paton is bullish, self-satisfied and commanding as Higgins, a man unused to being challenged, particularly by women who, when he gives them a second thought, expects others to bow to his superior mind and reasoning. Hadden-Paton finds tones of humility in there somewhere, a spark of feeling that offers up the possibility of redemption and prevents Higgins from becoming too flat while delivering the songs with vigour and certainly singing them unlike Rex Harrison. Higgins, of course, never sees himself as a bad man and that is the greatness in Hadden-Patton’s performance, Higgins doesn’t purposefully offer himself up to be judged, that rests entirely with the viewer.

To do all of this within the chocolate box tradition of My Fair Lady is fascinating and Sher’s production applies many of the same staging techniques that his version of To Kill a Mockingbird is using only a few streets away. Michael Yeargen’s set is a series of watercolour flats that drop or are consciously wheeled into place to suggest the façade of Covent Garden, railings and the market scenes while some moveable lampposts and disconnected door frames stand in for Wimpole Street. Broadway often romanticises the classic film musicals and draws on the Technicolor studio production style as its theme – see also An American in Paris. The concept here is semi-fantastical, a heightened version of a London that never existed in which real characters and emotions take place in front of painted scenes visibly wheeled around in choreographed patterns by the actors in a sort of Brechtian escapism.

Like Atticus Finch’s house, Yeargen’s design for Higgins’s home is a block set that both moves in from the back of stage and has the capacity to rotate, giving a multi-room view of his Victorian townhouse that includes the Study / Library with spiral staircase and the hallway where Eliza dreams of Higgins’s death at the hand of the King. Catherine Zuber echoes Cecil Beaton in the costume design, creating a homage to his vision particularly for the stylish Ascot sequence, Eliza’s beautiful ballgown and even nodding to the lines and shape of her leaving Wimpole Street outfit, although Zuber exchanges the dour peach for a hot pink. There are plenty of choices here that pay court to the very specific look that My Fair Lady has and its audience might expect while also introducing some bolder tones that stand out in a large auditorium.

Yet, the size of the space does have its downsides and the pre-sized set blocks and scenarios occasionally looks a little swamped in the Coliseum. With a relatively small ensemble cast, this is most noticeable in the two numbers that really ought to fill the stage. The Ascot scene with only two lines of well dressed aristocrats looks very sparse at first with almost no set to offset the large gap at the back of the stage – not even some silhouetted horses projected across the back wall. A similar issue afflicts the Embassy Ball where only a dozen couples stand to one side in what should be a crowded society event full of whispers and intrigue. Covid safety and budget aside, what should be set piece moments feel a little underpowered compared to the dense decoration of the Higgins residence.

Part of this is a lack of dance incorporated into this interpretation on a sizeable stage made for ballet and opera, which last year was filled to capacity by teenage dance fanatics in Hairspray. My Fair Lady on stage actually has very limited full ensemble choreography until late in the second half when Alfred sings I’m Getting Married in the Morning, and here Sher’s production comes alive with a spectacular performance from Stephen K. Amos, departing from the Stanley Holloway take, to create a colourful pub-based extravaganza filled with can-can dancers, working men and plenty of table-hopping joy. In a sequence that lasts several joyous minutes, Trude Rittmann’s choreography is multi-tonal as Alfred celebrates and mourns his last night of freedom, lighting up the show with an energy slightly lacking from those other big ensemble pieces.

If you want to see a My Fair Lady that feels like a scene for scene remake of the film, then this production will not disappoint, but equally for anyone looking for a more contemporary resonance beneath the surface, then that is certainly here as well. Sher’s re-examination of the show’s central relationship and shifts in the balance of power are enlightening, proving the modern musical doesn’t have to be gritty or necessarily stripped-back to find new meaning.

My Fair Lady is at the London Coliseum until 27 August with tickets from £20, followed by a UK and Ireland tour. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Hairspray – London Coliseum

Hairspray - London Coliseum

In January 2020, three Tracy Turnblads gathered at the BFI for a special screening of John Waters cult 1980s dance musical movie Hairspray. On the panel were Leanne Jones, the UK’s first stage Tracy when the full-blown song and dance version of Hairspray arrived in London in 2007, Lizzie Bea eagerly anticipating her own stage debut in April 2020 in the first major revival and the very first Tracy Turnblad, Ricki Lake. It was a very special event, one that cemented the enduring appeal of a feel good show dedicated to body positivity and racial integration in which a 60s schoolgirl dances her way to social revolution. A dance film that became a stage musical that became a musical film, Hairspray’s enduring legacy, echoed by three decades of Tracys, is a message for our reviving theatres – ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat.’

It is fourth time lucky for Jack O’Brien’s much delayed revival at the London Coliseum originally scheduled for April 2020, soon after debutante Bea’s promotional appearance at the BFI. But April became September, which became April 2021 and eventually June, where after a full week of performances to a reduced capacity audience of 1000, the show officially opens to the press later this week. And it is an absolute treat. The production may have been battered by the elements in the last 14 months, but this Hairspray is holding firm.

And there are few better shows to welcome fully-staged musicals back to life. It may be set in a cartoonish version of the past, filled with larger-than-life characters bouncing between chirpy ditties, but Hairspray’s story echoes the duet sung by Tracy’s parents; it is ‘timeless to me’. Its underlying social messaging about body image, teenage bullying and feeling like an outsider is ever-relevant, while the characters’ campaign to end segregation on a television dance show through protest and even imprisonment, is as pertinent as ever. And after a long and tiring period of uncertainty, its determination that a changed future is coming is the sliver of hope that audiences want to believe in.

The London Coliseum is an enormous auditorium that in recent years has housed starry summer revivals of Sunset Boulevard and Chess, so O’Brien’s production feels quite at home in a venue that did much to support the continuation and development of musical theatre during the pandemic. Several digital concerts were filmed here and streamed online, while a revival of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change and the premiere of new musical After You were presented against the ornate backdrop of the theatre. The dates may have changed many times, but this production of Hairspray remained at the forefront of the Coliseum’s reopening plans.

Staging Hairspray

O’Brien and set designer David Rockwell have employed a little ingenuity in limiting the vastness of this stage and utilising their small cast of six principals, a handful of secondary roles and around 20 ensemble members to fill out the dance numbers. Often used for ballet, the relative intimacy of Tracy’s Baltimore home could easily have been lost on the Coliseum stage, but Rockwell creates a sizeable frame that contains the action within a smaller central television-shaped box that valuably reduces the width of the playing space by about a third to create an illusion of fullness that works very effectively. It gives the show a useful balance between the big, energetic numbers that fill the stage with bright colours, people and activity, and the smaller relationship-based songs that showcase the growing emotional connections between individuals which add heart to the political and entertaining elements of the musical.

Rockwell leans into the 60s aesthetic to create a deceptive flatness in the set that mimics animation from the era with houses in particular given tapered dimensions to create the illusion of height and scale. It is deliberately unreal to reflect the different kinds of bubble that the characters live in, where self-realisation is their path to enlightenment. Small islands are wheeled onstage to change location, moving between the streets of Tracy’s beloved city which whiz by in Good Morning Baltimore or the furnished illustrative platform containing a television set and ironing board to represent the Turnblad’s home, there is a simplicity to the set design and construction that creates fluidity.

Larger venues such as Corny Collins’s television studio and Maybelle’s record shop as core dance locations use far more of the floorspace with podiums containing their presenters’ DJ booths, hanging signs and freestanding doors doing just enough to create the illusion of place as Tracy and her friends go beyond the boundaries of their usual locations. Rockwell compensates for the minimal staging of the love songs with additional activity including silhouetted jailbird dancers seen through the backdrop for the prison in a nod to Chicago as Tracy and Link perform Without Love, later joined by Penny and Seaweed.

But Hairspray is a show that is ultimately about spectacle and O’Brien delivers some of the major set pieces with flair. William Ivey Long’s costumes and Paul Huntley’s wigs mirror the aesthetic that Rockwell has created in the set, drawing on the clash between traditional 50s shapes and the swirling patterns and extravagant trimming of the show’s 1962 setting. The transformation of Edna from drab housewife and laundress in shapeless dress and lank hair to glamorous ‘momager’ is a key moment, one which Long and Huntley manage with panache during Welcome to the 60s, and while Tracy’s own sartorial development is more subtle, her new found celebrity and romantic awakening are reflected in the clothing and wig choices.

Costume becomes a shorthand for characterisation in much of the show, just as it was in Waters’s original movie, and in this slimmed-down staging, costume is a visual tool to create status, personality, confidence and emotional depth. From Velma’s fitted fish-tale suit in vivid yellow, matched to Amber’s girl next door dresses in a similar hue, to Link’s drainpipe trousers and slicked hair, the PE kits in the sport scene, Wilbur’s dogtooth-patterned jacket and Maybelle’s luxurious fabrics, Long’s costumes sit neatly within the history of these characters in performance while reflecting the social tension between tradition and change, as well as the various sides of Baltimore life that reflect distinctions made in the show based on class, race and physical shape.

Choreography and Performance

By including Waters film in their movie musicals season, the BFI made the case for Hairspray to be viewed as a dance musical and its stage choreography is an important point of connection with the original non-singing film which uses the group routines and moves of the 1960s as its base. This revival retains Jerry Mitchell’s original stage choreography which does the same, drawing the distinction between the ‘cleaner’ moves performed by the ‘Nicest Kids in Town’ on the Corny Collins show dancing the ‘bird’ and the ‘mashed-potato’, and those evolving from Tracy’s response to music as she explores the more sensual rhythms of blues and soul with Seaweed and Maybelle which infuse the mainstream as the story unfolds.

With major musicals and new work largely limited to concert versions for many months, the opportunity to experience a full West End dance musical performance have been limited, so Hairspray is one of the first shows to stage big full company numbers on this scale for some time and it has a galvanising effect on the audience. The controlled complexity of the Hop scene in which the dancers are separated by race is particularly well achieved. Moving the shape of the dance around the stage to create character perspectives without mixing the segregated blocks looks effortless but is intricately done, while the ferocious spirit and pace of the finale number You Can’t Stop the Beat is a zesty riot of fluid movement, coordination and complex synchronisation as the cast deftly move around one another to bring the conclusion of different sub-narratives to the front of the stage before blending into the pack once more.

These larger-scale numbers never detract from the individual skill of the dance performers including Ashley Samuels as the fluid-hipped Seaweed whose nimble rendition of Run and Tell That is a dance highlight, along with showcase appearances in the detention scene, the Hop and Maybelle’s record shop. The Ensemble give the show its choreographic breadth and depth, performing as members of the Council for the formal TV show numbers while filling-out the world of Baltimore from street scenes to integration protesters, prisoners and the audience for the Miss Teenage Hairspray finale pageant where the full cast create a rousing song and dance spectacle to end the show.

Making her West End debut, Bea captures all of Tracy’s charm and carries the audience with her through the story, no easy feat in a show with experienced performers in front of an expectant crowd. A character that the audience instantly adores, Bea’s Tracy has very little self-doubt and is resolved to achieve everything she wants – whether that’s joining the Corny Collins Council, dating Link or ending segregation. Bea is comic when she needs to be, brings out Tracy’s naive and romantic sides at times and conveys her character’s infectious enthusiasm for music, new experiences and social change. Bea hits her stride early, landing her first big number – Good Morning Baltimore – while her performance of I Can Hear the Bells is a fantastic proclamation of Tracy’s ambitious delusion, earning her place on the panel of Tracys alongside Leanne Jones and Ricki Lake.

Michael Ball established the role of Edna in the UK in 2007 and his return is a triumph. His second trip down memory lane in recent years following a period in Les Miserables: The Staged Concert, Ball is clearly having so much fun as Tracy’s sweetly underrated mother who follows her daughter’s lead and transforms into a confident and sexy modern woman. Ball’s finest moment is the duet You’re Timeless to Me with Les Dennis (replacing Paul Merton as Wilbur) which turns into a comic masterpiece. The pair have a wonderful stage chemistry and, performed in front of the curtain like a Music Hall act, they fill their big number with cheeky jokes, a bit of improvisation and pure joy at being able to perform for a live audience once again – this number is a showstopper and, as the actors heroically avoid corpsing, it has the audience in fits of laughter.

Hairspray has an accomplished supporting cast including a slickly villainous turn from Rita Simons in fine voice as Velma and, making his own West End debut, Jonny Amies proves a great partner for Bea as heartthrob Link. Ahead of Press Night, Marisha Wallace as Motormouth Maybelle and Georgia Anderson’s Amber could slightly reduce the throttle in their acted scenes which for Anderson particularly doesn’t give her character anywhere to go but Wallace’s vocal on I Know Where I’ve Been is extraordinary, a goosebump moment that fills the room with sound as only live musical theatre can.

14 months and four attempts later, Hairspray is finally back in the West End – the energy, sentiment and exhilaration of the show is completely irresistible. So many tentative steps have been taken towards the revival of live theatre focusing largely on monologue and two-person pieces, so it is almost overwhelmingly wonderful to see a full song and dance performance that showcases the very best creative talent in set design, costume, choreography and performance. Concluding with a rapturous standing ovation in which a thousand socially distant people made the noise of three times as many, whatever the hardships and struggles that theatre has endured, Hairspray sends a message of hope because you really can’t stop the beat.

Hairspray is at the London Coliseum until 29 September with tickets from £17.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change – London Coliseum

I Love You You're Perfect Now Change - London Coliseum

With changing restrictions over Christmas and into the New Year bringing another lockdown and a now undefined period of theatre closure, it has taken a few weeks for venues to readjust any live plans and return to digital production. But, the weeks ahead promise plenty of new shows and material which will be streamed for the first time including major players like ATG and now the London Coliseum making their first independent ventures into the digital space after almost a year of closure. Announced late last year, Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts’s comic musical anthology I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change has been pre-recorded at the London Coliseum and streamed over three nights last week.

This St Martin’s Lane venue has long mixed opera, ballet and musical theatre, drawing audiences in recent years with starry revivals of Sunset Boulevard with Glenn Close and Chess with Michael Ball, while two attempts to host a much anticipated (and needed) return for Hairspray with Ball and Paul Merton were sacrificed to Coronavirus, with the show now rather optimistically slated for April 2021. However, the Coliseum hasn’t been entirely dormant, serving as the venue for several of Stream Theatre’s pre-recorded concerts while hosting the digital debut of new musical After You in October, but Kirk Jameson’s production for Lambert and Jackson is the first to sell under the banner of the venue.

Much like the stunning Songs for a New World which reopened the London Palladium to the public in October (and whose deserved extended run at the Vaudeville has sadly become the latest lockdown casualty), DiPietro and Roberts’s musical is a series of disassociated sketches that look at the experience and process of romantic relationships across a lifetime as a series of couples and individuals navigate the highs and deep deep lows of falling and staying in love. And although no character or scenario appears more than once across this 80-minute production, the segments meld wonderfully together to form a coherent piece that borrows from plenty of theatre favourites along the way.

I Love You, You’re Perfect

First staged in 1996 on Broadway, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change feels as relevant as ever as the characters steer their way through the despair of awkward first encounters, endure tedious one-sided dates, reluctantly marry, have children and suffer the agonies of breakups, divorce and widowhood, little of which has changed in the 25 years since that inaugural production. Some of the detail has been brought up to date with a couple of recent replacements that substitute the agony of waiting for a call with the indignity of explicit photographs, while twenty-first century nods to popular culture giants like Netflix have found their way into the lyrics. Nonetheless, the structure, mixed musical styles and scenarios of DiPietro and Roberts’s musical have stood the test of time – not least with the return of video dating.

Musically, Roberts’s has written a show that uses an eclectic approach to maintain the audience’s interest in what are around twenty individual scenarios held together by their thematic and semi-chronological connection. Roberts has taken advantage of those differences to present some eclectic musical styles that touch on traditional musical theatre, the rhythms of Argentine tango, country, ballads and comic ditties to bring a broad but complementary range of influences into what remains a consistent and cohesive score. Roberts’s skill is to use each song to amplify the personality of the singer and their particular scenario whether it is the fed-up multiple bridesmaid performing a slightly bitter country rendition of Always a Bridesmaid, a seemingly doomed couple arguing over film taste during a cinema date, the amusing desperation of sex-starved parents performing a bedtime dance with their children while spotting a rare opportunity for an early night in Married Tango or the clipped tones of the modern singles with Better Things to Do than endure the inevitable perils of relationships.

And while I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change doesn’t follow a single character, the trajectory of the show builds both comic and emotional investment as each new vignette bonds the audience to the stories that come before and after. DiPietro plots a relatively rare course in an anthology show by including dramatised contextual scenes that ground the songs and give them additional heft. Unusually, some of these scenes are almost as long as the songs themselves including an extended scenario in which a gay couple force new baby stories on the happily single female friend – a nod to Company – before one half of the partnership is given a reflective solo about his lost single life. By the time the audience reach the only segment without a song, Rose Ritz’s increasingly moving dating video, and the two elderly strangers contemplating a first date after a funeral, the charm of DiPietro’s instant characterisation as well as the cumulative impact of these stories has entirely made its mark.

… Now Change

Reimagining this show for socially distant performance and digital streaming has given the musical a different life and Jameson has deftly translated DiPietro and Roberts’s vision to the screen. The intimacy and connection to each sketch is enhanced by a rotating cast of just four musical theatre performers who unite in various combinations to play lovers, friends, ex’s and strangers who build a rapport with each other and the audience. The connection between them only grows as the show unfolds, allowing the tight knit cast to convincingly portray relationships of anything from five minutes to thirty years while implying characters of all ages that play to their strengths as individual performers.

Brenda Edwards’s powerful voice is used to great effect in Better Things to Do as her character forcefully suggests skipping the relationship and heading to the wistful post-break-up phase to save them both some time, while making the first move with her shy squash partner in a subsequent scene offers Edwards the chance to belt I Will Be Loved Tonight using the full force of the Coliseum acoustic as she is framed against the pretty auditorium. There are some great comic moments too as the disgruntled woman bored on a date and as the amped-up sultry mother determined to sleep with her husband.

Alice Fearn leans into the tragi-comic numbers to produce some really affecting performances that skillfully tread the boundary between hilarity and despair. The bitter bridesmaid is particularly enjoyable as Fearn gives vent to years of terrible dresses subtly linked to doomed marriages, while her outrage as a young woman being sent A Picture of His… exactly captures the mystification of the modern girl with that particular photographic practice. There is a great duet with Oliver Tompsett in which two geeks wish they were A Stud and Babe only to find they are better suited as they are, while Fearn’s tour de force moment in the Rose Ritz monologue is a brilliant piece of theatre, both delude and embarrassing but also sweet, sad and really moving.

Oliver Tompsett is given some of the more exuberantly comic roles including the gay dad so immersed with his child he can’t shake off the baby talk in The Baby Song that includes an unexpectedly funny rap sequence, while his roles as many imperfect men in Single Man Drought, A Picture of His… and Wedding Vows are a fun collection of the smug, inane and silly forms of machismo. But Tompsett also gets his softer moments, particuarly in the delightful Shouldn’t I Be Less in Love With You as a long-married man wondering why his overwhelming love for his wife never wore off, one of the show’s tender highlights.

Finally, Simon Lipkin mixes some of the slimier personalities with the hapless and misguided, playing an affronted suitor on a first date with Edwards in Not Tonight I’m Busy, Busy, Busy / Better Things to Do as well as a smug father in the Whatever Happened to Baby’s Parents scene. But Lipkin’s most memorable performance comes towards the end of the show in the gentle romance of Funerals Are for Dating where he employs a very different physicality to create the mildly flirtatious old man looking for love, a scene filled with sweetness and personality.

But what really sets this apart from earlier versions of the show is Jameson’s approach to filming and its clear how much theatre directors have learned in a relatively short time. The style here is entirely in tune with Curve Leicester’s triumphant Sunset Boulevard in Concert that reimagined the semi-staged digital style using innovative approaches to location and shot selection that enhanced the themes and emotional experience of the characters. Jameson does the same, giving each vignette a slightly different mood and tone while using the camera to create alternative storytelling approaches.

In A Stud and a Babe, Jameson visualises the fantasy sequence using a cutting technique that switches to a heightened tone and hyper-real filming style where colour and mood are designed to contrast with the real life scenario. A similar technique in The Baby Song takes Tompsett’s character into a whizzing flashback / dream sequence about a night out that accompanies his rap. Whirling vigorously around the performer who gestures and dances into the camera, it gives the song a vital energy that explodes this moment of freedom and illusion that the character experiences before a sudden return to a still-contented reality.

And these production techniques are employed across the show to create feelings of distortion (particularly in Wedding Vows, sections of which are given a woozy effect), comedic impact such as the slightly silly Satisfaction Guaranteed advertorial for legal services in the bedroom, and particularly for emotional impact, using intense close up and stillness to intensify the more touching and sorrowful moments. Jameson selects these shots with particular dexterity, understanding the show’s status as a digital experience and using filming techniques to variously amplify and underscore the meaning and building effect of each scene.

With its universal comment on relationships, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change could probably make room for more than one slightly cliched same-sex relationship and, in reimagining it for 2021, the production could have been even more ambitious in representing a wider variety of pairings. Inevitably with an anthology show, some segments work better than others but with a show of this nature the overall effect is key and proves more than the sum of its parts, with some of the bittersweet moments lingering long after the 80-minute performance comes to a close.

With an indefinite amount of lockdown to come, the chance of seeing a live theatre show any time soon feels pretty remote, so a new tranche of digital offerings is to be welcomed. With filming techniques, styles and direction improving all the time, streamed performances are more adept at creating shots that offer audiences greater intimacy and connection with the original material. This semi-staged production of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change exemplifies our evolving relationship with digital theatre; we may have been on the rebound from our true love of live theatre, but as the month pass this slow burn anthology of stories is changing our future.

I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change was streamed by the London Coliseum from 28-30 January. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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