Bittersweet memories

When Whitney died – one of the best-selling music artists ever, having sold over 220 million records worldwide earning the moniker of “the Voice” – you’d have thought that any performer asked to walk in Houston’s shoes would think twice. In the 2022 film I Wanna Dance With Somebody, Naomi Ackie took on the role and impressed with both her performance and immaculate lip synching. After all, how do you sing like Whitney? In the current UK tour of The Bodyguard The Musical (New Victoria Theatre, Woking) Emily Williams plays Rachel Marron, the pop star being stalked by a psycho. Fortunately, she bumps into Frank Farmer (Kevin Costner in the original Bodyguard movie), a former Secret Service agent, and the rest as they say is musical history.
The storyline has been updated and Williams is terrific. A belter of a voice which is also beautifully mellifluous and gentle when in ballad mode, exuding softness and vulnerability. Thankfully the character is no longer a stereotypical 1990’s working class black woman but somebody a modern audience can identify with. She is, shock horror, a single parent, who while seeking stardom, acclaim and an Oscar, is busy looking after the kids and avoiding being maimed by a psychopath. Not just sprinkled with stardust and happy to find her protective prince.
I doubt the enthusiastic audience would care very much about that though as they were there to hear the songs, which is understandable when you realise that several of them would earn a place in many a favourite discography. The show explodes into action with Queen of the Night, One Moment in Time is a classic, a tumult of emotion that encapsulates the character’s predicament. Others will also be familiar, including the banging cover of Chaka Khan’s I’m Every Woman, but ultimately it is when you hear I Will Always Love You, a gorgeous interpretation, that the spirit of Whitney fills the show with a feeling so strong and all-consuming that many in the audience were in tears. Williams was pitch perfect and when she looked skywards you understood the sentiment.
The other notable performance comes from Emily-Mae (Walker) as long-suffering big sister Nicki. Her solos are magnificent and when she pairs up with Williams the harmonies are superb. She brings pathos and longing to the role, knowing that she will forever be living in the shadow of her stellar sibling. And the young lad playing Rachel’s son Fletcher stole the show each time he appeared, both prodigious and precocious his future is bright. Ayden Callaghan is fine as Farmer and displays some nice comic touches but lacks that extra charisma and va-va-voom required of a leading man. Perhaps the comparison with Costner’s alpha male is unfair and he may well mature into the role as time goes on.
The storyline remains patchy and dated, belonging to another era, but the production is strong and vibrant, pulsing with musical energy, and when the company burst into a finale of I Wanna Dance With Somebody, the New Victoria was on its feet giving it some. RIP Whitney, your musical legacy lives on.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamnet (Garrick Theatre) is a stage adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s best-selling book by award-winning playwright Lolita Chakrabarti. It is inspired by the son of Shakespeare, a story of a mothers’ grief, the beautiful bond between twins and of a marriage pushed to the brink. It is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written – Hamlet.
Set in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire in 1582, local boy William (Tom Varey) is smitten by local lass Agnes Hathaway (Madeleine Mantock) – ‘She’s like no one I’ve ever met… She’s like fire and water all at once.’
The play focuses on Agnes and her romance with Latin tutor William Shakespeare and the births of their three children, Susanna (Phoebe Campbell), Judith (Alex Jarrett) and Hamnet (Ajani Casey) and Shakespeare’s attempts to earn a living in London whilst Agnes stays at home to look after the family. Later we see the devastating impact of the Bubonic plague. Judith is dying but it is Hamnet, who has been caring for her, who perishes. Agnes’s lamentations fill the stage and William is in a state of shocked silence. Escaping to London his grief finds expression in his work.
Directed by Erica Whyman, it does not follow the structure of O’Farrell’s novel but runs a bit like a screenplay in linear episodic fashion which takes away from the pathos somewhat as most of the characters appear like caricatures. Nevertheless, the talented cast bring quality performances to the stage and make the show both engaging and educational.

I don’t like sport, football least of all. Never seen a game in my life and have no idea about the rules except that the side that scores the most goals wins, otherwise it’s a draw. So when asked to review Dear England (Prince Edward Theatre), I wanted to kick Barney. Now I want to hug him. This National Theatre production is fantastic entertainment and although the game remains an anathema to me, I know loads more about penalties, Harry Kane and Gareth Southgate than before. And though watching a game still remains offside to me, I strongly recommend you see this show.
Playwright James Graham has effectively written a paean to the ‘beautiful game’ and the way it has impacted the lives of so many in so many ways. At the core is England manager Gareth Southgate – a top drawer portrayal by Joseph Fiennes – a man who seems to have had a sporting life of ups and downs. He missed a penalty at the 1996 World Cup which apparently caused a nationwide trauma among soccer fans (I must have been sleeping) and made him an outcast. A few years later he becomes caretaker manager and psychologist Pippa Grange, another excellent performance from Dervla Kirwan, helps both him and the team overcome what is basically an inferiority complex and soon they are on the up and winning again. According to the chap next to me, the current England team is one of the best in the world.
There is so much else to commend about Rupert Goold’s ebullient production, including 11 athletic and lithe footballers, mind boggling video projections by Ash Woodward – I now know what Wembley Stadium looks like – and watching Will Closes’s performance of Harry Kane brought tears to my eyes, poignant and amusing, while Josh Barrow enjoys joshing as Jordan Pickford.
Graham also tackles head on the problem with racism in the game – wake up England its 2023! – and the eclectic musical numbers, both football chants and classical are used to great effect. Though quite how the song “Vindaloo” acquired its status as king of the chants I’ll never know. A wonderfully uplifting and positive show and it even had me practising a back heel (with a stone) on the way home.

The Bodyguard The Musical –
Hamnet –
Dear England –

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