A few cans of Hairspray

Brian Coleman gives his acerbic verdict on the hit West End musical

In the days when I had a life (before I became a professional politician) I was a regular West End theatre-goer and so it was last Friday, during that blissful period between Christmas and New Year when public servants can have a week off, I went along to the Shaftesbury Theatre to see the new hot show, the musical Hairspray.

Now the London Assembly is currently conducting an investigation into the physical state of the West End theatres and as the Shaftesbury lies in the Borough of Camden (within my constituency) I have always had a soft spot for the building.

This dates from the time I lead a deputation to the then Philistines at Camden who wanted to cancel its licence on the grounds it was producing "loud music".

Anyway, having forked out £60 for my ticket plus an outrageous £6 for a programme (a complete rip off), I was not feeling sympathetic towards the theatre owners who have the nerve to suggest the London Assembly should propose a surcharge on West End tickets to give them the money to upgrade the facilities.

Hairspray is a sell out and the Shaftesbury Theatre struggles to cope. "Good to see the men having to queue to use the loo," remarked two ladies in the Royal Circle Bar at the interval.

Rather than a surcharge on tickets quite why the theatre owners cannot screw the show producers for more I have no idea.

As for the show itself it was certainly loud. Michael Ball was taking a well earned holiday from his role in drag as Mrs Turnblad and, frankly, the understudy was playing it less like Divine (in the film) and more like Danny La Rue.

"The understudy just likes being on stage a little too much," remarked the well informed Theatre Usher.

Mel Smith as Mr Turnblad had a look on his face that seemed to say it was this show or three weeks Panto in Bognor Regis.

The only principal who seemed to recognise the need for some serious acting during the evening was the excellent Tracie Bennett (ex-Coronation Street) as Mrs Von Tussle.

The show was not helped by the fact the set (which looked as though it had been designed for a touring production) broke down twice during the first half, an occurrence that my helpful usher told me had happened three times since the show opened.

However the serious error for a West End musical was that it had the ugliest line up of Chorus Boys I have seen for many years - except for the principal young male lead called Ben James-Ellis who sang and danced so energetically he had sweat pouring down his pretty face by the end of the evening.

The fundamental problem with my evening was the audience. This is NOT a family Show - it is a serious musical with important underlying social themes.

Many parents had brought their young children (some looked as young as 9 or 10) and yet there were endless jokes about oral sex and a song that involved instructions on how to use your "fanny muscle" (whatever that may be).

The repeated references to the 1950s (who now remembers Eddie Fisher or the Gabor sisters ?) went completely over the head of the teenage girl sitting next to me whose mobile phone I could happily shoved down her throat as she texted all evening.

Why was it only me and a few dozen other gay men who laughed when the lovely Ben said he “knew what Rock Hudson felt like “if only…………..

A show that has serious things to say about 50s America, segregation, racism and equality issues ended in a feelgood mush of sentimentality. I was not surprised that on the way out boyfriends had clearly not enjoyed the show as much as their young ladies, if you are straight and male my advice is stay away.

If West End Theatre owners think they can persuade this elected politician to intervene in the world of theatrical production and start imposing surcharges on the poor theatre-going public (and the hard up families in particular) then they have got to do better than a few cans of Hairspray!

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.