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
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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.