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!