THEATRE

Frank Barnes

Two hours before every performance of The Book of Mormon in London there is a ballot where 22 front-row seats become available for sale for £20 each. This is a real bargain as the show, which has been running for years, is almost always booked out, with top seats selling for £170.

Although I had already booked seats back in April I went in this ballot almost 25 times. It was great fun and I finished my losing streak the afternoon before I was to leave London to return home. In five weeks I saw 25 shows, two of them twice and two in Dublin. This is why I went on this holiday, to indulge myself in the West End.

The Book of Mormon was one of the many highlights and, as you would expect from the writers of South Park, it is irreverent, subversive, clever and extremely funny. I have never laughed so much as I did both times I saw it and expect to do the same when I see it in Melbourne next year. It will open in January and is already heavily booked.

None of the other musicals I saw gave me the same joy. Funny Girl was a great production of the show that propelled Barbra Streisand to superstardom 50 years ago. (It was also one of the shows — along with Street Charity — staged in Australia for which we no longer needed to import leading actors.) Sheridan Smith was ill but the understudy, Natasha Barnes, was getting rave reviews. But I got to see the understudy’s understudy who was very ordinary. Still, it is a good show so I enjoyed it.

This production originated at The Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, which also had Into The Woods, which was booked out, but I managed to get a ticket.

Into The Woods is my favourite musical and this production from American company Fiasco Theatre did it with just 10 actors who not only played multiple characters but also doubled as the musicians. This was the same technique that had been used in a version of Sweeney Todd on Broadway with Patti Lupone.

The show was wonderful but nothing will come close to the Sydney Theatre Company production with Sharon Millerchip as Red Riding Hood.

In Dublin, we had the privilege of seeing Once, a show set in a Dublin bar. This is a gentle and absolutely thrilling show.

In 1997, I missed seeing Titanic on Broadway but I caught up with it in London. This was a very big production in a very small theatre. Although the theatre lacked air-conditioning I really enjoyed this clever production. It also helped that I had very recently seen the very good Titanic Belfast exhibition.

Rebel Wilson is now a big celebrity and I saw photos of her all over London as she was moving into the role of Adelaide in Guys and Dolls. She was very funny in that show and, although not a great singer, knew how to sell her songs. She was also totally out of kilter with the rest of the production but nobody seemed to care and the schoolgirl audience loved her.

Very popular with the young crowd was In The Heights, written by the current darling of Broadway, Lin-Manuel Miranda. It is a rap, hip-hop story of life in the streets but while it was very good I am not sure it is my style of musical.

Kinky Boots, on the other hand, with music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, has been a great hit and won the Best Music Tony award in 2013, beating Tim Minchin’s Matilda. It is a feel-good story of redemption featuring a transvestite, and is set in a shoe factory. While the audience of mainly middle-aged drunken people loved it I was underwhelmed as I found the music boring. I am sure it will be a big hit in Australia when it opens later this year.

Other than Mormon, the other show I booked before leaving home was the new one from Tim Minchin, Groundhog Day. Based on the movie, what carries the show so far is the wonderful story. The show is still in preview but has a long way to go.

I found the first 45 minutes boring but from then the story took off well. There were no standout musical numbers as in Matilda and I found the stage revolving so much that it became tedious. It is booked for Broadway next year but needs a lot of work. In its favour it has the great story, a superb leading man in Andy Karl and Tim Minchin’s clever lyrics.

Bugsy Malone was awful. I did not like the movie but this production had great reviews so against my better feelings I went — and hated it. This was the only show I saw where I felt I had wasted my money and time.

I am not an opera buff but my doctor had told me that Werther, by Jules Massenet, was good and had a small cast that was superb. I took his word — as I had never been to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden I had nothing to lose.

I managed to get a “cheap” seat in the nose-bleed section. It takes quite a while to get to these seats as they certainly are a long way from the stage but it was worth it. The Royal Opera House is a classic opera theatre and really beautiful, with great acoustics. This meant that although I was so far away I heard every nuance from both the performers and the orchestra.

That would have been enough but the singers almost had me in tears, their voices were so wonderful. Why don’t all the cast take curtain calls? I know there is a lot of tradition in opera but it is time they got over it. It was also worth seeing for audience watching. There are people in England who are so full of their own entitlement they are like caricatures, dreadful people, of whom I saw a lot.

I saw Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill at The National Theatre at a matinee on the same day I saw Kinky Boots, which might explain why I found the latter disappointing.

Threepenny Opera was the last of the shows I had booked before leaving home. I had purchased the last seat, dead-centre in the front row. Am I lucky to have seen this outstanding production, starring Rory Kinnear as Macheath — Mack The Knife!

This is the story of life in the streets for beggars, and their relationships with each other and the police. It is told with songs, the most iconic of which is “Mack the Knife”. All the 21 cast members and the eight musicians are on the enormous Olivier stage for the entire show and help with scene changes, with the stage’s double-revolve helping. I have seen many productions of the show over the years but this was by far the best.

I hoped to see Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and The Stars as it was set at the time of the 2016 uprisings in Dublin but as with The Deep Blue Sea I could not even beg for tickets. Such is life at The National Theatre.

Chris Ryan and John Howard in All My Sons from the Sydney Theatre Company ... a very good production

These are just the shows with music that I saw, and let me assure you I did other “tourist” things. But what joy it was to spend time seeing such great theatre, and with lots of Australian performers in most of the shows. In the next edition I will tell you about the other shows I was lucky to see, including my favourite, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Just a quick mention of the two plays I saw her before leaving: the Sydney Theatre Company’s All My Sons was as good a production as you will see anywhere, and Lally Katz’s Back at The Dojo at Belvoir was not as funny as her other shows but very good. Coming up: Fawlty Towers and The Beast.

Frank Barnes is joyfully retired