There's variety in this life of spice! Baz Bamigboye sits in on rehearsals for musical Viva Forever
11:45 GMT, 2 November 2012
Vivacious: Hannah John-Kamen in the Spice Girls musical Viva Forever
The Spice Girls are coming right back atcha. Or should I say, the essence of the group is coming back (as the song said) ‘with a brand new design’, ’cos the groove won’t let your feet touch the ground.
Right Back At Ya wasn’t even among the Spices’ best-known numbers. But ever since I watched the cast of Viva Forever — the show featuring songs associated with the girl power five (though they’re Spice Mammas now) — perform it during rehearsals, it’s been coming right back into my head.
In fact, what with Viva Forever and The Bodyguard in rehearsal (The Bodyguard previews at the Adelphi from Tuesday), I’ve had Whitney Houston and Spice Girls tunes competing for space in my bonce.
Like all the other songs in Viva Forever, Right Back At Ya has been re-orchestrated, and the odd lyric changed ever-so slightly by Jennifer Saunders, who has written the show’s book.
I introduced you a while back to Hannah John-Kamen, who plays Viva, the young woman who lives on a houseboat with her mother, played by Sally Ann Triplett.
Now Hannah has been joined by Lucy Phelps, Dominique Provost-Chalkley and Siobhan Athwal, as Viva’s best friends.
Viva and her pals put a video of themselves performing a song on YouTube and then they’re head-hunted for a TV talent show. There’s pressure for Viva to go solo, but her mother protects her like a lioness because there’s a secret she doesn’t want the media to get hold of. I sit with producer Judy Craymer (dazzling in fox fur) as choreographer Lynne Page puts the cast through their paces for the Right Back At Ya number, which will feature in Act One.
Later, the Viva quartet, along with Triplett, Lucy Montgomery and Simon Slater, head off to another rehearsal studio to ‘block’ a scene about the girls wanting a tattoo with director Paul Garrington. ‘They want it to bind them together,’ Ms Craymer whispers.
Craymer told me the show asks whether something has happened to the notion of fame; that if you win a talent show, you’re suddenly famous for that reason alone. ‘You haven’t worked to earn your fame,’ the producer noted.
The show tackles other social sensibilities, but at its heart lies the psychology of mothers and daughters, and friendship. And from what I’ve seen, Saunders and Craymer flesh out those themes with a level of substance I didn’t expect.
Girl power (left to right): Viva Forever stars Lucy Phelps (white top) Dominique Provost-Chalkley (red top) Siobhan Athwal (yellow top) and Hannah John-Kamen (black top)
Craymer told me Saunders spent several years working on the book. ‘There’s a clarity and precision of dialogue,’ she insisted. ‘The thing about Jennifer is she’s not only a writer but an actress, and she knows how to get actors comfortable with dialogue.
‘She’s also the queen of comedy, and here it’s razor-sharp,’ she added.
Triplett and Montgomery play best friends and their exchanges are beautifully delivered, and feel truthful. They sing Let Love Lead The Way like two old pals wondering ‘what makes this world go round’.
There are a lot of people seeking the answer to that one, which might help explain why Viva Forever has some 3 million in advance tickets sales, with The Bodyguard not far behind.
Someone mumbled something about being ‘lost in girl chaos’ during rehearsals. Well, that chaos could turn into gold at the Piccadilly Theatre box office.
We’ll find out when previews begin on November 27.
A fruity old time with Privates
Showstopper: Simon Russell Beale, dressed as Carmen Miranda, leads the first production of Grandage's new theatre company
Simon Russell Beale couldn’t resist the mixed fruit salad headdress. ‘He didn’t want to stop at a pineapple,’ joked Michael Grandage, who is directing the celebrated actor in Peter Nichols’s classic 1977 play with music Privates On Parade.
No, the award-winning actor wanted the full works — with a cherry on top.
Simon leads the first production of Grandage’s new theatre company, playing Acting Captain Terri Dennis, a joyful force for good who runs an Army song-and-dance unit posted to South-East Asia during the 1948 Malayan Emergency.
Designer Christopher Oram collaborated with Simon on his costume and paid particular attention to the elaborate headpiece for a number in Captain Dennis’s Jungle Jamboree show entitled The Latin American Way.
The song and the costume are associated with Carmen Miranda, and Nichols and Denis King’s clever pastiche evokes the Portuguese-born singer’s signature style, right down to the platform wedge sandals and towering sculptured fruit.
Grandage was full of praise for his leading man’s pins. ‘He’s got fantastic legs. Who knew He wears those fishnets to the manner born,’ the director told me, adding: ‘And he’s nimble on his feet.’
The ten song-and-dance numbers are set against the backdrop of a treacherous war against communist guerillas.
Nichols the playwright knew of what he wrote. He was in an entertainment unit with the likes of Stanley Baxter and Kenneth Williams.
‘There was danger out there. It wasn’t just: “Let’s go out and kick our legs up and put on dresses!”
There was the possibility of attacks,’ explained Grandage, who knows the show well, having directed a version 12 years ago when Sam Mendes was running the Donmar Warehouse.
Nichols and King, who wrote the score, spent some time at rehearsals, tinkering with the odd line.
At one point, Grandage was concerned about the play’s casual racism and how the soldiers referred to the indigenous population. But he realised he had to look at it in the context of how British troops behaved in the Malayan jungle in 1948. He noted that in representing the people and period accurately, you would have to make ‘people talk the way they talked then’.
‘I’m looking at it as a genuine period piece,’ he said, observing that it’s ‘almost black-and-white history — like British Movietone News.’
Privates On Parade runs at the Noel Coward Theatre from December 1 through March 2, 2013. Tickets range from 10 to 57.50. (And some of those seats for a tenner are the best in the house.)
Watch out for…
Alan Bennett's play People started previewing at the National's Lyttelton auditorium this week
Alan Bennett whose new play People started previewing at the National’s Lyttelton auditorium this week.
It stars Frances de la Tour as Dorothy Stacpoole, an impoverished peeress living in the family pile in South Yorkshire with her ‘companion’, played by Linda Bassett.
Dorothy is trying to fend off her archdeacon sister (played by Selina Cadell), who wants the National Trust to take over the estate. Dorothy has allowed an adult film to be shot at Stacpoole Hall. But in my view the National Trust is almost as bad: peddlers of snooty homes-and-garden porn.
Bennett’s spot-on with his analogy. The play is hilarious, while also giving a good slap to the greedy spivs (many of them upper class) who con us on a daily basis.
I saw the first preview, so director Nicholas Hytner was still tweaking, but all will be spot-on by the first night on Wednesday. Bennett is a genius. There was talk of this being his last play — but I, for one, jolly well hope it’s not. On the night I was at the National, the Lyttelton was packed, as was the Olivier (with Timon Of Athens) and the Cottesloe (with the splendid This House).
Are we in a golden age at the National
Gavin Lee who created the stage role of Bert, the cheeky Cockney sweep, in the stage version of Mary Poppins in the West End and on Broadway. Lee takes over from Tom Chambers in the musical Top Hat at the Aldwych Theatre. He’ll play Jerry Travers, the part Fred Astaire did in the classic screen version of Top Hat, from February 5.
I saw Lee several times in Mary Poppins and I admired his effortless charm — and he was born to dance. Charlotte Gooch takes over the Ginger Rogers role from the delicious Summer Strallen from November 27.