Saturday, 17 October 2009

Getting intimate with Mr Showmanship

I love brash, big budget, bums-on-seats West End musicals.  Sister Act is sassy, Priscilla is camper than Christmas at Julian Clary's, Billy Elliot will move you to tears, Wicked is, well, wicked, and, for me, Hairpsray manages - just about - to be a brilliant, backcombed cut above even all the rest.

But don't forget that countless other shows are being performed nightly, often in tiny, out-of-the-way venues. Some will be bum-numbingly bad but others will knock your socks off (and isn't that equally true of big budget theatre in any case?). 

In other words, if you've already seen all the blockbusters that tickle your fancy, try the Fringe.  It's an incredibly cool, in-the-know thing to do, and tickets prices are far lower, so you can impress the boy- or girlfriend whilst saving £30-£40 a head!

Until 8th November, your best bet for high camp without the high price is Liberace Live from Heaven at The Leicester Square Theatre in which Bobby Crush, who rightly bills himself as Britain's Top Piano Entertainer, portrays the world's top piano entertainer of all time.

The premise is simple: Liberace finds himself at the Pearly Gates where he has to convince a panel of angels (played by the audience) that he merits a place in heaven rather than descending into the fiery furnace.  It turns out that God (played on voice tape by Victoria Wood - inspired casting) is a George Gershwin fan.  Cue keyboard medley of everything from Rhapsody in Blue to I Got Rhythm via Embraceable You.

Musical interludes punctuate the entire show, in fact, including a brillaint recreation of Liberace's famous invention, boogie woogie 16 to the bar (which is the standard, eight to the bar variety but with the left hand going at twice the speed; a real finger-buster as any pianist will tell you).

Bobby Crush delivers an absolute tour de force, not only matching Liberace's complex, high-speed, flawless pianistic technique but also offering a wholly convincing impression of the man who, despite his cheesy lines and fake-as-a-nine-bob-note fixed smile, was, for several years, the highest paid entertainer in the world.  His outrageous costumes are recreated too, a gobsmackingly gaudy parade of sequins, feathers and fur.

There's a more serious side to the evening.  Liberace was a troubled soul, a gay man living in a age when homosexuality was still illegal.  Discovery would have meant social and professional ruin, which is why he sued The Daily Mirror in 1959 after one of its columnists dared to hint that he might not be the marrying kind.  Such was the sexual naivité of the time, the jury believed the false testimony of this mincing old fruit who had never married (at least Rock Hudson put on a convincing act!) and awarded him massive damages.  God is therefore rather put out (whilst St Peter, voiced by Stephen Fry, becomes nothing short of apoplectic) that Liberace had sworn on the Bible to tell only the truth .

Will the joy his music and showmanship brought to millions outweigh his blasphemous deceit in the minds of the audience of angels?  Will they decide that he was more the victim of a cruel, illiberal age or a phoney, money-grabbing sinner?

The show is playing at the Leicester Square Theatre's basement studio in which even an audience of 60 constitutes a tight fit.  That means, as is usually the case at fringe venues, that everyone gets a ringside seat, unlike in the big West End houses where sitting in Row Z or two floors up can leave you feeling divorced from the action.  Intimacy borne of proximity is one of the Fringe's greatest attribtues even when, paradoxically, as in this case, it's fringe in the heart of the West End. 

Indeed, the 'angels' in the front row are so close to the action, there's every chance of their being knocked sideways by the heavy, swirling hem of Liberace's floor-length, white fur cape.  And, for twenty-odd quid, you can't ask much more of a night out than that!

(photos courtesy of and

1 comment:

  1. missing you each night but greatly enjoying your blog. please keep your posts coming