“Throughout the show, Sidwell is a master of timing and expression.“
In the list of the greatest female, gay icons, Barbara Streisand is at the top – pipped to the post only by Judy Garland. It is no wonder, then, that the sassy, superstar outcast, whose fabled career, love life and ground-breaking AIDS work has been watched, admired and imitated for decades, should find herself the focus of a theatre show. Moreover, a show that ingeniously crosses the divide between celebrity-driven entertainment and candid cultural commentary. I’d been previously told that to enjoy “Buyer and Cellar”, you need to be both a dyed-in-the-wool Barbara Streisand fan and a lover of all things ‘camp as Christmas’. Not true in the slightest. Whether it helps I couldn’t tell you (I am not particularly either); but the beauty of Jonathan Tolins’ writing coupled with Aaron Sidwell’s cheeky and captivating performance unashamedly shatter any preconceptions with gay abandon.
It began as a throwaway idea planted in the fertile mind of Tolins, which has grown into a ninety-minute sketch. Although ‘sketch’ doesn’t do justice; there are fabulous washes of colour and shade between the lines. We are told from the start that what follows is fiction, although it’s served up with great truths of humanity. Aaron Sidwell is Alex More, an out of work actor, fired from his job at Disneyland and landing a mysterious job caretaking an underground shopping mall in the basement of Barbara Streisand’s Malibu mansion. Alex doesn’t know this at first and, although we do, we still share his wide-eyed glee when he discovers who the lady of the house is.
Sidwell commands the stage as Alex More, slipping into the other characters with ease; including his bitchy boyfriend, Barry; the sardonic secretary, Sharon; Babs’ hubby, James Brolin and of course Streisand herself. He eschews impersonation. Instead Sidwell teases her, simultaneously evoking Streisand’s detractors’ distaste for her celebrity eccentricities, but also highlighting the vulnerability and isolation that is often found when you reach the top of your game.
But there’s no danger of wallowing in too much pathos. The laughs come thick and fast. We delight in the moments of surreal situation comedy, like when Streisand haggles with Alex over the price of her own doll in the shop window, or fussily orders a frozen yoghurt with childlike precision. Throughout the show, Sidwell is a master of timing and expression.
Buried below the fiction of the piece, of which we are repeatedly reminded, is the fact behind the inspiration: Barbara Streisand’s coffee-table book, “My Passion for Design” – a hefty tome that documents the real-life shopping mall beneath her home. David Shields’ design doesn’t try to replicate this but instead suggests the weird world with projections. Similarly, director Andrew Beckett has created an atmosphere that doesn’t duplicate the bizarre reality but conjures up an intoxicating mix of fact and fiction. It’s a gorgeous cocktail of reverence and satire, affection and aversion; bubbling with Sidwell’s energy and natural stage presence.
Yes, high camp and showbiz it is, but with more insight than in-jokes. There might not be a lot of theatre at the moment to choose from, but even if there was, this would still be a ‘must see’.
“Aaron Sidwell is a terrific Henry for our times, and moves deftly between his different incarnations”
The Barn’s Henry V, which ran for a month in 2019, was both a critical and commercial success. The production played to packed houses and added to that theatre’s growing reputation, which led to the Best Fringe Theatre Award at last year’s Stage awards. Now sadly dark, along with all the UK’s other theatres, The Barn live-streamed the production at 6pm last night, in honour of World Theatre Day, and to keep their own flame alive.
Henry V is not an easy play to stage. The action is choppy, and it is blessed and cursed with some of the most famous speeches of the Shakespearean canon. Not only have those speeches been given by some of the titans of theatrical history, but they have also been co-opted time and time again to serve patriotic fervour, for good or ill; most recently by Tommy Robinson and his band of thugs in the Brexit war, which is, of course, the political landscape that this production came out of, and which Hal Chambers (director) quite rightly references. Benjamin Collins’ terrific video projection work makes this quite clear, as does the staging of the political meetings: leaders behind podiums, turning on the charm for the press. The contemporary references don’t stop there; Harry himself is compared to our own Prince Harry – the party prince – and the extended rave montage at the play’s opening firmly situates him in the world of clubs and cocaine, showing the distance he has to travel to be taken seriously as a monarch. The sequence could arguably have been shorter, but the point is well made.
Aaron Sidwell is a terrific Henry for our times, and moves deftly between his different incarnations – monarch, soldier, politician – all the while displaying a charming eagerness to do the right thing. This is a Henry who cares, so very much, about his country and his countrymen, and watching the profound weight of that leadership grow within him as the play progresses is one of the pleasures of this performance, and this production. He is supported by a committed and talented cast, whose energy fills the stage to such an extent that it’s hard to credit that there are only eight of them all told. Special mention here to Adam Sopp (Pistol/Constable) and Lauren Samuels (Katherine/Boy) each of whom light up the stage with utterly connected, truthful performances. Pistol’s final breakdown is truly heartbreaking, and Samuels’ physical and emotional embodiment of two such different characters a testament to serious theatrical skill.
The battle scenes are tremendous. Expertly choreographed chaos with bone-chilling moments of explosive violence. Credit to Christos Dante (fight director) and Kate Webster (movement director) here, two members of an exceptionally talented production team, also including Harry Smith, whose original compositions provide the soundtrack. Although there are moments in which an underscore seems surplus to requirements, the music is for the most part used effectively throughout, and is the sonic realisation of the brilliantly-used industrial scaffolding set design.
It is impossible to watch this production without feeling what is missing. And it is as well to be reminded of the irreplaceable electricity of live performance. Filmed theatre is a strange phenomenon; akin to caging a tiger. Zoos have their place, of course, but living, breathing creatures need to be free.
Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw
Photography by Eve Dunlop
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