“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’.
“a play that sets comedy back 40 years and sends meaningful gay drama back to the Stone Age”
In the 1970s many television sitcoms attracted thousands of viewers, but today would probably be avoided and largely filed away under “embarrassing nostalgia.”
Unless they happen to be a devotee of Reg Varney or Jack Smethurst discerning audiences of today are likely to seek their laughs elsewhere, regarding those shows of yesteryear offensive and of their time.
Proving that this is not always the case is a play at Above the Stag billed as a “modern sex comedy.” The big problem with The Morning After is that it is none of those things.
There is every reason to hope Peter Quilter’s 2012 play would raise a titter, not least because of the writer’s pedigree (his Judy Garland musical-drama End of the Rainbow was an enormous stage hit and indeed was adapted for the recent award-winning film Judy) and the theatre’s record of edgy and often subversive fare.
Originally written with a gay couple at its core it was difficult to sell, so rewritten with a straight couple and became popular internationally. Frankly, it is hard to understand how it could be celebrated in either form, but here it receives the premiere of its first intention.
Its admittedly awkward story about love, sex and relationships is somehow unconventional yet predictable, with two-dimensional characters struggling to be believable and falling at the first hurdle.
Played out on yet another excellent set at the theatre designed by David Shields, a bedroom in which we see people waking up in each scene on mornings over a period of time, what little humour is present (there’s maybe four or five laugh out loud funny lines) evaporates rapidly. The repeated theme of mum and uncle walking into the intimate goings-on of the young lovebirds becomes tiresome remarkably quickly and even sauciness with doughnuts and underwear can’t make a silk purse.
Three of the four-strong cast are from an offbeat family with no inhibitions, while the fourth is the nervous new boyfriend of the son. While the quartet do their best to be larger than life the play breaks all the rules of good situation comedy, in which the audience virtually feels they are part of the family as each sharp witticism is bounced into the story.
Chris Cahill (Adam), Colleen Daley (Barbara) and Matthew Lloyd Davies (Martin) go big and bold to find some level of melodrama, but it is impossible to believe that poor David Fenne’s Thomas would ever dream of staying around such an infuriating bunch of people rather than making a hasty dash for the exit, as we learn several previous boyfriends have done before.
Fine director Andrew Beckett tries his best to inject a frenzied energy but even his artistic skill is to no avail. Strong lighting (Jamie Platt) and sound (Andy Hill) cues can add nothing to the lacklustre script.
As you shift uncomfortably and look longingly at your watch there is then a shameful scene which essentially mocks someone’s deafness. This is not an oversensitive reaction, it is shock that any contemporary play or production should seek to find any humour in something so abhorrent and fail to recognise it. “It’s only a joke,” is ignorant evasion of an affront that needs to be called out.
If you want comedic satisfaction from eccentric families stick with The Simpsons or flirt with Outnumbered.
We have come to expect something far more challenging from this leading LGBTQIA+ venue. Far better to catch the engaging Four Play in its studio theatre than bother with a play that sets comedy back 40 years and sends meaningful gay drama back to the Stone Age.