“She clearly loves the material, which she delivers with a belt!”
Tori Scott made the move to London from New York City about a year ago – arriving here with three bags and one cat (with a touch of dramatic license thrown in no doubt). Since then, she has swiftly and firmly established a growing popularity this side of the pond. Her two-night stint at Crazy Coqs shows us why. Her lively, breathless whirlwind of a ninety-minute set leaves us wanting more, if not a little glad we can catch our own breath by the time she dances out, mid-song, through the venue’s double-doors.
She loves the venue, she claims. “It tricks me into thinking I can afford the drinks”. She loves her new home here too, despite the cost-of-living crisis; “It’s too expensive to stay alive”. The title of her show – “Tori with an I” stems from her discovering how hard it is to live in the UK with a name like Tori. This theme (one of casting an outsider’s eye on the many eccentricities of British life, culture, politics and personality) informs the banter that occupies the gaps between songs. Between verse and chorus even. Such is her gift of the gab she can slot a hilarious anecdote into the short sixteen bars of an instrumental break.
Scott is an actress, singer and comedian and all three attributes are in full swing as she sways through a set list takes in the likes of Elton John, Lady Gaga, Cyndi Lauper, Florence Welch, Madonna, Bowie, the Eurythmics, Divinyls, Bewitched… among others. It is a musical journey in which, unlike many shows of this genre, the choice of musical numbers is seemingly appropriate to the surrounding banter. Or at least Scott makes it feel that way. Maybe she’s just winging it – you can never tell with Tori. She shamelessly makes fun of our culture, but does so with immense affection. And self-deprecation. She makes fun of herself and, very occasionally, the artist she is covering. It is done with love. She clearly loves the material, which she delivers with a belt! (to say the least). Her voice soars, but sometimes it is like there is a slow puncture somewhere and she needs to reach the end of the song before the air starts to escape.
Musical director and pianist, Ben Papworth, has his work cut out keeping up – but he does so with consummate ease despite barely controlling his laughter from Scott’s barrage of gags. Midway through the evening Scott invites Christina Bianco onto the stage. Unlike the rest of the evening the pre-song banter had a slightly rehearsed feel about it before they launched into a duet, mashing up Judy Garland’s ‘Get Happy’ and Barbara Streisand’s ‘Happy Days are Here Again’ into a gorgeously clever countermelody.
Currently on tour (“no tour bus – just a rail replacement bus”) with ‘The Cher Show’ it is testament to her stamina and supreme vocal technique that she can fly by Crazy Coqs to deliver such an impassioned set. But you feel that she wouldn’t miss it for the world. Scott is her own, self-contained ‘joie de vivre”, which the audience cannot avoid soaking up, just as we love being the butt of her jokes. “Thank you for letting me complain to you all night” she quips by way closing the show – with a singalong. A show that opened with Queen’s ‘Don’t stop me now’. Well – we wouldn’t be able to stop her. Even if we wanted to. Which we, quite emphatically, don’t.
“unquestionably funny and also heartbreakingly sad”
We need to talk about “Steve”. Or rather Steven. And Stephen. And Esteban (the Spanish form of Stephen). There’s another Steve, too, in Mark Gerrard’s tragicomedy who lurks, unseen, offstage but just as instrumental in the unravelling of the tightly knitted relationships of his namesakes and their best buddies. Even the late Stephen Sondheim is ever present throughout this production, to whom it is dedicated; his music a constant undercurrent, and wisps of his lyrics reverently scattered over the dialogue. There is something elegiac about Gerrard’s bittersweet tale. A parable, almost. Self-aware and conscious of the passage of time.
The play opens with Steven celebrating his 47th birthday in a downtown New York bar. Although not in a fully-fledged midlife crisis, Steven is struggling with the transition into middle age. A stay-at-home Dad, he is also grappling with the notion that his long-term partner is having an affair with his best friend’s partner. Meanwhile his closest confidante, Carrie, is terminally ill. Fuelled by vodka stingers he inevitably spills out his emotions, upsetting his guests and the glasses on the table. But no matter, Argentine waiter Esteban is on hand to clear up the literal and figurative mess. So, too, is the rewind button which replays the scene avoiding the outburst and offering a smoother transition into the unfolding narrative that follows.
Andrew Keates’ spirited and passionate direction perfectly mixes a human story with a heightened, almost musical delivery from the characters. Whenever it becomes a touch absurdist we are pulled back into the nitty gritty of everyday life. Infidelity, parenthood, monogamy, mortality, impending death, lost opportunities. We all know the score. We may have heard it before, but Gerrard manages to make it fresher by putting it in the context of same sex relationships. But even that concept, like the play’s protagonists, is reaching a certain age, and Gerrard is cleverly questioning whether the gay community itself might be having a midlife crisis. ‘Where do we go from here?’ he seems to be asking. While celebrating the huge progress made over the decades, there is a whole new set of questions now. Inspired by the passing of the New York marriage bill, Gerrard is reflecting on the double-edged nature of the milestone. “Oh my god, now we can get married. What are we supposed to do with that?”
This is definitely not a ‘be careful what you wish for’ scenario, however. Nor is it a caricature of the gay American Dream. The writing is too sharp for that and at times the sexuality is irrelevant. It speaks to everyone. It is fundamentally about relationships and friendships and how we look out for and after each other. It is unquestionably funny and also heartbreakingly sad. Keates makes us care deeply about the personalities laid bare before us, aided by his impressive cast.
David Ames holds the fort as Steven, hilariously abrasive and camp but deeply caring and easily wounded. Jenna Russell gives an absolutely glowing performance as Carrie, the bold and brazen lesbian confronting her terminal illness with more strength than all the men around her put together. All the performances are exceptional; strongly twisting the dialogue – wringing out the laughs and the tears in equal measure. The highs and lows are mirrored by Ben Papworth at the piano, echoing the emotions with his dynamic and varied accompaniment.
The phrase ‘Once Upon A Time’ is a leitmotif throughout the show that reminds us that this is a New York Fairy Tale – in many senses of the word. But it also reminds us that the happy endings promised are more elusive than we once thought. We have come a long way, Gerrard seems to be saying, but there’s still further to go. But, hey, forget the psychobabble – “Steve” is in essence a hugely entertaining tragicomedy. Sharper than most that cover similar ground, it cuts through societal and sexual divides and then unwittingly sews them together. It appeals to all of us – and is a ‘must see’.