“Burrows’ strength is her voice in this show, and it’s a pleasure to listen”
Beth Burrows’ Luck Be A Lady is her second solo show—a follow up to Sirens of the Silver Screen which looked at the lives of Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. Luck Be A Lady takes the same formula to put Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra under the spotlight—and it’s not a flattering picture. Actor, singer and writer Burrows takes a decidedly feminist approach in her critique of these male idols of the silver screen. Luck Be A Lady provides a setting for the stories, and the songs and dances à la Astaire, Kelly and Sinatra (with a dressmaker’s mannequin for an assist). But in Burrows’ version, it’s the women in these men’s lives that both made them and gave them their big breaks. Burrows does perform some of the women in her narrative, such as Ava Gardner (Sinatra’s second wife—and an epic union between the two that did not end well.) But it’s the men who are the main focus of Luck Be A Lady. From the mothers who raised them, to the sisters and partners who were initially the bigger stars (and harder workers), to the young and inexperienced women that had to put up with them both on and off the stage, it’s a pretty stark portrayal of all three men—and undoubtedly closer to the truth than the Hollywood publicity machines would have their adoring fans believe.
The biggest weakness of Luck Be A Lady is the script. It’s part anecdote, part documentary, and part a recreation of Astaire’s, Kelly’s and Sinatra’s performances. Burrows treats us to film clips projected onto a screen when she isn’t performing herself. But this is problematic for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because it reminds the audience that Astaire, Kelly and Sinatra were stars for a reason (putting aside, for a moment, the creepy behaviour behind the scenes). Secondly, the clips draw attention to the fact that we are watching a solo show, and not a Broadway musical.
Burrows’ strength is her voice in this show, and it’s a pleasure to listen to her versions of well known favorites such as Top Hat, They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Singin’ In The Rain and, of course, Luck Be A Lady. Burrows moves with confidence across the tiny stage at the White Bear Theatre although the space has its fair share of challenges for a dancer. (The mannequin doesn’t so much assist Burrows as remind one of Donald O’Connor’s brilliant demonstration of how it can be done in Singin’ In The Rain). Social distancing (still with us) also gets in the way of building a good connection with the audience. But Burrows is well supported with Guilia Scrimieri’s elegant costumes and Sam Owen’s lighting. Musical Director Ashley Harvey (on keyboards) and Doug Grannell on bass were pleasant on the ears, and had an easy rapport on stage with Burrows that was good to see. Kudos to director Mark Giesser for managing to find room for the musicians on stage.
Luck Be A Lady is an intimate show, and it works best when Burrows is treating us to her particular brand of singing and dancing (and charm) in the equally intimate setting at the White Bear Theatre.
“songs are bold and brassy, but with moments of pathos and humour”
A Broadway hit from 1959 (book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer), Once Upon a Mattress is a musical comedy based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Princess and the Pea. Or rather, it takes the essence of that story and has a whole lot of fun elaborating it.
It’s the year 1428 and Prince Dauntless (Theo Toksvig-Stewart) wants to be married, but his domineering, utterly insufferable mother – Queen Aggravain, brilliantly brought to life by Julia Faulkner – wants to keep him for herself, believing no other woman will ever be good enough for her precious son. Perfectly adequate princesses are unfairly rejected for failing the queen’s impossible tests in a pattern that seems destined to repeat itself forever. But when the 13th contender arrives, everything changes.
Beth Burrows is stunning as the sassy, irreverent Princess Winnifred the Woebegone – an exotic creature from the marshlands. Not only is she incredibly animated and full of energy, but she also has perfect comic timing and makes every moment count. There’s a real sparkle in her performance that makes her very compelling to watch.
Steve Watts as King Sextimus has the challenging role of having to communicate only with hand gestures and facial expressions, owing to being under a spell that prevents him from speaking. Given that, it’s remarkable how well he articulates emotion and communicates so lucidly with both the cast and audience.
A six-piece band led by Jessica Douglas provides a lively and often ambitious musical accompaniment that’s punchy and precise. Mary Rodgers’ songs (with lyrics by Marshall Barer) are bold and brassy, but with moments of pathos and humour. They are clever, too – see ‘The Minstrel, the Jester and I’, which plays with the notion of the king being mute by leaving spaces at the end of certain lines in place of the rhyming lyric you expect to hear.
Giulia Scrimieri’s simple yet fluidly effective set features a couple of platforms for dancing on, and screens that can be wheeled around. Colourful and inventive medieval costumes also add to the sense of vibrancy.
There are plenty of laughs, but the plot is sufficiently well constructed that there are several interwoven strands to be followed through. One thread isn’t quite tied up: we see the minstrel charm the wizard into revealing the secret test for the princess, but then Winnifred appears to pass it without any assistance. Being a ‘real’ princess she’s sensitive enough that a single pea beneath 20 mattresses prevents her sleeping, and the minstrel’s plan for her to cheat is bafflingly not referred to again. However, this little mystery in no way impairs the enjoyment of a continually rewarding experience.
Another major plus point is the way that each character, from the jester to the minstrel narrator, is given their own moment of focus. This even-handed character development keeps your interest throughout while helping the show build to a hugely satisfying resolution.
Ably directed by Mark Giesser, Alces Productions’ Once Upon a Mattress is a funny and joyful production of this rarely seen gem.