“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’.
These last seven months have taken a toll on the best of us, least of all this reviewer, who was beyond excited to have an energetic performance of the 1972 musical Pippin, directed by Steven Dexter, at The Garden Theatre in Vauxhall mark her return to attending live theatre. Upon taking my seat, the excitement in the air was palpable. Certainly, many in the audience will have felt the theatrical lacuna caused by lockdown restrictions. So, to begin, a thank you to all who worked towards making this show possible whilst abiding by the government’s safety guidelines.
Secondly, the show itself. Pippin follows the young prince Pippin (Ryan Anderson), son of the great leader Charlemagne (Dan Krikler), on his search for a significant and fulfilling life. Along the way, Pippin must contend with his self-obsessed stepbrother Lewis (Harry Francis) and his power-hungry stepmother Fastrada (Joanne Clifton) who have their eyes on the throne. Pippin must also navigate a mysterious fourth wall-breaking chorus led by the aptly named Leading Player (Tsemaye Bob-Egbe) whose motives are questionable to say the least. When Pippin meets the widow farm-owner Catherine (Tanisha-Mae Brown) and finds purpose in a simpler life, Pippin must confront what really makes him happy and whether his pursuit of ‘the extraordinary’ is really so wonderful at all.
The cast have great chemistry and work effortlessly together. Anderson’s range is phenomenal. He is as convincing when playing a son desperate to impress his nonchalant father as he is as an anguished young man torn between two drastically different life paths in his final scene. Clifton is also particularly strong in her role as Pippin’s grandmother Berthe, performing a lively and hilarious rendition of the song ‘No Time At All’ in which the audience were encouraged to sing along.
Psychedelic wall hangings and plants surround the courtyard that acts as the stage (David Shields). The stage itself is for the large part empty, excluding a bench and a set of boxes that are periodically set down to act as seating or dance apparatus. Incense burns throughout the performance and the cast are decked out in hippy garb, tying the ‘peace and love’ theme together nicely. Props are cleverly hidden amongst the foliage, the best of which is a tambourine which has a dual purpose of crown and instrument.
The performance space is surrounded by a plethora of different lighting. Fairy lights – both gold and blue – intermingle amongst the greenery and trellises while bulbed lights and a disco ball hang above centre stage. The lights are well-timed to flash and change colours to reflect the mood on stage.
The songs (Michael Bradley) are well performed and accompanied by dynamic choreography (Nick Winston). Krikler gives a standout performance of ‘War is a Science’ and the dancing is particularly strong during ‘On the Right Track’ performed by Anderson and Bob-Egbe. Brown provides good backing vocals before stepping into her own in the role of Catherine and the song ‘Kind of Woman’.
Pippin is a fast-paced and engaging musical, especially in its latter half, and the cast and crew should be proud of their spirited performance. Music and laughter abound, Pippin finds new meaning in these strange times, when we all have been forced to reflect on the simple pleasures of life and consider what truly makes us happy.