“a pleasurable distraction during the dog days of summer”
It’s school holidays again, and despite the pandemic, it’s the time of year when parents look around for something to do with the kids. This year, producers Kenny Wax and Matthew Gregory have answered the parental call for help with What the Ladybird Heard. The sixty minute show, now showing at the Palace Theatre in London’s West End, is based on the best selling children’s book by Julia Donaldson (story) and Lydia Monks (pictures). It’s about the right length for the kindergartner and primary school set. Bringing this well loved character and her farmyard friends to the stage is a shrewd move on Wax and Gregory’s part. What the Ladybird Heard is perfect summer material to welcome the winter pantomime and Christmas audiences back into the theatre. The cast of four (with a last minute appearance of the ASM as a policeman) has an easy and skilled connection with the audience. It’s a pleasure to watch them show off their acting, dancing and musical abilities.
That said, if there is one weakness, it is the way the story has been dramatized. There are lots of engaging touches, including the set, designed by Bek Palmer, and based on Lydia Monks’ pictures from the book. The way in which the animals are created by the actors from bits and pieces scattered randomly around is fun to watch. The fourth member of the cast, farmhand Raymond (doubling as the dastardly burglar Lanky Len), appears to be an usher randomly recruited from the auditorium, much to the audience’s delight. The songs, composed by Jolly Good Tunes, are just that. And Howard Jacques has an abundance of nice lines in his lyrics. Nevertheless, What the Ladybird Heard is, at its heart, a story about stopping a crime. The Ladybird, with her farmyard helpers, has to stop the Farmer’s prizewinning cow from being stolen by a couple of thieves. It’s a dramatic situation, with the right amount of suspense for a satisfying denouément. But the plot takes a while to get going. There’s a lot of business about introducing the story, instead of just plunging straight in. It’s also unclear whether this is going to be a new story about the Ladybird, or just a rehash of the first story in the series. There is a strong feeling that there isn’t really enough material in the book to fill sixty minutes of stage time, even with all the singing, dancing and audience participation.
Ultimately, What the Ladybird Heard works because of its cast. Director Graham Hubbard makes the most of the talents of Roddy Lynch (Farmer), Nikita Johal (Lily/Ladybird), Matthew McPherson (Hefty Hugh) and James Mateo-Salt (Lanky Len), and the team does not disappoint. From building puppets to playing musical instruments, singing and dancing, the actors are up for any challenge, and that includes managing the audience. They are particularly adept at handling the show’s educational aspect, which is all about identifying the animals and pairing them up with the appropriate animal sound—crucial to the plot. The actors also work hard at helping the audience spot the ladybird, who is as thrifty in her appearances, as she is in her words.
If you are looking for a pleasurable distraction during the dog days of summer, take your kids (or someone else’s) to What the Ladybird Heard. The Palace Theatre staff are well organized for a visit to the theatre, and that includes the hardworking front of house team who are doing their best to manage social distancing and good hygiene practices, both inside and outside the theatre.
“in true buccaneering style, the company have grabbed the opportunity to plunder the West End”
It is worth remembering what a lasting impact the nineteenth century impresario, Richard D’Oyly Carte, had on London’s theatreland. Having brought Arthur Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert together he built the Savoy Theatre in order to stage their works. Later, in an attempt to establish more serious opera, Carte built the Royal English Opera House; which is now known as the Palace Theatre. Although it staged Arthur Sullivan’s “Ivanhoe”, none of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas ever made it onto the grand stage.
Sasha Regan’s all male “Pirates of Penzance” has enjoyed success for a decade now in the UK and Australia, its journey briefly interrupted by the pandemic. But in true buccaneering style, the company have grabbed the opportunity to plunder the West End, while many theatres are still sleeping, and seize the accolade of presenting the first Gilbert and Sullivan work to play in D’Oyly Carte’s purpose-built theatre. And it deserves it.
The company don’t take the stage by storm. Instead, they use the weapons of wit, joy, irreverence, humour and harmony. It is perhaps one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most accessible comic operas, containing some of Sullivan’s most recognised music. Gilbert’s libretto has a simplicity and clarity which matches Regan’s staging. What will lodge in the memory for a long time is how the production transports you to a bygone era. The space is vast, even by West End standards, but the cast fill it completely with a stripped back set, one piano, a bunch of finely tuned singers, and not a single microphone between them. Nothing is forced either. Musical Director Richard Baker’s piano notes and arpeggios float across the auditorium carrying the voices with them to the far corners of the theatre. Lizzi Gee’s superb choreography may have been devised with smaller spaces in mind, but the physicality of the ensemble make no apologies and they pull it off.
Set during Queen Victoria’s reign on the coast of Cornwall, the story concerns the dutiful and soft-hearted Frederic who, having reached his twenty-first year has been released from his apprenticeship to a band of equally benevolent pirates. He promptly falls in love with Mabel, the daughter of the very model of a modern Major-General. Yet he soon learns that he was born on the twenty-ninth of February, so only has a birthday every four years. Which makes him only five years old, meaning he has another sixty years to serve. What ensues is a gorgeous romp through the themes of courage, duty and honour.
Alan Richardson, as Mabel, stuns us with his soaring falsetto. But it is unfair to single him out, the entire ensemble is pitch perfect, from bass through to soprano. It is credit to the cast that at no point does it really occur to us that we are watching men dressed as women. There is plenty of chest and facial hair on view, but such are the nuances, mannerisms and finesse of the cast, we are convinced. This is not high camp; it is not drag; it is character acting at its finest. Tom Senior’s Frederic is just as convincing, and you believe in the chemistry between the actors. Leon Craig’s hapless nurse, Ruth, is a master of comedy, vying for the laughs with David McKechnie’s Major-General. The accolades, though, belong to the entire team and given space they would all receive a special mention.
The continued success of the all-male “Pirates of Penzance” is undoubtedly on dry land; and this stunning production feels completely at home in the West End. Yes, maybe it might not have made it there in normal times (though I like to think it would), but we can certainly hoist the flag to celebrate one of the most delightful, innovative, funny and musically rich interpretations of Gilbert and Sullivan.