Upstairs at the Gatehouse
Reviewed – 3rd June 2021
“their sheer professionalism shines through each and every musical number”
Once upon a time, back in 1964, a semi-professional harmony group was on its way to its first big gig. While driving in a cherry-red convertible, the group was rehearsing their finale; ‘Love Is a Many Splendored Thing’. They were just getting to their favourite E flat diminished seventh chord when their car collided with a bus full of eager teenagers on their way to watch the Beatles make their U.S. television debut on the Ed Sullivan show. The kids in the bus miraculously escaped uninjured. The harmony, group, however, was killed instantly.
Fast forward to the present. The young guys are still in limbo – as unresolved as their final chord – but they find themselves back on earth for a chance to recreate the concert they never got to perform. It’s a simple set up: the four singers emerge, dressed in white tuxedos, slightly bewildered. Stuart Ross’s tongue in cheek book is updated for the Covid generation by John Plews; with a reference to the audience wearing masks. “Are we in a theatre or an operating theatre?”. But the soul of the piece remains intact. With its light humour, combined with stunning vocal virtuosity, this is a gorgeous antidote to today’s cynicism and cheap send ups. It is a heartfelt homage to an often forgotten but vital period in the history of American popular music.
“Forever Plaid” was the first musical that opened Upstairs at the Gatehouse in 1999, so it is fitting that it should be the first to herald its reopening after the pandemic. Cameron Burt, George Crawford, Christopher Short and Alexander Zane are, respectively, Frankie, Jinx, Smudge and Sparky, who lead us through a celebration of bands such as The Four Aces, The Four Freshmen and The Crew Cuts. Not instantly recognisable names, but the songs are instantly familiar. The musical performance is reminiscent of old variety shows that brought the whole family together around the television set. It is not character driven, but the cast have real personality as they reminisce about the past and try to make sense of the present. They are each portraying amateurs in their craft, but their sheer professionalism shines through each and every musical number.
The songs include ‘Catch a Falling Star’, ‘Cry’, ‘Three Coins in a Fountain’. ‘Heart and Soul’ and many others. The revue is a subtle spectacle, celebrating the flip side of the fifties which has become overshadowed by Rock n’ Roll, Elvis and the Beatles. The comedy is not restricted to the repartee between the songs. There is a wonderful moment when they take on the Beatles’ ‘She Loves You’, tightening the harmonies and singing ‘She Loves You Yes Siree”. There is a Calypso sequence, and a fabulous version of ‘Lady of Spain’ while they mime and juggle and impersonate bygone celebrities.
You don’t need to be an aficionado of the genre to appreciate ‘Forever Plaid’. It obviously helps, but what can’t be helped is the spell that is cast. Each note, sung and spoken is spot on. With musical director Ian Oakley on keys and Jess Martin on double bass, we have a real sense of the warmth and emotional tug of nostalgia. They sing ‘Love is a Many Splendored Thing’ to close the show – the number the fictitious quartet were rehearsing before they died. They marvel at this dreamlike chance to have a second chance. “Can we pick off where we left off?” they ask. They answer their own question; “Why not? We came back once, we can do it again… A perfect chord. One perfect moment. That’s all anyone has the right to ask for”.
This isn’t the first time that “Forever Plaid” has run at Upstairs at the Gatehouse. And let’s hope it’s not the last.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Darren Bell
Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 27th June
Other shows reviewed by Jonathan this year