views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Bye Bye Birdie
Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre
14th August 2015

★★★★☆

Liberty Buckland and Ryan Forde Iosco as Rose and Albert

Photography © David Ovenden

If you can conjure up the image of Harry Styles (and his hair) quitting pop to join the army, and the legions of confused and upset tweenage girls he would leave behind, you've almost recreated the main storyline to Bye Bye Birdie. You just need to go back in time a bit to 1950s America, with its black and white checkerboard and striking red design, lots of full skirts and petticoats and far too much hair wax. Actually, trying to picture Style's famous locks in that era just doesn't work. However, you get the idea: this is a musical about heartthrob Conrad Birdie (Zac Hamilton), who has the same enormous fan base and mass appeal, and who certainly wouldn't be trading a microphone for a rifle if it wasn't for mandatory conscription. He's not happy and neither are his fans, but the show must - well, stop.

Conrad's agent and songwriter Albert Peterson (Ryan Forde Iosco) decides to stage one last publicity stunt before Conrad leaves, with help from his beloved secretary Rosie Alvarez (Liberty Buckland). The plan is for Conrad to perform new song One Last Kiss on The Ed Sullivan Show and then kiss one of Conrad's fans, live on air. Now, that might sound a little pervy, and maybe it is, however director James Hume glosses over this, which is really the only thing he can do. When it comes to revivals of older musicals, these sort of plot problems will always crop up, but Hume does place the focus elsewhere.

Kim MacAfee (Abigail Matthews) is chosen to be the lucky recipient of Conrad's last kiss, much to the anger of her far more age-appropriate sweetheart, Hugo Peabody (Benedikt De La Bédoyère). Kim's parents, Doris MacAfee (Stephanie Lysé) and Harry MacAfee (Harry Hart) aren't too thrilled about it either, with Hart's body shaking in rage as his character contemplates the slight on his daughter's innocence.

The power play between Rose, Albert and his mother, Mae Peterson (Jayne Ashley) is where the heart of the story really lies though. Albert, like many men before and after him, remains attached to his mother's apron strings, and Mae most certainly does not approve of Rose, getting at least one swipe in every time they share a scene. Mae's passive aggressive behaviour and neglected mom act are so affected for her son's sake that we find her hilarious. With that said, you can also sense the immense pressure this places on Albert and the anger and frustration building up for Rose. She wants him to leave the apparent glamour of showbiz and pursue his real dream of being an English teacher, and settle down with her away from all the emptiness of the New York lifestyle his mother wants him to have. I know, that's a bit of a role reversal, but our Rose is a wise one.

Publicity image for Bye Bye Birdie

Photography © David Ovenden

Buckland is quite clearly the standout performer, tearing through What Did I Ever See In Him alongside Matthews, with a controlled fury and stunning vocals, and then dancing her way round the stage in Shriner Ballet with a fierce confidence, flirting with a group of Freemasons and captivating them with her beauty and sultry movement. Although she's sensible most of the time, when Spanish Rose lets her hair down, she's a magnificent force to be reckoned with.

Whilst the choreography in the first half isn't much to talk about, in the second, Anthony Whiteman finally makes use of Ryan Walklett's vintage costumes - 1950s skirts just beg for their wearers to twirl and be twirled. Some of the front row audience members look a little apprehensive as the large ensemble gets close to the edge, but the close proximity between the performers and the audience has always been a highlight of this venue for me. Even in the front row of a West End show, you never get this near, and it really helps draw you into the action.

The strains of We Love You, Conrad as sung by the female ensemble deliberately trying to sound as shrill as possible to replicate the supposed playing ages of Conrad's fan club become increasingly irritating as the musical goes on. (Imagine how it must must feel for Conrad, being followed around with this dirge all day!) It's especially annoying because We Love You, Conrad becomes an infectious ear worm. Iosco's Put On A Happy Face and Lysé and Hart's rendition of Kids both stay with us long after the show, but this time, we welcome the melodies sticking around as they're somewhat easier on the ears. Some of Michael Stewart's book is a little bit ropey, but Charles Strouse's music and Lee Adam's lyrics are a real delight.

As to be expected, musical director Aaron Clingham guides his band through the score admirably, with Ruth Whybrow on flute, clarinet and alto and baritone saxophone, Doug Weekes on bass and Janette Williams on drums. Visible from the far corner of the stage, they join in with the period look (the detail even extends to socks) with a diner milkshake perched on Clingham's piano. The band are very much designed to blend in with the scenery, and they do so between songs, but theirs is a talent which means they never truly fade into the background.

Bye Bye Birdie is one of those musicals where some of its numbers have trickled through to pop culture and yet the piece as a whole remains relatively unknown. All Star Productions have once again found an obscure show worth reviving and polished it up with a tremendous skill and enthusiasm. There aren't many things that would persuade me to trek over to Walthamstow during the planned closure of the top end of the Victoria line or indeed another tube strike, but believe me, Bye Bye Birdie is worth making the trip to Ye Olde Rose and Crowne for. It's yet another hit by All Star Productions.

Bye Bye Birdie ran from 11th August to 4th September 2015 at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Walthamstow Central (Victoria)



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