Yesterday at the Charing Cross Theatre Patricia Routledge sat in conversation with Edward Seckerson for a thoroughly engaging three-hour show playing to a full house. Best-known these days as a comedy actor and for her work with Alan Bennett, Routledge started in musical theatre where she carved out a hugely successful career, working with many of the Twentieth Century greats of the genre. Believe it or not, Routledge won a Tony award on Broadway for her turn in Styne-Harburg’s Darling of the Day, and over here in the UK she picked up a Laurence Olivier Award for Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. Richard Rodgers (one half of redoubtable duo Rodgers and Hammerstein) even wanted to write a musical specifically for her, though, alas, it never transpired…
Routledge’s contribution to Singular Sensations, a season of interviews with musical theatre’s finest, was a peek at the side to her career that few these days know much about. Whilst Routledge (it’s rude to state a lady’s age, but she’s not as young as she used to be) may no longer perform in musical theatre, she’s as sharp-witted as ever, naturally funny and a joy to listen to. Interviewed on stage by genial host Edward Seckerson, who rightly identified himself early on as “the fall guy”, Routledge kept the audience entranced with her anecdotes about what music means to her, how she came to a career in musical theatre and the highlights of that stage of her life.
A peculiarly Scouse sense of humour was on display: Routledge from Birkenhead (the posh part of Liverpool, if you please) and Seckerson from the other (common) side of the River Mersey, their humour matched perfectly, with Routledge fluent in withering put-downs. When asking her how she spends her time nowadays, Routledge affected to consider for a moment before rebuking Seckerson to mind his own business. When he pointed out that some of her musical theatre ventures had been flops, she tartly asked, “Why have you invited me here?”
Amongst the delightful wit were the stories that musical theatre enthusiasts had been waiting for. Highlights included Routledge reminiscing about her audition for Leonard Bernstein and her subsequent part in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (a calamitous flop, as Seckerson bravely broached). She gave insight into the difficulty of Bernstein’s collaboration with Alan Jay Lerner.
Routledge’s lively and fun mind also turned its attention to her abhorrence of star actors not performing all eight shows per week any longer; and she gave vigorous yet hilarious defences of everything from speaking properly (not through the nose like weather girls) to the value and purpose of the apostrophe (which won the biggest round of applause)!
Whilst Routledge can no longer sing live, recordings from her career, including some rare finds from the archives, were played through the sound system to see the memories they provoked. Although you can’t beat live performance, the format worked surprisingly well, and at the end of the conversation, Routledge earned her standing ovation. She is, after all, a national treasure.
Routledge was invited back onto the stage to receive an award from a comedy club, which was presented to her by her Keeping Up Appearances co-star Clive Swift (giving lie to rumours they didn’t get along). When Patricia asked Swift if he was ever going to hand over the award whilst he was mid-flow in a rambling anecdote, it was a cheeky glimpse of Hyacinth and Richard – and won the biggest laugh of the evening.
The only downside of the event and this series is the venue. The Charing Cross Theatre has never been the friendliest of places, and this is exacerbated by the cramped conditions where the foyer and bar simply cannot accommodate a full house. Be prepared for a lot of pushing and shoving, mostly from irritable staff members, which could be avoided if the auditorium doors were opened more than ten minutes before the scheduled start. Similarly leave yourself twenty minutes after the curtain comes down to fight your way out of the venue, since there’s only one way in and out through narrow double doors, leaving an excessive bottleneck.
The run of Singular Sensations continues next Sunday (26th) at the same venue, with Jenna Russell joining Seckerson on stage, with the promise of live performances of some of her songs.