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Some great performances - but Jane's a calamity!



Review by Paul Nelson

IT IS A tempting thing to have the word 'calamity' resounding in your head as you review a show, and because it is in the title to use it becomes very tempting indeed.

However, Calamity Jane at the Shaftesbury, has a lot going for it that makes one put the word on hold.

The show owes a great debt to Oklahoma! and Annie Get Your Gun, with echoes of numbers from those shows.

Windy City has a lot of the sentiments of Everything's Up To Date in Kansas City (Oklahoma!) and I Can Do Without You is a dead ringer for Anything You Can Do (Annie Get Your Gun).

If you have never seen the film, Calamity Jane is an outrider on a stagecoach, the one with the rifle who is there to guard the passengers and shoot the marauders. In this case she has two six-shooters.

She is in love, or thinks she is, with Lt. Danny Gilmartin and is prone to over-emphasising the truth. Lying in other words.

The town, Deadwood, is filled with unfulfilled and frustrated men, though judging by the women on hand it is difficult to see why. When they are called upon to do a dance number, the women grope the men on no less than three occasions during the show, which implies the men are not so much unfulfilled as disenchanted with the wares on offer.

When the owner of the local saloon hears about a fantastic musical star, Frances Fryer, he decides to book her into his saloon to be the main attraction.

Frances turns out to be Francis, a man, and to save his face about the mistake does a bad drag act, which culminates in him being exposed as a fraud.

A cigarette card girl turns out to be the one most men in the town want to see and the boisterous and bumptious Calam (as we must now call Calamity Jane for rhyming purposes at least) promises to go to Chicagee and bring 'er back alive.

If you are still with me, the star has decided to quit America for Europe and leaves her costumes and props to her maid, Katie Brown, who has designs on a stage career.

The well meaning Calam brings the girl back to Deadwood, thinking she is toting the star, and the gauche Katie eventually makes it as an entertainer.

She and Calam share Calam's cabin, during which time Calam discovers femininity and they both discover they have a crush on the same man.
I can't actually go any further with this story, it is so jejune, so I will leave it for you to find out who gets who, why, and whether it is at all necessary.

Frankly, if like me you love and believe in Cinderella and admire a dedicated cast of dancers actors and singers, the show certainly is all necessary.

However, what makes the show stand out as an ultimate failure is that neither the book nor the cast pincipals believe in a word of the story.

It is so facile that you get tired of finding yet another veneer under yet another veneer to the point where you don't care.

You are stranded. Up a creek with the only paddle being what the performers can offer.

I must point out that here there are some revelations.

I cannot remember a better relatively unknown singer since Harold (later Howard) Keel on the London stage than Michael Cormick, who plays Wild Bill Hickok.

His voice is to glory in, his appearance a plus, and his acting totally satisfactory.

It is unfortunate for me to point out that with all these attributes he ultimately gets Calam. He should have been much more of a winner.

As Katie Brown, Kellie Ryan brings a fresh approach to the ingenue. She actually has some good scenes to play, unlikely as they are, and she does them very well.

Why anyone would want to leave Deadwood in search of crumpet when Susan, the innkeeper's daughter, is around presents another mystery.

One of the loveliest girls to be seen on the London stage for ages is Abigail Aston but, so as not to distract us, she is snapped up by Francis and the part shunted into the background.

Well, it isn't a three-volume novel after all.

With a background of some excellent performers, the show of course has to focus on Calam.

In a cross between a muppet and a Disney cartoon character, the frantic Toyah Willcox gains attention by actually shinning up the scenery (a trick no doubt discovered recently in the jungle), throwing her arms around while making the simplest gesture, bobbing about like a ping pong ball someone is trying to submerge, and generally gesticulating and taking away ones concentration from whatever else is on the stage.

The performance could be called perpetual motion. Better still, a headache.

There is one main point that all this emphasises, which I suspect as a woman she knows. She is not likeable. When she is tied up at the end of Act One, when we hope she will stop writhing, she doesn't, and it is a noticeable disappointment that she isn't still tied up at the opening of Act Two.

All this frantic behaviour isn't worth a tinker's cuss; all it achieves is presumably the exhaustion of what appears to be an inexhaustible woman and the enervation of her audience.

Even the, what have now become commonplace in the theatre, woowoopers, found their whoops too tiring to keep up. For the fist time I saw and heard this claque flagging. There is a god.

If you are a fan of Miss Willcox, and are prepared to put up with all the difficulties of the lisp, and that Scylla and Charybdis Once I had a secret love, beloved of karaoke pub people, but mainly unattainable because of the Now I shout it key change, at which Miss Willcox fails, then this show is for you.

Otherwise, pray that the West End fairy will deliver the fascinating members of the cast and present them with a suitably thrilling showcase that they and we will revel in.

There. I didn't misuse the word 'calamity' once.

I enjoyed the scenery, even though it looks like a touring version of a show (which it is), and also that occasionally as in a strip cartoon, the dancers were silhouettes against brilliant skies, plus the general thrill the minor members of the cast transmitted to the audience.

Due to these, you get the impression, however falsely, that you are in the presence of a major musical event, except that we all are very familiar with the numbers and are unwilling to get familiar with the star.

Calamity Jane based on a screenplay by James O'Hanlon, adapted for the stage by Charles K Freeman, Music Sammy Fain, Lyrics Paul Francis Webster, Directed by Ed Curtis, Musical Director Robert Cousins, Choreography Craig Revel Horwood, Design Simon Higlett, Lighting James Whiteside. WITH: Toyah Willcox (Calamity Jane), Michael Cormick (Wild Bill Hickok), Kellie Ryan (Katie Brown), Gary Kilby (Lt Danny Gilmartin), Duncan Smith (Henry Miller), Abigail Aston (Susan), Phil Ormerod (Francis Fryer), Ahmet Ahmet (Charlie the Prospector), Kat Baker (KItty), Alan Bradshaw (Doc), Lynsey Britton (Sally), Michael Broughton (Jed/Hank), John Contes (Rattlesnake), Gareth Derrick (Pete/Stan), Emma Dodd (Adelaid/Milly), Carly Hainsby (Bess), Paul Hemming (Buck), Ian Gareth Jones (Joe/Doorman), Cameron Leigh (Flo). Presented by Tristan Baker at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London WC2. Tickets 020 7379 5399

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