London Journal – Day 27 – One Last Review

Postcards from god - The Sister Wendy MusicalA little over a week past I heard an interview on BBC with Gay Soper, a frequent habitué of stage and screen here, on the subject of her latest show, The Sister Wendy Musical. The title was all I needed to hear, I ordered a ticket right off.

For those of you unfamiliar with Sister Wendy, she was a nun who made a vow of hermitage, lived in a caravan on the grounds of a convent, and turned into possibly the most influential television art critic ever. She was treated with contempt by many in the art world for her naivete, but greeted with joy by many more laypeople who welcomed her singular enthusiasm for art and her almost evangelical fervour. I couldn’t pass this up.

The show is at the Hackney Empire Studio, by Hackney Central station. This is a couple of stops past the Dunston/Kingsroad station which serves Arcola Theatre, so a bit of a haul. On a Sunday night, when the overground trains run only every half hour, this is significant. I got there with plenty of time, and had the chance to have a quick bowl of chow mein before the show. That was my first mistake.

The show was poorly attended. It had opened while I was gone, and I hadn’t read any of the reviews. Now that I have I can tell why. It was not well received. I can agree with much of what has been written by the critics, although I feel that some of them (Guardian, Times) brought their critical bias against Sister Wendy to bear upon the production as well. I think that unfair. That being said, however, the show was weak.

The book and lyrics are good, as is most of Gay Soper’s performance, though she must learn her lines better — a shortfall shared by many in the cast. It is the direction, staging, music and enthusiastic but amateurish supporting ensemble which drag this otherwise uplifting show down with the weight of their failings.

Staging a broad musical in an intimate setting (the theatre seats only a few dozen) is difficult. The broad strokes with which most characters in a musical are painted look cartoonish and foolish to a viewer only ten feet away. No adjustment for this was made, excepting on Soper’s part, and the result was a disappointment. Were this a fund-raising performance by a church group, it would have been impressive. As an off-West End show, with tickets going for £12, it failed. The blame for this, I feel, can be laid at the feet of Okai Collier company who produced the work. Omar Okai, direction/staging/choreography deserves much of this, though with an obviously thin budget one feels Simon James Colier gets his share of blame, as well.

I do feel I must address the seeming inconsistency in my opinion of this piece, with the amateurish appearance of so much of it, and my glowing review of The Grapes Of Wrath, which had a similarly amateurish cast. Well, where to begin… For one thing, Only Connect was right up front that they are a non-professional company. They are almost boastful of this, and of the nature of their work. I went into that performance not expecting anything better than a church fund-raiser. This show, in contrast, was promoted as an off-West End show, and I approached it with that level of expectation. Only Connect are a charity, and the show, besides its own good works factor, is a fund raiser. I gladly dropped a twenty in the basket on the way out, confident that it would be put to good use. Lastly, even though it was not a musical, the music in Grapes was better, better performed, and had a much greater impact in the show than anything in tonight’s show.

In all fairness, I must admit to having had to leave the theatre about 20 minutes before the end of the show (see the chow mein, above). I cannot believe, however, that any miracle prevailed in fixing the many flaws in the production that I witnessed while I was there. The final twenty minutes of a show may redeem an apparently weak script, but cannot make up for a poor performance or conception.

My final word? If you have £15 or less to spend on theatre in London, go see any of the other off-West End shows I have reviewed on these pages; Thin Toes, Last Living Unknown Soldier, A Prayer For My Daughter, The Harder They Come or even Double Portrait. Or, see a show in a bigger venue, like The Peacock where Sadler Wells stage its big productions, with a ticket from the half price booth in Leicester Square.

I wish Okai Collier well on their future productions, but hope they rethink their approach.

Oh, and a final note – as penance I had to wait nearly half and hour in the cold for the train. 🙁

2 thoughts on “London Journal – Day 27 – One Last Review

  1. Tarquin Flynn

    Whilst you are fully entitled to your opinion about this piece, I feel compelled to mention that the reviews that you reference from the Guardian and the Times actually refer to the previous incarnation of this show and not this version.

    As you do not mention having seen the version at the Jermyn Street Theatre I find it odd that you are able to agree with the reviews about it. I also think it is a little mean-spirited to saddle this version with the perceived failings of its predecessor – and given that both reviews name check the old cast, I find it difficult to believe that this was in error.

    The Hackney show has in fact only received one major review – in this week’s Stage (, and they described it as a ‘delightful little musical’.

    When I attended the show on Saturday there were at least 50 people in the audience and so it could have been suffering from the obvious difficulties of trying to entice people to the theatre on a Sunday evening.

    I would also point out that I enjoyed the second act of this show far more than the first and so maybe if you hadn’t been inconvenienced by your choice of meal that evening, you might have been in a better position to comment on its overall failings.

    Whilst I totally respect the right of anyone to voice an opinion and think the beauty of the arts is that it can provoke such different opinions, I would not like people to read your review of the evening and not know that there is possibly another side to the story.

    Whilst I am not directly involved with this production, I have worked with several of the cast previously and felt compelled to defend both their show and their professionalism.

  2. nic Post author

    I do not in any way mean to imply that I agree with everything that the previous reviewers wrote, and I admit that while I had realized that some of the reviews were of an earlier version, I did not realize that of all of them. I apologize for that. I do, however, stick by my comments.

    I did leave early, and I was very clear about that because one thing I hated when I did theatre was to read reviews by critics whom I knew full well had a deadline prior to the end of the show — something they did not reveal to their readers. That said, I stand by my comment that little could have happened in the last 20 minutes that would have changed the specific flaws that I perceived in the show.

    Was it a “delightful little musical?” Yes, but was the presentation, the production values, of a calibre to justify the admissions price? No. Not in my book. Again, I have seen plenty of off-West End shows to compare it with.

    Lastly, though, thank you for sharing your take on the show and of my critique. This sort of back and forth is what I like about the modern media.


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