Tell Me On a Sunday continues at the St James Theatre, London until 12 January before transferring to the Duchess Theatre for two weeks from 18 February–1 March.
It’s nostalgia time at the St James with Marti Webb bravely re-creating the one-woman Tell Me On a Sunday show of almost 32 years ago that took her out of the shadow of Elaine Paige and turned her from high-class understudy and go-to girl if you wanted a job done properly and professionally, into a genuine star.
The first Eva Peron I ever saw in Evita (and as good as anybody), she covered for Paige when she was on holiday and did the matinees when she wasn’t, she also played Nancy in Oliver! but only on tour. But Andrew Lloyd Webber and Don Black’s Tell Me On a Sunday, their first and best collaboraration after the composer’s split with Tim Rice – they have since teamed up for Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard and now Stephen Ward – was prime-time Lloyd Webber and prime-time Don Black, when great songs tumbled rather than stumbled from their pens.
Black, who was there on opening night along with the show’s original producer Cameron Mackintosh to support the lady he once managed, was a perfect match for Lloyd Webber’s musical genius and the best British lyricist of his era.
Who wouldn’t be proud of: “Don’t write a letter when you want to leave… Don’t call me at 3am from a friend’s apartment… I’d like to choose how I hear the news… Take me to a park that’s covered with trees… Tell me on a Sunday please” about a girl about to be dumped. Bitter-sweet and beautiful.
Webb admits in the programme that she was “scared” of reprising the role at this late stage of her life, and the nerves certainly showed through in the first ten minutes, but with the packed audience willing her to do well, she soon hit her stride and by the time ‘Tell Me On a Sunday’, her favourite song, came round, she was in tremendous form, her timing as immaculate as ever.
Those who saw only a middle-aged, unflatteringly-dressed lady on the stage pretending she was 35 again were missing the point and not using their imaginations.
This was history being re-created as Webb recounted a London girl’s mixed-up love life in New York and LA, going from Hollywood producer’s arm candy, through unfaithful younger lover, to the inevitable married man, and finally the realisation after dumping and being dumped that “it’s not the end of the world to have no one”.
There is a wonderful symmetry about the storyline, a masterpiece in miniature, and Webb, with the down-to-earth honesty, and first-rate acting skills that the collaborators admired so much in writing Tell Me for her – originally as a TV special and then in a two-year run as the front half of Song and Dance in the early 1980s – always allowing those songs of girlish hope and ultimate regret to speak for themselves.
And it is a voice still very well worth hearing. Of course, it is hard not to smile, as the artist herself ruefully did, when these days she has to sing lines like “But if he gets his skates on, we can have some kids as well” (from ‘Second Letter Home’), and we know that she is not likely to be writing letters home.
Come to think of it, who is writing letters these days? Such is ‘progress’, there’s every chance some members of the audience have never written one to a parent. It is, then, very much a period piece.
But isn’t illusion what theatre’s all about? And is the world a better place for having Webb back for one last hurrah, first at the St James and then for two weeks at the Duchess in February, singing glorious material like ‘Tell Me’, the even bigger hit ‘Take That Look Off Your Face’, those three versions of ‘It’s Not the End of the World’, and those wonderful wry, witty concoctions ‘Sheldon Bloom’, ‘Capped Teeth and Caesar Salad’ and ‘Let Me Finish’? You bet!
Cramming 17 of them (plus ‘Unexpected Song’, a 1984 addition on Broadway for Bernadette Peters, as an encore) into an hour that ends far too soon isn’t quite a full evening’s entertainment, so it was a brilliant move to first give us a 30-minute taster of Black’s more recent Bonnie and Clyde, the Broadway hit show Urinetown, which opens at the St James next month, and Once.
Having now heard four cracking songs, not least ‘Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad’ and ‘You Love Who You Love’, it’s hard to believe Black’s musical take on the notorious lovestruck bank robbers lasted only 36 performances on Broadway.
Act I is delightfully sung by Michael Colbourne and Tess Kadler and beautifully choregraphed by Chris Marney for Ballet Central soloists John O’Gara and Amelia Jackson and, with Simon Lee’s seven-strong band, a magnificent seven, right on the money at the back of the simple set, there is not a single minute of this short-but-sweet evening that is anything other than enjoyable.
It is a pity the programme doesn’t match the on-stage action. If you buy one to find out the names of the three kitchen porters at St James, you won’t be disappointed. Personally, I wanted to find a list of the songs – it was after all a musical – but couldn’t. Thank goodness for the internet – some modern inventions have their uses!
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