Send in the Clowns: The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham

Reviewer: James Garrington

Send In The Clowns is a “drag celebration of Stephen Sondheim”, a brief foray into some of the work of the legendary theatre composer and lyricist – and it’s fair to say that the production has been presented with challenges that would have prompted some productions to cancel. To lose one performer out of a team of five is possibly manageable, but to also lose your accompanist at short notice undoubtedly causes a huge amount of extra work and stress. But, as they say, the show must go on, and on it duly goes.

It’s a show that has something to entertain everyone, but also things that some people may find intensely annoying. Some of the show includes live vocals, while other parts feature lipsyncing often accompanied by some on-stage antics which provide a certain entertainment value but don’t help with any appreciation of the music or witty lyrics written by the great man. Rose’s Turn, a particularly poignant moment from Gypsy is treated by Dahlia Rivers almost like an ill-judged joke and Unworthy of your Love, a lovely number from the seldom-produced Assassins turns into a total send-up by Rivers and Blü Romantic.

The show is salvaged by host Fatt Butcher and vocalist Alanna Boden who between them provide some good performances of the classics. Fatt Butcher is an outgoing and engaging host, interacting and responding well with the audience and keeping things moving along, confidently brushing aside the inevitable confusions caused by a missing vocalist. They also have some good vocal skills, with nicely delivered I’m Still Here and a very tender version of Being Alive. Likewise, Boden entertains well, with a particularly pleasing Anyone Can Whistle and a well-judged Ladies Who Lunch – and, despite sound and arrangement issues, leads a well-performed Somewhere taking us into the interval.

Can you perform the entirety of Sweeney Todd in 20 minutes? Yes, as long as you omit half of the characters and take some liberties with the plot. What we hear is quite nicely done, leading off with Butcher as Mrs Lovett in their version of The Worst Pies in London. This goes into My Friends, where Blü Romantic proves that, despite the earlier antics, he can sing, and very well too. Finally, the pair come together in A Little Priest, leading into the company taking the stage to wrap up with Sunday, a lovely reminder of Sondheim’s glorious writing.

There are points where having to suddenly work without an accompanist takes its toll and a few occasions where the lyrics get the better of the performers. There are one or two unusual choices made along the way too – starting proceedings off with the Invocation from The Frogs but stopping before it moves to the very funny Instructions to the Audience seems out of kilter with the feel of the show and the audience, and it’s a bold decision to have an audience sing-along of an up-tempo version of Send in the Clowns.

Despite the challenges, the show gets through and provides entertainment, with some sections of the audience clearly having a very enjoyable time – but it’s a show that’s definitely aimed more at the drag fans than the Sondheim fans.

Runs until 22 January 2022

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More for drag fans than Sondheim fans

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