Drawing: Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends tribute concert 3 May 2022

Drawing of Stephen Sondheim signed by Sir Cameron Mackintosh, Maria Friedman, Dame Judy Dench, Petula Clark, Julia McKenzie, Michael Ball, Bernadette Peters, Sian Philips, Bonnie Langford, Janie Dee, Gary Wilmot, Clive Rowe, Charlie Stemp, Michael Xavier, Jon Robyns, Damien Lewis, Rob Brydon, Haydn Gwynn and Julian Ovenden, from the Stephen Sonheim Old Friends Tribute Concert, London

British producer and theatre impresario, Sir Cameron Mackintosh invited many of the late Stephen Sondheim’s old friends to join him in celebrating the great composer’s extraordinary talents and legacy at the West End theatre named after him. Considered one of the most influential figures in twentieth-century musical theatre, Stephen passed away at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut last November at the age of 91, before he was able to attend the official naming ceremony of the Shaftesbury Avenue theatre.

The tribute concert STEPHEN SONDHEIM’S OLD FRIENDS (from a number in 1981’s MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG) on 3 May, directed by Maria Friedman was also simulcast at the nearby Prince Edward Theatre, due to ticket demand. All proceeds went to the Stephen Sondheim Foundation. In his five star review for the Guardian, Mark Lawson wrote, “A glorious all-star memorial service… Stephen Sondheim was so vast a talent that London required two theatres to remember him… each of the (41) tunes a eulogy.”

While I wasn’t unable to get (or indeed fit) every artist, I did manage 19 from the glittering line-up, who respectfully signed around the pencil portrait of the great man; Sir Cameron Mackintosh, Maria Friedman, Dame Judy Dench, Petula Clark, Julia McKenzie, Michael Ball, Bernadette Peters, Sian Philips, Bonnie Langford, Janie Dee, Gary Wilmot, Clive Rowe, Charlie Stemp, Michael Xavier, Jon Robyns, Damien Lewis, Rob Brydon, Haydn Gwynn and Julian Ovenden.

Drawing: Liza Sadovy as Fraulein Schneider in CABARET

Autographed drawing of Liza Sadovy in Cabaret at the Playhouse Theatre on London's West End

British actress Liza Sadovy won the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in a Musical for her performance as the amiable landlady Fraulein Schneider in Rebecca Frecknall’s sensational revival of CABARET at the Playhouse Theatre. The production made history, winning all four Musical acting categories with leads Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley and fellow supporting actor and on-stage love interest Elliot Levey also collecting their respective awards at this month’s Royal Albert Hall ceremony.

“Sadovy is especially excellent, bringing both sweetness and steeliness to her depiction of a world- weary woman,” wrote Miriam Gibson in her LondonBoxOffice review. Liza and Elliot (as the Jewish shopkeeper Herr Schultz) are retirement-age lovers as the Nazi party is taking over the streets of Berlin in the 1930’s. They ‘swoon over a pineapple until their relationship is derailed by anti-Semitism.’ In Variety, David Benedict said, “The utter sincerity of the detailing of their relationship is so magnetic that even the pineapple song ‘It Couldn’t Please Me More’ here makes rare emotional sense,”

Liza’s career has seen her perform on both sides of the Atlantic. Her stage appearances include WICKED in the original London production as the replacement Madame Morrible, Catherine De Brie in LA BETE on both Broadway and the West End, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, OLIVER!, PYGMALION and RICHARD II to name a few. She has also appeared in Opera productions such as THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO, LA TRAVIATA and DON GIOVANNI. In film and TV she lists Tim Burton’s SWEENY TODD:THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, MIDSOMER MURDERS, EASTENDERS and VERA amongst her credits.

Liza signed this sketch for me on her final day at the Playhouse, before immediately starting rehearsals for Rodger and Hammerstein’s OKLAHOMA!, where the Tony Award- winning production transfers to London’s Young Vic, after its acclaimed Broadway run and US tour. It opens this week with Liza playing the town’s fun-loving caretaker Aunt Eller.

Drawing: Elliot Levey as Herr Schultz in CABARET

Autographed drawing of Elliot Levey in Cabaret at London's Playhouse Theatre on West End

The London revival of the Kander and Ebb classic musical CABARET at the Playhouse Theatre was nominated for 11 Olivier Awards, winning seven, including Best Actor in a Supporting Role in a Musical for Elliot Levey for his portrayal of the kindly old Jewish fruit seller, Herr Schultz in Berlin during the Weimar-era. After reading philosophy at Oxford University, Elliot has become a popular regular on the British stage, including the National Theatre’s 2004 revival of HIS DARK MATTERS, as Brutus in CORIOLANUS with Mark Gatiss and Tom Hiddleston at the Donmar Warehouse in 2013 and in the role of Don John in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING alongside David Tennant and Catherine Tate at Wyndham’s in 2011. His film work includes Kenneth Branagh’s remake of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, THE LADY IN THE VAN, THE QUEEN, PHILOMENIA and on the small screen, PEAKY BLINDERS.

“Lovely work from Elliot Levey and Liza Sadovy as the landlady Fraulein Schneider… the fate of their sweet, courtly romance in the face of Nazi disapproval drives events in the story,” wrote Andrzej Lukowski in his TimeOut review. Variety critic David Benedict said, “Any scrap of sentimentality in the writing is banished by the wonderfully held tension between the two actors, who use expert comic timing to walk a tentative tightrope between hope and heartbreak.”

Elliot signed this drawing I did of him prior to a Saturday matinee at the Playhouse Theatre stage door the day before he collected his Olivier.

Drawing: Hiran Abeysekera in the Life Of Pi

Autographed drawing of Hiran Abeysekera in the Life Of Pi on West End

Lolita Chakrabarti’s puppet-powered adaption of Yann Martel’s much-loved Booker Prize winning novel THE LIFE OF PI opened in Sheffield’s Crucible theatre in 2019 to a rapturous reception, but its West End transfer was severely delayed due to the pandemic. It was worth the wait. When the breathtaking production, directed by Max Webster, finally opened at Wyndham’s Theatre last November, it was an instant smash hit, ‘A Theatrical Phenomenon’ (The Telegraph), winning five Olivier Awards at last weekend’s Royal Albert Hall ceremony, including Best New Play.

“It is one of the most visually stunning theatre shows I have ever seen,” wrote Andrzej Lukowski in his TimeOut review. “Long after the curtain falls LIFE OF PI will make you believe in the power of theatre,” said The Times.

A father’s decision to relocate his ramshackled family zoo in the South Indian coastal town of Pondicherry to Canada begins an epic 227-day journey of hope and endurance. After the cargo ship sinks in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean there are five survivors on a lifeboat; a hyena, a zebra, an orangutang, a Royal Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker and the extraordinary story’s protagonist and zookeeper’s son, sixteen-year-old Piscine Molitor ‘Pi’ Patel (named after a swimming pool in Paris), played by a very youthful and ebullient 35 year-old RADA graduate Hiran Abeysekera, deservedly winning the Olivier for Best Actor.

During the delay and lockdowns, Hiran recalled thinking, “like many creative people, he questioned the importance of his job, compared to nurses and other frontline workers, but then people kept taking about all the things that they were watching on their laptops and how TV and entertainment were a huge part of people’s mental health.” It reassured him.

Hiran’s personal theatrical journey began after his memorable portrayal of Alan Strang in the 2007 British Council’s Sri Lankan production of Peter Shaffer’s EQUUS in his hometown of Columbo, which caught the attention of theatre director Willi Richards, who flew him to the UK to audition for various drama schools, winning a scholarship at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. And so the 23 year-old began a new life in London.

Sri Lankan Sunday Times journalist interviewed Hiran in 2008. He wrote, “Some people make an instant impression on you. Some others leave you hoping you would meet them again. This young man falls into both categories.” I certainly agree, meeting Hiran at the stage door prior to a Sunday matinee last month, where he kindly signed my sketch.

Drawing: Saoirse Ronan in The Crucible

Autographed drawing of Saoirse Ronan in The Crucible on Broadway

American-born Irish actress Saoirse Ronan made her stage debut on Broadway as the main antagonist in the 2016 revival of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play THE CRUCIBLE at the Walter Kerr Theatre. She played the manipulative maid Abigail Williams, responsible for the deaths of 150 people accused of witchcraft in Salem in 1692. It was an allegory for McCarthyism. In his review for The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney called Saoirse’s performance “icy and commanding.” The production won the Tony Award for Best Revival.

Last year she made her London stage debut as Lady Macbeth in the Almeida Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH.

In 2020 the New York Times ranked her tenth on its list of this century’s Greatest Actors. She has been nominated for four Oscars – for her performances in ATONEMENT (2007), BROOKLYN (2015), LADY BIRD (2017), and LITTLE WOMEN (2019) and five BAFTA Awards in the same films with the addition of THE LOVELY BONES (2009). She won a Golden Globe for her title role as Christine ‘Lady Bird’ MacPherson in Greta Gerwig’s 2017 directorial debut LADY BIRD.

Saorise signed my sketch of her as Abigail at the Almeida Theatre during the final week of MACBETH In November 2021.

Drawing: Lily Allen, Hadley Fraser, Julia Chan and Jake Wood in 2:22 A GHOST STORY

Autographed drawing of Lily Allen, Hadley Fraser, Julia Chan and Jake Wood in 2:22 A GHOST STORY on West End

One of the first productions to open on the West End after the pandemic lockdowns forced theatres to go dark for nearly 18 months was Danny Robins’ supernatural thriller, 2:22 A GHOST STORY, directed by Matthew Dunster. It opened at the Noel Coward Theatre in early August last year, becoming the hottest ticket in town. After weeks of sell-out performances, 2:22 finished its initial run on 16 October.

Described as ‘the theatrical event of the year’, it marked the West End debut of chart-topping singer Lily Allen as Jenny, who believes her new house is haunted. “There’s something in our home. I hear it every night at the same time… 2:22”, while her husband Sam (Hadley Fraser) is having nothing of it. They invite Lauren, (Julia Chan) an old friend and her new partner Ben (Jake Wood) as their first dinner guests and Jenny persuades them all to stay up until 2:22 to see what happens.

In his TimeOut review, Andrzej Lukowski wrote, “2:22 is a rare and precious example of a good West End Ghost Story.”

Because of phenomenal demand, the play transferred across town to the Gielgud Theatre with a new cast until 12 February.

Due to covid protocols, the original cast members – Lily, Hadley, Julia and Jake were unable to sign at the stage door until after the final performance when I was able to have my sketch ‘graphed by all four.

Drawing: Stephen Sondheim

Autographed drawing of Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim, ‘the Titan of American Musical Theatre’, passed away at his home in the small town of Roxbury, Connecticut on 26 November at the age of 91. Lights were dimmed in early December at all venues on Broadway and the West End, where he has theatres named after him. He was considered the theatre’s most revered and influential composer-lyricist of the last half of the 20th Century.

The New York Times former theatre critic, Frank Rich, wrote, “Stephen Sondheim was the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theatre.” In case you need reminding, here is why: WEST SIDE STORY (1957), GYPSY (1959), A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (1962), COMPANY (1970), FOLLIES (1971), A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (1973 – including one of my favourite songs,’Send In The Clowns’), his best; SWEENY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (1979), MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (1981), SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (1984), INTO THE WOODS (1987), ASSASSINS (1990) and PASSION (1994).

Among his many accolades, Steve collected eight Tony and Grammy Awards, six Oliviers, A Pulitzer (for SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE) and an Oscar for Best Original Song – ‘Sooner or Later’ from DICK TRACY (1990), sung by Madonna. He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2015.

A frequent visitor to London, I had the honour of meeting him on a couple of occasions, the first at the Royal Festival Hall’s Artist Entrance in October 2010, when he was interviewed by Jude Kelly. By that time he had stopped signing autographs and politely declined my request along with a handful of people waiting with similar intent. I was pre-warned when I wrote to him and received a reply, apologising, but after years of accommodating fans he had decided to discontinue the practice.

However, a year earlier I did manage to acquire a signed autograph album page from an American collector. I drew this quick portrait sketch last week and added the sig in remembrance of the great man.

RIP Steve.

Drawing: Michael Pennington as Prospero

Tom Littler’s production of THE TEMPEST at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London, featuring Michael Pennington as Prospero, opened in March 2020 for a five week season. After only six performances it was forced to close due to the Covid lockdown. Eighteen months later it set sail again, and even though the Omnicron variant, currently rampaging through the West End, is causing show disruptions, the production looks likely to complete its rescheduled run this week.

One of the foremost Shakespearean actors of his generation, Michael’s distinguished career is dominated by a variety of leading stage roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and the English Shakespeare Company, which he co-founded and was its Artistic Director from 1986-1992. The four-time Olivier Award nominee has also toured two solo shows; SWEET WILLIAM and ANTON CHEKHOV worldwide. Earlier this year he released a memoir, entitled ‘In My Own Footsteps’.

“Being taken to the theatre when I was 11 years old lit a light in me, and that light has never gone out.”Michael’s latest stage performmance drew universal acclaim.  In the West End’s smallest producing theatre, he is “a colossal Prospero”, wrote Broadway World. The Guardian’s Arifa Akbar said, “The magic spark in this production lies largely in Pennington’s Prospero… a physically wizened but still mighty magician and displaced Duke.

“Michael also has a number of screen appearances to his impressive credit list, including CALLAN, THE BILL, THE TUDORS and FATHER BROWN on television and as Moff Jerjerrod in STAR WARS: RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983) and Michael Foot in THE IRON LADY (2011) on the big screen.

I met Michael a couple of weekends ago as he arrived at the Jermyn Street Theatre for a Saturday matinee, where he kindly signed my Prospero portrait for me.

Drawing: The Shark Is Broken

Signed Drawing of Ian Shaw, Liam Murray Scott and Demetri Goritas in The Shark Is Broken at the Ambassadors Theatre on London's West End

Duunn…dunnn…duuuunnnn…duun…duuunnunnunnn…dun…dun…dun…dun.

Martha’s Vineyard, 1974, shooting on twenty-six year old Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster JAWS has stalled. The film’s lead actors – Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss – are stuck in a boat at the mercy of the bad weather and a faulty mechanical co-star.

JAWS finally swam into the West End, to the Ambassadors Theatre, courtesy of Sonia Friedman in the form of the play, THE SHARK IS BROKEN, the hilarious and moving behind-the-scenes drama based on the problems caused by filming on the Atlantic Ocean with the salt water playing havoc with the pneumatic components of the mechanical shark, nicknamed ‘Bruce’ after the director’s lawyer. With the budget spiralling out of control, cast and crew had a lot of time to kill, including the stars, fuelling a combustive dynamic with alcohol and ambition.

After a sell-out, critically acclaimed run at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2019 an extended version, written by Robert’s son Ian Shaw and comedy writer Joseph Nixon, directed by Guy Masterson was due to open in London last year. Suspended for 16 months due to the pandemic lockdowns the production opened this year on 9 November to rave reviews. I was amongst the matinee audience last Saturday that gave a standing ovation. The season has already been extended due to popular demand…omicron variant willing.

Ian has an uncanny resemblance to his father’s character, especially poignant in the closing scene when he delivers his famous ‘Indianapolis’ speech. Liam Murray Scott is marine biologist Matt Hooper, both reprising their Edinburgh roles. They are joined by Demetri Goritas as Amity police chief Martin Brody, the mediator between Robert and Richard.

All three cast members signed my sketch after the opening night performance on 9 November at the theatre’s stage door.

Drawing: Carol Burnett

Autographed drawing of Carol Burnett

Continuing my ‘lockdown letters’ to some of my favourite performers, I wrote to the wonderful Carol Burnett via her production company in Santa Monica earlier this year, enclosing this simple portrait sketch for signing, which she dedicated and quickly returned.

Rated one of the best TV shows of all time by a variety of notable publications including TIME magazine, THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW ran for 11 seasons from 1967-1978, with a total of 279 episodes and a further nine in 1991. I don’t think I missed one of them. The groundbreaking comedy-variety show was one of the first of its kind hosted by a woman. It featured Carol with regulars Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and in later episodes Tim Conway and Dick Van Dyke, collecting 25 primetime Emmy Awards. 

Beginning with student productions while studying at UCLA in the early 1950’s, Carol’s impressive seven-decade career in stage, television and film, with a mixture of dramatic and comedic roles has been recognised with numerous awards including six Emmy Awards (23 nominations), seven Golden Globes (18 nominations) a Grammy and a Tony (three nominations each). In 2005 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom “for enhancing the lives of millions of Americans and her extraordinary contribution to American entertainment.

During her student days, Carol was struggling to pay her tuition bills. An anonymous benefactor came to her rescue. She had to pay back the interest-free loan in five years, never to reveal his identity and if she became successful, help others in financial need. She kept all those promises, contributing to scholarships at both UCLA and the University of Hawaii.