It’s a little known fact about me that I love Julie Andrews…and by “little known” I mean that everyone knows it. Even random people I walk past in the street know it, thanks to the way I skip along, swinging my guitar case and sporting a huge hat. So when I heard a new show about Julie’s life was coming to Trafalgar Studios, I just knew I had to see it.
You know how sometimes you meet someone and you just understand each other straight away? Well, that’s how I felt about Sarah-Louise Young, who was narrating the show, playing Julie, singing and playing a host of other characters as well. As soon as she talked about the O2 show, I felt like she was saying exactly what I was thinking. You see, Julie played the O2 in 2010 – I was there, along with about 50,000 of her other closest fans – and was savaged by the critics for not really doing much and just sitting back while some glossy Broadway pros sang her old songs. The reviews said her fans were disappointed, but I wasn’t disappointed. I knew she couldn’t sing any more and it was enough just to be in the same room as her, albeit a very, very big room. Sarah-Louise Young felt the same way and so, in those first few minutes, she won me over. I was going to try and review this in an objective way but it’s impossible. If you love Julie as much as I do, you’ll find a kindred spirit in Sarah-Louise. Of course, you don’t have to be a Julie Andrews obsessive to enjoy it, but it helps.
The narrative device was simple – a chronological look at Julie’s life. But cleverly woven in were Julie’s songs, and impressions of the characters who shaped her career – everyone from her singing teacher to Richard Rodgers (although not Oscar Hammerstein – he was “selectively mute” for the night). This is where the genius of the show lies – not only does Sarah-Louise do an uncanny Julie, she also nails Liza Minelli, understudying Julie in “Victor Victoria” (“Is this too much, darling?”) and Audrey Hepburn getting the lead in “My Fair Lady” (“Well, I’ve never been much of a singer”). Some impressions aren’t so accurate , but are played for comedic effect – Richard Rodgers is an extra from “Oklahoma”, one of the directors is a Jewish cliché – and all are pulled off seamlessly. With a stand-up’s confidence and timing, she ably deals with anything that goes wrong – shuffling an imaginary penguin offstage and improv-ing with pianist, partner and joke-fodder Michael Roulston. The result is a show that is not only touching in its extreme affection for the subject but also surreal and hilarious.
Strangely, for something that is so huge, the actual “Sound of Music” chapter is skimmed over pretty quickly. But references to it are scattered throughout, from the dress Sarah-Louise is wearing to the background music played by Michael. One of my favourite bits took place in total darkness just before the second act started. With audio only, her Julie impression was even more convincing, and I kept reminding myself that it wasn’t real. In the dark, she played both parts in a skit – the Reverend Mother from “Sound of Music” and herself, being reprimanded for skipping out during the interval. “What if you had got lost out there my child?” Reverend Mother asks to which Julie/Sarah-Louise replies “Oh, but it’s Soho. I could never get lost out there.” For an obsessive fan of both London and SoM, that was very gratifiying.
It’s hard to say much else without spoilering it, but I’ll say that it was a brilliant piece of theatre. Michael Roulston on the piano was the perfect back-up – playing like a virtuoso, singing and stepping into the occasional role (Richard Burton, Blake Edwards). There’s occasional audience participation, which culminated in a sing-along during the encore. Given that this was a press show, I was expecting the audience to be cynical and jaded and that I would stick out badly as an overexcited fangirl. But like Sarah-Louise on the SoM tour bus, I felt strangely at home. Everyone joined in enthusiastically with “A Spoonful of Sugar” and other Julie hits and there was rapturous applause. Studio Two is an intimate space, and I’d imagine that a bad show there would feel very awkward indeed. But with a show of such joy and hilarity, the intimacy only enhances it. The only time it felt at all awkward was when Sarah-Louise was high-kicking in a dress right in front of us. I can’t un-see that.
VERDICT: Go, go go. It runs till Jan 4th at the Trafalgar Studios and is the perfect Christmas treat for the Julie fan in your life. If you don’t have a Julie fan in your life, I pity you.
Disclaimer: I was given free tickets to the press showing for review purposes. All opinions remain honest and my own.