Highgate Village in summer is always lovely. Even if the weather isn’t great, it always feels so welcoming, friendly, and relaxing. Like Ambridge but without all the drama, Highgate Village with a trip to see a musical at Upstairs at The Gatehouse takes the experience to a new level, and when the musical in question is Forever Plaid, well you’ve pretty much reached Nirvana.
It is 2021, and in a performing space in North London, four immaculately turned-out young men appear. They are Frankie (Cameron Burt), Sparky (Alexander Zane), Jinx (George Crawford) and Smudge (Christopher Short). As they adjust to their surroundings, and peculiarly masked up audience – they explain who they are and where they have dropped out from. They were a close harmony ‘guy group’ who, back in 1964 were on their way to their first big gig, when they were involved in a car accident, and all died. They linger in limbo until the power of Harmony and the Expanding Holes in the Ozone Layer, in conjunction with the positions of the planets and all the other astro-technical stuff, allowed them to return to Earth, perform their final concert, and hopefully win a place in Heaven. This then is what they do, and so this 21st-century audience is treated to a string of hits from the ’50s and ’60s, culminating in the Plaids own special – never performed – song.
You don’t have to read much further as this is a truly brilliant 5 star rated show. If you want to know why then read on.
First, there is the story. Often on shows like this, the story is a paper-thin construct on which to hang a load of songs. While Forever Plaid is no Shakespearean epic, Stuart Ross has written an intriguing tale that provides four well-developed characters with a believable (well sort of) reason to be together and doing what they are doing. There is a lot of humour in the show, and some genuine laugh out loud moments – The “Ed Sullivan Show” and “Matilda” being particular highlights. And there is the music. When we think of the fifties and sixties, there are certain musical genres that spring to mind, and often the close harmony stuff gets overlooked, but there are some real classics out there, and this production fits in over thirty of them in around 80 minutes. My personal favourite was the wonderful mash-up of “Sixteen Tons” and “Chain Gang” two songs about work that work well together.
And that brings me on to the performance itself. Under Director John Plews, Forever Plaid really is a fantastically staged show. Musical Director Ian Oakley on piano along with bassist Jess Martin provide the music which never overwhelms the lyrics of these fine old classics.
As I was reading the programme on my way home, I was reminded that I had just seen four very talented actors. This may sound like a strange thing to say but they had performed so well as The Plaids, that my mind had fully accepted I was watching a singing group who had been together for years and knew each other intimately and not four possible strangers who had met in a rehearsal room a few weeks before. I’ve no idea what the guys are like in real life, but last night they were the epitome of American clean-cut youth at its finest. All four were superb but I’m going to give a special mention to Christopher Short. Short’s character, Smudge, is the klutz of the group. Often in the wrong place, making the wrong movement or wearing his clothes slightly wrong, this is a character that could easily be a distraction for the audience. But Christopher neatly keeps Smudge’s antics in check so that you know he’s done something, even if you aren’t sitting looking at him.
While I was writing this review, I was listening to the original Off-Broadway cast recording and to my mind the performance last night was streets ahead of the album version. That sort of sums everything up. Forever Plaid is just a perfect show. A nice story, great songs and four very personable and talented actors leave you hoping that the Plaids fulfilled their potential and are now performing to a much wider audience just the other side of the pearly gates.
Review by Terry Eastham
When most of us think of the 1950s, we think of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Hot Rods, Elvis, D.A. haircuts and teenage rebellion. But there was a ‘flipside’ to this era – the side of harmony, innocence and the sincerity of dreams – when American families gathered in front of the TV to watch their favourite programmes, like Ed Sullivan or the Perry Como Show. It was a period when vocal groups harmonised their way across the airwaves and jukeboxes of the USA.
Francis, Jinx, Smudge and Sparky loved to sing. They all met in high school around 1956, and, as Forever Plaid, dreamed of becoming like their idols – The Four Aces and The Crew Cuts. They rehearsed in the basement of Smudge’s family’s plumbing supply company. It was here they became FOREVER PLAID.
Director – John Plews
Choreographer – Racky Plews
Musical Director – Ian Oakley
Lighting Designer – Aaron Dootson
Sound Designer – Toby Burrow
Associate Choreographer – Eddie Slattery
Casting – Pearson Casting
Producer – Katie Plews for Ovation
performed by arrangement with Music Theatre International (Europe) Limited
Cast includes: Cameron Burt, George Crawford, Alex Zane
1st – 27th June 2021