Wednesday, 19 December 2018

She’s all dressing-roomed up with no place to go

DESPITE balmy conditions on Friday evening in the Town Hall Chambers, and with a preamble invitation from book

DESPITE balmy conditions on Friday evening in the Town Hall Chambers, and with a preamble invitation from book scribe himself, Cillian O’Donnachadha, to use show flyers on the seats as fans if the heat just got too much, surely few in the sell-out audience would have resisted sitting through the full two-act version of his deftly-penned Liza Minnelli biographical musical.

Even being treated to this truncated one-act fringe edit of the one-woman odyssey was clearly a reward for Henley punters on any of the four scheduled performances of Somewhere Under the Rainbow — the Liza Minnelli Story, this past week.

Holding court in her own dressing room set, adorned with dresser, wardrobe rail and changing screen, Liza (Sharon Sexton) consults the audience, as if to confide in them in these privileged backstage surroundings.

Reminiscing on an often fractious and “competitive” relationship with her mother, Judy Garland, and dwelling on a string of failed marriages, she periodically dusts herself off, applies a little eyeliner, and breaks into a song from her legendary repertoire.

Putting her Best Foot Forward — the aptly named 1963 off-Broadway revival musical in which she starred — is a poignant, recurring theme.

Not even the comfort of a Tony Award-winning performance as the young lead on Broadway in Flora the Red Menace, nor her iconic role as Sally Bowles in Cabaret, serve as a springboard to unmitigated success for Minnelli in later years. Or protection from the devastation of her mother’s death.

And here begins a decline — an increasing reliance on alcohol and prescription drugs to ease the pain.

Irish actor and singer, Sharon Sexton, who recently completed a run in the West End in Billy Elliot the Musical, delivers a multi-layered tour-de-force performance as Liza — a role for which she has already received a host of critical plaudits on this summer’s notable fringe circuits.

Sexton transforms herself physically, emotionally and vocally, and there is little to suggest that you are not sharing the room with the star herself. Hardly a nuance of character goes unrealised.

Seven gloriously delivered numbers with recorded accompaniment punctuate the narrative, all carefully selected to heighten Liza’s state of mind in the moment.

When Sexton forcefully throws down her chair centre stage for Cabaret’s “Mein Herr”, the gauntlet is launched at the audience — and it doesn’t disappoint. Not even the less than ideal acoustics of the chamber can keep this belting voice at bay, and cheering theatregoers responded in kind.

Sondheim aficionados would also have delighted in Old Friends from Merrily We Roll Along and a powerfully heartfelt Losing my Mind from Follies.

If you missed this short run by Biscuits for Breakfast Theatre Company at Henley Fringe 2016, it might be worth keeping tabs on subsequent dates of performance.

I suspect this is not the last time we will hear of Sharon Sexton, nor this talented team.

Review: Martin Dew

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