Her Majesty’s Theatre. 24 Mar 2018
There have been countless nights of triumphant applause and standing ovations in the dear old Her Majesty’s Theatre in Grote Street over its 105 years.
The biggest ovation of its last night came for one who had the longest history of treading its boards: Phyl Skinner, Australia’s Last Vaudevillian is aged “ninety-five and a half” she told us.
Still vivid, vivacious and alive with the “business” of the theatre, the red-headed nonagenarian reminisced about the blue and pink stage lighting used to make dancing girls look prettiest when she was a gal. She was only 5 when she first set foot on that stage as a snowdrop. Adelaide’s Mr Showbiz, Peter Goers, in the role of the theatre’s Closing Benefit story-teller, gently interviewed Miss Skinner about Roy Rene aka Mo, George Wallace, WC Fields and other legends of the past before Miss Skinner brought the house down and then thunderously to its feet with the classic old “pith-taker” routine.
She was the true star of the night and everyone knew it. She was a precious living connection to the continuity of the theatre through its life both as Her Maj and the Tivoli.
The benefit gala marks the end of its life in its present form. It will re-open in two years with its capacity increased by the restoration of its old “gods”, the second-tier balcony, as well as new foyers and bars, lighting towers, dressing rooms and an expanded stage ready to accommodate the biggest and most bedazzling of travelling musicals as well as local productions. Fundraising continues for this visionary Renewal Project (hermajestystheatre.org.au).
As its patron, Barry Humphries opened the Closing Benefit with a heartfelt video message on behalf of “the Grand Old Dame of Grote Street". And then it was up to veteran newsreader Jane Doyle to MC the show which had been superbly directed by Adelaide’s beloved cabaret star Johanna Allen.
The whole production ticked over like a Rollex watch.
And what a lineup.
The amazing perfect pitch of Ali McGregor, director of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, got the show on the road. Wearing a divine bling of green complete with feathers, she launched into an exuberant rendition of Carousel. The mood was set. It was going to be a good night.
While the orchestra occupied most of the stage, a wee faux dressing room sat as a symbolic set OP, the mirror of which was so artfully placed that throughout the performances it worked as a window onto further views of the action.
Jane Doyle’s stately ball gown costume was very much in the “Grand Old Dame” spirit, complete with fur stole and tiara while Michaela Burger burst onto the stage in a shimmer of bugle beads, her mighty Broadway voice belting out I’m the Greatest Star but no one knows it. Star indeed, bright and new and now we all know it.
Phyl Skinner was a hard act to follow but Robyn Archer’s Brechtian elegance did the trick with the song Bilbao, Michael Morley sublime behind her on the piano. Old Adelaide class at its best.
And then it was time for Nancye Hayes. The audience went wild. With a poster projected aloft from the original Sweet Charity production in which she starred as a bright young talent, she reiterated the iconic song If They Could See Me Now. In a stunning salmon slack suit with full flowing trousers, she showed that 75 is the new 60 in terms of fluid dance moves.
And, punctuated by the Doyle commentaries, the show surged on.
Tim Rogers whizzed in performing in a snazzy crushed velvet jacket and Cameron Goodall, looking very schmick in pony tail and dark suit, did a sizzling medley of songs from rock stars who died in plane crashes, reminding us that he’s as brilliant at mimicking singers as he is at playing Hamlet. Rob Mills doesn’t do Hamlet. He does Neighbours. But he’s a heartthrob and a charmer and a funny fellow and a Sinatra-style crooner. You’re Nobody Until Somebody Loves You, he sang, forgetting words, bringing on an audience member and then dismissing her in favour of a Tinder chance and the audience laughed and loved him to bits.
Johanna Allen joined him onstage for a Wicked duet in which he was entirely sidelined as Glinda, no Galinda, the good witch. All good fun, Johanna in a glitter of black gown and a radiance of full voice.
The champagne-drinking interval throng bubbled with enthusiasm, chatting about the good quality of the night’s sound and the sense of occasion with which the lighting designer had imbued the event. The audience itself reflected the sense of occasion. It featured an outstanding array of Adelaide’s glamorous women in splendid raiments, along with the famously beautiful actress Loriel Smart and the grand dame of beautiful Adelaide drag queens, Rouge, in a blaze of red sequins.
More sequins tottered out of the audience after interval. It was the sensational cabaret star Meow Meow, making her chaotic comedy entrance for a performance which, for the lack of a row of chorus boys, featured Cameron Goodall, Rob Mills and Tim Rogers shimmying giant fans as she strutted her stuff in French. After a big ending on the shoulders of Mills, with an explosion of glitter, she sang The Song Goes On while sweeping the detritus from the stage before simply wandering off into the wings.
Goodall had the tough call of symbolising all the serious theatre, the theatre of words, which has inhabited Her Maj over the years. Actors such as Laurence Olivier, Lauren Bacall, Maggie Smith, Googie Withers, and Angela Lansbury are among the great actors who had stood where he stood. He performed The World’s a Stage from As you Like It, pulling out his iPhone on a dry line and then improvising a gem of comic capital by having a parting “selfie” moment.
MC Doyle turned up with a change of gown and a pitch for dollars for the Renewal Project before Nancye Hayes returned, also in a different outfit to charm the audience with I’m Still Here. Then it was Peter Goers’ getting to the heart of the showbiz business, with a reverie of the memories which linger in Her Maj cum the Tiv. Lists: Tintookies, Pippin, JC Williamson, Ralph Richardson, Toni Lamond, Roy Dotrice, Spike Milligan, Gordon Chater, Lauren Bacall, Jack Davey, Hair, Bobby Limb, Robert Morley, Peter Cook, and Dudley Moore. He acknowledged the uncelebrated denizens of the working theatre, the techs and mechs and ushers. He ignored the professional audience members, the stalwart critics, those scribblers in the dark who work unloved to keep the great moments of the theatre alive for the record books. Oh well. Let the record of the record-takers sit here.
Then it was back to the music. Johanna and That Old Black Magic, the stunning Ali McGregor in a confection of red hot mama red costume, her voice, oh, her voice, virtuoso, breathtaking. Can anyone have such a range?
The beautiful band played on, under Mark Ferguson’s direction. Tim Rogers returns, another message from Humphries, give money, give money, and then the song and dance cast assembles on the stage for a grand finale… streamers, cheers, standing ovation…
And then the curtain came down.
On an era.
When: 24 Mar
Where: Her Majesty’s Theatre