THE NEW YORK – LONDON RENDEZVOUS – Canal Café Theatre, London.
The New York – London Rendezvous reunites two of the stand out performers from Danielle Tarento’s 2015 Southwark Playhouse revival of Grand Hotel. Where that production was very much an ensemble piece, here at the more intimate Canal Café Theatre, Valerie Cutko and George Rae get to be the centre of attention. And deservedly so.
Cutko is an unsung hero of the London stage and it is good to see her out of a supporting role and in the spotlight. Her stage craft is second to none: when she needs to she galvanises the audience’s attention and in the next moment she evaporates and leads you to her colleagues. She appears to listen sympathetically to Rae’s every utterance and her engagement with Musical Director Matheson Bayely brings the stage alive. Crucially, her acting through song is a master class. Whether it’s the bawdy ‘Come Again Soon’ (with its barely concealed entendrés) or Cole Porter’s paen to the Big Apple ‘I Happen to Like New York’; each number is sung with intelligence, sensitivity and colour.
Where Cutko brings a cabaret style to proceedings, Rae is very much bringing the Musical Theatre element to his performance. He plays with arms stretched and chest out, attacking every song with gusto and it’s impossible not to be swayed by his bravura. He has some unlikely numbers to deal with, but turns them all into winners. As his character discusses life with an ex-boyfriend and then starts singing the Barbra Streisand standard ‘He Touched Me’ (interestingly originally called ‘She Touched Me’ and sung by a man in the musical Drat! The Cat!) there was audible sniggering, but Rae won the audience round and made the song his own.
Both performers are easy to watch and bring great personality to the show; but this is where the problems with the production lie too. What is the audience watching? The conceit of the piece is that two friends, one American, one British, meet once a year, either in London or New York. Whilst there they drink, catch-up and so it would seem, bare their soles to one another. The characters are called Valerie and George; so is this something that Cutko and Rae have been doing over a number of years, or a plot that has been created to allow them to sing a few of their favourite songs? Is this a cabaret or a play?
If it is a cabaret then the audience doesn’t meet enough of the real Valerie and George and the evening seems too contrived. The set list reads perfectly for cabaret, but there is a lack of spontaneity and engagement with the crowd that suggest this isn’t what they wanted.
If it is a play then it isn’t meaty enough and it’s littered with clichés; well trodden ones at that. The narrative takes odd twists and turns that allow the songs to be snuck into proceedings. Some of the points are referred to later down the line, but mostly they are left unexplored. It feels like director Jake Murray could have taken more control and steered the production to a port. At the moment it’s still floating in the Atlantic.
Paradoxically, the biggest problem with The New York – London Rendezvous is that it is too short. Fifty minutes in the company of two such talented performers simply isn’t enough. Cabaret or play the evening could easily have had a second act and the audience would no doubt have still felt short changed.
by Robert Pearce
29th May – 5th June 2016
Canal Café Theatre, London, W2 6ND