Bette Midler... and Me

Wed 19th – Mon 31st August 2015

reviews

Archie Hill

at 10:00 on 24th Aug 2015

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Billed as a musical tribute to the American singer, actress and comedian, Aria Entertainment’s production of Bette Midler…and Me is in fact many things. A wonderfully frank history of Bette’s life, a tale of growing up in 60s suburban Manchester, a cabaret act, a puppet-show; it’s all this and more. But most of all, it’s just really good fun.

The three-woman show is as impressive as it is singular: created and hosted by West End doyenne and Bette mega-fan Sue Kelvin, the music is of a consistently high quality throughout the show. Deftly accompanied by Sarah Travis on the piano and with Alex Young providing excellent vocal harmonies and (on occasion) flute-playing skills, the trio covering a wide range of covers of Bette Midler, Barry Manilow (for whom a wonderfully bitchy amount of putdowns are reserved) and others.

The songs are chosen particularly well I thought, fitting in with the story of Bette’s and Sue’s life as they progressed: a poignant rendition of ‘I Think it’s Gonna Rain Today’ neatly encapsulating the twin sadness of 1968; the death of Bette’s sister Judy, and the hardship of Sue’s childhood and her dysfunctional family in Didsbury. This she overcame through discovering Bette – another ‘fat, frizzy-haired, ugly Jewish schmuckling’ – who gave her the inspiration to go into music and show-business herself.

The love that the musicians have for the Divine Miss M is unmistakable: they look as though they’re having as much fun as the audience, throwing themselves into the world of Bette with its all bawdiness and over-the-top gusto. As much as it celebrates Bette though, the show also delves into the social and sexual scene of 70s and 80s New York, all ‘sequins and sodomy.’ Even for those (like me) blissfully ignorant of the world of Bette Midler, the monologues – scripted by Chris Burgess – are relatively interesting and informative.

Delivered with a engaging and semi-improvised jollity by Sue and Alex, who both enjoy riffing with the audience – particularly in a final three-minute version of the 1988 film ‘Beaches’ recreated with puppets – are ideal hosts. While the show may be relatively light and unpolished in comparison to other fare at the Fringe, this simply adds to its charm and warmth. By the end the Nightclub venue at the Gilded Balloon was full of women of a certain age singing along and cheering. I was half tempted to join them.

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Flo Layer

at 16:28 on 24th Aug 2015

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At the very opening of this show the sparkle-clad performer Sue Kelvin says “You’re all here because you love Bette Midler”. Perhaps this wasn’t true when I first sat in the theatre but it certainly could have been by the time the audience had finished clapping and cheering at the very end of show. Kelvin’s tribute to the Divine Miss M is infectiously brilliant – an hour of belting covers, comedy and sequins galore.

While I was probably in a different generation to the majority of the audience, this is a show that has the wow-factor for the original fans, new fans, or, like me, complete novices.

Alongside her soberly talented pianist Sarah Travis and fellow performer Alex Young, Kelvin delivers a smasher of a show for the eager audience. At first sight, I thought that the prop-strewn stage looked more like a set for cruise liner entertainment. Despite its glamour, feathers and honkytonk piano set up this is a show with a huge heart and emotional power; the tribute act is interwoven with Kelvin's personal narrative, her troubled childhood and how Bette Midler saved her life.

Despite her difficult school life, the victim of the worst school bully, Kelvin appeared in front of us as a powerful and hilarious performer. With the, sometimes overpowering yet brilliant, support of Alex Young, Kelvin delivered fabulous renditions of some of Midler’s classic covers: from Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy to a hilarious performance of Fat Stuff.

Young deserves special mention for her role – she has an incredible voice and she performed her sections of the narrative with charming ease. If she isn’t already, then Young deserves to star in her own show.

The show is filled to the brim with its cheerful attitude and sense of fun, yet some its comedy might miss the mark for the more discerning audience member. The vaudeville Sophie Tucker impersonations might not be everyone’s cup of tea and these were perhaps the parts of the show most likely to slip into cruise liner entertainment. A three minute puppet rendition of The Beaches, Bette Midler’s star film, was also stuck between comic genius and painful pantomime.

I wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as the lady sat two seats down from me, who whooped and cheered at all the appropriate cues. Yet this is a show that is heartfelt and hilarious in equal measure.

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