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Review: Ruthie Henshall - Live & Intimate at The Famous Spiegeltent, Adelaide Riverbank Precinct

By Lisa Lanzi

The Famous Spiegeltent was filled to capacity with nearly three hundred brave souls defying the cold and the neighbouring (loud) footy crowds to attend Ruthie Henshall - Live and Intimate for her final performance at The Adelaide Cabaret Festival.

Ms Henshall is Broadway and West End triple threat royalty having conquered many lead roles since her first outing in Cats in 1987, covering a number of characters in her time with the show.  A five-time Olivier Award nominee (and winning in 1994) she had her heart set on becoming a ballerina at ten years old but was told by her teacher that she had “neither the body nor the discipline”.  Henshall touched many in the audience as she sang Electricity from Billy Elliot The Musical describing the song as embodying the euphoria that dancing granted her.  She did eventually appear for two years in that musical as Mrs Wilkinson in the 2014 West End production.

This intimate performance gave us a glimpse into the private and public zones of Ms Henshall’s life through a number of anecdotes woven around songs that she loves or has become known for, from Sondheim through to the Beatles.  She spoke about divorce and its impact on her own children Lily and Dolly and sang an emotional So Big / So Small from Dear Evan Hansen which resonated strongly for them when they attended the Broadway production.  The chosen Sondheim song was Ladies Who Lunch from Company, delivered with hilarity and absolute cheekiness and a sassy reflection on seeing some of those described ‘ladies’ in the piece among the mums at her daughters’ school.

Maybe I Like it This Way from Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party was a feature with Paul Schofield’s sensitive accompaniment on piano.  Ms Henshall introduced him as ‘her band’ and he is traveling with her on this tour.  Schofield is also the CEO of Three Pin Productions Ltd which was established with Ruthie Henshalland Polly Ingham in 2012 as a production and touring company.

As well as mentioning her admiration for England’s Victoria Wood (performer, song writer, stand-up comic, screenwriter and BAFTA award winner) who sadly passed in 2016 Henshall performed Wood’s The Ballad of Barry and Freda with great comic timing and sparkle.  With lyrics like beat me on the bottom with the Woman's Weekly it is very much worth a listen if you don’t know it. 

Henshall has a strong association with Kander and Ebb musicals having previously been lauded for playing both Roxy and Velma, and more recently Mama Morton.  She jokingly shared with us the wildly successful ‘Chicago Diet’ - telling us that the show is so physical that you can eat whatever you want and never put on weight.  As well as performing a marvellous mash-up of Roxy, Velma and Mama Morton snippets, Henshall added in a little Billy Flynn, just in case they want her to ‘gender-bend’ the male role someday.  As much as I love anything Chicago the highlight in this section was Sorry I Asked, a lesser known Kander and Ebb tune sung by Liza Minelli, very bitter and expressive.

Henshall shared with us stories of her time as a chorus member before working her way up to lead status.  She highlighted the very un-glamourous elements she was subjected to working once in Spain with no air-conditioning in the Summer heat and a costume that was deemed too ‘noticeable’ by the leading lady so it was subsequently painted over in a grey colour.  She also spoke of the vulnerability and lack of confidence that can strike any performer at any stage of their career, no matter how much ‘fame’ they have attracted, and how difficult at times it is to overcome this. 

Her genuine warmth, humour and talent for a pithy story endeared Ruthie Henshall to the entire audience even if the vibrato is more present than it once was and the odd note floated just under pitch.  The surprise for me was her comic talent including during a hilarious song about a train station announcer who had travellers at the mercy of ‘her golden voice’ with loads of sexual implications.

Henshall famously played Fantine in Les Miserables as a twenty five year old in 1992 but she still sings I Dreamed a Dream with passion and sensitivity.  The audience was moved by both her interpretation and Schofield’s brilliance on the piano.  She left us with a glorious version of In My Life from The Beatles and heartfelt thanks for welcoming her to Australia so enthusiastically.

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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