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Last man Standing

By • West End
A lot of talk lately about all the posh Etonian actors in our theatres, films and television series: Eddie Redmayne, Dominic West, Damian Lewis, Tom Hiddleston and (from Harrow) Benedict Cumberbatch and Freddie Fox.

And with David Cameron running the country (sort of) and Boris Johnson reinstated as London's mayor - beating Ken Livingstone, the Labour candidate, by just 62,000 votes in a very low turn out - Eton flourishes still, just as Laura Wade's brilliant Bullingdon Club-style bash, Posh, returns to the West End stage after its pre-election run at the Royal Court in 2010.

It seems a shame to keep the oldsters out of this peculiar reassertion of old school tie values, so it's a pleasure to greet John Standing, aka Sir John Leon, fourth baronet, at the Pheasantry along the King's Road in a polished cabaret turn.

John Standing Sings Noel Coward not only revives some of the Master's greatest and funniest comic songs in the style of Coward's own famous live recorded turn at the Desert Sands in Las Vegas (which launched his latterday cabaret career), it also reeks of Standing's Etonian pedigree as a light comedian who can shoot a line as well as his cuffs.

There's another strand of authenticicty, too, in the fact that Standing's mother was Kay Hammond, a favourite actress of Coward's, and his first Elvira, the husband-taunting ghost in Blithe Spirit. Hammond divorced John's father and married the actor John Clements, and the pair of them went to live in Brighton next door to Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright.

It's a slight disappointment that Standing has no better, or newer, stories about this neighbourly proximity, and Coward's part in it, than the familiar one of Coward explaining to a young, inquisitive Richard Olivier as to why two dogs were humping each other in the street.

"Well, you see, " said Coward, "the dog in front has suddenly gone blind, and the one behind has very kindly offered to push him all the way to St Dunstan's." 

He does let slip, though, that at Coward's first night in cabaret at the Cafe de Paris, Errol Flynn made a pass at his mother... and that he once met Frank Sinatra. Oh, and that, during the Coronation procession of 1953, Coward was asked the identity of the little man sitting next to the enormous Queen of Tonga in a landau carriage: "Her lunch," he replied crisply. But we knew that one already, too. 

The Pheasantry, situated in the basement of a Pizza Express half way along the King's Road (in a handsome building, once a famous restaurant, set back from the pavement), is an attractive room for this sort of thing, and I had a jolly good time, and a jolly good pizza, too. Next Monday you can see Rosemary Ashe singing Sondheim.

It all brought back memories of the last cabaret venue along the King's Road, the Country Cousin, where I remember seeing Frankie Howerd and Dolores Gray (not on the same bill) to name but two. Given the neighbourhood, and the passing trade, I'm surprised such a place has not been replicated until just now. Long may it prosper, and well done John for its new Standing.

As I left the premises, an old Observer colleague, Paul Ryan, thrust a demo CD into my sweaty palm. Turns out the fellow's a cool baritonal swinger along Sinatra lines, and I just love his selection of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart and Gershwin, with witty jazz piano accompaniment from Kenny Clayton. Maybe the Pheasantry will give him a spot, or you could book him for a party, I guess.

My other musical treat of the Bank Holiday weekend was Kevin Macdonald's superb two hours-plus documentary film about Bob Marley, often described as the Third World's first pop superstar, the absolute antithesis of everything Noel Coward represents.

Marley the film feels a bit hampered in what it can say because of the involvement of wife, mistress and children in the movie, but it transcends this problem in a brilliant collation of film footage, location work (the early interviews in Marley's home village in Jamaica are particularly enjoyable) and reggae numbers.

Marley, a conviction Rastafarian, survived a shooting but not cancer, dying at the ridiculously young age of 36. But his prancing, infectious music lives on, and you could never mistake it for boring or bland, or anything promoted by Simon Cowell or performed on The Voice on television.

Marley played many concerts in London, but I don't think he played the Country Cousin. He would have, quite literally, torn the place apart. And I don't think John Standing could have saved it by loaning Bob his bow tie and cuff links.


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