Michael Coveney: Crazy girls descend on the Crazy Coqs
I was remarking, if not exactly complaining, the other day that the cabaret scene in London, such as it is, is slightly inward-looking. There's rarely anyone on the bill that you've heard of, and certainly no-one of the stature of, say, Andy Williams or Ethel Merman, let alone Elisabeth Welch or Ella Fitzgerald.
I saw all of those great artists in intimate surroundings - well, Merman was at the Palladium, but she sure made the room feel small - and I saw Frank Sinatra give his last London concert at the Albert Hall, sitting on a bar stool, collar undone, crooning expertly and intimately to three thousand people in the palm of his hand.
So of course I've heard from the newest night spot in town, the Crazy Coqs at the Brasserie Zedel near Piccadilly Circus, reminding me that my old friend Liz Robertson is about to launch her first cabaret show for almost 30 years.
Next week, she'll be serving up a programme of Lerner and Loewe, Cole Porter, Sondheim and Richard Rodgers, with stories and memories of a fascinating career that came into focus with an Arts Council and Cameron Mackintosh 1979 collaboration on My Fair Lady - which is when she met, and married, the lyricist Alan Jay Lerner - and has lately encompassed The Phantom of the Opera, Hairspray and Love Never Dies.
Actually, most musical theatre lifers will remember Liz from the wonderful first London production of A Little Night Music, when she was one of the choric quartet. But I go even further back. Liz, the daugher of an Ilford policeman, was the star turn and lead dancer in the Betty Finch Stage School who bolstered the annual pantomime at the Renegades, an amateur drama company in the town that I also belonged to in the late 1960s.
Her first (and last) brush with cabaret was in the Ritz Hotel dining room - one of the most beautiful rooms in Europe - in 1984, but the performance I attended nearly ended in tears. One of the more inebriated customers was, shall we say, joining in some of the songs, or at least providing his own instant commentary on them.
As he was seated at an adjacent table, I invited him to reduce the volume. This only prompted him to invite me, in turn, to remove my jacket and step outside. I was suddenly cast as Liz's knight in shining armour and I would proudly enter the lists on her behalf. As we rose to square up, the tight toff's seconds pulled him down and started pouring coffee down his throat while he whimpered quietly through a couple numbers before departing.
The show continued, and Liz was marvellous. The great lyricist Lerner himself crossed the room to shake me by the hand and commend my gallantry. So I shall be gleaming again in my armour for my amour next week, and woe betide anyone who dares throw down a challenge.
Liz, incidentally, who is happily married to the former Albert Hall manager Patrick Deuchars, was the late Lerner's seventh wife; he loved them all, he always said, and had the bills to prove it.
Following Liz next month at the same address is none other than that wonderful actress Anne Reid, less well known for her musical talents than for her appearances on television, most recently in Last Tango in Halifax with Derek Jacobi. I know that Anne has recently appeared in musical theatre in Chichester and Manchester, but I was still surprised to see her flagging up a cabaret turn that will include songs by Billy Joel and Johnny Mercer.
Mind you, everything about her career has been surprising, not least her raunchy sex scenes with Daniel Craig ten years ago in Roger Michell's The Mother (scripted by Hanif Kureishi) in which she was seduced, and taken from behind, by her own daughter's boyfriend. Talk about Crazy Coqs! I'm assured that the cabaret will be far more decorous, and I can't wait.