Sex and Violence

Here, for your entertainment, is a list of things I learned this week at the Royal Exchange Theatre‘s compelling new modern-dress (ish) production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd.

(Yes, bullet points. I mean, really – I’ve written two full-length prose reviews of major productions of Sweeney Todd in the past couple of years, and I don’t think the world is going to end if I duck out of writing a third. If you’re not familiar with the plot, check Wikipedia; if you’re lucky enough to have missed the movie, try to keep it that way.)

Anyway. So.

  • We’re not in Victorian England anymore, although we are still in London – possibly a little further east than where Fleet Street really is, but never mind. This production is set very firmly at the dog-end of the 1970s, in the earliest days of Thatcher’s reign of terror, and the shift in period works beautifully (although news of it has been greeted in a couple of online forums by hysterically overdone pearl-clutching fainting fits from people who, naturally, didn’t bother to see it for themselves before rushing to condemn it. Aren’t fans wonderful?). No, we didn’t transport convicts in the 1960s, but it doesn’t matter in the slightest; Sondheim and Wheeler’s picture of Victorian London is not documentary-accurate, and the story of a man who experiences monstrous inhumanity and wreaks a terrible revenge for it fits very well indeed with the casual cruelty (and, in the second half, the naked capitalism) of the early Thatcher years. And of course there’s no reason this material shouldn’t be moved out of the 1840s – if we can have modern-dress Shakespeare or Molière or Sheridan, we can have a (nearly) modern-dress Sweeney Todd too, as long as it isn’t simply done as a gimmick. And in this case, it certainly isn’t merely being done as a gimmick.

  • The Royal Exchange is a wonderful, wonderful place to see a play, but from a director’s point of view it’s also a startlingly inflexible space. It’s a theatre-in-the-round that can only be a theatre-in-the -round, all entrances and exits (at stage level, at least) have to be made via vomitoriums that pass several rows of seats, and every single exit from the stage leads directly into the theatre’s lobby area. This production – and knowing the Exchange’s idiosyncracies, this rings all kinds of alarm bells – is a co-production with the West Yorkshire Playhouse, which is a very different kind of space (for a start, it has walls, wings, and a backstage area that is not on full public view). The best compliment I can pay director James Brining (and his set and lighting designers, Colin Richmond and Chris Davey) is that you’d never guess the production was not conceived solely for this space.

  • The great benefit of seeing it at the Exchange: this is as up-close-and-personal a production of Sweeney Todd as you’ll ever see. It unfolds right in front of you, you can see the whites (reds?) of the actors’ eyes, and at least one of the murders takes place more or less in the audience’s laps. Other productions – including last year’s dazzling West End revival – have delivered more spectacle, more Grand Guignol grandeur, more sheer size; this one succeeds by taking the show’s subtitle – ‘A Musical Thriller’ – and running with it, except the thrillers it invokes are more Guy Ritchie than Victorian penny dreadful. Some stagings stylise or downplay the show’s violence, but this one doesn’t:, this is a jagged, angry, thoroughly chilling take on the material, and it’s utterly riveting.

  • There’s a lot of blood. I mean a lot of blood. In the final scene, the actor playing Tobias is more or less covered in it from head to foot (which makes perfect sense, given where Tobias has been). Given how lavishly the blood gushes in this production, they do a remarkably good job of keeping it off the floor.

  • There’s also a lot of sex. Well, compared to other productions, anyway. Moving the setting forward to the late 1970s has the effect of bringing the piece’s sexual subtext – which has always been present – much, much closer to the surface. ‘A Little Priest’, here, becomes an extended mating dance that verges on foreplay (the line “then blow on it first” has almost certainly never been dirtier than it is in this production), and that is very clearly going to end with Todd and Mrs. Lovett doing it on top of the banquette that hides Pirelli’s body. And it’s not just Todd and Mrs. Lovett who are at it like knives, either. Johanna may be virginal the first time we see her, but she certainly isn’t by the end of the first act. When she and Anthony sing ‘Kiss Me’ – on a bed – it involves full-on snogging, and the staging of the end of the number makes it obvious that they aren’t going to stop there.  And actually, seeing this subtext writ large is illuminating – this revival offers a genuinely fresh look at these characters and their relationships, and that’s largely because it’s set in a time in which people were far less physically inhibited than they were in Victorian England.

  • And that’s not just about naughty touching. Johanna’s relationship with Judge Turpin has possibly never been as disturbing as it is here. The sexual abuse of minors by authority figures has been much in the news in Britain over the past couple of years; in this production, Judge Turpin gropes Johanna’s breast, and it’s a thoroughly uncomfortable moment – as, of course, it should be. The danger Johanna faces if she doesn’t make her escape is shockingly clear.

  • Despite the shift in period, this production does not cut or change a word of the book or score. Indeed, here, you get all of it – the tooth-pulling sequence, the Judge’s ‘Johanna’, and the Beggar Woman’s full lullaby.

  • However, the first music you hear when the lights go down is not the organ prelude, it’s a scratchy recording of The Carpenters’ ‘(They Long To Be) Close To You’. It’s both jarring and intensely creepy, and it works.

  • This is very much an ensemble show rather than a star vehicle; that said, all of the performances are terrific. And for once, in a British musical revival, everybody in this cast can sing. The singing, in fact, is unimpeachable, and often thrilling. David Birrell and Gillian Bevan do especially fine work as Todd and Mrs. Lovett. He’s slowly being consumed – to the point of madness – by an awful combination of rage and grief (the poster blurb actually describes the show as “a musical thriller about a man driven mad by injustice”, and that angle has possibly never been clearer than it is in Birrell’s performance). Birrell offers, in places, a startlingly quiet interpretation of the role, which makes his occasional explosions all the scarier. His ‘Epiphany’ is genuinely threatening, and not simply because it’s staged far closer to the audience than it would be in a more conventional theatre. He’s matched by Gillian Bevan’s wiry, wily opportunist of a Mrs. Lovett. Bevan plays down the warmth and the laughs in places (the out-and-out music hall turn Angela Lansbury offered in the original Broadway production just would not work in this setting); the plot is driven, here, as much by her (dare I say Thatcherite?) determination to improve her status as by Sweeney’s thirst for revenge, and this Mrs. Lovett, when she wants to be, can be a very scary lady. Bevan also offers as exciting a vocal account of the role as I’ve ever heard, belting notes in ‘The Worst Pies In London’ that pretty much everyone else I’ve ever heard has taken in head voice. But then, every single performance in this production is remarkably fresh, and every single actor finds something in their role that hasn’t been seen in previous productions.

  • There’s a seven-piece band perched in the first circle above the stage. Yes, more players would be nice (but good luck finding space for them in the Exchange), and no, they’re not playing a version of the smaller orchestration Jonathan Tunick did for the National Theatre production. We also, thank God, don’t have any actors playing instruments onstage (well, apart from where indicated by the script and in the organ prologue, which is played onstage by a member of the ensemble), and musical supervisor David Shrubsole actually owns up to his new orchestrations in the programme. They’re perhaps a little keyboard-heavy, but I’ve heard far worse.

  • There are some nice little details in the direction. When Mrs. Lovett offers Todd a ‘bonbon’ in the second half, it comes out of a prescription bottle, which makes sense – his rage is such that of course he’d resort to chemical assistance to keep himself under control. And her bourgeoise fantasies in ‘By The Sea’ are illustrated by a copy of Ideal Home Magazine that she tries to show Sweeney as he watches TV. In the first act, the bird-seller’s birds are origami cranes made from newspaper, and they’re surprisingly lovely.

  • Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop has the filthiest fridge you’ve ever seen, and when Todd spits out the mouthful of pie at the end of ‘The Worst Pies in London’, she puts the half-chewed mess back in the bowl of uncooked pie filling on the counter. It’s totally gross – but of course, that’s what she’d do.

There are some (excellent) production photos here; the production runs another two weeks, and day seats are available every morning. It’s not the grandest Sweeney Todd you’ll ever see, or the most musically lush, or the funniest – but it may be the creepiest, it’s certainly different, and it grabs hold of you as the lights go down and never lets you go. It’s a gripping, startling piece of theatre, and it offers a new and genuinely surprising reassessment at a piece that, to me at least, has become a little bit over-familiar. The production is apparently Brining’s first as artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and also, according to the programme, heralds the start of a “creative partnership” between the Playhouse and the Exchange. If this production is an indication of the level of work that’s coming, that’s very exciting news indeed.

…and (nearly) all that jazz!

 

(Note – I wrote this a week ago, and then promptly forgot to post it. Oops.)

Praise be, this time they’re not just wearing underwear. It’s very easy to forget that the massively successful revival of Kander and Ebb‘s Chicago, which closed in the West End last year after a roughly 15-year run and is still going strong on Broadway, began life as a streamlined concert presentation. The show – only a moderate success in its original Bob Fosse staging in 1975 – has become familiar almost to the point of ubiquity, even discounting the 2002 film (which messes about with the material in ways that mostly do it no favours at all), but it’s become familiar in a staging that employs almost no conventional scenery, and in which nearly everyone has only a single (black, skimpy) costume. Seeing the show, then, in a staging where there’s an actual colour palette on view (rather than fifty shades of black) is a welcome surprise.

And this, thank God, is a really good production. With the closing of the long-running revival in the West End, the rights to the show have once again become available to regional theatres; more than one has it scheduled for the upcoming season, but the Oldham Coliseum is, I think, the first to get a production up and running. It’s not the first time they’ve done it; they staged the show in the late 80s in a production that starred Caroline O’Connor, and while I did see it, I can’t honestly say I remember a great deal about it. I imagine their earlier staging did not use actor-musicians; this one does (or rather, three full-time musicians plus the cast), and I admit my heart sank when I realised the actors would be doubling as most of the band because all too often the result is simply that the score gets short-changed. This cast, however, pull it off triumphantly. The music sounds good all the way through, the playing is impeccably tight, there are no audible bum notes, and under Kevin Shaw’s assured direction the cast find all kinds of witty ways to incorporate the instruments into scenes – one of the reporters outside the courtroom, for example, uses a trumpet’s mute as the earpiece of a telephone.

The acting performances, too, are good right across the board. Yes, pretty much everyone is about twenty years too young for the role they’re playing, but that’s hardly unusual in a production of this show. Special honours go to Adam Barlow’s sad-sack Amos Hart – he nails the Bert Williams act in ‘Mr. Cellophane’, white gloves and all – but the singing is all good, the zingers all land, and this company is giving a thoroughly entertaining account of the show. Yes, some of the American accents are a bit wonky; yes, putting Helen Power and Marianne Benedict (Roxie and Velma) in wigs and costumes that make them look like Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who played their parts in the movie version, is a strikingly unimaginative choice; and yes, it’s fair to say that not all of the choreography is executed quite as slickly as you’d have expected in the West End revival, but it really doesn’t matter: this production is not as cool or as sexy as the show has sometimes been in the past, but the show has possibly never been more fun than it is here. This, first and foremost, is a musical comedy. It’s sharp, colourful, strikingly performed, and very, very funny indeed, and the cast – all of them – are clearly having a wonderful time.  Yes, it’s very definitely a scaled-down production, but the gains far outweigh the few losses.

It’s also – and this is a bigger achievement than you might think – accomplished with a fraction of the resources available to a commercial West End or Broadway production, and has tickets on sale at just one-third of the average top price for a West End musical. In terms of bang for your buck, when it comes to musical theatre in the UK, this Chicago is just about as good as it gets.

Any criticisms at all? Just one, and it’s of the theatre rather than the show. I love the Coliseum. I’ve been going there, off and on, since I was a very young child – it’s at least 35 years since I first set foot in there. I think they’re great, I think they’re Oldham’s most valuable cultural institution, I think the recent renovation is terrific, I am impressed that they refuse to overcharge for drinks and programmes, and their box-office staff are unfailingly helpful. They’ve now introduced a print-at-home facility for online bookings, and unlike some gougers ticket agencies, they don’t charge an additional fee for it  … but the receipt you print off in lieu of a ticket, although it does include your seat number, makes no mention at all of whether the seat you’ve booked is in the stalls or the circle. I knew what seat I’d booked, but that’s an argument waiting to happen, and it needs to be changed.

 

 

Walking on Sunshine

You know how the phrase ‘feelgood movie’ usually makes most sane individuals want to run screaming from the cinema before the trailers are over? Not this time. Sunshine on Leith, a new film musical built, unlikely as it may seem, around the songs of The Proclaimers, is that rare cinematic achievement: an unabashedly feelgood entertainment that doesn’t make you want to set fire to your own eyeballs while jamming steak knives into your ears. In fact, it’s better than that. Not only will it not make you want to self-harm, it might actually even send you out of the cinema – at the end of the film, not the beginning – bathed in sunshine. Given how often the sun shines in Edinburgh, where the film is set, that’s something worth celebrating.

On paper, true, it looks unpromising, although it’s based on a successful stage show (originally presented at Dundee Rep in 2007). And of course, since it’s a jukebox musical, the plot is strung together from a set of vague suggestions from the song lyrics, which shouldn’t help either. Since we’re dealing with The Proclaimers, you’ve probably guessed in advance that someone in the film will be moving abroad so that they can send a Letter From America, that a pair of young Scotsmen will be central to the plot, that someone will be on their way from misery to happiness (aha aha aha), that the cast of characters will include someone called Jean, that there’ll be a (sung) marriage proposal, and that someone will be told they Should Have Been Loved. You would also, faced with the prospect of a Proclaimers musical, probably want to put money on the finale being I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).

It’s not giving anything at all away to reveal that in Stephen Greenhorn’s screenplay, every last one of those predictions comes true. The plot, such as it is, is a sticky mess of Family Drama clichés mixed with boy-meets-girl clichés, plopped down in the middle of the most picture-postcard version of Edinburgh you could possibly imagine. There’s a long-lost daughter, a health crisis, a marriage possibly going off the rails, young love gone wrong, and a whole long list of other plot twists pulled apparently at random from pretty much any early-evening ITV1 drama made at any time during the past thirty years. And it doesn’t matter in the slightest, because this film grabs you in the opening minute and doesn’t let you go.

The short prologue, in fact, sends a clear signal that you’re not in for a hundred-minute cheeseball of a movie: we aren’t in Edinburgh, we’re in Afghanistan, in the back of an armoured personnel carrier that’s one of a convoy of vehicles carrying troops back to base. The convoy moves slowly down the road as the soldiers inside sing Sky Takes the Soul. It’s a stark, powerful opening, and it clearly signals that not everything that follows is quite as fluffy as it looks. The plot follows Ally and Davy, two of the soldiers in that battle bus, as they return home to Edinburgh and try to build a new life following their discharge from the army. Some of their colleagues have been maimed,and some have been killed; their own choices seem limited to working in a call-centre or going back to a place where their lives could be ended at any moment.

And yet, paradoxically, it’s an incredibly charming film. Part of the credit for that goes to Edinburgh itself – as lovingly filmed by George Richmond under the very assured direction of Dexter Fletcher, it looks, here, like a truly enchanted, enchanting city. And more of the credit must go to the songs: divorced from the Reid Brothers’ own rather idiosyncratic performance style, they emerge as not only durable, but beautiful. There’s a flinty, unsentimental poetry to these songs, and an emotional depth that sneaks up on you – but at the same time, this music is fun, and very nearly impossible to resist. It doesn’t matter that the lyrics sometimes have only a tenuous connection to the plot – you can’t help but be carried along for the ride.

The songs are matched, too, by pitch-perfect performances right across the cast. No, not everybody here is a technically perfect singer – Peter Mullan, as you’d expect, sounds like Tom Waits, if Tom Waits had been buried in a pit of gravel and razor blades for the last ten years – but the somewhat artless singing style really suits this music. Kevin Guthrie and George MacKay find the perfect mix of gravity and goofiness as Ally and Davy, and Freya Mavor and Antonia Thomas are absolutely delightful as their girlfriends. Mullan – so often seen playing criminals or thugs – is perfect, rough singing and all, and the supporting performances – including Jason Flemyng as a dour curator who, two-thirds of the way into the film, gets to gyrate through the corridors of the Scottish National Gallery giving a hip-swivelling performance of ‘Should Have Been Loved’ that may, judging by the way he throws himself into it, be the most fun any actor has ever had on a film set – are absolutely spot-on. Towering above them all is Jane Horrocks as Davy’s mum Jean. Without a strong director, Horrocks’s work can be overly cutesy; here, she’s funny when she needs to be, but she approaches the role with enormous restraint, and it pays off in spades. The hospital scene in which she gives a quiet, unshowy rendition of the beautiful title song is the film’s emotional peak (not to mention one of the very best things she’s ever done). It’s a lovely, genuinely moving moment in a film that could easily have come across as painfully contrived.

Fletcher, for his part, does an enormously confident job of negotiating the tricky shifts from speech to song  and back again, and never lets the pace drop, and the result is a taut 100-minute film that picks you up on a wave of energy and never lets you go until the closing credits roll. Of all the movie musicals made over the past decade or so, from Chicago to Phantom to Rent to Mamma Mia to Hairspray to Les Mis, this one is possibly the most purely entertaining. Fletcher and his cast and crew simply never put a foot wrong; by the time that finale rolls around – yes, I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), performed on the plaza outside the Scottish National Gallery by MacKay and Thomas along with, apparently, everybody else who was in Edinburgh that day, you’ll possibly have shed a tear, and you’ll almost certainly have a great big goofy grin all over your face.

One warning: it will be months, probably, before you get that song out of your head afterwards. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

Here’s what ‘crass’ looks like:

There are some days you just don’t use as a theme for any kind of marketing initiative. No need to dwell on why – I’m sure we all know where we were and what we were doing when it happened, and have all of the horrific images etched permanently on our retinas – but today is most definitely one of them.

Apparently, unless you’re AT&T. This showed up in their Twitter feed earlier today:

crass

Classy, isn’t it? Not surprisingly, there was something of a backlash on Twitter and elsewhere; also not surprisingly, AT&T very quickly pulled the tweet and issued an “apology”:

ATT

This “apology” itself, though, makes entertaining reading. Look carefully – they apologise to anyone who felt the tweet was in poor taste, and what that means, unfortunately, is that the apology is crashingly insincere. “I’m sorry you feel I offended you” and “I’m sorry I did something offensive” are not the same thing.

At the very least, the person who came up with the concept of the original tweet must be a real piece of work, as must whoever came up with the lame fauxpology when they saw the backlash. It probably won’t, but I really hope this costs AT&T at least some customers. It deserves to.

Edit 12/9/13

…and apparently AT&T’s CEO agrees – or at least, is disturbed enough by the online backlash that it’s dawned on him that the original mealy-mouthed apology-that-isn’t is not really good enough. This morning, he provided a second apology in a post to AT&T’s consumer blog:

We’re big believers that social media is a great way to engage with our customers because the conversation is constant, personal and dynamic.

Yesterday, we did a Facebook post intended to honor those impacted by the events of 9/11. Unfortunately, the image used in the post fell woefully short of honoring the lives lost on that tragic day.

I want to personally express to our customers, employees, and all those impacted by the events of 9/11 my heart felt apologies. I consider that date a solemn occasion each year, a time when I reach out to those I was with on that awful day, share a moment of reflection for the lives lost and express my love of country. It is a day that should never be forgotten and never, ever commercialized. I commit AT&T to this standard as we move forward.

–Randall Stephenson, AT&T Chairman and CEO

That’s better, and a lot less culturally tone-deaf than the lame tweet posted yesterday. I don’t like the use of ‘impact’ as a verb (it’s not technically incorrect, but it’s inelegant; there are better ways to convey the same meaning), and it would be nice if someone who has risen to the level of CEO of a very major corporation could spell ‘heartfelt’, but it’s a reasonable effort. You will, however, note that he’s stating that 9/11 is a day that should “never, ever [be] commercialized” less than 24 hours after his corporation was widely mocked on Twitter for publishing an image that attempts to wring commercial capital out of 9/11. Possibly his attitude yesterday was not the same as his attitude today. That photograph, and the fauxpology that followed, did not spontaneously emerge from a vacuum. That photograph took planning; somebody had the idea, someone else signed off on it, probably more people still were involved in creating the actual image. The CEO sets the tone within a corporation; if any of those several people, or their superiors, “consider[ed] that date a solemn occasion each year”, they wouldn’t have put the image out there in the first place.

You’ve seen the news. Now would you like some cheese?

 

Yes, in case you hadn’t heard, there is a royal baby. Or should that be Royal Baby? Since I don’t really approve of the concept of ‘royalty’, my personal response is somewhere between ‘that’s nice’ and ‘meh’, so I’m not one of the people dancing in the streets outside Buckingham Palace wearing coordinating Union Flag underwear. I think everybody is relieved about that. I know I am. ANYway… along with a royal baby, of course, we’re inevitably going to have a long line of people hopping on the marketing bandwagon in the hope of making a quick buck by flogging cheap tat with the baby’s name on it. Most of the stuff they’ll be peddling will be crap, just about all of it will be completely tasteless – but some of the ads, it goes without saying, will be hilarious.

Step forward Pizza Hut, who emailed me this gem today:

pizza hut prince

 

Yes, this is absolutely real. It is not photoshopped or otherwise altered in any way. And it’s tacky beyond belief, obviously.  The £8.60 price point (£8.60 – 8lbs 6 oz, geddit?) is a particularly lovely touch. In a week in which ten thousand entrepreneurs are all going to do their level best to stretch the definition of ‘crass’ to breaking-point, we may already have a winner.

 

Inspirational

 

Not a word I use much, ‘inspirational’. I tend more towards eyeball-rolling. This, however, certainly is inspirational, and well worth a few minutes of your time:

These are kids from a slum in Paraguay called Cateura. They’re playing – beautifully – instruments that are made out of stuff reclaimed from a landfill. They’re remarkable, and the fact that they’ve managed to achieve this level of musicianship using, essentially, bits of garbage that other people threw away should make those of us lucky enough to have been born in wealthier countries feel very, very small indeed, at least for a moment.