Something to think about before next year’s General Election:
For some reason, now I can’t get ‘Eye of the Tiger’ out of my head.
It’s here again, and I am ready. I have chocolate, I have paracetamol, I have a barf bag, and I have a clear run between where I’m sitting and the nearest bathroom. If you are going to face the Eurovision Song Contest without alcohol, it’s best to be prepared. To that end, while I am watching this completely stone-cold sober, I am not, as usual, watching it live. We all need a little something to help us get through this; if you don’t like tequila, the only thing left is the fast-forward button.
Anyway. So. This year we’re in beautiful Copenhagen, home of the Little Mermaid, a lot of knitwear, and some really good TV drama. We open with – according to Graham Norton, providing snarky commentary again for the BBC – a snatch of last year’s winning entry, about which I remember absolutely nothing. Said winner – Emily – is seen making her way over the Oresund Bridge from Malmo, where the contest was held last year, to the disused ship factory that’s been tarted up to serve as tonight’s venue. This opening sequence is like ‘Mission Impossible’, only boring, but fast-forwarding this early in the show would be cheating.
Oh, sod it.
OK. Flags of all nations being carried onstage by demented-looking black-clad dancers. Let the insanity begin. This year, we have indoor fireworks right at the top of the show. This is Eurovision; it’s just about the only place on television where a full minute’s worth of pyrotechnics counts as minimalism. Opening parade of contestants across the stage; this year, not all of them look like escaped mental patients, which is nice. But some of them do, and we wouldn’t have it any other way, would we?
Aaaaand here are our perma-grinning hosts, cueing the audience to set off 10,000-odd party-poppers. Again, around here, this is what passes for subtle restraint. Mr. Pilou Asbaek, Ms. Lise Rønne (and that’s the first and last time I will be using that special ASCII character this evening), and Mr. Nikolaj Koppel. Mr. Asbaek is a Serious Actor (and was brilliant as the duplicitous, tormented spin doctor in ‘Borgen’); he told the Guardian the other day that he took this gig because he felt he couldn’t turn down a party. I’m sure most of us feel the same way – that’s why we’re watching, and it’s also why we bought painkillers before tuning in. Mr. Asbaek is wearing a very-definitely-NOT-clip-on bow-tie (oh yes, and a dinner suit, obviously) which he couldn’t quite get straight before the show started, Ms. Ronne is in beige-ish gold with a tulle skirt and lots of diamanté, accessorised with a metal butterfly in her hair, and Mr. Koppel seems to be dressed for a funeral. Given that music is about to be pushed to the edge of death and possibly beyond, this is not an inappropriate choice.
Their scripted banter is awful, but that’s par for the course. Voting lines will not open until all acts have performed; this is an innovation that was only introduced a couple of years ago, which should tell you all you need to know about the integrity of the voting process.
So. Performance number one. Mariya Yaremchuck, representing Ukraine, with a song called ‘Tick Tock’ whose title has absolutely no subtextual symbolism when considered in the context of recent events in her home country. Each song is preceded by a short film in which the singer attempts some kind of novelty recreation of their country’s flag; Ms. Yaremchuck chooses to perform this task by sticking blank post-it notes to the platform of a Metro station in Kyiv, and I suspect it’s probably better not to ask why. She’s got long black hair, a generic voice, a flowing purple gown, and boobs, and there’s a guy in a hamster wheel behind her. The song is bland, well-produced Eurodisco – not good, not terrible, and not even slightly memorable, which is probably why she’s using a blinding light show and the wind machine. Oh yes, and there’s a bit in the middle where she looks like she’s about to dry-hump the hamster wheel, which is tasteful.
We’d all love to see the contest staged in Kyiv next year, wouldn’t we? That would be special.
Number two. Teo, representing Belarus with ‘Cheesecake’. He and his four male backing singers look and sound like insane Slavic cheesy-listening clones of Take That, only (hopefully) without the tax avoidance scheme headlines. Teo’s bow tie is untied, presumably because all his pre-show prep time was spent getting his hair to stand up at precisely 90 degrees. Mr. Norton informs us that no song in position two in the running order has ever won the contest. This one isn’t going to buck that trend.
Three. Azerbaijan – we see more footage of those gas-flame skyscrapers before her song. Dilara Kazimova, ‘Start a Fire (But Don’t Mention Human Rights Abuses)’. Ms. Kazimova is allegedly singing in English, but seems to be not entirely familiar with consonants. ANY consonants. There’s a trapeze artist behind her. It’s a drippy, overwrought piano ballad, and… bugger that, a minute of it is all I can stand.
Four. Iceland. Footage of men with beards walking towards a waterfall in snow. One of the backing singers apparently is an Icelandic MP. ‘No Prejudice’, by Pollaponk. Bright coloured suits, big drum-beats, guitars, beards… this is nearly as macho as Eurovision gets (so, um, not very macho, then). It’s basically the Hipster Teletubbies. The song is catchy, completely demented, and great fun. And… oh. Now they’re line-dancing. This won’t win, but it should. It’s fresh, fun, and there’s an eight-bar bit near the end where the audience is invited to clap along. They end in a pose, and I think their yellow-suited bassist might have just dislocated something.
Five. Norway. Their singer has a Very Serious Tattoo on his arm, but apparently no experience as a singer. Carl Espen, ‘Silent Storm’. Sound is coming from his mouth – at least I think it’s coming from his mouth – but I’m not sure if it’s singing or just the sort of noise you’d make when you were coming round from an anaesthetic. The song is a really, really boring piano ballad. I miss Bobbysocks. And I am NOT going to watch this to the end. So there.
I fast-forwarded. It started quiet and boring, and now it’s overwrought and boring. Fast-forward again.
Mr. Norton thinks Mr. Espen must be delighted that’s over, “as are we”. Word.
Six. Romania. Paula Seling & OVI, with ‘Miracle’. Mr. OVI looks and sounds a bit like a Carphone Warehouse salesman, and Ms. Seling reminds me of nothing so much as a cross between Amanda Lamb and a gerbil. They have no chemistry at all, which isn’t exactly a surprise given that they also have no charisma. They do have a completely circular piano; it’s way more interesting than their song, but so is being in a coma. We’re back in the land of Generic Slabs of Eurodisco, and it’s fast-forward time. Again.
Seven. Armenia. It’s possibly an ominous sign that the pre-song filmlet shows a guy melting metal down. He’s making a lovely brooch in the colours of the Armenian flag, then photographing it with his iPhone, presumably so he can cover the fare back home by flogging it on eBay after he doesn’t win. Aram MP3 – I assume that’s not his legal surname – with ‘Not Alone’. Another drippy piano intro, which so far seems to be this evening’s recurring musical theme. He has shiny leather boots, a nice tailored grey coat, and no personality. The song is obviously Very Meaningful to him, because he’s singing with his eyes closed. And now it’s getting overwrought, and he’s bellowing and grimacing like he’s giving birth while constipated. Lovely. Sorry, Mr. MP3, the pyrotechnics behind you won’t disguise the absolute dreariness of your dreary, dreary song. But then, Armenia often score surprisingly well; at Eurovision, entering a crappy song isn’t necessarily any barrier to success, as long as you have the right kind of crappy song – and that was the right kind of crappy song.
Eight. Montenegro. ‘Moj Svljet’, sung by Sergej Cetkovic. Wispy folk intro, ballerina on rollerblades, Very Sincere singer, projections of trees and flowers behind him. The floor lights up behind the dancer as she rollerblades across the stage, which is cool; the song unfortunately mutates from its charming, folksy intro into a far more generic soft-rock ballad in triple time. The high notes aren’t very high, but Mr. Cetkovic does manage to hit nearly all of them. It’s rather charming, and it won’t win.
Nine. Poland. Donatan & Cleo, with ‘My Slowianie – We Are Slavic’. They’re in yoof versions of folk dresses, one of them has a milk pail, there’s a stomping beat, and their hair is in unfeasibly long braids. The milk pail lady churns butter on the edge of the stage, and seems to be constantly on the verge of getting her tits out. Aside from the accordion break in the middle, it – bizarrely – reminds me a bit of Toto Coelo’s ‘I Eat Cannibals’. It isn’t good – at all – but it’s very entertaining. It’d be even better if it had any kind of tune, but you can’t have everything.
Ten. Greece. Freaky Fortune featuring RiskyKidd, with ‘Rise Up’. A Greek rapper, rapping in English. The chorus is insidiously catchy, but we’re back in Eurodisco land AGAIN. Someone must have spent, ooh, minutes programming this backing track. They have a trampoline onstage, because their backing track wasn’t bouncy enough already. Next week, this will be in every bar and disco in every resort on the Mediterranean… and the week after, the staff in every bar and disco in every resort on the Mediterranean will lose the will to live.
Eleven. Austria. Conchita Wurst, ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’. Mesmerisingly-staged bearded-lady drag act. Arresting stage presence, fabulous gown, dramatic song – you could imagine Shirley Bassey singing it. Her voice is only OK, and frankly a little underpowered for this particular song, but the performance is so compelling that it doesn’t matter. It’s not necessarily good music, but it’s great television, and at Eurovision, that’s what counts. She ends to a huge ovation, and is probably the favourite to win.
Twelve. Germany, Elaiza (that’s a trio, not a girl’s name), ‘Is It Right?’ They have an accordion onstage with them and one of them is actually playing it, so no it isn’t. Oom-pa-pa verse with a big drumbeat that kicks in for the chorus. They’re performing very enthusiastically, and they’re mostly doing a very good job of demonstrating to the world once again that there are vast areas of German popular culture that anyone who isn’t German just. can’t. understand.
Holy shit, she went into head voice a bit near the end. Someone please make her never ever do that ever again. Presumably Germany really don’t want to pay to host the contest next year. I hope there were no low-flying aircraft nearby. Or seagulls.
Short break. Mr. Koppel – still in his funeral tie – is explaining to us rubes at home what a hashtag is, because apparently none of this show’s 180 million viewers are on social media. Somebody got paid to write his links. That’s profoundly depressing.
There’s a Eurovision Book of Records, apparently, if you don’t have a life. Whoopee. Quick flash of last year’s Romanian Vampire and his big falsetto note, which – unlike the lead singer we just saw in Germany’s Elaiza – he hit dead on, because of course we all need to relive that particular trauma over and over again. I mean really, who doesn’t have that video clip bookmarked?
Lise and Pilou are back. Back. BACK!!! Yay.
So is their scripted banter. Boo.
Apparently when the venue was a shipyard, it was full of beautiful men with big sweaty muscles. Mr. Asbaek did not sound entirely convincing as he delivered that line.
Back to the songs. Thirteen, Sweden. In the pre-song filmlet, she’s blowing up yellow lilos in a swimming pool, which of course is the first thing that comes to mind when we think of Sweden, isn’t it? Sanna Nielsen, ‘Undo’. Elegant black sequinned dress, better-than-decent voice, and the song is a full-on power ballad complete with a cheesy key-change into the climactic refrain. This is a formula that has won several times before, and she does it very, very well indeed. Even if it doesn’t win, she’s going to sell a lot of records.
Fourteen. France. Twin Twin, with ‘Moustache’. Two of them really are twins, apparently.
Oh. My. God. It’s like someone took the worst elements of Jedward, Weird Al Yankovic, the Village People, and every middle-class white-boy rapper who ever lived, put them in a blender, and dumped the resulting mess onto a stage with a load of day-glo lighting effects. This is extraordinarily awful, even by Eurovision standards.
No, France. NO. Go and sit on the naughty step until you’ve thought about what you’ve done.
More twins, this time from Russia. Fifteen. Russia. The Tolmachevy Sisters, with ‘Shine’. They start the song back-to-back with their hair intertwined, grinning like loons, standing at the centre of a giant seesaw, each holding a perspex rod for no apparent reason. All of these things are more interesting than the song itself, which sounds like an offcut from an 80s Bond soundtrack. They have nice matching dresses and a hunky male backing singer, and they’re singing in tune, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of love for Russia in the room this evening, apart from among the actual Russians in the audience. Gosh, I can’t imagine why.
Sixteen. Italy. The pre-song filmlet shows her arranging tomatoes, mozzarella slices and basil leaves on a platter. She’s a big star already in Italy, but if this whole music thing doesn’t work out, a career in salad awaits. Emma, with ‘La Mia Città’. Lots of eyeshadow, fake gold laurel leaves in her hair, white dress, gold sequins, and she’s here to RAWK. Someone in her band has a keytar. This is straight from the early 80s – the song, the attitude, everything – and I love it. Of course it won’t win.
Seventeen. Slovenia, Tinkara Kovac – I love typing that – with ‘Round and Round’. At this performance, Ms. Kovac will be playing the role of a spasming flautist in scary gold eyeshadow. Sludgy ballad, and now she’s brandishing the flute like she’s about to hit someone with it. On the whole, being knocked unsconscious by her flute would be better than having to listen to the rest of this song. Moving on.
Eighteen. Finland. Softengine, with ‘Something Better’. After that last sorry excuse for a song, it would pretty much have to be. It’s a proper uptempo guitar-drums-and-piano-driven pop/rock song. I’ve no idea what they’re singing about – and yes, they’re singing in English – but the music is terrific. It’s somewhere between the Killers and what Coldplay would sound like if they weren’t crap, and at least – unlike Coldplay’s Chris Martin – they have an excuse for the English-as-a-second-language lyrics. Great chorus, and they perform with absolute conviction, without relying on any tacky staging gimmicks. This isn’t going to win, because stuff like this never wins, but it’s the best song of the evening so far.
Nineteen. Spain. Ruth Lorenzo, who was apparently on X-Factor a few years ago and just wrote a song for Dannii Minogue, with ‘Dancing In The Rain’. It starts with rain effects on stage – I had to look twice, because it’s also peeing it down outside right now. It’s not a bad song, but her high notes in the chorus are truly unpleasant. And when she goes to belt the big notes in the bridge, she looks uncannily like Sporty Spice, if Sporty Spice was a vampire. Veins in her neck start to bulge as the music gets more and more overdramatic, and if she doesn’t calm down soon there’s going to be blood – either hers or mine. Fast-forwarding now before my ears try to throttle my brain.
As Mr. Norton reminds us, that’s Spain’s strongest entry in several years. Let us not dwell on any of the previous ones.
Twenty. Switzerland. Sebalter, with something called ‘Hunter of Stars’. In which a gaggle of overeager hipster waiters attempt to do rockabilly. They’re very energetic, very nice, and almost completely plastic. On the bright side, their lead singer can sing in tune, and it’s fun. Given that there is a banjo onstage, that’s quite an achievement.
Twenty-one. Hungary. ‘Running’, sung by one András Kállay-Saunders, who seems to really want to be Seal. He can sing, and it’s a pretty good song, but he might be better off without the slightly ridiculous interpretive pas-de-deux being performed behind him as he sings. Apparently it’s a song about child abuse, but the lyrics are almost completely unintelligible. Score one for the sound system.
Twenty-two. Malta. More hipster beards. Firelight, with ‘Coming Home’. Yep, hipster folk pop, which is a slightly bizarre thing to take to Eurovision if you have any expectation of actually winning (given that the ‘prize’ is the chance to host next year’s very expensive show, and pay for it, I imagine Malta is not praying for the top spot). They’re great – everything the Swiss act was pretending to be but wasn’t, and with a better song and better voices and music that clearly is authentically who they are – but they seem to have wandered in from a different concert. It’s like watching Mumford and Sons do Sunday Night at the London Palladium: entertaining, but somehow wrong.
Twenty-three. Denmark, our hosts. Basim, with ‘Cliche Love Song’ (don’t yell at me about the missing accent, I’m just copying what’s on the caption). He’s like Glenn Medeiros on crack. This is so peppy that it’s almost frightening. Basim is also not the first performer this evening to be wearing an untied bow-tie. I know he’s very young, but surely someone backstage could have helped him with it.
Twenty-four. The Netherlands, ‘Calm After The Storm’ by the Common Linnets. Eurovision goes country-and-western. If Johnny Cash and June Carter had ever done Eurovision, this is what it would have sounded like. The song is lovely, and the performance – the singing, the playing, the projected-highway staging concept, the costume design, and all the rest of it – is absolutely impeccable. They’re great, but like the Maltese band, they seem to have parachuted in from a different, much classier show.
Twenty-five. San Marino, which has a population of about three, with a song called ‘Maybe’ sung by Valentina Monetta. The song and the performance are both straight off some second-rate 80s TV variety show. It’s lovely that San Marino got this far, and Ms. Monetta is obviously very, very pleased and excited to be here, but when the voting starts this’ll be toast. Still, at least Ms. Monetta got to indulge her obvious passion for ruched fabric on a global stage, so that’s nice for her.
Twenty-six. Last. Us. Molly, with ‘Children of the Universe’. Mr. Norton thinks this could be our year, so I’m guessing we’re going to place in the bottom ten (voting was over hours ago, and I know who won, but I don’t know yet how the rest of the scores panned out). The song has a big catchy hook and a stomping beat; I’m afraid there’s just something about it that I really, really dislike. Between the bombastic beat, the fauxspirational lyrics, and Molly’s nasal voice, the result is more irritating than uplifting. Still, it’s better than our last several efforts – but really, given that you could do better than Englebert Humperdink simply by showing up on time and having a pulse, that’s not much of an achievement, is it?
So that’s the songs done with. I think there might have been a couple of them that didn’t begin with a warning about strobe lights, but I lost track.
The presenters are back, and Mr. Koppel is STILL wearing his funeral tie. The scripted banter hasn’t got any better; the funeral might well be for his and Mr. Asbaek’s dignity, which died less than ten minutes into the show. Mr. Asbaek is now trying to joke with Graham Norton in Chinese. You know how funny that sounds? Precisely. Now someone is showering Mr. Norton with confetti, some of which has gone in his wine glass. That’s just cruel.
Voting open. This means one thing for the TV audience at home, and one thing only: interval show. Recap of all the songs so far = fast-forward time. Mr. Asbaek introduces the interval act, which involves people in white suits on big ladders singing ‘Ode To Joy’. One of them has a harmonica, which in a less liberal country than Denmark might be grounds for arrest. It’s deeply strange and slightly pointless, and the original version was apparently much longer and stranger, but it got cut way down in rehearsals. Thank the Lord for small mercies.
Now Mr. Koppel – STILL wearing his funeral tie – is at the piano. We’re treated to a video of him, Mr. Asbaek, and Ms. Ronne singing a song Mr. Koppel wrote about Eurovision. Mr. Asbaek throws himself into it gamely enough, but singing – let’s be kind here – isn’t really his strength. The lyrics are about the number 12 – the highest score in the voting process – with an excursion in which they discuss the Chinese calendar, whose leap years have thirteen months instead of twelve. Plus, obviously, chopsticks and opium. It’s three minutes of WTF, performed by the three presenters with all the grace and subtlety of a car crash.
Next, we have the 11-year-old Maltese winner of Junior Eurovision, whose BIG voice, God help us, seems tailor-made for belting out ‘Tomorrow’ in a revival of ‘Annie’. She’s charming, though, and better than some of the adult contestants.
Voting over. Mr. Koppel introduces a segment about a ‘Museum of Eurovision History’, in which Mr. Asbaek once again gets to show off his immaculate comic timing.
Part of that last sentence may not have been meant entirely sincerely.
Sorry, Denmark. Any fifteen seconds of the Swedish Smorgasbord number in last year’s interval act was funnier than the whole of what you just gave us.
And we’re back onstage. Ms. Ronne is still wearing the dress she was in at the beginning. It’s not a proper Eurovision unless at least one presenter wears a succession of hideous gowns. It doesn’t absolutely have to be one of the women, but Mr. Koppel seems strangely attached to his funeral tie. But she’s just delivered a full English breakfast to the Maltese lead singer, whose mum is from Yorkshire, so that’s nice. And now she’s talking to Molly about cake. They’ve just given Molly a curly-wurly cake from Borough Market. Molly thinks it’s ridiculous. Molly is right.
Ms. Ronne knows an awful lot about Molly’s family. If I was Molly, I’d be looking for the webcam.
Now Ms. Ronne is talking to France. Fast-forward time, because those people are scary.
Shut up about China, Mr. Asbaek. Now we’re back to last year’s winner, whose winning song I still don’t remember. This may or may not be it, but she’s singing it backed by a chorus-line of dancing trees. It looks strangely like a choreographic representation of Birnam Wood removing to Dunsinane. I wonder who is going to die in the final portion of the show? Apart from my sanity, obviously. That died half an hour ago, how else do you think I’m still able to watch?
And the scoring begins. Thank God I can fast-forward through a lot of this. If you watch it live, it seems to go on for about four days.
Holy shit. Albania gave Spain 12 points. Are they deaf?
There’s booing from inside the theatre as the Russian presenter gives her scores. And then big boos whenever Russia gets one of the top four scores. Again, I can’t imagine why.
It is unfortunate for the Russian contestants, who are very young. They did their best, and the audience’s outrage at Russia – the mess in Ukraine, the appalling and indefensible anti-gay legislation and all the rest of it – is nothing to do with them, and it can’t be easy to sit and smile while their country is being booed. The reception Russia is getting tonight, though, is entirely understandable.
No, Mr. Koppel, I don’t particularly care which Eurovision entry contained the most repetitions of the word ‘la’.
Back to the votes. Once again, the UK is doing really badly. Guess a lot of other people liked our entry about as much as I did, then.
The Finnish presenter is rapping his introduction. He is very, very white.
Ukraine gave Russia 4 points. Wow.
It’s clear with a few countries still to go that Conchita Wurst has won this for Austria – and so it proves. There were better songs in this competition, and better voices, but not a better performance. Very popular winner – and thank God, the scripted banter from the presenters is almost over.
So, as Ms. Wurst – no sausage jokes, please – gives us her song again, a recap. There were some genuinely surprising acts in this year’s competition, and some of the music was actually good. More surprising still: some of the good stuff scored surprisingly highly. And speaking of surprises, this year’s roster of acts included surprisingly few flaming camp catastrophes. Nobody got five feet taller during the final verse of their song, or performed suspended above the stage, or walked out wearing a swan. Depending on what you’re looking for from Eurovision, that’s possibly disappointing. And the Danish-scripted parts of the show, even by Eurovision standards, were lame. The presenters were stiff, the script wasn’t even slightly funny, and the interval act was dismal, and paled in comparison to the show Sweden put on last year.
So next year… presumably Vienna. The odds are at least even that this will be in the show somewhere. In the meantime, I think congratulations are in order: I got through the entire show on only four squares of chocolate and two paracetamols. I think that might be a record.
This year’s winner:
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.)
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.
(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.
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.
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:
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.
…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.