Have you heard this week’s most exciting, most internationally-significant piece of news?
I’ll give you a clue. It’s nothing to do with Libya.
Yes, that’s right. West Lothian’s favourite diva, Susan Boyle, has gone on a bad TV show and premiered a new song. That rocked your world, didn’t it? It certainly rocked mine, I saw the performance on youtube. And then considered turning to drugs to help me forget.
It’s not a new song, of course. It’s the English-language version of a song called “Du Måste Finnas” (You Must Exist), and it’s from “Kristina från Duvemåla”, a Swedish musical written by the male half of ABBA that premiered in Malmö in 1995. It’s already been recorded in Swedish and English by Helen Sjöholm, the musical’s star, and in English by Alice Ripley, who rips it to shreds (to be fair, she seems to do that to everything these days). As big, declamatory pop-opera anthems go, it’s rather good – provided the singer is up to it. The notes are not particularly difficult, but it’s one of those songs that needs a singer who can really sock the final refrain over the footlights.
Ms. Boyle, bless her, is not up to the task.
Actually, she’s worse than that. It’s an embarrassing, amateurish performance, particularly given that it’s a couple of years now since Ms. Boyle’s astonishing rise to fame on “Britain’s Got Talent”. You’d think that in that time people might have worked with her to help her develop a little more polish, but apparently not. Her phrasing is sloppy, she doesn’t keep to the beat, her voice just sort of peters out at the song’s climax, and she shows absolutely no connection at all with the song’s lyrics. The closest we’re given to anything resembling an interpretation are the parts where she flaps her arms around as if she’s trying to hail a taxi. The song, in context, shows a devout woman who has just miscarried railing at God for making her endure an unending stream of misfortune. Boyle sings it as if she’s trying to return a sweater without the receipt.
And that’s a shame, because her discovery via reality TV was an arresting, heart-warming news story, and her voice is quite well suited for the sort of middle-of-the-road Elaine Paige/Marti Webb strata of easy listening her recordings inhabit. The voice itself is… pleasant, and has potential, but she doesn’t have the sort of training you’d need to be able to belt with the power Paige had in her heyday, or that Sjöholm unleashes when she pelts into the final refrain. Go to any decent amateur operatic society/community theatre, and you’ll find at least one singer with a stronger voice and more polish.
It’s dangerous. TV is seductive, and Boyle’s story made compelling television – but television has created a trap for her. She’s not without talent, but what sold, originally, was the gawky, never-been-kissed woman with Van der Graaf generator hair and a frumpy skirt confounding expectations by giving a passably pleasant performance rather than the flaming, humiliating train wreck everybody expected when she walked onstage. Two years on, though, she’s still peddling the same gawky, unpolished schtick, except she’s doing it in a better frock and with a nicer hairdo. And I don’t think it’s doing her any favours.
The thing about that first surprising performance is that it didn’t just show us a sweet, nervous lady with a nice voice. There was something quite interesting going on as Boyle sang, although she showed, as she did this week, limited skill as an interpreter of lyrics. You got the sense, watching her, that here was a woman who was quite literally singing for her life, singing her heart out, and it was oddly moving. More than that, she faced an audience and a judging panel (two of whom are almost certainly in thrall to the forces of doom) who smelled blood when she walked onstage, and she brought them to their feet through sheer force of personality. That’s not an easy thing to do; the fact that Ms. Boyle did it suggests that, with proper training, she could become a far better, far more polished performer than she is at the moment, in the process building for herself a far more durable and credible career than I suspect she’ll have if she continues on the track she’s on right now. She has huge hits, her albums sell in massive quantities, but she’s a sideshow, and there’s a limit to how far you can peddle a sideshow before the audience gets bored.
Although they’re not bored at the moment, and that in itself is depressing as hell. Boyle’s deeply mediocre performance of “You Have To Be There” was met with cheers and a large ovation from the studio audience at “America’s Got Talent” – and this wasn’t an audition, and there was no element of surprise. Ms. Boyle gave a bad performance, and the audience ate it up because she’d been wheeled out as the star attraction. You applaud the star, so the audience applauded, and never mind that the star’s actual performance had all the star wattage of three-day-old coleslaw. That’s the reality Reality TV gives us: what used to take years of training and hard work now takes three minutes on ITV and a few million youtube hits. Who cares if the final product – don’t say it out loud – isn’t any good?
Well, not all of them, obviously. Let’s just start with the two ladies who were sitting directly behind me.
This isn’t quite what I’d intended to be writing. I saw the international tour of Mamma Mia at the Palace Theatre in Manchester this afternoon. Cheesy as it is, it’s a show I like; I was planning to write a little about the show, a little about the performances in this particular iteration of it, a little about how I think Catherine Johnson, who wrote it, doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the job she did, which was more difficult than it appears at first glance and which she carried off with enormous skill, and a little about my slightly embarrassing ABBA-related streak of geekness (not only do I have their entire back catalogue on my iPod, I own a copy of Bright Lights, Dark Shadows. And I’ve actually read it. Yay me).
That, however, was before I saw the show. Emphasis on the saw, because unfortunately I didn’t hear very much of it, despite the production’s formidable sound system.
I was sitting in the stalls, in the centre block, about a third of the way back from the stage. In the row behind me, there was a group of ladies on, I think, a coach trip. They were clearly out to have a good time – fine, so was I – but directly behind me were a pair of extremely rude, astonishingly loud ladies who talked all the way through the first act, and sang along with all the songs. When I say ‘talked’ and ‘sang’, I do not mean whispered and hummed. They shouted, so that they could be heard at normal speaking volume above the show’s sound system, keeping up their loud running commentary even during dialogue scenes when no music was playing. Their singing resembled nothing so much as the sound a car ferry makes as it backs out of Dover’s Eastern Docks. Any glance or glare or other silent attempt to get them to be quiet (there were several, both from myself and from other audience members) was met with a loud “what the fuck are you looking at?” – or, on one occasion, “Fuck off, I’m having fun, you miserable git”.
I complained to a member of the house staff at the start of the interval. I was not the only one, either. Towards the end of the interval, a more senior member of the front of house staff came to speak to me. He asked me to point out where these ladies were sitting (they were in the bar), then told me that he’d have a word with them, but he didn’t “want to spoil anyone’s fun”. You know, never mind that their obnoxious behaviour was ruining the show for me and for everyone else within earshot. I assume some kind of mild reprimand took place, although I didn’t hear it. Another audience member, in the row behind these ladies, told them at the start of the interval that they’d been ruining the show, and asked them to keep the noise down. The response? “You wouldn’t fucking talk to me like that if my husband was here!” Hearing this, I was torn between feeling profoundly sorry for the husband and curiosity as to how any man can have so little self-respect. I hope he at least has earplugs. Or a prescription for mood elevators. Or both.
When the ladies returned to their seats, as the lights were going down for Act Two, they loudly called down the row to their friends (I think they were in a group), “We’ve been fucking blasphemed!” (I assume they meant chastised). They then continued to behave in exactly the same rude, disruptive manner all the way through the rest of the show. I can’t tell you much about what Sara Poyzer’s rendition of “The Winner Takes it All” might have been like; the lady behind me’s version was atrocious, between a semitone and a whole tone flat all the way through, and delivered with the kind of sure rhythmic sense you’d expect from, say, a plane crash. And the wedding scene was a particularly special highlight. In the instant before Harry reveals that he’s gay, one of these ladies turned to the other and stridently exclaimed “Ooh! He’s a fucking queer, just like your Mark!”. The final grace note was the beginning of the encore, when one of these ladies poked me sharply in the neck and said “You mind if we fucking sing now?” I would not, actually, have minded so much if she’d sang during the finale. The sound she produced was more akin to an elephant farting. Just in case you were wondering, I have indeed heard an elephant fart. Yes, folks, these were two classy ladies.
As you can imagine, the experience of sitting in the theatre anywhere close to these people – an experience which cost £48.00 including booking and delivery fees - was about as much fun as contracting swine flu or having an abcess lanced. Let’s think about this for a moment. These two monumentally self-centred women had no regard at all for the fact that they were sitting among hundreds of other people who had each paid upwards of £40 to be there. They wanted to show their enjoyment by yelling, screeching, swearing and generally disrupting everybody else’s experience, so that’s what they did, and everybody else be damned. They were, incidentally, each a good 20 years older than I am. Aside from the very apologetic house manager I spoke to after the performance ended, the theatre’s ineffectual front-of-house staff, equally, apparently had no regard at all for the fact that a large number of people who had all paid upwards of £40 to be there were having their experience of the performance absolutely ruined by the obnoxious behaviour of two people who didn’t have enough manners to know when to shut up (to be fair, I suspect that the louder of the two was physically incapable of shutting her mouth – which doesn’t justify her inflicting her repulsive personality, her penchant for expletives or her off-key singing voice on the rest of us). They couldn’t be bothered to deal with the disruption properly, so the rest of us had our afternoons ruined. Sorry, that’s completely unacceptable. The two ladies were, I think, the rudest, most obnoxious, most thoroughly repellent people I’ve encountered in a theatre in over thirty years of regular theatregoing; for their part, the front of house staff in the stalls at the Palace this afternoon deserve a gold star, or possibly a smack upside the head, for their absolute, family-sized, copper-bottomed uselessness.
Oh yes, one more thing. I’ve been going to the theatre regularly for over thirty years. I’ve seen all manner of productions in theatres large and small across the UK, continental Europe and North America. So where do I find the rudest, most thoroughly unpleasant audience members I’ve ever had the misfortune to sit near? Manchester. Home. You can imagine how proud I feel.
And, finally, the show? It is what it is. It’s really cheesy, and I love it. The international tour uses the longer version of the overture, which I like. There’s a husband and wife team (Sara Poyzer and Richard Standing) as Donna and Sam and, from the little I was able to hear above the bovine bellowing from behind me, I think they’re probably very good. Kate Graham and Jennie Dale are probably very funny as Tanya and Rosie. They certainly seem to get a lot of laughs, and they’ve got the comic business down. They probably sang well but, again, I couldn’t hear enough to know for sure. The bits I could hear sounded good. The production seems pretty fresh, the cast are obviously having a great time, and it’s probably usually great fun. But if you’re planning to sit in the stalls at the Palace, I’d go armed with a taser and duct tape, just in case. It’s not like you’ll get any help from front of house if Mrs. Gob-the-size-of-the-Mersey-tunnel happens to be sitting behind you.