Only Connect

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One may as well begin with the reviews – or rather, with the drool-covered mash-notes several London critics have written to Matthew Lopez, the American playwright whose two-part adaptation of a very English novel appears to be turning into The Theatrical Event of the Year. In the Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish tells us it’s “perhaps the most important American play of the century so far”. Even the least effusive reviews are mostly very, very good indeed. Lopez is all but unknown in this country, and this is quite a debut: the rest of the run is sold out bar a (very) few rush tickets, the production is certain to have a life beyond this initial run at the Young Vic, and word-of-mouth is generally very strong indeed. The Inheritance deserves the avalanche of superlatives, as far as I’m concerned – it’s a dazzling, audacious, breathtakingly clever piece of writing, expertly performed by an astonishing cast under the flawless direction of Stephen Daldry – but it also demands closer scrutiny than that avalanche of superlatives might suggest. There’s no question that this is a work of unusual brilliance, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely without faults.

For a start, I don’t know how well it works if you aren’t at least a little bit familiar with E.M. Forster‘s Howards End, and with a few biographical details about Forster’s life and literary output. I’m sure the play can stand on its own, but I’m one of those people who always does their homework and I reread the novel the week before I saw it, which means I didn’t come to it clean. In terms of plot, Lopez’s play is more an extended riff on top of Forster’s novel than a direct translation of it; Eric and Toby, his surrogates for Margaret and Helen Schlegel, are lovers rather than siblings (there is no Tibby in the play). Eric works for a liberal/progressive NGO run by a friend, Toby is a one-hit-wonder YA novelist in the process of adapting his book for the stage. Lopez, it’s fair to say, takes the characteristics of Forster’s characters and amplifies them, so that Eric is thoroughly kind and decent and Toby is equally thoroughly self-absorbed; the play opens with a raucously funny story about Toby’s ignominious exit from a party hosted by wealthy friends Walter and Henry Wilcox (it involves Meryl Streep and the inevitable consequence of far too many Martinis), quickly follows it with Eric and Toby’s engagement, and then takes off on an epic journey through the post-AIDS landscape inhabited by New York’s gay community, with pit-stops at most (though not quite all) of the major plot points in Forster’s novel. There’s a misplaced umbrella, a thwarted inheritance, a meal at an only-for-carnivores restaurant at which the host orders for his guest of honour, a marriage, a country house, a meadow, a tree with teeth in the bark, and lots and lots of debate about art and politics and privilege, and a good number (though by no means all) of the piece’s laughs come from references to Forster’s novel. At the same time, Lopez puts E.M. Forster onstage as a character – “Morgan” – and keeps him front and centre in part one as a kind of writing coach, prompting the young men in Eric and Toby’s group of friends to revise their individual narratives and clarify the meaning behind their stories.

Despite the running time – the two parts together clock in at over six hours of stage time, over seven and a half hours including intermissions – the pace rarely flags, and you’ll need to work to keep up, because this is a piece that operates on several levels. It’s a gay Howards End AND an ongoing left-vs.-right political debate, a treatise on the tragic losses sustained by the gay community during the 1980s and 1990s, a moving eulogy for those lost, a lecture about the history of AIDS, a metatheatrical examination of the ways in which we construct our lives into narratives, a play about what each generation gives to and takes from the next, a meditation on the intersection(s) between love and politics and sex, and a comedy of (sometimes very bad) manners. Usually it’s several of those things in the same scene. It’s a thrilling rollercoaster ride, superbly sustained through the full length of the piece, and it’s well worth the effort, but there’s a lot going on and a lot to take in, and the sheer breadth (and, let’s face it, length) of the piece, the constant shifts in focus between complex, intertwined plot strands mean The Inheritance is inevitably a somewhat dizzying theatrical experience. For some, I suspect, it will gain an extra dimension if you see both parts back-to-back on the same day (which is what I did); others, certainly, will be glad of an extended break between the two halves.

And the writing, certainly, is not unimpeachable, although that shouldn’t be taken as a suggestion that Lopez’s achievement here is anything less than remarkable. The biggest fault, probably, is also a fault of the source novel: Lopez’s characters, like Forster’s, exist in an insular, seemingly self-contained (and self-absorbed) world in which interlopers are not always treated kindly. This is an (almost) entirely affluent, privileged (notwithstanding the profound sense of loss underpinning the play), white strata of society. There are two actors from visible minorities – out of a cast of fourteen – on the stage in a play set in Manhattan whose first scene takes place somewhere around mid-2015, and we don’t encounter a woman until midway through the final act of part two. This is a play inhabited very nearly exclusively by  a clique of gay men who all have similar backgrounds, and who (almost) all trade in the same cultural and political references. Lopez’s writing is undeniably virtuosic, and he’s created an engaging, funny, sometimes very deeply moving collection of characters, but this is still, for better or worse, a play about people who mostly only ever talk to people like themselves. Over more than six hours of stage time, given the scope of the social history Lopez is trying to navigate, that is an issue. AIDS was never simply an upper-middle-class disease, and New York’s gay community always encompassed every point on the social spectrum – but here, the two black actors in the cast play relatively minor roles, and the one character who isn’t middle-class or wealthier is a more-or-less homeless prostitute.

It’s also fair to point out that Lopez, all the way through, relies on third-person narration in the manner of a third-person novel’s omniscient voice, with characters stepping outside of scenes to tell us the story. It’s not as if this has never been done before, and it’s not as if you can’t build a successful piece of theatre around this technique (step forward, Lin-Manuel Miranda), but this is a very, very long two-part play. It contains a lot of plot, and a surprising amount of that plot is narrated rather than dramatised, told rather than shown. That isn’t going to be a problem for everyone – but if you don’t like that technique, or even if you’re ambivalent about it, sitting through six hours of it might prove to be a slog.

It’s bold of Lopez to stop the action in its tracks, more than once, to allow characters to let rip with a full-blown political debate, and it’s also bold of him to make the most unpleasantly self-righteous character in the biggest, most significant debate scene an angry, passionate left/liberal/progressive-leaning Clinton supporter, and to strenuously avoid making his billionaire Republican opponent – yes, Henry Wilcox, the only character in The Inheritance to take their name directly from his analogue character in Forster’s novel – into either a stereotypical Log Cabin Republican or a Mitt Romney clone. There’s a plot-related reason why Jason – the liberal character – is so rude in his reaction to the revelation that Henry Wilcox has donated to the (then-current) Republican Presidential candidate, but the debate – as a debate – would be less predictable if Jason attempted to refute Henry’s arguments rather than simply condemning them out of hand. It’s a fine, fiery scene, and it plays like gangbusters in the hands of Michael Marcus and John Benjamin Hickey, but Lopez’s handling of the politics behind the characters is noticeably less smart here than it is through most of the rest of the play.

And then there’s the E.M. Forster conundrum. Lopez’s play is tied very closely to its source material, even though it sometimes departs from it very significantly, and there’s an immensely touching essay in the programme in which Lopez talks about his love of a novel set in a world that is quite sharply different from the small Florida Panhandle town where he grew up. Putting Forster himself onstage proves to be a triumph; it therefore seems not only churlish but actually disrespectful to allow, in one of the play’s debates, Lopez’s young, comfortably middle-class, privileged characters, (almost) all of whom exist in the kind of monied/western/bourgeois-bohemian/liberal bubble in which LGBTQ rights have largely been embraced by the mainstream, to turn on Morgan for not publishing Maurice during his lifetime. Or rather, the accusation is perhaps fair enough, and so is the thinking behind it – it’s not impossible that the publication of an unabashedly homosexual love story from as major a figure as Forster might have helped pave the way for wider, earlier acceptance of LGBTQ rights by the public at large – but it seems churlish and disrespectful for Lopez not to permit Morgan to defend his decision. It also arguably is an indication of the potential pitfalls of an American writer putting words into the mouth of a real English literary figure, because I doubt a British writer would have failed to make the point that to publish the novel in 1914 with the ending Forster intended would quite possibly have put Forster in prison. At that time, it would have been publishable in Britain only if it had ended in the imprisonment or suicide of one or other (or both) of the two central characters; for a mainstream fiction press to publish a homosexual love story with a happy ending would have been more or less unthinkable, and for Forster to pursue publication of the novel would have required reserves of strength and bravery and self-sacrifice that, frankly, are not evident among most of Lopez’s characters in The Inheritance. It’s probably the least sure-footed passage in the whole of the play.

The ending of part two, as well, could stand a little sharpening. Partly that’s because the ending of part one – an equivalent of the scene in the novel where Margaret first sees the meadow at Howards End – is so beautifully written and so exquisitely moving that it’s very difficult for the ending of part two not to suffer at least a little in comparison, but partly it’s because we’ve all seen the final episode of Six Feet Under and some of us have seen (or at least read) Terrence McNally‘s Love! Valour! Compassion!, and the specific narrative gimmick Lopez pulls out in his final sequence has been done before, and done better.

Questions of milieu and the (nearly) all-male cast (I mean, really – do none of these people ever speak to a woman?) aside, though, those few hiccups amount to no more than a couple of scenes out of a mostly splendid piece of writing… although having said that, there is very little in theatre (and film) that isn’t improved by editing, and that’s certainly the case here. I don’t mean a hacksaw, but each of the play’s six acts could comfortably stand to lose a few minutes (by the time I saw it last week, part two had already lost ten minutes or so of running time from the timings reported while it was in previews), and in the second part the audience really needs more than a five-minute breather between the second and third acts.

Not that your attention will wander, because while the writing is not entirely unimpeachable, Stephen Daldry’s production is just about perfect. Elegantly staged on Bob Crowley’s rectangular white platform set – a blank page, if you like – against a black backdrop which occasionally parts to reveal another room, or a tree, or a model of the upstate house at the centre of the plot, Daldry’s staging is strikingly minimalist and, as lit by Jon Clark, often quite beautiful. He’s done, too, a superb job of rendering Lopez’s complicated, sprawling, multilayered plot with absolute clarity. More than anything else, he’s drawn wonderful performances from his cast. Kyle Soller’s Eric is an astonishing six-hour tour-de-force – Eric is our way in to the play, the most wholly sympathetic character onstage, and Soller’s work is simply stunning. Without grandstanding, and without ever chewing the scenery (not that there’s much scenery to chew), Soller provides a quietly moving portrayal of a genuinely good, kind man who slowly comes to understand that he must use his privilege to help others. Andrew Burnap is equally good as the self-absorbed/charmingly obnoxious writer Toby, and when we’re (finally) shown Toby’s inner demons (after being told about them for five whole acts) Burnap doesn’t overplay the moment. Samuel H. Levine is mesmerising as the play’s two stand-ins for Leonard Bast – Adam, an overprivileged, culturally-undereducated would-be actor, and Leo, a rent boy who (we are told) looks remarkably similar to Adam. Paul Hilton is simply lovely as Morgan, and as Walter, the play’s equivalent of Ruth Wilcox. John Benjamin Hickey’s Henry Wilcox, a billionaire gay Republican who finds himself becoming closer to Eric after Walter’s death, is a far more compelling figure than the Henry Wilcox in Forster’s novel; Hickey is very moving indeed as a character whose losses during the early years of the AIDS epidemic were so profound that he’s been left emotionally crippled by what amounts to a form of PTSD, but he also makes Henry’s growing relationship with Eric absolutely believable, and he and Lopez, to their enormous credit, avoid more or less all the obvious Republican! Billionaire! clichés (which, to return to an earlier point, is why it’s startling that the writing for Jason #1, the Committed Progressive among Lopez’s cast of characters here, is so jarringly one-note). The supporting performances – all of them – are excellent; everyone apart from Hickey, Soller, Burnap, and Vanessa Redgrave plays more than one role; this is an ensemble performance, and the performances right across the ensemble are flawless.

That leaves Vanessa Redgrave, whose appearance is held back until almost halfway through the show’s final act. She’s frail and fragile and heartbreaking, and very quiet as a kind of Ruth Coker Burks figure – a woman who rejected her gay son while he was healthy, and then devoted her life to providing palliative care for AIDS patients as a kind of penance after his death. Given her connection to the Merchant-Ivory film of the source novel, Redgrave’s appearance more or less amounts to stunt-casting, but she has remarkable presence; you may occasionally wonder whether the character is overcome with grief or the actress is struggling to remember the next line, but she supplies a great deal of the final act’s emotional force. Lopez gives her character what amounts to an extended monologue about the sickness and death of her son, and in Redgrave’s hands it becomes a masterclass in the value of stillness onstage. It’s a phenomenal performance, and a late highlight in a phenomenal piece of theatre.

So, yes, those reviews – where we began – were absolutely justified…but. The thing about reviews like that is that they create impossible expectations, and also, sometimes, a sense that the work is somehow above criticism by regular mortals. To be absolutely clear, The Inheritance is a staggeringly talented piece of writing. This is an extraordinary, dazzling, wonderful play given a flawless production. Several reviews have compared it directly to Tony Kushner‘s Angels in America; it withstands the comparison, and that is very, very high praise indeed. It is going to have a life, probably a very significant life, beyond this production (although sorry, Dominic Cavendish, it is simply too soon to say whether it’s the most significant new American play of the century so far). Kyle Soller deserves every award out there for his performance, and Lopez deserves every award out there for a script whose highs are spectacularly high. Of course it’s a must-see, and probably a must-read too – but while you’ll be thrilled, moved, and thoroughly dazzled by The Inheritance, you’ll also find yourself picking holes in it for days afterwards.

 

 

 

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SEIZE THE MEANS OF PRODUCTION: THE MUSICAL!

the last ship northern stage 1

It’s a homecoming of sorts. After a conspicuously unsuccessful Broadway run, a heavily-rebuilt version of Sting‘s shipbuilders-go-Cervantes musical The Last Ship has docked at Northern Stage in Newcastle upon Tyne, the composer’s hometown, which is where it should have been produced in the first place. The names of the Broadway production’s bookwriters have disappeared from the poster, and the book is by Lorne Campbell, Northern Stage’s artistic director, who also directs the show. The poster image is an actual stained-glass window from Newcastle’s Catholic cathedral. There’s an entirely new cast, including – thank God – no Jimmy Nail, who withdrew from the production at the beginning of the year, a suitably gritty shipyard set and stunning projections from 59 Productions, an impeccable but small (five musicians plus the musical director) folk-rock band tucked behind a corner of the stage, and – inevitably, given the composer – a slightly smug air of shut-up-this-is-good-for-you worthiness hovering over every word.

If Sting sets your teeth on edge – and you’d have good reason – take a deep breath: the impetus behind this project does appear to be thoroughly heartfelt (“sincere” is not an easy word to apply to someone whose public pronouncements are so often so sanctimonious). You may quite justifiably find it (a lot) less than admirable that he, already a millionaire many times over, accepted a seven-digit cheque from a dictator in return for playing a private concert, particularly given that his defence for having done so was singularly unconvincing. You may, also quite justifiably, find the cognitive dissonance inherent in a multimillionaire holding a social-consciousness summit at his Tuscan estate hilarious, at least in a just-threw-up-in-my-mouth-a-little sort of way. You may find it staggering, after the unpleasantness about the whole Uzbekistan thing, that he still chooses to give private audiences to such delightful people, albeit only (again) in exchange for very large amounts of money. I have a (very) short list of people in the arts whose public behaviour is so appalling/unpleasant/hypocritical that I’m reluctant to spend money on their work, and Sting is certainly on it; on the other hand, word from friends in New York who saw the brief Broadway run was quite positive, the reviews were intriguing, and some of the score, on the evidence of the Broadway cast recording, is very strong indeed. And, God help me, as a longstanding, fully-paid-up musical theatre geek, I was curious, so I gritted my teeth and paid up, and made the trek up north to Newcastle with an open mind.

And a lot of it, to be fair, is very, very good indeed. Set in the mid-1980s and pitched by the (very, very sparingly-used) narrator as something between wish-fulfillment and what-might-have-been, the show’s story is an odd but (mostly) effective blend of Karl Marx and Don Quixote set in a declining shipyard which finds itself on the verge of bankruptcy when the multimillion-pound contract of sale for the one order on their books falls through just before the ship is due for completion. Faced with the imminent loss of their jobs, and having been told no help will be forthcoming from the (Thatcher) government, the yard’s workers embark on a quixotic socialist Grand Gesture: they Seize The Means of Production – that is, the shipyard – and erect a barricade, and aim to complete the ship and launch it into the Tyne, partly as a last monument to their dying way of life and partly simply to épate la bourgeoisie by ending the shipyard’s life, and their own careers, in a final blaze of glory.

Yes, in case you were wondering, someone does shout “rage against the dying of the light”; there are also on-the-nose allusions (sometimes slightly too on-the-nose) to Cervantes and Marx and Engels in Campbell’s book, and this is very definitely a show that wears its politics on its sleeve. The decline-of-industrial-Wallsend side of the show’s storyline is more or less a predictable dockyard melodrama, right down to the untimely-death-from-an-industry-related-terminal-disease scene and the subsequent grieving-widow-transcends-her-grief-to-save-the-workers plot twist. Yes, those are spoilers, but you’ll be three steps ahead of the plot all the way through, and while the writing succumbs to nearly every working-class cliché in the book, the actors carry it all off with tremendous conviction. Sting’s score exists largely in a kind of musical hinterland between Kurt Weill and Lindisfarne; that’s a richer seam than you might think, but it’s also absolutely the sound you’d probably expect from an 80s-set determinedly left-wing working-class musical whose book more than nods towards Brecht and agitprop. You won’t be surprised, apart from by the astonishing set-design, but you will probably be moved.

Just as predictable, but also rather less effective, is the love story that – of course – is set against the closing of the shipyard. This concerns Gideon, because of course this show lays the symbolism on with a trowel, who ran away from Wallsend seventeen years ago in search of adventure/new horizons/a better life/a better selection of Docs and knit caps than he could find in any shop in Eldon Square/an escape from his abusive alcoholic father, and who comes back to clear out his (now-)late father’s house to discover that Meg, the girlfriend he left in Wallsend when he skipped town on a merchant ship, now has a sixteen-year-old daughter (Ellen, named after a local political heroine, again presumably because this show lays the symbolism on with a trowel). Gideon wants Meg back, Meg isn’t having any, Ellen wants to run away to London with her socialist rock band to make a record, and you can probably guess right now how this half of the plot is resolved.

The love-story side of the show is never exactly bad; actually, the mother-daughter scenes between Frances McNamee‘s Meg and Katie Moore’s Ellen are among the best things in the show (Moore also doubles, very effectively, as the narrator). Gideon’s big love-song, “What Say You, Meg?”, is meltingly lovely. That the romance never quite catches fire is simply down to the unfortunate fact that Gideon is by far the least interesting character on the stage. Meg, a single parent who clawed her way up from a teen pregancy to build a secure life for herself and her daughter, is simply a far more compelling figure than a man who ran away from home at seventeen, never looked back, and never really articulates why he stayed away for so long when he promised Meg he’d return. As Gideon, Richard Fleeshman – who, thank God, has learned to act since Ghost – is a pleasant enough presence, and he sings very well, although perhaps it isn’t wise to allow him to spend so much of his music imitating the composer’s vaguely transatlantic drawl. The trouble is, he more or less fades into the background next to Frances McNamee’s fiery Meg. That’s largely the fault of the writing – Gideon’s music mostly tends towards lovelorn/wistful ballads of regret, while Meg’s entrance number, a razor-sharp put-down called “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor”, is a furious, rum-fuelled answer to Kurt Weill’s Tango-Ballade, which McNamee slams into the back wall of the theatre with the force of an Atlantic hurricane. Of course Meg is a more compelling presence than Gideon; she’s drawn in a far more colourful musical vocabulary. Despite his very large role in the show’s plot, Gideon’s stature is further diminished in comparison with Joe McGann‘s salt-of-the-earth foreman Jackie White, who – at least until midway through the second act – carries the shipyard side of the plot and who is musicalised via a series of stirring protest anthems. When Fleeshman is given something a bit more dramatic to get his teeth into, he delivers – “The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance”, in which he tells his newfound daughter how he learned to dance to woo her mother, is his best moment by far – but he can only do so much with a character who is mostly written in flat greys.

Thankfully, while the romantic half of the plot sometimes threatens to bring the show to a juddering halt, it’s never too long before we’re back in the shipyard. The shipbuilders’ gradual move from anger to stunned acceptance to defiant resistance is movingly drawn, Joe McGann gives a very fine performance indeed as their foreman, and Charlie Hardwick is even better as Jackie’s wife Peggy, whose own act of defiance buys the shipbuilders the time they need to finish and launch the ship. Yes, that’s also a spoiler – but again, you’ll have worked out within ninety seconds of the lights going down where the plot is going to end up. A late-in-Act Two speech from Katie Moore’s narrator which attempts to put the shipbuilders’ quest into a wider social context is certainly didactic and arguably preachy and (yes) a little smug, but it’s also undeniably effective: by name-checking protests ranging from the Jarrow march to the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, Campbell effectively suggests that sometimes Grand Futile Gestures can ultimately carry considerable weight, and this does add an extra dimension to the final scene. There’s a lot of good in this show, but – as I said – few surprises; having said that, those protest songs, Campbell’s staging, the superb performances, and the sometimes breathtaking visual effects are more than enough to hold your attention. The show could easily stand to lose twenty minutes, but that’s a big club these days; it’s worth bearing with the moments, and there are a few, when your attention will wander to get to the finale, which is genuinely extremely moving and which includes a visual effect (accomplished via projections) so stunning that my mouth dropped open.

It’s worth, then, swallowing your opinion of the composer and shelling out for a ticket (the run in Newcastle is now over, but the production is touring until July). Not everything in the show works, even after what seems to have been a very thorough overhaul following the Broadway production, but the good far outweighs the bad, the performances are almost all excellent, the set and projections are beautifully evocative, and the last five minutes or so are genuinely thrilling (and yes, what the hell, if someone chooses to record this version of the show I’ll certainly buy it). Frances McNamee, Joe McGann and Charlie Hardwick are worth the cost of the ticket, and so are (most of) the songs and that set; the composer, unfortunately, is still – let’s be kind – a bit of a wanker, but this is showbusiness. You can’t have everything.

 

the last ship northern stage 2

Pocket change

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For me, this was another Show That Got Away. I didn’t manage to see the original production of Caroline, or Change at the Public Theater in New York, or on Broadway. I was still living overseas when the Broadway production transferred to London for a run at the National. The morning the first iteration of this production – at the Chichester Festival Theatre‘s Minerva last year – went on sale, I was stuck on a train, and by the time I got somewhere with a data signal that didn’t keep dropping out there were no tickets left for any performance I could have attended. I booked for the Hampstead run about ten minutes after tickets went on sale; I’ve regretted missing the original production ever since, and I wasn’t going to miss this.

And having said all that, high expectations aren’t always the best thing to bring with you to the theatre… but this production surpassed them. Set in Lake Charles, Louisiana in late 1963, in the weeks between the Kennedy assassination and Chanukah, Tony Kushner‘s book and lyrics quietly set up a perfect storm: a confrontation between Caroline Thibodeaux, a dour, downtrodden, rigidly proud black maid, and her (Jewish) employer’s lonely, grieving eight-year-old son Noah, whose mother died of cancer the previous year, over money Noah carelessly left in his pockets in the laundry. The clash, when it finally comes two-thirds of the way through the second act, is vicious and wounding on both sides; the show offers a slow-burning, subtle examination of the ways people resist or embrace change, and while it doesn’t offer the kind of easy catharsis you get out of a blatant tearjerker like Miss Saigon, it’s a haunting, engrossing, thoroughly moving piece of writing, and Jeanine Tesori‘s music is often thrilling.

Essentially, the show is an opera (Kushner and Tesori both describe it as such in this production’s programme notes). It’s more or less through-sung with very little spoken dialogue, it’s through-composed with relatively few standalone songs, and while Tesori’s musical palette incorporates influences as diverse as klezmer and Motown, she blends her various ingredients into something distinctively her own, rather than supplying a series of pastiche numbers. Kushner’s libretto is remarkably self-effacing; he’s perfectly capable of using language to dazzle, but here the fireworks are mostly supplied by Tesori’s music, because this is a piece in which several of the central characters are, for various reasons, verbally inarticulate. Caroline, the maid at the heart of the show, doesn’t have the energy or the education to put the sense of deep longing that is all but tearing her apart into words. Instead, Tesori charts Caroline’s emotional state via music – the music she hears as well as the music she sings. Kushner and Tesori take the clever, whimsical step of anthropomorphising various inanimate objects as a means of giving us windows into their closed-up, tightly-wound central character’s emotional landscape. When Caroline does the laundry, the washer and dryer sing to her. She turns on the radio, and a girl-group appears. When she looks at the moon, the moon sings her deepest yearnings back to her. In lesser hands, this could easily seem ridiculous; here, it works beautifully, and adds significant richness to a piece that could easily have been two hours of unhappy people sniping at each other.

Michael Longhurst’s spare, lean production gets the (difficult) tone exactly right, and navigates the material’s difficult emotional landscape with exceptional clarity. There’s a single unit set, of course – this is a 325-seat theatre, not Broadway – but Fly Davis’s geometric-print 60s interior works well enough, and there’s a great deal of wit to her costumes for the appliances and the moon. There’s also a conductor and eleven musicians delivering the original orchestrations, which is not what you expect to see in a such a small theatre at ticket prices pitched significantly below what you’d pay in the West End. Those orchestrations, incidentally, are by Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert, and Buryl Red; inexcusably; they are not credited in the programme.

And in the title role, Sharon D. Clarke may well be giving the performance of her career. So, come to that, might Lauren Ward as Rose Stopnick Gellman, Noah’s fish-out-of-water new stepmother from New York. Clarke doesn’t quite burn through Tesori’s music the way Tonya Pinkins does on the Broadway cast recording, but when she does pull out all the stops, in the astonishing Lot’s Wife at the climax of the second act, she’s electrifying. Ward sings as beautifully as you’d expect, and makes Rose’s isolation almost as moving as Caroline’s. There’s a fine, assured performance from Aaron Gelkoff as the eight-year-old Noah, and the supporting performances are beyond criticism, with especially good work from Alastair Brookshaw as Noah’s still-grieving father, Teddy Kempner as Rose’s Marxist New Yorker father, who wishes the South’s black communities would rise up and reject the notion of nonviolent resistance,  and from Angela Caesar as a gloriously-sung Moon. Abiona Omonua brings real fire to the role of Caroline’s ambitious, proto-activist daughter Emmie, who hates the bus, wants a car of her own, and knows (we discover in the final scene) a lot more than she’s let on about the disappearance of a statue of a Confederate soldier in downtown Lake Charles. This is a show that creeps up on you – it takes a while to get going, but I – ahem – must have had something in my eye for most of the second half of the second act.

The bottom line: the show is a masterpiece. That banner across the poster saying ‘sensational’ doesn’t quite do Michael Longhurst’s production or Sharon D. Clarke’s extraordinary performance justice. It’s transferring into the West End in November following sold-out runs at Chichester and Hampstead. Go and see it. Go and see it more than once. If you’ve already seen it, go and see it again (I will). It’s not the easiest musical, and if you’re expecting a song-and-dance show along the lines of Dreamgirls you’ll be disappointed. It’s worth the effort, though; if you like the kind of musical theatre where you don’t have to switch your brain off when the lights go down, this is about as good as it gets.

 

 

The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened?

sondheim on sondheim rfh

Imperfect but wow. Sensational but flawed. A set of dazzling performances, but there’s a good reason nobody owns up to the (atrocious) sound design in the programme. Any revue based around Stephen Sondheim‘s body of work is going to entail a series of trade-offs, and that’s certainly true here: this concert presentation at the Royal Festival Hall, based on a revue conceived by James Lapine that played on Broadway in 2010, draws from a body of work that by now is more or less inarguably without peer, but Sondheim’s songs are almost all so tied to their original contexts that it’s difficult for them to achieve the same impact when they’re performed as part of this kind of retrospective. The evening’s great triumph is that the six singers here – Liz Callaway, Damian Humbley, Tyrone Huntley, Claire Moore, Julian Ovenden, and Rebecca Trehearn – are such thrilling performers that they manage, more often than not, to make songs we’ve heard a million times before sound absolutely fresh. The evening’s great pitfall, on the other hand – I mean, apart from the frequent glitches in the sound system – is that while it does succeed in making these songs work in a new context, they are rarely as effective as they can be when they’re performed in the shows they were written for. As I said, there’s a trade-off: the evening is simultaneously wonderful and a bit of a bumpy ride.

The gimmick, as in this revue’s Broadway incarnation, is that Sondheim’s songs are linked together using video clips of interviews with the man himself, projected on a screen above the stage. The clips, for the most part, are chosen well (the screen, in a space the size of the Royal Festival Hall, could usefully have been a little larger), and Lapine has done an intelligent enough job of sequencing the clips to take us from Sondheim’s childhood and the beginnings of his songwriting career through his gradual rise to success and into a (very, very careful) discussion of which works feel most personal, which songs are autobiographical (almost none of them), the influences that shaped his career, and so on. It’s not necessarily a bad idea, although the segues between the video clips and the live singers sometimes feel a little abrupt, but the biggest problem with Lapine’s concept is simply that the audience for this kind of event is self-selecting. If you’re the kind of person who is going to go out and possibly travel some distance on a Thursday night to hear an orchestra and six singers – fabulous singers, all of them, but not Streisand-level stars – perform this material in concert, you’re probably the kind of person who already identifies as more than a casual Sondheim fan. If you’re already the kind of fan who would attend this kind of event, you’ve probably read at least some of the material covered in the video clips. You’ve probably read at least one of the books about him (it’s likely you’ll own at least a couple), seen at least one of the TV documentaries, and that means you’ll already be familiar with a fair amount of what he has to say in the clips Lapine has chosen here. It’s undeniably moving to see Sondheim talk about Oscar Hammerstein II, or about his reverence for the teaching profession, and there are some fascinating details here and there, like the conversation he had about marriage with Mary Rodgers as he started to write the score for Company. Sometimes, though, the clips undercut the music they’re supposed to introduce. We see a clip in which Sondheim tells us Assassins, in one respect, is the show he’s proudest of, because it’s the show that ended up closest to the vision he and John Weidman, his collaborator, had when they were writing it, and that it’s the only show he’s never had the urge to go back and change. Great, fascinating, but that clip is used to introduce Something Just Broke, which was written some time after the show’s original production closed, and (crucially) after the script had been published, and introduced in the London production a couple of years later. Granted, that’s a tiny detail – but this, essentially, is a show for Sondheim geeks (I wear the badge with pride, deal with it), and that’s precisely the audience who will pick up on that kind of trivia.

In fact, although it wasn’t precisely conceived as such, the concert’s greatest strength, perhaps ironically, turns out to be the way it celebrates Sondheim’s music. After a career littered with reviews that praise his lyrics at the expense of the melodies they sit on, in a revue in which we’re shown a series of clips where he discusses the craft of lyric-writing, the nature of collaboration, the need to focus on specific details in order to tie song lyrics into the dramatic scene they’re intended to serve, it’s refreshing – no, more than refreshing, it’s downright wonderful – to attend an event that puts his music centre-stage, even if there’s a bit too much talking around the edges. Because what this evening reveals – partly thanks to Keith Lockhart’s sensitive conducting, partly thanks to the sixty-five musicians in the BBC Concert Orchestra, partly thanks to Michael Starobin‘s orchestrations, partly thanks to the six wonderful singers at the front of the stage, but largely thanks to Sondheim himself – is that this music is glorious. We’re so used to hearing these songs in their original contexts, where they usually arrive accompanied with a lot of other information that the audience has to process simultaneously, that it’s easy to underestimate Sondheim-the-composer. The entr’acte – an orchestra-only arrangement of Kiss Me from Sweeney Todd, is as exciting as anything you hear all evening, and with this company of singers that’s saying a great deal.

All six, of course, get at least a couple of moments to shine. Liz Callaway kicks things off with a haunting, pristine rendition of Take Me to the World, from an original TV musical called Evening Primrose; it’s almost twenty years since I last saw her live (in Sibling Revelry, her cabaret show with her sister Ann Hampton Callaway at the Donmar Warehouse), and her voice is possibly even lovelier now than it was then. Damian Humbley, standing in at very short notice for another performer, takes the opportunity to remind us why his Franklin Shepherd, Inc. is probably now the definitive rendition of the song. Tyrone Huntley builds a careful, thoughtful Being Alive that manages to make the song’s climax moving rather than melodramatic. Julian Ovenden’s Finishing the Hat is as good a performance as the song has ever had. Claire Moore offers a haunting, haunted In Buddy’s Eyes. Best of all, for my money, is Rebecca Trehearn’s masterful take on the (very) difficult I Read from Passion. It’s far from the easiest song/aria/whatever to make work as a concert piece, but she succeeds triumphantly; it’s one of those performances that raises goosebumps, and someone – soon, please – has to cast her as Fosca in a full production.

There are ensemble performances too, of course, although there isn’t a chorus, and the six singers work beautifully together; the concert’s song list, though, is possibly as interesting for what it doesn’t include as for what it does. Only one of the three shows for which Sondheim wrote only lyrics is represented here, so there’s nothing from Gypsy or Do I Hear a Waltz?. West Side Story is represented not by any of the famous solos or duets, but by a jazzed-up four-part arrangement of Something’s Coming. It’s pleasant enough, and flawlessly performed, but it seems to have wandered in from a different set-list. There’s nothing from Pacific Overtures, very little from Sweeney Todd, one-and-a-bt songs from Into the Woods, only two songs from Follies – but four songs from Passion, five from Merrily We Roll Along, and we even get The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened in each of the (somewhat different) versions heard in Bounce and Road Show. In terms of showing us Sondheim’s range as a composer, the decision to use so much material from his lesser-known shows pays off in spades – but again, it means the show is possibly best appreciated by geeky superfans (as I said, I wear the badge with pride). In terms of the wider public, there are plenty of songs in the catalogue that are more familiar than much of what we hear (some of them were included in this revue’s original Broadway incarnation). What you also won’t hear is God, the wittily self-deprecating Act Two opener Sondheim wrote specifically for this revue’s Broadway production, and that’s a pity: it might have served to puncture the aura of REVERENCE that comes from having each successive musical number introduced by a very, very serious interview clip from the master himself.

The concert format, too, is somewhat distancing: none of the six singers has any trouble projecting their personality right to the back of the room, with no thanks to a schizophrenic sound system whose levels were frequently all over the place, particularly in the first half, but most of these songs were written to be staged rather than sung from behind a music-stand. The rudimentary direction is by Bill Deamer, and he’s drawn a superlative set of performances from these singers, but it’s all rather static, which is probably inevitable given the incredibly rushed timeframe in which this kind of event tends to be put together. And of course the biggest downside of privileging the music over the lyrics, unfortunately, is that the concert gives less of an impression than it might of what a funny writer Sondheim can be. As I said, inevitably this kind of event is going to involve a series of trade-offs. In this case, you trade some of the wit in favour of a revelatory performance of some of the music. If that trade doesn’t appeal, you’ll need to hold your breath until Follies comes back to the National next year. If it does, and you track down the radio broadcast, you may still be sorry-grateful (although the sound problems, fingers crossed, should have been resolved); the concert’s format may not entirely work, but the performances are sensational. And did I mention that Rebecca Trehearn’s I Read was worth the ticket price, the train fare, and the hotel bill? One more time: someone please cast her as Fosca. Stat.

 

 

 

Got wood?

NT P 2

Set design? Check.
Enormous puppets? Check.
Special effects? Check.
Whale? Check.
Script?

[crickets]

Oh. Oops. Never mind.

There’s a lot to unpack about the National Theatre‘s new adaptation of Pinocchio, whose poster chooses to inform us that it uses songs from the Walt Disney film while neglecting to mention either Carlo Collodi, who wrote the original Italian novel that every iteration of this story is based on, or any of the authors of the Disney screenplay (there are articles on both buried inside the programme, but that still falls short of giving credit where credit is due). Clearly someone hoped this would be another War Horse or The Lion King, and – with work – it could be. As it stands, despite a few rave reviews (and some less enthusiastic ones, and some very, very negative word-of-mouth during previews), it probably isn’t going anywhere without some kind of overhaul.

Bluntly, the show is suffering from an identity crisis. There’s a beautiful, if sometimes sparse, scenic design by Bob Crowley, who is also responsible for the tremendously detailed costumes. The songs from the film, and additional music sourced from material created during the film’s production process, sound terrific in Martin Lowe’s new arrangements and orchestrations, and there’s an excellent 15-piece band in the pit. Crowley and puppet co-designer Tony Olié have designed fabulous larger-than-life puppets to represent the story’s adult figures and Jiminy Cricket (Pinocchio himself is played by an adult actor, as are all the children in the story), enabling a spectacular perspective shift in the final scene. Jamie Harrison’s illusions are sometimes eye-popping and always impressive. Everybody involved – including Dennis Kelly, who wrote what passes for the script – does a good job of telling the story simply and clearly. John Tiffany’s staging almost always looks good, and the last few minutes of the show are genuinely wonderful.

A lot of water has to flow under the bridge before you get to those last few minutes though, and the production is holed below the waterline by the simple fact that nobody involved seems to be sure of exactly what kind of show they’re doing. The National Theatre’s publicity materials advertise it as being “for brave 8-year-olds and above”; OK, but there were audible signs that a good number of the children sitting behind me (I was in the cheap seats in the front row) were becoming restless over the show’s two hours of stage time. It’s not unreasonable to expect children that young, or even younger, to pay attention over that length of time, particularly since there’s an interval – each act runs around an hour – but you have to meet them halfway. Despite the grindingly over-enunciated Play School delivery adopted by most of the cast – a tone which frankly is a little on the young side for a show intended for children older than 8 – that’s exactly what the show doesn’t do. A prologue in which the Fox – in this version, he’s never referred to as J. Worthington Foulfellow – cuts down the enchanted tree whose wood Gepetto uses to make Pinocchio’s head and body is simply too long; it’s lovely to look at, but by the time we’ve seen the Blue Fairy magically appear, obtain the wood, and commision Gepetto to make a puppet out of it, getting on for a quarter of the first act has passed before the plot enters familiar territory. That’s OK in a show for adults, but a tough sell in one aimed at children.

If the show opened with a musical number it might get away with it, but the creative team, bizarrely, appear to have spent the entire production process sitting on the fence about whether they were making an actual musical or just a play with a few songs thrown in. Where songs are used, they are sometimes – sometimes – very effective, but then the show keeps undercutting itself in the transitions between song and dialogue. Choreographer Steven Hoggett makes I’ve Got No Strings into a terrific production number towards the end of the first act, but it doesn’t end on a button, which means there’s no opportunity for the audience to applaud. That’s more important than it sounds, because there’s a reason (most) musicals allow the audience to applaud after each number: the applause releases tension and functions almost as a reset button, and without that tiny pause the transition from song back into speech is often more difficult for the audience to negotiate. That’s unfortunately the case here: in the following scene, you can feel the audience’s attention start to wander, and this pattern is repeated all the way through the show.

Act Two’s lengthy Pleasure Island sequence is also problematic, and is the physical production’s one great misstep. For no discernible reason, Bob Crowley’s designs for Pleasure Island jump from storybook Victoriana to a mid-Twentieth-Century aesthetic that is straight out of a two-and-six Ladybird Book. Lampwick, the young tearaway Pinocchio befriends in Pleasure Island, is rechristened ‘Lampy’, played by a woman, and endowed with a pudding-basin haircut and a slathered-on-with-a-trowel Glaswegian accent so reminiscent of Wee Jimmy Krankie that it can’t be a coincidence. Leaving aside the sheer laziness of London-based theatre practitioners using a working-class regional accent to define a character whose main attribute is bad behaviour, the sequence is jarringly out of kilter with everything else in the show, and it doesn’t really work on any level.

The show is best, actually, when it stays close to the heart of the story: Gepetto’s yearning for a son, and Pinocchio’s longing to become a “real boy”. Mark Hadfield is quite moving as Gepetto, and the conceit of the presenting the character via a three-times-larger-than-life puppet until the final scene works very well. Joe Idris-Roberts – a human playing a puppet – captures Pinocchio’s pysicality very well indeed and doesn’t shy away from the character’s essential obnoxiousness in the first half. Audrey Brisson’s just-irritating-enough Jiminy Cricket is a convincing conscience for Pinocchio, although if you grew up watching children’s television in the 1970s she might put you in mind of a bossier, germ-phobic Carol Leader on a cocaine bender. Their scenes generally work rather well, as does anything involving Annette McLaughlin’s mesmerising, gorgeously-sung Blue Fairy (McLaughlin is also the only member of the cast NOT to fall victim to what I suppose we might call CBeebies Syndrome when delivering her lines). The trip inside the stomach of Monstro the whale is brilliantly spooky, and the final few minutes, when Gepetto finds his son, Pinocchio finds his humanity, and order is restored, are glorious, as is McLaughlin’s closing rendition of When You Wish Upon A Star, the Disney film’s biggest take-away tune. At that point, finally, this Pinocchio feels like a show that works.

It takes far too long to get there, though, and that’s a pity, because there’s a wonderful show buried in here somewhere. The effects are marvellous – the Blue Fairy appears as a tiny blue flame floating high above the stage, then appears to step out of thin air in Gepetoo’s workshop. The Fox throws a knife at Pinocchio and it hits him – and sticks – right in the middle of his chest. Pinocchio burns a finger and the Blue Fairy makes the burn disappear with a single touch. That final sequence in which Pinocchio is transformed into a real boy is absolutely magical. For an adult, a lot of the rest of the show is entertaining enough (we’ll draw a polite veil over the entire Pleasure Island sequence). For children, even of the suggested age range, Kelly’s script and Tiffany’s production are simultaneously a bit too self-consciously arty and arch, and a little bit condescending. If this is a show for children older than 8, the actors don’t need to speak as if they’re addressing a kindergarten. It sometimes seems as if nobody on the creative team has ever met an actual human child.

It’s probably not, then, the greatest choice for an Easter holiday treat for kids. For adults, particularly if you’ve any nostalgia for the Disney film, it’s worth the cost of a day seat and a couple of hours of your time. Some of it is wonderful – but all of it could have been, and the good stuff here is more than worth another look. Maybe if you wish upon a star, Kelly and Tiffany will take another pass at the script, kick up the pace in the first act, work with Martin Lowe to turn the piece into a proper musical, and make a definitive decision about whether they’re pitching the show to nostalgic adults or very young children. You never know; as the song says, dreams can come true.

Blow Us All Away

HVP1

Yes, it really is THAT good. Yes, the tidal-wave of hype is absolutely justified. Yes, this very American story plays perfectly well to a British audience. And yes, it seems like nearly every single review of the London production of Hamilton has begun by saying exactly the same thing, but the last musical to arrive here from Broadway trailing this level of advance expectation was probably The Lion King, 19 years ago.

As just about everybody knows by now, Hamilton – book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda – tells the story of the rise and fall of Alexander Hamilton, one of the US’s founding fathers and the man whose face appears on the $10 bill. Miranda’s twist is to tell the story of America’s very, very white founding fathers using a cast and a musical palette that reflects America today: a diverse, multicultural tossed salad of ethnicities and influences in which everybody who isn’t wholly descended from Indigenous Americans can trace their ancestry back to somewhere outside the country, and where the white hegemony in popular culture has long since dissolved into a smorgasbord of genres and influences whose roots stretch far beyond the US’s borders. The show has a notably diverse cast – white performers are a distinct minority – and Manuel’s score travels all over the musical map from rap to hip-hop to contemporary musical theatre, somehow managing to blend influences and musical/lyrical allusions that range from Eminem, Beyoncé and Tupac Shakur to the Beatles to Gilbert and Sullivan and Sondheim into a coherent, compelling, thoroughly theatrical whole. It’s a dense, dazzling, genuinely exciting piece of writing, and it appears to have captured the public’s imagination in a way very few new musicals have managed in recent years; the Broadway production was nominated for 16 Tony awards and won 11, along with the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and the (flawlessly-produced) cast recording made it to Number One in the Billboard 200, has gone triple platinum in the US, topped the soundtracks (I know, I know) chart in the UK six months before the London production even began taking bookings, and won a Grammy. Tickets went on sale for the London production about eleven months before previews were scheduled to begin, and sold very quickly; bar a few returns, the initial booking period is sold out. This is, in short, an event. It’s become far more than just a musical that opened at New York’s Public Theater and did well enough there to warrant a transfer: it’s become a cultural touchstone, an instantly-recognisable entertainment product whose title seems to inspire an almost ludicrous degree of reverence. Michelle Obama – Michelle! Obama! – is said to have proclaimed it “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.”

I wouldn’t quite go that far, and I’m not sure that kind of hyperbolically extravagant praise is helpful: it creates the kind of expectations that are almost impossible for mere mortals to live up to. Hamilton is very, very good indeed. It’s a thrilling, original, daring piece of writing, it tells a complex story admirably clearly, and it is brilliantly staged and performed. It is not perfect, and it’s far too soon to tell whether it’s going to prove to be the game-changer some have labelled it. That said, Miranda succeeds remarkably well in delivering a potentially rather dry slab of history in a way that is consistently engaging and entertaining; his music is terrific, but the meat of this score is in the lyrics, which are clever, dense, sometimes tongue-twisting, and so packed with allusions that you’ll never get everything on first listen. And you will have to listen – in sharp contrast to the vapid green oz-fest playing across the street, you’ll have to pay close attention to these lyrics. To his very great credit, Miranda’s lyrics are a world away from the blandly generic greetings-card sentiments that characterise so much contemporary writing for musical theatre; the flow of information is almost dizzying, and you have to work to keep up.

That’s the piece’s biggest strength, but also its biggest failing: you could strip away Thomas Kail’s kinetic staging, Andy Blankenbuehler’s restlessly energetic choreography, the sets, the costumes, the lighting and everything else, and present the score with the band onstage and the actors behind mike stands, and the plot would still come across loudly and clearly, because Miranda’s score tells the story of Alexander Hamilton rather than dramatising it. What Miranda has written, essentially, is a dazzling contemporary oratorio; the piece was first conceived as a concept album, and it shows. The performance unfolds as a series of tableaux in which much of the plot is announced, which probably goes with the territory when rap is a primary storytelling tool. This should be a serious flaw, and in just about any other kind of musical it would be, but Miranda gets away with it because his text is so rich and so fast-paced that you never get the sense, the way you do in something like Miss Saigon, that the plot is being delivered via flashcards.

And certainly, when he slows down to allow the show to take an emotional beat, the show is far more moving than you’d expect from the premise. Burn, Eliza Hamilton’s condemnation of her husband following the public revelation of his affair with Maria Reynolds, isn’t a generically tear-stained you-broke-my-heart Big Ballad, and it’s all the better for it (Burn is as good a traditional theatre song as anybody has written in the past twenty years). Instead, Miranda shows Eliza methodically burning her husband’s letters to her; she knows she is part of a significant moment in history, and Miranda shows her protecting her dignity and privacy by burning the letters so that historians will have no insight into her reaction to such public humiliation.

The finale, too, is surprising, more powerful than you’d expect, and conceived very cleverly: in a show in which there are relatively few big moments for the women in the cast (somewhat – although only somewhat – inevitable given the subject-matter), Miranda gives the last word to Eliza, in a song about her efforts to secure her husband’s legacy after his death. Almost the last thing we learn in the show is that Eliza founded an orphanage in New York City, and that she sees her husband’s face in the faces of the children she sees growing up there. It’s as close as Miranda comes to an explicit statement about the motivation for the production’s carefully colour-conscious (emphatically not “colour-blind”) casting: it’s something that should go without saying, but given the ugly history of race relations in the USA over the past 200 years, and the demonstrable fact that fifty years after the Voting Rights Act the USA is still a society in which your rights are defined by your skin tone, putting those lines in the mouth of an actress who is not white, who is playing a historical figure who was (more or less) white, surrounded by a (fabulous) multicultural cast of performers who are (also) almost all playing white historical figures makes a very definite statement. So, come to that, does the curtain call: company bows only, and no exit music. Again, although the show doesn’t quite say it explicitly, the message we’re clearly meant to take away is that Hamilton-the-show is not just the story of Alexander Hamilton. The title of that finale – Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story – drops a big hint: the show is nothing less than a breathtakingly audacious attempt to (re)define the USA’s origin myth in a way that (correctly) encompasses all of the people who came together to build America, and the brilliance of Miranda’s writing – and, to be fair, of Thomas Kail’s production – is that while it’s certainly a very wordy show, it succeeds in making the point crystal clear without delivering a lecture. In lesser hands – actually, in almost any other hands – delivering that lesson would probably have turned the finale into a thuddingly didactic company anthem full of the kind of shut-up-and-eat-your-broccoli sloganeering that makes the audience squirm in their seats. Miranda and Kail manage to deliver the lesson without delivering the lesson, and it’s an interesting paradox that in a show where, much of the time, the biggest fault in the writing is that too much is told instead of shown, the biggest lesson of all is delivered via the cast, or rather via the casting.

And for London, it has to be said, they’ve assembled a hell of a cast, and they’ve done it – are you listening, Book of Mormon? – by casting out of the local talent pool instead of parachuting a set of leads in from New York. Jamael Westman, in the title role, lists only two professional credits in his bio; he graduated from RADA about ten minutes ago, and you’d never guess he was just out of drama school. He’s absolutely at home with Miranda’s tongue-twisting way with language, and his Hamilton carefully grows from diffident student to intellectual heavyweight, somehow – and this is a very difficult trick indeed – gaining both stature and star power along the way. As Aaron Burr (Sir), Hamilton’s nemesis, Giles Terera offers more grit than we got from Leslie Odom, Jr.’s Teflon-smooth performance on the Broadway cast recording, and that’s no bad thing. Terera grabs hold of The Room Where It Happens, the score’s showiest showstopper, and slams it across the footlights to a wall of applause. Jason Pennycooke’s George Washington is located somewhere between Little Richard and Purple Rain-era Prince, and yet he manages to offer something far more complex and interesting than the one-joke punchline that description suggests. As Eliza’s sister Angelica, Rachel John makes the breathless, breathtaking Satisfied – Angelica’s lifelong battle between intellect and unrequited love, condensed into five minutes – into the show’s musical highlight. Rachelle Ann Go, who is quite dreadful in a relatively small role (Gigi) on the DVD of the recent revival of Miss Saigon, is guilty of a few LuPone-esque modified vowel sounds here (and she is the only member of this cast to suffer from that particular disease); I was all ready to dislike her, but her big moments – Burn and the finale – are both beautifully understated and very moving indeed. And Michael Jibson, luxury-cast in the three-verses-and-off comic-relief role as the British King George, rescues his one song from the clutches of Jonathan Groff’s excruciatingly unfunny performance on the original Broadway cast recording, finds every scrap of humour in lyrics which reimagine the Declaration of Independence as a bitter break-up between two very mismatched lovers, and somehow manages to bring the house down just by slightly raising one eyebrow. The ensemble performances are flawless, and – unusually – while I’m sure each performance is as carefully, mechanically timed and tracked as any other major musical production, there’s a much greater sense than you usually get at a big musical of the ensemble as a collection of distinct personalities rather than as a single mass. The dehumanising effect described in the finale of A Chorus Line – which, like Hamilton, began at the Public – is missing here, and I don’t remember the last time I saw a big musical whose production offered such a strong sense of each individual contributing something unique to the whole. The singing throughout is superb (granted, Westman isn’t really a singer, but Miranda wrote the title role for himself, and neither is he); I’m sure a London cast recording is unlikely, but these performances certainly deserve to be preserved.

It remains to be seen, though, whether the London production maintains the kind of impossible-ticket momentum the show has in the USA, and the fact that ticket prices moved sharply upwards for the just-opened second booking period (August to December this year) may slow sales down a little. My £57.50 seat – dress circle, way off to the side – would now cost £100, and it simply is not worth the same price as a seat further towards the centre of the house; worse, a fair number of seats that were £89.50 in the first booking period have been reclassified as “premium” seats, and now go for £250 each. Whether these prices are healthy for theatre as an art-form is a whole other discussion (spoiler: they are not); presumably the production was going to be profitable at the original prices, so the price hikes look unpleasantly like gouging. There are ways to see the show more affordably, and it is certainly worth the effort, but there’s also a distinctly nasty-tasting contrast between the studied all-in-this-together egalitarianism of Miranda’s writing and Kail’s staging and price hikes that make two seats in the centre stalls as expensive as a weekend in Italy. If you’re going to blow a wad of cash on a single theatrical event, this is certainly the one to pick – particularly since Network is only around until the end of March – but relegating the plebs, by which I mean those of us who can’t cough up £100 and up for a ticket, to the upper circle smacks of the worst kind of 1%-ism. Yes, it’s live theatre, and live theatre costs money – but it doesn’t cost that much money.

The show itself, though – as I said at the beginning – really is THAT good, and it lives up to the hype. The most remarkable thing about it, actually, was possibly the audience at the performance I attended. I wanted to come to the material relatively fresh when I saw it; of course I’d bought the cast album and a copy of the great big hardcover book containing the script and the story of the show’s genesis, but when I booked the ticket(s) a year ago (I’m seeing it again in June; I assumed they’d bump the priced up after the first booking period, and I wasn’t about to throw away my shot at a second visit) I stopped listening to the album and put the book back on the shelf. Apparently that puts me in a very small minority; it was clear from the way they responded to the show that a good chunk of the 1600 or so other people in the Victoria Palace knew the material word for word. More than that, they knew it off by heart and they were listening (I’ve been a front-of-house manager; believe me, you can tell when the audience aren’t listening). At a big musical these days that’s a less common experience than you’d think; there wasn’t, for example, any particularly egregious bad behaviour on display the night I saw 42nd Street back in October, but this audience engaged with the show in a way that that one just didn’t (granted, the current revival of 42nd Street is the musical theatre equivalent of a steamroller; you don’t have to concentrate on it because it more or less beats you into submission). That, again, is an achievement worth noting. As I’ve already said, it’s at least a decade and a half too soon to tell whether Hamilton turns out to be the kind of game-changer too many tedious articles smugly tell us it is, but for it to inspire that response in London, where the history it depicts is mostly not familiar and mostly not ours, is very impressive indeed. This is a brilliantly-conceived, thrillingly-executed piece of entertainment… so now that the prices have gone up, assuming you’d like to see it from a seat where you can see the actors without binoculars, you’d better start saving. It may take a while, but it’s worth it.

Je suis émotif

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I’d tell you to rush to book a ticket, but the run ended two days after I saw it, and that was two weeks ago. Oops. Romantics Anonymous is a tiny, perfect little gem of a musical. It has magic chocolate (no, really), a glorious score by Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond, a witty, moving book and fabulously clever staging by Emma Rice, gorgeous performances, Lauren Samuels as a self-help tape with major attitude, and a radio-controlled model 2CV. It’s wonderful, flawless, utterly charming, and the perfect antidote to a crappy grey British January.

And it closed. Never mind. What did you miss? A lovely, tentative love story between a chocolatier who is so painfully shy that she faints when people look at her, and a chocolate factory owner so repressed that he spends half his life sitting on the floor of his office listening to self-help tapes with the blinds closed. It’s based on (and much better than) a French film called Les Emotifs Anonymes; the title comes from Angélique-the-chocolatier’s therapy group. It’s a romantic comedy, so of course on one level it’s absolutely predictable: you know just from looking at the poster that Angélique-the-chocolatier and Jean-René-the-factory-owner are going to end up together, and that whatever impediments to true happiness block their path along the way will be magically resolved by the finale. The journey, though, is so thoroughly delightful that it doesn’t matter if you can see each plot twist a mile away.

Carly Bawden and Dominic Marsh are sweet but never too sweet as Angélique and Jean-René; the show tells us more than once that the magical element in chocolate is the note of bitterness behind the sugar, and in both performances there’s a hint of deep unhappiness just beneath the surface that prevents the material’s inherent sweetness from ever becoming cloying. They both sing beautifully, too. Around them, the hardworking ensemble – they all play at least three roles – never put a foot wrong, with standout turns from Joanna Riding as a factory book-keeper, Angélique’s flinty, oversexed mother, and a therapist, and from Gareth Snook as the riotously funny just-escaped-from-an-Italian-opera confiseur Mme. Marini. The production, overall, gives you the full Emma Rice experience – there’s airborne acrobatics, neon, too many witty visual gracenotes to count, tremendous warmth, generous humour, and even a square of “magic chocolate” so that we can miraculously hear French characters as if they were speaking English. It could all so easily have been painfully twee – except, again, there’s always that note of bitterness, of real unhappiness, underneath. Kooman and Dimond’s score – unfortunately no list of musical numbers in the programme – is sublime; as an extra treat, if you’re in the lobby during the intermission you’ll hear Philip Cox as Jean-René’s overprotective father singing a very funny song about all the horrible things that could happen to you before you go back to your seat (don’t go into the courtyard, you might get struck by lightning). The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse imposes a certain aesthetic on the production, but Lez Brotherston’s gorgeous neon-and-venetian-blind set bridges the gap between the replica-Jacobean woodwork and the show’s contemporary setting with considerable flair. Romantics Anonymous is lovely to watch, to see, to listen to; as Angélique and Jean-René fall in love with each other, you can feel the audience falling in love with the show.

Which – on a final, rather bitter note to (again) undercut the sweetness – makes the machinations that brought about the rather public ending of the artistic relationship between Emma Rice and the Globe all the more baffling. Rice, by now, is an established director, not some obscure fringe figure. She’s developed her own aesthetic, her work with Kneehigh attracted a great deal of positive attention, and the Globe’s board presumably knew who she was and what she does when they hired her. To recruit an artistic director with a very individual, idiosyncratic theatrical aesthetic and then balk when she brings that aesthetic into her productions in your venue is beyond perverse, and sets an uncomfortable precedent for Michelle Terry, Rice’s successor. In terms of this particular production, too, it seems particularly strange: a new musical with a contemporary setting may not be precisely the kind of show the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was built to house (the bum-breaking, backless seats suggest it wasn’t built for anything longer than about forty minutes, but that’s another gripe for another time), but at the performance I saw there was a more or less full house, and people left the theatre, to quote the finale, ‘dancing on air’. This show makes people happy; it also, I imagine, brought quite a few new patrons into the venue for the first time, which of course should make it easier to bring them back to see other productions in future. I don’t see any downside – but presumably this kind of work wasn’t what the Globe’s board wanted. As I said, baffling.

As for the show itself – can somebody please make a cast recording? Pretty please?

 

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