Drag me to Hull

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Or, a few random notes about Richard Bean‘s funny, messy, wonderful farce, a co-production between Hull Truck Theatre and the RSC for the Hull UK City of Culture 2017 programme:

  • The play is a slab of local history rendered as farce, and it possibly helps to read the programme notes first. I didn’t. That said, this (culled from the theatre website) is probably all you need to know going in:hth
  • It’s very, very funny. There’s a lot of toilet humour, some truly inspired marital insults, a great deal of splendid physical comedy, and a hysterically riotous fight scene. This isn’t just a “Hull show”, and you’ll have a good time even if you don’t get all of the inside jokes.
  • You’ll probably get more of the inside jokes than you expect, though, even if (like me) you’ve been to Hull only a handful of times. Once you’ve worked out that, to steal a line from the wonderful (Hull-born) Maureen Lipman, Hull is the only place in the world where pearls come from Poland – or rather, the ernly plerce in the werld where perls come from Perland – you’ll be all set.
  • The decrepit-but-unbelievably-agile-servant gag may be recycled from One Man, Two Guvnors, but it still gets enormous laughs, and there’s an eye-popping, vertigo-inducing piece of physical comedy at the Act One curtain.
  • Once again, the action is punctuated by songs by Grant Olding, and they’re terrific; most of them are sung by Josh Sneesby, and he’s terrific too.
  • This isn’t quite the well-oiled laugh machine you found at One Man, Two Guvnors. It’s rougher around the edges, the structure is a little looser, and the second act in particular is (even) more anarchic.
  • There’s also, underneath, a serious point about the nature of parliamentary democracy – quite pertinent in a month in which certain members of our government, having led a successful right-wing power grab campaign to “restore sovereignty” to the UK’s parliament, are now performing spectacular logical gymnastics in their efforts to prevent that parliament from influencing the negotiating framework surrounding our breathtakingly moronic act of national self-harm impending divorce from the EU.
  • Mark Addy and Caroline Quentin are as good at playing this kind of farce as anyone you’ll find; they’re both flawless. So are the supporting cast.
  • Phillip Breen’s direction keeps the pace up, and he never allows the comic business onstage to become self-indulgent. That’s not as easy as it sounds.
  • The illusions – which include a beheading – are by Chris Fisher, and they’re beautifully, seamlessly done.
  • There’s stage mist. In one scene, quite a lot of it:
    hwbh

Overall? This isn’t a life-changing piece of theatrical art. It is great fun, and it’s a tremendously entertaining romp through a slice of history that probably isn’t all that familiar unless you happen to come from Hull. It’s playing a month in Stratford after it closes in Hull, and it’s more than worth the trip. If you aren’t from Hull, though, just give yourself time to read the programme notes before the lights go down.

A chorus in her lonely symphony

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Cross one off my list of regrets. I’ve probably listened to the cast recording of the 2000 Broadway production of Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe‘s musical adaptation of Joseph Moncure March‘s narrative poem The Wild Party at least once a week since I bought it, and I bought it the week it came out. It’s a spectacular album – a brilliant, starry cast led by Toni Collette, Mandy Patinkin and Eartha Kitt giving a more or less perfect performance of (most of) a brilliant, criminally underrated score – but by the time I heard it, the show had only a couple more weeks to run on Broadway, and while I lived much closer (an overnight bus ride) to New York then than I do now, I wasn’t able to get there to see it before it closed. The show played 36 previews and just 68 performances on Broadway – not a “hit” by any yardstick, but that doesn’t make the score any less spectacular. My interest was further piqued after the publication of Wiley Hausam’s anthology The New American Musical, which I picked up at a conference book fair; it contains the show’s script, and the script is fascinating. I’ve loved the material for a long time, but never had the opportunity to see the show live in a theatre, so when the British premiere production was announced – a mere sixteen years after it closed on Broadway – I’d booked a ticket within an hour of them going on sale.

It’s dangerous, sometimes, to go in to something with high expectations. I deliberately didn’t listen to the cast recording between booking the ticket and seeing the show (an interval of perhaps four months) in order to enable myself to come to the material fresh when I actually saw it – not easy to achieve with music you’ve listened to regularly for a decade and a half, but never mind. This production’s biggest achievement is that it made something very, very familiar to me seem absolutely fresh. That original cast recording features a roster of perfect, distinctive performances; for this production, director Drew McOnie has cast a good proportion of the show’s central roles deliberately against the types embodied by the actors who originated them, and the result is invigorating. The musical, far more than the (long but rather thin) poem it’s based on, is about social facades: what people hide, what people choose to reveal (and to whom), and what happens when the facade begins to crumble.

Seeing the production in the theatre is also a lesson in how cast recordings can be imperfect documents: I knew, but had half-forgotten, that this is a very music-heavy show and that a great deal of the score is not preserved on the album, but it was still a surprise to (re)discover just how much is missing. As I said, March’s poem, in terms of narrative, is somewhat on the thin side – depending how you frame it, it doesn’t necessarily contain enough incident to fill two hours of stage time – but in this adaptation, despite fine lyrics by LaChiusa and a taut book by LaChiusa and Wolfe, it’s the music that drives the show. This is a dazzling score; LaChiusa’s very, very clever musical pastiche draws from a variety of Roaring Twenties song styles, but the score’s structure is entirely contemporary. This is more a continuous musical tapestry than a parade of individual songs (although the score includes a number of very, very fine individual songs), and it often seems as though the show’s musical numbers don’t begin and end so much as collide. The result is sometimes harshly dissonant, sometimes achingly melodic, and always thrillingly theatrical.

Somewhat in the manner of Chicago (but only somewhat) the show is presented as a sequence of (sometimes very extended) vaudeville sketches; possibly a little too much time is devoted, in the first third of the show, to giving each individual guest at the party a musical number outlining his/her backstory, but the music is exciting enough to hold your attention. The plot, such as it is, centres on Queenie, a vaudeville dancer, and her deteriorating relationship with her live-in lover/common-law husband, a violently unpleasant vaudeville clown named Burrs. Burrs suggests hosting a wild party in order to end a fight; the party, though, spirals out of control, with sexual inhibitions and social masks being lowered by a combination of bathtub gin and cocaine, and there are tragic consequences in the final scene. As the party gathers steam, Queenie’s friend Kate arrives trailing an escort named Black, and there’s an immediate attraction between him and Queenie; by the end of the party, Burrs is dead, but Queenie has tentatively begun to step out from behind the various “masks” – make-up, alcohol, co-dependent relationships with unsuitable men – she’s previously hidden behind, and the show’s final image is of her scrubbing off her make-up. There’s a strong sense, at the end, of redemption and even salvation, for her if not for anyone else. She will rise, as the show’s star once memorably sang in another context, and never fall again, and she will be free (I know, I know – but when the door is open, it would be criminal to walk by).

So yes, I like the material – and by ‘like’, I mean this is as good a musical score as anyone on either side of the Atlantic has written in at least the last three decades. The particular triumph of Drew McOnie’s sensational production is that he matches the relentless, propulsive, dazzling score with a staging driven by relentless, propulsive, dazzling movement. Under his direction, the show feels choreographed from end to end, although it isn’t precisely a ‘dance musical’. The closest comparison, in terms of what I’ve seen, would be Tommy Tune’s (brilliantly staged) production of Grand Hotel, only (of course) with fewer chairs. The show begins with an explosive row and keeps building in intensity; this production adds an intermission (on Broadway, the show played in a single act), and it’s necessary: after an hour at this party, you need a few moments to catch your breath. There’s plenty of light and shade, but there’s so much packed into every moment that without a break the production could easily become overwhelming, and the show’s pace very rarely lets up: this wild party is a wild, wild ride.

That’s also down to a collection of exhilarating performances. Frances Ruffelle is the production’s above-the-title star, and she’s sensational, but she’s surrounded by a spectacular supporting cast. John Owen Jones‘s Burrs is a seething, furious train wreck waiting to happen. Jones makes the character magnetically unpleasant, brings real fire to his musical numbers, and does not (thank God) in any way resemble Mandy Patinkin, who created the role in the Broadway production. As faded star Dolores Montoya – the role originated by the late, great Eartha Kitt – Donna McKechnie effortlessly embodies a bloodied-but-unbowed showbiz survivor, and she slams her big not-quite-eleven-o’clock number, When It Ends, into the rafters with riveting precision. Gloria Obianyo and Genesis Lynea are insinuatingly sexy as the Brothers d’Armano, an incestuous song-and-dance act; if you’re as familiar with the Broadway cast recording as I am, it’s a little startling to hear their musical numbers performed by two women, but the casting isn’t simply a stunt, and the point is revealed in the second half when we see one “brother” binding the other’s chest: LaChiusa and Wolfe adapted March’s poem into a story about “the way we use cultural masks to hide or obfuscate our real identities: racial masks, sexual masks, emotional masks” (as LaChiusa puts it in a lengthy programme note), so of course it makes sense to show two women (apparently successfully) passing as men, at least in public. Best of all, there’s Victoria Hamilton-Barritt‘s electrifying star-turn-in-a-supporting-role as Queenie’s frenemy Kate, an effortlessly sexy combination of heat, froideur, and bulletproof timing. Her paean to/putdown of her current lover, Black is a Moocher, is probably the show’s musical peak, and when she duets with Ruffelle, earlier in the show, sparks fly.

As for Ruffelle, she’s a revelation. It goes without saying that her singing is superb (although she isn’t the first voice I’d have thought of for this), but there’s a tremendous emotional depth to her performance, and that’s not the easiest thing to achieve in a production as relentlessly frenetic as this one. She’s funny, steely, vulnerable, sexy, smart and foolish, sometimes all in the same beat, and she fully mines the well of deep sadness behind LaChiusa’s more introspective songs. Her duet with Black, People Like Us – probably my favourite song in the score – is the show’s beating heart. In the middle of the noise and the smoke and the chaos of the surrounding party, Ruffelle and Simon Thomas’s Black show two damaged, lonely people singing about a sense of yearning that they can’t quite put into words. It’s a lovely moment; for me, it was worth the cost of the ticket for just that one song.

The production values, too, are impressive. This is The Other Palace‘s first venture under the artistic directorship of Paul Taylor-Mills; the theatre’s mission, per the cover page on their website, is to “offer a creative hub for all things musical theatre, from providing spaces to develop and workshop new ideas to presenting full-scale productions.” If they can maintain the standard they’ve set with this first production, it’s going to be a venue to watch. This isn’t the West End, and there’s clearly a budgetary ceiling, but the production has an atmospheric multilevel set by Soutra Gilmore (great use is made of a winding tenement staircase that stretches up towards the flies), an eight-piece band on a platform above the stage (the flawless musical direction and new arrangements are by Theo Jamieson, who also plays piano), period-perfect costumes by Chris Cahill, and a range of ticket prices that drop as low as £15 without discounts – if you’re going to make a name for yourself as a laboratory space for new/lesser-known material, tickets need to be affordable enough that people feel able to take a punt on something unfamiliar. When top prices elsewhere in the West End are rising into three-figure territory, keeping a tight hold on the bottom end of the pricing scale is the best way to bring in a new audience, particularly to a venue that’s a little off the beaten path. Better still, those £15 tickets aren’t, as they are in some theatres, behind a pillar in a top balcony. The steeply-raked auditorium has only one tier of seats, and sightlines are admirable.

Really, assuming you respond to the material – as I said, I love it, but it’s certainly the kind of show that polarises audiences – there’s very little to criticise here. Perhaps Richard Howell’s lighting is a little heavy-handed in places – he maybe falls back once or twice too often on shining blinders into the audience, and (assuming it wasn’t a tech malfunction) having the spotlight fade sharply on Queenie on the show’s final beat as she sings the line “this is what it is to live in light” is a thuddingly obvious choice that veers past irony almost into the realm of the bathetic – but in every other way the physical production is ideal. Yes, it’s relentless and exhausting – I’ve some sympathy with Matt Wolf’s description of the production in the New York Times as “Follies on amphetamines” – but it’s also a dazzling, thrilling roller-coaster ride through a truly brilliant musical score. How good is it? I live 200 miles from London, and I’m going again before it closes.

Miracle of Miracles

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It’s an old idea, but it’s been out of fashion for so long that this possibly qualifies as innovation. For this season, instead of casting each show individually, Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre has hired a resident company of actors. All five shows in their season will be cast from the same pool of actors, and in the summer all five will play in rep for a month. Once upon a time, not all that long ago, it was relatively common for a regional theatre to hire actors on this basis; these days, it’s almost unknown. It’s a bold step – and if this revival of Fiddler on the Roof, the season’s first production, is anything to go by, the gamble is likely to pay off in spades.

Inevitably there are going to be compromises. Since everybody has been cast for their suitability for several productions, the company includes relatively few musical theatre performers. This isn’t going to be the best-sung Fiddler you’ve ever seen. It also isn’t the starriest, the biggest, or the most musically lush – this is regional theatre, budgets are tight, and we can at least be grateful the cast aren’t forced to play the musical instruments themselves. The compensation? These actors tell their story simply and beautifully, working together as an ensemble in a way that finds a great deal of resonance in a musical that is essentially about a community. In the 1994 Topol revival at the London Palladium (I saw, I suffered, and Topol played the role so s l o w l y that by the time intermission rolled around it was 1995) you were basically watching The Tevye Show. While this production has a (very) fine Tevye, that isn’t the case here.

What you also get, partly because this is a relatively small theatre and the production is played in the round, which means you’re seeing the show in close-up, is a stronger sense than usual of the material’s contemporary relevance. Joseph Stein’s book, based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, isn’t simply the story of a family dealing with the gradual erosion of their traditional (religious) way of life. It’s an examination, as well, of a community of people who are forced to leave their homes. Over the past several years, we’ve seen pictures on the news of migrants leaving war zones that are closer than we think to where we live, and undertaking shockingly arduous or risky journeys in order to find safety for themselves and their families. We’ve all seen the pictures of migrant boats in the Mediterranean, bodies washed up on beaches, exhausted people walking for weeks through southern Europe in search of a home where their children won’t be bombed. We also, shamefully, have a government whose response to the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean was to cancel funding for patrol boats on the grounds that a few hundred drownings might serve as a deterrent – they put it a little more nicely, but that was the general idea – and who have recently (disgustingly) reneged on their pledge to allow unaccompanied child migrants into the country under the Dubs Amendment. Across the Atlantic, there is now a peculiarly orange President whose understanding of international relations would be unbecoming in a moderately well-read four-year-old, and whose central campaign pledge was to Build A Wall right across the USA’s southern border in order to keep Mexicans out (Q: How do Mexicans feel about Trump’s wall? A: They’ll get over it.) Fiddler on the Roof is set in Russia in 1905, but similar stories play out on every continent, every day, and they are not specific to any particular culture. Change a few names and a few details, and you could set the plot in Syria or South Sudan last year. Watching this revival, you can’t help but be aware of how toxic the word ‘migrant’ has become in certain circles in Europe and the US. Now, just as it was 112 years ago, people who are forced to flee their homes by no means always meet with kindness when they arrive somewhere safe. Fiddler on the Roof tells the beginning of the story; we already know how it ends, and the ending doesn’t do us any credit.

None of which should be taken to imply that this production is an endless misery-fest. Under Gemma Bodinetz’s direction, the company offers a tremendously humane reading of the show. Save for one very clever, very simple flourish in the last minute or so of stage time, Ms. Bodinetz’s staging is absolutely straightforward: she and her cast tell the story simply and clearly, mining the joy and the humour in the material as well as the sadness in the show’s ending. The big set-pieces are all present and correct: the dream sequence is hilarious, the bottle dance is tremendous fun, and Sunrise, Sunset has possibly never been lovelier, even if it’s been more prettily sung. The small space helps: Philip Roth famously dismissed the show as “shtetl kitsch”, and that’s a fair-enough description of that faintly ghastly 1994 production at the Palladium, but this revival offers a quietly moving portrayal of a loving, cohesive community that has been, by the end of the second act, dispersed but not broken. There’s a strong sense of hope at the end of this production (at the Palladium, I lost the will to live fifteen minutes into If I Were A Rich Man, and by the end of the show, six months later, I no longer had any sensation in my buttocks and needed jump-leads to restart my brain), even though – as I said – we know perfectly well how the wider world treats refugees. The (minimal) violence, too, benefits from being seen in close-up. This is still, as written, the politest pogrom in history, but there’s a far greater sense of menace when the fight scene is happening right in front of you than you’d get from the fifteenth row with the action behind a proscenium arch.

As for the cast, they function so well as an ensemble that it’s almost unfair to single out individual performances. Patrick Brennan manages to play Tevye without invoking either Topol or Zero Mostel; his performance is simultaneously absolutely traditional and absolutely fresh, and he sets the tone for the rest of the production. Melanie La Barrie’s Golde is the perfect combination of warmth and steel, and Emily Hughes, in a very, very strong professional debut performance, is a lovely, moving Hodel. There’s tremendously detailed work, though, even from the actors in the smallest roles; what the production lacks in scale and slickness is more than made up in sheer heart. The physical production may be simple to the point of austerity – the ‘company season design’ is credited to Molly Elizabeth Lacey Davies, Jocelyn Meall & Michael Vale, and for this production it consists of lighbulbs hanging over the stage to suggest a starry sky, Tevye’s milk cart, a trestle table and a few chairs – but that simplicity simply pushes the focus onto the actors, and the actors really deliver. In an ideal world, it would be nice to have more than four musicians (keyboard, double bass, clarinet, guitar), but musical director/arranger George Francis does the score proud: this is a tiny production, but the smallness of the band works with the poverty of the setting, and the musicianship is impeccable.

As for that directorial flourish I mentioned: this isn’t a revisal. Nobody changes a word, nobody acts around the lines, and it’s performed absolutely in period – until the last minute or so of stage time. As Tevye and what’s left of his family start their long march out of Anatevka, the rest of the company fall in behind them, wearing contemporary clothing and carrying improvised contemporary luggage (plastic laundry bags etc). As I said, Fiddler on the Roof marks the beginning of a story we’ve been watching play out on the news right across Europe for a few years now (and in different forms, in different places, more or less since the beginning of recorded history); without being strident about it, and without messing with the text, this final tableau drives the point home to devastating effect. It’s a simple but breathtaking conclusion to a more or less perfect revival; I suppose I should admit that my favourite Bock and Harnick show is actually She Loves Me, but Fiddler is still a glorious piece of writing (albeit, as that revival at the Palladium loudly demonstrated, not bulletproof), and Bodinetz and her superb cast are well worth the trip to Liverpool.

…and you don’t even know it!

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I’d tell you to rush straight to Sheffield to see Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the new musical playing at the Crucible, but it closes tonight. Oops. I saw it last week, but I’ve been busy. Deal with it.

Anyway, it’s not as if you won’t get another chance, although nothing seems to be set in stone yet. It’s (deservedly) had very strong reviews, the final few performances apparently sold out, it has a wonderful score, and it’s going to have a life beyond this first production… not least because a good half-a-dozen songs in the (terrific) score are so maddeningly, infuriatingly catchy that they’ll be rattling around your head for days after you see the show, even if you don’t shell out for the concept album on sale in the lobby (and on iTunes).

Based very loosely on a BBC Three documentary called Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, on one level this is simply another show about a kid who wants to succeed in showbusiness – but specifically, in this instance, to be a drag queen. What makes the show so refreshing, apart from Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae‘s wonderful score, is that it offers a thoroughly joyous, celebratory take on its subject. At the start of the show, Jamie is out and proud, with a supportive mother and a network of friends. It’s probably fair to suggest that Tom MacRae’s tight, funny book at least somewhat glosses over the difficulties Jamie has to overcome in order to a) take his first tentative steps towards becoming a professional drag performer and b) attend his school prom in a prom dress rather than a dinner jacket, but to go too deeply into the ripples around Jamie’s rejection by his homophobic father would have resulted in a very different kind of show, and perhaps, right now, celebrating tolerance and diversity is a more interesting dramatic choice than emphasising difference and rejection.

Aside from his walking cliché of an absentee father, actually, the biggest difficulty Jamie has to overcome, at least in the second act, is that he’s a little too consumed by his own (undeniable) fabulousness. The show’s dramatic meat has less to do with Jamie’s absentee father or his clashes with the school bully; instead, it’s about how Jamie learns to negotiate the space between a combative drag-queen persona and his desire to cross-dress as himself. It’s no kind of spoiler at all to reveal that Jamie does, at the end of the show, arrive at the school prom wearing a dress – but the scene is beautifully, delicately written, and surprisingly touching.

And in the title role, John McCrea is, well, absolutely fabulous. This is a genuine star turn, and it deserves to be seen by a (much) larger audience. He captures Jamie’s curious combination of strength and naiveté perfectly, he has a terrific pop tenor singing voice and great comic timing, and he can rock a pair of heels as well as anyone. As Jamie’s mother Margaret, Josie Walker brings down the house with a ballad called ‘He’s My Boy’, a song which is orders of magnitude more interesting than you’d guess from the wince-inducingly trite title, and Mina Anwar is brassily hilarious as Margaret’s best friend. The actors playing Jamie’s classmates are all fine, with Lucie Shorthouse a particular standout as Jamie’s friend Pritti; ‘It Means Beautiful’, a song in which Pritti draws a parallel between Jamie’s questions about his identity and her own choice to wear a hijab, is arguably the most interesting thing in the score, and Ms .Shorthouse’s performance of it is truly lovely.

There’s slick direction, too, from Jonathan Butterell, who keeps the action moving swiftly around Anna Fleischle’s grey-walls-and-school-desks set. If this is, in the end, a show that delights rather than surprises, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and while MacRae’s book may sometimes lack a little depth, he and Sells have given the show a superb set of songs. The opening number, ‘And You Don’t Even Know It’, is a real earworm, and so is the title song; it’s rare, these days, to come out of the theatre humming the tunes unless you already knew them going in, but you will here. If you didn’t get a chance to see the show, the concept album – mostly performed by Sells, with guest performances from McCrea and Walker (and, um, Sophie Ellis Bextor and Betty Boo) is worth seeking out. Despite a scattering of good reviews in the national press, shows like this can easily slip under the radar, and Sells and MacRae’s score is simply too good to be produced once and then disappear.

Whatever happened to Dainty June?

Or, two reviews in one. There’s a tenuous link between these shows – I mean, other than that I saw them both – and it’s that the central female character in each is named Fran, and that I’ve seen each actress-playing-Fran play June in a revival of Gypsy: Daisy Maywood at Curve, and Gemma Sutton at the Savoy. And in both cases, they’re the best thing about the show they’re in right now. Given the shows they’re in right now, that doesn’t necessarily suggest a very high bar, but they’re both wonderful, even if the shows surrounding them are not.

Strictly Ballroom, to be fair, counts as a near-miss. Baz Lurhmann‘s gaudily kitsch camp-fest of a film is an obvious choice for adaptation as a stage musical, and the show – somewhat retooled after its Australian premiere two years ago – gets a lot of things right. The plot is still completely ludicrous, the camp/bitchy one-liners still come thick and fast, and the costumes are so LOUD you’ll come out of the theatre with day-glo lime-green taffeta permanently etched on the back of your eyeballs. The book, “adapted” by Terry Johnson from Luhrmann and Craig Pearce’s original(s) (Luhrmann and Pearce have co-written every incarnation of the material so far, from the play that begat the film to the book the musical used in Australia), is fast and funny, Drew McOnie’s choreography in the big production numbers is sensational, and Soutra Gilmore’s revolving multilayered set almost, nearly makes it look as if the production had a lavish budget.

There’s a superb cast, too. As Fran – just Fran – the mousy, bespectacled young woman who has only been dancing for two years and who is yearning to express her inner longings via the paso doble blah blah blah (this is not a show where you’re going to be surprised by anything the plot throws at you, even if you’ve never seen the film), Gemma Sutton is pretty much perfect – she sings gloriously, tugs your heartstrings convincingly, and has whatever quality it is that draws you to someone whenever they’re onstage. Opposite her, as Scott Hastings, the dancer who just wants to dance his own steps but the judges won’t let him blah blah blah, we have Dale White standing in for an indisposed Sam Lips (who incidentally has the best name in showbiz since Buster Skeggs), and he’s perfectly OK. He dances very well indeed (he’s the production’s dance captain as well as an understudy), acts and sings well enough, and doesn’t leave anyone feeling short-changed, although he also doesn’t quite bring the fiery star quality you perhaps need to sell material as silly as this. The wonderful Eve Polycarpou makes something warmly touching out of Just Fran’s ethnic cliché of an Abuela, Tamsin Carroll’s comic timing as Shirley Hastings, Scott’s insanely ambitious mother, could cut through steel, and the supporting roles are all perfectly, colourfully filled.

So what’s missing? Bluntly, a score. Luhrmann and his colleagues haven’t given the job of writing the show’s score to one single songwriting team. Instead, they seem to have collared anyone who didn’t run away fast enough and persuaded/coerced them into supplying one or two numbers, and then thrown in the songs from the movie soundtrack for good measure. This doesn’t work at all; the new songs are uniformly dismal, the familiarity of the older ones from the movie makes the new songs seem even worse, and the show, which is great fun whenever the actors are speaking or dancing, sags badly whenever anybody opens their mouth and starts to sing. Even Ms. Sutton can’t quite save it, although she comes closer than anyone else to selling the parade of forgettable songs she’s being paid to sing (actually that’s not quite fair: Beautiful Surprise, Scott and Fran’s big duet, is insinuating enough that you probably won’t forget it in a hurry, although it’s so utterly banal that you’ll keep trying). Strictly Ballroom, at least in this incarnation, is certainly a viable musical, so it’s too bad that the music is the element that holes the production below the waterline. Really, the only way the show is going to work is if they throw the whole lot out and start again, preferably using people who have at least a passing acquaintance with the concept of wit.

Promises Promises, at the Southwark Playhouse, has more or less exactly the opposite problem. While it’s rarely revived in this country, it’s a minor 60s classic, and the music – so far, Burt Bacharach‘s single original score for the theatre – is peerless. The material surrounding the score, on the other hand, is less than completely successful, although that’s partly simply because sexual politics are very different now than they were when the show premiered on Broadway in 1968. Based on the Billy Wilder/Jack Lemmon/Shirley MacLaine film The Apartment, Promises Promises is the sordid-but-wholesome story of Chuck Baxter, a lowly office grunt who lends his apartment to various senior colleagues for them to use as a venue for their extramarital liaisons, then discovers that Fran Kubelik, the woman he’s trying to date, is the frequent houseguest of his boss. Wacky hijinks – including a suicide attempt – ensue, and it all ends happily ever after, three arse-numbing hours after we all first walked into the theatre. The saving grace is the score, and it’s brilliant – a parade of dazzling standards including Half As Big As Life, Knowing When To Leave, Wanting Things, Whoever You Are (I Love You), and the glorious I’ll Never Fall In Love Again. As for the book – if you’d like to see a version of this story that really works, go back to Billy Wilder.

The problem, actually, isn’t that the material is sexist – it’s a period piece, and while attitudes have certainly changed, it hasn’t become uncomfortable in the way that, for example, Sweet Charity (also with a book by Neil Simon) has. It’s simply that Neil Simon’s compulsive, reflexive instinct to go for the gag doesn’t sit very well next to the melodrama of Fran’s suicide attempt in Act Two – we go from three-handkerchief weepie to a wince-inducingly schticky musical number from the (very stereotypically) Jewish doctor who lives downstairs in the space of about three lines. It may be possible to negotiate that transition without making it seem like a great big yawning chasm, but Bronagh Lagan and her cast don’t manage it.

Throughout, unfortunately, the tone is often at least a little off. Lagan tells us in a programme note that she loves The Apartment, film noir, and clowning, but she doesn’t appear to have much idea of how to balance those elements in a production of Promises Promises. Her leading actors – the wonderful Daisy Maywood as Fran Kubelik, and the much, much less wonderful Gabriel Vick as Baxter – are costumed and styled to look, it seems, as similar as possible to Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon in the original Wilder film, right down to Fran Kubelik’s rather severe short haircut; since they aren’t Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon, this choice does them no favours. There are noirish projections of Manhattan brownstones visible on the upper level of Simon Anthony Wells’s set in some scenes; sometimes they’re effective, and sometimes they work against the comedic content of the scene in front of them. The pacing is sometimes painfully slack. Wells’s set is dominated by a rising garage door which reveals a bar or Chuck Baxter’s apartment, depending on the scene, and you can while away the dead moments by guessing whether or not it’s going to open/close properly the next time it’s used (answer: probably not). When (most) people are singing, the show is a delight – but there’s a lot of space between the songs. It doesn’t help, either, that Gabriel Vick’s Chuck Baxter is barely audible when he sings – and that’s from the third row (of five). He’s charming enough and funny enough in the dialogue scenes, but when he starts to sing he simply disappears. It’s as if he’s interpreted Half As Big As Life, the title of his opening number, as a stage direction; at Saturday’s matinee, his performance of the title song late in the second act was met with stone cold silence from the audience, because nobody could hear him over the backing vocals.

The production is well worth seeing, though, despite the (many) deficiencies in the direction, thanks to Daisy Maywood’s luminously lovely performance as Fran Kubelik and Alex Young’s showstopping, hilarious turn as Marge, the man-eating drunk who picks Chuck up in a bar in the first scene in the second act. It’s not simply that the show comes to life whenever they’re onstage, although it certainly does; they’re both so good that it’s worth sitting through the rest of it to see these two performances. As Marge, Young has two scenes and half a song, and she very nearly walks away with the entire show; Maywood’s Fran, meanwhile, is sincerely played and beautifully sung, and she makes the plot’s happy ending genuinely touching, which is no mean feat in a production in which so little works as it should. This is the text used in the recent Broadway revival, which means two more Bacharach standards – Say A Little Prayer and A House Is Not A Home – are uncomfortably shoehorned in as additional solos for Fran; in context, neither song makes much sense, but Maywood sings them beautifully and just about manages to sell them in character. Maywood and Young both, thank God, bring Gabriel Vick’s semi-inert performance somewhat to life when he’s sharing the stage with them; in I’ll Never Fall In Love Again, his big second-act duet with Maywood, he’s even mostly audible.

In the end, though – like Strictly Ballroom, albeit for different reasons – this is a wildly imperfect production. Maywood and Young are great, and it’s lovely to get the opportunity to hear Bacharach and David’s marvellous score in an actual production rather than just via a CD, but Bronagh Lagan consistently fails to capture the show’s tone. Better pacing would help – the production could easily stand to lose at least twenty minutes – but Lagan seems to think she’s directing a film noir, and doesn’t seem to understand the difference between the show and the source material.

It was the music of something beginning…

ragtime

Or, some brief, belated notes on Thom Southerland‘s now-closed revival of Ragtime at the Charing Cross Theatre, which I saw during the final week of performances (I know, I know – three weeks ago. It’s Christmas, life is complicated, deal with it).

  • I almost didn’t go. When I learned that the production would be using actor-musicians, it killed any interest I’d had in seeing it (in the past, actor-musician productions have not always been my very favourite thing). Once it opened, a number of friends saw it and they pretty much all thought it was wonderful, so I caved. I’m still not, as a general rule, thrilled at the idea of forking over good money in order to hear actors torturing musical instruments they haven’t touched since they left school, but there’s an exception to every rule: this production, unlike most actor-musician productions I’ve seen, does not short-change the music (although it also doesn’t use, or even try to emulate, William Brohn’s original orchestrations). There’s a professional MD centre-stage, there are no issues with musicians struggling/failing to keep time with each other, and Flaherty and Ahrens’s score, dressed in Mark Aspinall’s Americana/folk-tinged new orchestrations, actually sounds good. That in itself is a startling achievement.
  • This is the third thing I’ve seen this year that Southerland has directed, following Grey Gardens and Allegro at the Southwark Playhouse, and each has been better than the last. This is a fierce, confident revival of a difficult show, accomplished at a fraction of what it would cost to produce this kind of thing in the West End. How good is it? I saw the gargantuan original staging of Ragtime in Los Angeles; this production, obviously, is much smaller, with a cast less than half the size and a simple two-level unit set (co-designed by Tom Rogers and the fabulously-named Toots Butcher), and while it may be less overwhelming than Garth Drabinsky’s cast-of-thousands (well, 59), budget-of-millions extravaganza, it is emphatically not any less moving.
  • This is as good an ensemble performance as you’ll see this year (granted, as I write this, this year – thank God – has less than four hours still to go. Yo, 2016 – don’t let the door hit you on the way out). Fine performances from all of the leads (and possibly a career-best performance from Anita Louise Combe as Mother), terrific choral singing (and that’s not as common as you’d hope in musicals), and great work even from the performers in the smallest roles.
  • And speaking of performers in the smallest roles – as Sarah’s Friend, Seyi Omooba is jaw-droppingly good, and her ferocious gospel vocals in ‘Till We Reach That Day’ pin you to your seat. This is her professional debut, and she’s someone to watch.
  • The show itself is what it is. A number of the reviews this time complained that it’s heavy-handed and preachy; given the nature of the source novel, that’s probably inevitable, and one of the preachiest numbers in the score – ‘He Wanted To Say’ – has been cut from this revival (it isn’t missed). Stephen Flaherty’s music cleverly exploits the blend of black and Eastern European musical ingredients that formed the basis of the era’s popular music in America, and he and Lynn Ahrens give the show a (mostly) very fine score – but the show’s opening number is truly brilliant, and nothing that follows can quite equal it. It doesn’t help, either, that the first act, overall, is markedly better than the second (although the show’s two loveliest songs – ‘Our Children’ and ‘Sarah Brown Eyes’ – are performed almost back-to-back in Act Two), because the music turns notably weaker when Terrence McNally’s book takes a turn towards the violent. The novel is brilliant, complex, and never quite satisfying; that was true of the musical in Frank Galati’s enormous original staging, and it’s true here as well.
  • With prices soaring in the West End – the seat that cost me £50 for Gypsy at the Savoy eighteen months ago is £75 for Dreamgirls, which is one reason I haven’t yet booked a ticket – it’s refreshing to see a commercial venture which charges reasonable prices (between £20 and £40) for tickets and doesn’t try to rip the audience off via unjustifiable booking fees and overpriced programmes. The Charing Cross Theatre, God knows, has disadvantages – from the front, you’re practically looking up the cast’s nostrils, and from the back it’s like watching a show in a tunnel – but it’s a charming venue, the location couldn’t be more convenient, and the continued success of companies like the Southwark Playhouse and the Menier suggests there’s a growing audience out there for this sort of thing. This series of musical productions – the first was a transfer of Southwark Playhouse’s revival of Titanic – is a new venture for the Charing Cross Theatre, and it deserves to be a roaring success.

There’s gotta be something better than this

sweet-charity

Roll up! Roll up! For your Christmas entertainment, come and watch our heroine get repeatedly slut-shamed while singing a stack of fabulous Cy Coleman tunes, and still emerge with a winsomely optimistic smile plastered all over her cute little face! I mean really, what could possibly be more festive than a musical whose central character exists simply to get dumped by a series of inadequate men, the last time specifically because she isn’t a virgin? It’s fun for all the family… at least, if they’re trapped in the squarest, most conservative corner of 1965.

There’s nothing wrong with the production. There’s strong direction by Derek Bond, entertaining Fosse-inspired choreography from Aletta Collins, a clever, stylish set by James Perkins, and a warm, appealing central performance from Kaisa Hammarlund as Charity Hope Valentine, the taxi dancer with a heart of gold (even typing that phrase makes me feel a little ill). There’s a great-sounding band, a superb ensemble, and a bold, brassy Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields score. This should be glorious night in the theatre.

Unfortunately there’s also Neil Simon‘s book, and it’s a great big steaming pile of misogynistic shit. Based (loosely) on the revered Fellini film Nights of Cabiria, which isn’t nearly so unpleasant, Sweet Charity is a leading entry in the woman-as-kleenex school of dramatic storytelling. In the first act, a (married) boyfriend woos the title character (it’s implied over a period of weeks) and then mugs her and steals her savings, then an Italian film star picks her up to make his girlfriend jealous then hides her under the bed (usually in a wardrobe, but this is a theatre-in-the-round; here, wardrobes are difficult) when she unexpectedly returns. In the second act, she falls for decent, kindly Oscar, who (eventually) tells her it doesn’t matter what she does… and then in the penultimate scene dumps her because it does. And then she picks herself up, dries herself off – two of these dumpings involve Charity ending up in the lake in Central Park, presumably because ending a relationship isn’t humiliating enough unless it also involves a near-drowning – and tries to get us to buy that her resilience gives the show an optimistic ending. It doesn’t work, because Simon’s writing is breathtakingly shallow throughout; instead of characters, he presents us with collections of quirks glued together by one-liners, only some of which are funny. Simon’s Charity simply exists to be humiliated; consequently, the evening is very much subject to the law of diminishing returns. It isn’t very funny the first time, and it becomes more and more uncomfortable as we progress through the episodic plot.

The Fellini film, oddly, is far bleaker, but also considerably less unpleasant. Cabiria is a prostitute, not a taxi dancer – Simon’s turd of a book very carefully informs us that Charity doesn’t do any of “that extracurricular stuff” – and while she’s also used and abused by men, the Oscar storyline is quite different. In the film, he’s another crook out to steal her money, and Cabiria makes a proactive choice. Realising he’s setting her up to be robbed, she throws her purse at his feet – she chooses a way out, and gains strength from her choice (Cabiria, unlike Charity, gets shoved headlong into a body of water once rather than twice, which makes more difference than you might think). In Simon’s rewrite of Fellini’s story, on the other hand, Charity simply gets dumped and begs her useless lump of a man not to leave, and then three minutes later the show ends. How unpleasant is it? At the curtain call, the actor playing Oscar (Daniel Crossley) received good-natured boos from a significant section of the audience.

Possibly the show works better if you have a genuine star dancer in the lead as Charity. Shirley MacLaine just about gets away with it in the film, and in the original Broadway production Gwen Verdon must have been sensational on the nights she didn’t phone it in and leave out half her solo numbers. This is a dance-heavy show; MacLaine, in the film, projects strength through her dancing, and she brings a certain kind of star quality to the role. Here, we have Kaisa Hammarlund, and she simply isn’t that kind of performer. She moves well, but she isn’t in Verdon or MacLaine’s league as a dancer. She’s charming, vulnerable, believably real, but she’s a good actor rather than a larger-than-life star, and I suspect this material only really works if you cast a performer whose presence is much bigger than ‘real’. Hammarlund is thoroughly charming, sings well, and she’s funny. She does everything she can to make the final scene work – but the show needs the kind of star performance that can dazzle you into looking past the book’s essential unpleasantness, not a believable, personable actress who makes you feel every beat of Charity’s heartbreak when Oscar dumps her.

There’s pleasure, at least, in the supporting performances. Bob Harms has great fun with the plastic Italian film star’s flamboyantly insincere ‘Too Many Tomorrows’, and there’s a smartly rethought ‘Big Spender’ – the score’s most famous takeaway tune – which here begins in a dressing-room with the dancers preparing for battle before they go out to meet their clients. For the second-act ‘Rhythm of Life’ sequence – a rather condescending satirical take on 60s counterculture – Bond has cast the wonderful Josie Benson as the hippie preacher Daddy Brubeck. Nobody changes any pronouns; in a programme note, Bond explains that “by making Daddy a formidable woman, the song becomes empowering” – and yes, it does, but that’s fatally undercut by the subsequent dialogue scene, which exists mostly to mock Daddy and her church as hypocrites (marijuana, Daddy informs us, is sinful… “and so expensive”). Benson, though, is the most thrilling thing in the show, and she takes a song that usually comes across as slightly naff and turns it into something genuinely exciting; it’s just a shame that the song and the surrounding scene (like, to be fair, the rest of the book) give off such a strong whiff of smug small-c conservative writers looking down their noses at the onset of the permissive age.

In the end, despite everyone’s best efforts, this revival fails to overcome the material’s inherent nastiness. Bond’s staging looks and sounds great: Chris Walker’s new orchestrations for a nine-piece band preserve more of the character of the originals than you’d think possible given the small number of players, Mark Aspinall’s musical direction puts the score across with tremendous verve, and the singing throughout is terrific. Everybody involved is working at the top of their game – but the material, despite Coleman’s dazzling score, is faintly putrid. Hammarlund’s Charity is nothing if not sweet; too bad the show she’s in leaves such a distinctly sour aftertaste.