Illyria, W11



Take one Shakespeare comedy. Fillet out most of the poetry, throw in an eclectic set of songs by Shaina Taub, add a brightly-coloured Notting Hill streetscape (by Rob Jones), a thirty-member community chorus, a fabulous set of singing voices from the leading actors, a great big tap number for Malvolio, chicken-and-pepper canapés, confetti guns, and a white van, and you get… this. A triumphant, joyous, thoroughly entertaining show that puts a smile on your face before the lights go down and keeps it there until long after you’ve left the theatre.

I suppose you could justifiably criticise it for being Shakespeare-lite, but it’s so much fun that to do so would be churlish. Slimming the text down to an hour and forty minutes (no interval) and making room for Taub’s wonderful score means you’ll be disappointed if you came to hear Shakespeare’s poetry, but it’s not as if you’ll have to wait more than about ten minutes before somebody else does Twelfth Night, so get over it. The plot – I don’t need to run through it here, do I? – is entirely present and correct, but delivered at a run, the better to make room for those songs. There’s a shipwreck, mistaken identity, pranks, parallel love stories and all the rest of it, but not the undercurrent of grief that can underpin less sunny interpretations of the text. Purists might hyperventilate; everybody else will be too busy having a good time.

What’s surprising here is how well Kwame Kwei-Armah and Taub’s adaptation, which premiered at New York’s Public Theater in 2016 (and was produced there again this past summer) in a production that evoked New Orleans, adapts to London, where it arrives as Kwame Kwei-Armah’s first production as artistic director of the Young Vic. Taub’s score, which cleverly blends soul, R&B, pop, and golden-age-of-Broadway pastiche into a kind of theatrical tossed salad, sits very well indeed in present-day Notting Hill, and the area’s colourful streetscapes are beautifully recreated by Rob Jones on the Young Vic’s wide stage. It’s a joy to see the community chorus, whose members range from teenagers to people who – let’s put this delicately – have clearly had their bus pass for some time – kicking up their heels dancing Lizzi Gee’s artfully artless choreography and obviously having the time of their lives, and you can’t see the join between the ensemble and the (Equity) principal cast.


That’s high praise, because the principal performances are faultless. Gabrielle Brooks is a fine, feisty Viola. Natalie Dew brings a lovely sweetness to Olivia, and her duet with Brooks is splendidly sung. Gerard Carey’s Malvolio is a comic tour-de-force wrapped in yellow lycra. Melissa Allen’s Feste combines a thrilling voice with drop-dead timing. Everybody is funny, the singing is gorgeous, the cast and chorus obviously love both each other and the material, and by the time the various revelations and weddings roll around in the final scene you’ll be experiencing as pure a theatrical high as you’ll get this year.

Simply, this show works. You lose, as I said, a lot of Shakespeare’s poetry, but it’s a fair exchange: this is a glorious, joyful celebration of theatre, of music, of diversity, of London. As an opening production from Kwame Kwei-Armah, it’s quite a calling card. Set against the increasingly nasty divisiveness in this country’s political discourse, particularly surrounding multiculturalism, it’s also a very definite (and very welcome) statement: a celebration of what is great about modern Britain at a time when we see far too many reminders of what isn’t, in which Kwei-Armah and his cast remind us that diversity and inclusiveness are strengths without ever delivering a lecture. The message is there if you look for it, but nobody ever preaches – which is as it should be when the message is something that really should go without saying.







A Very Very Very Big Miss

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By the time the lights fade on the final scene of the Bridge Theatre‘s production of what one must assume is the unrevised first draft of Martin McDonagh‘s very very very uneven new play A Very Very Very Dark Matter, you’ll have long since figured out that the tagline on the poster is absolutely accurate: this is no fairytale, despite the fact that Hans Christian Andersen is the central character. We may first see Jim Broadbent’s preening, vainglorious Hans concluding a reading of The Little Mermaid, but McDonagh – as you’d expect – very quickly moves into less familiar territory. What follows is a breathless, bumpy ride through a plot that struggles to spin Andersen’s infamous five-week visit to Charles Dickens into a fable which attempts to connect a dissection of colonial atrocities in Victorian Africa with a meditation on the way fairytales spring from the darker side of our subconscious, via a recurring discussion of the dominance of the white male, both in the history of published fiction, and in history itself. There’s also a bit of time travel thrown in, and a scene with Charles Dickens’s very sweary children, and grizzled prerecorded narration by Tom Waits.

At the centre of McDonagh’s studiedly-outrageous plot is Marjory, the “Congolese pygmy woman” Andersen supposedly keeps locked up in a three-foot-high mahogany box in his Copenhagen attic, and who we’re told writes Andersen’s stories in return for sausages he pokes through a hole in the box’s front window (no, actual sausages, you have a filthy mind). Andersen takes Marjory’s characters and whitewashes them, removing any details that identify them as black, and then passes them off as his own; it’s a passable enough metaphor for the way European countries treated their colonies, although you’ll get a more nuanced discussion of the way the white cultural hegemony bleaches the black out of black culture across London at Dreamgirls at the Savoy, but here it’s buried in the middle of a narrative that seems to keep throwing things at the stage in the hope that a few of them will eventually stick. That might be OK if McDonagh managed to bring everything together into a coherent whole, but he doesn’t. The overall impression is of watching a stack of ideas circling a point but never quite landing on it.

It does manage to hold your attention, though, and there are some genuine laughs, although the play’s comedic voice is sometimes problematic. Broadbent brings just the right amount of twinkle to his nastily self-absorbed Hans, and wrings all the laughs he can out of the script. Phil Daniels’s Sweary Charles Dickens is a joy, and so is Elizabeth Berrington’s even swearier Mrs. Dickens. As Marjory, Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles gives a tremendously dignified performance in a role that should be a bigger gift to an actor than it is here. Too often, McDonagh falls back on having Andersen make (frankly racist) jokes at Marjory’s expense; there’s a fine line between exposing stereotypes and simply parroting them, and McDonagh comes perilously close to finding himself on the wrong side of it. There’s a cosiness, too, to his discussion of white dominance – yes, there are still statues of King Leopold all over Belgium despite the atrocities his soldiers committed in the Congo, but that fact floats by in the middle of a stream of one-liners and comic business and other ideas, and it doesn’t land the way it was probably meant to.

Worse, there are several moments where we’re clearly supposed to laugh at some aspect of Andersen’s treatment of Marjory, and watching a tall, relatively strong, relatively well-off white man mistreat a short, physically-handicapped black woman (Marjory has only one foot, Andersen having apparently – we’re told – amputated the other one in return for once letting her out of her box) simply isn’t funny, although that didn’t stop some people laughing. It’s OK for comedy to get dark, and to take on complicated moral territory – it’s more than OK, black comedy and gallows humour can be tremendously effective weapons when deployed effectively – but to pull it off successfully you need to make the audience start to question why they laughed, and there needs to be a reason for the laugh that extends beyond the comedy of cruelty. I don’t know whether the problem here is McDonagh’s messy script or Matthew Dunster’s  production, which feels slack-paced even though the play is only about 80 minutes long, but the play’s overall tone is comfortable, in a way that sits very uneasily against the subject matter, which makes the laughs that come at Marjory’s expense wince-inducing for those among the audience who aren’t joining in.

There’s far more edge in Anna Fleischle’s fabulously macabre set design – an attic with dozens of creepy-looking puppets hanging from the rafters – than in the writing, which is never as clever or as dangerous as it thinks it is, or as it needs to be. Broadbent is always good value, and he’s worth the cost of the ticket (so are Daniels and Berrington), but the character McDonagh gives him doesn’t stretch him; in the haunted look in his eyes as the lights fade at the end of the final scene there’s a glimpse of the much more interesting play this could have been if McDonagh hadn’t (uncharacteristically) consistently privileged easy laughs over intellectual depth. There’s enough in the performances, and enough humour that works, that it’s difficult to have a very very very bad time watching A Very Very Very Dark Matter, but this is, unfortunately, a very very VERY bad play, and it needn’t have been. McDonagh seems to be coasting on his reputation here: somebody should have sent him back to take another pass at his script, or preferably about twenty other passes at his script, but I suppose it’s difficult to make someone whose awards and nominations have their own Wikipedia page go back and revise substandard work if they aren’t inclined to do it off their own bat. The result, unfortunately, is a play that never once hits hard enough: watching it is rather like being promised Tramadol and then getting an aspirin.

Phone rings, door chimes, in comes Rosalie…

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It works.

If, like me, you had big doubts about whether a revival of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth‘s seminal 1970 musical Company set in the present day and with the central character’s gender flipped from male to female was a viable idea, let go of them. To say Marianne Elliott‘s extraordinary production – and bear in mind that this is a show I know backwards, forwards, and inside-out, and I’m picky – succeeds triumphantly might be the understatement of the year. Well, the theatrical understatement of the year, anyway, because “Boris Johnson is a morally and intellectually bankrupt attention whore who is motivated only by his own pathetically naked ambition to be Prime Minister” is a given. It’s not simply that Elliott has done a superlative job of staging the show, or that she’s assembled an unimpeachable cast, although she’s done both. Somehow, with the help of a very light sprinkling of new lyrics from Mr. Sondheim and almost no changes to George Furth’s dialogue, she’s managed to take a show that these days feels like a period piece (and frankly only really works when you set it in 1970), relocate it firmly in the present, and make it seem absolutely up-to-date and absolutely fresh, even to someone (well, me) who is very familiar indeed with the material. And on top of that, it’s probably as funny a production of the show as you’re ever likely to see.

So what has changed? Other than the gender of five characters, not as much as you’d expect. Company is an episodic piece, a musical constructed by Sondheim, Furth, and director Harold Prince around a series of vignettes about marriage written by Furth, in which a 35-year-old single man looks at the lives of his friends and tries to decide whether he’s ready for a committed one-on-one relationship. Structurally, it’s (mostly) a series of self-contained sketches linked by songs, rather than a traditional linear narrative (it is, however, neither “plotless” nor “formless“, as misguided theatre critics have sometimes described it). That makes it easier for Elliott to flip the genders of a few characters, since each scene is relatively self-contained; each vignette shows the central character – Bobbie here, not Robert – interacting with either one couple or one romantic partner – which means that changing one of the couples into a gay couple and Bobby/ie’s three girlfriends into boyfriends has no knock-on effect in the surrounding scenes. Sondheim has rewritten the lyrics for Someone Is Waiting so that Bobbie ticks off the names of the husbands among her married friends rather than the wives, and there are a few small changes in the breathless, breathtaking pre-wedding-jitters patter song Getting Married Today, particularly among the lines for the church soloist. We’re in the present, not 1970, so in Another Hundred People “my service will explain” is now “I’ll text you to explain”. With two of the married couples among Bobbie’s friends – Jenny and David, Peter and Susan – the dialogue has been flipped between the wife and the husband, so that the women take the stronger role in the conversation with Bobbie. A (very) few lines have been tweaked elsewhere; very, very little of Furth’s dialogue has been changed (he’s unavailable for rewrites, having died in 2008), and with the exception of Someone is Waiting and a prominent joke in Barcelona,  that’s also true of the lyrics. There are a few adjustments here and there, but this is not a wholesale rewrite.

We’re starting from the mid-90s revised text, so Joanne doesn’t get to say “everybody else here is just Lois and Larry Loser” in the opening scene; the production keeps Marry Me a Little, which this edition of the script rather awkwardly shoehorns in at the end of the first act, but (mercifully) drops the second-act scene in which one of the husbands makes a gay pass at Robert, which has never worked in any production I’ve seen that included it. There are new orchestrations by David Cullen (for a band of 14, positioned on a bridge high above the stage) which iron the very-early-1970s Bacharach-and-David-with-a-master’s-degree sound of the Jonathan Tunick originals out of the score. That’s a loss; the original orchestrations are terrific, and far more distinctive than Cullen’s work here, but they’d jar in a production set in the present. All things considered, given that the production switches the gender of five characters, there is astonishingly little rewriting. Any number of musical revivals have put an established text through more revision to less effect, even if they haven’t gone as far as changing the gender of any characters; very few of them have matched Elliott’s achievement here, in terms of making us see very familiar material from a completely different perspective.

It’s not just Elliott’s achievement, of course, because she’s pulled a set of magnificent performances out of her cast. The karate scene – or rather, jujitsu in this production –  has probably never been funnier than it is in the hands of Mel Giedroyc and Gavin Spokes; you might be most familiar with Giedroyc from her work as a TV presenter (with or without Sue Perkins), but she’s a formidable comic actor with spectacular timing,  she knows her way around a pratfall, and at one point she manages to make a three-act play out of the word “manicotti”. Spokes is just as funny, and then brings a lovely melancholic ambivalence to Sorry-Grateful at the end of the scene. Can Mel Giedroyc sing? Well, nobody is going to be pestering her to record a Giedroyc Sings Gershwin album, but her character doesn’t have a solo number and she more than holds her own among the ensemble, including in the technically-tricky opening number.

Elsewhere there are standout turns from Daisy Maywood as Susan, who finds happiness in her marriage only after she and her husband divorce, and particularly from Alex Gaumond and Jonathan Bailey, the (now) gay couple who marry (offstage) at the end of the first act. Gaumond is sweet without being cloying, and Bailey’s Jamie elevates neurosis to an art form and delivers a tour-de-force performance of Getting Married Today that brings the show to a juddering halt, mostly so the audience can catch their breath because they’ve been laughing so hard – although while Bailey is great, credit here should also go to Daisy Maywood’s pricelessly-funny, sung-to-the-rafters turn as the church soloist whose soprano commentary links the song’s verses.

Matthew Seadon-Young, George Blagden, and Richard Fleeshman are terrific as the three boyfriends – Theo, PJ, and Andy, taking the place of Kathy, Marta, and April, and their You Could Drive a Person Crazy deservedly brings down the house. Blagden’s PJ is a too-cool-for-school Englishman In New York, and it makes total sense to hear Marta’s lines about Fourteenth Street being the centre (sorry, center) of the universe being delivered by an outsider with all the zeal of the most enthusiastic convert to the religion of New York. Fleeshman’s Andy – a slightly dim, slightly off-beam flight attendant – proves he can be superb when he has good material to play with (Fleeshman was bland in The Last Ship and dreadful in Ghost, and in both cases the writing let him down), and he finds laughs in the butterfly monologue that I’ve never heard before.

And then there are the production’s heavy-hitters: Patti LuPone as Joanne, the acerbic, wealthy, much-married Lady Who Lunches whose proposition pushes Bobbie towards a decision at the show’s climax, and Rosalie Craig as the unmarried woman at the centre of the show. LuPone is a problematic, sometimes too mannered, sometimes very undisciplined performer who can be astonishingly good when she’s on her best behaviour and equally astonishingly self-indulgent when she isn’t; here, she is, and she’s flawless, spitting one-liners with laser-guided accuracy and – for once in her career – singing all the consonants in the lyrics in her numbers instead of steamrollering them into the ground.

Changing Bobbie into a woman also brings a fascinating shift in emphasis to the final section of The Ladies Who Lunch; in other productions, I’ve always felt “here’s to the girls who just watch…” is the point where Joanne moves from picking off targets to self-laceration. Here, that comes a little later, and LuPone’s Joanne is clearly including Bobbie in the “girls who just watch”, which ties neatly in to the later part of the scene where she accuses Bobbie of observing life rather than participating in it. It also slightly changes the emphasis of Being Alive, the Great Big Solo in which Bobby – usually – comes down in favour of a committed relationship. In this interpretation, it’s less about committing to a relationship than about choosing to be open to every possibility instead of watching from the sidelines. The ending of Company, to a greater or lesser extent, always feels like a bit of a cop-out – in most interpretations of the material, Being Alive is a rather more affirmative statement than the character has earned by that point, and the moment of realisation in the previous scene – “but who will I take care of?” – comes out of nowhere. Elliott’s version doesn’t entirely paper over the cracks in that section of the show, but it comes closer than most; seeing Joanne accuse Bobbie of “just watch(ing)” a couple of moments earlier – and seeing Bobbie recognise the accusation – is a minor change, but a valuable one. Another change: this Joanne, perhaps disappointingly, doesn’t make a gay pass at Bobbie, but instead offers to set Bobbie up with her husband (the line is “when are you and Larry gonna make it?”). You might expect the ick factor here to be through the roof, but actually it works: LuPone’s Joanne knows exactly what she’s doing in this scene, and it isn’t trying to set up an affair between her husband and her friend. She’s being deliberately provocative to push Bobbie into making a choice; LuPone is very good indeed on the line “I just did someone a big favour” at the end of the scene. It’s perfectly possible to play Joanne as just a loud, rich broad – plenty of people have – but LuPone (and Elliott) dont’ fall into that trap. LuPone’s Joanne is a lot cleverer than she lets on, even when she’s blind drunk.

Rosalie Craig brings real (and surprising) star presence to the role, makes perfect sense of the revised script’s conception of Bobbie as an independent woman questioning whether she’s ready for commitment, and does a gorgeous job with her songs. She’s great, but she suffers a little from the problem that has plagued nearly every man who has played the role before her: Bobby/ie is the normative figure linking a parade of supporting characters who are all basically colourfully-drawn caricatures and who get most of the show’s best lines. With the single exception of Daniel Evans in a revival at the Crucible a few years ago – a much bleaker take on both the character and the material than this production offers – Craig comes closer than anyone I’ve ever seen to creating a version of the character who doesn’t fade into the background against the supporting cast; that she doesn’t quite get there is attributable more to the writing than to anything she brings to the role. She’s wonderful – but she’s wonderful as a character who sometimes seems to exist as a series of bland feeder-lines, and that’s been a problem in every iteration of Company’s script.

As for Elliott’s staging, it’s full of surprises, and so is Bunny Christie’s set. Neon-edged rooms slide across the stage, recede into the distance, and pop up from the stage floor. People appear seemingly out of nowhere (the clever illusions are by Chris Fisher) and disappear in a split-second when your attention is directed elsewhere (watch out for the church soloist’s second and third appearances in Getting Married Today). Liam Steele’s choreography finds witty substitutions for the iconic moments from the original production – the pat-a-cake “tap-dance” in Side by Side by Side is particularly effective – and the rearranged Tick Tock ballet, a Multiplicity-inspired dream sequence in which multitudes of Bobbies contemplate marriage and motherhood with each of her three potential suitors, works very well indeed, and more than justifies its place in the show (in the original version it’s a solo dance performed by the actress who plays Kathy, and these days it’s often cut). The pace never flags, everybody understands the tone and the rhythm of the show they’re in, and the show – still in previews when I saw it – moves with a confidence that can only come from a director whose grasp of showmanship is as firm as her ability to get to the heart of a scene, or to guide the actors to the biggest laughs. This is a dazzling jewel of a revival, the work of a director, a creative team, and a cast who love the material and know how to get everything they can out of it. There are no caveats here; flipping the gender of the show’s central character was a gamble, but the gamble has more than paid off. Every word, every beat, every second of this production makes the material seem newly-minted, even if – like me – you know the show so well that you remember half the dialogue before the actors do. My only complaint – we’ve established by now that I’m picky, haven’t we? – is that nobody has announced a cast album yet. Or a movie screening. Or a Broadway transfer, because work this good deserves a longer life than twelve weeks in the West End.

And yes, of course I’m going again before it closes. I hadn’t booked a repeat visit before I saw it – as I said, I had doubts – but I have now. If you love this material as much as I do, you’ll need to see this more than once.

One more thing: Patti LuPone provides the taped pre-show announcement about mobile phones and recording devices, and it’s a stroke of genius. It more than winks at her rather combative track record of dealing with interruptions from the audience, and it gets (and deserves) a big laugh. Pay attention… and do as she says, particularly if (like I was) you’re sitting within spitting-range of the stage.

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Take heart, for young Ms. Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again!

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Sometimes the showbusiness Gods smile, and sometimes they don’t. It’s fair to say that Sylvia, a hip-hop musical about Sylvia Pankhurst commissioned as a coproduction between ZooNation, Sadler’s Wells, and the Old Vic, has had an unusually difficult birth. Originally intended as a dance piece, the show apparently morphed into a full-scale through-sung musical during the developmental process; rehearsals were then hit by illness among the cast, early performances in the show’s relatively short run were presented either incomplete or in concert form, and at least one performance was cancelled altogether. As a result, the entire run ended up being labelled as previews, even though the press did eventually review the show, and the (very large) title role was performed by an understudy for most of the three-week run. Programmes were sold with this insert tucked inside the front cover, and patrons were also handed a copy, along with a slip announcing the appearance of an understudy in the leading role (pay attention, Bridge Theatre, THAT’s how you do it), as they entered the auditorium:
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You could be forgiven, after reading this, for expecting a train wreck. What a pleasure it is, then, to be able to say that this show, with a few tweaks, has the potential to be a big, big hit. Given that it’s still work in progress, though, it perhaps wouldn’t be fair to write a full, detailed review (also it’s been a long week and I’m going cross-eyed in front of the computer screen). So… random thoughts:

  • What the show does well, it does very well indeed. Prince, her composers Josh Cohen and DJ Walde, and bookwriter Priya Parmar have done a generally excellent job of making the struggle for women’s suffrage feel absolutely real, contemporary, and relevant in the context of the treatment of minorities in contemporary Britain. And not just in Britain – as the appalling spectacle of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing reminds us, a story about women fighting against an oppressive patriarchy and winning still resonates pretty much everywhere. We haven’t come as far as we’d like to think.
  • Sylvia Pankhurst is a complex, fascinating figure who fought a remarkably brave battle against both the establishment and her own family in order to win the right to vote for all women, rather than just – as Emmeline Pankhurst’s movement initially advocated – for the privileged few, and whose fierce pacifism placed her at odds with the protest movement she grew up in. It’s a really good story, and it also reminds us that Emmeline Pankhurst was a rather more problematic figure than history sometimes suggests.
  • Josh Cohen and DJ Walde’s roof-raising music blends hip-hop, funk, r & b, and soul into a potent theatrical stew. The show is packed with great numbers; I want a cast album, dammit, and I want it NOW.
  • Prince’s lyrics aren’t always as good as Cohen’s music, although it’s not always easy to tell because the sound design – step forward, Cement Rawling – is deeply terrible.
  • The lighting design – by Natasha Chivers – is also (let’s be kind) underwhelming, and (let’s be very kind) needs to be completely rethought before the show returns, which it apparently will. There’s a fine line between ‘atmospheric’ and ‘dim’, and for too much of the show Chivers’s lighting is (again, let’s be very kind) on the wrong side of it.
  • Having said that, given what we must assume was a fairly chaotic rehearsal and tech period, it perhaps shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the show’s tech elements aren’t quite working as they should.
  • Holy shit, those voices. Stunning, thrilling vocals from the whole cast, and particularly from Maria Omakinwa (Sylvia, standing in for Genesis Lynea, who was ill for much of the run), Beverley Knight (Emmeline Pankhurst), and Carly Bawden (Clementine Churchill and Annie Kenney). Even the smallest roles are impeccably sung.
  • Prince’s movement is frequently superb. The Act One finale – a line of women stand firm against policemen trying to beat them down – is all the more powerful, somehow, for the clever way Prince abstracts the scene so the blows never connect: the women are at stage level, the men are on a platform above, so we see all the aggression and the tremendous courage that it must have taken to stand up to it. It’s a breathtaking moment, and the best thing in the show. The song – ‘Be the Change’ – is also (that word again) absolutely stunning.
  • Casting minority performers as characters who, historically, were white isn’t simply a rip-off of Hamilton. Coming after months of horrifying news stories about our PM, when she was Home Secretary, enacting policies that resulted in the deportation of actual citizens, in most cases simply because they forgot to file some paperwork in 1971, it’s all too easy to see the resonance in terms of how the UK’s political establishment looks upon people it considers inferior. Without making the point explicitly (as far as I could tell – as I said, the sound system is really, really bad), the show constantly reminds us that while Sylvia Pankhurst and her cohorts eventually won their chosen battle, ninety years later the struggle for equality in this country is by no means over, and the attitudes that kept the establishment from giving women the vote are most certainly still in play (Want an example? Look at the bullshit process the government has laid out for EU citizens living in the UK post-Brexit, in which people who came to this country entirely legally, built their lives here, paid taxes, contributed to their communities and all the rest of it are going to be forced to retroactively apply to be granted the “privilege” of remaining in their homes, at a cost of £65 each.).
  • And speaking of casting, whoever had the idea of getting Delroy Atkinson to play Winston Churchill as Ben Vereen is a genius.
  • Carly Bawden absolutely nails the withering sarcasm of Clementine Churchill’s anonymous pro-suffragette letter to the Times. It’s a terrific song, too (and it’s based on a real letter).
  • I can’t imagine a better performance in the title role than the one I saw Maria Omakinwa give at the Wednesday matinee in the last week of the run. It’s a huge, strenuous part, and she was absolutely sensational.
  • Criticisms? The show as it stands is too long. It ran a little over three hours, partly because the interval overran (there aren’t enough toilets in the Old Vic, and it was a more or less full house). It needs to lose at least twenty minutes, and preferably half an hour.
  • For the most part, Prince and her collaborators tell their story very clearly, but the way the show uses narration needs to be refined. There’s a moment near the top of Act Two where a woman seizes control of the narrative from the male narrator, and it’s very powerful and gets a huge laugh – but then the idea is thrown away. In the context of the show’s overall story, it maybe wouldn’t hurt to make the battle for control of the narrative into an ongoing push/pull between those performers, rather than just making a one-off gag of it.
  • Basically, the show needs editing. There’s too much of a good thing here, and the sheer length of the show means it sometimes loses focus (to be fair, that’s truer in the first half than the second). It doesn’t necessarily need big draconian cuts – there’s some dead weight, but little fat, which means every moment of the show needs to be tightened and sharpened.

Overall, Sylvia is very nearly a major triumph. Despite a production process in which it seems nearly everything that could have gone wrong did, it’s an exciting show with enormous potential. If I was producing it, I’d get a concept album out as quickly as I could – this music has huge crossover potential, and the show, as I said, deserves to be a huge hit. Provided Prince and her collaborators don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater when they’re revising the show after this tryout run, it easily could be.

Oh yes, and one more thing: when I rule the universe, and the day will come, people who check their text messages in the theatre while the lights are down will be duct-taped to the front wall of the theatre building by their pubic hairs and left there as a warning to the world. Yes, I’m talking to YOU, Mr. Twentysomething Entitled Arsehole sitting to my left during Act One (he left at intermission). It’s a theatre, not your living room; light bleeds a surprisingly long way from phone screens, it’s very distracting, and we all paid to watch THE SHOW, not your childishly theatrical affectation of boredom (granted, you are probably a product of your upbringing; I assume the lady sitting to YOUR left was your mother, and her manners also wouldn’t have won any prizes). If you can’t behave in public like a civilised adult, please do us all a favour and stay home.


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That doesn’t look like Jeff Rawle…


Understudies do a tremendous job in difficult circumstances, and often don’t get enough credit for it. I say this upfront because at the performance I saw of Alan Bennett‘s new play Allelujah last week at the (gorgeous) Bridge Theatre – specifically the matinee on August 15th – an actor named Colin Haigh went on for Jeff Rawle, who plays one of the most important roles in the show, and he gave an absolutely superb performance. And he didn’t get any credit for it at all.

I mean, I suppose it’s possible I missed it. I arrived at the theatre about twenty minutes before the show began, bought a program, walked around the (lovely) lobby, used the bathroom, waited a few minutes in the lower lobby before I entered the stalls. There were no visible signs announcing Mr. Haigh’s appearance. There was no insert in the programme. There was no announcement before the show. I certainly didn’t miss any audio announcement or a programme insert; if a sign was posted in the lobby – and there wasn’t –  it was very small and carefully hidden in a corner.

Unfortunately the Bridge’s response to feedback on the issue has been less than inspiring. First, in response to the theatre’s robo-email request for feedback after the show, there was an email from someone named Rosie, who is apparently unable to spell the word ‘performance’, which would seem to be an unfortunate attribute in someone who works in a theatre. Rosie took what I suppose we might call the Donald Trump approach, and informed me that there were signs posted around the foyer informing patrons of the cast change. There weren’t, but presumably in 2018 trying to gaslight your customers is the hot new trend.

Then, nine days after the performance, the Bridge finally deigned to respond on Twitter, and the tweet – from someone named Millie, who possibly has an MA in condescension – somewhat contradicts the earlier email:

bt us tw

Also, apparently I’m a feedback. Whatever that is.

There are so many things wrong with this that I’m not quite sure where to begin, but I think what I find most amazing here is the idea that it is ever acceptable to put an understudy on without informing the audience. In the US, to do so would be a serious violation of Equity’s codes of practice, which set out clear rules about how an audience should be notified of an understudy’s appearance (two out of three of a sign in the lobby, an insert in the programme, and an audio announcement). I understand it takes time to produce programme inserts or print off signs – I understand it better than most people, I’ve been a house manager in a theatre and I know perfectly well how much there is to do in the forty minutes or so before a performance begins. They’ve got a PA system, though, and it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of the theatre’s management to get someone to make an announcement before the lights go down, which takes thirty seconds, or even shove someone onstage to inform the audience ‘in person’. Rather than do any of that, the Bridge’s attitude seems to be “meh, we’ll put a sign up if we have time… and if you complain, we’ll tell you we did even though we didn’t.”

It’s not about not seeing the regular cast member. It’s about respect for audiences and respect for the cast. As I said, Mr. Haigh was superb. I genuinely do not believe I would have seen a better performance if I’d seen Jeff Rawle in the role, and I usually think Jeff Rawle is pretty terrific. Mr. Haigh took a curtain call, of course, but it would have been very easy to walk out of the theatre not knowing you’d seen an understudy, and that’s unfair. The audience deserve to know who they’ve seen (there are no understudies listed in the programme for ‘Allelujah’, and Mr. Haigh plays a small ensemble role which was presumably cut at the performance I saw), and the actor deserves the acknowledgment.  “It is not always possible for us to put measures in place to let an audience know” simply isn’t true. It’s a lazy, patronising pat on the head, and someone who genuinely thinks that way should not be in any job involving live performers or a paying audience. Or people.

It’s unfortunate, because I generally like the Bridge. I’ve seen three of their first five shows, I’ve got a ticket for the next one already, and I’m sure I’ll be back there next year. I like the auditorium, and I very much like that they’ve made sure there’s a wide range of ticket prices, and that the view from the cheap seats is quite good (the £15 I spent on a ticket to see Laura Linney’s extraordinary performance in My Name is Lucy Barton might well turn out to be the best bargain I get all year). The foyer is lovely, the front-of-house staff are very welcoming, my experience of the hospitality side of the operation is that they’ve got it more or less exactly right, and for this show, after I booked the ticket, the theatre’s box office went way beyond the call of duty: I’d booked a seat in the front row of the stalls, and when the show was in previews I received an email telling me that for this production the stage deck was built up higher than usual (to accommodate tracks for sliding scenery), and that therefore the view was compromised and they were returning £10 from the ticket price I’d paid to my account with the box office to put towards a ticket for a future production. They didn’t have to do that, and most theatres wouldn’t have, and I do genuinely appreciate that gesture very much. I think they’re trying very hard to establish themselves as a venue that values their customers – which  makes their apparent attitude towards announcing understudies all the more baffling.

As for the show itself… it is not vintage Alan Bennett. If you are expecting a play at the same level as The Madness of George III or The History Boys or Habeas Corpus or the Talking Heads monologues you’ll be disappointed. It is worth seeing. It’s full of sharp lines and sharp performances, the play’s debate about the nature of the NHS is nothing if not timely, and Peter Forbes’s hospital administrator is a glorious comic creation. As a piece, though, it doesn’t quite come together, and it’s a little bit too stuffed with ideas and characters. Allelujah is set in the geriatric ward of an old-fashioned community hospital in a small town somewhere in Yorkshire. Patient turnover in the geriatric ward is slow – a sign of inefficiency according to Samuel Barnett’s smoothly blunt management consultant – which means the facility is under threat of closure. After years of austerity government, beds are at a premium; the ward sister, though, has her own rather draconian way of making space for incoming patients. Mixed in with all this there’s commentary about the visa status of Sacha Dhawan’s immigrant doctor and about the UK’s increasingly hostile attitude to migrants, about the value (or lack of it) that society places on the old, about the values the NHS had when it was established versus the values it has today, about the shortcomings of the education system, about the north-south divide, about the forces that drive the educated children of working-class parents to put distance between themselves and their roots, and… you get the idea. There are half-a-dozen plays in here, and they sometimes seem to be fighting each other. AND there are amiable song-and-dance sequences performed by the ward’s ‘choir’ (the ensemble of elderly patients), with music arranged by George Fenton and choreography by Arlene Phillips. There’s a lot going on, and it doesn’t all work.

Nicholas Hytner has assembled a very fine cast, though, and the performances are excellent. Actors like Gwen Taylor and Sue Wallace, both of whom are luxury-cast in relatively small roles, are world-class experts at Bennett’s brand of northern comedy, and they’re in fine form here. Simon Williams is endearingly crusty as an ancient former schoolmaster who is becoming more and more irritated at his failure to die. Samuel Barnett gives a carefully-judged, smartly satirical turn as the management consultant, representing the post-Thatcherite side of the play’s ideological debate, and Sacha Dhawan is sweetly kind as the doctor-with-visa-issues. The supporting roles are all ideally cast, and Deborah Findlay’s Sister Gilchrist is a quietly chilling triumph (related: the writing may often lack focus, but the Act One curtain is a knockout). The play itself is never less than entertaining, and it’s often very funny. The song-and-dance numbers are thoroughly charming, the performances – as I said – are lovely – and it’s a perfectly pleasant two hours in the theatre.

There’s potential, though, for it to be a lot more than ‘perfectly pleasant’. With Sister Gilchrist, Bennett takes the play around a very dark corner, and that’s by far the most interesting element of a piece that bites off a little bit more than it can chew. Elsewhere in the play – for example in Dr. Valentine’s interview with an immigration officer about his visa status – Bennett sometimes pulls his punches, or rather goes for a punchline rather than a punch. The one-liners are always sharp, but in this play he seems – aside from in the writing for Sister Gilchrist – unusually reluctant to twist the knife after he’s inserted it. Having said that, even third-tier Alan Bennett is worth a look. If you don’t expect a masterpiece, you’ll have a good time; I’m certainly intending to go to the NT Live screening.

After my experience of seeing it, though, and after the Bridge’s follow-up to my inquiry about announcing understudies, I’m afraid I’ve lost a certain amount of respect for the venue, or at least for some of the people running it. It’s a new venture and they’re trying very hard, and they are getting a lot of things right – but in that one area, I’m afraid the Bridge’s management still have a lot to learn.


Money changes everything


It’s probably as well to say this upfront: Stefano Massini‘s The Lehman Trilogy, at least as adapted into English by Ben Power, is basically an extended theatrical stunt. Three (superlative) actors play the three brothers who founded Lehman Brothers in 1850 – and they play everybody else as well, switching characters, genders, ages at lightning speed as they tell the story of the bank’s rise and fall. I suppose having the three actors who played the three original Lehman Brothers play every role is probably meant to make some kind of point about the dynamics within a business dynasty, but that point begins to break down in the final act, because by the time of the bank’s demise in 2008 it had been almost forty years since a family member sat on the board.

If you don’t dwell too much on why Ben Power chose this rather eccentric form of storytelling for his adaptation of Stefano Massini’s original script, which allows for a significantly larger cast, you’ll be rewarded with a dazzling three hours of theatrical storytelling. Under Sam Mendes‘s meticulously precise direction, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, and Adam Godley are on top form as they embody (and switch between) a dizzying array of characters; as they navigate Es Devlin’s revolving monochrome glass-and-steel office set, we see the story of American capitalism reflected in the story of this one bank, and the fact that this story, and the ramifications of it, comes across so clearly as delivered by three middle-aged men dressed in 19th Century frock coats is a spectacular theatrical achievement. Yes, you’re essentially watching a (very long) history lesson, but in the hands of Mendes and these actors it’s also great fun, and sometimes very funny (Simon Russell Beale is pricelessly funny in one scene as a procession of potential fiancées). This subject-matter could easily produce an incredibly dry play, and it’s to everyone’s credit that The Lehman Trilogy is anything but.

If you’re looking for a thorough examination of the bank’s collapse, though, this is not it. Yes, we see the seeds for the bank’s collapse being sown long before it happens, and we’re shown the crash and the effects of it – the final tableau, indeed, directly shows the effects of the crash on the bank’s employees, and is the most moving thing in the production – but you won’t get a detailed lecture about the complexities of the subprime mortgage crisis (if you’d like one – and really, what could be more fun? – then The Big Short is on Netflix). Power’s adaptation of Massini’s original (and significantly longer) Italian script glosses over a number of significant points in the history of Lehman Brothers as an institution, including the bank’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, which isn’t mentioned at all – an odd choice given that a significant chunk of the first (of three) acts is given over to the American Civil War.

And – after Hamilton and The Inheritance this seems to be a recurring theme this year – if third-person narration in the theatre irritates you, this show will irritate the hell out of you. Mendes and his cast tell their story brilliantly – but they tell more of the story than they dramatise, because that’s the inevitable result of cramming over 160 years of history into three acts and three actors. The flow of information is such that you can’t sit back and let it wash over you – this is a show where you have to pay attention (yes, I know, that’s soooooooo last-century). It’s a testament to the skill of Mendes and his cast that it’s always absolutely clear who each actor is embodying even though switching characters is accomplished without costume changes, but if you let your mind wander for even a second it would be easy to get lost. This is in many ways a tremendously exciting piece of theatre, but it’s hard work, particularly when you’re sitting in the thigh-busting lower-back-breaking cheap seats at the front.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go, although at this point it’s day seats only. The Lehman Trilogy is often stunningly good, the actors are truly brilliant, and Es Devlin and Luke Halls’s set and video projections provide a far more varied visual palette than you’d imagine possible from what amounts to a single glass-and-steel Mad Men-era office and a monochrome backdrop (you may need Dramamine in the lengthy sequence in the final act in which the office structure and the projections appear to be revolving in opposite directions). Candida Caldicot’s solo piano accompaniment (there are also prerecorded music cues; the music is by Nick Powell) often gives the show the feel of a silent movie, and that’s certainly one of the major influences in the production’s visual aesthetic. It’s a spectacular, overwhelming, thrilling piece of theatre – but, as I said, in this version it’s basically a stunt. You’ll be bowled over, but you’ll also be picking holes in it for days afterwards. Like last year’s Network in the same space, this is very definitely a show to experience. The production, overall, is far more fascinating than (this version of) the script.

Oh yes – and Simon Russell Beale’s brief-ish turn as the cynical, sharp-tongued Manhattan divorcée who marries a prominent Lehman descendant is worth the cost of the ticket in itself. In an evening of brilliant caricature acting, he’s first among equals.


Changing my major to Jeanine

fun home 1

Take tissues and don’t wear mascara. Your tear-ducts are probably not going to survive the last thirty minutes of the Young Vic‘s exquisite production of Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron‘s Fun Home. I mean, not that I generally wear mascara myself, but if I had I’d have emerged from the theatre looking like a distressed panda, and that isn’t a good look for anyone who isn’t a panda. Based on Alison Bechdel’s peerless autobiographical graphic novel, Fun Home is sweet, sharp, charming coming-of-age story, but it’s also a coming-out story, and (eventually) a shattering examination of the degrees to which we can ever truly understand our parents.

On top of that, it’s a masterclass in how to distill the essence of a full-length novel into an hour and forty minutes of stage time. Lisa Kron’s admirably clear-eyed book separates Bechdel’s coming-of-age story into three separate timelines: the adult Alison (Kaisa Hammarlund) tries to understand the chain of events that led her father (Zubin Varla) to commit suicide, Medium Alison (Eleanor Kane) leaves home for college and the discovery of her own sexuality is quickly followed by a conversation with her mother Helen (Jenna Russell) which includes a shocking revelation about her father’s, and Small Alison (Harriet Turnbull at the performance I saw) navigates her father’s severe, apparently inexplicable mood swings and experiences her first moment, which she doesn’t quite understand, of identification with a strong, butch woman. On paper it sounds painfully earnest, and it isn’t; it begins as a truthful, funny exploration of family dynamics, and then the show somehow sneaks up on you. Despite the three separate narrative strands, the storytelling is absolutely clear throughout, and Kron and Tesori guide us through Alison’s complicated emotional landscape with remarkable precision.

There are two lynchpins holding the show together. One is Jeanine Tesori’s beautiful score, which functions less as a series of standalone numbers (although there are a few very fine standalone numbers) and more as a kind of continuous texture which moves seamlessly from dialogue to recitative to song and back again. You won’t get the kind of Big Melodies you’ll find in something like Les Misérables, but you might get your heart broken – and you also might well come out of the theatre humming ‘Ring of Keys’, Small Alison’s glorious anthem of self-discovery. And you might very well need those tissues during ‘Days and Days’, Helen Bechdel’s devastating aria about how she’s spent her life burying her feelings for the good of her family. It’s a model of musical and lyrical restraint, probably the best thing in the show, and it’s all the more moving because it’s so carefully buttoned-down. The show’s other lynchpin – surprisingly, given that it’s a relatively small role – is Jenna Russell’s quietly stoical Helen Bechdel, whose sacrifices for her family become clear in the last third of the show. There are few fireworks in Russell’s extraordinary performance, but she somehow, without grandstanding, manages to find every last scrap of subtext in a character who keeps nearly everything buried beneath the surface.

But then, under Sam Gold’s careful direction, the performances across the board are ideal. Kaisa Hammarlund is as right for Alison as she was wrong for Sweet Charity, and she brings both warmth and humour to Alison’s growing understanding that she enjoys a freedom her closeted father never experienced. Eleanor Kane makes Medium Alison’s journey of sexual self-discovery sweet as well as funny, and her (brilliant) musical number charting her sexual awakening with a fellow college student – ‘Changing My Major’ – is the closest this show comes to a bravura showstopper. Zubin Varla is both (appropriately) slightly creepy and exceptionally moving as Alison’s father Bruce, presenting a man who can never quite find the courage to be who he knows he is, and who can’t always stop himself from taking out his frustrations on the people around him. Harriet Turnbull is a perfectly charming Small Alison, and her ‘Ring of Keys’ is lovely. The ensemble performances are flawless, and so is the small band. As I said, Gold’s production is exquisite.

It looks exquisite too, thanks to David Zinn’s less-minimalist-than-it-first-seems set. Judging from production photographs, this does not appear to be an exact recreation of Gold’s two previous proscenium stagings of the show (at the Public Theater in New York, and subsequently for a US tour; the Broadway production played at Circle in the Square, and was therefore staged in the round). The show moves from a carefully fluid scenic concept in which various locations – the Bechdel home, the yard outside, the family funeral home which gives the show its title, the adult Alison’s work desk – are suggested via minimal furnishings on an essentially bare stage, to a carefully-detailed (and gorgeous) recreation of the living-room of the historical house – almost a museum – Bruce has spent his life restoring. You don’t come to this kind of show for the spectacle, but the revelation of the house’s interior is a dazzling visual coup; Ben Stanton’s lighting, meanwhile, does an admirable job of keeping the show’s three timelines distinct in the moments when they all occupy the stage simultaneously.

In fact, there really isn’t anything much here to criticise. This is an impeccable production of impeccable writing; you won’t get the sort of verbal and musical pyrotechnics you’ll find at this year’s other big musical import from Broadway – but stunning as it is, there’s nothing in that show as moving as ‘Days and Days’. I confess, I still think Caroline, or Change is Tesori’s masterpiece – but this is up there in the same league, and it’s certainly as good a new American musical as anyone has written in the last twenty years.

So… now that we’ve seen superlative productions of this and Caroline, or Change in London, can somebody please bring us a full-scale professional revival of Violet?

fun home 2