Up the jungle

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Last week a stroke, this week Alzheimer’s. I hadn’t planned to see two plays (partly) about aphasia back-to-back, it just happened. Terry Johnson‘s Prism, which is coming to the end of a run at the Hampstead Theatre, is a wildly different kind of play than Wings; unfortunately the comparison doesn’t flatter it.

In Prism, Johnson presents an examination of the celebrated photographer and cinematographer Jack Cardiff, the man responsible for some of the most iconic photographs of Hollywood legends like Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn, and Lauren Bacall. The play shows him in (we assume, but are never quite told) his 80s, in the grip of Alzheimer’s, only sporadically able to distinguish the present from the past. Johnson sets up a situation with four characters: Cardiff, his (younger) wife Nicola, his son Mason, who wants him to hurry up and finish an autobiography before he completely loses his marbles, and a care-worker named Lucy. The prism of the title is an essential component of the three-strip Technicolor process, of which Cardiff was an early adopter: a prism inside the camera split the incoming beam of light into green, magenta, and blue streams, each of which was recorded on a separate strip of film; when the three negatives were combined, they captured a far wider spectrum of colour than had been possible using earlier processes.

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Johnson wisely gets the technical explanations out of the way very early on; the prism, here, is a metaphor for the way Johnson’s Cardiff’s vision splits between the present and the past. We’re shown, more than once, that when Cardiff looks at his wife he sometimes sees Katharine Hepburn; Lucy, the carer, is sometimes confused with Marilyn Monroe, and Johnson’s son is sometimes Arthur Miller, sometimes Humphrey Bogart. In a spectacular coup-de-théâtre, Tim Shortall’s set takes us from the memorabilia-packed garage/studio where the bulk of the play is located to the Congolese jungle location where scenes from The African Queen were filmed, and then later to a Hollywood soundstage where Cardiff photographed Marilyn Monroe. The conversations in these imagined landscapes recall and even overlap with conversations in the play’s present day – indeed, Cardiff’s Act Two conversation with Marilyn Monroe is a word-for-word retread of an earlier conversation with Lucy (both, of course, are played by the same actress). It’s a fascinating idea, and Lindsay, while he’s two decades too young for the role, offers a gripping performance as Cardiff – never quite sure where or when he is, proud of his accomplishments, frustrated by his inability to keep track of anything, fighting his way through imaginary jungles that once were absolutely real, and terrified of losing his sight. Johnson’s great gift has always been the ability to find comedy even in the most unexpected places, and that’s still true here (this is his first full-length play in ten years); compared to his earlier work, though, the tone is elegiac, even though there are big laughs scattered all the way through the play. Lindsay is sometimes tremendously moving – but audiences expecting an out-and-out comedy along the lines of Dead Funny (still, I think, his best play) or Hysteria are likely to be disappointed.

But then, they may well be disappointed anyway. The underlying idea is fascinating, and Lindsay and Claire Skinner (as Nicola and Katharine Hepburn) are giving tremendous performances, but the play as a whole, I’m afraid, comes across as a parade of interesting ideas and lovely moments that never coalesce into a coherent whole. It’s short – two hours and ten minutes including an interval – and somewhat slight, and at the end you’re unfortunately left with the impression that what you’ve just seen is two scenes short of having a point. The supporting performances don’t help; Barnaby Kay is blank space as Cardiff’s son and Arthur Miller, and actively bad in his brief scene as Humphrey Bogart; Rebecca Night’s Lucy, meanwhile, is saddled with the kind of terrible generic northern accent that can only come from someone to whom the north (by which I mean anything beyond the top of the Northern Line) is little more than an abstract concept. To be fair, neither is given much help by the script; as written, Mason is basically a device to enable Lindsay’s Cardiff to give us exposition, and Lucy is a walking cipher. In the second act, we’re given hints of something awful in her home life, but the information (that she has a child who has been taken into care) comes from nowhere and goes nowhere, which doesn’t give Night enough to play. And while the set design is superb, some of the wigs are truly scary; presumably someone has to take the one Skinner wears as Hepburn out for a walk between shows, because it looks like it might otherwise break free and attack the front row.

A frustrating play, then, that circles its subject without quite landing on a reason for telling us this story, but at the centre of it Robert Lindsay is giving a genuine star turn. It’s just a pity his vehicle feels like an unfinished prototype – some nice lines, some interesting details, but too many bumps along the way, and it’s never quite clear what kind of play this is supposed to be. Having said that, though, Johnson is incapable of writing a dull play. Prism doesn’t work – at all – but it’s a fascinating ride.

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Oh, you know. Just hanging around.

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Another one ticked off the list. I first read Arthur Kopit‘s Wings maybe twenty-five years ago, and I’ve been curious to see a production ever since. An odd, distinctive, fiercely intelligent and unsentimental play, it offers a unique portrayal of a stroke victim trying to feel her way back towards a world she can no longer understand, and in which she can no longer make herself understood. It’s not exactly a barrel of laughs, and it’s hardly the kind of entertainment where you can just sit back and let it wash over you – but it’s a fascinating piece of writing, and it isn’t often produced in this country.

As far as I’m concerned, Natalie Abrahami‘s astonishing revival at the Young Vic more than does it justice – but it does appear to be something of a Marmite proposition. This is not a straightforward revival, although it doesn’t (as far as I can tell) mess about with the text. Kopit gives Mrs. Stilson, his stroke victim, an interesting past: in her youth, she was an aviator and wing-walker in aerobatic shows. Accordingly, Abrahami uses flight as a visual metaphor to underline Mrs. Stilson’s disconnection from the world she’s known up until her stroke: in a bravura performance, Juliet Stevenson‘s Mrs. Stilson spends almost the entire show suspended on a wire, only sporadically making contact with the ground in the character’s more lucid moments.

In Kopit’s script, language fractures around Mrs. Stilson, so that there’s a gulf between what she’s trying to express and what she thinks she understands. The wire conceit/gimmick emphasises the character’s physical removal from the world she’s always lived in, in that it (admittedly not subtly) reinforces the point that a stroke can impose physical as well as mental constraints. For much of the performance, Mrs. Stilson is trapped outside the world the rest of the play’s characters inhabit – sometimes six inches above it, sometimes six feet, sometimes the full length of the stage away. Her mental contortions as she tries to piece together her fractured mind are expressed via aerial movement – swoops, somersaults and all the rest of it. It’s spectacular to watch, and breathtakingly effective – if it works for you, because this appears to be one of those stagings where you either love it or don’t buy it for a second.

As for Stevenson herself, she’s flawless, magnificent, superb – this is a remarkable actress giving as remarkable a performance as she’s ever given. The text doesn’t sentimentalise the character or the situation and neither does she, but Stevenson negotiates the script’s difficult language flawlessly, and creates a memorable, intense, deeply moving portrayal of a woman shattered by her inability to communicate. It’s an astonishing physical performance, too – negotiating seventy minutes of aerial movement, some of it quite acrobatic, is no mean feat (the movement is choreographed/created/set by Anna Morrisey, with flying effects from Freedom Flying), and the result adds a spectacular new dimension to a fascinating text.

It’s often beautiful to look at too, with Stevenson soaring and swooping through a surreal dreamscape created by Guy Hoare’s lights and Will Duke’s projections. Aside from Lorna Brown as a therapist, the supporting cast don’t have much to do – for at least two-thirds of its length, the play is essentially a fractured monologue – but they do it well enough, and Brown’s performance is lovely. It’s Stevenson’s show, though – for all the spectacular flourishes of Abrahami’s direction, the thing you’ll remember most clearly is her voice, trying to find a way back towards a world she recognises. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe her performance; if it works for you, there aren’t enough superlatives to describe Abrahami’s staging either – but it may not work for you. As I said, this appears to be a Marmite proposition. Lucky me, I like Marmite.

 

 

Wind ’em up and watch ’em go!

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You will have a good time watching the revival of 42nd Street at Drury Lane.

Is that clear? You WILL have a good time watching the revival of 42nd Street at Drury Lane.

Sorry, I don’t think you’ve quite got it yet. YOU WILL HAVE A GOOD TIME WATCHING THE REVIVAL OF 42ND STREET AT DRURY LANE.

YOU WILL BE ASSIMILATED.

ALL DISSENT IS TREASON.

Actually, snark aside, you’ll be entertained, and often a lot more than that. It’s just that by the curtain call you may also be exhausted. This is a great big brightly-coloured juggernaut of a show. It’s slick, fast-paced, a bit too loud, and absolutely relentless; it’s often great fun, but it might be more fun if the production occasionally paused for breath. There’s a huge ensemble of tap-dancers, drilled to within an inch of their lives by choreographer Randy Skinner. There are gaudy, spectacular sets by Douglas W. Schmidt, who seems to have had a great time taking every single Busby Berkeley cliché and hurling the whole lot of them at Drury Lane’s vast stage. Roger Kirk’s sequins-and-spangles costumes for the chorus are noisier than Gareth Owen’s ear-splitting sound design. It’s an eye-popping, jaw-dropping two-and-a-half-hours of sensory overload, and sometimes it’s glorious.

It’s so relentlessly BIG, though, that the puny little human beings at the centre of it sometimes seem curiously irrelevant. There’s no need to discuss the plot because everybody knows about the film, even if these days not everybody has seen it: it’s not simply that the film is the ultimate go-out-a-nobody-and-come-back-a-star fantasy writ large – the film created most of the go-out-a-nobody-and-come-back-a-star clichés, and that scene where the director tells the chorus girl to (getting the point yet?) go out there a nobody and come back a star is a widely-referenced, universally-recognisable touchstone in American popular culture. That the film has become a CULTURAL MONOLITH, though, isn’t only down to the plot or the musical numbers. The film gained the currency it did because, on top of spectacle and an irresistible story, the cast list is a roll call of irresistible, memorable movie stars: Ruby Keeler, Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell. Here, in their place, we have a lot of very efficient performances. Everybody hits their notes and their marks, but Mark Bramble appears to have directed most of his cast to act in semaphore. With very few exceptions, there’s little subtlety and less charm. The sheer energy emanating from the stage will be enough to carry you along – don’t have a coffee or shoot amphetamines before the show, artificial stimulants might push you over the edge – and the LAUGHS are telegraphed LOUDLY enough that you won’t be able to help laughing too, but the film traded in personalities as well as plot, and this production mostly doesn’t. And I mean it mostly really doesn’t.

There are a few exceptions, fortunately, and they’re wonderful. As Maggie Jones, a co-author of the show chorus-girl Peggy Sawyer is supposed to Go Out And Become The Star Of, Jasna Ivir is warm, funny, and an absolute delight. It’s unfortunate that her ability to project a charming, human performance despite the steamroller of a production surrounding her makes a few of the show’s supporting players seem even more like robots, but you can’t have everything. Clare Halse’s Peggy, too, is the real deal: a good singer, a terrific dancer, presence to spare, and she, like Ivir, pulls off the neat trick of demonstrating an actual personality instead of being dwarfed by the garish costumes and gargantuan dance routines. I’ve no idea what top-billed Sheena Easton is like as fading star Dorothy Brock because she was out on Tuesday night; she probably sings the hell out of her songs (in this production, she gets an extra one – ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ – because if your biggest star is a star singer and her character is onstage for only four-and-a-half minutes of the second act, you really need to throw her a bone), but her understudy, CJ Johnson, gave a fine, flawless account of the role, and Ms. Easton was not missed. As Julian Marsh, the tough-talking director of the show-within-the-show, Tom Lister seems, until late in the second act, to be perfecting a very good Jerry Orbach impersonation – but then right at the end of the second act, after the final big production number, the show finally slows down and takes a breath, finishing with a sweetly touching scene between director and chorus-girl-turned-star and Marsh’s solo rendition of the title song. At that point – but only at that point – Lister makes the role his own. Those last few minutes, in fact, despite not including forty-odd tap-dancers, mirrors, dance props, moving scenery, or any notably gaudy costumes, are by far the best thing in the show.

The bottom line: you WILL have a good time, though you may also leave the theatre feeling like you’ve been bludgeoned into submission. The choreography is often dazzling, Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s songs are classics of their genre, there’s a superb band under the direction of Jae Alexander (and a nifty little lift under the conductor’s podium in the pit which propels him upwards into a spotlight so that the audience can see him conduct the overture and entr’acte), and the show as a whole, wearyingly relentless at it sometimes seems, is bright, shiny, colourful fun. If it sometimes – OK, often – feels like a theme-park recreation of a Thirties musical comedy, that’s because it IS: this material was never conceived for the stage, even though it’s about the creation of a stage musical, and the production’s relentlessly overcaffeinated imitation of the various performance tropes associated with Thirties backstage movie musicals is so shamelessly overhyped that the extravaganza now on display at Drury Lane inevitably seems (more than) a little ersatz. It is great fun – genuinely – but you may very well end up with the odd suspicion that you’re being forced to have fun at gunpoint. That the show doesn’t feel like it’s being performed entirely by animatronics or replicants is largely down to Clare Halse and Jasna Ivir – really, whatever they’re being paid, it isn’t enough. When they’re onstage – and in Halse and Lister’s final scene, too – this 42nd Street can charm as well as overwhelm. The rest of the time? As I said, YOU WILL HAVE FUN.

 

Drugs are bad, OK?

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Nina is an actress. Nina takes drugs. Nina drinks a lot. Nina believes there is no objective truth. Nina’s life story rather strongly resembles the plot of ‘Hedda Gabler’. Nina is afraid she doesn’t have a personality of her own. Nina is called Emma. Emma is called Sarah. Emma’s therapist looks like Sarah’s mother. Nina’s doctor looks like Emma’s mother. Emma tells lies. Emma needs help. I need an aspirin.

Jeremy Herrin, who directed People, Places and Things – now beginning a short tour at Manchester’s Home (yes, that’s a stupid name for a performing arts complex) after successful runs at the National and in the West End – is a genius. The outstanding moments here, and there are a few, occur when his staging (recreated for the tour in collaboration with Holly Race Roughan) finds a visual translation for the physiological horrors Emma/Sarah undergoes on her path towards recovery. When Emma’s perception of reality blurs as she goes through withdrawal, we see a stageful of Emmas, all experiencing the same symptoms. Subtle shifts in music and lighting (respectively, by Matthew Herbert and James Farncombe) suggest when Emma’s perceptions are altered by “substances”. Andrzej Goulding’s projections on the walls of Bunny Christie’s crisply clinical white box of a set, again sometimes together with Herbert’s electronic music, take us inside Emma’s highs – and the crashes that follow. It’s an extraordinary production, and for that – and sometimes for that alone – it deserves to be seen.

Whether it’s an extraordinary play is more open to question. Duncan Macmillan’s script is packed with ideas, and the central one – that there’s a strong parallel between the theatrical rehearsal process and a twelve-step programme, and (related, and more obvious) that Emma/Sarah’s drive to become an actress and her attraction/susceptibility to narcotics both stem from a need to escape the constraints of her own rather nondescript personality – is certainly compelling enough. When the action calms down, though – when the directorial flourishes and the lightning-fast references to Foucault and Derrida and Barthes recede and we’re left simply watching Emma/Sarah submit to treatment – the result, unfortunately, is a bit too movie-of-the-week. There’s a lot of dazzling stagecraft here, but few new insights into the nature of addiction.

That may partly be down to the casting. At the National and in the West End, the (exhausting) central role was played by Denise Gough, in what was apparently an astonishing performance. Here, Emma is played by Lisa Dwyer Hogg, and she’s very good. She makes Emma’s breakdown and recovery absolutely believable, she finds all of the considerable black humour in the writing, and on one level it’s difficult to fault her performance. What she can’t quite do, unfortunately, is pull the play’s scattershot flow of ideas and split-second shifts between reality and an altered state together into a completely coherent whole. The role needs – and in this production’s original incarnation, apparently got – the kind of thousand-watt star turn that can paper over the cracks in the script. This isn’t that kind of performance; when Macmillan’s writing becomes repetitive, when the insights about the nature of addiction and the recovery process veer a little too close to trite sloganeering, when the writing fails to live up to the dazzling physical production, Hogg doesn’t inject the kind of charismatic spark that might make you look past the shortcomings of the play itself. She’s perfectly fine, but that isn’t enough.

That’s also true of the impeccable supporting performances. They’re faultless, with particularly strong work from Andrew Sheridan as a fellow addict and Matilda Ziegler as Emma/Sarah’s doctor, therapist and mother, but the supporting characters are all – yes, every last one of them – badly underwritten. I suppose the point, which is reinforced in the climactic confrontation/meeting between Sarah and her parents, is that addiction creates narcissists: the play creates Emma/Sarah’s world, and other people simply enter and leave it, but unfortunately that lumbers the other nine actors in the cast with roles that mostly could have been written on flashcards. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of the performances, but the writing doesn’t give the actors much to play with.

The bottom line: it’s worth seeing. The production, as I said, is sensational – but if you go in, having read the reviews from the Dorfman and the West End, expecting it to be a can’t-miss theatrical event, you may be in for a disappointment. This is a dazzling production of an interesting but flawed play – worth seeing, but not the earthquake you might have anticipated.

 

Anyone for waffles?

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Yes, it really is that good. J.T. Rogers‘s new(est) play, Oslo, arrives at the National Theatre trailing stellar reviews and a truckload of awards from its two runs at Lincoln Center in New York, accompanied by advance publicity that draws extravagant comparisons with Shakespeare, Coward, Stoppard. No, Rogers isn’t Shakespeare or Coward, but this is, for once, a great big stonking hit that more or less completely lives up to the hype.

It’s also, in terms of subject-matter, rather an unlikely great big stonking hit. Oslo follows the process via which Terje Rød-Larsen and Mona Juul, two (married) Norwegian diplomats, facilitated the secret, unofficial negotiations between the PLO and the government of Israel that eventually led to the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accord, a tentative first step towards a peace process between Israel and Palestine. The play could easily have ended up as a rather dry theatrical history lesson – or, worse, considering that it premiered in New York, where even the mildest criticism of the (frequently appalling) actions of the Israeli government can make otherwise sane observers completely lose all sense of reason, become a one-sided diatribe presenting Israel simply as the misunderstood target of a terrorist organisation. Mercifully, it’s neither. Using the studied neutrality of the Norwegian central characters as a way into the story that allows a balanced view of both sides of the negotiating table, Rogers has (miraculously) managed to fashion a play that sits somewhere between a political thriller and a culture-clash comedy of manners, with a recipe for (apparently) the world’s best waffles thrown in for good measure halfway through the first act. Rogers’s offers an intricate examination of the process that brought the Oslo Accord into being, and it’s anything but dull; it’s fast-paced, admirably clear, often surprisingly funny, and utterly absorbing. Big political plays don’t get much better than this.

Bartlett Sher’s direction – on Michael Yeargan’s elegant unit set, aided enormously by projections by 59 Productions which transport us in a blink from Oslo to the play’s various other locations (the West Bank, Tel Aviv, Cairo, the White House, Stockholm) and into various relevant news stories (mostly but not entirely related to the West Bank and Gaza) – keeps the action moving at quite a clip, and delivers the play’s rapid jumps between locations with remarkable clarity. Sher understands how to play the audience without seeming like that’s what he’s doing; his fine ensemble cast deliver all the humour in Rogers’s text, tread a very careful balance so that we never favour one side over the other (no mean feat, given that the PLO was founded with the aim of delivering the liberation of Palestine through armed struggle), and in their hands the handshake between Palestinian finance minister Ahmed Qurei and Israeli diplomat Uri Savir that marks the start of formal (secret) talks is genuinely moving, as is the final moment of agreement between the two sides. Sher draws fine performances from all his actors, some of whom play multiple roles; in the leads, there’s very strong work from Philip Arditti as the swaggering, whip-smart Savir, from Toby Stephens as Rød-Larsen, and particularly from Lydia Leonard as the self-effacing, cooly intelligent Mona Juul. Towering above all of them, there’s a tremendous performance from Peter Polycarpou, whose Qurei is a (justifiably) angry man whose intransigence begins to melt when he sees a real possibility of achieving some kind of peace. The writing will move you, but Mr. Polycarpou might move you more; if there’s any justice, and in theatre there often isn’t, next year there should be a shelf full of awards with his name on them.

In the final scenes, Rogers (unusually) takes pains to remind us that this is a period piece; the negotiated peace turned out to be too fragile to hold. Part of what makes Oslo so gripping and so moving is that Rogers shows us the way tensions between individuals on both sides of a conflict can slowly come to find a common humanity if they’re forced to sit in a room together and talk; in the final section of the play, we’re reminded how tenuous and fragile the balance between inflamed political passions and that understanding of a common humanity can be. It’s three hours long, but the time flies by; yes, Oslo is a history lesson, but it’s also – more importantly – a masterclass in the art of grabbing an audience’s attention as the lights go down and not letting go of it until the curtain call.

Tainted Love

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Short, sharply funny, and (if you’re sitting in the front row) right in your face, the Octagon‘s more-or-less flawless revival of Andrea Dunbar‘s Rita, Sue, and Bob Too – a coproduction with Out of Joint – offers a bracing, fiercely unsentimental snapshot of the underside of Thatcher’s Britain. Rita and Sue are still at school; they babysit Bob’s children, and are also – together – having an affair with Bob, conducted mostly in his car as he drives them home. Bob’s wife suspects, and so does Sue’s mum; for Rita and Sue, it’s a way to escape, at least briefly, the tedious hardships of life on a sink estate.

We’re squarely in Ken Loach territory, then, and the play’s frank, unvarnished depiction of underage sex has become (even) more uncomfortable since the 1980s; we’ve all seen the news stories about Jimmy Savile, grooming rings and all the rest of it, and inevitably that colours our reception of the play. Dunbar never presents Rita and Sue as victims, and does carefully make the point that the affair could put Bob in prison, but while she writes Bob as a walking groin with a one-track mind, she stops short of condemning him as well; the defining feature of her writing, aside from her wonderful ear for dialogue, is the remarkable lack of artifice in her work. This is fiction (albeit with more than a little autobiographical content), but it has the feel of reportage. Dunbar was from the place she wrote about, and she believed that “you write the truth, you don’t lie“; you won’t find a more authentic portrait of life at the sharp end of 80s Britain than this.

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And in Max Stafford-Clark and Kate Wasserberg’s production, Dunbar’s dialogue slams across the (metaphorical) footlights with all the force of a filthily comic hurricane. From the opening scene, in which Bob gives Rita and Sue an athletic sex education lesson (they’ve told him they’re virgins; they aren’t) in the reclining seats of his car to the explosive confrontation when their secret is inevitably revealed, the actors tread a very careful line, finding all the laughs without overplaying the drama or (crucially) commenting on their characters (the fatal flaw whenever Mike Leigh has placed characters in this kind of setting). Stafford-Clark and Wasserberg keep the action moving quickly and fluidly, with Bob’s (brown velour, of course) car seats almost the only furniture; in Tim Shortall’s set, the open moorland where Bob drives the girls to conduct his trysts is framed by council flats on Rita and Sue’s estate. The dialogue is fast and very funny, the performances are absolutely ideal, and the production makes a strong case that this is just as important a picture of the Thatcher era as, say, The Secret Rapture or A Small Family Business or Top Girls. The film had indelible performances from Michelle Holmes, Siobhan Finneran, and George Costigan as Rita, Sue and Bob; Gemma Dobson, Taj Atwal, and Jason Atherton find their own distinctive take on the material, and their opening seduction scene in the car is a tour-de-force. There’s very strong support from Samantha Robinson as Bob’s wife Michelle, a sharp-tongued vision in teased hair and C&A frocks, and from David Walker and the wonderful Sally Bankes as Sue’s dysfunctional parents.

How good is it? I’m picky, and there’s more or less nothing to fault here. If you’re expecting the film’s ending you may be disappointed – the film ends on a note of slightly contrived wish-fulfillment and the play does not, and there are some significant differences between the screenplay and the stage script  – and the music choices in the dancing-to-80s-hits scene changes are a little bit too on-the-nose (I could happily go the rest of my life without ever hearing In the Air Tonight again), but this is, overall, just about as ideal a revival as you can imagine. Dunbar wrote the play when she was just 19, and died young, at 29; she was an original, distinctive voice, and this play holds up remarkably well thirty years after it first premiered. It ran a scant 80 minutes at yesterday afternoon’s performance, but that’s more than enough: it’s a cliché to describe a show as a roller-coaster ride, but this one really is. It’s touring into next year, and it shouldn’t be missed.

 

The mirror’s getting blurred

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Sally should have died the first time. Phyllis tells a drinks waiter he’s getting her all wet. Weismann hits on a waitress. There’s no interval, so slamming down a venti Americano before you take your seat probably isn’t a good idea unless you’re wearing Depends. We are, thank God, back in 1971 in more ways than one: for this production, the cut-down-and-smoothed-out revised version of James Goldman‘s book for Follies has been well and truly buried. May it never return.

Follies, more than most, is a show with a bumpy production history. The original Broadway production ran for more than 500 performances but lost a then-unheard-of $800,000. A 1987 London production had a completely rewritten book; it had a longer run but also lost money. There have been two Broadway revivals since 2000; they each used the watered-down rewrite of the book that has become the standard version, and neither was a hit. This is a show fans obsess over – yes, me too, I even wrote about it for part of my MA thesis. The score, underappreciated by critics in 1971, is an embarrassment of riches; Goldman’s original book, though, is probably too bleak ever to be a long-running commercial success. Set at a reunion of former showgirls in a now-defunct Ziegfeld Follies-style extravaganza, the show ostensibly focuses on the unhappy marriages of two ex-chorines, Sally and Phyllis, and their less-than-completely-faithful husbands, (respectively) oil rig salesman Buddy and politician/businessman Ben. On one level, the slender plot is simple: Sally and Phyllis danced together in the final season of the Weismann Follies in 1941, and were roommates. Sally married Buddy, Phyllis married Ben – but Sally and Ben had a fling before their engagements, and Sally arrives at the reunion having spent the past thirty years pining for what might have been. Actually, it’s about far more than that: during the reunion, the show’s characters are confronted by their younger selves, dredging up questions of memory and identity that locate the book in a surreal no-man’s-land between Pinter and Pirandello, with a hefty dollop of Fellini thrown in and a sprinkling of Albee on top. And on top of THAT, the whole thing is a metaphor for America’s postwar decline. It’s wonderful (if you don’t get one of the various watered-down rewrites), and I love it, but if you just want tap-dancing chorus girls you’re better off at 42nd Street.

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God knows what the National had to do in order to persuade James Goldman’s widow to allow them to use the not-watered-down bleak-but-brilliant original book, but we can all be very glad they did: Dominic Cooke’s production more than does it justice, although it isn’t without flaws. This isn’t quite precisely the unadulterated original text; there have been a few interesting tweaks here and there, and they’re all intelligent choices – although none of them amount to life-or-death changes. In the dumbed-down rewrite that has become the standard published text, there are a couple of crossovers in the final scene – minor characters leaving the party, given a couple of lines each. Those are inserted earlier in the show, before the surreal Follies-as-metaphor Loveland sequence, and it’s perhaps useful, by that point in the show, to emphasise the lateness of the hour as the four central characters succumb to a combination of alcohol, obsession, and spectacular self-loathing. Cooke keeps the “ghosts” onstage far more than the stage directions suggest; they’re almost always present somewhere, and all the party guests are mirrored/stalked/haunted by their own pasts. Accordingly, in the long opening sequence, the first fragment of song (as opposed to underscoring) comes from two of the ghosts: Young Ben and Young Buddy get a “hey up there/way up there/whaddya say up there?” (the opening phrase of ‘Waiting for the Girls Upstairs’, a song that arrives twenty minutes or so later) before anyone else has sung a word. ‘Bolero d’Amour’, on the other hand, has been cut, although it was apparently in the show during early previews (I saw the last-but-one preview before press night). And – purists will seethe, but this is London not New York and this choice makes sense – in ‘I’m Still Here’ Carlotta sings that she got through Shirley Temple rather than Brenda Frazier. I suppose they could have explained Brenda Frazier in a programme note, but who reads those?

(I do, actually, and in this case you should too: the programme includes fine, informative, well-written essays by David Benedict, Russell Jackson, and Gary Yershon, and a snippet of Ted Chapin’s wonderful book about the making of the original production. It’s well worth the £5.)

A big part of Cooke’s achievement here is that he understands the rhythm of the piece, and with Follies that is by no means always the case. Until the ‘Loveland’ show-within-a-show at the evening’s climax, Follies is structured as a continuous tapestry rather than as a succession of individual scenes, using a theatrical equivalent of cinematic crossfades – as one piece of the action ends, another begins somewhere else on the stage and your eye is drawn to it. Harold Prince’s original Broadway production achieved this effect using several moving platforms (there is some archival footage available); here, Cooke makes judicious use of the Olivier’s revolve (though not the drum) and Paule Constable’s perfectly-eerie lighting to keep the action spinning, and to shift focus between different areas of Vicki Mortimer’s desolate-but-beautiful derelict-backstage set.

He understands the rhythm of the dialogue as well, and that’s something that also appears to have eluded some directors. Goldman’s script starts out looking naturalistic, at least if you look past the ghosts, but it really isn’t. These are emblems rather than fully fleshed-out characters – remember, the whole show is a metaphor – and that’s a deliberate choice. The characters are simultaneously slightly larger-than-life and slightly less than three-dimensional, and there’s a surreal, arch theatricality to the dialogue that can feel painfully stilted if the actors don’t catch the correct rhythm. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Restoration comedy, only with a darker edge, and it requires the same kind of discipline and pace. Cooke makes it make perfect sense; in this production, the dialogue crackles with electricity and the pace never lets up. Dark as the material becomes, though, the delivery in this production stays just the right side of being too arch; there are laughs too – though not in the last ten to fifteen minutes – and they’re all present and correct, and again that isn’t an easy thing to achieve in material as ostensibly bleak as this.

And those ghosts are everywhere. There’s a ghostly entrance parade (way) upstage behind the older women during ‘Beautiful Girls’, the Whitmans dance with their younger selves in ‘Rain on the Roof’, Carlotta’s ghost looks down on her as she sings ‘I’m Still Here’. It sounds like embellishment, but it’s a choice that consistently pays off; everyone in this Follies is haunted by the past, but some are much better than others at facing it down.

Cooke also draws fine performances from his actors, right down to the smallest roles. Billy Boyle and Norma Atallah are absolutely charming as the Whitmans, and their ‘Rain on the Roof’ is a delight. Geraldine Fitzgerald is a drily funny Solange. Di Botcher cannily underplays ‘Broadway Baby’, so that a song that these days can seem like a cliché feels absolutely fresh. They get to do the trio ending combining their three numbers, and it’s a showstopper. Bruce Graham is a golden-voiced Roscoe, and Gary Raymond is a fascinatingly haunted/haunting Dmitri Weismann. As Stella Deems, Dawn Hope sings the hell out of ‘Who’s That Woman?’, the memorable tap number in which the ex-chorus girls literally dance with their younger selves.

The score is an embarrassment of riches, but so is this cast. As fading soprano Heidi Schiller, Josephine Barstow is simply beautiful. ‘One More Kiss’, a mock-Viennese waltz with a sting in the lyric, is the score’s loveliest song; as sung by Barstow and Alison Langer’s Young Heidi, it has possibly never been lovelier. Tracie Bennett’s Carlotta Campion – the show’s great survivor, a former Follies girl who became a film and television star – seems to be channeling (pre-breakdown) Judy Garland, but that’s a choice that works for the role, and that impression is probably reinforced by having seen Bennett’s powerhouse performance as Garland in Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow. Bennett’s Carlotta is strong, unsentimental, almost flinty – but at a certain point Bennett lets you see vulnerability too, and her I’m Still Here isn’t quite like any other performance of the song I’ve encountered. It starts as a reminiscence to friends, but then once she’s left alone onstage, halfway through the number, it becomes something darker and more complex: simultaneously a triumphant shout of survival and a more introspective acknowledgment of the emotional toll that comes with enduring adversity. It’s surprisingly moving, and an original, subtle take on a song that too often just gets steamrollered into the ground.

As for the central quartet and their younger counterparts, it’s mostly good news there too. Peter Forbes is an ideal Buddy – affable, ingratiating, sad around the edges. He isn’t a tap-dancer, but ‘The Right Girl’ is reconceived as an almost-adversarial dance duet with Fred Haig’s equally ideal Young Buddy, and it works very well indeed. Philip Quast brings tremendous gravitas to his portrayal of Ben, and in his hands ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ – Sondheim’s baldest statement of the show’s overriding theme – is as affecting as it has ever been. And you’ll probably want to go home and erect some kind of shrine to Janie Dee’s Phyllis, because she’s perfect.

That leaves Imelda Staunton’s Sally, which is an impeccable performance in every way except one. Staunton does not fall into the trap of making Sally manic or bipolar from the top of the show. She very carefully charts a slow descent into madness, and it’s a very, very fine acting performance. Sondheim’s music, on the other hand, is not a good fit for her voice. She doesn’t commit the kind of crimes against the human eardrum perpetrated by Bernadette Peters on the most recent Broadway cast album, but Sally’s songs demand a soprano and she just isn’t one. That said, she more or less gets away with it: her ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’ is absolutely transfixing (and yes, she does hit all the notes, though I think it’s been taken down a step for her), because the acting performance is compelling enough to carry the music with it – and to be fair, she floats a lovely pianissimo whatever-it-is on the last note of the song. She takes the middle of ‘Too Many Mornings’ down an octave, but does hit the high notes at the end of the song. Her Loveland number, ‘Losing My Mind’, is less successful, but that’s partly because the staging is too busy: she sings a good part of the song in profile to the audience, sitting at a dressing table, and it would help if she was allowed to face the audience from the beginning.

Part of the problem, though, is undeniably the mismatch between the song and the performer. Staunton is a brilliant actor with a versatile voice that can encompass a wider range of musical roles than you might imagine – but she does not have the kind of glorious one-of-a-kind singing voice that could stand in the same league as some of her predecessors in the role. When Dorothy Collins, Barbara Cook or Julia McKenzie sang the song – and all three are/were superb actors too – their voices could do some of the heavy lifting. McKenzie literally just stood completely still then raised both arms on the penultimate line of the final verse; as careful as her acting choices in that moment were, she also has the kind of voice that makes an entire theatre stop breathing until she’s finished the number, and her physical stillness was a powerful statement in itself given that the song essentially spends four minutes describing a state of emotional paralysis. Staunton doesn’t have that kind of voice, so the song is given more elaborate blocking (in profile, face forward, pick up a glass and take a drink, stand for the final verse, yada yada) as if to compensate. The acting choices make perfect sense, and she (correctly) plays the performance pastiche rather than the nervous breakdown underpinning the song – but the song benefits enormously from a thrilling voice, and it doesn’t get one.

And having said all that, Staunton’s performance in the final scene is so heartbreaking that you’ll probably forgive her more or less anything for her delivery of the line “Oh dear God, it IS tomorrow.”. Her presence in the role brings gains and losses; she’s wonderful, but she’s also imperfect – and perhaps all the more so next to the marvellous Alex Young’s Young Sally, because Young has the acting chops and the voice.

The Loveland sequence as a whole, in fact, is somewhat problematic. Cooke’s direction, so perfect in the preceding scenes, goes off the rails a little with the onset of the climactic show-within-a-show. Loveland is basically a metaphorical Ziegfeld Follies performance in which the four principal characters each perform their own individual folly; the transition into Loveland is handled well enough, although the Loveland set could usefully look a little more opulent, and the scene-setting numbers for the Young quartet are perfectly charming. Forbes’s “Margie” and “Sally” in ‘Buddy’s Blues’ are chorus boys in drag; it’s not a damaging choice, and there’s nothing wrong with the performance, but it is a definite choice, and there’s no discernible reason for it.

[Edit – I’m informed by friends who would know – and I should have known too because I’ve read the same books – that using two chorus boys here was the way the number was originally conceived and staged, although that version of it didn’t make it as far as the Broadway opening. Oops.]

The staging of ‘Losing My Mind’ pulls your focus away from what Staunton’s Sally is feeling, and places it instead on what she’s doing. Phyllis’s ‘Story of Lucy and Jessie’, in which she tries to reconcile the chasm between her present and younger selves, is the most completely successful of the four numbers; Dee’s Phyllis, in a black dress that redefines va-va-voom, dances with Zizi Strallen’s Young Phyllis as well as a gaggle of chorus boys. Again, a definite choice, and not quite what the stage directions suggest, but it works, Bill Deamer’s choreography is terrific, and it’s crystal clear in this staging that Phyllis’s “folly” is her inability to reconcile the persona she assumed after marrying Ben with the (relatively) carefree but unschooled young woman she used to be (I think it’s crystal clear in the lyrics as well, but it’s a point that seems to have come as a surprise to at least one of London’s theatre critics). Quast’s ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ is great until the onset of the breakdown that takes us out of Loveland and back into the derelict theatre. His collapse simply isn’t big enough – and the issue is with the direction rather than the actor, because the scripted chaos/cacophony that accompanies the moment is also more subdued than it needs to be.

And again, having said all that, the final scene – with every line from the orignal version restored – is superb, and well worth whatever missteps the production might have taken during the preceding twenty minutes.

Other reservations? Purists might prefer Michael Bennett’s original choreography for ‘Who’s That Woman?’ to Deamer’s account of the number, in which the ‘ghosts’, in the tap section, take the stage alone before dancing with their older counterparts. It’s different, it works, and the number stops the show – and having the ghosts briefly supplant their older counterparts is entirely in keeping with the way this production uses the ghosts from the beginning as living memories who inhabit the theatre and refuse to be put to rest – but the original choreography is justifiably celebrated (and has occasionally been used in subsequent productions), and it’s momentarily jarring to see such a decisively different take on the song. And when just about everything else in Cooke’s production is executed with commendable subtlety and restraint, it’s (to say the least) a step too far to have the large electric WEISSMAN FOLLIES sign hanging over the stage sputter and fade so it just says LIES during the chaos sequence that takes us from Loveland back to the bare stage of the Weissman Theatre. We already got the point; it doesn’t need illuminating, particularly not with a several-feet-high sign made of lightbulbs.

And – not that this has anything to do with anything on the stage – exercise caution in the National Theatre bookshop after the show. If you care about such things, the new edition of the published script with this production’s artwork on the cover unfortunately does not reflect the version of the text used in this production:

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No, I didn’t buy it. There’s a long-out-of-print Random House edition of the original 1971 book; I once owned a copy but it went AWOL a few years ago; another is on the way. Secondhand copies cost more than the new published edition, but can be found within my pain threshold (and for less than I paid for the theatre ticket). Caveat emptor – and while I certainly understand the impulse to have a copy of the published script on sale to tie in with this revival, the differences between the two scripts mean this leaves a slightly sour taste. The revised script essentially reads as if Goldman went through his original book with a razor and carefully cut out everything that made it interesting. It’s a pale imitation; this production, despite a couple of flaws, offers the real deal.

Goodness, this went on for a long time, didn’t it? Overall, while this production makes a few missteps, a lot of it is thrilling. Cooke’s great achievement is to demonstrate loudly and clearly that despite the show’s “failure” back in 1971, the original book plays beautifully and is vastly superior to every subsequent rewrite. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent, sometimes dazzling production of difficult material, and – mostly – an impeccable presentation of Sondheim’s glorious score. You even get Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations, courtesy of a twenty-piece band tucked away at the back of the Olivier’s vast stage (the flawless musical direction is by Nigel Lilley). It isn’t quite the idealised revival of the show I’ve been carrying around in my head for the last twenty-plus years, but it probably couldn’t be; parts of it don’t match up, and parts of it are better than anything I’d imagined. Given the National’s budgetary constraints – the transition into Loveland really needs to look as if the designers threw a lot of money at the stage, and here it just doesn’t – and the fact that the show has never turned a profit in a commercial production, this is probably as good a revival as anyone could ever have expected. Cooke and Deamer’s choices, though, mean that devotees of the show – there are people, God help us, who are more obsessive than I am – are going to be arguing about this staging, and about at least a couple of the performances (Staunton and Bennett, and maybe Quast in the breakdown/chaos sequence) for years. Me? I’m just glad I get to see it again before it closes in January.

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