The Casual Vacancy

How do you take a long, bleak, depressing novel whose single sympathetic character dies within the first five pages, and turn it into a compelling TV series?

It’s a difficult question, isn’t it? Given the book’s sales – nowhere near Harry Potter numbers, but it was still a huge bestseller – there was no doubt that J.K. Rowling’s sprawling, angry debut “adult” novel The Casual Vacancy would be adapted for television or film – but given the novel’s relentless bleakness, that wasn’t necessarily an enticing prospect: Rowling’s fictional village of Pagford is populated by a monstrously unappealing cast of characters, and during the course of the novel’s 500-odd pages most of them behave very badly indeed. Parts of the novel are extraordinarily vivid – a passage in which an unhappy teenage girl repeatedly cuts herself is genuinely upsetting, all the more so because Rowling renders the character’s fractured emotional state with unusual clarity – and the novel’s ending verges on nihilistic. Even the novel’s comedy – and there is a surprising amount of it – is of the pitch-black variety; anyone expecting the nostalgic charm of the early Potter novels would have been sorely disappointed – and indeed, it was greeted with dismay by a number of reviewers. It’s a decisive break from Rowling’s earlier work, and in some ways a very brave move. She obviously wasn’t in any danger of being left destitute by the commercial failure of a new book, but she did risk alienating some of her readers: as state-of-the-nation novels go, this one is unusually brutal, and Rowling clearly does not much admire what she sees in this country on either the right or the left.

Given all of that, it’s more than a little surprising that BBC One’s television adaptation of the novel has turned out to be such a complete triumph (albeit one that lost a couple of million viewers between the first and final instalments, which was probably inevitable given the nature of the material). Not coincidentally, the screenwriter, Sarah Phelps, has played fast and loose with the novel’s plot, streamlining it into three tautly-written hour-long episodes which capture the essence of Rowling’s (intermittently brilliant) novel but do not necessarily strictly adhere to it. There are some major omissions (that cutting scene is gone, and the character involved initially appears to be reduced to a sullen background presence – although five minutes from the end of the final episode, she is given the most significant line in the whole three-part series, in terms of encapsulating what the story is about), and the ending is different than in the novel, offering a possibility of redemption for at least one or two characters. Throughout, more or less every important plot event covered by the TV adaptation is in some way different from the way it is depicted in the novel. It’s not a slavishly faithful reproduction of the source material at all, and – surprisingly – it’s all the better for it.

In place of the novel’s brooding, darkly sardonic social analysis, what Phelps gives us is a tight, laser-sharp comedy of bad manners in which the pretensions and failings of the various protagonists are quietly but ruthlessly dissected, usually within seconds of the character appearing on screen for the first time. Her screenplay moves very quickly – even in this streamlined adaptation, there’s a lot of plot to pack into three hours, and a lot of characters to cover – but it’s written with remarkable economy, and every single detail counts. It’s still bleak, and it still goes to some extremely dark places, particularly in the final episode, but the novel’s nearly unrelenting procession of human misery would have made turgid viewing on TV. Instead, what Phelps – and the director, Johnny Campbell – have made is a show that looks, on the surface, like a typically glossy, shallow Sunday night TV drama, but which has real bite underneath.

And the performances are tremendous. As Krystal Weedon, the at-risk teenage daughter of a drug addict whose collision with the cosily middle-class inhabitants of the village where she lives provides the motor for much of the plot, Abigail Lawrie is a real discovery. The whole cast obviously relish the snap and crackle of Phelps’s nastily funny dialogue; they’re playing awful, awful people, but the whole thing is carried off with a commendable lightness of touch. You don’t really sympathise with anyone – apart from Krystal and possibly Samantha Mollison, the unhappy daughter-in-law of Howard, the monstrous deli-owner and leader of the Parish Council – but it doesn’t matter; the sheer (and recognisable) nastiness of these characters, here, is partly what makes them so entertaining, and the fiction Phelps (via Rowling) draws here is only a couple of degrees meaner than real life. If you’ve ever sat through any kind of committee meeting, the kind of closed-minded pettiness that drives The Casual Vacancy’s plot will not be entirely unfamiliar to you. We’ve all met self-important social-climbing windbags like Howard Mollison; here, refreshingly, Michael Gambon plays him without any kind of twinkle, offering a portrayal that verges on grotesque, although he stops short of making Howard into a boo-hiss pantomime villain. As star turns go, this one is bracingly obnoxious – which in this case is a compliment.

The cherry on the cake is the brilliantly vicious double-act between Keeley Hawes as the aforementioned Samantha Mollison and Julia McKenzie as Shirley Mollison, the monster-in-law from hell. Hawes, whose television work I have not always enjoyed in the past, is in top form, playing Samantha as a tightly-wound woman who survives her family’s bullying by deploying the only weapons available to her: cheap wine, deadpan sarcasm, and her tits. McKenzie’s lyrically toxic busybody of an interfering mother-in-law, opposite her, is simultaneously hilariously funny and chillingly unpleasant (“You aren’t a victim, dear,” she simpers to Samantha at one point in the final episode, “you’re a failure.”). Their final scene is one of the moments that, in contrast to Rowling’s ending in the novel, suggest the possibility of reconciliation and redemption; it’s beautifully written, and Hawes and McKenzie play it superbly well.

None of this, though, adds up to a series that’s exactly likeable. I loved it, and I’ll be buying the DVD when it comes out (and probably watching it again before then, I haven’t deleted it from the DVR), but it lost a huge chunk of viewers between the first and the final episodes; reading the reviews, too, not everybody is a fan of all of the changes Phelps makes to Rowling’s plot, particularly when it comes to the TV series’s somewhat less brutal ending. It’s anyone’s guess how it will go over when HBO show it in April; it looks, on the surface, like the kind of cosy, comfortable English drama series that plays very profitably to a US audience, and I’m not sure how viewers expecting a modern-day Downton Abbey or a Nice Family Drama will take to a series in which there’s repeated drug use, a certain amount of squalor (and not “designer poverty” either – the production makes no attempt to romanticise the horrible conditions in which the Weedons live), and a fair sprinkling of salty language and behaviour, including a library scene that should make every librarian who sees it refuse to touch a book ever again unless they’re wearing rubber gloves. It’s not simply that the series spits at the complacent small-C conservative middle-classes, although it does – the new ending, indeed, explicitly makes the point that well-meaning do-gooders can inadvertently cause a great deal of harm. It’s that it spits at everyone, perhaps even more than the novel, in which there was more space for Rowling to show us each character’s good traits as well as the bad ones.

And if nothing else, the TV adaptation seems to have really upset the Daily Mail’s appalling Jan Moir. That, in itself, is an achievement worth celebrating.

The light is getting dimmer (I wish I saw a glimmer)…

Or, some reflections on having sat through Into the Woods at the cinema this afternoon:

* The coffee cups at the AMC cinema in Manchester are absolute crap. The lids don’t fit, the cups themselves are unbelievably flimsy, and you end up – at least, if you’re unlucky, as I seem to have been this afternoon – wearing as much of the coffee as you manage to drink.

* You might suspect it isn’t a good sign when the headline item in a discussion of a particular film is the coffee cups used by the cinema’s concession stand. You would be correct.

* Having said that, it isn’t necessarily a terrible film. It might even, one key piece of casting aside, be the best possible film that could be made from this material in the absence of the kind of top-down rewrite that is never going to happen when the stage author is also responsible for the screenplay.

* But having said that, some things just don’t work as well in the cinema as they do onstage (and, undoubtedly, vice versa), and I’m afraid that’s the case here.

* The show – we all know the plot, don’t we? – is a mashup of several existing tales and a new one written to join them together. On a stage, it is perfectly possible to have three things happening simultaneously in different areas of the stage, as long as you have a director who knows how to direct the audience’s focus to where it needs to be on each beat of the scene. A camera, on the other hand, can usually only photograph one thing at once (yes, I know there are exceptions, there are always exceptions), so jumping between different storylines that shared the same space in the stage musical requires a lot of cross-cutting.

* This means the movie gets off to a rather jerky start. In the theatre, the twelve-minute opening sequence, with the beginnings of the show’s several fairytale storylines taking place in the same physical space, is a tour-de-force. Here, it’s a lumpy mess of cuts between different actors and different bits of songs, and it never coalesces into a coherent whole.

* The rest of the film is better, but it still, for far too much of the time, seems to progress in fits and starts. Character songs like Red Riding Hood’s “I Know Things Now” and Jack’s “Giants in the Sky”, which work well enough onstage, bring the film’s action to a grinding halt, despite (in both cases) winning performances from the young actors in those roles.

* That’s doubly true for the Baker and his wife’s big first-half duet, “It Takes Two”. It’s absolutely charming, it’s beautifully performed, and we’ve got the point thirty seconds into the song, which then goes on for another two minutes. That’s true in a number of places in the film, which feels overlong, whereas the stage show, in a good production, doesn’t.

* With one exception, whatever problems the film might have are certainly not the fault of the cast. The performances – with one exception – are absolutely terrific. James Corden and Emily Blunt as the Baker and his wife have good-enough singing voices, great chemistry, and charm and comic timing to spare, Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella is suitably earnest and prettily sung, and Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen ham it up beautifully as a pair of preening Princes. There’s lovely work in even the tiniest roles – Tracey Ullman is delightfully sharp as Jack’s Mother, Christine Baranski is a fabulously bitchy evil stepmother, and it’s fun spotting Joanna Riding, Annette Crosbie, and Simon Russell Beale in two-minute walk-on parts.

* And then there’s Meryl Streep, who clearly had a ball playing the Witch. She’s scary, funny, absolutely compelling, and she sings the hell out of her songs (something which – cough – eluded the lady who created the role in the original Broadway production). Whatever is wrong with the film as a whole, Ms. Streep is worth the cost of a ticket (so, to be fair, are Mr. Corden and Ms. Blunt).

* And that leaves Johnny Depp, and I wish they had. I’m old – well, over 40 – and I can remember, just about, when Mr. Depp was capable of playing something other than Mr. Depp. It was a long time ago. Here, unfortunately, he doesn’t even play himself particularly well; given that pretty much all the other actors are working at the top of their game, it’s all the more obvious that he’s phoning it in. Fortunately, he’s on screen for less than ten minutes, although it feels longer.

* The design, art direction, and set decoration, on the other hand, are all impressive; whatever the film’s longueurs, there’s always something to look at. And as the story progresses past happily-ever-after into the second act’s thorny mess of consequences and moral equivalency, the film’s look, to the design team’s very great credit, becomes satisfyingly (and appropriately) dark. The plot’s climax doesn’t really work on any level unless it feels as if the remaining characters (by the last twenty minutes, some have died or disappeared) are literally facing the end of the world; here, it possibly isn’t quite as dark as it needs to be (bearing in mind that I saw the original London production, which threw commercial considerations to the wind and staged the second act with a dark brilliance that I’ve yet to see any other production quite match – on the evidence of the DVD, the slick, shallow, too-glossy original Broadway production certainly didn’t), but it’s closer than anyone had any right to expect in a Disney film of this material.

* But just like his stage script, James Lapine’s screenplay still falls apart in the last twenty minutes, although he’s cut this section of the piece far more ruthlessly than he has elsewhere. It’s obvious – not least because Lapine has one character or another state it baldly approximately every ninety seconds throughout the second half – that they were aiming to use fairytales to demonstrate that you must be careful what you wish for, and that actions have consequences (Sondheim is not entirely free from blame here either – those are the subjects of the two dreariest songs in his mostly charmingly effervescent score, and they come back-to-back at the very end of the film). In the event, what we actually get is a story about how it’s OK to commit a murder in order to evade the consequences of a lesser crime as long as you sing a cloyingly sanctimonious ballad about community responsibility while you lure your victim into her trap. That’s been a fault in almost every stage production I’ve seen; the original London production just about got away with it because the director, Richard Jones, staged the show’s climax so that it genuinely felt as if the central characters were facing the end of the world. That production, though, was dark to the point of being frightening, and quite emphatically Not For Children, and this is a Disney film. It’s to the great credit of everyone involved that they get as close as they do to making it as dark and scary as it needs to be for the ending to work, and Frances de la Tour’s Giantess is a triumph of both acting and special effects – but they don’t quite go far enough, and a miss, in this case, is as good as a mile.

* This is an issue that is possibly magnified in Britain: Red Riding Hood, in the film, is cast younger than she was in the stage show. In the film, she’s a pre-adolescent, and over the past couple of years we’ve been bombarded with a series of truly horrifying news stories about the sexual abuse of young girls by older men, beginning with but not limited to the Jimmy Savile saga and the grooming ring in Rochdale. In that context, the way Sondheim and Lapine present the Red Riding Hood storyline with a clear subtext of sexual awakening can’t help but look decidedly icky, all the more so given that Lilla Crawford is only about 13 (the actors I’ve seen in the role in stage productions all read as late teens). I get that it’s supposed to make the audience uncomfortable, but those scenes tread a fine line, and the extent to which that issue has been in the news here recently results in the film ending up somewhere on the wrong side of that line. Mr. Depp’s louche-but-somnambulant performance doesn’t help.

* Overall, in terms of direction, this is by far Rob Marshall’s best movie musical, although he doesn’t surmount all of the problems inherent in putting this very, very stagy piece on screen. The film looks good, the performances are nearly all excellent, and there are a lot of lovely individual moments, even if the whole never quite adds up to the sum of the parts.

* We should not forget, however, that Mr. Marshall’s two other movie musicals to date are Chicago – fitfully brilliant but exhaustingly hyperactive, and a film whose director clearly didn’t entirely trust his material – and Nine, which was a nearly-unparalleled flaming cinematic Hindenburg which took almost everyone in its impressively starry cast down with it. “Rob Marshall’s best movie musical” is not a particularly high bar.

* And it’s a pity that the one thing – apart from every decision connected to the appearance in the film of Mr. Johnny Depp – that Mr. Marshall really botches is the ending. Having the Witch sing “Children Will Listen” in voice-over over the final scene is a cop-out, particularly given that we see Emily Blunt’s Baker’s Wife as (presumably) a ghost, and slicing off the final reprise of the title song so that it plays as a standalone piece over the end credits means that the film doesn’t end so much as just stop.

* In the final analysis, then, it’s a disappointment. I enjoyed a lot of individual elements in the film – it’s often very funny, it has a great cast, the songs are often beautifully staged, and it’s always interesting and sometimes enchanting to look at – but taken as a whole, it really doesn’t work. If you love the show – or Sondheim – you’ll need to see it, and you’ll probably want the DVD (though maybe not the soundtrack album) – but once you’ve seen it, you’ll very quickly go back to the two available videos of stage productions and the various cast albums. The film is a valiant effort, but in the end, this material belongs on the stage.

Mmm. Gazpacho.

I saw a resurrection yesterday afternoon.

Four years or so ago, Lincoln Center Theater presented a musical adaptation of the cult-ish Pedro Almodovar film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown on Broadway, where it did not thrive. It got mostly lousy reviews, ran a few weeks, and closed before the end of the scheduled “limited run” (which would have very quickly become unlimited if the show had taken off at the box office). That’s usually the end of the story – Broadway is littered with the corpses of dead and mostly-forgotten musicals, and so is the West End – except that this time the show’s creators – composer/lyricist David Yazbek, librettist Jeffrey Lane, and director Barlett Sher – all apparently felt there was something in the show worth saving. The cast recording – a frenetic, slightly cartoonish listen that isn’t helped in the slightest by the fact that everyone in the show’s (admittedly impressive) cast is forced to perform using a ridiculous cod-Thpanish accent, presumably in case we all forget this thing is set in Madrid – partly reveals why: underneath the silly accents and the overcaffeinated performances and orchestrations, there are three or four very distinguished songs, and a few more that are at least distinctive.

This London production, then, represents a second chance for the show, and everyone involved appears to be going to great pains in the pre-opening publicity (it’s still in previews) to make it clear that this is not – repeat, NOT – the Broadway production, although it retains the same director. This, we are told, is a smaller, more focused version of the show, incorporating significant revisions including a number of new songs. They haven’t quite gone to the trouble of having a pop-up box saying “this version of the show has been HEAVILY REVISED” appear when you click the link on their website to book a ticket, but don’t imagine somebody didn’t consider it. From the list of songs on the cast album, ‘Time Stood Still’, ‘The Microphone’, and ‘Shoes From Heaven’ are gone; in their place are a (very effective) solo for Lucia called ‘It’s Me’ and a beautiful new finale called ‘The View From Here’ (the scene which contained ‘The Microphone’ has been eliminated). There are some internal changes within some numbers that have been retained, particularly in the second act, the order of songs is a little different (‘Island’ comes later in the first act, as Pepa makes the gazpacho), and the aim throughout appears to be to keep the central strands of the narrative – Pepa’s pursuit of Ivan, Lucia’s pursuit of Ivan and Pepa, and Candela’s realisation that her boyfriend is a terrorist – firmly in focus.

Fortunately for everyone involved, the work appears to have paid off. The clips of the Broadway production that Lincoln Center Theater put on youtube suggest a sprawling, garish, frenetic staging that could overpower the more delicate elements of the plot (I’m not going to give a synopsis here – the movie has been out for more than 25 years and is an acknowledged classic, so if you don’t know what it’s about, you can go and google it yourself). Sher’s London staging, by contrast, is studiedly simple. Here, the show is staged on a two-tier unit set, with (mostly) minimal props and furniture for any scene taking place outside Pepa’s apartment. There are no projections, no moving scenery, and the taxi is two chairs and a steering-wheel. If you like your musicals big and spectacular, this is not the show for you. The simpler approach works well with the material, though – the production has a fluidity that isn’t always easy to achieve in a piece which incorporates a lot of relatively short scenes, and the quieter emotional beats underpinning the rather outlandish plot are allowed room to breathe. Parts of the show are very funny indeed, but the resolution is surprisingly touching. It’s not perfect – although I saw a preview, and it’s likely some timing/blocking issues will be fixed in the week left before it opens – but this is a stylish, funny production that makes an excellent case for the show as a chamber musical, and reveals Yazbek’s score to be rather better than you’d guess from the Broadway cast recording, even given that it always contained a few very strong musical numbers. Surprisingly, the new orchestrations – yes, for a smaller band – help; in this production, the score has a strong Spanish flavour, whereas the orchestrations on the Broadway cast album (for a band that, even there, is not particularly large) are redolent of nothing so much as a particularly frenetic Wacky Races cartoon that takes place on the Autopista de Circunvalación.

The attempt to put as much distance as possible between this production and the previous one even extends to the casting. The Broadway production was luxury-cast with a parade of New York’s best musical theatre performers (and Patti LuPone, but you can’t have everything). Despite the over-emphatic orchestrations and the silly accents, the New York cast sang the hell out of Yazbek’s score, sometimes (on the album, at least) at the expense of either the comedy (Brian Stokes Mitchell, a matinee-idol baritone who doesn’t locate the humour in the preening Ivan’s numbers) or the emotional truth of the moment (Sherie Rene Scott delivers a very pretty ‘Mother’s Day’, but there’s no feeling behind it at all, and it’s supposed to be the second act’s emotional anchor) or both (the aforementioned Ms. LuPone, who steamrollers her way through ‘Invisible’ as if the song’s lyrics, and the story they tell, are a mere detail that needn’t concern her). The only completely successful performance is from Laura Benanti as the unstable model Candela (not coincidentally, Ms. Benanti is the only performer in the Broadway cast who completely owns her Spanish accent); everyone else in some way misses the mark.

In London, accordingly, Sher has assembled a very different kind of cast. With very few exceptions, these are actors who sing rather than musical theatre perfomers, led by Tamsin Greig, who has never appeared in a musical before. Ms. Greig is one of the very best comic actresses of her generation; as Pepa, the show’s central role, her job (on top of actually playing the role) is to give the show its emotional centre without being overshadowed by a cast of more colourful supporting characters. Ms. Greig knows how to hold a stage; nobody is ever going to queue up to buy, say, an album of her doing Gershwin standards, but she’s clearly worked very hard indeed on her singing. She reveals an appealingly throaty voice with a surprising range, she’s absolutely in control of it, and her singing gives the character a lovely (and very necessary) vulnerability. It goes without saying that Ms. Greig finds all the laughs and then some, but her “Mother’s Day” is very touching indeed; she does an excellent job throughout of negotiating the space between the show’s emotional core and the more outlandishly farcical plot twists. It’s a difficult role, and she nails it.

There are fine performances from the other leads as well. The standouts? Anna Skellern’s Candela, again, can’t sing like Laura Benanti (though to be fair, that’s a very big club), but she’s both hilarious and believably real, whether she’s yelling into a phone, climbing onto a ledge, or passing out after drinking spiked gazpacho. Jérôme Pradon’s Ivan is an overgrown child who loves women but can’t deal with reality or responsibility; Ivan’s character arc makes better sense here that it does in the film, never mind on the Broadway cast album. Ricardo Afonso’s Taxi Driver kicks the show off with a sizzling “Madrid”, then does a spectacular job of “My Crazy Heart” at the top of the second act, hitting a couple of high notes that induce gasps from the audience. And Haydn Gwynne’s Lucia, Ivan’s vengeful wife who has spent the last 19 years in a mental institution, is more or less perfect. She’s crazy, funny, occasionally achingly sad, and when she strikes a balletic pose on the back of a Vespa in the second act’s climactic chase scene she’s a wonder to behold. She also sings beautifully (and unlike her Broadway counterpart, puts the lyrics across with absolute clarity – no mush-mouthed diction here, thank you very much), and finds every ounce of pathos in “Invisible”, her big Act Two solo. And – for this character, possibly the most important skill of all – she can’t half rock a pair of sunglasses.

Whether or not all this work will turn the show into a hit, though, is another question. It’s good, certainly, but it’s a piece which seems to fall between several stools. The film often seems to be perceived as an out-and-out farce, and it isn’t, and this isn’t either; if you come to this show looking for that kind of comedy, you may not be entirely satisfied. The songs are terrific – it’s Yazbek’s best musical score by a mile – but there isn’t necessarily a big take-home tune, apart from perhaps ‘My Crazy Heart’, which in this production is sung in a key almost nobody could emulate. It’s a simple production staged on a unit set, so you won’t find dazzling visuals here. And while I thought Ms. Greig gave a wonderful performance, it’s not impossible that someone familiar with the Broadway album would find her singing disappointing. It’s also anyone’s guess what the reviews will be when it opens a week from now. Still, the mere fact that Sher and company have taken something that manifestly didn’t work in its first incarnation and transformed it into something that does is a rare and surprising achievement. Most flop musicals – and there are far more flops than hits – sink without trace, and second chances are relatively rare. It may well not have worked at all on Broadway, but this is a show that deserves to be seen.

Oh yes, and a quick note to the two “ladies” in the row behind me who slurped from takeout cartons of soup (not gazpacho) throughout the first ten minutes of the show: please do us all a favour, and stay home until you’ve learned how to behave in a theatre. We’d all paid to listen to the cast, not the sound of the pair of you eating like pigs. Thanks.

Grab the buggers by the bollocks!

If I wore mascara, I’d have looked like a zebra by the end of the opening number. It’s not that I’m a soft touch – Bambi leaves me resolutely dry-eyed – but there’s a short list of things that, in a theatre or concert hall (or, more rarely, a cinema) are capable of reducing me to emotional wreckage. Billy Elliot is very near the top of that list. Not the original film, though – it’s wonderful, but it doesn’t have that effect on me. The stage musical, on the other hand, is a different story. Fortunately this time I was prepared. I’d bought tissues. Lots and lots of tissues.

And I wasn’t even seeing it “properly”, in the theatre. Yesterday, a special performance of the show was broadcast live to cinemas across the UK and Europe (it will be shown later in other territories). I’m not always that much of a fan of live broadcasts of theatre, whether on TV or in the cinema; too often, they end up being somewhat disappointing, not least because a performance which is designed to play to the back of a 1200-seat theatre (or a 3000-seat concert hall) can register very differently on a flatscreen TV or an iPad or a giant cinema screen. Under those circumstances, work which would register as subtle if you saw it “in person” often (though not invariably) comes across as either shrill or (worse) strangely blank. The camera, also, often doesn’t move quite as much as it needs to, and it’s very easy for a filmed stage performance to end up seeming listless and rather static. It’s a great idea to film stage performances – it opens up work done in a single location to a much wider audience, usually at a price that’s lower than the cost of a theatre ticket, and of course that’s a good thing, and for organisations like the National, any additional revenue from cinema screenings must be very welcome. It’s just that the result isn’t always successful.

So, yes, I had some misgivings before it started, although they didn’t stop me from booking a ticket (£16 at a cinema a tram-ride from home vs. West End ticket prices plus the train-fare to London makes the cinema screening a relative bargain). I’ve seen the show in the theatre a couple of times before, and sobbed through it both times (and as I said, that’s not something that happens to me often); I wasn’t sure it would (or even could) have the same effect in a live screening, even on a very large screen, but I took tissues just in case. And it’s a good thing I did, because this particular simultaneous broadcast was done superlatively well – which means, among other things, that I responded to the show precisely the same way in the cinema as I had in the theatre.

And it still seems as fresh as it did the year it opened nine and a half years ago. A lot of the adult actors who’ve worked on it have said in interviews that the presence of a rotating cast of children stops the performances from going stale; whatever the reason, what I saw yesterday certainly didn’t play like a show that had been running the better part of a decade. The kids, of course, were phenomenal, but they always are in this show, and Elliot Hanna is probably as good a Billy as there has ever been. There’s also terrific work from the adult ensemble, with Deka Walmsley giving a particularly moving performance as Billy’s dad, and Ruthie Henshall – a big-name replacement – doing what might be the finest work of her career as Mrs. Wilkinson, the dance teacher who notices Billy’s potential and pushes to find him a way out of Easington. She’s not necessarily obvious casting – even after seeing her play Roxie Hart, the kind of bristly backstreet sarcasm the role needs is not the first thing I’d associate with her, and the music isn’t the greatest fit for her voice – but she nails it.

She’s helped – like everyone else – by the production team’s clever, careful planning of where to point the camera. The lengthy “Solidarity” sequence – which I think is still the single finest piece of musical staging I have ever seen – must be nightmarishly complicated to film, because it delivers so much information, and because it compresses events taking place in multiple locations into the same physical space. At the same time, it shows Billy’s slow progress from absolute novice to a dancer of some skill, and a series of pitched battles between striking miners and the police. It’s rendered on screen here with absolute clarity – all the key reaction shots are there, but they also film the choreography so that you can see it properly, instead of filming the dancers from the waist up (see, for example, the movie version of A Chorus Line for a masterclass in how not to film choreography). And that’s true all the way through – at every given point in the show, the camera is looking where you’d want to be looking if you were watching it in the theatre. That sounds simple, but it’s something that these events very often fail to achieve.

The show itself… given Elton John’s other work for the musical stage, to say this is his best score could easily be open to misinterpretation, and that would be unfair. It’s true that the best parts of the score are essentially hymns – the opening “The Stars Look Down” as the miners get the news that a strike has been called, and their proudly defiant admission of defeat in “Once We Were Kings” at the end of the show as they head back to work, the strike having been finally called off by the union – but that goes with the territory: the show, far more than the film, places both the community and the politics front and centre, so of course the score includes at least a couple of socialist protest songs (it’s frankly almost surprising that at no point does anybody in the show break into a chorus of “The Red Flag”). For those songs – and for “Deep into the Ground”, a folk ballad sung to devastating effect by Billy’s father (and, in the last verse, Billy himself) near the top of Act Two – John has, uncharacteristically, dug deep and produced music that is powerfully redolent of both the geographical location and the social milieu in which the show is set. The Thatcher number – a hard-edged rock stomper with a grimly satirical lyric – is the other musical highlight; it, too, fits in perfectly with the show’s period and place.

This is, though, certainly one of those productions in which the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts. Some of the rest of the score is (like most of Elton John’s music these days) rather on the bland side – “Electricity” is a jaw-dropping moment of theatre because you are watching a child more or less literally dancing for his life, rather than because of any qualities inherent in the music itself – although it’s never less than pleasant. Lee Hall’s lyrics are best when he keeps the tone conversational, although some of Mrs. Wilkinson’s zingers in “Shine” have a certain sting to them (“It doesn’t matter if you’re special needs/Maimed or lame, or born in Leeds…”), and his book, like his original screenplay, is sometimes shamelessly manipulative. When Mrs. Wilkinson starts singing the letter from Billy’s dead mother, you can feel your strings being pulled; what saves the moment is the artful simplicity of the lyrics, and the devastating restraint with which the scene is performed. Mrs. Wilkinson doesn’t cry; she struggles to control her emotions, and succeeds – which leaves the audience awash.

Other than that moment, though, I’m not sure I can quite explain why the show has the effect on me that it does – and why it continues to have the same effect on repeat visits. Certainly, it’s partly that I remember the strike very clearly – I was eleven years old when it began, my grandparents lived on the edge of a mining community (and were both from mining communities themselves), and I vividly remember the violence in the air as we drove past the picket lines, and my parents telling us to lock the car doors and keep the windows shut. The show’s opening number – the miners singing in solidarity as they go out on strike – is so moving partly because we know what happens next: the government of the day engineered the strike as a means of breaking the unions, and the strike brought about the collapse of the coal industry and essentially destroyed the miners’ communities, putting hundreds of thousands of people out of work. The strike was one of the defining moments of Thatcher’s government, and it’s a good part of the reason she was so hated in some parts of the country; it was also, around the mining communities themselves, as close as we’ve come to civil war. Both sides played dirty; there was fighting in the streets, and the NUM picketers formed the front line in a battle for, essentially, the principles of democratic socialism on which very nearly all the great institutions of postwar Britain had been built. And while the original film of “Billy Elliot” keeps the politics quite firmly in the background, it’s definitely there – indeed, the film’s most moving scene is the moment when Billy’s father decides he’s prepared to cross the picket line to go back to work to raise the money to pay for the audition. The great achievement of the stage musical, as far as I’m concerned, is the way it pushes the community (and therefore the politics) front and centre, without pulling the focus away from Billy himself. There’s a certain irony in the fact that the most commercially-successful piece of theatre Britain has produced in the past twenty years presents a point of view that isn’t merely liberal-left-wing, but out-and-out pre-New-Labour Bennite socialism; the show is set at more or less the precise moment when Britain’s political landscape took a decisive lurch to the right, but Hall, wisely, largely tells the story without editorialising. The show doesn’t lecture the audience about the devastating effect of the strike on Britain’s mining communities – it simply shows us, and that’s far more powerful.

The opening number of “Billy Elliot”, in fact, is basically the final scene of “Journey’s End” or “Blackadder Goes Forth”: the miners are going to war, and they’re facing oblivion, and so the rest of the story becomes something a little different than it was in the film. This is very definitely the story of the community as well as of Billy himself, and it’s also, far more clearly than in the film, about the different ways to escape a place that is dying on its feet. “Grandma’s Song” and “Shine” both point to a kind of cheap escapism via entertainment; crucially, “Grandma’s Song” introduces the idea of dancing as a means of escape, and suggests that without some kind of escape life in Easington would be brutally hard to endure. “Expressing Yourself” is cute, but has a serious point – although he can’t articulate it, Billy gets the idea from Michael that you can transcend your (grim) surroundings by remaining true to your inner self. And the political situation is clearly set up as a barrier to Billy’s escape, far more than it was in the film – indeed, in “Angry Dance” at the end of the first act, the riot police’s shields form a literal barrier, and while Billy repeatedly hurls himself against them, he does not break through. Of course he escapes in the end, but nobody else does, and his escape is mirrored by the image of the miners, in absolute defeat, going back underground. The stage production juxtaposes the two images in a way that the film couldn’t, because cross-cutting just doesn’t have the same effect. Again, playing those two moments against each other is shamelessly manipulative; Hall and Stephen Daldry get away with it because the show’s dialogue and lyrics, throughout, are startlingly unsentimental.

It’s remarkably effective – at least, if the effect it has on me is anything to go by. On the same stage, you have a child who you know is going to break free from a place that is about as bleak as life in Britain in the 1980s could possibly be – and that child is surrounded by adults whose lives are about to be destroyed. Hall and Daldry (and Elton John) tread a very delicate line – in some ways it’s an incredibly manipulative show, but the characters in it almost never make a direct appeal to your emotions (even true of the letter from the dead mother, although that’s the most manipulative scene in the show). If you fall for it – and not everybody does, although I certainly did – then you fall hook, line and sinker; I am far from the only person I know who sobbed all the way through it (I wasn’t even the only person in the cinema yesterday who sobbed all the way through it). If you add to that the breathtaking artistry of the children in the show – particularly (though not only) the child playing Billy, who has to negotiate a complex acting role and some incredibly strenuous choreography – which is moving in itself, the result is a kind of theatrical perfect storm.

And in the case of this particular performance, there are a few extras thrown in to prick your tear-ducts even further. In the Swan Lake fantasy sequence in the second act, the older Billy is danced by Liam Mower, one of the three Billys from the original cast back in 2005 (Mr. Mower is now a ballet dancer, and has danced the role of the Prince in Matthew Bourne’s all-male Swan Lake). Of course, this was announced at the start of the screening; this, too, is a lump-in-the-throat moment, and there’s a tenderness to the scene that I don’t quite remember having been there the last time I saw the show. And then there’s the added post-curtain call dance number featuring (nearly) all the kids who have played Billy in London over the past nine and a half years. It’s absolutely charming, and a lovely celebration of a group of absolutely extraordinary young performers.

The result – and I know I’m gushing here – was quite an event. For all my misgivings about theatrical performances being shown on screen, this one turned out to be a knockout. If you missed it, don’t worry – there’s going to be a DVD, and it’s going to hit the shops before Christmas. Very few stage productions have been filmed as well as this; if you like the show at all (or if you teach theatre), it’s probably going to be an essential purchase.

Just buy a couple of boxes of tissues at the same time. You’ll need them.

Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen?

It’s here again, and I am ready. I have chocolate, I have paracetamol, I have a barf bag, and I have a clear run between where I’m sitting and the nearest bathroom. If you are going to face the Eurovision Song Contest without alcohol, it’s best to be prepared. To that end, while I am watching this completely stone-cold sober, I am not, as usual, watching it live. We all need a little something to help us get through this; if you don’t like tequila, the only thing left is the fast-forward button.

Anyway. So. This year we’re in beautiful Copenhagen, home of the Little Mermaid, a lot of knitwear, and some really good TV drama. We open with – according to Graham Norton, providing snarky commentary again for the BBC – a snatch of last year’s winning entry, about which I remember absolutely nothing. Said winner – Emily – is seen making her way over the Oresund Bridge from Malmo, where the contest was held last year, to the disused ship factory that’s been tarted up to serve as tonight’s venue. This opening sequence is like ‘Mission Impossible’, only boring, but fast-forwarding this early in the show would be cheating.

Oh, sod it.

OK. Flags of all nations being carried onstage by demented-looking black-clad dancers. Let the insanity begin. This year, we have indoor fireworks right at the top of the show. This is Eurovision; it’s just about the only place on television where a full minute’s worth of pyrotechnics counts as minimalism. Opening parade of contestants across the stage; this year, not all of them look like escaped mental patients, which is nice. But some of them do, and we wouldn’t have it any other way, would we?

Aaaaand here are our perma-grinning hosts, cueing the audience to set off 10,000-odd party-poppers. Again, around here, this is what passes for subtle restraint. Mr. Pilou Asbaek, Ms. Lise Rønne (and that’s the first and last time I will be using that special ASCII character this evening), and Mr. Nikolaj Koppel. Mr. Asbaek is a Serious Actor (and was brilliant as the duplicitous, tormented spin doctor in ‘Borgen’); he told the Guardian the other day that he took this gig because he felt he couldn’t turn down a party. I’m sure most of us feel the same way – that’s why we’re watching, and it’s also why we bought painkillers before tuning in. Mr. Asbaek is wearing a very-definitely-NOT-clip-on bow-tie (oh yes, and a dinner suit, obviously) which he couldn’t quite get straight before the show started, Ms. Ronne is in beige-ish gold with a tulle skirt and lots of diamanté, accessorised with a metal butterfly in her hair, and Mr. Koppel seems to be dressed for a funeral. Given that music is about to be pushed to the edge of death and possibly beyond, this is not an inappropriate choice.

Their scripted banter is awful, but that’s par for the course. Voting lines will not open until all acts have performed; this is an innovation that was only introduced a couple of years ago, which should tell you all you need to know about the integrity of the voting process.

So. Performance number one. Mariya Yaremchuck, representing Ukraine, with a song called ‘Tick Tock’ whose title has absolutely no subtextual symbolism when considered in the context of recent events in her home country. Each song is preceded by a short film in which the singer attempts some kind of novelty recreation of their country’s flag; Ms. Yaremchuck chooses to perform this task by sticking blank post-it notes to the platform of a Metro station in Kyiv, and I suspect it’s probably better not to ask why. She’s got long black hair, a generic voice, a flowing purple gown, and boobs, and there’s a guy in a hamster wheel behind her. The song is bland, well-produced Eurodisco – not good, not terrible, and not even slightly memorable, which is probably why she’s using a blinding light show and the wind machine. Oh yes, and there’s a bit in the middle where she looks like she’s about to dry-hump the hamster wheel, which is tasteful.

We’d all love to see the contest staged in Kyiv next year, wouldn’t we? That would be special.

Number two. Teo, representing Belarus with ‘Cheesecake’. He and his four male backing singers look and sound like insane Slavic cheesy-listening clones of Take That, only (hopefully) without the tax avoidance scheme headlines. Teo’s bow tie is untied, presumably because all his pre-show prep time was spent getting his hair to stand up at precisely 90 degrees. Mr. Norton informs us that no song in position two in the running order has ever won the contest. This one isn’t going to buck that trend.

Three. Azerbaijan – we see more footage of those gas-flame skyscrapers before her song. Dilara Kazimova, ‘Start a Fire (But Don’t Mention Human Rights Abuses)’. Ms. Kazimova is allegedly singing in English, but seems to be not entirely familiar with consonants. ANY consonants. There’s a trapeze artist behind her. It’s a drippy, overwrought piano ballad, and… bugger that, a minute of it is all I can stand.

Four. Iceland. Footage of men with beards walking towards a waterfall in snow. One of the backing singers apparently is an Icelandic MP. ‘No Prejudice’, by Pollaponk. Bright coloured suits, big drum-beats, guitars, beards… this is nearly as macho as Eurovision gets (so, um, not very macho, then). It’s basically the Hipster Teletubbies. The song is catchy, completely demented, and great fun. And… oh. Now they’re line-dancing. This won’t win, but it should. It’s fresh, fun, and there’s an eight-bar bit near the end where the audience is invited to clap along. They end in a pose, and I think their yellow-suited bassist might have just dislocated something.

Five. Norway. Their singer has a Very Serious Tattoo on his arm, but apparently no experience as a singer. Carl Espen, ‘Silent Storm’. Sound is coming from his mouth – at least I think it’s coming from his mouth – but I’m not sure if it’s singing or just the sort of noise you’d make when you were coming round from an anaesthetic. The song is a really, really boring piano ballad. I miss Bobbysocks. And I am NOT going to watch this to the end. So there.

I fast-forwarded. It started quiet and boring, and now it’s overwrought and boring. Fast-forward again.

Mr. Norton thinks Mr. Espen must be delighted that’s over, “as are we”. Word.

Six. Romania. Paula Seling & OVI, with ‘Miracle’. Mr. OVI looks and sounds a bit like a Carphone Warehouse salesman, and Ms. Seling reminds me of nothing so much as a cross between Amanda Lamb and a gerbil. They have no chemistry at all, which isn’t exactly a surprise given that they also have no charisma. They do have a completely circular piano; it’s way more interesting than their song, but so is being in a coma. We’re back in the land of Generic Slabs of Eurodisco, and it’s fast-forward time. Again.

Seven. Armenia. It’s possibly an ominous sign that the pre-song filmlet shows a guy melting metal down. He’s making a lovely brooch in the colours of the Armenian flag, then photographing it with his iPhone, presumably so he can cover the fare back home by flogging it on eBay after he doesn’t win. Aram MP3 – I assume that’s not his legal surname – with ‘Not Alone’. Another drippy piano intro, which so far seems to be this evening’s recurring musical theme. He has shiny leather boots, a nice tailored grey coat, and no personality. The song is obviously Very Meaningful to him, because he’s singing with his eyes closed. And now it’s getting overwrought, and he’s bellowing and grimacing like he’s giving birth while constipated. Lovely. Sorry, Mr. MP3, the pyrotechnics behind you won’t disguise the absolute dreariness of your dreary, dreary song. But then, Armenia often score surprisingly well; at Eurovision, entering a crappy song isn’t necessarily any barrier to success, as long as you have the right kind of crappy song – and that was the right kind of crappy song.

Eight. Montenegro. ‘Moj Svljet’, sung by Sergej Cetkovic. Wispy folk intro, ballerina on rollerblades, Very Sincere singer, projections of trees and flowers behind him. The floor lights up behind the dancer as she rollerblades across the stage, which is cool; the song unfortunately mutates from its charming, folksy intro into a far more generic soft-rock ballad in triple time. The high notes aren’t very high, but Mr. Cetkovic does manage to hit nearly all of them. It’s rather charming, and it won’t win.

Nine. Poland. Donatan & Cleo, with ‘My Slowianie – We Are Slavic’. They’re in yoof versions of folk dresses, one of them has a milk pail, there’s a stomping beat, and their hair is in unfeasibly long braids. The milk pail lady churns butter on the edge of the stage, and seems to be constantly on the verge of getting her tits out. Aside from the accordion break in the middle, it – bizarrely – reminds me a bit of Toto Coelo’s ‘I Eat Cannibals’. It isn’t good – at all – but it’s very entertaining. It’d be even better if it had any kind of tune, but you can’t have everything.

Ten. Greece. Freaky Fortune featuring RiskyKidd, with ‘Rise Up’. A Greek rapper, rapping in English. The chorus is insidiously catchy, but we’re back in Eurodisco land AGAIN. Someone must have spent, ooh, minutes programming this backing track. They have a trampoline onstage, because their backing track wasn’t bouncy enough already. Next week, this will be in every bar and disco in every resort on the Mediterranean… and the week after, the staff in every bar and disco in every resort on the Mediterranean will lose the will to live.

Eleven. Austria. Conchita Wurst, ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’. Mesmerisingly-staged bearded-lady drag act. Arresting stage presence, fabulous gown, dramatic song – you could imagine Shirley Bassey singing it. Her voice is only OK, and frankly a little underpowered for this particular song, but the performance is so compelling that it doesn’t matter. It’s not necessarily good music, but it’s great television, and at Eurovision, that’s what counts. She ends to a huge ovation, and is probably the favourite to win.

Twelve. Germany, Elaiza (that’s a trio, not a girl’s name), ‘Is It Right?’ They have an accordion onstage with them and one of them is actually playing it, so no it isn’t. Oom-pa-pa verse with a big drumbeat that kicks in for the chorus. They’re performing very enthusiastically, and they’re mostly doing a very good job of demonstrating to the world once again that there are vast areas of German popular culture that anyone who isn’t German just. can’t. understand.

Holy shit, she went into head voice a bit near the end. Someone please make her never ever do that ever again. Presumably Germany really don’t want to pay to host the contest next year. I hope there were no low-flying aircraft nearby. Or seagulls.

Short break. Mr. Koppel – still in his funeral tie – is explaining to us rubes at home what a hashtag is, because apparently none of this show’s 180 million viewers are on social media. Somebody got paid to write his links. That’s profoundly depressing.

There’s a Eurovision Book of Records, apparently, if you don’t have a life. Whoopee. Quick flash of last year’s Romanian Vampire and his big falsetto note, which – unlike the lead singer we just saw in Germany’s Elaiza – he hit dead on, because of course we all need to relive that particular trauma over and over again. I mean really, who doesn’t have that video clip bookmarked?

Lise and Pilou are back. Back. BACK!!! Yay.

So is their scripted banter. Boo.

Apparently when the venue was a shipyard, it was full of beautiful men with big sweaty muscles. Mr. Asbaek did not sound entirely convincing as he delivered that line.

Back to the songs. Thirteen, Sweden. In the pre-song filmlet, she’s blowing up yellow lilos in a swimming pool, which of course is the first thing that comes to mind when we think of Sweden, isn’t it? Sanna Nielsen, ‘Undo’. Elegant black sequinned dress, better-than-decent voice, and the song is a full-on power ballad complete with a cheesy key-change into the climactic refrain. This is a formula that has won several times before, and she does it very, very well indeed. Even if it doesn’t win, she’s going to sell a lot of records.

Fourteen. France. Twin Twin, with ‘Moustache’. Two of them really are twins, apparently.

Oh. My. God. It’s like someone took the worst elements of Jedward, Weird Al Yankovic, the Village People, and every middle-class white-boy rapper who ever lived, put them in a blender, and dumped the resulting mess onto a stage with a load of day-glo lighting effects. This is extraordinarily awful, even by Eurovision standards.

No, France. NO. Go and sit on the naughty step until you’ve thought about what you’ve done.

More twins, this time from Russia. Fifteen. Russia. The Tolmachevy Sisters, with ‘Shine’. They start the song back-to-back with their hair intertwined, grinning like loons, standing at the centre of a giant seesaw, each holding a perspex rod for no apparent reason. All of these things are more interesting than the song itself, which sounds like an offcut from an 80s Bond soundtrack. They have nice matching dresses and a hunky male backing singer, and they’re singing in tune, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of love for Russia in the room this evening, apart from among the actual Russians in the audience. Gosh, I can’t imagine why.

Sixteen. Italy. The pre-song filmlet shows her arranging tomatoes, mozzarella slices and basil leaves on a platter. She’s a big star already in Italy, but if this whole music thing doesn’t work out, a career in salad awaits. Emma, with ‘La Mia Città’. Lots of eyeshadow, fake gold laurel leaves in her hair, white dress, gold sequins, and she’s here to RAWK. Someone in her band has a keytar. This is straight from the early 80s – the song, the attitude, everything – and I love it. Of course it won’t win.

Seventeen. Slovenia, Tinkara Kovac – I love typing that – with ‘Round and Round’. At this performance, Ms. Kovac will be playing the role of a spasming flautist in scary gold eyeshadow. Sludgy ballad, and now she’s brandishing the flute like she’s about to hit someone with it. On the whole, being knocked unsconscious by her flute would be better than having to listen to the rest of this song. Moving on.

Eighteen. Finland. Softengine, with ‘Something Better’. After that last sorry excuse for a song, it would pretty much have to be. It’s a proper uptempo guitar-drums-and-piano-driven pop/rock song. I’ve no idea what they’re singing about – and yes, they’re singing in English – but the music is terrific. It’s somewhere between the Killers and what Coldplay would sound like if they weren’t crap, and at least – unlike Coldplay’s Chris Martin – they have an excuse for the English-as-a-second-language lyrics. Great chorus, and they perform with absolute conviction, without relying on any tacky staging gimmicks. This isn’t going to win, because stuff like this never wins, but it’s the best song of the evening so far.

Nineteen. Spain. Ruth Lorenzo, who was apparently on X-Factor a few years ago and just wrote a song for Dannii Minogue, with ‘Dancing In The Rain’. It starts with rain effects on stage – I had to look twice, because it’s also peeing it down outside right now. It’s not a bad song, but her high notes in the chorus are truly unpleasant. And when she goes to belt the big notes in the bridge, she looks uncannily like Sporty Spice, if Sporty Spice was a vampire. Veins in her neck start to bulge as the music gets more and more overdramatic, and if she doesn’t calm down soon there’s going to be blood – either hers or mine. Fast-forwarding now before my ears try to throttle my brain.

As Mr. Norton reminds us, that’s Spain’s strongest entry in several years. Let us not dwell on any of the previous ones.

Twenty. Switzerland. Sebalter, with something called ‘Hunter of Stars’. In which a gaggle of overeager hipster waiters attempt to do rockabilly. They’re very energetic, very nice, and almost completely plastic. On the bright side, their lead singer can sing in tune, and it’s fun. Given that there is a banjo onstage, that’s quite an achievement.

Twenty-one. Hungary. ‘Running’, sung by one András Kállay-Saunders, who seems to really want to be Seal. He can sing, and it’s a pretty good song, but he might be better off without the slightly ridiculous interpretive pas-de-deux being performed behind him as he sings. Apparently it’s a song about child abuse, but the lyrics are almost completely unintelligible. Score one for the sound system.

Twenty-two. Malta. More hipster beards. Firelight, with ‘Coming Home’. Yep, hipster folk pop, which is a slightly bizarre thing to take to Eurovision if you have any expectation of actually winning (given that the ‘prize’ is the chance to host next year’s very expensive show, and pay for it, I imagine Malta is not praying for the top spot). They’re great – everything the Swiss act was pretending to be but wasn’t, and with a better song and better voices and music that clearly is authentically who they are – but they seem to have wandered in from a different concert. It’s like watching Mumford and Sons do Sunday Night at the London Palladium: entertaining, but somehow wrong.

Twenty-three. Denmark, our hosts. Basim, with ‘Cliche Love Song’ (don’t yell at me about the missing accent, I’m just copying what’s on the caption). He’s like Glenn Medeiros on crack. This is so peppy that it’s almost frightening. Basim is also not the first performer this evening to be wearing an untied bow-tie. I know he’s very young, but surely someone backstage could have helped him with it.

Twenty-four. The Netherlands, ‘Calm After The Storm’ by the Common Linnets. Eurovision goes country-and-western. If Johnny Cash and June Carter had ever done Eurovision, this is what it would have sounded like. The song is lovely, and the performance – the singing, the playing, the projected-highway staging concept, the costume design, and all the rest of it – is absolutely impeccable. They’re great, but like the Maltese band, they seem to have parachuted in from a different, much classier show.

Twenty-five. San Marino, which has a population of about three, with a song called ‘Maybe’ sung by Valentina Monetta. The song and the performance are both straight off some second-rate 80s TV variety show. It’s lovely that San Marino got this far, and Ms. Monetta is obviously very, very pleased and excited to be here, but when the voting starts this’ll be toast. Still, at least Ms. Monetta got to indulge her obvious passion for ruched fabric on a global stage, so that’s nice for her.

Twenty-six. Last. Us. Molly, with ‘Children of the Universe’. Mr. Norton thinks this could be our year, so I’m guessing we’re going to place in the bottom ten (voting was over hours ago, and I know who won, but I don’t know yet how the rest of the scores panned out). The song has a big catchy hook and a stomping beat; I’m afraid there’s just something about it that I really, really dislike. Between the bombastic beat, the fauxspirational lyrics, and Molly’s nasal voice, the result is more irritating than uplifting. Still, it’s better than our last several efforts – but really, given that you could do better than Englebert Humperdink simply by showing up on time and having a pulse, that’s not much of an achievement, is it?

So that’s the songs done with. I think there might have been a couple of them that didn’t begin with a warning about strobe lights, but I lost track.

The presenters are back, and Mr. Koppel is STILL wearing his funeral tie. The scripted banter hasn’t got any better; the funeral might well be for his and Mr. Asbaek’s dignity, which died less than ten minutes into the show. Mr. Asbaek is now trying to joke with Graham Norton in Chinese. You know how funny that sounds? Precisely. Now someone is showering Mr. Norton with confetti, some of which has gone in his wine glass. That’s just cruel.

Voting open. This means one thing for the TV audience at home, and one thing only: interval show. Recap of all the songs so far = fast-forward time. Mr. Asbaek introduces the interval act, which involves people in white suits on big ladders singing ‘Ode To Joy’. One of them has a harmonica, which in a less liberal country than Denmark might be grounds for arrest. It’s deeply strange and slightly pointless, and the original version was apparently much longer and stranger, but it got cut way down in rehearsals. Thank the Lord for small mercies.

Now Mr. Koppel – STILL wearing his funeral tie – is at the piano. We’re treated to a video of him, Mr. Asbaek, and Ms. Ronne singing a song Mr. Koppel wrote about Eurovision. Mr. Asbaek throws himself into it gamely enough, but singing – let’s be kind here – isn’t really his strength. The lyrics are about the number 12 – the highest score in the voting process – with an excursion in which they discuss the Chinese calendar, whose leap years have thirteen months instead of twelve. Plus, obviously, chopsticks and opium. It’s three minutes of WTF, performed by the three presenters with all the grace and subtlety of a car crash.

Next, we have the 11-year-old Maltese winner of Junior Eurovision, whose BIG voice, God help us, seems tailor-made for belting out ‘Tomorrow’ in a revival of ‘Annie’. She’s charming, though, and better than some of the adult contestants.

Voting over. Mr. Koppel introduces a segment about a ‘Museum of Eurovision History’, in which Mr. Asbaek once again gets to show off his immaculate comic timing.

Part of that last sentence may not have been meant entirely sincerely.

Sorry, Denmark. Any fifteen seconds of the Swedish Smorgasbord number in last year’s interval act was funnier than the whole of what you just gave us.

And we’re back onstage. Ms. Ronne is still wearing the dress she was in at the beginning. It’s not a proper Eurovision unless at least one presenter wears a succession of hideous gowns. It doesn’t absolutely have to be one of the women, but Mr. Koppel seems strangely attached to his funeral tie. But she’s just delivered a full English breakfast to the Maltese lead singer, whose mum is from Yorkshire, so that’s nice. And now she’s talking to Molly about cake. They’ve just given Molly a curly-wurly cake from Borough Market. Molly thinks it’s ridiculous. Molly is right.

Ms. Ronne knows an awful lot about Molly’s family. If I was Molly, I’d be looking for the webcam.

Now Ms. Ronne is talking to France. Fast-forward time, because those people are scary.

Shut up about China, Mr. Asbaek. Now we’re back to last year’s winner, whose winning song I still don’t remember. This may or may not be it, but she’s singing it backed by a chorus-line of dancing trees. It looks strangely like a choreographic representation of Birnam Wood removing to Dunsinane. I wonder who is going to die in the final portion of the show? Apart from my sanity, obviously. That died half an hour ago, how else do you think I’m still able to watch?

And the scoring begins. Thank God I can fast-forward through a lot of this. If you watch it live, it seems to go on for about four days.

Holy shit. Albania gave Spain 12 points. Are they deaf?

There’s booing from inside the theatre as the Russian presenter gives her scores. And then big boos whenever Russia gets one of the top four scores. Again, I can’t imagine why.

It is unfortunate for the Russian contestants, who are very young. They did their best, and the audience’s outrage at Russia – the mess in Ukraine, the appalling and indefensible anti-gay legislation and all the rest of it – is nothing to do with them, and it can’t be easy to sit and smile while their country is being booed. The reception Russia is getting tonight, though, is entirely understandable.

No, Mr. Koppel, I don’t particularly care which Eurovision entry contained the most repetitions of the word ‘la’.

Back to the votes. Once again, the UK is doing really badly. Guess a lot of other people liked our entry about as much as I did, then.

The Finnish presenter is rapping his introduction. He is very, very white.

Ukraine gave Russia 4 points. Wow.

It’s clear with a few countries still to go that Conchita Wurst has won this for Austria – and so it proves. There were better songs in this competition, and better voices, but not a better performance. Very popular winner – and thank God, the scripted banter from the presenters is almost over.

So, as Ms. Wurst – no sausage jokes, please – gives us her song again, a recap. There were some genuinely surprising acts in this year’s competition, and some of the music was actually good. More surprising still: some of the good stuff scored surprisingly highly. And speaking of surprises, this year’s roster of acts included surprisingly few flaming camp catastrophes. Nobody got five feet taller during the final verse of their song, or performed suspended above the stage, or walked out wearing a swan. Depending on what you’re looking for from Eurovision, that’s possibly disappointing. And the Danish-scripted parts of the show, even by Eurovision standards, were lame. The presenters were stiff, the script wasn’t even slightly funny, and the interval act was dismal, and paled in comparison to the show Sweden put on last year.

So next year… presumably Vienna. The odds are at least even that this will be in the show somewhere. In the meantime, I think congratulations are in order: I got through the entire show on only four squares of chocolate and two paracetamols. I think that might be a record.

This year’s winner:

Sex and Violence

Here, for your entertainment, is a list of things I learned this week at the Royal Exchange Theatre‘s compelling new modern-dress (ish) production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd.

(Yes, bullet points. I mean, really – I’ve written two full-length prose reviews of major productions of Sweeney Todd in the past couple of years, and I don’t think the world is going to end if I duck out of writing a third. If you’re not familiar with the plot, check Wikipedia; if you’re lucky enough to have missed the movie, try to keep it that way.)

Anyway. So.

  • We’re not in Victorian England anymore, although we are still in London – possibly a little further east than where Fleet Street really is, but never mind. This production is set very firmly at the dog-end of the 1970s, in the earliest days of Thatcher’s reign of terror, and the shift in period works beautifully (although news of it has been greeted in a couple of online forums by hysterically overdone pearl-clutching fainting fits from people who, naturally, didn’t bother to see it for themselves before rushing to condemn it. Aren’t fans wonderful?). No, we didn’t transport convicts in the 1960s, but it doesn’t matter in the slightest; Sondheim and Wheeler’s picture of Victorian London is not documentary-accurate, and the story of a man who experiences monstrous inhumanity and wreaks a terrible revenge for it fits very well indeed with the casual cruelty (and, in the second half, the naked capitalism) of the early Thatcher years. And of course there’s no reason this material shouldn’t be moved out of the 1840s – if we can have modern-dress Shakespeare or Molière or Sheridan, we can have a (nearly) modern-dress Sweeney Todd too, as long as it isn’t simply done as a gimmick. And in this case, it certainly isn’t merely being done as a gimmick.

  • The Royal Exchange is a wonderful, wonderful place to see a play, but from a director’s point of view it’s also a startlingly inflexible space. It’s a theatre-in-the-round that can only be a theatre-in-the -round, all entrances and exits (at stage level, at least) have to be made via vomitoriums that pass several rows of seats, and every single exit from the stage leads directly into the theatre’s lobby area. This production – and knowing the Exchange’s idiosyncracies, this rings all kinds of alarm bells – is a co-production with the West Yorkshire Playhouse, which is a very different kind of space (for a start, it has walls, wings, and a backstage area that is not on full public view). The best compliment I can pay director James Brining (and his set and lighting designers, Colin Richmond and Chris Davey) is that you’d never guess the production was not conceived solely for this space.

  • The great benefit of seeing it at the Exchange: this is as up-close-and-personal a production of Sweeney Todd as you’ll ever see. It unfolds right in front of you, you can see the whites (reds?) of the actors’ eyes, and at least one of the murders takes place more or less in the audience’s laps. Other productions – including last year’s dazzling West End revival – have delivered more spectacle, more Grand Guignol grandeur, more sheer size; this one succeeds by taking the show’s subtitle – ‘A Musical Thriller’ – and running with it, except the thrillers it invokes are more Guy Ritchie than Victorian penny dreadful. Some stagings stylise or downplay the show’s violence, but this one doesn’t:, this is a jagged, angry, thoroughly chilling take on the material, and it’s utterly riveting.

  • There’s a lot of blood. I mean a lot of blood. In the final scene, the actor playing Tobias is more or less covered in it from head to foot (which makes perfect sense, given where Tobias has been). Given how lavishly the blood gushes in this production, they do a remarkably good job of keeping it off the floor.

  • There’s also a lot of sex. Well, compared to other productions, anyway. Moving the setting forward to the late 1970s has the effect of bringing the piece’s sexual subtext – which has always been present – much, much closer to the surface. ‘A Little Priest’, here, becomes an extended mating dance that verges on foreplay (the line “then blow on it first” has almost certainly never been dirtier than it is in this production), and that is very clearly going to end with Todd and Mrs. Lovett doing it on top of the banquette that hides Pirelli’s body. And it’s not just Todd and Mrs. Lovett who are at it like knives, either. Johanna may be virginal the first time we see her, but she certainly isn’t by the end of the first act. When she and Anthony sing ‘Kiss Me’ – on a bed – it involves full-on snogging, and the staging of the end of the number makes it obvious that they aren’t going to stop there.  And actually, seeing this subtext writ large is illuminating – this revival offers a genuinely fresh look at these characters and their relationships, and that’s largely because it’s set in a time in which people were far less physically inhibited than they were in Victorian England.

  • And that’s not just about naughty touching. Johanna’s relationship with Judge Turpin has possibly never been as disturbing as it is here. The sexual abuse of minors by authority figures has been much in the news in Britain over the past couple of years; in this production, Judge Turpin gropes Johanna’s breast, and it’s a thoroughly uncomfortable moment – as, of course, it should be. The danger Johanna faces if she doesn’t make her escape is shockingly clear.

  • Despite the shift in period, this production does not cut or change a word of the book or score. Indeed, here, you get all of it – the tooth-pulling sequence, the Judge’s ‘Johanna’, and the Beggar Woman’s full lullaby.

  • However, the first music you hear when the lights go down is not the organ prelude, it’s a scratchy recording of The Carpenters’ ‘(They Long To Be) Close To You’. It’s both jarring and intensely creepy, and it works.

  • This is very much an ensemble show rather than a star vehicle; that said, all of the performances are terrific. And for once, in a British musical revival, everybody in this cast can sing. The singing, in fact, is unimpeachable, and often thrilling. David Birrell and Gillian Bevan do especially fine work as Todd and Mrs. Lovett. He’s slowly being consumed – to the point of madness – by an awful combination of rage and grief (the poster blurb actually describes the show as “a musical thriller about a man driven mad by injustice”, and that angle has possibly never been clearer than it is in Birrell’s performance). Birrell offers, in places, a startlingly quiet interpretation of the role, which makes his occasional explosions all the scarier. His ‘Epiphany’ is genuinely threatening, and not simply because it’s staged far closer to the audience than it would be in a more conventional theatre. He’s matched by Gillian Bevan’s wiry, wily opportunist of a Mrs. Lovett. Bevan plays down the warmth and the laughs in places (the out-and-out music hall turn Angela Lansbury offered in the original Broadway production just would not work in this setting); the plot is driven, here, as much by her (dare I say Thatcherite?) determination to improve her status as by Sweeney’s thirst for revenge, and this Mrs. Lovett, when she wants to be, can be a very scary lady. Bevan also offers as exciting a vocal account of the role as I’ve ever heard, belting notes in ‘The Worst Pies In London’ that pretty much everyone else I’ve ever heard has taken in head voice. But then, every single performance in this production is remarkably fresh, and every single actor finds something in their role that hasn’t been seen in previous productions.

  • There’s a seven-piece band perched in the first circle above the stage. Yes, more players would be nice (but good luck finding space for them in the Exchange), and no, they’re not playing a version of the smaller orchestration Jonathan Tunick did for the National Theatre production. We also, thank God, don’t have any actors playing instruments onstage (well, apart from where indicated by the script and in the organ prologue, which is played onstage by a member of the ensemble), and musical supervisor David Shrubsole actually owns up to his new orchestrations in the programme. They’re perhaps a little keyboard-heavy, but I’ve heard far worse.

  • There are some nice little details in the direction. When Mrs. Lovett offers Todd a ‘bonbon’ in the second half, it comes out of a prescription bottle, which makes sense – his rage is such that of course he’d resort to chemical assistance to keep himself under control. And her bourgeoise fantasies in ‘By The Sea’ are illustrated by a copy of Ideal Home Magazine that she tries to show Sweeney as he watches TV. In the first act, the bird-seller’s birds are origami cranes made from newspaper, and they’re surprisingly lovely.

  • Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop has the filthiest fridge you’ve ever seen, and when Todd spits out the mouthful of pie at the end of ‘The Worst Pies in London’, she puts the half-chewed mess back in the bowl of uncooked pie filling on the counter. It’s totally gross – but of course, that’s what she’d do.

There are some (excellent) production photos here; the production runs another two weeks, and day seats are available every morning. It’s not the grandest Sweeney Todd you’ll ever see, or the most musically lush, or the funniest – but it may be the creepiest, it’s certainly different, and it grabs hold of you as the lights go down and never lets you go. It’s a gripping, startling piece of theatre, and it offers a new and genuinely surprising reassessment at a piece that, to me at least, has become a little bit over-familiar. The production is apparently Brining’s first as artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and also, according to the programme, heralds the start of a “creative partnership” between the Playhouse and the Exchange. If this production is an indication of the level of work that’s coming, that’s very exciting news indeed.