Changing my major to Jeanine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Deep End

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It’s brief – under forty minutes – so this will be too. As Alex, the speaker in Simon Stephens‘s monologue Sea Wall, Andrew Scott is quite extraordinary. Stephens’s monologue tells a story about Alex’s relationship with his father-in-law, and moves quite quickly from a charming family portrait to a harrowing exploration of grief; it’s written as an intimate confessional and performed on a bare stage with the house lights up (there is only one lighting cue, and it comes at the very end of the piece), and under George Perrin’s direction Scott somehow manages to make you feel he’s telling his story directly to you, even when (as I was) you’re sitting in the back row of the dress circle. It’s a charming, devastating, profoundly moving performance, and a thrilling masterclass in how to grab the audience’s attention and hold on to it without raising your voice or moving more than a few paces. By now you’ve probably read a dozen pieces praising Scott’s performance to the skies, and he deserves all the acclaim and more.

The piece itself, on the other hand, is effective, but it isn’t as good as the performer delivering it here. Stephens has some excellent lines, and he does a very good job of sketching the dynamics between the various members of Alex’s family in the first few minutes of the monologue, but there’s a point where the writing starts to become predictable; when tragedy looms, you can see it coming a full fifteen minutes away, and that’s an issue in a piece that’s under forty minutes long. Stephens does, though, make one genuinely brilliant writing choice, and paradoxically it’s silence. There is a moment where he could have chosen to make Alex say any number of things, all of which would have been plausible, and chooses instead to leave us to fill in the blanks, and that (long) pause is the most powerful moment in the production.

In the end, though, what you remember is Scott standing in the middle of a bare stage, wearing nondescript clothes, playing the audience like a violin and doing it without breaking a sweat. It’s a short piece, but it’s a remarkable feat of storytelling – even if, as I said, you’ve figured out where the story is going a long time before it gets there.

 

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At Last the 1948 Show

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There are many, many wonderful things about Opera North‘s revived revival of Kiss Me, Kate, but let’s start with the most surprising: unlike the (abundantly talented, and she should have known better) lady who played the role on the most recent Broadway cast recording, Stephanie Corley’s Lilli Vanessi actually sings I Hate Men instead of mugging and shrieking her way through it as if she’s on a mission to grind every last scrap of humour in the song into a bloody, unrecognisable pulp. Not only does she sing it, she sings it beautifully – and it’s very funny, because the scene is very funny, and because nobody is trying so hard to MAKE IT FUNNY that they kill the joke.

As a show, Kiss Me, Kate absolutely reflects what musical comedy was in 1948 (actually it’s at the more sophisticated end of what musical comedy was in 1948): the score might be Cole Porter‘s masterpiece, and Sam and Bella Spewack‘s book creaks a little around the edges these days. The situation – a show-within-a-show spun off from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, in which the warring relationship between Kate and Petruchio is reflected in the warring relationship between Fred, the actor-manager directing the show and playing Petruchio, and Lilli, the actress playing Kate, who also happens to be Fred’s ex-wife – is full of comic potential, the lines are funny, the characters are real and believable, and it certainly is still playable, as this revival clearly demonstrates. In terms of structure, it is of its time. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing – I loved it more or less without reservation – but musicals these days move a little more quickly, and no longer have to be structured so that scenes using the full stage are dogmatically alternated with scenes performed “in one” on a reduced playing area in front of a backdrop to allow stagehands the time and space to change the set. The last Broadway revival of the show used a (crassly) rewritten version of the book (by John Guare) whose purpose was at least partly to make the show move from scene to scene in a way that just wouldn’t have been possible in the original production. This revival, on the other hand, is essentially a trip straight back to 1948.

That’s not a bad thing. In Jo Davies’s staging, first seen three years ago and revived here by Ed Goggin, the material is given space to breathe. There’s comic business where appropriate – Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin are blissfully funny as the gangsters – but you never get the sense that this cast are being forced at gunpoint to MAKE THEM LAUGH (really, check out the DVD of the London iteration of the last Broadway revival to see a cast of actors playing comedy as if they’re being held hostage). Quirijn de Lang’s Fred has a gorgeous baritone and marvellous timing, Corley’s Lilli is flawless, Alan Burkitt’s Bill Calhoun can tap-dance like a dream, and Zoe Rainey’s Lois Lane effortlessly wrings every last laugh out of Always True To You In My Fashion. The supporting performances are lovely, the chorus singing is beyond reproach, the sets and costumes (Colin Richmond) and lighting (Ben Cracknell) do the job more than well enough given the limitations of a production designed to play in repertory with two or three other shows on tour. And – best of all – there are more than fifty musicians in the pit under the baton of Jim Holmes, who knows how to draw all the wit out of Porter’s dazzling score, and the production is only very lightly miked, so the experience is probably as close as you’re ever going to get at a big musical these days to natural sound. It isn’t LOUD – most musicals these days are LOUD (believe me, I saw this Kiss Me, Kate in the evening after a return visit to Dreamgirls in the afternoon) – and it takes the audience a few minutes to adjust, but then people listened in a way they somehow usually don’t when there’s a sound system turning the volume up to eleven.

Still, though, the fact that this is basically a three-hour trip back to 1948 means it may not be for everyone. As I said, these days new musicals move more quickly. If you’re not prepared to adjust to the (lack of) volume the show may seem a little remote. And in this particular property, as in the Shakespeare play it’s based on, there’s a certain amount of built-in sexism that audiences are far more sensitive to today than they were seventy years ago. Look in the usual places online and you’ll find comments from people disappointed that this production didn’t push the comedy far enough, that it wasn’t loud enough, that the pace was too slow, that the sets weren’t elaborate enough. Depending on your yardsticks, those are not necessarily unreasonable criticisms – there’s no question that a production conceived directly for the West End would have looked and sounded quite different. For those of us prepared to meet this production on its own terms, though, it’s, well, Wunderbar.

 

I Love Lucy

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I am a world-class nit-picker, so you may want to sit down for this: as performed – gloriously – by the extraordinary Laura Linney, Rona Munro‘s stage adaptation of Elizabeth Strout‘s novel My Name is Lucy Barton is a perfect theatrical experience. This is one of those incredibly rare productions where everything works. The only thing wrong with it is that the run is only three weeks so I won’t get to see it again.

Strout’s novel – and Munro’s stage script – presents a woman looking back, first at an experience in the 1980s when she became ill following a supposedly routine operation and was hospitalised for several weeks, during which time she was visited by her estranged mother, and second at her childhood, and at the causes of her estrangement from her family. From these recollections, she pieces together the process by which she acquired the ruthlessness necessary to forge a successful career as a writer. That’s a simplistic summary, because Munro’s monologue is difficult to reduce to a two-line synopsis; it’s a ninety-minute tiptoe through an emotional minefield, and if there can be such a thing as a low-key tour-de-force, this is it.

Lucy’s story, at times, is certainly harrowing. Growing up on a farm in rural Illinois, in the kind of acute poverty that made other children mock her and her siblings for smelling bad, with a war-veteran father suffering from undiagnosed PTSD and a harshly undemonstrative mother, Lucy’s stories of her early childhood recall Dickens without the warmth. The tone is carefully matter-of-fact, without fireworks or histrionics, because this isn’t an I-survived-abuse confessional. Strout (via Munro) offers, instead, a careful meditation on whether it’s ever possible to escape your upbringing, and on the ways in which we sift through our memories in search of a story to tell. There’s more going on, of course – Lucy’s lengthy hospitalisation occurs in the early 1980s, the spectre of AIDS is hovering over Manhattan (there are some fascinating echoes, here and there, of The Inheritance, another play in which the ways we organise our lives and memories into narratives is a significant theme); Munro’s great achievement is to take Strout’s more-complex-than-they-seem characters and ideas and distil them, with remarkable clarity, into ninety minutes of stage time.

Laura Linney matches the writing with an impeccably-judged, quietly astonishing performance which, again, counts as a low-key tour-de-force. There are no big explosions, no bite-marks in the scenery – just a masterclass in how to tell a story simply and clearly, making every word, every breath, every pause, every gesture count. Linney slips between Lucy, who has acquired the manners and voice of a Big Ten-educated New Yorker, and her mother’s spikily flat Midwestern drawl with forensic precision, and finds all the (considerable) humour in her mother’s tales of People Back Home Who Met a Bad End. More than that, Linney navigates Strout’s complicated emotional territory without grandstanding, and without ever succumbing to oh-pity-me melodramatics; she holds back the tears instead of turning on the waterworks, and navigates a clear course through the three levels of Strout’s timeline. Linney’s presence – for want of a better word – is extraordinary: this is simultaneously a blazing star turn and an intimate character study, and there are very few actors who could navigate that contradictory duality as confidently as she does, particularly in a 900-seat theatre.

It’s beautifully directed, too, by Richard Eyre, on a simple, stark set – three projection screens, one behind the other, at the back of the stage, plus a hospital bed, a nightstand, and a chair – by Bob Crowley. Video projections, which take us from a Manhattan hospital room with a view of the Chrysler Building to an Illinois cornfield and back – are by Luke Hills, and the lighting and sound are by, respectively, Peter Mumford and John Leonard. They appear to be working in perfect unison – as in Linney’s performance, there are no flamboyant flourishes here, just a carefully-modulated exploration of every nuance of Strout and Munro’s text.

It’s safe to assume that it’ll have a life beyond the Bridge, although nothing has yet been announced. Behind that unassuming title there’s a quietly shattering piece of theatre, and Linney’s performance is utterly mesmerising. It’s a given that it’ll be seen in New York, and it’s to be hoped that it will be filmed – it would be perfect as a standalone special for Netflix or HBO – and if I lived any closer to London I’d be back before the end of the run. Don’t be put off by the cosily middlebrow poster art; there are no caveats, no buts, no holes to pick, and it’s (at least) is as good as anything you’ll see this year. Linney’s performance may be as good as anything you’ll see this decade.

 

All the clichés in a row…

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The title number – an ode to the pleasures of the roller-skating rink delivered by a chorus of six men who somehow manage to tap-dance on the stoppers on their rollerskates – is five minutes of pure joy. As choreographed by Fabian Aloise, it might well turn out to be the year’s most spectacular showstopper, never mind that it’s being staged in a 250-seat converted industrial space on Newington Causeway rather than in the West End. The gleefully exuberant performances are an absolute delight,  and the icing on the cake is the holy-shit-we-got-through-it-without-breaking-anything look on the actors’ faces as they hold their poses during the applause. It’s sensational, thrilling, and delivers ten times more sheer fun than any of the overblown tap sequences in the Duracell ad currently playing at Drury Lane. If you love musical theatre, you need to see those five minutes, and you’ll probably want to see them more than once (I would, if I didn’t live so far from London). It’s that good.

Unfortunately, that production number arrives halfway through the second act of a show with more than its share of problems, most of them attributable to the writing. Or rather, mostly attributable to Terrence McNally‘s turd of a book, because about two-thirds of the show’s score is top-tier Kander and Ebb, and the few (relatively) duff songs in it are still better than anything you’ll find in some shows that were much bigger hits. The Rink is set in the late 1970s in a dilapidated roller rink somewhere on the US’s eastern seaboard, and McNally’s book consists of two hours of bickering between the rink’s (co-) owner, Anna Antonelli, who has just sold up and is planning to retire, and her estranged adult daughter Angel(a), who left home in her late teens (i.e. in the mid-60s) to join the protest movement. Between the rounds of bickering, we see (many) flashbacks in which the gradual disintegration of Anna and Angel’s relationship is set against the gradual decline of the boardwalk. Occasionally, seemingly almost at random, McNally throws in a couple of zingers, some of which – to be fair – are genuinely funny (Anna: “If you ever see anybody parked in a brown Toyota with his seatbelt on, that’s Lenny.”). It’s clear from the show’s (feeble) attempt to examine the various social changes seen in the US over the roughly thirty-year span covered by the show’s flashbacks that McNally is aiming for something along the lines of a slightly more intimate Follies; what we get, unfortunately, is an uneven hybrid which plays like a warmed-over mother-daughter movie-of-the-week punctuated by lines from an insipid, long-cancelled sitcom, served up with a generous topping of Italian-American clichés. The book, in short, is bad. Really bad. It’s so bad that you’d never guess it was by the same writer who gave us Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Love! Valour! Compassion! (you might, on the other hand, guess it’s by the same writer who gave us Master Class and Deuce). It’s so bad, it includes a scene in which a father melodramatically announces “I have no son!”. It’s so bad that there is not a single moment anywhere in the show where you won’t a) be three steps ahead of what Mr. McNally must have fondly imagined was the plot, and b) be counting the seconds until everybody stops speaking and starts singing again. If you started to count the clichés in McNally’s dialogue you’d either slash your wrists or run out of numbers. There are a lot of 1980s musicals with really bad books. This is one of the worst, and it’s the reason the show has never been a hit.

The score, fortunately, is better – much better – and if you knew the show at all before this production was announced, chances are the score is what made you buy a ticket. The milieu is perfect for Kander and Ebb, and they deliver in spades: Chief Cook and Bottle Washer, an exultant shout of independence from a woman who has spent decades of her life attending to everybody’s needs except her own; Don’t Ah, Ma Me!, a furiously combative mother-daughter duet; Colored Lights, Angel’s gradual realisation that years on the protest trail have left her unsatisfied and unfulfilled; that glorious title song; the always-darkest-just-before-the-dawn ballad We Can Make It; Marry Me, the most self-effacing marriage proposal number ever written (delivered with exquisite restraint on the original Broadway cast recording by a pre-Seinfeld Jason Alexander); and Wallflower, a sensational dance number for Anna and Angel in a flashback sequence at Angel’s spring prom. It’s unfortunate that All The Children in a Row, Angel’s climactic recollection of her journey through the counterculture movement, includes the worst lyric quatrain Fred Ebb ever wrote (“Why’d you have to take that stuff?/Come on, Danny, that’s enough/We can make it, we’ll survive/Danny, you’re too stoned to drive!”), but that’s four lines out of a mostly stellar whole. The original Broadway cast recording, on which Anna and Angel are played by, respectively, Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli, is spectacular; both stars are at their peak, and the material is perfect for them (Rivera’s role was written specifically for her) There aren’t many opportunities to hear this music performed live; for some, it’ll be worth gritting your teeth through the awful dialogue for the opportunity to hear this cast tear into these songs.

That’s because the good news is that director Adam Lenson has assembled one hell of a cast for this production. It should probably go without saying that Caroline O’Connor can do no wrong – I mean, the last time I saw her in a show I very nearly founded a religion based on worship of her – but she’s every bit as good an Anna as you’d expect. She dances up a storm, of course, and belts the hell out of Anna’s numbers, but she also miraculously, through sheer force of personality, somehow manages to transcend the dazzling hideousness of McNally’s writing. As Angel, Gemma Sutton doesn’t, but it isn’t her fault: her character is badly short-changed by this version of the script, which is significantly revised from the version seen on Broadway in 1984 (and in Manchester in 1987 and London in 1988). In the original script, the show opens with Angel alone onstage singing Colored Lights, a wistful song about her longing for her childhood home. In this version, the show opens with what was originally the next scene – Anna greeting the wreckers who have come to demolish the rink, announcing her retirement and departure, and singing Chief Cook and Bottle Washer – and Colored Lights doesn’t appear until the end of the first act, where there was originally a short reprise of it. The result, unfortunately, is that Angel enters at the end of what is now the first scene and immediately starts arguing with Anna, and that inevitably means the audience sides against her: this version of the script introduces her as a barrier between Anna and her retirement rather than as a woman looking to rediscover her roots, and that change (which is in the current version of the published script as well) damages the first act quite badly. Ms. Sutton is abundantly talented – she’s a beautifully honest actress and a wonderful singer (she does not, however, deserve the dead polecat masquerading as a wig that she is forced to wear in this production), but this revised version of the script – which incidentally solves almost none of the original script’s problems beyond cutting the cringe-inducing flashback scene between a teenage Angel and her lecherous Uncle Fausto – doesn’t do her any favours. When she finally sings Colored Lights, it’s a gorgeous performance.

The rest of the roles – yes, all of them – are played by the six wreckers Anna hires to demolish the rink: Stewart Clarke, Ross Dawes, Michael Lin, Elander Moore, Ben Redfern, and Jason Winter. They’re all flawless, and their two musical numbers – that fabulous title song in Act Two, and the witheringly sarcastic After All These Years in Act One – are among the production’s great highlights. There’s equally flawless musical direction from Joe Bunker, whose seven-piece band sounds terrific, and Bec Chippendale does as much as anybody could to recreate the faded grandeur of a roller rink on the Jersey shore within the confines of the Southwark Playhouse’s auditorium and budget. There’s even a glitterball, and it looks magical under Matt Daw’s lighting. The production, overall, is just about as good as it could possibly be – but it’s a good production of very, very problematic material. You’ll want to see it for O’Connor and the rest of the cast, for that sensational title song, and for the chance to hear this score performed live. It is more than worth the Southwark Playhouse’s standard £25 ticket price. While the musical numbers, though, are genuinely thrilling, don’t be surprised if the show as a whole leaves you unmoved, even given the fiercely committed performances from the two leading actors. Don’t be surprised, either, if you find yourself taking an inner journey during the dialogue scenes. A lot of what you’ll see is very entertaining – but this is, in the end, a superlative production of a show that just doesn’t work.

 

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(Re)fried Rice

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I saw it the first time around too, but I didn’t want to miss it again. Emma Rice‘s adaptation of Brief Encounter – or rather, or Brief Encounter and Still Life, the short play Brief Encounter is based on – may be (a lot) more Emma Rice than Noël Coward, but it’s (still) a thrilling, sometimes breathtaking, thoroughly memorable theatrical experience, and there (still) isn’t anything else quite like it in the West End.

It (still) isn’t precisely a straightforward adaptation of the film, though the film’s plot points are all present and correct (surely for THIS of all things you don’t need a synopsis, do you?). Rice’s calling-card is a larger-than-life theatricality that is less concerned with simply telling a story than in evoking what the characters in her productions are feeling. Rice doesn’t simply stage the screenplay, and she also doesn’t attempt a precise recreation of the film’s look and feel. Instead, she uses a combination of dialogue, song, stylised movement, and projected film to evoke the intensity of Laura and Alec’s feelings as they fall in love, and as they are forced to part. The action spills off the stage into the stalls, characters walk through a screen into and out of scenes being shown on projected film, at one point Alec swings from a chandelier, and a selection of Coward’s songs are performed in counterpoint as a kind of live underscoring. It shouldn’t work, but it does, mostly triumphantly.

Whether it’s as startling now as it was ten years ago, though, is another question. If, like me, this was your introduction to Rice’s distinctive directorial aesthetic, you may well, in 2007, have never seen anything quite like it. It’s not that the production doesn’t stand up to repeat viewing – it’s still thoroughly entertaining – but inevitably on a second viewing the element of surprise is somewhat diminished. It’s still an utterly charming, delightful evening (well, matinée in this case), but it didn’t blow me away this time the way it did the first time I saw it.

That’s no reflection on the performers; there’s perfectly-judged work from Isabel Pollen and Jim Sturgeon as the thwarted lovers, and behind them a terrific ensemble cast, some of whom also play musical instruments, switch roles and personas at the drop of a hat. It’s (still) sometimes surprisingly funny, although without ever diminishing the emotional core of the piece, and in particular this time around Rice and her cast find tremendous humour and warmth in the relationships between the various people working in the station tea room. The singing, right across the cast, is wonderful, with Jos Slovick’s Go Slow, Johnny a particular highlight.

What’s less wonderful this time around are the ticket prices, which top out at £65, which is more than double the show’s £29.50 top price at the same venue ten years ago (in terms of inflation, £29.50 in 2008 would be worth a few pence under £39 today). It’s no secret that ticket prices across the West End have been on a sharply upward trajectory over the past few years; wonderful as the show is, £65 is a lot of money, and while London has always been a very expensive city it stretches credulity beyond breaking-point to suggest the cost of producing theatre there has risen so much faster than inflation over the past decade when wages, to say the least, have not. What’s going on here is a crude form of dynamic pricing: I sat in a seat that is on sale for next week’s Wednesday matinée for £65, and I paid significantly less than that (I paid less, though not much less, than the 2008 top price of £29.50). Discounts are available if you shop around – but only if you shop around, and not for every performance. The top price, presumably, is set where it is in order to allow more room for the possibility of discounts. This show is well worth seeing, particularly if you missed it first time around – but do your homework before you book, because the best price isn’t necessarily going to come from the theatre box office. Go and see it, by all means – it’s (still) wonderful – but purchase carefully.

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Muito queijo

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Here we are again – it’s May, it’s Saturday night, and it’s time to sandblast our retinas and eardrums watching the continent-wide celebration of unrestrained kitsch that is the Eurovision Song Contest. Whoopeee. One thought before we start: it would be super, wouldn’t it, if the UK won and we ended up having to host a televised celebration of European pop culture six weeks after we leave the EU next year?* I mean it won’t happen, obviously, because there’s no way in hell we’ll win, but if I was every other country in Europe I’d give the UK douze points all the way simply for the chance to stick two fingers up at the Brexiteers. And then, for good measure, I’d make Jacob Rees-Mogg and Andrea Leadsom put on spandex jumpsuits and host next year’s show.

*IF we leave the EU, which is not a foregone conclusion.

As usual, I am not watching the show live – although it hasn’t finished yet and I have remained spoiler-free – because the therapy bills would probably break me. I’ve recorded it, because I need to be able to pause/fast-forward/scream/go and lie down in a darkened room if it all gets too much. And the one certainty at Eurovision is that at some point in the evening it WILL all get too much.

I am also, as ever, watching completely stone-cold sober, if you don’t count the little bit of white wine in the chicken à la king I made earlier (yes I know it’s supposed to be sherry, I hadn’t got any). I hope you appreciate my bravery.

And no, of course I didn’t watch the semi-finals. Do you think I enjoy pain?

(I’m watching the Eurovision Song Contest. Maybe don’t answer that.)

ANYway. So. Lisbon, because Portugal was last year’s winner. I remember nothing whatsoever of last year’s winning entry. We open with a lot of footage of Lisbon’s (gorgeous) cityscape, which reminds me that I was last there 24 years ago. Apparently a lot of the “big hitters” didn’t make it through to the grand final, which I might have known if I’d watched the semi-finals. Or if I cared.

The disappointingly subdued opening begins with a guy in a black suit playing classical guitar accompanying a lady named Ana Moura singing something called ‘Loucura (Sou du Fado)’. It’s very Portuguese and rather lovely, although her ragged black frock seems to have crept in from the aftermath of a battle scene in ‘Game of Thrones’. It’s… tasteful, which in this context is quite frightening.

Oh, wait, no. Bye bye good taste, now we’re watching a row of military drummers behind a thin screechy lady in a glittery low-cut flesh-coloured gown. Whatever she’s singing – I don’t speak Portuguese – is obviously deeply meaningful to her. She and Ms. Moura end up at the front of the runway in front of the stage, and the crowd goes wild.

Now, we’re informed by Graham Norton, we’re having a flag ceremony, backed by “the world DJ scratching champions”. The wooden grid at the back of the set is apparently supposed to represent shipbuilding, so now you know. Flags of each participating nation are carried around the runway, and we meet the contestants one (group) by one. There are no LED screens on the set, which – according to Mr. Norton – means the staging of some of the numbers is going to be “quite bonkers”. Good, that’s what we’re here for.

There is apparently no clear winner, which might mean we’re all actually going to have to watch the voting. Pray for us all.

So that was the flag ceremony. Now it’s time to meet our hosts. Four young women, all wearing improbably shiny dresses, and all smiling in a way that suggests rubber bands pulled very, very tight.

Voting doesn’t open until after the last song has been performed, and in the UK we can vote by app but not text. Not that I’ll be voting, because I’m two hours behind the rest of Europe.

The majority of tonight’s performances, we are reminded, contain flashing lights and strobe effects. We’d want a refund if they didn’t.

And without further ado, we’re into the songs. Everybody got their paracetamol handy? Good. Let’s begin.

One. Ukraine. Melovin, which sounds like something you’d apply to an open wound, with Under the Ladder.
He begins in what looks like a cross between a coracle and a sarcophagus, lit from within in red, and then the bars open and he’s standing on a platform above the stage looking like an extra from a Twilight film. The song is catchy, generic Europop, and I think he might be about to turn everybody in the front row into vampires.
Oh. Now he’s whipped his jacket off, the platform thing is actually a piano at the top of a staircase, and he’s playing the piano as he sings and the staircase is burning while bolts of flame shoot into the air behind him and interpretive dancers whirl meaningfully as fire rages around them. If the sound system wasn’t obliterating nearly all the lyrics, this might make sense.

Oh, wait. This is Eurovision. Probably not.

Two. Spain. Amaia y Alfred – a real-life couple, apparently, though not for very long – with Tu Canción. A reminder: nothing in the second slot has ever won.
We’re beginning in minor-key drippy piano ballad territory, with the singers moving towards each other from opposite sides of the stage. It’s pretty and sweet and sincere and incredibly dull. It builds to a nicely-sung final chorus with swooping strings in the background, but – sorry, Amaia y Alfred – it still isn’t interesting.

Three. Slovenia. Lea Sirk, singing Hvala, ne!, which apparently means “thanks but no thanks”. Hands up who’s hoping for a blast of Previn, Comden and Green? Just me? Oh well.
Ms. Sirk has (mostly) pink hair, and co-wrote the song herself. It doesn’t appear to have a melody, but never mind. There are dancers in metallic bodices doing vaguely ‘street’ vogueing that might have been au courant in 1994, and Ms. Sirk’s personality is unfortunately drowned out by the hyperactive light-show. At one point she stops the music and tries, not successfully, to get the audience to clap along. That’s the best bit.

Four. Lithuania. leva Zasimauskaitè, with When We’re Old.
Another piano ballad. No gimmicky staging. She’s very young, very pretty – naturally pretty, as opposed to the rather plastic airbrushed-and-blow-dried-into-infinity look that so often passes for pretty at Eurovision – and the song is low-key and rather touching. She has an appealingly throaty voice, and can pull out a hell of a belt when she wants to. I don’t think she’ll win, but it’s an interesting contrast with the brain-shredding schlock you usually expect at Eurovision.

Five. Austria. Cesár Sampson, whose aunt is apparently Pepsi from Pepsi and Shirlie, with Nobody But You.
Jazzy baritone, unfortunate rubber T-shirt and trousers, decent song, and for some reason he’s standing on a platform with lights underneath that looks a bit like the alien spaceship that abducts Fallon in The Colbys. The song has a very strong, very catchy chorus, he can really sing, there’s a gospel choir somewhere offstage, and he throws in a couple of spectacular high notes in the final refrain. It’s a really good performance, though not the kind of mesmerising star turn that won the contest for Austria a few years ago.

Six. Estonia. Elina Nechayeva, singing something called La Forza. Her dress, we are told, cost €65,000. All the clothes I’ve ever bought in my life wouldn’t add up to more than a fraction of that.
She’s a proper singer, and we seem to be in Sarah Brightman crossover territory. Her dress lights up from underneath and then starts showing projections as she sopranos off into the stratosphere. She has a hell of a voice, but the projections-on-a-dress effect has been done before, although it possibly hasn’t been done better. It’s absurdly OTT, she hits her big high note at the end dead-on, and overall it’s a really good performance. Whether the song itself is memorable enough to do well, though, is a different question.

Seven. Norway. Alexander Rybak, who won in 2009, back for more with a song called That’s How You Write A Song.
He mimes playing violin, then drums, then guitar, then starts singing. It’s an upbeat, slightly kitsch, bouncy blast of pop, and he certainly throws himself into it. The song, despite the title, isn’t that great, but he’s a terrific performer. Yes, he plays violin for real in the bridge. The overall effect, though, is of a relentlessly upbeat production number from the kind of musical that opens on Broadway to mediocre reviews, runs seven months, and doesn’t win any Tony awards.

Eight. Portugal. Our hosts. Cláudia Pascoal, singing O Jardim. Her pink hair is way pinker than Lea Sirk’s.
It’s a wispy ballad, she’s singing with her eyes closed, and this is clearly the please-don’t-make-us-pay-to-host-the-show-next-year entry. She has a nice voice, it’s a nice-enough song, and things don’t perk up when the songwriter joins in halfway through.

An interruption from the hosts. If you listened to all the songs ever performed at Eurovision back-to-back, it would take nearly 73 hours. Or you could just watch the show, which won’t take 73 hours but might feel like it. There’s a very forced gay/straight joke buried somewhere within their spiel. Ms. Shiny Dress #4 is wearing a temporary shoulder tattoo saying “the commentators rock”. She gets Ms. Estonia to sing an arpeggio. She really does have a hell of a voice. Ms. Estonia, not Ms. Shiny Dress #4.

Nine. United Kingdom. Us. SuRie, with a song called Storm which I haven’t heard before RIGHT NOW.
Memorable chorus, decent voice, bland lyrics. She still believes in chasing rainbows, apparently. Is this a song about the European Research Group? She’s Terribly Sincere. Imagine a cross between Annie Lennox and Yazz and you’re on the right track.
Oh. There’s a stage invasion – a man in a tracksuit shouting something about Nazis and the UK – and he gets really, scarily close to her. Security guards drag him offstage, and SuRie – impressively – doesn’t miss a beat. Very, VERY cool handling of what must have been a frightening moment. She finishes to huge applause and deserves it. Whether she’ll get to perform again, we don’t know.

Ms. Shiny Dress #4 is talking to the Ukrainian singer via an interpreter. She tells him he looks like a vampire. Yes, we know. He moves into bite her. This is an unscheduled pause, we’re told, while the backstage management figure out what to do about the moment of OMGWTF we’ve just witnessed. For now, we’re going on to the next song.

Ten. Serbia. Sanja Ilic and Balkanika, singing Nova Deca.
Ooh. Wind machine. Beardy man playing a flute/recorder thing. Three women in black and white intoning meaningfully while a big bald bearded man who obviously considers himself a sex god – he isn’t – sings the lead vocal in a surprisingly wimpy voice and someone bangs steel drums rhythmically at the side of the stage. I can’t help wondering whether they’re all members of a death cult – and if they are, is it us or them who is supposed to end up dead? It’s… not very good.

He represented Yugoslavia in 1982, apparently, and came 14th.

Eleven. Germany. Michael Schulte, You Let Me Walk Alone, apparently inspired by the death of his father. We’re told he’s the German Ed Sheeran… presumably if Ed Sheeran had more hair.
And yes, his song is right out of the Ed Sheeran how-to-write-a-sincere-ballad manual. The chorus, though, is basically the verse of Adele’s Someone Like You, only speeded up a bit, so let’s knock off a few points there. His performance is suitably anguished, and a lot of people like this sort of thing more than I do. Which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right. It builds to a ghastly melodramatic climax as swirling beams of red light go insane behind him. It’s clearly a popular entry, but it’s also completely dreadful.

Twelve. Albania. Eugent Bushpepa, with Mall. The Chinese network objected to Eugent’s tattoos, it seems, so the show – all of it – isn’t being shown there this year. He looks like Jake Gyllenhaal playing Dave Gahan, and – a common Eurovision trope, this – his voice isn’t nearly as tough as his outfit. A wailing rock tenor number that isn’t quite as rock-n-roll as it thinks it is, and it all falls apart when he starts screlting near the end.

Thirteen. France. Madame Monsieur, with Mercy, a song inspired by the refugee crisis.
Monsieur plays guitar, Madame sings. It’s low-key modern political pop, presented without gimmicks, and none the worse for that. If you’re at all familiar with Francophone pop there are no surprises here at all, but it’s a decent song with a strong singalong final section, and she sings it very well indeed.

Fourteen. Czech Republic. Mikolas Josef, Lie To Me (Mr. Norton’s aside: “OK, I think you’re going to win.”)
He’s wearing a bowtie, braces, and glasses, and – why? – a leather backpack, and it’s a very white take on New York hip-hop from circa 1985. Yes, there is breakdancing. Breakdancing dancers in shell suits. It’s – what’s the phrase I’m looking for? – fucking awful. He yells “WASSUP EUROVISION?” towards the end, and the crowd screams, I think more in fear than anything else.

Fifteen. Denmark. Rasmussen, with Higher Ground.
Rasmussen looks a bit like Tilda Swinton, if Tilda Swinton had a big bushy red hipster beard. Beard grooming, unfortunately, might have been a higher priority for Rasmussen than coming up with a decent song. There are four similarly hipster-beardy backing singers, and it’s basically like watching Take That, if Take That hadn’t shaved for two years and had forgotten how to write a chorus. “NOW COME ON, WALK WITH US!”, he yells. No. A wind machine blows fake snow over them as the song lumbers towards what I assume must have been intended as a climax, but unfortunately they don’t get buried in a fake snowdrift.

Sixteen Australia. Yes I know Australia isn’t in Europe, deal with it and move on. Jessica Mauboy, We Got Love.
Jessica is a huge, huge star in Australia. She’s wearing blue tinfoil and chewing up most of her consonants, she sounds like Danni Minogue imitating Natalie Imbruglia, and her song is terrible. She tries to get the crowd to sing along with the chorus, and they don’t. Ouch.

Two of the shiny presenter ladies are back to tell us we’re all having a great time. Especially the stage invader, I’m sure.

The Serbian wannabe-sex-God is telling shiny presenter lady #4 that he’s in love with her. It’s not creepy at all. Then she asks Mr. Rubber Outfit from Austria to lift her up three times in five seconds. He does. There’s a subtext here, and perhaps we don’t want to delve into it too deeply.

Seventeen. Finland, Finland, Finland. The country where I quite want to be. Pony-trekking or camping, or just watching TV… where was I? Not in Finland. Damn. OK. Saara Aalto, Monsters. Hit it, Saara.
Saara has a very elaborate top-knot/plait thing on her head, and eye make-up that goes back to the top of her ears. She sings the first verse while being spun upside-down on a rotating disk. She’s backed by a team of S&M prison guards doing fascistic interpretive dance – the kind of moves that might have been daring in a Eurythmics video in 1982 – and she does have a really good voice. She doesn’t have a really good song, but the staging is weird enough that it might not matter. Yes, of course there are fireworks at the end.

OK. So. SuRie was offered the chance to perform again, and declined, saying that she had nothing to prove. She’s right.

Eighteen. Bulgaria. Equinox, singing Bones.
Four bars in and the screaming starts. One of the singers, I think, not me, but I had to check. It’s another hipster invasion, and another group who might be singing about a death cult. They can all sing, although the song is quite tedious, but I can’t shake the feeling that this, to them, is what passes for an uplifting song. It’s all a bit overwrought, there’s dry ice AND the wind machine, and the screamy lady in the middle ends with a screamy countermelody over the final refrain.

Nineteen. Moldova. DoReDos, My Lucky Day.
The staging involves overexcited people opening doors/windows in a white wall and grimacing/gesturing/shaking their hips, while other overexcited people sing and prance about in front, and sometimes the people in front of the wall swap places with the (identical) people behind it. It’s a slab of cheerfully naff Europop, performed by hyperactive CBeebies presenters dressed up for a night out on the piss at a 1970s theme bar in Wigan. It’s jaw-droppingly bonkers and great fun.

Twenty. Sweden. In the pre-performance clip he’s shown making cheese, which in a sense is what everybody connected to this show has been doing all evening. Benjamin Ingrosso, Dance You Off.
Solo performance in front of a coolly stylish light show consisting of horizontal bars of light. The visuals are better than the song, but it’s got a memorable hook in the chorus and it’s somehow fresher and more up-to-date than most of what we’ve seen this evening even though it also sounds like a Bee Gees offcut from twenty years ago. He doesn’t have a huge voice, but he can sing, he can move, and it’s very watchable. And then it ends, and the lights stop flashing, and you can see his improbably tight/rigid trousers properly for the first time, and it suddenly becomes clear why his voice moved sharply upwards as if he was regressing back towards puberty every time he moved his legs.

Twenty-one. Hungary. A metal group, oh joy. AWS, Vislát Nyár. Brace yourselves.
They are obviously ready to rock. I’m not sure anyone else is. There’s lots of grimacing and attitude, flames start shooting out of the front of the stage, and miraculously none of their improbably floppy fringes get singed. The singer is barefoot, the guitarist does a stage dive, and the drummer should have worn more anti-perspirant. It ends in a scream, which eerily matches what we’ve all been doing internally for the last three minutes.

Twenty-two. Israel. Netta, with a song called Toy.
Netta looks a little bit like Dawn French playing Bjork. She’s fabulously eccentric; she’s standing in front of a table with three panels that light up like a Simon Says game, behind her are two walls of shelves filled with golden toy cats with metronome-like wagging tails, and there are three dancers in black and pink tracksuits doing a Jane Fonda Workout on a bridge off to her left. Netta also has one hell of a voice, and is giving the most original performance we’ve seen all night. The song is also eccentric, and at two points seems to involve Netta making chicken noises – but of all the things we’ve seen so far, this is the one that looks most like a winner.

Twenty-three. Nearly there now. Netherlands. Waylon, who was one of the Common Linnets, who came close to winning in 2014, singing Outlaw in ‘Em.
It’s a passable pastiche of American country-rock. Everybody’s got a little outlaw in ’em, according to the chorus, and I assume whoever designed Waylon’s shiny animal-print coat has been on the run from the law for quite some time. It’s an enjoyable performance, but not the greatest song; his 2014 entry, a rather lovely country song called Calm After the Storm, was far better (and far better, actually, than nearly anything that has been performed at Eurovision since).

Twenty-four. Ireland. Ryan O’Shaughnessy, Together.
Pretty ballad, he hits all the high notes in the chorus, but the staging – which has a boy-meets-boy courtship enacted by two dancers behind Mr. O’Shaughnessy and his pianist – is better than the song. The song is lovely, actually – but the staging is a knockout.

Twenty-five. Cyprus. Eleni Foureira, Fuego. I assume she won’t be singing about a Renault.
She opens the song in a metallic flame-patterned jumpsuit while the lights form what looks like a ten-foot-high vagina behind her, and that’s just about the most memorable thing about it. It’s bog-standard Greek Europop, the sort of thing you hear all summer in every beach bar in every Mediterranean resort east of Brindisi; given the title it’s inevitable that the staging will involve flames, and it does. We’re told this is the bookies’ favourite, and I – seriously – can’t imagine why.

Twenty-six. Italy. The last number. Ermal Meta e Fabrizio Moro, Non mi avete fatto niente
It’s apparently about overcoming your fear of being a victim of terrorism. It’s very well-meaning, they’ve both got good voices, and it needs a little bit more urgency. A tasteful, low-key performance, and not a bad song, but it’s not going to win.

So that’s all the songs. There’ll be a recap before the voting lines open, except I’m two hours behind so voting has already closed (no I don’t know who won, I am still spoiler-free). The four shiny presenter ladies have changed into new, even shinier frocks, and it’s time to take a loo break.

Two of the shiny presenter ladies are shouting HAVE YOU VOTED? over and over again. No I haven’t, please don’t hurt me.

Now we’re being invited to get a bit mellow and get into Lisbon’s groove. It’s the interval act. It is indeed mellow. The singer who opens the sequence is terrific; I’m sure the guy rapping in Portuguese is too, but I’ve no idea what any of it means. The music is a rather charming intersection of Europe, Africa and Brazil; it’s all rather subdued and tinged with melancholy around the edges, and it makes a rather nice change from the Debbie Allen Dance Number knockoffs you often get in the interval act.

Now two of the shiny presenter ladies are handed a phone by a naked man whose dangly bits are conveniently hidden by the onscreen graphics. One of them tells him he’d better leave before the graphics get taken off. Oh, how we laughed.

Now we’re getting a quick tour through some of the 53 songs Portugal entered in Eurovision before they finally won. It’s grim. People who aren’t funny trying to be funny in front of a TV audience of 200 million. Moving swiftly on…

…to the Junior Eurovision winner. Polina Bogusevich, a Russian 14-year-old with one hell of a voice. We see a clip of her winning song, and it’s completely batshit insane. She sings a couple of lines a capella, and she is so very pleased to be here on this amazing stage. That’s nice.

Now we get last year’s winner performing his new single. Like many things this evening, I’m sure it’s terribly meaningful if you speak Portuguese, but the closest I can get is GCSE Spanish, which I took almost thirty years ago. Fast forward time.

Another recap of the 26 songs in tonight’s contest before the voting lines close. Fast forward time again.

First, the jury votes, which are based on the dress rehearsal performance last night. I’ll be fast forwarding a lot… again.
A dozen countries in and the UK has nul points. I’m (cough) shocked, and it has nothing to do with the performance or the song.
(I mean, really, what did we expect? Our leaders, most of our newspapers, and a chunk of the public have all spent the past couple of years metaphorically sticking two fingers up at Europe, and what goes around comes around. Especially at Eurovision, which is a grudge match as much as it’s a song contest.)
Mel Giedroyc announces the points from the UK jury. Mel is in Uxbridge, which is currently represented in the House of Commons by Boris Johnson. Sorry, Mel, but we all have our crosses to bear. We’ve given 8 to Bulgaria – perhaps the screamy lady frightened the judges – and 10 to Israel, with douze points going to Mr. Rubber Pants from Austria. Bye Mel, you can get the hell out of Uxbridge now. Quickly, before Boris farts in your general direction.

Halfway through the Jury votes, Norway’s points are being awarded by a man in a shiny red jacket and Darth Vader. Israel and Austria are tied in the lead, with Cyprus third and Germany fourth.

Three-quarters of the way through, Austria is in the lead, Israel is second, Sweden is third. The UK is third from the bottom.

The last jury to award votes is Portugal. Portugal’s twelve points go to Estonia, who are a third of the way down the board; Austria is first, Sweden is second, Israel is third, the UK is fourth from the bottom.

As a result of the public vote, though, everything can change. And often does. Mr. Rubber Pants is really, really touched, he says. Not through those pants, he isn’t.

And before the public vote is revealed, a quick word from Eurovision’s executive something-or-other, I stopped listening and so did everybody else. Blah blah blah, platitude platitude platitude, shut the fuck up already and let’s get to the end of this shitfest.

So… the public vote. Did the public agree with the jury? Probably not, that’d be boring.
Australia got just nine points from the public vote. That’s eleven more than they deserved. The UK got 25, which gives us a total of 48, which means we won’t be coming last. Phew.
(Like I care.)

Two-thirds of the way through the public vote, Austria and Sweden are both out of the running to win even though they were first and second in the jury vote, and the potential winners are Israel, Germany, or Cyprus. I can’t remember Cyprus’s entry and it’s less than an hour since I saw it.

And the public vote boots Denmark from near the bottom of the board to near the top, and kicks Mr. Rubber Pants into third place. Netta wins for Israel, Cyprus is second, and it’s all very exciting. Portugal finished last, so their plan worked. We’re third from the bottom, and – again – I can’t possibly imagine what 52% of the electorate, a gaggle of our politicians, and a big chunk of our media might have done to so piss off both the juries and the public voters right across Europe.

Netta is clearly overjoyed and overcome. The trophy – a cut-glass microphone on a plastic stand – is staggeringly hideous, the waving golden cats are wheeled out again, and Netta gives us a reprise as the show’s grand finale.

So… next year in Tel Aviv, presumably. While you’re waiting, here’s Netta: