Oh, Vienna…

Brace yourselves. It’s here again. Like many of you, I can hardly contain my excitement. Eurovision is back. Back! BACK! There will be glitter, there will be dry ice, there will be whimpering behind a cushion until the scary parts have finished (you think the Weeping Angels are scary? They have nothing on Ukraine’s 2007 entry, which looks like what would happen if Rosa Klebb found herself at the epicentre of a silver lamé explosion), and since the show is being staged in Austria there will probably be dirndls. There will be Graham Norton muttering in the background, there will be a weird interval act, and there will almost certainly, before this is over, be multiple snarkgasms.

I’m ready for the cheese – I have crackers, I have a cushion, and I am only about twelve feet from the nearest bathroom. As ever, I am not watching this live – since I don’t drink and therefore can’t use Margaritas to dull the pain, I need to be able to resort to the fast-forward button in the event of it all getting too much, which usually happens less than twenty minutes into the show. Also, really, who has the patience to sit through the more-than-an-hour-long voting process? I certainly don’t. I mean, I could use the time constructively and read a book or something, but by the time the voting begins, on past form, my IQ will have temporarily dropped by about forty-five points. Best to just get it over as quickly as possible.

No, I did not watch the semi-finals. There is a point at which pain stops being pleasurable; if I’d watched the semi-finals, that point would likely have arrived at about 8.25pm on Tuesday, and we wouldn’t be here now. Judge for yourselves whether or not that would be a bad thing. I have – by dint of very selective viewing of Facebook and Twitter for the past three hours – managed to remain relatively spoiler-free, so that’s nice. I only have to sit through this once… unless there’s something really ghastly, in which case I reserve the right to pause, rewind, and watch it over and over about twenty times until my brain finally implodes in disgust at what I’m forcing it to witness.

ANYway. So. Thanks to the victory last year of the faaaaaaabulous Conchita Wurst, we are in Vienna this year. I like Vienna. A long time ago, as an undergraduate, I sang in both the Karlskirche and the Stephansdom as part of a tour of Eastern Europe with my college’s chapel choir. I think it’s a reasonably safe bet that nothing we hear this evening will much resemble the programme of English choral music we performed on that trip. Of course, on that trip I also saw The Phantom of the Opera at the (very beautiful) Raimund Theater – in German, so I didn’t have to suffer the English lyrics. I may flirt with the highbrow from time to time, but it seems I usually end up back wallowing in the cheese.

I spoke too soon. We’re beginning with the Vienna Philharmonic getting their Mozart on in the grounds of the Schonbrunn palace. Have I mentioned that Vienna is a gorgeous city? Don’t worry, the sequence only lasted two minutes. That’s the last natural beauty you’re going to be seeing tonight.

And heeeeeeere’s Conchita! Mr. Norton is telling us we can go online and download a scorecard – or at least, you could if you were a) watching it live and b) gave a shit about the scoring.

Now we’re seeing lots of happy Austrians standing in a circle and releasing balloons. No idea why. Inside the arena, the first thing we see is a giant glittery ball – not a glitterball, that wouldn’t be classy enough – dropping from the ceiling to a solo violinist, backed by a full orchestra, giving us the melody of Conchita Wurst’s ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’. And guess how Ms. Wurst enters?

(I’ll give you a clue, it involved a trapdoor and a lift. Geddit?)

The opening number is called ‘Building Bridges’, because of course this entire event is supposed to be some kind of celebration of international cooperation and peace and love and mutual understanding and all that crap. Conchita is flying on a wire above the audience while the orchestra plays a generic slab of Europop. If you were watching anything else, you’d think it couldn’t possibly get any more kitsch, but this is Eurovision. Sure enough, they immediately wheel on a choir of children.

The opening number passed without anyone letting off any fireworks, though, which is disappointing. Maybe there’ll be some later.

(“Maybe”? Yeah, right.)

Now all the contestants are parading into the arena. It looks like a cross between a Primark fashion show and the entrance of the athletes in an Olympic opening ceremony, if the entrance of the athletes in an Olympic opening ceremony was staged in a gay nightclub in Benidorm.

I’ve forgotten what this year’s British entry looks like. I’ve forgotten what it sounds like too, which is possibly no bad thing. Our recent form in this competition is not good.

And just in case we missed the point, everybody’s singing a slowed-down reprise of ‘Building Bridges’. You can just feel the love, can’t you?

Never mind.

Our Austrian presenters are welcoming this year’s special anniversary contestants – Australia, because why should anyone expect any of this to make sense? – and telling us a little more about the theme of building bridges “between countries, cultures, musical styles” and so on blah blah blah. Film montage of people around the world backed by a Russian power ballad about people coming together as one. Sweet.

The Austrian presenters are Not Very Good, and I think I missed most of their names. One of them might be called Arabella, and all of them might be robots. We are told, once more, that you can’t vote until all contestants have performed – this is a recent-ish innovation – but you CAN, this year, vote via an app, assuming you can be arsed to download an app in order to vote in Eurovision. Since the whole thing is over now because I’m not watching live, it’s a moot point.

So, entry number one. Slovenia. Maraaya, with a song called “Here For You”. She’s wearing enormous noise-cancelling headphones, possibly so she can’t hear herself. The song is hipsterish pop, she sounds like the love-child of Duffy and Basil Brush, and a black-clad dancer with white Christmas tree baubles sewn onto her jumpsuit is playing air violin next to her. It’s bizarre, but not bizarre enough. The lyrics are completely incomprehensible, but it’s got a catchy chorus. It won’t win, but it’s a decent start.

Two. France. Lisa Angell, “N’Oubliez Pas” Black-clad woman with smudged eyeshadow singing a prettily doomy ballad while images of an urban wasteland are projected on an enormous LED screen behind her. She has a nice enough voice but no presence, and the song is sludge.

Oh. Now there are four military drummers drumming alongside her. She does at least hit all the notes, and she has a bigger voice than you’d guess, but that wasn’t France’s finest hour.

Three. A screen caption warns us the next performance contains flashing images and strobe effects. Duh, this is Eurovision. Israel, Nadav Guedj, “Golden Boy”. Not, sadly, by Charles Strouse. He’s apparently 16, but could easily pass for 40. It’s basically a slightly Middle-Eastern boyband song – he’s got three backing singers/dancers behind him – and it’s good, energetic, clean fun. And there are fireworks. See? I told you there’d be fireworks. We only had to wait until the third number to get them. At Eurovision, that’s what passes for delayed gratification.

Four. Estonia. Elina Born & Stig Rasta (there’s some kind of accent over the first A in his surname but I can’t be frigged to look up the ASCII character), “Goodbye to Yesterday”. Moody Johnny-Cash-meets-rockabilly, beautifully staged with spectacular projected shadows behind the two performers. They’re sexy, they can both sing – her better than him – and it’s quite a good song. Once again, though, the sound system is obliterating the lyrics. They probably aren’t very good, but that’s not quite the point – the sound is so bad that if I didn’t know these people were singing in English, I possibly wouldn’t guess.

Five. Us. The UK. Electro Velvet, “Still In Love With You”. Now I remember. Fun slab of electronic swing music, nicely performed, staged like a 21st-Century Art Deco hallucination. There’s black lighting AND their costumes actually light up. It’s not remotely subtle, but it’s also not remotely embarrassing, which puts it several steps above about half our last dozen entries. It won’t win, but it’s got as good a shot as anything we’ve entered in a while.

Six. Armenia. Genealogy, “Face the Shadow”. There are six singers, and they’re all smiling like they’ve drunk a little bit too much Robitussin. I have no idea what they’re singing about because the miking, once again, is crap, but it all seems to be terribly meaningful. And they’re using the wind machine, and it’s building to an overwrought climax. It ends with fireballs shooting into the air behind the singers, because Eurovision.

According to Mr. Norton, we have now, having seen the Armenian entry, plumbed the depths of tonight’s contest. That, apparently, is as low as we go.

Pity.

Seven. Lithuania. Their singer has apparently attempted to enter Eurovision several times before, so of course the pre-song introductory film shows the poor woman doing a bungee jump. Monika Linkyt & Vaidas Baumila (which sounds like something you’d put on a cold sore), with “This Time”. It’s one of those very, very peppy, enthusiastic acoustic guitar-driven pop songs that leave you thinking nobody could possibly be so high on life. The melody is absolutely forgettable, the staging is big and bright and colourful – there’s a projected deco sunburst behind them – and as the song progresses, it gradually starts to dawn on you that their fake smiles might actually be sincere, which is frightening.

Eight. Serbia. Another warning about flashing images and strobe lights. Bojana Stamenov, “Beauty Never Lies”. Silver ballgown, sequinned cape, glittery hair, four white-clad masked figures behind her waving flags. It’s All Very Dramatic, and a minute into the song the masked figures whip their masks and overalls off to reveal contemporary party clothes. Ms. Stamenov has a hell of a high belt, the lighting is completely bonkers, it’s camper than a whole stack of Canvas Holidays brochures, and it’s probably the most genuinely entertaining entry so far.

Nine. Norway. Morland & Debrah Scarlett, “A Monster Like Me”. This time you can hear the lyrics. Unfortunately the first lyrics you hear are “I’m telling the truth/I did something terrible/In my early youth”. His vocals are upsettingly Chris Martin-esque; she looks a bit like a young Bernadette Peters and sounds like a backed-up drain. It’s one of those songs that’s probably going to end with some kind of suicide pact involving either both singers or the entire audience.

Oh no, we’re still here. That was a bit traumatic, wasn’t it? Let the healing begin.

Ten. Sweden. The favourite, apparently. Mans Zelmerlow, “Heroes”. Very clever staging which has the singer interacting with stick-figure projections behind him. It’s a decent song, he can sing, and the staging is a knockout. It’s not the kind of compelling, charismatic turn that won it for Conchita Wurst last year, but it’s head and shoulders above anything we’ve seen so far.

Eleven. Cyprus. John Karayiannis, “One Thing I Should Have Done”. A sincere, rather lovely ballad, presented relatively simply until the demented lighting effects cut in at the dramatic part of the song’s bridge. Unfortunately for Mr. Karayiannis, this is Eurovision. Sincerity doesn’t play well here. He’s very likeable, but he won’t win.

Twelve. Australia. Guy Sebastian, apparently a big star Down Under, with “Tonight Again”. It’s a very slick, polished performance, but it’s also the sort of thing that makes you long for the playful wit and emotional depth of, say, Justin Timberlake. It’s bouncy, energetic, and completely forgettable. Moving on…

Thirteen. Belgium. More flashing images and strobe effects. Loic Nottet, “Rhythm Inside”. He’s walking slightly robotically, and so are his five white-clad backing singers. It’s a bit like Depeche Mode circa 1984 with better harmonies and slick choreography. It’s endearingly strange, they perform it with absolute conviction, and it hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of winning.

Fourteen. Austria. The Makemakes, “I Am Yours”. Also known as the please-God-don’t-let-us-win-this-year entry (the winning country gets saddled with the bill for staging next year’s event). Slightly Lennon-and-McCartneyish piano-and-guitar pop, “sung” by a long-haired hipster who might have learned his vocal style from being waterboarded. Halfway through the second verse, the piano catches fire. Unfortunately it doesn’t take out the band, and they get to finish the song. Damn.

Little intermission. Conchita takes us into the Green Room. What’s the Wurst that could happen? Well, one of the plastic presenters could try to be funny, and the joke could land like a concrete Sachertorte.

The joke involved a reference to Ms. Wurst’s long hair and beard and the 2008 French entry, whose backing singers all sported conspicuously fake flowing wigs and long beards. Laugh? I thought my pants would never dry.

And we’re back to the songs. Fifteen, Greece, Maria Elena Kyriakou, “One Last Breath”. Flowing blonde hair, low-cut glittery evening dress, tinkly piano, wind machine, drums coming in at the keychange into the second chorus. We’re in cut-price Céline territory here – there’s always at least one. It’s a lousy song, and she doesn’t quite have the power to really sock the climax home, although she hits all the notes. Not one of the evening’s highlights, either for the right or the wrong reasons.

Sixteen. Montenegro, Knez, with “Adio”. A violinist playing a folksy melody, drum machine underneath, people striking weirdly dramatic poses, and a slightly seedy man with glittery lapels on his black jacket trying to sound sincere in a language 98% of the people watching this don’t speak. It’s less interesting than I’m making it sound. Fast-forward time.

Seventeen. Germany. Ann Sophie with “Black Smoke”. The guy who won the selection process in Germany dropped out, so we’re getting this instead. Aren’t we lucky? The song is a bit Bond Theme-y, and Adele wants her (borrowed) vocal stylings back. Or she might, if Ann Sophie could sing half as well as she can. Ms. Sophie borrowed her (low-cut) black belted jumpsuit from 1968, and her right earring possibly doubles as a feather duster. That’s not a bun on her head, either – when she’s done singing, or whatever it is she thinks she’s doing, she’s going to use it to cosh people who don’t vote for her. I think that’s going to keep her quite busy later on.

Not Germany’s best effort, this one. Better luck next time.

Eighteen. Poland. Monika Kuszynska, “In The Name of Love”. Ms. Kuszynska has, we are told, overcome considerable personal adversity (a serious car accident which left her in a wheelchair) in order to be here. The song is a pretty middle-of-the-road midtempo ballad, and she sings it very prettily, although the backing singers drown her out a bit. She’s lovely – but, again, sweet sincerity is not necessarily what works at Eurovision.

Nineteen. Latvia. By now I’m not even noticing the warnings about strobe lights. Aminata, “Love Injected”, a title which mostly just serves to remind us all that we’re dealing with this without the aid of pharmaceuticals. Plinky plonky intro, she’s singing a weird un-melody and wearing what looks like an inverted tulip. Then she strikes a pose and shreiks. Her dress has apparently rendered her immobile from the shoulders down; wondering whether she walked onstage herself or had to be wheeled into place is more interesting than actually listening to her song. Oh thank God it’s over. That was quick, or maybe I zoned out.

Twenty. Romania. Voltaj, “De La Capat”. Voltaj have apparently been big stars on their home turf for about twenty years. They’re a Proper Group, with instruments and everything. The sound system is rendering the Romanian lyrics far more clearly than it’s managed with anything sung in English this evening. Too bad I don’t speak Romanian. The song is a bit Gary Barlow-ish – pleasantly inoffensive, with a Great Big Chorus which isn’t quite as memorable as they’d like it to be. It’s an enjoyable performance, but I think not a winning one.

Twenty-one. Spain. She’s dating a Man Utd player, apparently. I’ve never heard of her. I’ve never heard of him either. Edurne, with “Amanecer”. She begins by kneeling on a comatose man’s torso while wearing what look like red sequinned terry-cloth widow’s weeds. In the second verse, the comatose man gets up and holds her train, then yanks it – and the red sequinned terry-cloth thing – off as she goes into the chorus, revealing a glittery silvery somewhat see-through dress which is cut so high you can see her knickers. All of this is more interesting than the song she’s singing. There’s some kind of desert landscape projected behind her, and then the half-naked male dancer comes back and lifts her up. And then he’s gone again, possibly blown away by the wind machine which cuts in for the final chorus. I’m sure it all made sense to somebody when they started rehearsals.

What am I saying? No I’m not, this is Eurovision.

Twenty-two. Hungary, Boggie, “Wars for Nothing”. Earnest young woman in burgundy polyester singing about Whirled Peas. Four other singers are classically attired in blue and white polyester (blue suits and white shirts for the men, blue skirts and white blouses for the women, all looking like they were bought for £8.99 at ASDA), and behind them the screen is showing a projection of a tree made out of machine guns. It’s very low-key and a bit tuneless, but they have lovely voices. The last verse, which they sing in harmony, is quite nice, but it isn’t going to set anyone’s pulse racing.

Twenty-three. Georgia. Vampira McScary, or rather Nina Sublatti, with “Warrior”. She looks like a teenage goth throwing a tantrum – she’s obviously been practicing her grimace in the bathroom mirror for, ooh, minutes – and the pointy feathered shoulders on her outfit could take someone’s eye out. She’s got a dagger-like headpiece in her centre parting, her hair is even limper than the week-old celery in my fridge, and behind her there’s all the dry ice in the world. She can sing, but the performance is all posturing. It’s a bit like watching Katharine McPhee trying to play Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Ms. Sublatti has possibly spent a little bit too long watching reruns of “Dark Shadows” and “Xena, Warrior Princess”. The song is instantly forgettable Europop, which rather works against the sneering attitude she’s trying to strike as she sings it.

Twenty-four. Azerbaijan. Elnur Huseynov, “Hour of the Wolf”. Pleasant pop ballad sung (quite well) by a blandly good-looking young man as a pair of writhing dancers – one of whom is bare-chested – perform what appears to be a carefully-choreographed mashup of a wrestling match and a bilious attack around him. They all get through the song without giggling, which is more than I can manage.

Twenty-five. Russia. Apparently one of the favourites. It’d be fun if the campest international television event on the planet ended up being staged next year in a country which last year passed into law some of the most repressive anti-gay legislation on the books anywhere in the developed world, wouldn’t it? Perhaps Putin could host. Without his shirt. While wrestling a bear.

No, not that kind of bear.

Polina Gagarina, “A Million Voices”. All about love and tolerance, according to Mr. Norton – values that Russia’s current political leaders so clearly espouse. At least, they reeeeeaaaaallly love Crimea and the eastern part of Ukraine. But let us not speak of The Unpleasantness. Ms. Gagarina is about to sing. It’s a big power ballad, the above-the-waist part of her dress is apparently a couple of bits of kitchen roll and a piece of string, she’s got a big voice, and her roots need doing. It’s got a huge singalong chorus, and – all snarking about her ridiculous President’s appalling record aside – is actually pretty good in a you’ll-hate-yourself-later-for-enjoying-this sort of way. Dull presentation, though. The visuals do count for something – the contest, these days, is about acts rather than songs.

Twenty-six. Albania. Elhaida Dani, “I’m Alive”. That’s nice for her; after having been watching this for a couple of hours now, I’m not sure I am. It’s low-key, it’s classy, it’s boring as shit, and her vocal “style” appears to involve going off-pitch a lot. Fast-forward time. Bye bye, Elhaida.

Oh, crap. I didn’t quite miss her big shreik at the end. Bummer.

Twenty-seven. The last one. Italy. Il Volo, “Grande Amore”. They’ve toured as Streisand’s opening act, apparently. Three cheesily, generically handsome men with improbably vertical hair and slightly operatic voices singing Sarah Brightman-esque crossover pop. They can sing, they have remarkably mobile eyebrows, and I really really really REALLY hate this kind of music. They do it very well indeed, and it stinks.

So. We’ve seen it all. Conchita wants us to applaud because everyone was AMAZING. The presenters have changed their dresses and I still can’t remember their names; they’ve got to talk for a bit while the stage is cleared for the interval act, and I can fast-forward through the recap of all the acts which they always do when voting begins.

One of the three nameless presenters – Miriam? – just sang a snatch of ‘The Hills Are Alive’ really badly. Thank God they didn’t hold the show in Salzburg, it would have been wall-to-wall dirndls.

Ohhhhkay. Martin Grubinger and the Percussive Planet Ensemble with ‘Speeding Up The Images’ and ‘All Is In A State Of Flux. It begins with a big dramatic chord and a lot of people playing percussion instruments like they’re on meth withdrawal, and I’ve a feeling I may not be watching this all the way through.

Oh.

Oh dear.

It’s never a good sign if, two minutes into watching something, you start to think you’d rather be watching “Riverdance”.

(Yes, I have seen “Riverdance”, and not just their Eurovision intermission act from years ago.)

Now there’s a quiet bit with French horns. I may not have to go and stick my head in the freezer after all.

Everybody in the green room is holding a pose. I think they’re supposed to be heart shapes.

And now a choir of very classy musicians are singing something generically modern/classical and almost, nearly maintaining straight faces as they do so. This is deeply silly, and not in a good way. Flags of all nations (well, all the nations that are here in the arena) are waving all around them. Like a lot of things this evening, it’s obviously supposed to be Very Very Meaningful, but it isn’t.

And we’re back with the crazy percussion people. I’m fast-forwarding.

Apparently that was all based on themes by famous Austrian composers. I’m sure their music is super, but thank God it’s over.

And here’s another recap of all the acts. Fast-forward time.

Second interval act: Conchita Wurst with two new songs, reminding us she’s a more compelling, more exciting performer than anyone else we’ve seen all night, even though several of the acts we’ve seen feature better singers. The songs aren’t very good, but Ms. Wurst is one of those people who can hold a stage just by standing there and striking a pose – which doesn’t mean they don’t bring out a gaggle of flamboyantly weird dancers and the full weight of the show’s weapons-grade lighting rig for the second number.

Unfortunately, the performance is followed by a painfully stilted scripted chat with one of the presenters-whose-name-I-can’t-remember in which they repeatedly plug Ms. Wurst’s new album. Even by the standards of everything else we’ve seen tonight, this is cringe-inducing.

Now we’re introduced to Vincenzo Cantiello, winner of last year’s Junior Eurovision. Holy crap, that kid is loud. His neighbours must be either very understanding or profoundly deaf.

And NOW, one of the presenters is describing the trophy as “a real piece of art”. It looks like it came from a pound shop.

We see a montage of past winners, and it’s almost time for the points to be announced. But first, a word from Jon Ola Sand, the ESC’s executive supervisor… like I give a shit. Fast-forward time.

Un-fast-forward. The Romanian presenter appears to be standing in front of a backdrop of smog. 10 points to Russia, so hopefully they won’t invade.

Just kidding.

Judging by the Moldovan presenter, the Jaclyn Smith look is still big over there.

Azerbaijan give douze points to Russia. They don’t want to be invaded either. We picked up a point somewhere, I don’t know where from.

Latvia’s presenter is powered by Duracell, and his hair is made out of styrofoam and taped into place.

Early on, it looks like it’s between Russia, Italy, and Sweden.

Awww. France gives Belgium douze points. Bless. It’s more of a race than it’s been the last couple of years.

Germany’s presenter seems to be wearing some kind of pizza cutter. We’ve picked up another point from somewhere, aren’t we lucky?

Electro Velvet are now third from bottom, Germany and Austria still have nul points. Somewhere, an Austrian network executive is breathing a heavy sigh of relief.

Hungary gives Belgium twelve points, and we all need a moment to recover from the sight of an Eastern Bloc country NOT giving their highest score to another Eastern Bloc country.

The UK’s points are being presented by Nigella, who sadly doesn’t whip up a sumptuous pasta dish as she announces the results of our phone-in vote. She does, however, speak flawless German, Italian and French. We gave ten points to Australia, and I’m losing the will to live. Douze points à la Suède. We’re still third from bottom.

San Marino gave us three points. They’re the 35th counrtry to announce their results, and their three points more than doubles our score. I think Electro Velvet are probably going to be down the dumper quite soon.

The Norwegian presenter has had someone embroider licorice allsorts into the shoulders of her frock. Oh, those wacky Norwegians.

(No, they really are. Let us not forget, Norway is the country that sent both Jahn Tiegen and Benedicte Adrian to Eurovision. Obviously there’s some kind of strange national sense of humour there that the rest of the world will never quite be able to understand.)

We’re now fourth from the bottom, not third. Yay us.

And it’s all over bar the shouting. We’re fourth from bottom, Austria and Germany both have nul points, and Sweden – deservedly – wins by a fairly clear margin. Can I put in an early vote for them to bring back Petra Mede as presenter next year?

Here’s the winning entry, and we should all get some kind of group hug for having made it through to the end of the show:

And there wasn’t a dirndl in sight. I want a refund.

Imelda’s Turn

gypsy savoy

Or, some quick thoughts about the current London revival of Gypsy:

* It’s one of my favourite shows (I wrote about that the last time I saw it), so to me, ANY production is an event.

* Given Imelda Staunton’s reviews, both here and in the production’s initial run in Chichester, this revival is rapidly turning into An Event. Ms. Staunton is giving one of those landmark performances that people will be talking about for years.

* Yes, she can belt. Not that everything in the score has to be belted – the role was created by Ethel Merman, but there’s more than one way to sing this score – and Ms. Staunton brings a great deal of light and shade to her interpretation of the music. The fact that she can unleash a great big belt voice when she needs to seems to surprise some people, though. Perhaps they didn’t see her in Guys and Dolls.

* Ms. Staunton, though, is an actress before she’s a singer, and this is first and foremost an acting performance. Her performance is both funnier and darker than other people I’ve seen in the role have been – she’s an immensely skilled comic actress (I mean, she even managed to be funny in the witless sitcom Is It Legal?), this is a musical comedy, and she finds every laugh you’d expect, along with several you don’t. At the same time, though, she is truly formidable – and it’s also clear from the outset that this Rose, psychologically, is a little out-of-kilter with the rest of the world. She can be charming, but she’s fuelled by rage, and when she explodes – as in the scene in Granziger’s office towards the end of the first act – her anger is disproportionate. This is a woman with very little sense of perspective.

* This serves to make her, oddly, more fragile than some other Roses have been. Her big numbers at the end of each act – Everything’s Coming Up Roses and Rose’s Turn – are each, here, genuine breakdowns. Staunton’s Rose’s Turn, in particular, is emotionally wounding in a way nobody else I’ve seen in the role has quite managed. I think the entire theatre stopped breathing until the number was over.

* Actually, I think my mouth was hanging open for most of the second half of the second act. Even if you know the show by heart – which I do, more or less – this is an unusually compelling production.

* Peter Davison’s Herbie and Lara Pulver’s Louise haven’t received enough praise. Davison has always been underrated as a stage actor, and this is some of the best work he’s ever done. Pulver sings beautifully, of course, but her second-act scenes with Rose, again, are more bruising here than they’ve been in other productions. Nothing escapes these actors; this is as good an account of the show’s book as you are likely to see.

* It’s a pity, therefore, that they’re using the slightly cut-down revised version of the book from the 2008 City Center revival (no ‘Small World’ reprise, much shorter version of the hotel scene in the first act in which Rose no longer accuses the hotel manager of attempted rape, a few other nips and tucks). None of the alterations are improvements; I’m not sure the cuts are mandatory, given that they weren’t included in the last British revival, and when everything else here is so good, it’s a shame to find them working from a slightly less effective version of the script. The stuff that’s missing here is not superfluous.

* The strippers – Louise Gold, Anita Louise Combe, and Julie Legrand – are hilarious. Their “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” brings the house down.

* Director Jonathan Kent’s big achievement here lies in the performances. It’s a solid staging of the show, but not a startling one. He has a superb cast, and he keeps out of their way.

* A string section would have been nice. This production has a trio of central performances that may be as close to definitive as anyone has achieved since the show’s original Broadway cast in 1959; it’s a pity they’re working to a somewhat reduced orchestration, although the reductions are quite skilfully done. It’s not a tiny band, but it’s not the original orchestrations either, and the original orchestrations are glorious.

* It’s a little bit anal of me, I know, but it’s not my very favourite thing when a theatre programme refers to a character by a name that’s never mentioned in the script:

Imelda Momma

* Those are minor quibbles, though. This production is running until November. If you love theatre, musical or not, you need to see it. Staunton is doing the strongest work of her career so far, and everybody else rises to her level. Theatrical experiences as thrilling as this don’t come along often.

Now, God knows, anything goes

…and I sort of wish it didn’t.

There’s nothing at all wrong with the production. In fact, I almost don’t have enough superlatives to describe the production. Under the artistic direction of Daniel Evans, Sheffield’s Crucible has produced an impressive series of musical revivals, many of them directed by Evans himself. His production of My Fair Lady a couple of years ago was impeccable, and this Anything Goes – now on a UK tour after a run in Sheffield at Christmas – is at least as good.

What makes this all the more impressive an achievement is that Anything Goes, despite a stellar score, is not exactly one of the most durable shows in the canon. This is a typical Thirties musical comedy, albeit one whose book has received several spruce-ups over the past eighty years (the version being performed here dates from 1987), which means Cole Porter’s peerless songs are strung around a set of barely-two-dimensional characters and groan-inducing jokes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the show can be glorious, but it does mean it’s rather tricky to get it right. The upbeat songs are brassy, but make them too brassy and the characters singing them can become unpleasantly strident. The romantic numbers are meltingly lovely, but can seem melodramatic next to the comedy material if they aren’t delivered with a light touch. The jokes creak, and you can see half of them coming a mile off, but push the comedy too hard and the show rapidly deflates. It’s a soufflé, and all the ingredients have to be in perfect balance.

Happily, they are. Evans begins his production surprisingly quietly; the opening sequence, which takes place in a Manhattan nightclub, is accompanied only by a solo piano and a (very, very muted) trumpet, and we don’t hear the full band until the action shifts to the cruise ship on which most of the show takes place. What follows is a total delight. We have gorgeous costumes and an elegant forced-perspective Art Deco ocean liner set by Richard Kent, good-humoured but not too on-the-nose choreography by Alistair David, appropriately splashy lighting by Tim Mitchell, and sensitive, swinging musical direction from Tom Brady, leading an impeccably tight nine-piece band. Sure, the plot is outlandishly ridiculous, but when the action is led by Debbie Kurup’s sweet-but-hot evangelist nightclub singer (really!) Reno Sweeney and Matt Rawle’s goofily charming stockbroker Billy Crocker, who cares? They land every single laugh, and so does everybody else, and they find both the wit and the ache in Porter’s effervescent score. There are no stunt-cast X-Factor finalists or has-been pop stars here, and everybody involved clearly loves the material. More than that, everybody involved clearly trusts the material. Evans and his cast don’t try to force or in any way punch up the script’s hoary old groaners; they know the jokes work, ancient as they are, and they give the material room to breathe. Even Simon Baker’s sound design is a cut above what you usually get on the touring circuit – you can actually hear all the lyrics, and the sound system doesn’t assault your eardrums every time the music starts. A larger band might be nice, but this is otherwise about as good as revivals of classic musicals get.

So what’s my beef? Two things. First, cellphones. Yes, AGAIN. I didn’t hear any phones ring, but there were far too many people texting/checking email/whatever when the lights were down. In a darkened theatre, the light from smartphone screens can travel a surprisingly long way. It’s distracting and unnecessary, and it’s also incredibly rude to the actors, who can see those screens from the stage.

And then there are the programme notes. Oh my God, the programme notes. Programmes in this country are not free, like they are on Broadway. You pay for them, and they are relatively expensive – for this show it’s £4.00, and that’s for a programme, not a souvenir brochure. For this you get the usual – cast/creative bios, list of musical numbers, some kind of article about the production, and so on. You do not, in this instance, get bios of the people who actually wrote the show – no bio of Cole Porter, much less of Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, who wrote the version of the show’s book that’s being performed here. That’s bad enough, but it pales next to John Good’s lazy, inaccurate production history of the show, which is the first thing you’re likely to read when you open the (overpriced) programme. Among other things, we are informed that Mr. Crouse and Mr. Weidman wrote a new book for the National Theatre production of the show in 2002 (nope), and Patti LuPone starred in a London revival in 1969 (when she was in college… in New York). Now, OK, most people aren’t as geeky about this stuff as I am, but these are not obscure facts. This is the sort of stuff you can research in ninety seconds by visiting the show’s Wikipedia page, and the fact that this tripe made it into print in a programme we’re expected to pay for reeks of a certain disdain towards the audience – that it’s OK to dash off any old crap for the programme in five minutes without checking it because most people watching won’t know any better, and that it won’t matter if you omit the writers’ bios because they are not, Cole Porter aside, particularly famous in this country (never mind that one of the authors of the show’s original 1930s book is P.G. Wodehouse). When every single thing you see on the stage – every set-piece, every prop, every line, every note of music, every light cue, every dance step, every throwaway aside – is executed with such love of and care for the material, I’m afraid I find that profoundly depressing. It wouldn’t have been very difficult to make the programme as good as the production – or at least not loudly disrespectful towards both the material and the people who wrote it – but the powers-that-be, in this instance, simply couldn’t be bothered. The show’s authors deserve better, and so do we.

One more thing: the theatre (the Opera House in Manchester) was less than half full (granted, it’s one of the largest houses the tour will play). The show is on the road until the early autumn, and it’s well worth seeing. In case I haven’t said this enough, revivals as good as this one don’t come along very often, and this show deserves full houses.

Just maybe skip buying a programme.

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 – or at least, it’s the polar opposite of the kind of warmly reassuring television drama you’d usually expect to find in the 9pm Sunday slot on BBC1. 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 apocalypse. 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 when 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. Centre-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.