Catching Up…

Again, here’s many reviews in a single post. Normal service will be resumed as soon as I get a better definition of normal.

A VERY EXPENSIVE POISON

A very big miss. There’s a terrific play somewere in the horrifying story of the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, but this isn’t it. Lucy Prebble seems, as she was with Enron, to be more preoccupied with theatrical tricks than with telling a story or advancing a thesis. There are puppets, there are songs, and there’s sometimes the germ of an idea, most successfully in the final section in which Prebble steps back and lets MyAnna Buren’s Marina Litvinenko speak the real Marina Litvinenko’s own words. Elsewhere, terrific as he is, the device of having Reece Shearsmith’s reptilian Vladimir Putin supply commentary via a microphone from one of the boxes is very much subject to the law of diminishing returns, and it wouldn’t be if the writing was sharper. The drama is ineffective, the satire is ineffectual, the play as a whole is an incoherent mess, and a fine cast can’t save it.

MAME – Hope Mill, Manchester

Tracie Bennett plays Tracie Bennett. If you like Tracie Bennett, and I often do, then you’ll love this (it’s closed in Manchester but it’s touring next year). If you don’t, you’ll be in for a long evening. Harriet Thorpe is fabulous as Mame’s best frenemy Vera, Tim Flavin is underused as a love interest who appears towards the end of the first act and disappears for good two scenes into the second, and while the Jerry Herman songs are peerless, the big takeaway ballad – If He Walked Into My Life – feels like it’s burst in from an entirely different show. It’s an achievement, certainly, that director/choreographer Nick Winston manages to cram so much into such a tiny space, but it’s all a bit relentless. They don’t make star vehicles like this anymore… and I’m afraid there’s a good reason: it needs an Angela Lansbury, and while Tracie Bennett has many admirable qualities, she just isn’t that kind of star.

& JULIET – Opera House, Manchester and Shaftesbury Theatre, London

Maybe the year’s most delightful surprise. I bought the ticket, I admit, mostly for Miriam-Teak Lee and Cassidy Janson – the idea of a jukebox musical built around the Max Martin oeuvre didn’t immediately appeal – but it’s cleverly written, VERY funny, and the singing is spectacular. It’s a play-within-a-play in which Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway argue over the ending of Romeo and Juliet – she doesn’t like it – and the plot defies description, but you have to love a show in which Juliet’s non-binary best friend May belts out I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman, Romeo descends from the flies singing It’s My Life, Juliet tears a strip off her back-from-the-dead lover with a stinging rendition of Since U Been Gone, and the Nurse gets to sing Pink’s Fuckin’ Perfect to Juliet. I’ll admit to wholeheartedly loathing Céline Dion’s That’s The Way It Is… or rather, I did until I heard what Cassidy Janson does with it, because it’s the sort of performance that makes your mouth drop open. Ms. Teak-Lee is sensational (she was sensational in On The Town, too) – fabulous voice, fabulous timing, and anyone who can get bring-down-the-house laughs out of Britney’s Oops, I Did It Again deserves to be a major, major star. How much did I like it? I went back for a return visit.

CURTAINS – Palace Theatre, Manchester

Second-tier Kander and Ebb elevated by inventive direction from Paul Foster, a terrific comic performance from Rebecca Lock as a take-no-prisoners Broadway producer, and a surprisingly charming turn from the (very) resistable Jason Manford as a detective who is obsessed with musical theatre. It’s not earth-shattering, but it’s a good night out.

MASTER HAROLD… AND THE BOYS – National Theatre

One of those productions in which everything works apart from one of the performances, which is a problem in a three-hander. It’s a stunning play, it’s directed with loving care by Roy Alexander Weise, there’s a terrific period tearoom set from Rajha Shakiry, complete with real rain, and Lucian Msamati gives a towering performance as Sam, one of the ‘boys’ (that is, middle-aged black men in 1950s South Africa) employed by Master Harold’s (unseen) mother. The only thing wrong with the production is Anson Boon’s performance as Harold, which is a flailing, overacted, inconsistently-accented mess.

THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT

It’s a very, very long time since I walked out of a show at the interval. Moving on…

GYPSY – Royal Exchange

Not the best musical the Exchange has ever done, and certainly not the best revival this show has ever received. The material is peerless, but it’s not the easiest show to do in the round, and director Jo Davies makes at least one misstep for every element she gets right. The strip sequence, which here makes spectacular use of a revolving gantry/proscenium, is sensationally good; elsewhere, too often the production feels laboured, and at over three hours it’s certainly overlong (and that’s mostly down to pacing, the script is long but not THAT long). A big part of the problem is Ria Jones’s Rose – Jones is terrific in the right role, but this isn’t the right role for her, and she doesn’t supply the galvanising drive in Rose that’s necessary to make the show take off. It’s obvious everybody involved loves the material, but that isn’t always enough.


GHOST QUARTET – Boulevard Theatre

Song cycle by Dave Malloy, which makes me sorry I missed Preludes at the Southwark Playhouse.  The music here is stunning, and performed magnificently by four actor-musicians – Carly Bawden, Niccoló Curradi, Maimuna Memon, and Zubin Varla – and the finale, in which the performers more or less literally hand the show over to the audience, is a lovely, lovely moment (I won’t spoil the surprise… but I found myself onstage playing a glockenspiel, so if audience participation bothers you don’t sit in the front row). Yes, the text, which moves from modern New York into all manner of myths and fairytakes and back again, is sometimes a bit too pretentious for its own good, but this is a fascinating piece of music theatre, and those four singers are more than worth an hour and a half of your time.

NOISES OFF – the Garrick

So good it more or less banished the stench of the appalling BITTER WHEAT, which graced the same venue earlier this year. Masterful revival of a masterful play, with a perfect ensemble cast led by a magnificent comic turn from the wonderful Meera Syal. Yes, the play seems to come around every ten minutes, and it’s always good – but it isn’t always THIS good.

FASCINATING AIDA – Southbank Centre

I’m a fan, they’re wonderful, their new show is (predictably) splendid, and the opening number has a line about Priti Patel that produced the kind of laugh that measures on the Richter scale.

THE BOYFRIEND – Menier

Utterly charming, utterly silly, and Janie Dee’s Mme. Dubonnet is sublime. Whether the show will be AS charming in a theatre ten times the size in Toronto next year is another question, but at the Menier it’s pure pleasure; director Matthew White gets everyone to hit exactly the right wide-eyed-but-not-too-arch tone, Bill Deamer’s choreography pushes all the right period buttons, and the performances are lovely.

MY BRILLIANT FRIEND – National Theatre

A two-part adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s four Naples novels. It’s one of those frustrating combinations of things that are brilliant and things that don’t quite work. Melly Still’s direction gives us a terrific, sweeping epic story of a complicated friendship conducted over several decades, and her work is often best when she makes a decisive departure from kitchen-sink naturalism, but the use of puppets to represent children seems jarringly out-of-place. As Lila and Lenù, the two friends who drive the plot, Catherine McCormack and Niamh Cusack are magnificent, but far too many of the supporting performances veer too close to caricature, which is an obvious trap in a piece in which nearly everyone in the ensemble plays multiple roles. It’s often splendid to look at – Soutra Gilmour’s set, Tal Yarden’s video projections, and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting give us some eye-popping visuals, and do a superb job of taking us inside Lila’s fracturing mind – but April De Angelis’s script feels rushed, as if she’s giving us the Cliff’s Notes version of the story. It’s a long day at the theatre, but each act could easily use another fifteen minutes. This is a show that wants to be a much richer theatrical experience than it is at the moment, and it’s the script that lets the side down. It’s sometimes thrilling, sometimes frustrating, and always entertaining – but it’s this close to being a theatrical masterpiece, and a miss is as good as a mile.

So that was 2019. First ticket booked for 2020: Cynthia Erivo in concert… in Tokyo.


No, I will not be travelling to Tokyo specifically to see Cynthia Erivo. She and I just happen to be there at the same time, that’s all.

“…and we need to know our worst sides aren’t ignored!”

It seems almost unbelievable that London has had to wait twenty-seven years for a professional production of Falsettos, the seminal 1992 Broadway musical about a New York family that breaks apart and slowly comes back together again when one parent comes out as gay, but somehow it’s 2019 and this is the show’s UK premiere. Well, sort of. Falsettos is formed from two earlier one-acts – March of the Falsettos, which premiered off-Broadway in 1981, and Falsettoland, which premiered in 1990 – and only the former has already received a professional production in the UK (there’s a third one-act – In Trousers – including some of the same characters; it preceded these two shows, premiering in 1979). It’s easy to forget now how strikingly unusual it was back in 1990 to see a piece of relatively mainstream theatre that placed same-sex couples and the spectre of AIDS in the context of a loving, accepting family, and did so without resorting to limp-wristed flaming-queen caricatures, something which cannot be said for, for example, the musical adaptation of La Cage Aux Folles a few years earlier; Falsettos is one of those landmark pieces of writing that represented a decisive step forwards, and it also – fortunately – happens to be a terrific, idiosyncratic, thoroughly moving piece of theatre with a score that is probably still William Finn’s masterpiece.

It’d be lovely, then, to be able to say this long-awaited London production does the show justice, wouldn’t it? Sorry, you can’t have everything. There were alarm bells in August, when a group of UK-based Jewish artists wrote an open letter to the Stage protesting – justifiably – that there appeared to be no Jewish people represented among the cast or creative team of this very, very New-York-Jewish show (the opening number is called Four Jews In A Room Bitching, five out of seven characters in the show are Jewish, there are Yiddish words sprinkled among the lyrics, the climactic scene in the second act takes place at a Bar Mitzvah). The resulting furore included a lot of people deliberately and disingenuously misunderstanding the complaint – look on theatre-related bulletin boards and you’ll find a plethora of witless straw man “arguments” of the how-dare-they-not-cast-CATS-with-actual-cats variety – and the production company’s statement in response to the letter was rather less conciliatory than it might have been given that it was addressing an entirely valid request from a minority group that they be included in the telling of one of their stories. It’s unfair to judge work that, at that point, hadn’t yet been seen on the basis of what rapidly, on social media, turned into a rather unpleasant debate, but it wasn’t an auspicious start.

And to be fair, the biggest problem with this production – and there are many problems with this production – is emphatically not simply that none of the actors are Jewish, which was how a number of people (cynically) misconstrued the points raised in that letter. The problem here is also emphatically not that this production’s cast are untalented – these are all superb singers and actors, they’ve all got impressive CVs, and they’re all, in theory, more than capable of excelling in these roles.

Something, though, is out of balance somewhere, although maybe it’s not so obvious if you haven’t previously seen a production that worked better than this one does (I saw the touring iteration of the original Broadway production in Washington DC in 1993, and I’ve seen the filmed version of the 2016 Broadway revival). Particularly in the first half, the tone seems more than a little off – the effortlessness of the performances on the two original off-Broadway cast recordings makes it easy to forget that this is very, very tricky material to perform. Both acts are through-sung, and Finn’s dazzling but rather eccentric score includes a number of quick-fire passages which aren’t exactly recitative, but in which dialogue is twisted and compressed into the constraints of the structure of a song. The singing in this production is terrific. The direction, unfortunately, really isn’t.

The first act is more problematic than the second. In the first act – March of the Falsettos – Marvin, the show’s central character, has left his wife (Trina) for a male lover (Whizzer, and let’s take a moment to regret that Finn and James Lapine, his collaborator, didn’t see fit to include the splendidly-titled Whizzer Going Down from In Trousers when they glued March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland together to make Falsettos), Trina gets engaged to Mendel, Marvin’s psychiatrist, and Marvin and Trina’s ten-year-old son Jason struggles to come to an understanding that his own interpretations of masculinity and sexuality do not necessarily have to reflect his father’s choices. It’s tricky, subtle emotional territory, given a fast-paced, very New York tragicomic spin – the score often suggests an overcaffeinated combination of Sondheim, Woody Allen, and Jules Feiffer, with lines and observations that sometimes seem to have come straight from a BEK cartoon – and while some of the material is very funny, there’s real emotion in there too, not to mention a lot of anger.

As (badly) directed by Tara Overfield-Wilkinson, what we’re served up here is closer in tone to a second-tier episode of a third-rate New York-set sitcom. Until the last five minutes of the first act, almost every single significant moment is somehow botched, mostly because Ms. Overfield-Wilkinson (presumably) directs her cast to push too hard (I have to assume they’re giving the performances they’ve been directed to give; I’ve seen most of them in other things, and they’re all capable of much, much better work than they’re doing here). The result, I’m afraid, is a mess: five abundantly talented actor-singers marooned on PJ McEvoy’s startlingly ugly, too-cartoonish set, mugging to such a ridiculous degree that they kill half the laughs and strangle most of the piece’s emotional content.

Worse, Ms. Overfield-Wilkinson’s staging of the first act’s title song – a surreal dream sequence in which the four male characters perform a soft-shoe number in falsetto, a voice range which falls outside traditional stereotypes associated with masculinity – is simply catastrophically bad: under her direction, it’s little more than two-and-a-half minutes of silliness, and the point – yes, there is one – is completely lost. Throughout the first half, every word, every gesture, every choreographed movement is a little bit too big, a little bit too broad, a little bit too laboured. It’s only in the last five minutes, as Daniel Boys’s Marvin sings a beautiful, quiet song called Father to Son to Jason, that you catch a glimpse of what this half of the show should have been.

If Ms. Overfield-Wilkinson finds herself on surer footing in the second half, that’s partly because Falsettoland has always been the stronger of the show’s two constituent one-acts. in Falsettoland, which takes place in 1981, Marvin gets back together with Whizzer, Marvin and Trina argue over preparations for Jason’s forthcoming Bar Mitzvah, and Whizzer falls ill and is diagnosed with an as-yet-unnamed disease with a terrifyingly bleak prognosis. Even in a less than completely successful production, I defy anyone to remain unmoved by the last twenty minutes of the show; throughout, Finn’s songs for Falsettoland still rank among the very best things he’s ever written (for my money, the best of all is Whizzer’s devastatingly unflinching You Gotta Die Sometime), and in this production they’re all sung beautifully. There’s far less of the first act’s hyperactive mugging in the second half of the show; that’s not because the direction in the second half is any better, because it mostly isn’t, but simply because the plot and tone allow fewer opportunities for it.

Still, though, something isn’t quite right. Since the tone in the second half isn’t quite as hyperactively neurotic, there’s more time to focus on the absence of any chemistry between any of the adult actors, and to note that all three romantic couples we see in the show – Daniel Boys and Oliver Savile as Marvin and Whizzer, Laura Pitt-Pulford and Joel Montague (a late replacement for another performer) as Trina and Mendel, and Gemma Knight-Jones and Natasha J Barnes as Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia, an underwritten pair of “lesbians from next door” who appear only in the second half – give the impression of having met for the first time backstage at the five-minute call. Again, these actors are all – all – capable of far better work than they’re doing here; it seems reasonable to assume that whatever went wrong, and something clearly did, went wrong during the rehearsal process and probably stems from choices made by the director.

This production, I’m afraid, seems to be terrified of intimacy, and particularly terrified of intimacy within same-sex couples. It’s one thing for the relationship between Trina and Mendel to read as being less than completely passionate, because that’s more or less a plot point, and the relationship between Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia is given relatively little stage time. The staging choices in the relationship between Marvin and Whizzer, on the other hand, seem carefully calculated to – there’s no nice way of putting this – rinse away the gay, as if it’s only OK to tell a story placing male homosexuals in the context of a family with – gasp! – a child if you render them completely sexless. Take, for example, Ms. Overfield-Wilkinson’s staging of What More Can I Say? Marvin’s Act Two love song to Whizzer. The stage directions in the published script suggest something very specific, in terms of the intimacy the moment is supposed to carry:

In Ms. Overfield-Wilkinson’s staging, both actors are fully-clothed, and Whizzer has dozed off on a sofa with a book in his lap – the book, of course, strategically positioned over the genital area so that there isn’t even the slightest possibility of any kind of naughty touching going on. I’m the last person, generally, to dictate that directors stick slavishly to stage directions in a published script – but if you’re going to change something, be aware of what you’re changing. If you can’t get a bed onto your (hideous) set – and they could have, in another scene Trina is seen in bed alone – find some alternative that preserves the intimacy suggested in the script, instead of following Ms. Overfield-Wilkinson’s example here and giving us something that looks more like a badly-thought-out Eddie Bauer advert than a moment of sensual tenderness between two lovers. In this show, of all shows, there is no excuse for approaching a same-sex relationship so timidly. It’s such a disastrous failure of nerve on the part of this director that it’s actually disrespectful to the material.

On the other hand, it’s taken twenty-seven years for this show to land in this country, and it’s anyone’s guess when (or even whether) we’ll see it here again, so if you love musical theatre this is probably something you need to see. After you’ve seen it, though, track down the recordings from the orignal off-Broadway productions; even without visuals, they give a much better sense of what this material can be when it’s done properly, something you’ll unfortunately get very little sense of at The Other Palace.

And one last thing: this production, too, has fallen victim to the Marketing Curse whereby the bar staff are doomed to develop and promote themed cocktails tied into whatever show happens to be playing. Yes, in a show whose plot encompasses a family coming to terms with the implications of the onset of AIDS, you can order yourself a themed cocktail at the interval and contemplate the horror of the AIDS crisis by sipping a delightfully tart combination of pomelo and pink grapefruit gin and grenadine. If you were to try to compile a list of all the reasons our decadent civilisation is doomed, this would certainly be on it.

Southern Gothic

Razor-sharp, ice cold, meaner than a box of snakes, and VERY funny. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s thermonuclear family drama goes off with the force of a fifteen-kiloton bomb. We’re in a plantation mansion in Alabama, the family patriarch has died, the house is rotting at the seams, and his three children are sorting through the house’s contents and getting ready to put the place up for auction. The discovery of an album of photographs of lynchings, and then a box full of – let’s put this delicately – associated memorabilia is the catalyst for a series of explosive revelations. To say too much more would be to give too much away; every character has some kind of secret, and of course the defining feature of this kind of play is that by the end, every secret has been exposed. The shockwaves keep coming, and continue even after the actors have all left the stage; Ola Ince’s perfectly-pitched production is a two-hour white-knuckle ride, and it’s fascinating to see how Jacobs-Jenkins uses the framework of a one-set family drama to construct an explosive critique of the way white (southern) Americans interact with black America’s history. This is one of those plays where you’ll come out wanting to buy the script, so save a little money and buy it with your programme as you go in (there’s a combo deal). As Toni, the (astonishingly) embittered oldest sibling, Monica Dolan is first among equals amid a superb cast – she somehow manages to make you feel for Toni despite the character’s rage (and in one scene, blatant racism), AND to make you laugh. I could gush for several more paragraphs, but you’ve got the point already: this is as good as anything I’ve ever seen at the Donmar.

Small ones are more juicy!

No, this isn’t an orange advert from 1985. Playing catch-up again: three small musicals, in (coincidentally) diminishing order of size, seen over the last month or so.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

Yes, the second attempt at a musical based on the great Sue Townsend’s greatest creation. It’s slick, funny, and tuneful, and you’d be hard-pressed not to have a good time – but perhaps it plays up the laughs at the expense of the source material’s underlying pathos a little bit too much, and it certainly sands a lot of the sharpest edges off Townsend’s social satire.

It is, though, absolutely charming, Luke Sheppard directs it with enormous panache, the children are spectacularly good, and Rosemary Ashe is a one-woman riot as Adrian’s hyper-judgmental grandmother. Pippa Cleary and Jake Brunger’s score works beautifully in context, but you won’t necessarily walk out of the theatre humming the tunes… apart from Doreen Slater’s magnificently brassy New Best Friend, which is sung to the hilt by Lara Denning. Is it a problem that a relatively incidental character gets (by far) the best number in the show? Maybe.

Blues In The Night

A revue by Sheldon Epps built around a glorious stack of American jazz standards from the 1930s and 1940s – Bessie Smith, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke, Alberta Hunter et al. It’s a small show, first seen in London over thirty years ago – I am just about old enough to remember watching the original London production on television, it was broadcast on (I think) BBC2 somewhere around 1989 – in which the songs are carefully but rather loosely strung together around four characters (three women, one man) in a hotel in Chicago. You come to this show for the songs rather than the plot.

Having said that, director Susie McKenna has clearly done a lot of detailed work with her cast; the four central actors in the show all clearly have a story, even if it’s clearer to them than to us, and there’s a clear narrative arc here. Given how thin the show’s structure is, that’s an achievement. And these singers – Sharon D. Clarke, Debbie Kurup, Gemma Sutton, and Clive Rowe – are simply magnificent. Sitting in the front row as Sharon D. Clarke tears into Lover Man about four feet away from me might well turn out to be the biggest theatrical thrill I get this year.

Musik

A one-hour cabaret with a script by Jonathan Harvey and songs by Pet Shop Boys, featuring Billie Trix, a character they introduced in their musical Closer To Heaven (no, I didn’t see the recent revival), and performed here by Frances Barber, who originated the role in Closer To Heaven 18 years ago. You don’t need to have seen Closer to Heaven to ‘get it’ – fortunately, since I haven’t – and you also probably don’t need to be a Pet Shop Boys fan, although (all but one of) their songs here are excellent. Harvey’s script packs in more laughs per square inch than you’d think possible, and Frances Barber nails them all.

This is a masterclass, actually, in how to take one joke – really, just one joke – and spin it out for an hour. Billie is a fabulous creation, a grizzled, ageing rock chick in the Nico/Marianne Faithfull mode – but her schtick is that throughout her life, while she’s enjoyed a miraculously Zelig-like ability to land in the right place at the right time, everyone she’s ever encountered has stolen her act. And that’s everyone, from Nico to Warhol to Tracey Emin to the current inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Barber delivers the studiedly outrageous lines – one joke about a K-hole left my neighbour gasping for breath – with an absolutely straight face, and is all the funnier for it, and her singing is, well, unique. Imagine the love-child of Carol Channing and Tom Waits after three bottles of whiskey and an unfeasible quantity of smack and you’ll be in the ballpark. It’s a brilliant star turn, and when she rips into the climax of Friendly Fire – one of the two songs borrowed from Closer to Heaven – the force of her performance pins you to your seat.

Silk purse/sow’s ear

Cast Robert James Waller’s dazzlingly awful 1992 novel out of your mind. While you’re at it, you might as well forget Clint Eastwood’s almost-as-stinky 1995 film adaptation. This is, yes, still the soapy, predictable story of a four-day love affair between an Italian-American housewife and an itinerant photographer in 1960s Iowa, and until the last ten minutes of the show you’ll be (at least) three steps ahead of the plot. Somehow, though, bookwriter Marsha Norman and composer Jason Robert Brown have managed to dig behind Waller’s laughably purple prose to uncover a surprisingly effective portrait of two lonely people who find themselves awakened by a chance meeting.

The key – and the element that makes the show a must-see, whatever your opinion of the (dismal) source material – is Brown’s beautiful score. Norman has done an admirable job of stripping away the novel’s (many) excesses so that the story is told simply and clearly, but the songs are the star here. The show was a relatively fast flop on Broadway, but this is among the best theatre scores of the last decade, although it’s not always easy listening. Brown isn’t afraid of dissonance, and he isn’t afraid to experiment with song structure, but this is a lush, lyrical, haunting set of songs that have an astonishing emotional pull. It’s a pleasure, too, to hear Brown’s own orchestrations for a ten-piece band in a space as small as the Menier; under Tom Murray’s musical direction, the band gives a superlative account of this gorgeous but demanding music.

The production, on the other hand, is more of a mixed bag. There’s no faulting the performances, although neither Jenna Russell nor Edward Baker-Duly have the pristine, lightning-in-a-bottle voices of their Broadway counterparts. They’re both good singers – really good singers – but this music stretches them. That said, the show gains immeasurably from being seen in such a small space, and Russell in particular is quietly heartbreaking, offering a delicate, finely-shaded portrayal that gives Francesca a level of complexity you’d never imagine possible from reading the novel. There’s fine support, too, from Gillian Kirkpatrick as a nosy but caring neighbour, and (in several small roles) from Shanay Holmes, whose rendition of the lovely ‘Another Life’ is the production’s musical highlight.

Less impressive is John Bausor’s overly-complicated set, a combination of turntables and flimsy sliding panels that sometimes threatens to bring this already slow-paced show to a grinding halt. Yes, Tal Rosner’s video projections (a starlit sky, Iowa cornfields, a small-town Main Street) look exquisite against the bleached wood planks of those wooden panels – but at the performance I attended (a very late preview) a truck unit momentarily juddered to a halt before it moved all the way offstage, the two sliding wooden panels wobbled every time they moved in a way that called into question whether they’ll survive the run (I’ll find out, I suppose, I’m going back for the final matinee), the door of Francesca’s fridge kept stubbornly refusing to close, and several ominous crashes were heard from backstage during the (numerous) set-changes. It’s one of those sets that would look great if everything worked, particularly as sensitively lit by Tim Lutkin – and it’s great to see designers trying to push the boundaries of what can be achieved in a venue with so little backstage space, but the show might have been better served by a simpler design.

That said, though, Brown’s score is so lovely, and Jenna Russell’s performance is so exquisite, that any shortcomings in the production surrounding them seem almost irrelevant. I don’t know whether I’d call this a great musical, and I wouldn’t say it was a completely unimpeachable production, but the good elements are so good that it’s more than worth an evening of your time. To draw music this beautiful, and a performance so brimming with yearning, out of a novel as truly, thoroughly, overwhelmingly bad as The Bridges of Madison County is a remarkable achievement. You aren’t going to get very many opportunities to hear a live performance of this score in this country, and Jenna Russell is doing some of the very best work of her career. Don’t miss it.

Bitter lemon

Oh, come on. You didn’t think a David Mamet play about the Me Too movement with a thinly-disguised Harvey Weinstein figure as the central character was actually going to be good, did you?

Please.

YES, Bitter Wheat is a thoroughly, utterly, completely dreadful play. Once upon a time, David Mamet might have been capable of writing a pungent, sharply funny satire about horrible Hollywood people doing horrible things and then trying to evade the consequences of their horrible behaviour. That time, on the evidence of the fiasco currently lumbering through a summer run at the Garrick, is long past. The plot is predictable enough – Barney Fein, producer and all-round sleazeball, invites/entices jet-lagged young Anglo-Korean film-maker Yung Kim Li into his apartment and attempts to Do Nasty Things To Which She Doesn’t Consent, she sets off the fire alarm, and the scandal finishes his career – after which, God help us, wacky hijinks, or what Mr. Mamet believes are wacky hijinks, ensue in the final scene. Mamet seems to be somehow under the impression that he’s written a comedy. To say he hasn’t is a breathtaking understatement.

It’s not the scenario, actually, that’s at fault here. It would be as good a starting-off point as any for a satire about the repulsive behaviour of a powerful Hollywood shitbag-in-a-suit. Mamet, unfortunately, doesn’t appear to be attempting anything as evolved as satire here. Bitter Wheat, it turns out, is less a play and more just an over-the-hill reactionary prick ejaculating sexist/racist/unpleasantly right-wing comments over the stage for 85 minutes, interspersed with feeder lines from a cast of (very good) supporting actors who all have too little to do. That might be OK, or at least not completely excruciating to sit through, if Barney Fein’s verbal diarrhoea was funny; there are two or three reasonably big laughs in the first half of the play, but it mostly isn’t.

And that, in turn, might not matter so much if the production’s above-the-title star seemed to be in any way awake. John Malkovich – an astonishingly potent stage actor when he wants to be, as anyone who saw him in Burn This (also far from a first-rate play) years ago will tell you – is phoning it in here. And by ‘phoning it in’, I mean he seems to be faxing his performance over a dodgy connection from a small town somewhere in Uzbekistan. It can’t be easy to take a starring role and then have to get up eight times a week in front of a less-than-completely-enthusiastic audience, wearing a laughably bad fat suit, to deliver an incoherent string of witless lines in a slack mess of a play sloppily directed by its entirely too self-regarding author, but when hundreds of people per performance have paid mostly to see him it would be nice if he could give the impression that he is actually in the building when he’s onstage. Apparently that’s too much trouble.

The supporting actors, while they don’t have enough to do, all emerge with their dignity intact. Matthew Pidgeon is lucky – he has nothing to do between the first scene and the curtain call, which means he’s spared having to navigate the (considerable) worst of his brother-in-law’s writing – and Teddy Kempner, whose epic beard is worth at least a couple of bonus points, does as much as he can as Fein’s slightly dubious doctor, a role Mamet possibly wrote while unconscious. Doon Mackichan, as Fein’s PA Sondra, makes by far the strongest impression, and she’s the most interesting person onstage – a woman working for a man she knows is a serial sex abuser, who disapproves of his behaviour but has made a great deal of money because of him, who has never been on the receiving end of that side of him herself, and who isn’t inclined to rat him out to the FBI when the shit hits the fan. Somewhere within those contradictions there’s a much better play, and a much more insightful look at how people like Harvey Weinstein managed to get away for so long with behaviour everybody knew about. The key, probably, would be to keep the Weinstein character offstage for as long as possible, rather than wallowing in his repulsive behaviour for 85 minutes of stage time. Twenty-five years ago, that’s a play Mamet could possibly have written. Twenty-five years is a long time… as you’ll learn in the twenty-five-minute second act of Bitter Wheat, which feels like it.

ATTENTION!!!!

There’s a danger sometimes in waiting until the end of the run to see a show that everyone has praised to the skies and back again. When you go in after hearing an almost neverending chorus of people telling you it’s stunning/shattering/brilliant/revelatory/whatever, your expectations are going to be high. Perhaps unfeasibly high.


It’s not that this a bad revival. At least, not precisely. It’s lovingly directed, sometimes stunning to look at, has a superb cast, and Femi Temowo’s music is beautifully performed. And yet somehow, for me, it never quite catches fire. It’s a doggedly earnest effort, ploddingly intelligent, and it would be both more interesting and more moving if the director and several of the actors didn’t go to such drearily strenuous lengths to underline Every. Single. Piece. Of. Subtext. in red pen.

There’s no doubt Wendell Pierce is a very, very good actor. The trouble is, his Willy Loman (do I really have to outline the plot?) is so clearly heading for a breakdown right from the top of his opening scene that there’s nowhere left for him to go except way over the top, so that the climactic confrontation between Willy and his two shiftless sons is mostly about volume rather than emotion. Possibly it’s a performance that will work better once the production has transferred to a larger space; in the Young Vic, from where I was sitting, less would have been much more.

That goes, too, for Femi Temowo’s music – lovely to listen to, beautifully played, but a little bit too obvious in the way it telegraphs the play’s emotional content. Instead of allowing the audience to find their own emotional response to the material – and this can be an extremely moving play – directors Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell seem desperate to do all OUR work for us, using light cues (I mean, beyond the ones in the script), music cues, set changes and other theatrical tricks to let us know in no uncertain terms what we should be feeling in any given moment. In a play which is all about subtext, that’s not an approach that is going to pay dividends.

The glorious exception: Sharon D. Clarke’s exceptional Linda Loman. Somehow, in the middle of a production that seems desperate to keep hitting us over the head, Clarke’s performance is a model of restraint. Of course that speech is delivered flawlessly, but she’s remarkable throughout, and that’s largely because in the middle of a stage full of Really Big Performances, Clarke knows how to be still. So, to be fair, does Matthew Seadon-Young as Howard, Willy’s boss – but that’s a much smaller role. His two scenes are terrific, though.

The biggest problem, though, is simply that there’s more than a whiff of smugness surrounding the show: everyone here – with the exception of Clarke and Seadon-Young, who not coincidentally are the best things in it – very clearly knows how brilliant they are, and I can’t shake the impression that the play might have been better served by people who approached it with a little more humility. Linda Loman says “attention must be paid” in one scene. This production’s directors seem hellbent on saying it subliminally about every two-and-a-half minutes, and in doing so they take the play’s (many) subtleties and more or less announce them via a megaphone. It’s all very clever, and all very reverent, and there’s no question that making the Lomans a black middle-class family with a white neighbour and – for Willy – a white boss – adds fascinating layers to the play, but the overall effect, I’m afraid, is more than a little stifling. Elliott and Cromwell seem more interested in telling the audience to, in effect, shut up and eat their bran flakes than in allowing us to feel for Miller’s characters for ourselves. It’s never less than engaging – but if you’re expecting to be moved, manage your expectations.