Next stop, Hell

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André de Shields knows the value of silence. At the very beginning of Hadestown, the Anaïs Mitchell folk opera currently playing a pre-Broadway tryout at the National Theatre, he steps forward and teases the audience by waiting to speak until the expectant hush in the Olivier’s auditorium borders on deafening. It’s a masterful beginning to a masterful performance, and Mr. de Shields is one of the great highlights in a show that is never less than entertaining.

Hadestown, which began life as a 2010 concept album by Ms. Mitchell and arrives in London following productions at New York Theatre Workshop in 2016 and the Citadel in Edmonton, Alberta in 2017, is essentially a blue-collar rough-theatre retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. The action begins and ends in a down-home bar somewhere in the American South – probably New Orleans – in what might be the present, or might be a post-apocalyptic hellscape, and Hell, when we (eventually) get there, has what might best be described as a post-industrial expressionist aesthetic (think along the lines of Metropolis or The Adding Machine). The story is told almost entirely in song – thank God, because the few bits of linking narration, some of which involve actors speaking in (barely-)rhyming couplets, are cringe-inducingly dire. The songs, however, are terrific. Ms. Mitchell’s music is an appealing gumbo of folk, jazz, blues and pop, there’s a superb band, and there are thrilling performances from Mr. de Shields, from Patrick Page as an über-capitalist/industrialist Hades, from Amber Gray as a Persephone who really knows how to have a good time in the months she’s allowed out of Hadestown, and from Carly Mercedes Dyer, Rosie Fletcher, and Gloria Onitiri as the three slinkily fabulous Fates whose commentary punctuates the action.

The storytelling, on the other hand, is less successful, although it’s clearer in the second act than the first. Hadestown presents us with a simplified version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, but it still takes far too much of the first half for the plot to swing into gear, and you won’t find a great deal of nuance in the portrayal of Orpheus or Eurydice. That’s partly due to the writing, which unfortunately gives the two central characters the show’s most blandly generic songs, and partly down to the two blandly generic performers cast in those roles. As Orpheus, we have Reeve Carney; he’s good-looking, he has a nice voice, he plays the guitar nicely, and he can’t act at all. Eva Noblezada’s Eurydice is a little more compelling: she’s also good-looking, she has an absolutely stunning voice, and she can act a bit more than Mr. Carney, by which I mean she’s capable of mustering more than one-and-a-half facial expressions. We’re supposed to believe that theirs is one of the great tragic love stories, so it would be nice if they had some chemistry together. Or any chemistry together. Or any stage presence. They sound fantastic, but this is theatre, not a recording studio.

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And that, I’m afraid, sums up the problem with Hadestown: despite inventive direction by Rachel Chavkin (this made me really look forward to seeing her production of The American Clock later this year), a terrific barroom/bandstand set by Rachel Hauck, impeccable lighting by Bradley King, and muscular choreography from David Neumann, Hadestown is ultimately a thrilling musical experience – thrilling enough, certainly, to be worth an evening of your time – rather than a moving piece of theatre. The problem is exemplified by the way the show deploys the ensemble of “workers” – they function as a chorus, sing as a chorus, and are given basically no opportunities to show any individuality. That’s a definite choice, and potentially a strong choice, but it’s a choice that needs to be justified, and the show never does, which means that too often they just seem like backing singers/dancers (also – directors, you DO NOT cast the amazing Seyi Omooba in a show without giving her at least one opportunity to let rip with that incredible voice, even if it’s just for four bars). Everything looks great, sounds great, moves beautifully, but Ms. Mitchell’s lyrics, while often appealingly colloquial, don’t carry the weight of the narrative, and neither do the two performers in the central roles. My God, though, the thrilling moments are thrilling, whether it’s André de Shields showing us a masterclass in how to hold the audience in the palm of your hand in the opening number Road to Hell, or Patrick Page’s Hades leading the chorus in the borderline-fascistic Cheetolini-eque Why We Build The Wall at the close of the first act, or Amber Gray swinging her way through Our Lady of the Underground. There are more than enough thrilling moments for Hadestown to be absolutely worth the cost of a ticket (or the cost of a recording – the cast album, which was made after the NYTW production, is pretty wonderful, and features Patrick Page and Amber Gray), but they’re all – all – about the music rather than the story. Hadestown is often wonderful, but it’s a wonderful concert (albeit a concert presented with a great deal of theatrical flair) as opposed to a wonderful musical.

Then there’s the question of what it’s doing at the National in the first place (answer: filling a gap – a couple of years ago the National announced they were developing a musical version of The Witches to play during the 2018 Christmas season, but nothing has been heard of it beyond the initial announcement; presumably it’s either not ready or has fallen through, leaving the National with a Christmas slot to fill in their largest auditorium, which just happens to a have a similar configuration to the Citadel in Edmonton, where Hadestown played last year) . If the National had commissioned Anaïs Mitchell and Rachel Chavkin to create a new piece for them, I’d have no argument with it – they’re interesting artists and there’s certainly room for them in the National’s programming.  If the show had been developed by the National in collaboration with NYTW and/or the Citadel (or Canadian Stage, or the American Repertory Theater, or A.C.T., or wherever), again, there’d be no problem; I’d love to see the National engage in more cross-border collaborations, and I have a ticket for Downstate, developed with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, later this year. This, though, is not that kind of collaborative enterprise. This is a show developed by a nonprofit theatre in New York and subsequently produced in a nonprofit theatre in Canada that has been picked up by commercial producers for presentation on Broadway.

It’s great for the show and for Ms. Mitchell that a team of producers think it deserves a commercial run, and there’s nothing about the show in itself that should make it fall outside the National’s remit – except that this appears to be a case of a commercial management using the National’s resources, which are supported by significant public funding paid for out of the tax base, to get their pre-Broadway tryout run at a bargain rate. This isn’t a National Theatre production that’s going to Broadway, it’s a Broadway musical playing a preview run at the National, presumably because to do so is cheaper than a commercial tryout in Boston or Chicago or Seattle or wherever. There isn’t even any mention of the National on the front page of the Broadway production’s website:

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The casting, also, is problematic. All five principals – including the two who don’t make a full personality between them – are imported from the US under the Equity exchange scheme. No problem with that, it was a genuine pleasure to see Mr. de Shields, Mr. Page, and Ms. Gray (and as for Mr. Carney and Ms. Noblezada… it was a genuine pleasure to see Mr. de Shields, Mr. Page, and Ms. Gray), and the traffic runs in both directions. Or the traffic SHOULD run in both directions. We have five American leads who are going to Broadway with the show, and an ensemble of UK-based performers who it’s safe to assume are not (if the same cast was going to be playing London and Broadway, it would have been announced by now). In this show, as I said, the ensemble performers are kept firmly behind the five leads, which is a defendable choice – but in the National Theatre, it leaves a slightly sour taste to see a show in which all the leads are imported from overseas and all the homegrown performers are employed in ensemble roles or as understudies. To say the least, this does not suggest the Broadway production’s producers view working at the National as a collaboration between equals.

It’s not – as I said – that there is any problem with the National bringing in performers from overseas – Bryan Cranston’s performance in Network was quite extraordinary, and I’m looking forward very much to seeing Denis O’Hare in Tartuffe in April. Both of those productions, though, place(d) UK-based performers alongside the star in leading roles, rather than relegating homegrown talent to the chorus, whereas the nature of the casting of Hadestown carries with it a fart-like whiff of exploitation of the local talent pool by Broadway producers looking to save a few bucks (Equity pay rates for actors are way lower in London than on Broadway or the US touring circuit). It is to be hoped that the financial arrangements underpinning this production benefit the National as much as the American co-producers; the programme note from those co-producers thanking the National for supporting the creative team’s vision, as opposed to for collaborating in the show’s development, raises some questions. And that’s being kind.

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As for the show itself, it’s an exciting, distinctive event, and – as I said – a thrilling musical experience. It’s worth experiencing this score live, there’s a superb band, the singing is wonderful, and André de Shields, Patrick Page, and Amber Gray are more than worth the trip. If you’re looking for the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, on the other hand, go ahead and book a ticket – you’ll get a kick out of seeing the way Ms. Mitchell’s songs riff on top of it – but maybe pick up book ten of Ovid’s Metamorphoses on the way to the theatre and read it on the train home.

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Party like it’s 1999

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Another op’nin, another revival of Kiss Me, Kate. The Crucible‘s Christmas musicals are usually worth looking forward to, and this one is no exception. In terms of execution, it’s up there with their (stunning) revivals of My Fair Lady and Show Boat, and that’s very high praise indeed. Rebecca Lock’s thrillingly-sung Lilli Vanessi is a glorious creation, there’s a tight 11-piece band giving an impeccable account of Cole Porter‘s impeccable score, Matt Flint’s choreography is a dazzling, showstopping joy to watch, and director Paul Foster carefully negotiates the minefield that is the show’s book and manages to make the central relationships touching as well as funny. It’s great, it’s running another week and a half, you should go.

You can feel a ‘but’ coming, can’t you? It’s nothing to do with anyone in the cast or the creative team. The reason I hesitated to book a ticket is simply that this production is using the rewritten version of the book created for the 1999 Broadway revival (which played in London a couple of years later and has been released on DVD), and I really don’t love this version of the script. For that revival, Sam and Bella Spewack’s original book (built around The Taming of the Shrew, and if you’re reading this you probably don’t need a synopsis) received an uncredited rewrite by John Guare (and one wonders how Mr. Guare might feel about another playwright providing uncredited rewrites on a revival of The House of Blue Leaves or Six Degrees of Separation after his death but before the work is out of copyright), and it isn’t an improvement. It’s not a disaster on the level of the revised script for the recent London revival of Chess, but it’s broader and coarser and less subtle than the original script, it turns Harrison Howell, Lilli’s fiancé, into (even more of) a caricature (explicitly a caricature of General MacArthur), it misguidedly shoehorns in From This Moment On, which is a perfectly lovely song but one that doesn’t belong in Kiss Me, Kate (yes I know it was in the film, don’t @ me), to give Howell something to sing, and it doesn’t solve the material’s central problem, which was just as big a problem in 1999 as it is now, which is that the world has changed and it’s far more uncomfortable than it was in the late 1940s for us to laugh at a story of a man establishing dominance over a woman by (among other things) spanking her.

The trouble is, the original 1948 book also presents problems these days, and I mean on top of the spanking. As last year’s Opera North revival showed, the original book offers a trip straight back to 1948, and not just in terms of casual sexism. It’s significantly less cartoonish than John Guare’s rewrite – it would have to be – but it’s also, in places, glacially slow, and it would certainly benefit from some judicious trimming. On the other hand, it doesn’t include Guare’s witless rewrite of the Harrison Howell scene, or shoehorn in a Porter standard that wasn’t written for this show and doesn’t work in it. I can see why people choose the 1999 script, but the original, for me, is richer.

And having said all that, this revival really is terrific. The sparks fly between Rebecca Lock’s Lilli and Edward Baker-Duly’s Fred, Amy Ellen Richardson is a fine, funny Lois Lane, Dex Lee is a devilishly charming Bill, Layton Williams burns up the stage in Too Darn Hot, and there are memorable contributions from every member of the company, whether it’s Cindy Belliot’s spectacular high belt in the opening number or Simon Oskarsson’s equally spectacular trumpet playing at the top of the second act. For the first show I’ve seen in 2019 (it wasn’t going to be the first, but news headlines in the weeks before this opened convinced me that perhaps my first show of 2019 should not be a story about a journey to Hell), Paul Foster and his company have set a very high bar for the rest of the year.

And it’s also given me a new item for the top of my theatrical wish-list: can somebody please cast Rebecca Lock as Lily Garland in a revival of On the Twentieth Century? Pretty please? With sugar on?

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Girl Power!

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Fun fact: if you were once married to a king, you can still belt out the big notes even after you’ve been beheaded. Six, the clever one-act musical currently touring prior to a second London run next year, is based on a simple conceit: Henry VIII‘s wives – yes, all six of them – have got together and formed a girl group, and they’re giving a concert tonight in which they’ll each in turn tell their stories via the medium of pop music. It begins with that mnemonic, and what follows is a breathless, thoroughly entertaining romp through sixteenth-century history and twenty-first-century pop. Yes, at the same time. It probably shouldn’t work, but it really does.

That it works so well is a credit to Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s writing, and particularly to their songs (the music is by Marlow) – a dead-on-target series of pastiches inspired by current/recent chart divas (you’ll find the “queenspiration” for each Queen’s number listed in the programme, and also in the CD liner notes). Catherine of Aragon channels Beyoncé and Shakira. Anne Boleyn, Lily Allen and Avril Lavigne, and even if there was nothing else good in the show, I would love the writers for making Anne Boleyn sing “everybody chill/It’s totes God’s will!”. Jane Seymour gets a power ballad, so (naturally) the musical models are Adele and Sia. Anna of Cleves gets down in – or is it with? I’m not exactly down with the kids these days – the style of Nicki Minaj and Rihanna. Katherine Howard gives us her best Ariana Grande and – gloriously – Britney Spears. And last but by no means least, Catherine Parr’s song is modelled after Alicia Keys and Emeli Sandé. The Haus of Holbein sequence gives more than a nod to the music and performance stylings of Lady Gaga, and for the title song we’re squarely in the territory of British girl groups – think the Spice Girls or Girls Aloud. You don’t need to be able to check off the inspirations to enjoy this score, though – this is exciting, melodic pop music, it’s full of memorable hooks, and Marlow’s pastiches more than hold their own against the music that inspired them. This is a really terrific debut score.

It’s performed to the hilt, too, by this touring production’s fabulous cast: Jarnelia Richard-Noel as Catherine of Aragon, Millie O’Connell as Anne Boleyn, Natalie Paris as Jane Seymour, Alexia McIntosh as Anna of Cleves, Aimie Atkinson as Katherine Howard, and Maiya Quansah-Breed as Catherine Parr. It’s unfair to single any of them out, because they’re all spectacular: they’ve all got sharp comic timing, they all stay just the right side of knowing parody, and they all have magnificent voices. Their Ladies-in-Waiting are an impeccably tight four-piece (all-female, of course) band, and together, performing Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s impeccable concert choreography under Tim Deling’s rock-stadium lighting and in Gabriella Slade’s Greensleeves-meets-glam-rock costumes, they raise the roof. By the finale, you WILL be on your feet and dancing.

There’s a serious feminist message underpinning the show – these were six remarkable women in their own right, and history remembers them largely because of the man they (all) married – but Marlow and Moss deliver it with a very light touch. The show is just 75 minutes long; co-directors Moss and Jamie Armitage keep the pace up and the spaces between the songs short, and they’ve already learned one of theatre’s most difficult lessons, which is that it’s better to leave an audience wanting more than to drown them in an embarrassment of riches. Six may be Marlow and Moss’s debut, but it’s the real deal: it’s short, sassy, enormous fun, and the six ladies in the cast are thrilling singers. How good is it? I bought the CD from the souvenir stand on the way out.

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Spend your money somewhere else.

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In the title role in Nottingham Playhouse‘s revival of Alan Bennett‘s The Madness of George III, Mark Gatiss delivers a breathtaking, stunning, dazzling star turn.

Well, delivered, it’s closed now. Lucky you, that means you’ll get to see Mr. Gatiss’s marvellous performance via one of the NT Live Encore screenings, which would have to be a more enjoyable experience than visiting the Nottingham Playhouse. I’ve had asthma attacks that were more enjoyable than visiting the Nottingham Playhouse.

Unfortunately when the overall experience of visiting a theatre is thoroughly unpleasant for reasons that have nothing to do with anything on the stage, it makes it difficult to write a fair review. I’ve sat on this for a couple of weeks – I saw the production at the matinée on November 22nd – and I’ve simmered down a bit, but I’m afraid the impression the theatre gave me from their staff’s behaviour outside the auditorium – I won’t be going back there anytime soon – left a stronger taste than the production itself.

I could start with the casual, offhanded rudeness of the woman behind the box office counter when I picked up my ticket – I’ve done my share of crap customer service jobs, I know perfectly well that people in those positions are underpaid and overworked and usually way overqualified and I certainly don’t expect bowing and scraping, but the least you can do is look up when someone speaks to you instead of handing over the ticket without pausing for breath in your not-work-related conversation with your colleague.

It didn’t add to the experience, either, that rows A, B, and C in the stalls were lacking any signage indicating that they were rows A, B, and C, which led to a certain amount of confusion as people took their seats for the performance. By this time, though, I’d already visited the café, which means any inclination I might have had to give the venue the benefit of the doubt had long since evaporated.

The Playhouse café looks quite nice, doesn’t it? Missing from the description on the website is the chief decorative feature the day of my visit: two small (and admittedly extremely cute) puppies in a hamster cage on the floor next to the drinks fridge. They were very small puppies, true, but they were in a hamster cage. They did not appear to be in distress, and I admit I didn’t take a photograph or phone the RSPCA – but while I’ve never kept dogs myself, I’m not aware of that being the recommended daytime environment for even a very small puppy, never mind two of them. They’d got what had clearly been a water dish, but – being puppies – they had somehow managed to upend it. It contained no water, and one of them was chewing it. As I said, they did not appear to be in distress, but I found the sight startling.

I found it startling enough that I was going to say something, but the lady behind me in the queue got there first, and asked the young woman behind the counter whether the dogs were OK. The question was asked perfectly politely, and out of genuine (and reasonable) concern, and this relatively mild inquiry was met with what I can only describe as a full-blown temper tantrum, delivered as subtext. She managed to restrain herself from offering the full Violet Elizabeth Bott, for which I suppose we should all be thankful, but she did manage to grind out a terse “they’re fine” while simultaneously conveying her fervent hope that anybody who dared express their concern for these poor animals would die a protracted and painful death, preferably right in front of her and with a video replay afterwards. Before she turned her back we were treated to a volley of the kind of glares that could precipitate a new ice age, and this was accompanied by a great deal of theatrical tensing of shoulders and banging of dishes. She was clearly Not Pleased, and intended to put some effort into showing it.

By this time I’d got to the front of the queue, and was trying to order my lunch from her colleague/partner on the till. If anything, he radiated even more hostility; I tried to order their set lunch – £8.25 for a ‘lunch item’, a side dish, and a dessert. That’s a good deal… if you get it. First the gentleman tried to charge me something over £14 for it – a sum that could not be arrived at by adding the prices of the individual item I’d asked for as the ‘lunch item’ – a piece of quiche – and the drink on my tray, or by adding the cost of the lunch deal and the drink on my tray, or by adding together any possible combination of the things I was in the process of trying to order. Far be it from me to suggest that someone is systematically trying to overcharge customers who they think are in a hurry and won’t notice… but it very much looked like someone was systematically trying to overcharge customers who they think are in a hurry and won’t notice. When I pointed out that the total was incorrect, he made a great show of voiding the transaction and starting again, as if asking not to be overcharged by over a fiver made me unusually difficult. When I asked what the side salads were, Ms. Violet Elizabeth Bott, Keeper of Dogs, served the list of salad options with another side order of I-hope-you-die, and when I asked for the chickpea and couscous salad she walloped a spoonful of it into a dish and then slammed it down on the counter in front of me with a force that measured on the Richter scale. The quiche and salad were delivered without cutlery or a napkin; the ‘lunch deal’ includes a dessert item, and I wasn’t even given the chance to order it. As soon as Ms. Sense-Of-Entitlement-Has-Its-Own-Postcode slammed the salad down in front of me, she and her colleague turned their backs on me and got on with the serious business of ruining somebody else’s day.

Now, sure, I should have made a scene, made a noise, demanded what I’d paid for. It was about 45 minutes until showtime, I’d been out of the house since 7.30am, my day had already included a flu jab and a two-hour journey on East Midlands Trains, and at that point I just wanted to get out of there. I had a plastic spoon in my bag so I wasn’t reduced to eating the chickpea and couscous salad with my fingers; I ate the quiche with the spoon too, because any alternative would have involved another conversation with the rampaging egomaniacs behind the counter. No thank you.

And to add insult to insult, the quiche had a soggy bottom.

Of course the result of all of this is that by the time the lights went down I wasn’t in anything close to the right mood to appreciate Mark Gatiss’s flawless performance as the King, Adrian Scarborough‘s equally superb performance as Dr. Willis, the gallery of superb supporting turns from, well, just about everybody, but particularly from Debra Gillett as the Queen and from Louise Jameson as the duplicitous Dr. Warren, who treats the King but reports her observations to the opposition. Director Adam Penford delivers a solid revival with a handsome set (by Robert Jones) of unfolding palace walls and an exceptional cast – but if every other aspect of your visit to the theatre puts you in a terrible mood before you’ve even walked into the auditorium, you might as well stay home.

And certainly after this experience I don’t feel inclined to give any more of my money to the Nottingham Playhouse. After the performance I sought out the bar/restaurant manager; he was horrified and very apologetic – as he should have been – but it’s easy to be apologetic after the event: this is how these people feel empowered to behave towards his customers, under his supervision. Part of me thinks it’s unfair to tar the production with problems arising from peripheral aspects of the experience, but unfortunately the peripheral stuff was unpleasant enough that it turned what should have been a good day out into a distinctly lousy one. At the very least, it’s crystal clear that the Nottingham Playhouse’s front-of-house “management” – and that word is an act of great charity on my part – have no grip at all on the overall visitor experience in their venue.

One more thing: I should probably have said this further up, but I’ll say it now. If you choose to assume responsibility for a domestic animal, it is incumbent upon you to make sure you have made adequate arrangements for that animal’s safety and comfort during your working day, and indeed during any time you spend away from your home. There are no circumstances – NO circumstances – in which providing “adequate arrangements” for the care of two puppies may include shutting them in a hamster cage and then dumping it on the floor in a corner of your workplace (and it doesn’t say much for the Nottingham Playhouse that they allowed staff to do this on their premises). If you can’t manage to provide an adequate environment for animals in your care, you have NO BUSINESS taking them into your care in the first place. And if your response to a sincere, polite expression of concern about two puppies in a hamster cage is a Technicolor hissy fit, then never mind live animals: you aren’t even mature enough to be responsible for the care of a Tamagotchi.

 

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Revolting Children

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They aren’t, of course, whatever the song says. The kids in this touring production of the RSC’s musical adaptation of Roald Dahl‘s Matilda are all perfectly delightful. I’d tell you their names but I left my programme on the tram, so that’s £4.00 I’ll never get back. They’re listed on the website, of course, but there are multiple kids cast for each of the leading roles and the website doesn’t include photos next to their bios. There are currently six kids listed as playing Matilda; the one I saw at the matinee on November 21st (I’ve been busy, deal with it) was great (so were the kids in all the other roles), but I don’t know what she’s called. That’s showbiz, kid.

The show itself is what it is, and this touring iteration of the original Stratford/London production isn’t going to change anybody’s mind. I love it, but there seems, here and there, to be a perception that it’s a show for small children, and it really isn’t. It’s a grown-up musical in which the leading role is played by a child. Miss Trunchbull, in particular, is genuinely scary, and Tim Minchin’s score makes very few concessions to the younger members of the audience. The words come thick and fast, and the moments where Minchin goes for the deeper emotional undercurrents behind the story – as in the glorious When I Grow Up, which has always been the best thing in the show – are likely to go over the heads of the youngest members of the audience, despite the bravura staging.

Matthew Warchus’s production is (still) magnificently inventive, there are lovely performances in all the adult roles – particularly Carly Thoms as an especially sweet Miss Honey and Craige Els as the evil Miss Trunchbull – and it’s nice to see a touring production that isn’t in any way cut down for the provinces, even if tickets are priced at the far edge of what provincial markets will bear (during the Manchester run some prices for midweek performances dropped significantly, and the theatre still wasn’t anywhere near full at the performance I saw). As touring productions go, this is up there with the best – but I can’t help but wince when ticket prices in Manchester are pushing £80 for premium seats, particularly in the context of an economy in which vast swathes of the workforce haven’t seen a meaningful pay increase in a decade. These prices push decent seats beyond the reach of a lot of people; ticket prices, over the last several years, have risen way faster than inflation, and costs, even in the theatre, have not shot up at the same rate. It’s show business, yes, but the number of empty seats suggests that these producers need a different business plan.

Love will tear us apart…

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Let’s get the gushing out of the way first: the English National Opera‘s gorgeous revival of Porgy and Bess – yes it closed two weeks ago, I’ve been busy and I’m playing catch-up – is very nearly as good a production of the piece as I can imagine. There’s a handsome revolving set of skeletal tenements and piers by Michael Yeargan, superb costumes by Catherine Zuber, appropriately moody lighting by Donald Holder, and a knockout storm scene from video designer Luke Halls. It’s beautiful to look at, and under the baton of John Wilson the score – George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward‘s masterpiece – quite possibly sounds as good as it ever will. There are glorious performances in the title roles by Eric Greene and Nicole Cabell, Nadine Benjamin’s opening Summertime is as lovely an account of the song as you could imagine, and it’s a thrill to hear this music performed by the ENO’s orchestra and chorus. Following the London run, the production is heading to Amsterdam and New York; if you love the material, you’ll need to see it.

BUT… you knew this was coming, didn’t you? This, for me, was a superlative, thrilling musical experience. As a piece of theatrical storytelling, it wasn’t quite as successful. Part of that is simply down to the piece itself: first, that we’re no longer in the cultural moment in which it was written, and attitudes to race/racism/racial stereotyping have shifted significantly over the past eighty years, which inevitably means a libretto in which the central characters were (let’s put it kindly) regressive stereotypes even in 1935 – criminal/pugilist/philanderer/drug-peddlar/beggar/woman of low morals –  is going to read a little uncomfortably in 2018, even when it’s treated as carefully as it is here under James Robinson’s direction. It’s arguably an issue, too, that of the seven major creative roles on this production, only one artist – Dianne McIntyre, the choreographer – isn’t white, which perhaps isn’t the most, let’s say, encompassing approach to a piece which has always been dogged by the perception that it examines black poverty through an inadvertent but nevertheless troubling lens of white/middle-class condescension.

A bigger problem – because the race/class issues are always going to be a problem in this particular piece, and the score is so superlatively wonderful that the piece has earned its place in the repertoire – is that while James Robinson has done a commendable job of navigating a course through the minefield that is the libretto, there’s an element of the process that gets in the way of the storytelling here: the production has an ideal set of leading players and a superb chorus, but too often it seems as if they’ve barely met. They’ll have been rehearsed separately and put together at the last minute, and there are more than a handful of scenes in which the chorus parts like the Red Sea as the principals enter from the rear of the (huge) stage and then stay back while the leading singers do their thing, as if the chorus and leads are separated by some kind of moat. The libretto carefully frames the plot as the story of the community – it’s the story of Catfish Row, not just the story of a woman with a past who falls in love but then is tempted away by drugs and the bright lights of New York (I know, I winced slightly as I typed it), but you can’t help coming away from the Coliseum having formed the impression that the principals and the chorus have taken out restraining orders against each other.

Better, then, to treat it as a musical feast with accompanying visuals. As music, as I said, this is an extraordinary experience. As theatre, it’s worth seeing – but the thrills come from the score, the conductor and the singers, rather than from the librettists and the production team.

Welcome to the land of Lola

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It’s probably damning Kinky Boots with faint praise to say that it’s one of the better recent-ish musicals adapted from recent-ish films. It might also raise your expectations slightly too far. The 2005 movie about a man who saves his late father’s ailing shoe factory by manufacturing a range of outrageous stiletto boots for drag queens has a lot of very obvious song cues, and they’re duly ticked off in Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper‘s very obvious adaptation. The good news is that unlike, say, Legally Blond, not all of this show feels like it’s been written on autopilot. The bad news is that the parts that do are nearly all in the first twenty minutes.

Once you’ve sat through those first twenty minutes of not-very-interesting exposition, the show kicks up several notches with the entrance of Lola, the fabulous drag queen who inspires Charlie-the-owner-of-the-shoe-factory-that’s-going-down-the-toilet to shift production towards a new demographic. Cyndi Lauper, making her debut as a composer of musicals, has great fun with Lola’s material, the big production numbers are choreographed to the hilt by Jerry Mitchell, and Callum Francis’s Lola is one of those great big star turns you’ll be talking about all the way home.

The trouble is, next to Lola everything else looks a little bit drab. This touring cast features very strong performances from Joel Harper-Jackson as Charlie, from Adam Price as factory foreman George, from Demitri Lampra as Don, the unreconstructed bigot who clashes with Lola on the factory floor and learns a big lesson as a result, and especially from Paula Lane as Lauren, the factory worker with a secret crush on her boss, but only ‘The History of Wrong Guys’, Lauren’s showstopping diatribe about her tendency to fall for inappropriate men, has as much impact as Lola’s big production numbers.

None of it – after the first twenty minutes, anyway – is bad which is to say that the production is excecuted with a great deal of professional competence. Jerry Mitchell’s staging is impressively slick, David Rockwell’s set moves efficiently from a factory in Northampton to a drag club in London to a catwalk in Milan, Kenneth Posner’s lighting is riotously dazzling when it needs to be, and the ensemble is full of sharp, funny performances in the minor roles. You’ll have a good time. You may not want to compare Harvey Fierstein’s stage script too closely with Tim Firth and Jeff Deane’s screenplay for the film, though, because Fierstein’s adaptation is sometimes numbingly simplistic. Nearly all of the nuance is gone from the relationship between Charlie and Lola, to the point where the plot simply doesn’t make sense: in the film, Charlie doesn’t entirely overcome his prejudices until the very end, whereas Fierstein has Charlie accepting Lola for who he is from the beginning and then berating Lola for not being properly masculine halfway through Act Two. Nicola, Charlie’s upwardly-mobile fiancée, is reduced to a boo-hiss villain. Fierstein almost completely glosses over the question of Lola’s sexuality, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions; the screenplay makes Lola/Simon unequivocally straight, which is a far more interesting choice in terms of confronting the audience’s preconceptions about drag performers. Throughout, the musical replaces nearly all of the film’s grit with glitter, and the film didn’t have that much grit to begin with. The result is a show that is great fun, at least once you’ve sat through those first twenty minutes, but which could have been a great deal more than that.

Callum Francis’s star turn as Lola, though, is something to see. He’s the real thing: a fabulous singer, superb comic timing, star presence, and he manages to put back a lot of the emotional heft Harvey Fierstein has so carefully filleted out of the book. He’s more than worth the cost of the ticket, and the show offers a thoroughly entertaining night out as long as you don’t think too hard about what you’re watching. You do, at least, get some sense of what attracted the show’s creators to this source material – again, unlike Legally Blonde – and while it’s a pity that sense of inspiration (very) obviously did not extend to every character or every element of the plot, Lola’s numbers are good enough that they more than compensate for the deficiencies in the writing elsewhere. Don’t go expecting a “great musical”, though. Whenever Francis is onstage, this is great entertainment – but that’s all.