I have a long and geeky history with Chess. Not the game, I’m afraid – I never really learned to play, though we always had a chessboard at home. I have a long and geeky history with the musical, in part because I also have a long and geeky history with ABBA. My iPod holds many secrets, some of which are about to be revealed.

I bought the concept album on cassette when it came out – 26 years ago, which makes me feel really, really old. It was a double album, and I didn’t get all that much pocket money, so buying it was a significant investment. I wore out one tape and bought another. When it came out a few years later, I bought the Broadway cast album, also on cassette, and was very surprised to hear how different it was to the concept recording. At around the same time, my mother took me to see the London production. It wasn’t the first West End musical I’d seen, but I’d never seen anything quite so spectacular. “Chess”, in London, was something to look at. There was a huge chessboard that lit up, banked, tilted and revolved, there were 128 video screens, there was a rock band and a large string section in the pit, there were a lot of great songs and some terrific singers (including, when I saw it, Anthony Stewart Head), there was an opening ballet with 32 actors dressed as chess pieces… and there was a convoluted and slightly baffling plot about marital infidelity and the cold war. I loved it. For all its faults – and it certainly had faults – it wasn’t quite like anything else I’d ever experienced.

I kept on listening to the music. When I got a CD player, I replaced my knackered cassettes with CDs. I saw the first UK tour an embarrassing number of times, in more than one venue (Liverpool, Bradford and multiple times in Manchester). I moved to London to go to university, and my debit card began an unhealthy and long-standing relationship with Dress Circle. I bought the Broadway script – and God, it’s dreadful – and on my first trip to New York I found the Broadway production’s souvenir brochure in one of the theatre gift shops off Times Square, and bought it for rather more than I could afford. When the Swedish concert recording appeared, I snapped it up. Over the years, it’s been followed by the Danish cast recording, the Swedish stage cast recording – yes, in Swedish, which I do not speak – and DVD, and the Royal Albert Hall concert recording, on which Josh Groban exhibits the charisma of wet Wonder Bread, Adam Pascal hits many, many bum notes, and Idina Menzel elects to play Florence as a Fraggle marooned in the Roosevelt Field Mall without a credit card. My enthusiasm for this music, yes, even survived Ms. Mendel’s hideous, grandstanding rendition of “Nobody’s Side” (I won’t include a link, out of respect for my readers’ eardrums). So yes, I’m a “Chess” geek, and I feed my geek streak regularly. Four of the recordings are on my iPod… along with the entire recorded output of ABBA, but that’s another post. Maybe.

The thing is, with “Chess”, there’s a lot to feed a latent geek streak. It’s one of those shows that has never quite worked, and – like “Candide” or “Merrily We Roll Along” – there are so many different versions out there that it’s difficult to keep track.  The London and Broadway versions were wildly different, the UK tour was significantly different from the London version, the Australian version is different again, the Swedish version involved yet another major overhaul (including a fair amount of new music, and the relegation of “One Night in Bangkok” to background music in a bar scene), and the published London script includes a large appendix of cut material and an author’s note from lyricist Tim Rice that allows people doing that version of the show considerable latitude in putting together their own version of the show (though that latitude stops short of allowing the inclusion of material from the Broadway version). You could, probably, spin a doctoral thesis out of tracking the various different versions of this script and score that have received major professional productions around the world. The plot never quite hangs together, but the music keeps people coming back, me included.

And this week, I saw yet another version. There’s a new UK tour doing the rounds, directed – like the production of “Spend Spend Spend” I saw last week – by the reptilian-but-talented Craig Revel Horwood. And, yes, while it mostly broadly follows the London version, it’s yet another revision, because apparently there just aren’t quite enough versions of “Chess” out there in the ether already.

It’s an intelligent enough revision, in fact, although the Swedish version, probably, comes closest to advancing a coherent plot. This new production plays up the love triangle at the expense of the cold-war politics, which means that we lose, for example, the lengthy sung scene between Florence and political manipulator Walter near the end of the show. We also lose the scene-setting “Merano”, and it’s not particularly missed – it’s a fun chorus, but even without it the show takes a long time to get going. Otherwise, this is the London version, explicitly presented as a period piece (set in 1979-1980), with nips, tucks and the addition of “Someone Else’s Story” as an Act Two ballad for Svetlana, the Russian wife. Even with the nips and tucks (which also, unfortunately, include half of the “You and I” reprise that marks the end of the love story at the heart of the show), the show runs two hours and fifty minutes, and the first half of the first act is very slow-moving.

Once the show gets going, what we basically get is a concert with a plot. This is yet another actor-musician production – that is, the cast double as the orchestra (there are two keyboard players and a drummer offstage). It is, I think, much the largest of the recent-ish spate of such productions – they usually originate in tiny theatres rather than major touring venues, and so employ ensembles of only a dozen or so performers, whereas there are 27 actors onstage here – but the use of actor-musicians nevertheless imposes limitations, not least in terms of the sets and choreography. Because there are so many musical instruments, some of them quite large, on the stage, it isn’t really possible to bring on large pieces of scenery; accordingly, the back wall of Christopher Woods’ set is formed of a wall of LCD screens that can split open like sliding doors to allow actors to enter. The screens show news footage, graphics, and scene-setting backdrops, and the video design – by Jack James – is terrific. This wall of scenes is surrounded by a structure made up of off-white squares, rather like chessboard squares – a sterile, clinical box that can be lit in an enormous variety of colours (the spectacular lighting is by Ben Cracknell). There’s a raised, raked playing area in the centre of the stage that can be underlit to suggest the squares on a chessboard or a mountainside; the chorus, and their musical instruments, are lined up in two rows on each side of the stage, and the only other scenic elements are stools, a table and a couple of perspex blocks. And the costumes. Oh my God, the costumes. Mr. Woods has elected to dress the chorus, though not the principals, quite literally as chess pieces. The London production did something similar in the opening ballet sequence, but the London production had a much bigger budget, used the literal chess-piece costumes for just one scene, and didn’t use chess-piece costumes that looked like they came from the S&M section at a pound shop. The actors playing the knights fare the worst – they’re doomed to spend the entire show wearing hats with perspex horse heads perched on top, and with fake horsehair tails coming out of the back of their trousers, while simultaneously singing, dancing and playing a variety of musical instruments.

And then there are the limitations that are already inherent in the actor-musician format. Bluntly, these are actors, not musicians. In the programme, the director makes a point of saying that he looked for actors who could play their instruments at Grade 8 level or above. That’s a very high level of musicianship for, say, secondary school, but it doesn’t approach what professional pit musicians can do. And, oddly, the size of the show and the scale of the orchestration – this is fairly close to the full orchestration, and of a score in which the symphonic elements have always been at least as important as the rock band that plays alongside the strings and woodwinds – work against the cast. Horwood’s production of “Spend Spend Spend”, which I saw the other week, and which also uses actor-musicians – sounds good, and the music, probably, is no less difficult than the score of “Chess”. But “Spend Spend Spend” is a small, gritty folk opera rather than a big, glitzy symphonic rock musical, and even in the original production (which did use a pit band) it was supposed to sound a little ragged around the edges. The company of “Chess” work very hard, play the entire score from memory, and play while singing, dancing, and at one point while writhing around on the floor on their backs. But they’re dispersed all over a large stage rather than sitting together in a pit, they’re not professional musicians, and they just can’t deliver the score as smoothly or as tightly as a professional pit band would. The playing is never exactly sloppy, but in the most rhythmically complex parts of the score – the “Chess” instrumental, the Golden Bangkok ballet, the Endgame sequence – the limitations of the actor-musicians onstage are very evident.

All of which makes it sound as if the production is a dead loss. It’s not. Despite the costumes, it’s very striking to look at, and when the principals take centre stage and let rip in their big numbers, it’s often thrilling. The leads are young, sexy and immensely talented, and they do full justice to the impressive series of songs that, let’s face it, are the reason why most of the audience are there. Daniel Koek’s Anatoly delivers the best rendition of “Anthem” I’ve ever heard in a theatre; Tommy Korberg owns the song, but he comes very close. Shona White’s sardonic, ball-breaking Florence knocks “Nobody’s Side” out of the park, then melts beautifully in the Mountain Duet and “Heaven Help My Heart”. David Erik’s Arbiter has a very silly costume (a long leather coat and no shirt – because, obviously, international chess tournaments are often refereed by a man who looks like a washed-up 70s Eastern Bloc rock god), but also sings like a dream and can dance and play the trumpet at the same time. Poppy Tierney’s Svetlana has very little to do, but does it very well; her “Someone Else’s Story” is lovely, and she and Ms. White are impressively fiery in “Endgame”. Steve Varnom has great fun with “The Soviet Machine”. And James Fox’s Freddie is definitive. He finds the dry humour in “One Night in Bangkok” (it completely eluded Adam Pascal in the Albert Hall concert), he hits *all* of his top notes accurately and without yelping, and he even manages to make “Pity the Child” into a moving soliloquy rather than a petulant rant. He’s spectacular.

So this production doesn’t entirely work – but then, no production of “Chess”, I think, has ever entirely worked. Despite the obvious restrictions of the actor-musician gimmick format, and the cheesy chorus costumes, Craig Revel Horwood deserves a lot of credit for delivering a production of a problematic show that carries itself off with absolute conviction. There’s nothing tentative about this production; even the wrong-headed choices are made confidently, and the leads, all of them, are spectacularly good. And for better or for worse, you’ll never see another production of “Chess” quite like it.

Enron: we had the experience but missed the meaning

Three blind mice! Stock tickers! Raptors! Light sabres! Filing cabinets! Sex on a table! LEDs! LOTS of LEDs! Large-scale corporate fraud!

Sorry, Lucy Prebble, metaphor isn’t enough.

Enron, I’m afraid, is one of those maddeningly frustrating plays that hover around a subject for two-and-a-half hours without ever quite landing on a point, or a point of view. It arrives in Manchester trailing spectacular reviews from Chichester and London (though not from Broadway, where it was a fast flop earlier this year), but, taken as a whole, it doesn’t live up to the hype.

The physical production (direction by Rupert Goold, sets by Anthony Ward, lighting by Mark Henderson, music, lyrics and sound design by Adam Cork, video and projections by Jon Driscoll, choreography by Scott Ambler – I list them all because they’re the real stars of the show), it has to be said, is absolutely dazzling. Using dialogue, music, movement, scenery, projections, masks and an endlessly inventive series of visual metaphors, Prebble and the rest of the creative team do a terrific job of rendering the impenetrable accounting practices that led to the catastrophic collapse of Enron in 2001 with startling clarity. Special purpose entities are portrayed as raptors, which have to be fed a constant supply of dollar bills to keep them happy. The deregulation of the Californian power market is presented as a choreographed light sabre battle. A rising and falling grid of tubular lights is used to spectacular effect, ultimately serving as a cage that imprisons the play’s chief protagonist, Jeffrey Skilling, Enron’s former president. A succession of projected photographs and video keeps the play’s chronology absolutely clear. A huge projected LED stock ticker display shows the gradual climb and quick fall of the company’s share price.  Ambler’s choreography wittily comments on the body language financial traders use on the floor, and Cork’s score makes shrewd use of the vocabulary of musical theatre to convey the surging rhythms of the financial markets. It’s fast-paced, slick, clever, stylish, and never less than entertaining.

Unfortunately, though, it’s also never more than superficially entertaining. In among all of the theatrical tricks, Lucy Prebble somehow forgot to write a play. Enron offers a remarkably clear, all-singing all-dancing lecture in the intricacies of corporate fraud, but that’s more or less where it ends. There are, ostensibly, four protagonists – Skilling, Kenneth Lay, chief financial officer Andy Fastow and VP Claudia Roe (unlike the other three, a fictional composite) – and we see them do a lot of things. What we don’t get at any point in the play is any sense of what drives or motivates them, beyond a basic desire to keep Enron’s share price up and turn a profit by any means. We get the events, but almost no insight; the experience, but not the meaning. Even the colossal suffering inflicted on shareholders by the company’s spectacular collapse is glossed over – there’s a short scene in which two former employees confront Skilling at Lay’s funeral, but that’s more or less it. There’s an attempt, in a lengthy sequence late in Act Two, to give Enron’s collapse global significance by juxtaposing the corporation’s plummeting share price in the second half of 2001 with 9/11 imagery, including a projected still of the burning Twin Towers. This, unfortunately, is much the worst-written passage of the play; it’s never entirely clear what point Prebble might be trying to make, and the use of such potent visual imagery in such an unfocused scene merely cheapens the image and pulls the audience’s focus away from the stage.

The problem, basically, is one of tone. It’s never clear whether we’re watching a satire, a morality play, a contemporary tragedy, or a black comedy about the nature of hubris. We see four protagonists, plus an ensemble who all play multiple roles, which means that we see figures rather than characters, which means that the characterisations, even of those four protagonists, veer towards caricature. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if Prebble’s writing matched or even approached the wit of the physical production, but it doesn’t. Her zingers aren’t, and exchanges which are clearly intended to be comic barely raise a titter. Conversely, the play’s fast-moving succession of short vignettes mean that we never get to spend any significant time with those four protagonists, with the result that we’ve barely any more understanding of what makes them tick at the end of the play than we had at the beginning. If we’re meant to be moved or even angered by these people, then they need more flesh. The result is a piece of writing that makes a complicated sequence of events commendably clear, but which never quite manages to hit any definite point of view – well, apart from “large-scale corporate fraud is bad, mmmkay?”, which we all knew going in.

This makes it sound like a disaster, and it’s not. It’s a very entertaining piece of theatre, and this touring iteration of the Royal Court/West End production is impeccably performed by a strong ensemble cast, led by Clive Francis as Ken Lay and Corey Johnson as Jeffrey Skilling. The show – and that’s what it is, a show – is never dull, never boring, and the flair of the physical presentation makes it a must-see for anyone who loves theatrical theatre – but once you’ve worked through the various visual wows, you won’t have a lot left to talk about on the train home. Enron, in the end, is an unintentionally perfect dramatic encapsulation of the company it’s named after: when you peel away the layers of artifice in the presentation, there’s nothing underneath.

Spend Spend Spend

No, that’s not a suggestion for how to beat a double-dip recession. Viv Nicholson, the notorious football pools winner who vowed to “spend spend spend” and ended up broke is not, perhaps, the most likely subject for a musical. Spend Spend Spend, though, playing at the Lowry this week in a production directed by the reptilian but talented Craig Revel Horwood, is a triumph. It’s gritty, funny, powerfully moving, and probably the best time I’ve had at a musical this year.

It’s also possibly the best successful British musical that nobody’s ever heard of. It played at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1998, then in the West End two years later (in a production starring Barbara Dickson). It ran for about a year in London, toured briefly, then – aside from occasional productions by ambitious amateur groups – dropped off the face of the earth.

One reason for that, certainly, is the subject matter. It’s a thoroughly downbeat story – rags to riches to rags, with physical abuse, alcoholism and bereavement thrown in along the way to lighten things up a bit. Nicholson had, essentially, one moment of great good fortune in a lifetime spent struggling, and it wasn’t winning the pools, it was meeting her second husband. She and her husband were not psychologically equipped to handle the massive change in their circumstances, the money catapulted them out of the place where they lived but did not in itself grant them social acceptability anywhere else, and there was, in 1961, no counselling or support available to people in her position. Equally, while Nicholson’s is a brutally sad story, it’s very difficult not to judge her on some level, and judge her harshly. Brash, loud, coarse, outrageous and sometimes thoroughly foolish, she was at least partly the architect of her own downfall, and she’s not necessarily the easiest person to find sympathy for, despite her awful upbringing.

And then there’s the cast recording question. Musicals survive, as much as anything else, via their cast recordings. The cast recording isn’t just a document of score and a production, it’s a marketing tool – it’s the primary means via which people who have not seen a particular show will discover the music for themselves, and there appears to be a direct correlation between the easy availability of a cast recording of a musical and a show’s ability to gain subsequent productions once the initial run in London/New York/wherever has been concluded. Spend Spend Spend does, in fact, have a cast recording – it’s just that it’s very nearly impossible to buy it. The recording – of the London production – was not financed by a record company, and no deal was ever made with any record company to distribute it via the usual channels. It was available for sale in the theatre during the latter part of the London run, it was available for sale in the theatres where the first UK tour played (that’s how I got my copy) – but those are the only places it’s ever been for sale over the counter. It’s not on Amazon, it’s not in iTunes, it’s never been in any record shops, and there are no copies for sale at performances of the current production. It sometimes shows up on eBay, where its rarity means that it goes for prices that would preclude anybody buying it out of casual curiosity. The obscurity of this recording, of course, is all the more bizarre given that Barbara Dickson, the above-the-title star of the London production, is a major recording artist who has sold more records over the past 40 years than pretty much anyone else working in musical theatre in Britain (granted, she doesn’t actually work in musical theatre very often). Whatever the reasons why the creators of Spend Spend Spend and the people who financed the recording, whoever they were, failed to make a distribution deal for the album, that failure can only be regarded as a spectacular own goal.

The thing is, the show’s writers – Steve Brown and Justin Greene (Brown wrote the music and they both wrote the book and lyrics) – have done, mostly, a brilliant job. The show puts two Viv Nicholsons on the stage – the present-day Viv, a grandmother who works in a hair salon, and the younger Viv, who is rocketed through a sequence of events that she cannot hope to control. We see the older Viv wince at her younger self’s foolishness, then wince again as she keeps on making the same mistakes. It’s a clever, effective means of gaining sympathy for a potentially unsympathetic character without ever begging for it, sentimentalising her, making fun of her or rewriting history, and the show packs a surprising emotional wallop. The score, too, is very, very strong, and distinctively northern (the mournful sound of brass bands is threaded all the way through), with one musical sequence (you can’t quite call it a song) that’s as good as anything I’ve ever seen. That would be “Scars of Love”, halfway through the first act. Older Viv recounts the story of her first date with the love of her life, Keith Nicholson, the man who became her second husband. We know that Keith Nicholson died in a car accident in the mid-60s; we watch Young Viv and Keith fall in love as Older Viv sings about her memories of their first date and her grief at his loss. The music is soft, folk-tinged and absolutely haunting, and the scene is quietly devastating. There’s no bombast, no big money note, no huge sweeping string section pouring syrup over the moment – just a sad middle-aged woman remembering the happiest night of her life.

In the theatre, the song is a solo, then a trio, then (briefly) sung by the entire ensemble, then a solo again. The only rendition available online is Barbara Dickson’s solo version of the song, seen on a chat show. While it’s gorgeous, it doesn’t convey the way the number works in the theatre. It does, though, give some idea of just how different this is from the love songs you usually hear in musicals:

Oh yes – this production. It originated at the Watermill in Berkshire, which has a tiny, tiny stage, so, yes, it’s another of those shows in which the actors double as musicians (with the exception of the actor playing Young Viv). This is not, generally, my favourite production concept, but it’s done, here, as well as I’ve ever seen it. Most of the actors play at least two instruments plus percussion, parts of the set (like a brass bar-rail) double as percussion instruments, the musical instruments are used by the actors as extensions of their characters, and you actually more or less stop noticing the gimmick five minutes into the show. More than that, the music sounds good (I’ve seen more than one production using actor-musicians where that really wasn’t the case). The ensemble performances, all of them, are very strong, but the two women playing Viv Nicholson herself – Karen Mann as the older Viv and Kirsty Hoiles as Young Viv – are both remarkable. Hoiles shows the way money and then the loss of money hardens the younger Viv without either short-changing the character’s essential foolishness or begging for sympathy; that’s a hard line to tread, and she doesn’t put a foot wrong. Karen Mann plays the older Viv as a walking open wound, simultaneously thrilled and horrified as she recounts the way her younger self lurched from disaster to disaster (at one point, referring to Young Viv, she says, “I could slap her one meself!”). The most moving moment in the play is Mann’s – near the end of the first act, as the radio announces the eight score draws and Viv and Keith begin to realise they’ve won, a look of sheer terror crosses Mann’s face. She knows what’s coming, and so do we, and she can’t stop it.

You can, in fact, see a taste of this production in a trailer posted on the Watermill Theatre’s website:

The tour only has four more dates booked – Leeds, Cheltenham, Richmond and Ipswich. It’s worth travelling a long way to see this, even despite the actor-musicians. It’ll be a long time before you see this show again, Mann and Hoiles are both astonishing, and there’s more genuine emotion in thirty seconds of this than there is in the whole of, say, Wicked (granted, that’s not saying much, since there’s more genuine emotion in your average TV advert for laundry detergent than there is in the whole of Wicked).

I may even have to go to Leeds next week to see it again, and I never do that.

Oh Patti (Don’t Feel Sorry For Bill Smitrovich)

Let’s get the obvious question out of the way first. Patti LuPone: A Memoir does, in fact, contain consonants, and the vowels are mostly unmodified (in hardcover at least – I can’t vouch for the audiobook edition).

I’m not always a fan of Ms. LuPone. On the plus side, she has a powerhouse voice and great presence, she’s a committed actress whose CV encompasses a wider range of work than most, she has killer comic timing, and she’s not afraid to send herself up. The negatives, though, sometimes cancel out the positives. Her work, when not reined in by a strong director, can be excruciatingly self-indulgent, and then, yes, there are those diction problems. Her diva antics sometimes cause consonants to flee the room entirely, and vowels melt in her presence (you can see both her best and her worst sides here in this performance of “As Long As He Needs Me” – the wisecracking, knowingly self-mocking diva in the patter to the audience, then the mush-mouthed steamroller who’ll rip a song to shreds in a self-aggrandizing display of Big Singing in the number itself). She was spectacularly good in “Master Class” in London, despite the thin material, and in the last weeks of her run in “Sunset Boulevard” (I saw it after her Broadway contract had been cancelled), and she was quietly devastating in Mamet’s “The Old Neighborhood” on Broadway. Some of her recordings, however, are painful (the worst, I think, is a rendition of “As Long As He Needs Me” recorded for a Cameron Mackintosh compilation CD that manages to make the performance I linked to above seem subtle and restrained). She’s also an actor who seems to find controversy wherever she goes – the Lloyd Webber incidents, the onstage dust-ups with audience photographers (she’s not the only actor to have done that sort of thing by any means, but it doesn’t necessarily make headlines when other people do it), her justifiable anger at getting inappropriately frisked in an airport, various backstage blowups. She is, for better or worse, a larger-than-life figure who presents a larger-than-life personality to the public.

And now she’s written a memoir (or rather, dictated one to a ghost-writer). It’s a very, very entertaining read, actually, and in some ways I had more respect for her when I’d finished it than I’d had before I started reading it. She clearly put an enormous amount of energy into developing her craft, she’s clearly very serious indeed about the craft of acting and about the theatre as an institution, and she has a sense of humour about herself. Sometimes. She also – and this, I’m slightly ashamed to say, is a big part of what makes it such an entertaining read – really doesn’t hold back when it comes to discussing people who have irked her, mistreated her, or otherwise Done Her Wrong. There are two chapters on the “Sunset Boulevard” debacle, which is to be expected, but she also takes deadly aim at several of her co-stars. Topol grabbed her boobs. She hated Paul Sorvino on sight (with good reason – trapped together in the tryout tour of “The Baker’s Wife”, she describes him as being relentlessly upbeat, like “Howdy Doody at Auschwitz”). Bill Smitrovich, her co-star on the TV show “Life Goes On”, was a bully and, worse, a bad actor. And so on. And she doesn’t just point the finger. She gives examples. Several examples, in fact, for each of the above. I imagine Mr. Smitrovich will not be lining up at Barnes and Noble to get his copy autographed.

It isn’t  all scorched earth. There are a lot of entertainingly gossipy showbiz anecdotes (her Vanessa Redgrave story is priceless – Ms. Redgrave invited LuPone out for tea, then – good socialist egalitarian that she is – insisted on splitting the bill), and her generosity towards people she respects (David Mamet, Mandy Patinkin, Boyd Gaines, Laura Benanti) at least matches the venom she directs towards the unfortunate Mr. Smitrovich (who, if even half of what LuPone says about him is true, richly deserves it). But, undeniably, trouble seems to follow her around, and there are hints, here and there, of a certain darkness and desperation underneath. Getting fired is, of course, a hideous, humiliating experience, and finding out about it by reading it in a gossip column must be truly devastating – but not everybody who gets fired, even so publicly, responds by rampaging around a room smashing things and then throwing a lamp out of an upstairs window. And, equally undeniably, while she is, as I said, extremely generous when talking about people she likes and respects, the most vivid passages in the book are the ones where she turns the knife. There’s more than a hint here of settling scores. There’s also, certainly, more than a hint of someone who is more than a little self-righteous, and whose standards are impossibly high.

That said, it’s fun, and not just for the bitchy parts. If nothing else, it’s refreshing to see a contemporary actor (co-)write an unabashed love letter to the theatre. I still don’t want to play her “Matters of the Heart” CD ever again (her “Shattered Illusions”, I’m afraid, is a masterclass in trampling punchlines), but it’s refreshing, for once, to read a showbiz memoir that doesn’t consist mostly of bland platitudes.


There’s a special circle of theatrical hell reserved for really bad musicals. Well, actually, there are probably three or four circles of theatrical hell reserved for really bad musicals, simply because there have been a lot of really bad musicals, and really bad musicals are excruciating.

This morning, I received in the mail the newly-released cast recording of one of the all-time worst bad musicals. It even sounds like a bad joke – Out of the Blue, a musical about the bombing of Nagasaki. It played at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London’s West End for about ten minutes in 1994, during which time I was lucky(?!) enough to see it. It was, of course, truly, magnificently awful – the musical bomb to end all bombs, written about the bomb to end all bombs. They tried to stage the detonation of the bomb over Nagasaki via, basically, three very large flashbulbs and dry ice. The central female character was a radiation sickness victim who got a number in which she begged for help in committing suicide. The best (worst?), of course, was saved for last – the finale was a big, bombastic chorus about how we can achieve anything if we “Only Believe”. Yes, in a musical about the bombing of Nagasaki in which a central character dies of radiation sickness. There were even lines about how children are our future. Of course, as with any well-known musical Hindenburg, it has a fan website. Go there at your peril.

So if it’s so bad, why did I buy the recording? I’m a musical theatre and cast album geek, but I’m not a completist – I’m not (and have never been) one of those people who has to buy every new release. There is, though, something intriguing about this show. Partly it’s that the cast recording sat on the shelf for sixteen years before any record company released it. Partly it’s the cast – the material is awful, but the singing is beyond reproach. And partly it’s the sheer, absolute wrong-headedness of the enterprise. Like the musical version of Carrie, the subject matter means that the show sounds like a punchline before you’ve even heard any of it (for the record, I also saw “Carrie”, and it was far better than “Out of the Blue”). It’s not the subject matter that sinks “Out of the Blue”, it’s the writing.

The thing is, in some ways you learn more, I think, from plays that don’t work at all – and this show, I’m afraid, doesn’t work at all. “Carrie”, at least, had the mother-daughter numbers, which were genuinely thrilling; “Out of the Blue”, however, managed the nearly unbelievable feat of taking the detonation of an atomic bomb and rendering it dull. The music is sometimes painfully stilted. Shun-Ichi Tokura’s score is pretentious pop opera which, in attempting to set Paul Sand’s tritely conversational lyrics, forgets to blossom into the sort of soaring melodies that characterise the best of the pop operas – apart, that is, from in that grisly uplifting final chorus. It’s never bad exactly, and there’s the odd brief lovely moment, but basically the cast recording is seventy minutes of recitative in search of an actual, complete tune… which puts it head and shoulders above the show, which dragged on for two hours of stage time. Two hours, that is, which flew by like a decade.

Sniping aside, this recording, actually, is a fascinating document. The main reason I bought it, in fact, is a brief musical fragment, heard in each act, called “No Sound” (I know, I know). I’ve had this haunting melody in my head ever since I saw the show, and I wanted to know if I’d remembered it correctly. Unfortunately I hadn’t, and I like the version in my head better than the versions on the CD. Plus, while there are a lot of flop musicals (75%, roughly, of the musical productions mounted on Broadway in any given year fail to return their investment, which is Variety’s definition of a flop), there aren’t very many flop musical in which no structural element is successful, and very few of that subset get recorded. I doubt it’s something I’ll listen to often, but it’s an interesting thing to own. It’s basically a point-by-point primer on how not to write musical theatre, condensed into a 70-minute CD.

The same record company, incidentally, is now taking pre-orders for a rerelease of the cast recording of Mutiny, a 1985 crapfest written by and starring David Essex, with 80s pestilential pop menace and ex-girlfriend of Simon Cowell Sinitta in a supporting role. Am I tempted? God, no. I’m a geek, not a masochist.

The Habit of… oh. Get your coat.

I saw a play yesterday. Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, at the Lowry in Salford. It’s a breathtakingly ambitious, fitfully brilliant, extraordinarily wide-ranging play, in the original National Theatre production, flawlessly directed by Nicholas Hytner and featuring a strong cast headed by Desmond Barritt, Malcolm Sinclair, Matthew Cottle and Selina Cadell. If the tour is coming anywhere near you, go and see it – it’s not an easy ride, and it takes a while to take off, but it’s rewarding and ultimately surprisingly moving, and it’s well worth the mental effort. I want to get that out of the way first, because this is not strictly a review.

Watching the audience was almost as good as watching the play. There’s increasingly a gulf, or rather a great big yawning chasm, between the way Alan Bennett is perceived by the public and the material he actually writes. He passed the point of becoming a ‘national treasure’ a couple of decades ago at least – somewhere between the first series of Talking Heads and The Madness of George III, I think, if not earlier. He looks like an academic, and he’s quietly spoken, and it’s easy, I think, for people to attach to him an image of cosy respectability that’s very much at odds with his work, which is razor-sharp, unflinchingly frank, and often rather bleak. And oh my God, this gulf was visible at the Lowry yesterday afternoon.

I saw the matinee (the bus and train service around here shuts down sufficiently early that getting home from an evening performance at the Lowry on public transport is impossible without using a taxi for at least part of the way). Tickets aren’t cheap – top price was £26.00, which is a little over four times the cost of a cinema ticket – so the audience was (how can I say this nicely?) mostly firmly middle-aged (or older) and middle-class. And this play, more than most I’ve seen, polarised the audience. A surprising number of people did not return after the interval.

The play – the whole play – takes the form of a rehearsal of a play, in a rehearsal studio at the National Theatre. There’s no curtain. The set is a meticulous recreation of one of the RNT’s larger rehearsal studios, with the proscenium where the fourth wall would be. An actor is onstage a good ten minutes before curtain time, making tea, sorting papers and generally doing all of the things an ASM would be doing in the ten minutes before actors were due to arrive for a rehearsal. There are no scenes, the play seems to take place almost in real time, the interval comes when the actors take a coffee break. The play within the play – “Caliban’s Day” – is about a fictitious meeting between Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden in Oxford, circa 1973. As the “actors” stumble through their run-through, they drop in and out of “character”, questioning their lines, their motivation, the play’s historical accuracy, whether the play-within-the-play’s sexual frankness (one character is a rent boy, there are a couple of full and frank discussions of oral sex, and it’s more than implied that there is a sexual dimension in Britten’s feelings towards choirboys) is absolutely necessary, whether artists should be portrayed as heroic or flawed, how hard it is to play a character who is essentially a literary device… you get the picture. It’s sprawling, funny, rude, thought-provoking, moving, and it requires a fair amount of concentration, since there are no divisions between scenes, no set changes, no blackouts, no lighting cues at all (the entire play takes place under rehearsal lighting, and the actress playing the stage manager turns the light off when she leaves at the end of the play).

There were people at the end who clearly hadn’t enjoyed it at all. There were a significant number of empty seats at the end of the interval – the play is an anointed hit with a raft of four- and five-star reviews, written by one of the very few British playwrights whose name on a poster translates into big box-office business, so there was pretty much a full house, even in the Lyric (the Lowry’s larger house, it seats about 1750). The three people to my right left at the interval. A group sitting behind me left at the interval. Looking around, before the house lights went down for the second half, my guess is that well over 100 people did not come back for Act Two.  During the interval and on the walk out of the theatre, there was a lot of audible discussion of the play’s perceived shortcomings – no pace (the actors, actually, kept the pace up very well, but the play, undeniably, sprawls), no plot, bad language (both acts are liberally sprinkled with the words ‘cock’ and ‘fuck’), did he really need to take his trousers down, it wasn’t what they expected, etc etc. On the other hand, two nice older ladies, also seated behind me, made my afternoon by spending the whole of the interval conducting an earnest discussion about the practical difficulties Auden would have encountered in engaging the services of a rent boy in Oxford in 1972. They were applauding enthusiastically at the end.

I’m not, actually, all that surprised that people walked out. I said the play was fitfully brilliant; the second act is much better than the first, and the play’s structure is challenging. What I’m curious about, in fact, is something a little more fundamental: why did these people  who didn’t enjoy it buy tickets to see it  in the first place? It’s a year since the play opened in London. The reviews are out there and easily available, and provide an accurate picture of the play’s content and form. Britten and Auden’s sexuality should not be a surprise to anybody, and frank sexual language has been a feature of Bennett’s work for at least 25 years. “The History Boys”, Bennett’s previous play, was as big a hit as any playwright in Britain has had in the past two decades, and it’s just as full of frank discussion of sexual and bodily functions as “The Habit of Art”. The Lowry is not a producing theatre, and does not have a subscription season – if you see a play there, it’s an active choice rather than part of a package. But despite the reviews, the pre-opening publicity, the articles about the play, Bennett’s previous body of work and all the rest of it, a very significant proportion of this very large audience were disconcerted to the point where they either left or complained loudly after the show by the fact that what they saw did not match the rather buttoned-down way Bennett presents himself in photographs.

Why does this matter? It reinforces a belief I’ve had for a while – that Bennett, now, is more genuinely subversive than a room full of Mark Ravenhills. Put simply, Bennett draws a crowd that would not necessarily queue up to watch experimental or fringe theatre. They buy tickets because of his name on the poster (the actors here were good, but they were not the all-star quartet that opened the play in London; their names would not translate into ticket sales); he has as much of a mass audience as anyone writing for the theatre these days, but each successive play challenges his audience, and although he doesn’t aim for easy shocks (like, say, putting the word ‘fucking’ into the title of a play to make it look as though you’re daring when in fact you’ve simply written a very thin play in which you hope the blizzard of expletives will disguise the fact that you only had half an idea, which you haven’t managed to develop) he’s also unafraid to be disliked. “The Habit of Art” is many things, but it’s most assuredly not the work of a man who needs his audience to love him. But the odd thing is, the people who walked out will probably buy tickets to his next one.