Can we be a republic now, please? Please? Pretty please?
I mean really, really s l o w l y. Almost backwards.
I spent this afternoon, which felt like several afternoons, watching Ghost, the new
merchandising opportunity musical that’s currently sleepwalking its way towards the end of a seven-week pre-West End tryout run at the Opera House in Manchester. There’s a scene in an episode of Gilmore Girls where Rory describes Lorelai sitting in a movie theatre watching Magnolia and screaming “I want my life back!” By midway through the second act of this afternoon’s performance, that’s how I felt. I am a polite theatregoer, and I resisted the urge to scream.
The thing is, a musical based on Ghost isn’t necessarily a bad idea. It’s far from my favourite film, true, and it’s not a particularly good film, but it’s an effective enough (if cheesy) romantic drama that usually manages to bring out a lump in the throat in the final scenes, even if you sort of hate yourself for it afterwards. And it’s a film that feels like it could sing. It’s got big emotions, a larger-than-life major supporting character in Oda Mae Brown, and there are a number of obvious song cues in the screenplay. It’s not necessarily the greatest idea there’s ever been for a new musical, but it’s far from the worst, and a musical version should be viable.
And if I really thought I’d hate it, I wouldn’t have got out my Visa card and booked a ticket.
Well, sorry, I hated it. Actually, I didn’t just hate it. I’d have to rank it fairly high on the list of the worst pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen. And that’s odd in a way, because on the face of it, it’s a confidently-staged, professionally-executed show. In some ways, it’s nowhere near as bad as some legendary theatrical train wrecks I’ve seen. It’s no Which Witch? or Bernadette or Moby Dick or Out of the Blue (and yes, the early 1990s yielded a rich vein of catastrophic flops in the West End). I had, God help me, a better time at all four of those shows than I did this afternoon at Ghost. Those four shows were each in their way screamingly, jaw-droppingly terrible, bad-idea-gone-wrong theatrical nightmares that made your eyes bleed, your ears beg for mercy and your braincells burn. Ghost, on the other hand, is never exactly bad. It’s merely inert. It’s so colourless, it makes Wicked look like Pacific Overtures. It’s like spending nearly three hours watching a Gap commercial with a vague plot, except your average Gap commercial is executed with a little more wit and charisma.
What’s missing is any sense, from pretty much anyone involved, of why this particular story needs to be sung when you can just go and buy the DVD. It possibly doesn’t help that the musical’s book, like the film’s screenplay, is by Bruce Joel Rubin, whose approach appears to have been to fillet anything interesting or characterful out of his original script in order to make room for the songs. And what songs they are. The bland music and trite lyrics are by Dave Stewart – yes, of Eurythmics fame – and Glen Ballard (both apparently did both), apart from Unchained Melody, which was used in the original film and is shoehorned in here, ensuring that the show contains precisely one memorable tune. The rest of it drifts in one ear and straight out the other, with occasional interludes in which the volume gets turned up so far that the sound system obliterates the lyrics. There are no transporting delights, no clever turns of phrase, nothing that sticks in the mind – good or bad – for longer than it takes to play out onstage, apart from a gradual realisation that the actor playing Molly seems to spend an awful lot of time singing about how she needs to learn to let go. The score just sits there, a flavourless mass of MOR pop balladry that mostly sounds like the on-hold music for a corporate switchboard.
That wouldn’t matter so much, of course, if there was anything distinctive about the central performances. It would hardly be the first time charismatic actors have managed to sell dull material – if, here, charismatic actors managed to sell dull material. As Sam and Molly, we have the thespian stylings of Richard Fleeshman and Caissie Levy, both of whom are comprehensively out-acted by the shiny red fridge that’s prominently positioned in the corner of their onstage apartment. Individually, they have the stage presence of styrofoam; together, they generate roughly the same level of sexual electricity as an airline sandwich. They’re blandly good-looking and they both have nice voices, they hit their notes and their marks dead on, and they both appear to have had their personalities surgically removed. It’s particularly difficult to discern any quality Ms. Levy – a transatlantic import – might bring to the table that could not have been provided equally well by a British performer (or a hatstand in a wig), but here she is. Aren’t we lucky?
So is there a memorable baddie? Well, no. As Carl, the chief villain of the piece (the Tony Goldwyn role in the film), we have Andrew Langtree, apparently delivering his performance via Skype from somewhere more fun (I mean, really – if he can’t look interested in what he’s doing, why should I?) As the mugger, Ivan de Freitas offers us his reading of Generic Latino Thug, which is pretty much the same as pretty much everyone else’s, as seen on every American police procedural drama produced at any point in the last thirty years. The fight scenes are efficiently staged, but offer no sense of either menace or peril.
Things perk up a bit halfway through the first half, when Sharon D. Clarke’s Oda Mae Brown appears. She can’t entirely bring the show to life either, but she manages to supply something resembling a pulse simply by having more stage presence than wet cardboard. She has a killer voice and strong comic timing (and could play this kind of role in her sleep, although she doesn’t); it’s a shame that her comic timing largely goes to waste when the music starts because Stewart and Ballard seem to have forgotten to provide her with anything funny to sing, but she has it, and it’s a start. Things perk up a bit more during the Subway Ghost’s couple of brief appearances. His rap number in the second half isn’t good, but it’s energetic, and Adebayo Bolaji brings real fire to it. It probably helps that he alone is a distinctively different type to his counterpart in the film. He’s given something new to do, and he does it memorably well – but the character is onstage for less than ten minutes out of two and a half hours of stage time.
What the show does have, in spades, is spectacle. The set (by Rob Howell), actually, is extraordinary, and deceptively simple – a box made of sliding panels that can unfold, origami-like, into different-sized rooms, onto which are projected digital video animations (by Jon Driscoll) that can move the location in the blink of an eye from an apartment to the street, the subway, an office, an elevator, a warehouse, the park, a restaurant, or anywhere else in New York City. Illusions are by Paul Kieve, and they’re pretty good – Sam walks through a closed door, his fist goes through a soda can, objects fly off shelves of their own accord, and they even find a more or less convincing way to show Sam’s ghost possessing Oda Mae. As brilliant as the set is, though, it can’t compensate for the absolute blandness of the writing and the two leads. Ashley Wallen’s choreography works but rarely thrills, and sometimes looks as if it comes from a TV commercial (which, to be fair, is partly down to the contemporary setting, costumes that are mostly street clothes, and the video projections behind the dancers), and Matthew Warchus does an efficient job of bringing all the elements together and keeping them moving. He doesn’t keep them moving quickly enough, but this is a tryout run, and they’re in Manchester to work out the kinks. Hopefully they’re still working… and contemplating the kind of mass firings seen over in New York at Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark, because that’s the only way the finished product is ever going to be anything other than completely generic, even given the eye-popping set.
So… they don’t have much of a score, they don’t have much of a book, and the two leads are blander than a vat of low-fat vanilla frozen yoghurt. What they do have is a globally famous source title, a slew of producers covering interests in a variety of international markets from Australia to Canada and points between, and logo merchandising. You can’t get a memorable tune, it seems, but you can buy a T-shirt with the show’s logo on it, even during the tryout run. It’s not a fair exchange. Particularly not at West End prices.
It’s the merchandising, in fact, that constitutes the production’s first insult. There is one kind of programme available – a glossy-looking “souvenir programme”, steeply priced at £6.00. It contains cast bios, a song list, creative bios, ten different bios covering the various producing partners, and articles about the film and screenwriter, along with a few rehearsal photos and a lot of adverts – but that’s it. No production photos, or any content at all to distinguish it from an ordinary programme – but it’s printed on glossy paper, and it’s all that’s available, so if you want a programme it’s what you have to buy. Sorry, that’s a rip-off.
So, yeah, Ghost. Rent the DVD and buy a book of glossy photographs of New York City, and you’ll still have change from the cost of a ticket and a programme, along with most of your sanity and the use of your eardrums (did I mention that the sound system is LOUD?). Unless, of course, you’d like a preview of the experience of being trapped in a limbo where time has no meaning, a sensation which the production manages to evoke remarkably well – just not in the way it intends.