Who’s afraid of Margot Leicester?

I saw a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf this afternoon at the  Bolton Octagon. Yes, I know there should be a question mark after ‘Woolf’, but it won’t show up when I make the title into a hyperlink. It’s been a long day, bear with me. On the back of about three hours of sleep (and about 100 minutes of travel via Greater Manchester’s public transport system, which is never a pleasure), I saw a play that is essentially three hours of four unpleasant people playing mind games with each other – and saw it, at that, in a startlingly intimate production, staged in the round, in which the whites (reds?) of the actors’ eyes were always visible.

And I loved it – but a paragraph of prose is about all I’ve got right now because the coffee I had after the show ended wore off several hours ago, so what follows is going to be a list of random thoughts.

  • Director – David Thacker. Excellent. He doesn’t put a foot wrong.
  • Set – it’s in the round, there’s furniture rather than a set. The furniture is appropriate, so are the costumes, and the lighting is unobtrusive. The production looks good.
  • Seats – wincingly uncomfortable, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing when you’re watching a very long, very dense play after three hours of sleep and a morning that involved travelling via the hell that is Northern Rail.
  • I think this is probably Albee’s best play, but I couldn’t honestly say that I love it, although I did love this production. It’s rich, dense, rewards different interpretations, reveals different layers every time I see it, and is often very funny, but it’s hard work.
  • And having said that the play is rich, dense, rewards different interpretations and all the rest of it, I find I don’t have a great deal to say about the play itself anyway. It’s almost 50 years old, we’ve all read it, it is what it is.
  • It is, though, about more than simply four drunk people sniping at each other. The Octagon, this time, have put together excellent programme notes, which is nice to see after the magnificently obnoxious ones that accompanied their production of Sweeney Todd earlier this year. There’s a piece about the play, a piece about Albee, and a piece about the film, and they’re all intelligent, well-written and informative. And not patronising. Thank God.
  • Kieran Hill and Tammy Joelle as Nick and Honey, both excellent. He’s more predatory than I remember Lloyd Owen being in the Diana Rigg/David Suchet production (which, OK, was fifteen years ago), and none the worse for that, and she deploys her high-pitched laugh to lethal effect. She’s Martha, only with sixty fewer IQ points, a thinner skin, and a far lower tolerance for liquor.
  • George Irving’s George is flawless.
  • And then there’s Margot Leicester’s Martha.  Also flawless. Actually, ‘flawless’ doesn’t begin to cover it. It’s a genuinely surprising performance – wounded and wounding rather than explosive, brutally forceful when it needs to be, but often shockingly quiet. You don’t always get fireworks, but you don’t miss them either; I don’t think I’ve ever been as moved by a Martha as I was by Leicester’s performance. She’s half slasher, half open wound, and she’s extraordinary.
  • The final section, after Nick and Honey leave, is taken almost at a whisper, and it’s devastating – but also, oddly, hopeful, more than it usually is.
  • The play really benefits from being staged in the round in a relatively small space. The production’s intimacy, as I said, is startling – it’s riveting, painful to watch, and you can’t take your eyes off these people.

The production runs until October 15th. You’ll see showier, starrier stagings of this play, but it’ll be a long time before you see a production as quietly shattering as this one. It’s worth travelling a long way to see this. Even if you have to use Northern Rail.

Pig No Pig

Earlier this evening, Betty Blue Eyes played its final performance in the West End. It’s the first new musical Cameron Mackintosh has produced in a decade, it opened in April this year to very positive reviews, and it’s run to half-empty houses for six months and is closing at a loss.

I saw it in April on my one free night on a London trip that was mostly work – the night after it opened, in fact – and loved it, with a few reservations (I’m picky, I’m afraid – I nearly always have a few reservations). It’s an odd, intriguing subject for a musical – the source material is the Alan Bennett-Malcolm Mowbray film A Private Function, a sharp, forensically cold comedy set in austerity-era Yorkshire that follows a meek chiropodist named Gilbert Chilvers  and his ferociously social-climbing wife Joyce as they steal and conceal a pig that has been secretly reared by local bigwigs to provide the main course for a dinner celebrating the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten. I went, I admit, partly because I was curious to see whether that film could be adapted successfully into a musical – I love the film, and nothing about it screamed ‘potential musical’ – and came away mostly charmed and delighted by what I’d seen. It’s a good show – a really good show – and it deserved a longer run.

It’s not entirely surprising, however, that it hasn’t run longer. The film it’s based on is well-regarded but not a blockbuster on the level of a Ghost or a Legally Blonde – and anyway, the musical and the film do not share the same title. The songwriters, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, have had solid careers that encompass a few charming small-scale musicals and additional songs for the stage version of Mary Poppins, but they aren’t household names. The show’s two stars – Sarah Lancashire and Reece Shearsmithare household names, more or less, but there are relatively few stars in this country whose name on a poster makes people pick up the phone and book theatre tickets. For that matter, the audiences that know Shearsmith from The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville on television are not, as a group, necessarily going to be first in the queue to see a stage musical, let alone a relatively old-fashioned musical comedy like this one.  Alan Bennett‘s name on a poster does tend to make people book tickets, but Alan Bennett’s name wasn’t anywhere near the poster. The musical is warmer than the film, but it’s still, when you boil it down, a more or less unflinching social comedy of manners in which it’s hard to find any character who is completely loveable (while the show is warmer than the film, Lancashire’s Joyce is far more of a West Riding Lady Macbeth than Maggie Smith presented on screen in the same role, a comparison that the musical makes explicit midway through the second act). And, at the end of the day, it’s a sharp-but-charming old-fashioned musical comedy, top-price tickets were £65, and the economy is in the toilet. When they opened (to reviews that were far better than we remember, in London at least), Mackintosh’s productions of The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon were events, must-see attractions that were sold out months in advance. Of course, in the late 1980s, people still had disposable income. Betty Blue Eyes got equally good reviews, but never gained that kind of traction at the box office.

With immaculate timing, the cast recording of Betty Blue Eyes became available for download this week. It’s not out on CD until next month; the download version has a couple of additional tracks that will not be on the CD – “Since the War”, an Act Two number set in a gents’ toilet and led by Dr. Swaby, who is the man who has thwarted most of Joyce’s social ambitions, and the full-length version of an Act One number called “Magic Fingers”, which is sung by three of Gilbert’s patients, and which is presented elsewhere on the cast recording without most of the dialogue that separates the verses. It’s a live recording, made in the theatre, and that brings positives and negatives. On the plus side, the performances have an immediacy and a spontaneity that isn’t always easy to capture in a recording studio. On the minus side, the sound quality is not quite as pristine as it would be on a studio recording. By and large, the show comes across very well; the highlight, probably, is Sarah Lancashire’s take-no-prisoners delivery of “Nobody”, Joyce’s determined paean to the art of social climbing, but the ensemble numbers also sound terrific. Lancashire, who has spent most of her career working in rather cosy television dramas, reveals a marvellous singing voice as well as comic timing that is apparently guided by laser  (some of us already knew about her musical comedy skills – in the mid-1990s, she played Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors at the Oldham Coliseum, and she was brilliant), and it’s a joy, on this live recording, to hear the huge ovation she receives as she stops the show cold with “Nobody”; hopefully, this will not be her last musical. There are a few less-than-stellar individual songs here and there, and unfortunately Reece Shearsmith’s Gilbert is saddled with more than his fair share of them – my heart sank, when I saw the show, to see the programme list a song called “The Kind of Man I Am”, and the song, unfortunately, lives down to my low expectations, although Shearsmith does a lovely job of it; he more or less sold it in the theatre, but on a recording, when you can’t see the look on his face as he sings, it’s far less successful. And Adrian Scarborough, as the meat inspector Wormold, struggles manfully with a dazzlingly misconceived production number called “Painting by Heart” that should really have been put down in previews. Scarborough, again, is no singer, although he stays  in tune, but he’s one of our best comic actors; he clearly had a great time wheeling out his best boo-hiss Villainous Acting, but he can’t quite manage to sell a song that, unfortunately, just isn’t good enough.

The rest of it is at least entertaining and often far better than that, and “Magic Fingers” is surprisingly deeply touching, particularly in the full-length version. The music does an excellent job of evoking the postwar setting, despite the rather thin orchestrations (nine players, not enough), the departures from the film’s plot are intelligently conceived (a jitterbug scene at a wartime dance where Gilbert and Joyce meet for the first time under dangerous circumstances, a different ending that shows Joyce achieving social prominence partly via her culinary skills with Spam) and work well, and it’s relatively easy to follow the plot simply by listening to the recording – no bad thing if you purchase the download, which does not come with liner notes or a synopsis.  The title song – a love song to the titular pig – includes several marvellously groan-worthy pig-related rhymes, is ridiculously charming, and has a melody you’ll be humming for weeks. You don’t get to see the animatronic pig on the cast recording, but you can’t have everything. It’s far, far more entertaining music than sludge like the score of Ghost; it is, in fact, the most purely entertaining British cast recording I’ve heard in years.

And yet the show closed. The show got good reviews, and closed. That’s showbiz, folks.

Butterfly…

I saw a new musical yesterday. Yes, that’s an event, new musicals don’t come around very often these days, particularly outside of London.  The Go-Between, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. It’s based, of course, on the novel by L.P. Hartley and, like the novel, it opens with that line. And then it goes to some places you really don’t expect.

Not particularly in terms of content, actually. As far as I can remember (it’s a decade and a half at least since I read the novel), the musical makes no major changes to the source material’s plot. What’s interesting, here, is the way David Wood (book and lyrics) and Richard Taylor (music and lyrics) handle the transition from speech to singing. I’ve never seen a musical use music quite the way this one does.

The plot is familiar from the novel and the (excellent) film – a middle-class schoolboy, Leo, who is spending the summer as the guest of an upper-class schoolfriend and his family at their country estate becomes the means via which his friend’s older sister Marian sends messages to the tenant farmer who is her secret lover. When the affair is finally exposed, there are dreadful consequences for both Leo and Marian – and the musical artfully uses the difference between what is spoken and what is sung to show the gradual erosion of Leo’s naiveté. After a brief prologue, we see Leo arriving at Brandham hall; he has never seen upper-class life from the inside before, and he finds both the estate and Marian utterly enchanting. Accordingly, from this point on, everything is sung, with the music functioning rather in the same way as heightened prose in a magic-realist novel. Leo thinks he’s in an enchanted world, and the music lends enchantment. Once the singing starts, we are not in a traditional musical, either – the closest equivalent would be something like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. There are almost no songs in the traditional sense. Instead, there are sung scenes that run together creating the effect of a continuous piece of music. But when the scales start to fall from Leo’s eyes, and harsh reality begins to intrude on this enchanted world, the music stops, and in fact the most important, most emotionally painful scenes, in terms of the plot, are spoken rather than sung. In most musicals, the music starts when the emotions get bigger. Here, when the emotions become overwhelming, the music stops. It’s startling, and it works.

It’s not a perfect show. The prologue (in which the older Leo sorts through a trunk of childhood artifacts in his attic as figures from his past encourage him in song to be brave and face his demons), frankly, clunks. The recitative in the sung scenes can get a little relentless, particularly in the first half – partly because the first act is rather slack, stretching about thirty minutes of plot out over an hour and ten minutes. For long stretches, nothing much happens, and people keep singing about it. The music is always interesting, but the show could easily lose half an hour. The second act is much tighter.

There is, though, still a great deal to admire. The production – directed by Roger Haines on a simple but evocative unit set by Michael Pavelka (a bleached wood floor with tufts of grass here and there, skewed walls, doorways with no doors, and an endless summer sky), with exemplary music direction (and piano playing) by Jonathan Gill – is faultless, the performances are superb. The child who played Leo at the performance I saw – Jake Abbott – was astonishingly good, and Sophie Bould’s Marian is perfectly acted and gorgeously sung, but there are no weak links among the cast. The music – accompanied only by a single piano, but conceived that way by the composer (who carefully informs us in a programme interview that he actually turned down additional musicians because he wanted a solo piano only) – is always expertly performed, even if it doesn’t, in the first act, always entirely hold your attention. It rarely coalesces into anything most of us would recognise as a song, but when it finally does, midway through Act One, the song is extraordinary. That would be a song called “Butterfly”, sung by the older Leo as he compares his early days at Brandham to a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis; it’s very, very lovely, and you can hear it here, sung (beautifully) by an actor named Nigel Richards. He’s not in the production, and this recording – made for Mr. Richards’ solo album – uses an orchestration rather than the solo piano accompaniment heard in the theatre, but the chance of a cast recording of the show being made is almost nil, so this will have to do.

The show, after closing in Leeds, goes on to play runs at the Derby Theatre and the Derngate in Northampton (it’s a coproduction between those two venues and the WYP). After that… who knows? It deserves a life, although it’s not perfect. It’s daring, unusual, idiosyncratic, intermittently extraordinary, and beautifully staged and performed. It’s depressing as hell that it takes no less than three regional theatres to finance a production of a new musical that has a single set, a cast of eleven, and one musician, but that’s the state of theatre in this country these days. We’re lucky it got produced at all.

Su måste finnas. Finish. Whatever.

Have you heard this week’s most exciting, most internationally-significant piece of news?

I’ll give you a clue. It’s nothing to do with Libya.

Yes, that’s right. West Lothian’s favourite diva, Susan Boyle, has gone on a bad TV show and premiered a new song. That rocked your world, didn’t it? It certainly rocked mine, I saw the performance on youtube. And then considered turning to drugs to help me forget.

It’s not a new song, of course. It’s the English-language version of a song called   “Du Måste Finnas” (You Must Exist), and it’s from  “Kristina från Duvemåla”, a Swedish musical written by the male half of ABBA that premiered in Malmö in 1995. It’s already been recorded in Swedish and English by Helen Sjöholm, the musical’s star, and in English by Alice Ripley, who rips it to shreds (to be fair, she seems to do that to everything these days). As big, declamatory pop-opera anthems go, it’s rather good – provided the singer is up to it. The notes are not particularly difficult, but it’s one of those songs that needs a singer who can really sock the final refrain over the footlights.

Ms. Boyle, bless her, is not up to the task.

Actually, she’s worse than that. It’s an embarrassing, amateurish performance, particularly given that it’s a couple of years now since Ms. Boyle’s astonishing rise to fame on “Britain’s Got Talent”. You’d think that in that time people might have worked with her to help her develop a little more polish, but apparently not. Her phrasing is sloppy, she doesn’t keep to the beat, her voice just sort of peters out at the song’s climax, and she shows absolutely no connection at all with the song’s lyrics. The closest we’re given to anything resembling an interpretation are the parts where she flaps her arms around as if she’s trying to hail a taxi. The song, in context, shows a devout woman who has just miscarried railing at God for making her endure an unending stream of misfortune. Boyle sings it as if she’s trying to return a sweater without the receipt.

And that’s a shame, because her discovery via reality TV was an arresting, heart-warming news story, and her voice is quite well suited for the sort of middle-of-the-road Elaine Paige/Marti Webb strata of easy listening her recordings inhabit. The voice itself is… pleasant, and has potential, but she doesn’t have the sort of training you’d need to be able to belt with the power Paige had in her heyday, or that Sjöholm unleashes when she pelts into the final refrain.  Go to any decent amateur operatic society/community theatre, and you’ll find at least one singer with a stronger voice and more polish.

It’s dangerous. TV is seductive, and Boyle’s story made compelling television – but television has created a trap for her. She’s not without talent, but what sold, originally, was the gawky, never-been-kissed woman with Van der Graaf generator hair and a frumpy skirt confounding expectations by giving a passably pleasant performance rather than the flaming, humiliating train wreck everybody expected when she walked onstage. Two years on, though, she’s still peddling the same gawky, unpolished schtick, except she’s doing it in a better frock and with a nicer hairdo. And I don’t think it’s doing her any favours.

The thing about that first surprising performance is that it didn’t just show us a sweet, nervous lady with a nice voice. There was something quite interesting going on as Boyle sang, although she showed, as she did this week, limited skill as an interpreter of lyrics. You got the sense, watching her, that here was a woman who was quite literally singing for her life, singing her heart out, and it was oddly moving. More than that, she faced an audience and a judging panel (two of whom are almost certainly in thrall to the forces of doom) who smelled blood when she walked onstage, and she brought them to their feet through sheer force of personality. That’s not an easy thing to do; the fact that Ms. Boyle did it suggests that, with proper training, she could become a far better, far more polished performer than she is at the moment, in the process building for herself a far more durable and credible career than I suspect she’ll have if she continues on the track she’s on right now. She has huge hits, her albums sell in massive quantities, but she’s a sideshow, and there’s a limit to how far you can peddle a sideshow before the audience gets bored.

Although they’re not bored at the moment, and that in itself is depressing as hell. Boyle’s deeply mediocre performance of “You Have To Be There” was met with cheers and a large ovation from the studio audience at “America’s Got Talent” – and this wasn’t an audition, and there was no element of surprise. Ms. Boyle gave a bad performance, and the audience ate it up because she’d been wheeled out as the star attraction. You applaud the star, so the audience applauded, and never mind that the star’s actual performance had all the star wattage of three-day-old coleslaw. That’s the reality Reality TV gives us: what used to take years of training and hard work now takes three minutes on ITV and a few million youtube hits. Who cares if the final product – don’t say it out loud – isn’t any good?