Put it away, and SHUT UP!

I’ve been to the theatre a couple of times this week – the very, very fabulous satirical cabaret group Fascinating Aida at the Lowry in Salford, and then the UK tour of Lincoln Center Theater‘s production of South Pacific at the Palace in Manchester. I’ll talk about the shows in a minute. First, I want to talk about the audiences. Oh God, the audiences. Specifically, what I want to talk about is why some people, after shelling out a medium-hefty sum of money for a theatre ticket, apparently find it so difficult to sit still and shut up.

It wasn’t so bad on Tuesday at the Lowry (for some reason, audiences at the Lowry seem to be rather more polite than audiences at the Palace or the Opera House). Fascinating Aida played in the smaller theatre, the Quays, and it was a packed house; mostly, as far as I could tell, the audience behaviour wasn’t hideous. There was one idiot somewhere near the front who hadn’t switched off her mobile phone, and then there was a party of four people who, unfortunately, were sitting directly to my right (if anybody reading this was at the 5pm performance on Tuesday October 25th, these charmers were in row G, seats 1-4 in the stalls). It’s not just that they periodically made comments to each other slightly too loudly (by which I mean they made no attempt to whisper). It’s that they arrived with snacks. Specifically, with bags of different flavours of designer crisps, which they proceeded to offer each other – not quietly – throughout the whole of the second half. Apparently sitting for a whole hour without putting some kind of fried potato product into their mouths would have caused them some kind of serious physical hardship. It’s not really possible to pass cellophane crisp packets around silently, not that they tried. The show was hilarious, but unfortunately, for me, it came accompanied with an intermittent running commentary (from four people who, I’m afraid, were neither as funny or as clever as they thought they were, and certainly nowhere near as funny or as clever as the three people on the stage), and the sound of crunching and rustling plastic.

And then there was South Pacific at the Palace. I booked for this ages ago – back in January, in fact – and spent a fair amount of money on the ticket: £50, when you factor in Ticketmaster‘s obscene booking fees (these people, astonishingly, have the unmitigated gall to charge you a fee of a few pounds to print off your ticket yourself, on your own printer, using your own ink, on top of their regular booking fee. Thieves and crooks, the lot of them, and if there’s any justice they’ll be first against the wall when the revolution comes. Or maybe second, after Simon Cowell. But I digress.) I’d been looking forward to it for a long time. I suppose it’s a measure of how far downhill we’ve slid that I don’t regard this afternoon’s audience as having been that bad (you know, rather in the manner of, say, infected peritonitis not being that bad compared to pancreatic cancer). So… South Pacific, Palace Theatre in Manchester, matinée performance on Saturday October 29th. Some highlights:

First off, let’s all offer our congratulations to the adorable couple seated in seats E-23 and E-24. She stood in the aisle for ten minutes before the start of the show then took her seat as the overture began – those seats, of course, are right in the middle of the centre block, and so naturally she waited until everybody between those seats and the aisle had sat down, because otherwise there might have been someone in that row that she wouldn’t have been able to disturb. He took his seat 90 seconds into the overture, presumably to make absolutely sure that everybody had sat down after getting up to let his wife pass. They whispered to each other through the rest of the overture and into the first scene – an urgent conversation about precisely where he’d had to park the car to avoid paying for parking (sorry, if you can afford to drop £100 on two stalls seats for a musical, you can afford to pay to park your car in the car park next to the theatre so that you’ll get to your seats before the lights go down). One must assume that they each had something pressing to do before leaving home that prevented them from leaving ten minutes earlier so that they could take their seats on time and not disrupt the start of the show for several dozen people who had all paid about £50 a pop to be there. Or perhaps they were just rude or selfish or inconsiderate. Hmm.

Then let’s all give it up for the lady – I use the term loosely, ‘lady’ implies someone who has manners – who was seated in seat E-18. Her handbag contained a plastic bottle of orange juice, which was itself contained within a Sainsbury’s plastic carrier bag. Every time she wanted a sip of juice, she rustled around in her handbag for the plastic bag, rustled the carrier bag getting the bottle out of it, crinkled the carrier bag in her hands as she took a drink, rustled the carrier bag again as she put the juice bottle back into it, then rustled it again as she put it back into her handbag. She did this approximately every six minutes, all the way through the show. Her routine added greatly to the climax of “This Nearly Was Mine”, but she managed to sprinkle her special kind of magic stardust over several of the show’s key moments. It’s not like she just crinkled her plastic bag during the loud bits.

Equally entertaining was the near-constant procession of people heading to the toilets in the last thirty minutes of Act One and the last fifteen minutes of Act Two. People, if sitting still and not having a wee for a maximum period of 90 minutes is seriously impossible for you, get a colostomy bag fitted, wear Depends, or at least book an aisle seat in a side block. It’s a theatre, not your living room, and neither age nor a pressing need to take a whizz translate into any kind of right to disrupt the performance for the people around you. Suck it up, hold it in, and don’t go to the bar before the performance starts.

A lady sitting behind me had a bag of Cadbury Eclairs. They’re individually wrapped in cellophane. She wasn’t as loud as the lady with the Sainsbury’s carrier bag, but she was even better at picking her moment.

And two general notes:

One, some people, believe it or not, actually want to listen to the overture and entr’acte. When they start, SHUT UP. At the very least, shut your trap when the lights go down.

Two, leaving during the curtain call is rude. The actors have been working their backsides off for (in this particular case) the last three hours, delivering marvellous performances in the face of talking, rustling carrier bags, crinkling sweet wrappers, and a procession of people taking trips to the loo during the play’s key scenes. The least you can do – the very least you can do – is applaud them when they’re done. If you have to put another pound into the machine in the car park, boo-hoo.

I sound cranky, don’t I? This wasn’t an audience from hell, and it certainly didn’t compare to the hideous experience I had the last time I saw a show at the Palace. This afternoon’s audience, I’m afraid, pretty much reflected the normal standard of behaviour in theatres these days (and a friend who saw Legally Blonde at the Opera House the other day had very similar things to say afterwards about the general state of audience behaviour from the people sitting around her) – and, sorry, if this is normal, it isn’t good enough. Surely it can’t be so incredibly difficult for grown adults to switch off their mobile phones and then sit still, shut up, stop fidgeting and not eat for an hour and a half?

So, yes, the shows. Fascinating Aida: they’re great. They’ve a new soprano this time – Sarah-Louise Young – and she’s got a great voice and killer comic timing (her solo show and recording –  Cabaret Whore – is well worth checking out). The new material is excellent (they open with a song about the financial meltdown: “Companies Using Nifty Taxation Systems”), the old material still plays well (and yes, Dillie Keane still does her amazing piano-stool acrobatics during “Lieder”), and I don’t think there will ever be a time when “Yes, But Is It Art?” fails to make me laugh. They’re wonderful, they should be national treasures, and their Bulgarian Song Cycles are touched by near-Godlike comic genius.

South Pacific… this is a British touring remount of the Lincoln Center production, which means it isn’t designed for the vast stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, which means that you don’t get that glorious moment halfway through the overture where the stage’s apron slides back to reveal the orchestra underneath. It’s still a very handsome show to look at. One original Broadway cast member in Manchester: Loretta Ables Sayre as Bloody Mary, and she’s wonderful. Jason Howard is also wonderful as Emile (he took over the role on Broadway and played it through much of the US tour), and his “This Nearly Was Mine” is deeply moving, even when it comes accompanied by a selfish old trout rattling a plastic carrier bag all the way through. And Samantha Womack’s Nellie is a huge, huge surprise. Unlike Kelli O’Hara, who originated the role in this production on Broadway, she doesn’t have a spectacular, one-off voice. She’s a perfectly capable singer, though, with more than a touch of Mary Martin about her, and she’s giving a performance that’s honest, truthful, thoroughly charming and ultimately extremely touching. More than that, she has whatever that undefinable quality is that makes you look at her when she walks onstage. She’s not the greatest singer and she might not be the most versatile actress, but she’s giving a superb performance here. But then, so is everybody, right down to the last member of the chorus. This is almost – almost – as good a production of South Pacific as you could ever expect to see.

There’s always a quibble, isn’t there? This time, it’s the orchestra. On Broadway, this production (according to the reviews; I downloaded the cast album so I don’t have a list of the orchestra members) had 30 players delivering Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations, and on that album (and on the telecast) they sound absolutely glorious. This incarnation also delivers those original orchestrations, but it does so via only 17 players, which I assume is the absolute bare minimum number of warm bodies needed to deliver what’s on those charts. There’s no synthesisers, no string pad, no virtual orchestra – and believe me I’m thrilled that there’s none of those things – but there’s also a violin section of two. The musicians play beautifully under the musical direction of Jae Alexander, but there’s a certain thrilling sound that comes from having a big string section; this score needs it, and it isn’t present in this production.

They do, however, win points for selling a beautiful glossy souvenir brochure full of large, full-colour production photos for only £4.00; they get a couple of points knocked off, though, for including an article in the regular programme that perpetuates the lazy and historically inaccurate myth that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! was the first-ever properly integrated musical play. Nope.

Still, it’s a glorious production, and my complaints are essentially quibbles. I loved it, it moved me, Bartlett Sher has drawn exquisite performances from every member of his cast, it looks great even in this touring version, and I’m fully intending to see it again when the tour swings back into this part of the world next year.

And who knows? Next time, I might even get to sit among audience members who can keep still and shut up after the lights go down. As someone says in act two, there’s always a chance.

Wouldn’t you like to be on Ferensway?

Or, How I Weilled away Saturday afternoon.

This wasn’t my first time seeing Street Scene. I saw the English National Opera production twice (once when I was in the Sixth Form, once as an undergraduate, both times from the really cheap seats), and I own, somewhere, a copy of the DVD of the Houston Opera production. I’m not much of an opera fan (this is where certain friends will start throwing things at me, I think), and I would rather do nearly anything, including have several kinds of outpatient surgery, than sit through most of the Brecht/Weill collaborations in any form other than individual songs taken out of context,* but I love this particular piece (the recording of the first iteration of the ENO production – which features a certain Ms. Catherine Zeta Jones in a supporting role, years before she became Princess Spartacus – I think that was almost the last thing she did that was in any way interesting, actually, but I digress – has been on my iPod ever since I’ve owned an iPod. I originally bought it on cassette). I’m one of those people who vastly prefers Weill’s American scores to his work with Brecht, and I would travel a long way to see a production of Street Scene (or Lady in the Dark, or One Touch of Venus, or… you get the idea).

And, in fact, I did travel a reasonably long way to see this. About a 180-mile round trip, in fact, to Hull, where the Opera Group/Young Vic coproduction, which was first seen in London in 2008, played three performances at the Hull Truck Theatre (whose new-ish home, on Ferensway, is very, very nice indeed, and a vast improvement over their previous building). Saturday’s performance, obviously, was on a very different scale from the ENO production I saw – the ENO’s London home is the Coliseum, which seats over 2300 and has a huge stage and a traditional proscenium arch, whereas this production originated at the Young Vic, which seats 420, has a thrust stage, and is frankly rather cramped. The result, obviously, lacks the grandeur that a production in a full-sized opera house would have, but the gains outweigh the losses.

It helps a great deal that we’re given the full orchestration, despite the production’s reduced scale. Street Scene presents a 24-hour slice of life in a New York tenement block; there are a lot of principal roles, and the piece lends itself to a large-scale presentation, which this is not. The rudimentary set consists, essentially, of two staircases and some dustbins, but that leaves space for a 28-piece orchestra – the Southbank Sinfonia, under the direction of Tim Murray – to occupy two levels at the back of the stage. The score has one foot in the opera house and one foot in golden-era Broadway, and ‘classical’ orchestras in this country are not always entirely at home with this kind of music – too often the results end up being a little inflexible in passages where the music is supposed to swing – but the playing here is absolutely impeccable. There’s no amplification, no sound system, no electronic intervention of any kind, just superb players playing a superb score. Given the prevalence these days of reduced orchestrations in musical theatre revivals – and Street Scene, though it’s at least as much opera as musical, was originally presented on Broadway rather than in an opera house – the orchestra alone is worth the price of admission.

They’re matched by a terrific cast of fourteen adults plus a large team of children. Elena Ferrari is magnificent as the doomed Anna Maurrant, and Joanna Foote is at least her equal as her daughter Rose (Foote was either an understudy or a last-minute replacement for Susanna Hurrell; the rest of the cast applauded her at the curtain call, and she deserved it – you would never have guessed she didn’t originate the role). Even better, if anything, is Paul Curievici as Rose’s would-be suitor Sam Kaplan; his stunning, intense “Lonely House” is the production’s musical highlight. There’s lovely character work from Simone Sauphanor, Charlotte Page and Harriet Williams as Mrs. Maurrant’s three gossiping neighbours, and from Kate Nelson as both Mrs. Kaplan and the flighty Mae Jones (she and John Moabi set fire to “Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed”, and do full justice to Arthur Pita’s sizzling choreography). The chorus of children are absolutely charming. There are certain constraints imposed by the production’s relatively small scale – the chorus music is sung by the ensemble, which creates a problem in “The Woman Who Lived Up There” (which is supposedly sung by witnesses/bystanders who do not know the protagonists) – but the closeness of the performers to the audience pays enormous dividends in terms of the piece’s overall emotional impact; director John Fulljames has drawn very impressive acting performances from his cast, and I found this staging both more moving and, oddly, more thrilling than the much, much larger production I saw at the ENO twenty years ago.

The bad news is that this production – whose stint at the Young Vic deservedly received superlative reviews – played fewer than a dozen performances outside of London, tickets were not particularly expensive (£20 in Hull), and yet at the matinée I attended the house was less than half full.  It’s a pity – this was a glorious production of a glorious score, it’s a piece that’s rarely done on this kind of intimate scale, and it deserved a bigger audience (maybe it would have found a bigger audience in a larger city – aside from three performances in Edinburgh, the few tour dates seemed to carefully avoid Britain’s largest conurbations). While I’m sure I’ll get to see Street Scene again – for a start, I can always dig out the DVD – I suspect it’ll be a long time before I see a production of it where I can see the whites of everyone’s eyes. It was well worth the journey; I only wish I’d had the opportunity to see it more than once.


* It’s not Weill, it’s Brecht. There’s something about Brecht’s writing, I’m afraid, that sets my teeth on edge. I’ve read the theory and I’ve seen the major titles, some of them in multiple productions, and after years of trying I’ve come to the conclusion that Brecht and I just plain do not get on. Weill’s music, in their collaborations, sweetens the pill a bit, but only a bit – I honestly prefer the stuff he wrote in America.


Ham. Sandwich?

It’s dangerous, sometimes, to go and see something that arrives trailing clouds of hype. I booked to see One Man, Two Guvnors at the Lowry months ago – if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have got a ticket, the entire run is sold out – right after it opened at the National Theatre to the kind of reviews that give publicists multiple orgasms. Word of mouth has also been very strong, several friends saw the National Theatre Live screening a month or so ago and raved about it, it’s about to transfer into the West End, and there’s talk of it going to Broadway next year.  Nobody, it seems, has a bad word to say about it, to the point where it’s hard not to wonder whether it can possibly be as good as “everyone” says it is.

Well, yes, it really is that good. It’s a slick, expertly-performed, expertly-directed, shamelessly ingratiating, and sometimes shamelessly manipulative show that sets out only to give you a good time and succeeds brilliantly, which of course is the hardest thing of all to achieve. Do I have any quibbles? Not really. There are two pieces of audience interaction in the first half that are pre-planned and involve planted cast members (who are revealed at the curtain call when they take a bow), and it says something for the cast’s expertise that you can’t tell the plants from the genuine volunteers who are called to the stage elsewhere in the first act (if you dislike audience participation, don’t sit in the front row). Part of me finds that kind of rehearsed spontaneity unpleasantly manipulative and quite off-putting, but those two sequences are so funny (and performed with such conviction by the cast members involved) that I find myself not really caring much about what I’d usually view as almost an ethical lapse.  And nothing in the second act quite matches the delirious hysteria of the final scene of the first, but that simply means that the second act is “merely” very, very, very funny, as opposed to so funny that you end up in actual physical pain from laughing so hard.

The foundations, of course, are solid: the source play by Goldoni is hilarious to begin with, and Richard Bean’s smart, quick-witted adaptation never lets more than about 45 seconds pass before another joke shows up (the plot defies description, so I’m not going to attempt to summarise it – it’s a contemporary-ish farce that follows the conventions of commedia dell’arte, in which stock characters are moved around a plot by the playwright more or less in the manner of pieces on a chessboard). The scenes are interspersed with songs and specialty musical sequences performed by a skiffle/rock band called The Craze, sometimes with the help of members of the cast; this could easily have been excruciating, but they’re terrific. A CD of the show’s music is available in the lobby and online from the National Theatre (but, oddly, apparently not anywhere else) – yes, this play has a cast recording of sorts, and yes, I have ordered it. The sets – by Mark Thompson – are a riotous celebration of saucy seaside postcards, perfectly evoking the 1963 Brighton setting, and director Nicholas Hytner keeps the pace up admirably, so that you barely have time to catch your breath before the next laugh hits. Again, not an easy trick.

And then there’s the cast, and there isn’t a weak link anywhere among them. Suzie Toase is a particular standout, and not just because of her bra’s spectacular (I assume) underwiring (sorry); her character is the funniest feminist bookkeeper you’re ever likely to encounter (this is the third show, incidentally, in which I’ve seen Ms. Toase give a brilliant comic performance – she was a magnificent, definitive Red Ridinghood in the Royal Opera House’s Into the Woods, and she was both funny and quietly heartbreaking as the dowdy Maureen in Victoria Wood’s Talent at the Menier Chocolate Factory.  She’s someone to watch), and she lights up the stage whenever she appears. It’s not, though, as if anyone else in the cast is any less brilliant. Everybody in this cast, down to the last member of the ensemble, is working at the top of their game.

At the centre of it all, there’s James Corden as the titular One Man who has Two Guvnors (the character, according to the conventions of commedia dell’arte, is a Harlequin, so of course Mark Thompson costumes him in a check tweed suit). Corden is often funny and charming on television, but his performance here is a revelation. He works the audience like a true vaudevillian, his timing is masterful, and his physical comedy is often breathtakingly funny (in the opening scene he somersaults backwards over an armchair, and that’s one of his simpler pieces of business).  He’s great – hammier than the delicatessen counter at Tesco, particularly when he’s pleading with the audience for someone to give him a sandwich, but that kind of hamminess, these days, is becoming a lost art. There’s more than a touch of Zero Mostel about him, and that’s not something you’d suspect from his most popular TV work. But then, this isn’t simply a case of a TV star doing good work in the theatre. It’s a genuine theatrical star turn, a dazzling old-fashioned comic tour-de-force, and in about ten years, he has to play Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Of course, all of this gushing is moot if you haven’t already booked your ticket for the touring engagements. This show is a huge success, and deservedly so. I’m picky – really picky – and I can’t find any holes to pick. And that, trust me, never happens.