A star is born. Sort of.

Or, loved her, not crazy about it.

I just saw Peter Quilter‘s Broadway-bound End of the Rainbow, which is approximately the 14,796th script written about the sad decline and premature death of Judy Garland. It would be lovely to be able to say that it’s a tremendously exciting play that offers some kind of valuable insight into Garland’s tortured psyche, but it isn’t. It’s a tired, by-the-numbers rehash of the Cliff Notes  version of everything else that’s been written about Garland’s final few months, held together with a few musical numbers and some campily cheesy one-liners, with an awkwardly-narrated epilogue tacked onto the end.

The play mostly takes place in a suite at the Ritz in London in early 1969, during Garland’s turbulent five-week run at Talk of the Town, six months or so before her death, in the early stages of her engagement to Mickey Deans. We switch back and forth between scenes in the hotel suite in which she attempts to rehearse, argues with Deans and with her music director, begs for alcohol and drugs, and generally gives vent to her inner demons, and onstage scenes at Talk of the Town in which we’re given excerpts from her act. This back-and-forth continues through two acts as we watch Garland’s mental state gradually unravel, and then the actor playing the music director steps out of the play to tell the audience directly about the manner of Garland’s death – like we don’t already know – and then, finally, the actress playing Judy Garland sings  Over the Rainbow, after which there’s a curtain call and everyone goes home. As a piece of writing, it’s… basic. And that’s being kind.

It is, however, a must-see. The play itself may not be particularly good, but the actress playing Judy Garland – Tracie Bennett – is wonderful, extraordinary, amazing, and a great big long list of other superlatives. Ms. Bennett is a comic character actress. Like every other member of British Equity who can do some kind of vaguely passable Lancashire accent, she’s done a stint in Coronation Street, and she’s been regularly seen in second-banana roles in sitcoms and musicals for the past twenty years at least; she’s always been reliably funny, she’s a strong singer, she’s rarely if ever given a sub-par performance (although she’s certainly sometimes been lumbered with lousy material in lousy sitcoms; for that matter, she’s lumbered with a few lousy lines here as well), but she’s never been a star. She’s someone you know you’ve seen before, but she’s not a household name, and she’s not someone you’ve regularly (or, really, ever) seen in leading roles.

That might be about to change, because this is one of those performances that people will be talking about for years. Despite the perfunctory script, Ms. Bennett gets under Garland’s skin in a way that I’ve yet to see anyone else approach. It’s not simply about her mastery of Garland’s idiosyncratic vocal mannerisms, body language, and very individual approach to musical phrasing,  although her mastery of all three is total (you can see in this clip how different Ms. Bennett’s own speaking voice is from the voice she uses as Garland). The uncanny thing, here, is Ms. Bennett’s understanding of what I suppose we can loosely call ‘star quality’, and her apparent ability to either summon it or switch it off at will as the scene demands. The script gives us a needy, self-indulgent woman jonesing after attention, vodka and pills; Ms. Bennett offers a sharp, mercurial Star-with-a-capital-S who is fully aware of – and addicted to – the attention that comes with her persona and her position, but who is slowly being destroyed by the sheer mental effort that goes into summoning that kind of charisma. Not an original idea, particularly – you’ll get something along those lines from any Garland bio – but the sheer force of Ms. Bennett’s performance is astonishing. She’s thrilling, mesmerising, it’s impossible to take your eyes off her whether she’s hurling a fruit-bowl across a bedroom or belting out Just in Time as if her life depended on it, and she deserves every bit of the considerable acclaim she’s receiving for her performance.

Oh yes, there are some other people in it too. Hilton McRae as Garland’s gay pianist/musical director has a nice line in charming sarcasm and makes his character’s genuine, unconditional love for her both clear and touching. Norman Bowman’s Mickey Deans is possibly a little too sympathetic. Robert Maskell does nice work in three bit-parts. The direction and design are competent but uninspiring, and there’s a terrific six-piece band under the supervision of Gareth Valentine. But as much as she may deny it in interviews, this is the Tracie Bennett Show. She’s giving the performance of her career, and her playwright is left trailing in her dust.

Undies worn twice are not quite nice…

Too tired to write a proper review right now, but the Bolton Octagon’s production of Habeas Corpus is absolutely wonderful (and only running until Saturday, so go and see it IMMEDIATELY). I could easily gush for several paragraphs about the cast (Margot Leicester is back, following her sensational Martha with an equally sensational comic turn as the fabulously-bazoomed Muriel Wicksteed, but she’s one member of an ensemble here, and everybody is working at the same level), Ciaran Bagnall’s set – a row of beach huts – is inspired (the play is somewhat inspired by saucy seaside postcards; I once saw a production whose set, essentially, was an enormous pair of knickers) and provides ample opportunities for farcical door-slamming, and David Thacker’s direction doesn’t make a single false move. It’s one of Bennett’s funniest plays – sure, it has some serious points to make about sexual repression, marital infidelity and social hypocrisy, but it’s basically an out-and-out farce, parts of it are delightfully silly, and it’s thoroughly, wonderfully smutty. By the middle of the first act the underwear, falsies and double-entendres are all being flung around with abandon, and this cast plays it to the hilt.

It was also, on a Wednesday afternoon, very nearly sold out. It would be lovely to report that everybody behaved themselves, and nearly everybody did, but some of the behaviour I ranted about the other week was in evidence today as well. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how people who arrive late are always sitting very near the front. And some people, apparently, think the announcements about switching off mobile phones don’t apply to them. Quite a lot of people, judging by the pools of light scattered around the auditorium as the lights went down. One lady, sitting three seats from the wall in row B, house right, had a BlackBerry Torch. I was sitting in row G, about six seats closer to the centre than she was,  I never spoke to her or even saw her from the front, and I know she had a BlackBerry Torch. I know this, you may have guessed, because the selfish cow didn’t switch it off, and periodically checked her text messages during the show. If I could see it, so could the actors (and the front-of-house staff, come to that, who should have spoken to her at the interval but didn’t). She was probably the worst, but she was far from the only offender.

So, yes. Great production of a really good play. And if you’re lucky, you won’t encounter any idiots in the audience! Unfortunately, these days, I’m coming to the conclusion that bad manners at the theatre are more or less inevitable.

Apple II: I eat my words. Mmmmm, crunchy.

Yesterday I had quite a lot to say about a very unpleasant trip to the Apple Store (briefly: tried to take a dead iPod in to the Apple store to see if it could be fixed, and was met by a young woman who is to the art of providing courteous customer service roughly what the Kobe Earthquake was to the structural integrity of elevated expressways).  I wasn’t planning to do anything else about the knackered iPod until next week – the store in question is about an hour away from home on public transport, and I wasn’t intending to go back into the city today. Plans change, a friend who is in town briefly asked me if I’d like to meet up for a drink, and so I had another go. And I have to say I’m completely floored by the way Apple responded to the problem today.

I looked online this morning to see if there were any appointments available today, and of course there weren’t. A friend had already suggested to me that the experience I had yesterday was not at all consistent with the service you usually get in an Apple Store, so I picked up the phone, called the branch, and spoke to a manager about how thoroughly dissatisfied I’d been yesterday. The lady I spoke to – Yvonne – was friendly, helpful, very apologetic, explained to me precisely how their diagnosis/repair service worked (I’d entered an Apple store precisely twice in my life before yesterday, both times just to buy simple iPod accessories, so it’s not something to which I’d ever paid any attention) and offered to meet me in the store this afternoon to get one of the tech staff to look at the iPod between other appointments. Great, very happy, that’s already more than I was looking for.

When I got there, I was met by the other manager – a guy named Waseem. Again, he was charming, friendly, helpful and thoroughly apologetic when he heard about yesterday’s awful experience. I was quite clear about what I was looking for: it was out of warranty, I just wanted to know if it would be cost-effective to get it mended, in which case I’d pay for the repair. One of the tech staff at the genius bar took it away, ran some tests… and then here’s where my jaw starts to drop.

He brought it back, and Waseem came with him, and they told me that there was some kind of problem with the internal circuitry that was preventing power from travelling from the socket to the battery (reading between the lines, I suspect that this might be a recurring issue with a particular manufacturing batch). They offered me an identical model that would have to be special-ordered, or an equivalent replacement from store stock. It took a few moments for the penny to drop. As a goodwill gesture, because I’d met with such a rude reception yesterday, they replaced an out-of-warranty broken iPod with a new, boxed model from stock.

That, obviously, is way, way, way more than I was expecting when I picked up the phone this morning. I’ve worked in retail, I’m familiar enough with the Sale of Goods Act, at least in terms of what you are and are not entitled to expect when you return a faulty item to the manufacturer, and this gesture is so far beyond anything that I could have reasonably expected that I was rendered more or less speechless.

So… they made amends – spectacularly – and I’m eating some of my words. I’m impressed (or rather, gobsmacked) by the lengths to which Yvonne and Waseem were prepared to go to in order to convince me that the appalling impression of Apple that I received yesterday does not reflect the level of service they want to provide. I’m leaving yesterday’s post up, because first impressions count and the first impression I received was absolutely dreadful, but I’m glad I picked up the phone this morning.

Rotten Apple

Or, My Trip to the Apple Store. On the enjoyment scale, it did not rate ten out of ten.

[Edit – there is more to this story. Apple subsequently made amends, spectacularly. I’m leaving this post up because first impressions count, and the impression of Apple that I received yesterday was absolutely dreadful, but the company is clearly extremely concerned that it shouldn’t be perceived as being in any way arrogant or unhelpful. So… the story that follows here is why I got angry, and there’s another post detailing what Apple did about it.]

My nephew has an iPod. Unfortunately it doesn’t work; for some reason, it won’t charge. We’ve tried charging it via several different cables and a docking station, but it stubbornly refuses to suck up any power. It’s not just sick, it’s deader than Kerry Katona’s music career. Since I’m in Manchester city centre more often than anybody else in the family at the moment, my brother asked me if I’d take it back to the Apple Retail Store from whence it came and see if they could send it away to be fixed. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? It should have been simple. It wasn’t.

So, anyway, this particular tale of joy commences – and, actually, ends fairly abruptly – at the Apple Store in the Manchester Arndale. I walked in at about 3.30pm, and started heading towards the back of the store to talk to someone about the dead iPod. As always in an Apple Store, there were a lot of people hanging around playing with the MacBooks/iPads/iPods on display, but the staff appeared to be – well, the opposite of busy. I was stopped, about a third of the way towards the back of the shop, by an unfriendly young woman in a blue Apple T-shirt who asked me what I was looking for. I told her I was bringing back an iPod that wasn’t working, and this is where the experience started to become surreal. She asked me if I’d made an appointment. I hadn’t. When I told her I hadn’t made an appointment, her charming response, delivered with the most sarcastic inflection possible, was “You did know you had to make an appointment, didn’t you?”

Given that I’ve never in my life been asked to make an appointment in order to return a defective item to the shop it came from, that would be a no.

This charmless young woman then moved to a nearby MacBook, brought up a blank screen (!), and told me that there were no appointments available at any point for the rest of the day… at 3.30pm on a Monday, when the store wasn’t busy, with four-and-a-half hours left until closing time. I was, let’s say, a little surprised at this; when I started to say that all I wanted to do was return a defective product, that I wasn’t expecting anyone to fix it on the spot, and that I was prepared to wait, she cut me off in mid-sentence and started in with a lecture, delivered in an inappropriately hectoring tone, about how she couldn’t let me see someone – you know, for the three whole minutes it would have taken them to package the broken iPod up in a jiffy bag and send it away to be fixed – because it wouldn’t be fair to let me jump the queue in front of customers who had had the presence of mind to make appointments. And this in a shop in which approximately 60% of the visible staff were standing around chatting. I’ve put in my years working in retail, and I certainly don’t begrudge people taking advantage of a quiet period to slow down a little – I know what Saturdays are like on a shop floor – but this wasn’t a Saturday, the staff weren’t visibly busy, and I object to being told that nobody is available to help me when that very, very obviously is not the case.

ANYway. Apparently, it’s very difficult for Apple’s staff because they sell so many products – at least, that’s what Ms. Charm-of-Pol-Pot tried to tell me. Two kinds of laptop, three kinds of desktop, four kinds of iPod, iPads, iPhones, Apple TV and a few peripherals. As my nephew would say, big whoop. Compare that to, say, John Lewis, a full-line department store with thousands and thousands of product lines that sets the gold standard when it comes to customer service, and that does not, as far as I know, force you to book in advance if you need to bring in a faulty item they sold you so that they can send it away to the manufacturer to be fixed. I wouldn’t have minded so much if this woman had been remotely conciliatory, or even vaguely pleasant, instead of entering the conversation with an attitude so enormous that it probably needs to be housed on its own planet. Since I obviously wasn’t going to get anywhere, and since she didn’t appear to feel disposed to let me finish a sentence, I left – fortunately, in the middle of one of her sentences, which saved me from another thirty or so words of her spectacular condescension.

I am, obviously, in awe of Apple’s outstanding commitment to achieving excellence in the field of customer service.

I love my iPod. Or rather, I love my iPods, there’s one in a dock next to my bed and another one residing permanently in my backpack. It’s beautifully designed, easy to use, and I love the fact that I can carry thousands and thousands of pieces of music with me wherever I go. I’m sure, at some point, I’ll buy another one – I’d like one with larger capacity, and I don’t know of anybody who makes a better music player. And while my nephew’s iPod seems to have perfected an impersonation of the dodo, my two, so far, have been absolutely reliable.

I’ve also, for years, licked the steam off Apple’s laptops in various shop windows – again, they’re beautifully designed, and I have several friends who are absolutely devoted to them. And I’m intending to replace my laptop next year (it’s currently three years old, so by next year it’ll be time to start thinking about upgrading it), and I have to say that this afternoon’s experience does not exactly encourage me in the direction of buying a MacBook.

Here’s the thing: Apple sell design as much as performance, and they position themselves as offering premium products. For certain types of device, like music players, they dominate the market, but that can’t be said of every product line they sell, and some of the things they sell, like MacBooks, are significantly – as in a sum that’s in three figures – more expensive than equivalent Windows-based products that do essentially the same job, only a little less seductively. Part of that premium, sure, goes on design (both in terms of the look of the machine and the feel of the user environment), but part of the premium, equally, supposedly goes to pay for a certain level of service.

And yet this company, apparently, is so monumentally arrogant that it demands – unlike any other retailer I’ve ever encountered – that you make an appointment to take one of their products back to the shop it came from to get it sent away for repair, and their store management, on the evidence of my delightful experience this afternoon, can’t be bothered to train their front-line customer service staff to deliver even the most minimal level of courtesy. Unemployment is up, we may well be heading for a double-dip recession, consumer spending is flat, and yet when I attempted to take a relatively expensive luxury item back to the Apple Store where it had been purchased, the first and only staff member I had any contact with acted as though she was doing me some kind of favour by even deigning to speak to me, and sent me away – despite the fact that the shop was neither full nor busy – with the broken item still in my coat pocket because I hadn’t telepathically deduced that I needed to perform some kind of arcane online booking ritual before I entered the store.  On the bright side, I suppose, it’s lovely for her that she feels so secure in her job that she doesn’t have to bother with piddling little inconveniences like being pleasant and helpful to her customers.

Doesn’t exactly encourage you to get out your Visa card, does it?