This afternoon, I saw the current UK tour of The King and I at the Liverpool Empire. Unless hell freezes over, or I get forced to at gunpoint, or I suffer some kind of permanent concussion, the likelihood of my ever going to see anything else at the Liverpool Empire is somewhere close to nil.
It wasn’t the show’s fault, although I was less than impressed, going in, to see that this theatre charges £4.00 for a programme, which is a rip-off. I can’t, in all honesty, say that this is an absolutely ideal production of The King and I, simply because the circumstances in which it was produced inevitably mean that it doesn’t use the full original orchestrations, and this score, of all scores, is never going to sound its best played by an “orchestra” of just nine, even if the reduced orchestration (by Julian Kelly) has been tastefully done. You don’t ever hear anything that sounds like a synthesiser, for which relief much thanks – the band uses ‘real’ musical instruments, just not enough of them.
Aside from the lack of about twenty more people in the orchestra pit, though, this is a confident, stylish, very entertaining staging that makes as good a case as anyone could for a show that, while an acknowledged classic with a gorgeous score, is not quite top-drawer Rodgers and Hammerstein. Everybody knows the story, so I’m not going to recap it here; the show’s examination of people from two different cultures clashing and ultimately learning from each other has dated a little around the edges. Western attitudes towards other cultures have changed a great deal since 1951, mostly for the better, and there is now a slightly uncomfortable whiff of colonialist condescension hanging over the material; that said, given the distant-land-far-away setting and a score that, while beautiful, does not entirely convincingly evoke the far east (particularly when it’s dressed in the reduced orchestrations used here), perhaps the best approach these days is simply to view the show as an exotic fable, despite the piece’s roots in autobiography.
And viewed through that lens, this production certainly delivers. The production originated at Curve, like the revival of Gypsy I gushed over the other week, and the touring production, unusually, is produced by a consortium of receiving houses rather than by a regular producer (which basically means, according to a programme note, that each venue stumped up part of the production cost in return for a greater slice of the profits than they’d get from a conventionally-funded production). That’s something to celebrate; there are certainly ratty, tacky, stripped-down musical revivals out on the road (I remember, with not much pleasure at all, a particularly excruciating Hello Dolly that made the rounds a few years ago whose set looked like it was made mostly out of cornflake packets and sticky-back plastic), but this isn’t one of them. Like most musicals that come out of Curve, it’s directed by Paul Kerryson, who knows his way around a musical revival. The show looks good, with elegant sets and costumes by Sara Perks and evocative lighting by Philip Gladwell. There’s a cast of over twenty – not huge by Broadway standards, but very large for something coming from a subsidised regional theatre – and a team of sixteen children. And there’s effective choreography by David Needham that culminates in an absolutely glorious version of the Act Two ‘Small House of Uncle Thomas’ ballet.
Most of all, there are lovely performances. The children are charming, the ensemble are terrific, and while there might not be a lush orchestra here, the singing, across the board, is very, very fine, with particularly strong work from Adrian Li Donni and Claire-Marie Hall as Lun Tha and Tuptim. And there’s certainly no faulting Josefina Gabrielle and Ramon Tikaram as Mrs. Anna and the King – they sing beautifully (yes, him too), they have marvellous chemistry, and they’re both absolutely compelling.
So, yes, I liked the production very much, but this afternoon’s experience is still not one I’d ever willingly repeat. What was wrong with the show? The audience. Oh my God, the audience. Sitting in the Liverpool Empire for three hours with those people was so unpleasant that wild horses couldn’t drag me back there.
In Act One, there was a group of about half-a-dozen ladies sitting in the row directly behind me. They talked, and not at a whisper. They rattled crisp packets and sweet wrappers more than you would think humanly possible, even after my last trip to the Palace Theatre in Manchester. If anyone turned around, glared, tried to shut them up, they either gawped or laughed. When Josefina Gabrielle started to sing ‘Getting to Know You’, at least two of them sang along. I wrote, a while back, about the obnoxious people sitting behind me at a performance of Mamma Mia; today’s charmers, I’m afraid, were louder, although they did, to their slight credit, seem to be somewhat less addicted to the F-word. And it wasn’t just them, either – the sound of crinkling, rustling plastic from behind me was more than intrusively loud, but similar sounds were audible from other people much further away, along with conversation, banging doors when people either arrived late or walked out in the middle of the act to go to the loo, and pretty much everything else that falls under the heading of distracting audience behaviour (with one exception: miraculously, as far as I could tell, nobody’s mobile phone went off).
I gritted my teeth until the end of the first act, then at the start of the intermission I went to find a member of the front-of-house staff, and asked to be reseated for the second act because of the obnoxious behaviour that had been going on behind me all through the first. The usher I spoke to went to find the house manager, who went off to the box-office to check the seating chart, and came back and offered me a choice of alternate locations. The lady was pleasant, apologetic, and helpful, and I certainly don’t have any complaint about the way she handled the situation.
The fun really began at the end of the intermission, when I sat down in one of the unoccupied seats the house manager had suggested. My sitting down in this previously unoccupied seat prompted the start of a running commentary from the two astonishingly foul-mouthed ladies sitting in the row behind (do you sense a recurring theme here?) – unbelievably, along the lines of “he’s f***ing taken that seat, it isn’t his, they should f***ing throw him out” (I suspect that the taller of these two classy examples of humanity was annoyed because her coat had been draped over the back of the seat). They’d bought ice creams during the intermission. I bet you think ice cream tubs are a quiet food, don’t you? Not where these ladies were concerned. I think one of them was perhaps trying to dig a tunnel to China through the bottom of the cardboard tub. You wouldn’t imagine it was possible to make that much noise armed only with a cardboard ice cream tub and the tiny wooden spoon that comes with it. Through this bizarre rhapsody of scraping – which obliterated most of ‘I Have Dreamed’ – they kept up a commentary on both me (as if where I was sitting was any of their business) and the show, none of which was conducted at a whisper. The absolute nadir came when the gentleman sitting next to me – whose behaviour was impeccable – decided he’d had enough, and turned around and hissed at them to shut up… at which point one or other of these fine specimens of charm and good breeding (I couldn’t see which) yelled ‘what did you f***ing say to me?’ and clipped me round the earhole. The last person who did that was my dad, and he’s been dead for nearly a decade… and I don’t think I ever, in twenty-nine years, heard him use that particular word.
There’s nothing I could have done that wouldn’t have somehow resulted in even more disruption, even though there was nobody sitting between me and the end of the row, so I sat there seething. They were a little quieter after this, but only a little, and Act Two, in any case, came with the same background symphony of conversation, crisps and sweet wrappers as Act One, so essentially there wasn’t a single moment of the performance that wasn’t accompanied by some kind of distraction. As I got up to leave at the end of the curtain call, the taller (and louder) of these two ‘ladies’ again loudly announced to the world that ‘they should have f***ing thrown you out’. Nice. Again, there’s nothing much I could have said that wouldn’t have caused the situation to deteriorate into a shouting-match, so I just left as quickly as I could.
I don’t feel particularly good about saying this, because my experience of Liverpool has mostly been of a fun, vibrant, fascinating city full of friendly, genuinely lovely people – but this afternoon’s experience, all of it, was really, really unpleasant, and there’s nothing much that the theatre’s staff could have done that they didn’t do, willingly and promptly, as soon as they were asked. The only step the theatre’s management could possibly have taken to prevent this afternoon’s litany of appalling behaviour would have been to put every single member of the audience in shackles and duct-tape their mouths as they entered the auditorium. It might have been worth it, but human rights groups would probably find those measures a little extreme.
Fortunately for me, the Empire presents more or less nothing that doesn’t also tour to at least one other venue within a similar distance of home. Going to the theatre shouldn’t involve negotiating an assault-course of distractions, or getting whacked around the ear because someone else asked somebody to shut up. The audience, I’m afraid, completely ruined the production; no part of sitting in the Liverpool Empire this afternoon was pleasant, and the fact that I paid for this Godawful experience is… well, what’s the opposite of icing on the cake? All that being the case, the answer seems to be very simple: I won’t be going back. Hell is (sometimes) other people; seeing a classic musical shouldn’t be.
[Edit – 11/4/12 – the Empire’s management got in touch with me today via Twitter and made a very kind gesture of goodwill because I’d had such an unpleasant experience. While I chose not to take them up on their very generous offer, I do appreciate the gesture very much, and they deserve a lot of credit for monitoring blogs and social networking sites and paying attention to what their customers say about the experience of seeing a show in their venue.]