Twenty-three songs, twenty-five scenes, twenty actors, seven musicians, two acts, spies (Russian, American and British), three singing nuns… and maybe half a joke. Yes, folks, I sat through Monkee Business: The Musical, a jukebox musical based on the music of The Monkees which is now lumbering through the third week of a tryout run at the Manchester Opera House. In time, I hope, the memories will fade, the scars will begin to heal, and I’ll stop having nightmares. The show is being presented in Manchester under an initiative called Manchester Gets it First, which was created by the Ambassador Theatre Group in an attempt to position Manchester as the UK’s preeminent tryout city for large commercial theatrical productions. Presumably something violently unpleasant happened to one of ATG’s executives somewhere in Manchester; on the evidence of this show and the dismal Ghost, which premiered here last year, the setting up of this programme in Manchester can only be construed as an act of bitter revenge.
It’s not, actually, that I think a jukebox musical based (mostly) on the back catalogue of The Monkees is an inherently stupid idea – it’s just that this jukebox musical based (mostly) on the back catalogue of The Monkees is built around an inherently stupid idea. We’re in 1968, at the height of The Monkees’ fame; a concert promoter hires four lookalikes to tour Russia, Japan, Italy, Spain, France and England as The Monkees because the band themselves are too busy to make the trip, and wacky hijinks ensue, involving spies, singing nuns (yes, they sing Dominique) and… oh, who cares? It’s not as if any of it makes sense while you’re watching it either.
It wouldn’t matter at all that the plot doesn’t make sense, of course, if any of it actually made you laugh. At all. The Monkees’ original TV series was entirely built around this kind of outlandishly farcical plot-line, and it was consistently fresh and funny. Monkee Business: The Musical is neither. It’s staler than a two-month-old Danish, and about as funny as a migraine. The show’s book was perpetrated by Peter Benedict, who should know better; I refuse to say he ‘wrote’ it because the mess of a musical that’s currently stillborn on the Opera House’s stage strongly suggests that, rather than write the show, Mr. Benedict simply spat it into a napkin after eating bad shellfish. It’s not just that the jokes don’t land – there are no jokes. There are running un-gags about how improbable future inventions like Starbucks, mobile phones and Twitter seem from the perspective of 1968, and even less funny un-gags in which characters onstage periodically break the fourth wall to comment on the artificiality of theatrical performance (“…and by the miracle of theatrical design, we’re there already!”), contained in scenes which seem to start and stop rather than begin and end and which don’t ever add up to anything you could call a coherent plot, punctuated by miscued songs. Structurally, the show isn’t just a mess. It’s an apocalypse with concert lighting, cheap sets, and a band.
You can’t really blame the actors, who do their best with the horrendous material. The four actors playing the fake Monkees – Ben Evans (Davy Jones), Stephen Kirwan (Mickey Dolenz), Tom Parsons (Mike Nesmith, giving the best performance in the show) and Oliver Savile (Peter Tork) – do their best to sell the awful script, and sometimes nearly succeed, and in their musical numbers, they’re legitimately terrific. When they’re singing, they do manage to capture the original band’s infectious sense of fun, and it’s mostly their performances of the songs that kept me from running screaming from the theatre in search of brain bleach when the interval rolled around.
The supporting cast don’t fare as well, mostly because they don’t get to sing as much. Tony Timberlake struggles manfully with a series of not-very-funny comic cameo roles, and has fun duetting with Kirwan’s Mickey Dolenz on ‘Randy Scouse Git’ in the first act. Michelle Bishop, lumbered with playing a Russian spy named Nikita Smirnoff (I know, and that’s about as funny as the show gets), does a good job of slinking around in leather and singing the Beatles’ ‘Back in the USSR’ (why?), and it isn’t her fault that there are more laughs in the last ten minutes of Medea than she manages to raise in this. She clearly has excellent comic timing, but she’s given nothing to use it on. Scarlette Douglas plays a traffic warden, and sings ‘My Boy Lollipop’. I hope she knows why, because I don’t. Cassandra Compton, similarly, does a really good job with her big number, ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’ (the Monkees were not big on solo songs for women), but despite her best efforts she can’t manage to sell a role that stubbornly refuses to make any kind of sense. And that’s true, more or less, of the rest of the cast. When they sing, even given that the musical staging is usually uninspiring, the show starts to come to life – but then the song ends, and it dies again, and the cast can’t resuscitate it because there was no life in the script to begin with. Even the usually-reliable Linal Haft is defeated by the role of the promoter. I know he can be funny, I’ve seen him do it before, but all he’s given here is a series of shyster stereotypes and the weakest catchphrase ever written (“You wouldn’t like it!”), and it isn’t enough.
(Fact about Mr. Haft – his wife, also an actor, has the best name in showbiz, bar none: Buster Skeggs. She’s really good, too – once upon a time, she was a hysterically funny Amy in Company at the Oldham Coliseum, and she was also an excellent Carlotta in Follies at the Leicester Haymarket.)
None of the actors are helped by the show’s director, David Taylor, whose work is… rudimentary, meaning that it almost rises to the level of Peter Benedict’s book. This kind of show needs pace and energy, and he gives it neither; it just sort of sits there, which means that there’s no comic momentum whatsoever, which leaves you, unfortunately, with ample time to contemplate the many, many shortcomings in the writing (and the person seated about ten rows in front of me who was texting all the way through Act Two). Again, I know he’s done good work before, even in comedy, because I’ve seen it; presumably, for some reason, he chose not to here. Morgan Large’s costumes – straight out of Austin Powers, a far funnier take on the same milieu – are sometimes witty, and his set, which consists mostly of cutout buildings that look like something from a pop-art pop-up book, demonstrates that at least someone involved in the show had something resembling an idea. What he didn’t get is much of a budget; the set looks cheap, although the costumes don’t. The lighting (by James Whiteside) is appropriately lurid. The band, led by Richard Beadle, are excellent, and so is Clem Rawlins’ sound design – it’s a rock musical, so it’s loud, but you can actually hear all of the lyrics, even in the ensemble numbers, and that doesn’t happen as often as you’d think.
And the Monkees’ songs, in fact, do stand up to the jukebox musical treatment, even when they’re surrounded by a show that’s mostly really, really terrible. There are strong, surprisingly durable, thoroughly entertaining pop classics that still sound fresh and fun forty-odd years after they were first released. It’s easy to see the attraction in building a jukebox musical around them, and it’s a great shame that this production’s creative personnel have so thoroughly botched the show they’ve created (I mean, really – at times, I found myself longing for the wit and subtlety of Ben Elton’s book for We Will Rock You, which is possibly the most appallingly crass long-running hit musical London has ever seen). This is the first tryout run, of course, so there’s theoretically time for work to be done, but the odds of this succeeding are not good: the theatre was less than a quarter full, and the show’s third booking (in Sunderland) has been cancelled due to poor ticket sales (the Glasgow performances next week are going ahead, although a glance at the King’s Theatre website suggests that ticket sales there are also pretty dire). Clearly it needs a major overhaul if it’s ever going to reach the West End (or the end of next week); firing Mr. Taylor and Mr. Benedict would be a good place to start, because what this show smacks of, more than anything else, is cynical people who should know better turning in fifth-rate work on a show they intend to palm off on a provincial audience that they condescendingly assume will buy whatever dreck they choose to sell as long as it comes packaged with familiar songs, attractive performers and a flashy light show. The actors and band deserve better, and should run Mr. Taylor and Mr. Benedict out of the theatre, possibly with pitchforks and burning torches, for stranding them in this mess.
But hey, at least Manchester Gets It First. Glasgow, you have been warned.