Mediocrity loves company

On Wednesday afternoon, I went to the Lowry in Salford to see a production of Cabaret. It was a bit of a mixed bag – a lot of things I liked very much, and two central performances (Will Young as the Emcee, and Michelle Ryan as Sally Bowles) that didn’t work for me on any level. I came home, wrote a review – in which I explained in some detail what I liked and what I didn’t, and why – and put it up on this blog, then went to bed.

That’s when the fun began.

Now, OK, I certainly didn’t mince my words in the review. What I saw, I’m afraid, was a mostly very strong production, with several excellent supporting performances and one – Sian Phillips as Fraulein Schneider – for which there are not enough superlatives, but whose two above-the-title stars – Mr. Young and Ms. Ryan – delivered work that wasn’t just poor, but barely of a professional standard. Mr. Young is a pop star, and a very good one, and he sang well and hit all his marks,  but he basically delivered a learned-by-rote imitation of the actor who originated his role in this production’s previous incarnation, and it just wasn’t very interesting to watch. Ms. Ryan was far worse – her un-performance was a stilted, wooden, dead-behind-the-eyes horror of epic proportions. She hit all her marks and most of her notes, but she wasn’t believable at all, and the excellent work from the supporting actors and the ensemble made her seem even worse in comparison. So yes, I came in for the grand slam – but I spent more time talking about the things I actually liked about the production.

Then the emails and comments started coming. I’ve left a couple of relatively mild comments up, although I closed comments on the post (I don’t like doing that, but I got to a point where enough was enough) – they’re childish (‘totally biased’, ‘biased, almost hateful’, ‘this person clearly has an agenda’ – because, obviously, anyone who strongly dislikes something you like must be bitter or biased or possessed of some kind of ulterior motive), but they don’t contain any direct insults, although the spelling and grammar are entertaining. The ones that just said ‘loser’ or ‘hater’ went straight in the spam file.

And then there were the tweets (none of which were from people who follow me) and the emails. A dozen or so of each, each more hilarious than the last (and, later, one polite, friendly, calm message from a lady named Rosemary who, while she didn’t agree with my assessment of these two performances at all, made her case without resorting to cheap namecalling – I enjoyed writing back to her, and it was an interesting conversation). Again, the words ‘hater’ and ‘loser’ and ‘biased’ were regular features; one enterprising individual suggested I should write Mr. Young a personal apology, another charming person suggested I was a ‘fucking idiot’, a couple used the word ‘cunt’, and one particularly hysterical (I assume, I didn’t read beyond the first line) email was headed “Who the FUCK do you think you are?” These messages, of course, were all deleted, and I used the ‘block’ feature in Twitter more in a single afternoon than I think I have in the past two years.

When I looked at the blog stats, I saw something interesting: that particular post had had significantly more readers than I’d usually expect to get on a given day (there are all sorts of things I could do to try to get more readers, I suppose, but that’s not really why I write here). A significant number of them had clicked from a Will Young fansite – BabyDevoted, an unofficial site which, the front page clearly informs you, has no connection to Will Young (if the obnoxious emails I received are any indication of what the people who post there are like, he’s probably quite relieved about that). I certainly never posted a link to the review there – anyway, their forums appear to be closed to visitors. I put it up on Twitter and Google+ (public) and Facebook (in my case, not public), but didn’t post the link anywhere else.

Now, of course, once you post a link anywhere online, it can travel, and you don’t have any control at all over where it might end up – and that’s true even if you post it on a Facebook timeline whose privacy settings are fairly tightly locked down. And, certainly, I imagine that anyone who identified themselves as a Will Young fan would be less than delighted by what I wrote about his awful performance in ‘Cabaret’. But, really – ‘hater’? ‘loser’? ‘fucking idiot’? ‘cunt’? Some people need to get a sense of proportion. Particularly given that, in this case, one or some or all of these people must have looked for this review that they found so upsetting. It’s childish of me, I know, but I keep seeing this picture of a gaggle of foaming-at-the-mouth Will Young fans sitting in a circle passing round the smelling salts. If they get this upset over a review, God knows how they’d cope if they were faced with any kind of actual crisis.

The thing is, I enjoy interacting with people here – most of the time. Some interesting conversations, and a few really great Twitter/Facebook friendships, have come out of responses to stuff I’ve posted here, and I’m really happy to have met those people, if only online. And, honestly, I’m more amused by all of this than anything – really, I have no influence. None at all. I’ve been (albeit briefly) on both sides of the theatrical fence, and it’s certainly no fun getting a bad review, but getting bad reviews is part of the deal, including from people whose writing has far more reach than mine does. I do also get – really – that sometimes you read something annoying online and a red mist descends – but there’s a fair distance between a red mist descending and sending a complete stranger an email with the F-bomb in the header. At least, there is if you’re over the age of about twelve.

I’m not a professional theatre critic. I don’t get press comps (I have, in the past, reviewed for a website and received press comps, but not in this country, and not for a while now). I pay for the tickets for the shows I see, and I make my choices carefully – theatre tickets are not cheap, and I don’t get out the plastic and pay for a ticket unless I’m reasonably sure I’m going to enjoy the performance. In this particular instance, I wrote an angry review of two performances (in a production, don’t forget, which I otherwise liked very much) very specifically because tickets are not cheap and the work these two actors delivered was not worth the money, and because – rightly or wrongly – I perceive a certain amount of cynicism in the increasingly common practice of casting TV actors and pop singers in touring productions of musicals in the hope that their C-list celebrity will draw in the punters, with little regard as to whether they are capable of giving a competent account of their roles. It’s not, actually, that I have any problem per se with pop stars or TV performers getting big roles in stage musicals – I’ve seen people from both arenas do very, very well on the musical stage (Vanessa Olivarez in the Toronto production of ‘Hairspray’, Marcus Brigstocke in the UK tour of ‘Spamalot’). I simply have a problem with spending a chunk of money on a ticket and seeing crap.

Another common theme of the first couple of lines of the emails (I didn’t read much further) was that the review was ‘subjective’. Well, duh. Whether they’re written by a blogger, or Michael Billington, or Ben Brantley, or God, that’s what reviews are. It’s one person’s opinion, that’s all – nothing more, nothing less. And that, actually, is what makes this whole petulant hissy-fit from some of the more childishly extreme members of Will Young’s fan community so hilarious: Michael Billington or Ben Brantley, if they write an unfavourable review, might have a noticeable effect on a production’s box-office performance. I don’t. I know how many readers I get here, I do this for fun (and, when I write about theatre, to keep some record of the shows I’ve seen), I’m not particularly looking for a wider audience (at least, not here), and I’m certainly not under any illusion that I’m delivering some kind of Big Objective Truth for an adoring readership. I react to what I see, I hope people are entertained by what I write here if they find it (and I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree with everything I have to say, here or anywhere else) – but it is, in the end, just one opinion. It simply isn’t worth getting that upset. It certainly isn’t worth getting worked up to the point where you send a complete stranger an email calling him a cunt.

And, really, if you object to something someone writes online, the best way to bring them around to your way of thinking probably isn’t to send them a badly-spelled, rambling email in which you call them names and swear at them. That, I’m afraid, is pathetic, and it will have precisely one effect: it will just make the recipient laugh. At you. A lot.

Life is an ersatz cabaret, old chum

[Note: there is a little more to this story. For what happened in the couple of days after I posted this, click here. It’s never fun to get a bad review, but some of Will Young’s fans, it turns out, are hilariously childish and petulant, particularly when they start sending email.]

 

Welkuurmen, beenvanoo, wilcam… eem cubaray…

No, my spell-check has not gone insane. Those are just a few of the words in ‘Wilkommen’, the opening number of Cabaret, that Mr. Will Young is apparently unable to pronounce, whatever accent he’s trying to do. You might suspect that it’s not a good sign when a show’s above-the-title star mangles the first three words he sings at the top of the first act, and you’d be right, but on this occasion it’s worth exercising a little patience. Not for Mr. Young or for Ms. Michelle Ryan, his leading lady – they’re both awful – but for just about everyone else. It isn’t simply that this London-bound revisal of Rufus Norris’s 2006 revisal is a mixed bag. It’s both better and worse than that. It’s a bold, intriguing, intelligent, stylish production with a strong ensemble and a couple of truly remarkable supporting performances, but with a pair of inept celebrity stunt castees shoehorned in to the two most prominent roles in order to pull in the punters because it’s only about four years since the show was last in the West End. What are they like? Put it this way: Rufus Norris, the director, might as well have cast Kermit and Miss Piggy. In fact, they’d probably be an improvement. At least they’d be interesting.

What saves the production is the fact that, unlike the film, Cabaret on stage has always been an ensemble piece in which the focus is split between several characters. Despite Michael York’s fine work, the film rests mostly on Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey – or at least, it’s their musical numbers that people remember afterwards. While the stage version has gone through, it seems, as many different permutations as it’s had major metropolitan revivals – really, you’d imagine from the show’s production history that Joe Masteroff, who wrote the book, delivered a piece of unplayable crap that directors have spent the past 46 years trying to fix, when in fact his original version is superior in nearly every respect to more or less all the revised versions that have followed – it’s always retained a far wider focus than Jay Presson Allen’s (overrated) screenplay. That’s especially useful here, because it means that this production’s hellish miscasting of the actors playing the Emcee and Sally Bowles does not take the rest of the show down with them. It’s not that they’re not that bad – they just don’t have as much stage time as you might expect. Thank God.

So what’s good? A terrific set of sliding panels, ladders, cages and translucent flats by Katrina Lindsay – we are not, in this production, aping the Sam Mendes staging in which everything took place in the Kit Kat Klub, even when it didn’t, and for that relief much thanks – and equally terrific atmospheric lighting from Mark Howett. This is as good-looking a production of Cabaret as you could ever expect to find, and it does not, thank God, bathe you in sleaze from the moment the curtain rises. You see plenty of people snort cocaine, but none of the dancers have visible track-marks. After the skank-overload that characterised the Mendes revival, trust me, that’s a blessing.

And the dancers are great. Norris and his choreographer, Javier de Frutos, have found a superb ensemble. The bit-parts in scenes are all expertly played, the singing is excellent, and de Frutos’s choreography is often genuinely revelatory. This is a rather more dance-centric production of Cabaret than previous major stagings – not a surprising route to take if you have a choreographer of de Frutos’s calibre on board – but it works, and works well. De Frutos has managed the difficult trick of reimagining each of the show’s iconic musical numbers without changing their intent or their subtext. For ‘Money, Money’, he presents the Emcee in a grotesque balloon fatsuit that gets pricked and deflated as the recession bites. The first ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ – which in this production is the Act One finale – is a truly creepy human puppet-show in which the singer manipulates the chorus line into performing the Nazi salute. We get ‘Mein Herr’ from the film, but there isn’t a wooden chair in sight. The gorilla number uses projections and sleight-of-hand rather than an actor in an actual gorilla costume, and is chillingly effective.

Transitions between scenes are often choreographed, and some numbers – most notably ‘Why Should I Wake Up?’ and ‘Don’t Tell Mama’ – are woven around dialogue to create transitional montages (‘Don’t Tell Mama’, indeed, is seen from behind and only half-heard, as the first scene between Cliff and Bobby takes place ‘backstage’ at the Kit Kat Klub while Sally is out front performing the number). ‘Two Ladies’ features way more than two ladies, several men, and a bed with a trick opening through which any number of people and props can enter and exit. It’s clever, it’s funny, it’s appropriately raunchy and decadent, but it’s also – I keep saying ‘Thank God’, don’t I? – far subtler than the Mendes production was in either its London or North American incarnations, and far less self-consciously skanky (can you tell I really didn’t like the Mendes production very much?). You don’t see a Swastika until the last thirty seconds of Act One, or a Nazi uniform until midway through Act Two – Norris does a far, far better job than Mendes did of showing us the gradual, insidious growth in the Nazi Party’s influence. There’s a concentration camp tableau at the end, but unlike the one Mendes gave us, it doesn’t feel tacked-on or gimmicky. If you have to present a revised version of Cabaret, this is as good as any and better than most.

And yet, and yet… I liked this version of the show, the cuts and alterations are intelligently chosen, and the show plays briskly (theoretically two hours twenty minutes including an intermission), but there wasn’t anything much wrong with the original book and score, beyond the original book’s uncomfortable presentation of Cliff as unequivocally straight. This is not a show that needs extensive revision, but for some strange reason, it usually gets it – although, of course, these days it’s hardly unusual for a major revival of a post-1940s musical to incorporate significant revisions, and the revisions here are less egregious than some.

What else is good? Henry Luxemburg as Cliff. He’s the understudy, and he’s great. One of this particular production’s huge achievements is that it’s always clear that what we’re watching is primarily Cliff’s story – which it technically is in every other version as well, but Cliff often gets somewhat lost among a parade of more colourful supporting characters. That’s not the case here. Also, the wonderful, always-welcome Harriet Thorpe (you might have seen her in AbFab) is a sharp, brassy Fraulein Kost, and Nicholas Tizzard is a stealthily insinuating Herr Ludwig. They’re impeccable. Even better, there’s Sian Phillips and Linal Haft as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. He’s superb, she’s perfect. Her scenes in the second act, in particular, are so riveting that they’re worth the cost of a ticket in themselves.

Which is a good thing, because you won’t get much value out of Mr. Young or Ms. Ryan. Mr. Young is essentially delivering a Xerox of James Dreyfus’s performance as the Emcee in this production’s earlier incarnation. He’s a far better singer than Mr. Dreyfus – his best, most effective moment comes with the interpolated ‘I Don’t Care Much’, because he doesn’t have to do anything much except stand still and sing the damn song – but he’s no kind of actor at all, although he certainly throws himself into it. He has approximately the charisma of a 15-watt lightbulb, and he gives the impression of having learned every gesture, every line and every vocal tic by rote, with no sense at all of what the intentions behind them might have been. And he’s better than Ms. Ryan, who seems completely at sea. She hits all her marks and has the sort of voice and look that could be convincing as Sally Bowles – you don’t need to be a great singer to score in this role – but she is never believable for even a second. She begins the show with an overdone cut-glass accent that seems about to slip off at any moment, as if it was a dress that was four sizes too big – and that’s an interesting place to start with Sally Bowles, but it’s also more or less what Anna Maxwell-Martin did in this production’s previous incarnation, and Ms. Ryan never takes the idea anywhere. Her every line is stilted; the impression you get is less of a performance in character, and more of a child playing dressup. That, too, is potentially an interesting direction in which to take Sally Bowles, but she doesn’t. There’s simply nothing there at all, apart from an uncanny ability to suck all the energy and life out of everything within fifteen feet of her onstage. At any given moment, whatever she’s doing, saying or singing, Ms. Ryan is invariably almost completely blank.

And yes, that’s cruel, but there’s a serious point: Mr. Young is a very, very good pop star. Ms. Ryan can be quite compelling on television (she was great in her guest shot in Doctor Who). This is not their venue; they’re not here because they’re suitable for their roles, they’re here because producers – I’m looking at you, Bill Kenwright – think that punters will pay to go to the theatre to, essentially, watch them jump through hoops as if they were performing seals. There’s nothing at all wrong with casting stars from other branches of the entertainment industry in order to put bums on seats – as long as those stars are capable of giving a competent account of the roles they’re supposed to be playing. This afternoon, at the curtain call, I did something I haven’t done for a very, very long time: when Mr. Young and Ms. Ryan walked out to take their bows, I stopped clapping. I was not alone. The applause dipped noticeably when they walked out, and the chatter I heard around me as I left the building* rather strongly suggested to me that a significant number of people were significantly underwhelmed with these two performers. Regional theatre audiences are not stupid. We know what is good, and we know what is cynical stunt-casting  – and it was clear what people felt they got this afternoon.

If I sound angry, I am: to put it bluntly, Mr. Young and Ms. Ryan’s performances this afternoon were an insult to my Visa statement, because their work was not of a quality that was worth paying for. Tickets are not cheap, even for touring productions; it costs a fair amount of money even to sit in the nosebleed seats, and we’re entitled to expect, once we’ve plunked down the cash or the plastic, to receive something a little more evolved than an ersatz reproduction of a more interesting performance that someone else gave somewhere else five years ago. As it stands, I’ve no idea at all what Mr. Young might bring to the role of the Emcee – I only know that he can be coached to spend two hours hitting all the same marks James Dreyfus did. That’s not theatre, it’s 3D photocopying, and it’s a waste of time and money.

* Three minutes or so before the second act began, the fire alarm went off in the theatre. The theatre’s front-of-house staff did a very, very impressive job indeed of getting people out quickly and calmly, and it was either a false alarm or something very minor because we were back inside within half an hour, but God, some people are stupid. And selfish. NO, if a fire alarm goes off and a recorded voice tells you to evacuate the building via the nearest exit, it probably ISN’T part of the pre-show for Act Two. No, you probably shouldn’t try to shove your way back to your seat against the tide of people streaming towards the exit. When you leave the building, it’s probably not a good idea to mill around immediately in front of the doors. It’s certainly not a good idea to wait for the lift (for a start, if there’s a fire alarm, the lift probably isn’t going to come) or stand at the top of the staircase complaining about having to go outside. The staff, as I said, did an absolutely brilliant job; a small but significant number of patrons made that job harder by, essentially, being stupid or selfish or both.

Legally Bland

She’s ba-aaack!

All over Manchester, this week, you’ll see the faces of Gareth Gates and Jennifer Ellison peering down from posters advertising the return engagement of Legally Blonde at the Opera House. Since this is, of course, the stage version of the Reece Witherspoon sorority-babe-goes-t0-law-school movie, you might reasonably assume that Ms. Ellison – a bubbly blonde musical theatre actress whose wider fame is based on the five years she spent in the Liverpudlian TV soap Brookside –  is playing the central role of Elle Woods, the titular blonde who enrols in Harvard Law School in order to win back her man, but ends up finding herself instead.

Nope.

You might also reasonably assume that Mr. Gates – a reality TV contestant turned pop star turned musical theatre actor – is playing the largest male role, teaching assistant Emmett Forrest (the Luke Wilson role in the film).

Again, nope.

You might further assume, on entering the theatre, purchasing a programme, and reading these two actors’ magnificently pompous (not to mention l o n g) programme bios, that you are in the presence of stars the like of which you have never seen before, gifted individuals who can hold the audience in the palms of their hands, heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, and make the lame walk again. Mr. Gates, apparently, “was awarded Best International Male in 2003/4 from MTV Asia, MTV China and MTV Taiwan”, while Ms. Ellison, after appearing in Dancing on Ice, “proved so popular that she went on to skate her way around the country on the national tour.”

Gosh. And nope.

The real leads – Faye Brookes as Elle Woods (she’s local, born in Flixton) and Iwan Lewis as Emmett – are both young, only a few years out of drama school, and very, very winning indeed. Ms. Brookes has a strong pop voice, an easy charm, and sharp comic timing; if she doesn’t quite have the effortless star quality that the wonderful Sheridan Smith brought to the role in London (yes, this is not my first time seeing the show), she also, thank God, doesn’t emulate the unpleasantly robotic performance given by Laura Bell Bundy in the telecast of the Broadway production. Mr. Lewis is even better – he’s got charm, presence, timing, a great voice, and he can act. But, oops, neither of them have yet done a soap or a reality TV show, so they don’t get their faces on the posters. That’s showbiz, folks.

The show itself is… well, the kindest description is ‘passably OK’. It’s a solid, professional effort, and it plays well enough, even in this slimmed-down touring version. The musical and lyrics (by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin – both did both) are attractive and entertaining, but never much more than that, and Heather Hach’s book, give or take a few minor alterations, is a by-the-numbers retread of the source film’s screenplay. There’s effective but never quite show-stopping choreography by Jerry Mitchell, bright costumes by Gregg Barnes, appropriately gaudy lighting by Kenneth Posner and Paul Miller, and the remnants of what was, in London and on Broadway, a terrific cartoonish set by David Rockwell. Broadway and London got 3D buildings and an actual staircase; the provinces get slightly cheaper tickets, a much smaller band, and painted flats instead of moving set pieces. It does say something for the show itself that it still works in a less elaborate production.

It’s not that I expect greatness every time I go to the theatre, but this is not a great musical, or even a particularly good one. It’s fun, but that’s not the same thing. It’s never bad, it’s always entertaining, but there is never, even for one second, any sense of what prompted the original producers and creative team to try and turn the source film into a musical. There’s a kind of effortless magic to a really good musical comedy, and it’s absent here (although Sheridan Smith, in the London production, managed to go a long way towards providing the spark that’s been missing from other incarnations of the show – really, whatever they paid her, it wasn’t enough). It’s a good-enough, entertaining-enough diversion with a wholesome message about self-empowerment, but that’s all.

So do this touring production’s two above-the-title supporting players supply the missing element of magic? It’d be lovely if they did, but no, they don’t. Ms. Ellison plays Paulette, the beauty-salon proprietor who becomes Elle’s friend and confidante (and, oh yes, falls for a hunky UPS delivery guy), and she’s perfectly OK. She sings well, dances well, gets laughs in all the right places, but this isn’t a star cameo, it’s a decent-enough supporting performance. She is, though, better than Mr. Gates, who plays Warner, the slimy ex Elle follows to law school. Admittedly, in the musical, it’s a bit of a nothing role, but Mr. Gates brings nearly nothing to it. He hits his notes and his marks, and preens on cue, but he’s neither charismatic nor funny (odd, since he managed to be both in Loserville at the West Yorkshire Playhouse earlier this year).

If all of this sounds like I had a terrible time, I didn’t. I’d seen it before, I knew what I was paying for, I had a discount code, and I was entertained, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with going to the theatre looking for empty calories every once in a while. Given the relative thinness of the writing, a bit more glitz (in the form of the bulkier set pieces that are missing from this incarnation of the show) might have been nice, but the show worked well enough without them. As I said, it’s a solid, professional, entertaining piece of work – it’s just that whenever I watch this show, or listen to the cast recording, I can’t shake the feeling that it should be better than it is.