Ms. J’Adore, Ms. iPhone, and the screamer

I love theatre. I love going to the theatre more than very nearly anything else. I go to the theatre as often as I can (although not always as often as I’d like), and I’ll see very nearly anything. Theatre excites me, provokes me, makes me happy, very occasionally infuriates me, and however much utter dreck I find myself sitting through – yes, I survived Monkee Business: The Musical with at least some of my braincells intact, and even, God help me, went back for the second act – I can’t ever imagine a life in which I don’t go to the theatre regularly.

I love Fascinating Aida too – that’s the satirical cabaret group with Dillie Keane, Adèle Anderson and (currently) Liza Pulman, not the opera by Verdi (I say this only because I mentioned I was going to see them the other day and a friend asked me if there’d be live elephants). If you’ve been living under a rock, and nobody’s forwarded you the link to Cheap Flights, go and watch it NOW. I’ve been listening to their recordings since the I got the first one in the late 80s  (‘Moscow, Moscow’ is one of those songs that always makes me smile), I’ve seen them live several times, and I am a huge fan. I saw their show last night at the Lowry in Salford, and they were superb. Their material – all written themselves – is terrific, and they have, by now, worked their act up to a standard that very, very few comedy/cabaret groups can match. The new material – including swipes at Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, the Brothers Miliband, Fifty Shades of Grey, Katie Price and Richard Branson – was sharp and very funny, and the excursions into their back catalogue – the pointed takedown of new-age mysticism in ‘One True Religion’, the glorious ‘Getting It’ (a song about the perils of Viagra), the deadly-accurate Weill spoof ‘Leider’ – showed the astonishing breadth of their material. They even, last night, did a more-or-less serious country-and-western number – ‘Glad You’re Gone’, I think it was called, sung beautifully by the wonderful Liza Pulman – along with a serious song called ‘This Table’ that pays tribute to absent friends; the former was great fun, the latter was extremely moving, and the show as a whole was terrific. They’re remarkable, all of them, and it’s always a pleasure to see them.

So I love the theatre, and I love Fascinating Aida. I am, however, beginning to hate theatre audiences.

Take last night. I was sitting in seat G25. On my right, in G24, we had Ms. Marinaded-for-a-week-in-J’Adore-by-Dior. I’ve never really got to grips with the etiquette of applying perfume because I don’t wear cologne myself (I seem to be allergic to quite a lot of it), but I don’t think the process involves running a bath of the stuff and then soaking in it for about four days. This woman’s scent, I’m afraid, was overpowering to the point where her BO would actually have been preferable. If anyone had struck a match, the mushroom cloud would have been visible from space. She was wearing enough of the stuff, anyway, that I spent pretty much the entire show trying not to sneeze. She was also not capable of sitting still, and every time she moved, another Dior-fuelled poison cloud wafted my way. I’m sure she thought she smelled lovely. Nope.

On my left, in seat G26, we had Ms. iPhone. She behaved herself through the first half. Halfway through the second half, she got out her iPhone to check a text message. It took her a surprisingly long time to turn it off. In a darkened theatre, the light from an iPhone’s screen is very distracting. In row G, it would certainly have been visible from the stage. But, of course, her momentary whim to check a message was far more important than the ability of everyone sitting around her to watch the show undisturbed by her appalling lack of manners, so she didn’t let any consideration for anyone else get in the way of that vital text that couldn’t wait another 25 minutes. She was special.

I’m saving the very best for last. Directly behind me, in row H – I think in H27, or one of the seats either side – was the screamer. No, not in any bedroom sense. This lady was Having A Good Time, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. Everyone there was having a good time, or trying to. Ms. Screamer, however, felt the urge to announce to her companions – and, because she clearly needed a larger audience, the rest of the world – that she was Having A Really Good Time. To that end, she did not laugh; she shrieked ‘HA! HA! HA!’, at the top of her considerable voice – and no, it wasn’t a laugh, it was separate syllables, clearly enunciated. In several songs and some of the patter between them, the jokes came thick and fast, so she SHRIEKED rather a lot. In order to demonstrate what a fabulous time she was having, she often rocked back and forth as she did so, which meant that she SHRIEKED her enthusiasm directly into my left ear, at a volume pitch that was somewhere between a Boeing 707 on takeoff and Armageddon. She also had a tendency to either repeat punchlines loudly to her companions or shout ‘BRILLIANT!’ over them, I assume because she was somehow incapable of sitting still and not drawing attention to herself. There’s no point, unfortunately, in complaining to someone like that, because she’s more or less certainly so thoroughly self-centred that she’ll have had no idea at all of how rude and unpleasant her behaviour was to the people sitting around her, all of whom had paid a not-trivial sum of money to be there – although perhaps singling Ms. Screamer out for being self-centred is unfair; all three of these ladies, in their way, were rude and inconsiderate to the people around them, not to mention thoroughly selfish, and all three should have known better. The best I can say about the behaviour of the people around me at the show last night is that at least, thank God, nobody had brought a bag of crisps.

None of these people, of course, were young, and I’m afraid it’s been a recurring theme for a while now that the worst behaviour I encounter at the theatre is from people who are older than I am. Yes, sure, you can complain to the house management – but that’s easier said than done in the middle of an act when you’re in the middle of a row, a dozen seats at least from either aisle. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the show last night – I did, very much, and Fascinating Aida are always worth seeing – but the three “ladies” sitting around me, between them, made the experience much less than it should have been. That, these days, is far too common. Is it really that difficult, at the theatre, to behave in a way that’s respectful to the rest of the audience?

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Sex with the light on

“The first few performances are like sex with the light on. They’re fun, but you might see some things you don’t want to.”

I might have paraphrased slightly  – I wasn’t taking notes – but that was Jeff Calhoun, the director and choreographer of the UK tour of the Dolly Parton-scored musical 9 to 5, addressing the audience at the Opera House in Manchester this afternoon during an unscheduled break caused by a scenery malfunction at the show’s second public performance. Apparently they’ve yet to make it all the way through the show without stopping, although this afternoon they got further than they did last night. This afternoon, during the big Act Two production number “Change It”, part of a drop caught on another piece of scenery and threatened to fall down; the stage was cleared, the safety curtain descended, Mr. Calhoun came out to talk to the audience (he was charming, and very funny, and the audience loved him), and the show continued a few minutes later.

It’s live theatre, and it happens. I knew when I bought the ticket that I would be seeing the second public performance of a brand new production, it’s a complicated staging with a lot of moving furniture and drops, and it wasn’t exactly surprising that they had some technical problems. It certainly didn’t spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the show. However… when a show opens in the West End or on Broadway, the first performances (for a big new musical, anything up to the first three or four weeks or performances, in fact) are advertised as previews, which is essentially an admission that you won’t quite be seeing a finished piece of work. When you’re getting a piece of theatre up on its feet – any piece of theatre, but especially a big musical – there is work that cannot be done until there’s an audience present. Previews are when performances get adjusted, the writing is tweaked, and technical problems get resolved. Yes, sure, there are endless tech rehearsals before previews begin, but in a tech rehearsal you can always stop and start a scene again – you don’t have the pressure of having to get through the whole show without a break, which is what you have to aim for as soon as there’s a paying audience watching.

Once upon a time, not all that long ago (meaning within my memory, and I’m not that old), preview performances were sold at a discount. It’s still, I think, the case in the West End and on Broadway that discount codes are more often than not available online for preview performances – at least, if you know where to look. They are, at least, invariably labelled as preview performances in the show’s advertising and on ticketing websites, and instances where they are not have drawn sharp criticism in the press from theatre journalists.

You might have guessed that the Ambassador Theatre Group, which operates the Opera House in Manchester, didn’t bother with any of that. While it is certainly obvious from the tour schedule that the Manchester performances are the production’s first, when I booked the ticket there was no indication anywhere on their booking site that I would be seeing the equivalent of something that, in the West End, would be labelled as a preview, never mind any hint of early performances being sold at any kind of discount. Now, I’ve seen a lot of theatre, I figured it out for myself, and I went ahead and bought the ticket anyway (the Manchester run is not long, later performances here did not work for me, and it’s going to be a good while before the show is playing at any other venue that would be convenient), but it still leaves a faintly nasty taste when something that would, elsewhere, be clearly labelled as work in progress is put on sale at full price as a finished product. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me, given that the Ambassador Theatre Group’s commitment to customer service is not exactly outstanding (really – an almost twenty-minute queue to pick up tickets an hour and a half before the show began  this afternoon, no facility to print tickets at home, a somewhat lackadaisical attitude towards dealing with customer complaints), but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the standards that apply in the West End to apply here too, particularly given that a top-price ticket to this afternoon’s performance, with fees, would have cost over £40 (cheaper than the West End, true, but still not cheap). If it’s a preview, call it a preview. Let the audience know what they’re buying. If the show’s only in town for a week and a half, they’ll come anyway.

All that having been said, when they’ve worked out the kinks – there were a couple of other noticeable flubs, a very obvious misplaced prop which the actors covered beautifully (the phone cord that Doralee is supposed to use to tie Hart up was not where it should have been, and Amy Lennox had to go offstage to get it), and reflections in odd places near the top of the set that suggest there’s still work to be done on Ken Billington’s otherwise fine lighting – it’s going to be terrific. It’s already a very, very entertaining show, albeit one with a few significant flaws that, at this point in the show’s slightly chequered history, are not going to go away. Dolly Parton, of course, starred in the movie (along with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin); for the musical, she’s supplied a score that’s often great fun. No, this is not one of the great contemporary musical theatre scores, but this is an appealing and effective collection of songs, and the good stuff – particularly an extended opening sequence woven out of the movie’s theme song – is really good. True, nearly all of the music sounds like it comes from a Dolly Parton album – she doesn’t really manage to subsume her own distinctive musical voice and write in character – and some of the lyrics clunk, but unlike other recent musicals-adapted-from-films that have passed this way, this score never sounds like musical wallpaper (I’m looking at YOU, Ghost and Sister Act and Legally Blonde). The show flopped in its initial Broadway outing, and the version that’s being performed here reflects the US touring production, which was somewhat revised; the order of songs in Act One has been slightly tweaked, the three separate revenge fantasies have been conflated into a single extended musical sequence (called, of course, ‘Sexist, Egotistical, Lying, Hypocritical Bigot’, which is possibly the film’s most famous line), and two songs – ‘I Just Might’ and  ‘Always a Woman’ – have been cut. The book – like the source film’s screenplay, by Patricia Resnick – is fast and funny, albeit more cartoonish now than the film was; if the denoument currently seems a little breathless, it’ll probably settle down a bit once the actors have a few more performances under their belt.

And the actors, it has to be said, are this production’s biggest asset. In Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Parton and Dabney Coleman, the film fielded a formidable quartet of leads (in the right role, Parton can be a terrific screen actress); the biggest compliment I can pay their counterparts here is that they made me forget their predecessors. Ben Richards is a strong-voiced, hilariously sleazy Hart, Amy Lennox is an adorable Doralee (and has the hardest job, in that she’s playing the Dolly Parton role, and Parton herself – in the form of projected film – narrates the show’s opening and closing sequences and actually comes right out and says that Doralee is her role), Natalie Casey is pretty much perfect as downtrodden Judy, and Jackie Clune’s sassy, sardonic Violet just about walks away with the show. All four have strong singing voices, great presence, and laser-sharp comic timing; none of them are quite ‘stars’ (in the above-the-title, their-name-sells-tickets sense), but all of them should be.

And then there’s Bonnie Langford as office supervisor Roz. It’s a second-banana role with a few scenes, a mediocre song in Act One, and a reprise of the title-song in Act Two, but she cleans up. She takes ‘Heart to Hart’ – a frumpy-secretary-has-the-hots-for-the-boss number that’s just about the least interesting thing in the score, and effortlessly turns it into the production’s biggest showstopper. It helps that she’s given terrific, funny choreography (by Calhoun and Lisa Stevens), but the energy, killer belt and ingenious comic timing are all her own. She’s great, and somebody needs to write her a big old-fashioned musical comedy to star in, stat.

The rest? The ensemble have tons of energy, the bit-parts are all impeccably filled, Kenneth Foy’s witty set (drops, office furniture on castors, Hart’s bedroom) moves fluidly and affectionately mocks ugly late-70s ‘good taste’ (the bright costumes are great too, but – oddly – nobody owns up to them in the programme), the eight-piece band are impeccably tight (the sound design, though, is often muddy, and in the ensemble numbers the bass is turned up way too high – that, again, is something that tends to get worked out in previews), and Calhoun’s slick staging never lets the pace flag. It’s good now, and it’ll be better a few weeks from now. Everyone onstage is clearly having a wonderful time, and that sense of fun spills across the footlights; the writing isn’t always magical, and this performance was rougher around the edges than you’d expect from something that was not sold as a preview, but the cast’s enthusiasm is absolutely infectious, and for once the (more or less obligatory at a big musical at the Opera House) standing ovation did not feel forced.

So yes, it’s well worth going – but if you see it over the next week in Manchester, be aware that they’re still working. It’s great fun, but – as of right now – it isn’t quite finished.

Are we there yet?

I’ll give the answer first: no, not quite – but with a few fixes tweaks, this could turn into something really wonderful. There are a lot of wonderful things in it already.

If you read anything about theatre in the British press, the chances are that at some point over the past couple of months you’ve read something about Finding Neverland, the new musical that’s currently playing a tryout run at Curve in Leicester. Based, of course, on the 2004 film about the friendship between J.M. Barrie and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the production has attracted a great deal of media attention due to the celebrity of the lead producer, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Although future dates have yet to be announced, the show clearly has ambitions that stretch way beyond Leicester; it’s produced on a scale that would simply be unaffordable for any British regional theatre, and it has a score by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, whose musical adaptation of Grey Gardens found critical acclaim on Broadway in 2006. The thrust of most of the press coverage has been ‘Hollywood Comes to Leicester!’ – there were even wild rumours at one stage that Gwyneth Paltrow would play Sylvia – and that’s only partly accurate: Weinstein, yes, is Hollywood through and through, but the other major creative participants – bookwriter Allan Knee, director/choreographer Rob Ashford, designer Scott Pask and orchestrator Bruce Coughlin – are mostly drawn from the New York theatre scene. Leicester, then, is not precisely the first place you’d expect to find them putting the finishing touches on a new musical.

Except… actually, it makes sense. While it went shockingly over budget, Curve is an undeniably impressive facility with technical resources that rival or better any major regional theatre in Britain (not to mention a large proscenium stage, which is a rarity in modern institutional theatres). It also, under the artistic directorship of Paul Kerryson, has very quickly developed a name as one of the UK’s most exciting musical theatre venues. It’s become a destination, with an audience that is willing to travel a considerable distance to see their shows. I’m one of them; seeing a show at Curve, for me, involves a round-trip of a little over 200 miles. From where I live there’s no direct train service – it’s actually slightly quicker for me to get to London, which is more or less exactly twice the distance from here – and yet I seem to find myself back in Leicester at least a couple of times a year. So far, it’s always been worth the trip.

And it was certainly worth the trip this time. Although no West End or Broadway dates have been announced for the show, this is very definitely a tryout run, meaning that we’re not quite seeing a finished product; wherever the show ends up, it will more or less certainly have been somewhat revised from the version that’s on show here. That’s no bad thing, because the show as it stands definitely needs a little work; it has, though, terrific potential, and some of it is already quite wonderful.

It’s long enough since I saw the film that I can’t say with any certainty how closely the musical follows the screenplay; I’m not an expert on Barrie either, but I know enough to know that this is not a precisely accurate slice of his autobiography (for a start, Barrie’s acquaintance with the Llewelyn Davies family began some years before the death of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies’s husband, which is not the scenario we see in the musical – here, when Barrie and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies first meet, Arthur Llewelyn Davies has been dead for a year). That doesn’t particularly matter; what matters is that the story the musical tells us feels true. Allan Knee’s commendably economical book sketches a relationship between Barrie, Sylvia and her boys that is absolutely convincing and ultimately very touching indeed; the timeline of the growth of this relationship, the creation of Peter Pan, and Sylvia’s illness and death is (necessarily) compressed, but that’s not a problem – this is a musical, not a documentary. Frankel and Korie’s score is often very attractive indeed, and the Act One finale – “Set Sail”, an extended musical sequence in which Barrie brings Captain Hook to life for the first time – is genuinely thrilling (and has the most memorable tune in the show). The pre-opening preview clip of the climactic duet between Barrie and Sylvia, “In the Blink of an Eye”, presented a contextless performance of the song that, frankly, seemed rather wet; in context, though, it’s absolutely ravishing, and it’s gorgeously sung by Julian Ovenden and Rosalie Craig.

In fact, everything is gorgeously sung. This is very much Ovenden’s show – he’s almost never offstage, and he’s never less than superb – but everyone else, including the children, is working at the same level. The physical production is also very impressive – Scott Pask has provided a set of translucent panels and drops that, with the help  of Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington’s witty projections and Neil Austin’s subtle lighting, can move from a park to a drawing-room to the front of a theatre to an out-and-out fantasy sequence with dazzling speed. They’ve clearly spent a lot of money, and you can see where it went, but the spectacle, dazzling as it is, is always in the service of the story, even when we’re looking at a pirate ship that fills nearly the entire stage, or a full-size motor car driving through Richmond Park, or a kite-flying sequence that spills out above the audience.

And yet, and yet… the show isn’t quite there yet – but that, of course, is what a tryout run is for. Towards the end of Act One, Barrie gets a number called “Shadows and Fog” that’s everything you would expect from the title and less; it’s lugubrious and meandering, not to mention too long, and it doesn’t really work. There’s a confrontation duet between Barrie and young Peter Llewelyn-Davies early in Act Two that feels too self-consciously complex, both musically and lyrically; it’s impeccably staged and performed, but the lyrics are awkward and do not sit well on the rapidly-shifting, highly chromatic music, and the moment would be better served by something a little simpler. Later on in Act Two, there’s an opening night sequence at the theatre that feels flabby; the scene clearly needs to be a comic tour-de-force, and at the moment it isn’t. These are not fatal flaws; working through these issues is what a tryout run is for, and the show’s highlights – “Set Sail”, yes, but also a lovely, tentative duet between Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and Barrie’s wife Mary, a cricket match sequence, and a swaggering, swashbuckling tango for Barrie, Captain Hook and a band of pirates (two of whom enter by climbing down the chandeliers in Barrie’s study) – demonstrate that the show is very definitely on the right track. There are, here and there, a few moments in Knee’s book in which British characters are forced to deliver lines whose American idiom sounds jarringly wrong – Arthur Conan Doyle suggests going in to dinner by saying “let’s go eat”, and Sylvia tells Barrie that she would be pleased if he would “stop by” – but these, again, are minor fixes. This isn’t a show that requires major surgery. It’s a good show that, with a few tweaks, has the potential to become a great one.

Wherever it ends up, though, they need to keep Julian Ovenden on the payroll. There are many wonderful things in Finding Neverland already, and he towers above them all. He’s already giving a great performance, and he’ll only improve as the show continues – and he’s backed by an intelligent, experienced, hugely talented creative team, and there’s every reason to expect that they’ll make this show soar. Is it there yet? No, not quite – but I’d put money on them getting it right. Finding Neverland is already hugely entertaining; one day soon, it could be magnificent.