It’s still backwards.

A little over twenty years ago, I saw Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along for the first time – the Leicester Haymarket production, directed by Paul Kerryson and starring Michael Cantwell, Evan Pappas, and Maria Friedman. Back then, I was roughly the same age the three central characters are at the end of the show. This weekend, I’ve seen the Menier Chocolate Factory‘s exceptionally fine new revival, which is also Friedman’s professional debut as a director (she had previously directed a student production at the Central School of Speech and Drama). Now, I’m roughly the same age the three central characters are in the opening scene. Yes, it’s still backwards – but it has possibly never worked as well as it does here.

This is, of course, a show with a famously chequered history. The original Broadway production, in 1981, played more than three times as many previews as performances; during previews, the choreographer and the leading man were both replaced, and all the original costumes were thrown out, so that the show opened with the actors wearing coloured sweatshirts emblazoned with their characters’ names. It was a catastrophic flop, but it yielded a cast recording (recorded the day after the show closed); that recording reveals a score that, while patchy, is sometimes glorious, and that contains some of Sondheim’s most exuberant music.

Sondheim and Furth subsequently made several significant cuts and changes to the show, culminating in the 1992 and 1993 revivals in Leicester and off-Broadway, both of which were recorded. The Leicester production – I saw it twice – made a good case for the show as a problematic but playable piece that, while not perfect, was better than its reputation, despite a book by Furth that is never quite as penetrating or as witty as it thinks it is. It also had good performances from Michael Cantwell and Evan Pappas, and a phenomenal one from Maria Friedman as Mary Flynn, the novelist and critic whose unrequited love for her best friend drives her to alcoholism. That production, too, yielded a cast recording – almost unheard-of from a British regional production that didn’t transfer to London – and while it, like the show itself, is not perfect (not all the performances come across as well on the recording as they did in the theatre, and the percussion is far too high in the mix, and sounds like it’s being played by a Muppet on meth), I’ve listened to it a lot over the past twenty years.

And now it’s been revived again (there was a 2000 revival at the Donmar Warehouse; I was living abroad at the time, so I missed it). This time around, although the script is essentially the same as the one used twenty-one years ago in Leicester, the surprise is the extent to which Friedman and her brilliant cast have made the piece’s inherent difficulties disappear. This is possibly as good a production of the show as you will ever see.

Merrily, at heart, is a show about friendship gone wrong. Sondheim and Furth follow twenty years in the lives of Franklin Shepherd (a composer who sells out to Hollywood), Charley Kringas (a would-be playwright and Frank’s lyricist) and their friend Mary Flynn (a novelist and critic who carries a secret torch for Frank). We first meet them – Frank and Mary in the first scene, Charley in the second – in bitter, alienated middle age; as the show progresses, we slowly go back in time towards the night of Frank and Charley’s first meeting with Mary, and we gradually get to see how the friendship between the three grew and waned, and how Frank and Charley’s writing partnership went off the rails.

The reverse chronology makes it a formidably difficult show to cast; the original production used fresh-out-of-college twenty-year-olds, who by all accounts were not at all successful in the brittle, angry early scenes in Act One. Friedman goes in the opposite direction; she’s cast actors who read at the upper end of the play’s age range, and as the performance progresses they have to gradually age down in front of the audience. Not at all an easy thing to do, particularly in a tiny theatre, but this cast manage it triumphantly – in the final scene, you never, even for a moment, feel you’re watching adults playing kids. Friedman uses a simple framing device (the graduation scenes that originally framed the action are cut from the version of the show that’s now standard) . At the top of the show, as the title song begins, Frank is alone onstage holding what looks like a script; the script turns out to be the two one-act plays Charley wrote in college, and the final image is Frank, costumed as he was in the opening scene, holding the same script. Essentially, then, the show is middle-aged Frank trying to work out where his life went wrong.

To that end, the opening Hollywood party scene is brutal. Mark Umbers’s Frank is clearly not riding the crest of a wave. He’s stretched to breaking-point and full of self-loathing, even as he smiles for his guests; when he finally explodes at Jenna Russell’s Mary, it’s because her barbs have hit him where it hurts. Russell, for her part, makes Mary a truly mean drunk, but you see and feel the genuine hurt underneath her bitterness (it helps, too, that Russell is one of those people who can get a laugh and break your heart on the same beat). In the following scene, Damian Humbley, as Charley, delivers ‘Franklin Shepherd, Inc.’ with devastating force.  It’s a diatribe that clearly comes from years of frustration, and it’s riveting. Throughout the show, Friedman and her cast do an exceptional job of locating the emotional undercurrents between this central trio; even in the very, very bitter opening scenes, you see flashes of their charm, and all three are absolutely compelling. As the show progresses, their charm only increases – ‘Bobby and Jackie and Jack’, which is far from the best thing in the score, gets probably as good a performance as it’s ever had, helped by a wagonload of props and Tim Jackson’s clever choreography – and the final scene is very moving indeed. Their singing, too, is impeccable; in these hands, the glorious ‘Our Time’ soars. These are three phenomenal singing actors, and they’re all giving phenomenal performances.

The good news doesn’t end there. Glyn Kerslake is drily funny as producer Joe Josephson (a role that was played by Jason Alexander, later of ‘Seinfeld’ fame, in the original Broadway production), and Josefina Gabrielle makes man-eating Broadway star Gussie, Frank’s second wife, into a more fascinating figure than you’d ever guess was possible from the script – sexy, materialistic, ambitious, calculating, and far more intelligent than she lets on. She’s matched by Clare Foster’s Beth, who finds all the hurt in ‘Not a Day Goes By’ – in lesser hands, one of Sondheim’s most overly lugubrious ballads – in Act One, and is quietly radiant in the second half. Friedman knows the show backwards (forwards?), and she’s treated it, essentially, as an extended character study; the performances supply most of what’s missing in the book (which, even in this revised version, is not Furth’s best work), and the emotional payoff at the end is substantial. The tiny venue (and stage) helps; you can see into the actors’ eyes, and the intimacy really works for the show.

It’s not quite a perfect production. David Hersey’s lighting is terrific, but while Soutra Gilmour’s unit set – a ‘Mad Men’-era interior whose window opens onto either a swimming pool or the Manhattan skyline – is fine in the opening scenes, it’s too clean a space for the later ones. Her costumes, though, do an excellent job of keeping us aware of when we are in each scene. And giving the final transitional reprise of the title song to the kid playing Frank Jr. is a step too far – it doesn’t really work, although Noah Miller, the child at the performance I saw, was perfectly charming and sang it nicely. There are some rookie mistakes in the blocking – whatever the configuration, the Menier is a tricky space, but a little more attention should have been paid to sightlines.  And while the nine-piece band, under the direction of Catherine Jayes, are terrific, I wish they hadn’t cut about half the overture.

Those quibbles aside, though, this production is a major achievement, and – for Friedman – an astounding directorial debut, despite a couple of caveats. Without resorting to flashy staging flourishes, she’s taken a very, very difficult show – one which has never entirely worked in any previous incarnation – and she’s delivered a reading of it that probes deeper into the material’s heart than you would imagine possible. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

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Like, total drag.

Or, some reflections on the experience of attending Wednesday’s matinée performance of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert at the Opera House in Manchester:

It’s fun, sometimes relentlessly so. The film was fun too, but it also had a surprising emotional depth. There’s far less of that in evidence here.

This is very definitely a touring production. While it doesn’t lack spectacle, it’s considerably less elaborate than the Sydney, London and Broadway incarnations of the show, at least judging by the production photographs from those cities.

There’s a bus, but it’s more skeletal than it was, and several larger set-pieces have been cut down, or are simply MIA. The costumes, though, are still incredibly elaborate and often very funny, and the smaller, cheaper set does at least come to us with smaller, cheaper ticket prices attached. And the show plays well enough even with some of the candy-wrapping taken out.

It’s a jukebox musical, meaning there’s no original score. Instead, there’s a nearly nonstop parade of every camp disco classic you’ve ever heard, plus Pat Benatar’s ‘We Belong’ and a couple of ballads. And I never, ever, EVER need to hear Pat Benatar’s ‘We Belong’ again.

This show does, though, do a more intelligent job than usual of making the grab-bag of pop and disco hits fit the plot – even, improbably, in most of the more ‘serious’ scenes. Much of the show’s vocal load is carried by a trio of ‘Divas’ who deliver their numbers in elaborate disco outfits, suspended above the stage. Here, they’re Emma Kingston, Laura Mansell, and Ellie Leah, and they are great, both individually and as a group.

‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’, though, is a misstep. It’s a great song, but it’s used in the funeral scene near the top of the show, it’s given inappropriately silly choreography, and it reduces Bernadette’s very real grief to the level of camp clowning. It’s as if the show’s creative team are afraid of slowing down and Being Serious less than ten minutes into Act One, and it’s a choice that seriously short-changes both the actor playing Bernadette and the show as a whole.

All the lines you remember from the film are present and correct, but they’re all played more for laughs than they were in the film, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. That’s not to slight the cast, all of whom do as well as they possibly could with what they’ve been given. Richard Grieve does particularly strong work as Bernadette, despite a stage script (co-written by Stephan Elliott, the film’s screenwriter) that stubbornly refuses to let anyone hold on to a serious emotion for longer than about three seconds before the next glittery production number begins. He can’t quite sell the funeral scene, but I doubt anybody could; elsewhere, he’s funny, touching and believable, and he makes it his own. Given Terence Stamp’s indelible performance in the film, that’s quite an achievement.

As Tick, Jason Donovan redeems himself here for the one other time I’ve seen him onstage – a dreadful 1996 revival of ‘Night Must Fall’ (it’s a dreadful play, it was a dreadful production, and he was dreadful in it). His singing voice, these days, is a little worn around the edges, but that works for the character; he’s really good in the role, and – like Grieve – he manages to land the laughs and supply as much depth of feeling as the stage version allows.

Yes, there are ping-pong balls, accomplished via theatrical sleight-of-hand. It’s a clever conjuring trick, and Frances Mayli McCann’s Cynthia is raucously funny.

The film wasn’t afraid to show moments of realism and grit – compare the stage’s happy-shiny-drag-show opening with the very dark first scene in the film – and it was all the better for it. The stage version, too often, plays like a brightly-coloured fairytale. Given that the heart of the show is three queer/transgendered people trying to find some accommodation with a world that usually does not treat them kindly, that’s a problem. Despite the best efforts of everyone in this cast, the overall effect is sunnier and ultimately less moving than the film, and the stakes don’t seem nearly as high. But hey, there are dancing cupcakes in ‘Macarthur Park’, so who cares about depth?

It’s not that it’s a bad show, the funeral scene aside. There’s plenty of spectacle, even in this cut-down touring production, and the production numbers are energetic and imaginative, and it’s packed with funny lines. It’s big, loud, slick and very entertaining – but it could have been much, much more.

And I’m afraid that once again, the behaviour of some of the audience at the Opera House didn’t add to the show at all. In front of me in act one, there were two ladies who talked constantly and loudly, occasionally breaking off to swig from bottles of wine – not miniatures, either – that they’d brought in from the Tesco across the street. Their charming response to being asked to quieten down? “You can’t tell me what to do, shut your face!”. The house management very kindly found me a different seat for Act Two, so I didn’t have to listen to them during the rest of the show – but that, of course, ducks the problem somewhat, in that they didn’t take any effective steps to protect the other audience members in that section who hadn’t complained. These two ladies were disruptive enough that a competent house management would have thrown them out; it is simply not acceptable to expect an audience who have all paid non-trivial sums of money for their tickets (prices for this show are far lower than they were in the West End, but that doesn’t mean they’re cheap) to put up with the performance being disrupted by people who don’t know how to behave in a theatre. Unfortunately, the Opera House is an Ambassador Theatre Group venue, and ATG are not exactly known for their stellar customer service. The house manager I spoke to was pleasant, apologetic, and very helpful to me, but she was clearly unwilling to take any action that would involve  directly asking these people to tone down their appalling behaviour, and that, I’m afraid, just isn’t good enough.

Oh yes, one more thing: the show, in Manchester, is being presented under ATG’s increasingly fatuous Manchester Gets It First promotional banner. That’s first, in this instance, after Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, London, Toronto, New York, Sao Paulo,  Minneapolis, Cleveland, and St. Louis. And all of those venues got a more elaborate physical production than we did. Aren’t we lucky? We’re the first to get the cheap version. Big whoop.