Let us worship

AMLD

It’s unusual – strikingly unusual – for a West End production not to hire understudies, but there are no understudies here: Audra McDonald is the main event, and her uncanny, goosebump-inducing, devastating embodiment of Billie Holiday is more than worth whatever you pay for your ticket. This is less a play than a performance; McDonald is astonishing, and that’s just as well, because the writing underneath is rather on the thin side.

That’s partly dictated by the format. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill recreates one of Billie Holiday’s late-career performances in a bar in Philadelphia (we’re told in a programme note that the playwright’s partner saw one such performance in 1959, a few months before Holiday’s death). A visibly intoxicated Holiday staggers on, stumbles through a few songs, and in her between-song patter delivers the story of her life. As written by Lanie Robertson, it’s more than a little contrived, although Robertson mercifully steers well away from the luridly purple invented scenes that characterise Peter Quilter’s awful End of the Rainbow, which takes a not-dissimilar look at Judy Garland’s demise. Robertson’s Lady Day is drunk and rambling and visibly impaired, and – for better or worse – presented without editorialising. There’s no other point of view on the stage, save the occasional interjection from Sheldon Becton as Holiday’s musical director, and that’s possibly no bad thing, given the way invented dialogue in celebrity biographies so often descends into melodramatic sludge. There’s just Billie Holiday, performing her life for patrons in a bar.

And that, unfortunately, is where the artful artifice of Lonny Price‘s production starts to fray around the edges. Despite a terrific barroom set by Christopher Oram, with patrons seated onstage and nightclub tables filling the (more) expensive half of the stalls, the show simply doesn’t sit very well in an elegant late-Victorian jewel-box like Wyndham’s. The venue is too pretty and (although it’s hardly one of the West End’s biggest houses) too large, and despite the best efforts of the director, the designer, and McDonald herself, it’s difficult to recreate the intimacy necessary for this piece in a theatre that seats 750 people on four levels (if you see this – and you should – you really need to sit downstairs). The proscenium arch doesn’t help; Robertson’s text works strenuously to maintain the illusion that we’re watching a performance in a nightclub; even from the back of the stalls, you simply aren’t close enough. The production cries out for a smaller, less ostentatiously pretty, more flexible venue, but such places are in relatively short supply in London. The Young Vic would have been ideal, but it possibly doesn’t quite fit their mission – and for a limited season the numbers may well not have added up in a venue with half the number of seats.

And in any case, McDonald’s performance is so jaw-dropping that it almost feels like bad manners to quibble at any element of the production surrounding her, even though some elements of it are undoubtedly problematic. Her mastery of Billie Holiday’s very individual vocal mannerisms is astonishing – all the more so when you consider the basic nature of McDonald’s voice, because Billie Holiday really wasn’t a Juilliard-trained soprano. It’s not simply a vocal impersonation, though – McDonald gets under Holiday’s skin and delivers a haunting, haunted portrayal of a star on the verge of self-destruction. There’s a smattering of Holiday’s best-known songs here, of course, and McDonald’s delivery of them is beyond reproach; what you’ll remember, though, isn’t the voice, so much as the intensity. Strange Fruit, in particular, is a riveting, chilling performance, but you’ll learn as much about Holiday from the moment at the song’s conclusion where McDonald shoots a disgusted glare at her music director for having just forced her to sing it. McDonald’s Billie Holiday is a walking open wound, and singing this song wounds her further.

If this makes it sound as though the performance is all darkness, it shouldn’t. Certainly, Billie Holiday’s life story is bleak, and neither Robertson nor McDonald shy away from that, but McDonald makes Holiday’s interactions with her audience in her more lucid moments thoroughly charming, and finds – almost unbelievably – considerable bawdy humour in a story about a southern restaurant hostess’s horrific racism. Even in a space that isn’t quite appropriate for the production, this works – Price’s unobtrusive direction makes the best of both the piece and the difficult venue, the three musicians are terrific, and McDonald herself is giving a performance for the ages. It’s a shame the production surrounding her isn’t quite as perfect as she is, but it doesn’t matter: you’re here for the star, and the star more than delivers.

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The best of all possible worlds

CHC

Apologies in advance, but I’m probably about to run out of superlatives. Candide is one of those shows whose production history is so complicated that there is probably a PhD thesis in untangling the differences between the various different versions (see also Chess and Merrily We Roll Along). A flop in its original Broadway production in 1956, it has endured largely because of Leonard Bernstein‘s glorious music, despite a book that has, over the years, gone through more changes than Céline Dion’s nose.

In a concert production, fortunately, you don’t have to worry too much about whether the book works. As Freddie Tapner, the conductor and founder of the London Musical Theatre Orchestra, pointed out in his opening remarks, the show’s plot is “bonkers” – a picaresque procession of murder, coincidence, shipwrecks and natural disasters (there’s a volcanic eruption in there somewhere). Far easier to concentrate on the music, which is more or less all wonderful, and there’s an off-the-shelf concert version available which delivers the bulk of the score, tied together with dryly funny narration (originally written by Bernstein and John Wells) delivered by the actor playing Dr. Pangloss. The narration has been spruced up a little – we’re treated, among other things, to an explanation of how the tropes of a picaresque plot apply to The Fate of the Furious – but the music is centre-stage. This is not an Encores!-style semi-staged “concert production” – there’s no choreography, the principals stand at music stands at the front of the stage, the men are in dinner jackets and the ladies wear nice frocks, and the chorus are lined up behind the 34-piece orchestra. There’s minimal amplification, a very simple lighting plot, and the performers are (technically) on book.

CH

The miracle is that in this rather rarefied setting – Cadogan Hall is lovely, but it’s nothing if not genteel – Tapner and his cast do an admirable job of capturing the show’s wide-eyed, bawdy humour – and the musical values are impeccable right across the board. Often, with this material, you get one thing or the other – it’s beautifully played and sung, or it’s funny (if you’re lucky – sometimes it’s neither, as in Kristin Chenoweth‘s cataclysmically unfunny, tasteless assault on the role of Cunegonde in a televised concert staging a few years ago). Here, you get almost none of the dialogue, but you get a conductor and a set of principal performers – and an orchestra and chorus – who know exactly where the humour in this score is located, and find all of it.

James Dreyfus – not the world’s strongest singer, though he’s done a couple of musicals – is a perfect host/narrator/Pangloss, and his just-right, slightly sardonic delivery sets the tone for everyone else. Rob Houchen’s wide-eyed, gloriously-sung Candide is a joy from start to finish, and his It Must Be So – my favourite thing in the score – is very lovely indeed. The concert format rather short-changes the actors playing Maximilian and Paquette – Stewart Clarke and Jessica Duncan – because those characters usually have more to say than to sing, and the dialogue is mostly gone, but their (brief) appearances leave you wanting to hear more from them. Louise Gold is reliably funny as the Old Lady, and Michael Matus wrings more laughs than you’d imagine possible in a concert staging out of his several roles, and brings the house down in ‘Bon Voyage’. And Anna O’Byrne‘s Cunegonde is simply glorious. Glitter and be Gay is a formidably difficult aria, but O’Byrne negotiates the piece’s somewhat satirical melodramatic humour without ever descending into vulgar schtick – take notes, Ms. Chenoweth. She also tosses off the song’s fast-paced coloratura with dazzling ease; it’s a thrilling vocal performance, but it’s also simply enormous fun, and that’s not always the easiest balance to find.

But then, that’s true of everyone involved. This is, on one level, Bernstein’s most serious, difficult musical theatre score, but it’s packed with humour too, and everybody involved here, from Tapner down to the last member of the chorus, is clearly having a wonderful time performing this music. Shaun Kerrison’s unobtrusive direction makes sure everyone hits and maintains the correct tone – again, not the easiest task with this material, as that awful televised New York concert loudly demonstrated – and there’s an underlying sense of sheer joy running through the whole evening. The orchestra sound marvellous and so do the chorus, and I might have had something in my eye during the final verse of ‘Make Our Garden Grow’. There’s no set, no costumes (apart from a stick-on moustache), no staging – but there’s also nothing missing. Candide is a very, very difficult piece, and this one-night-only production might well be as perfect an iteration of it as you could ever expect. It’s something I’ll remember for a long, long time.

CHO

 

Slave to the rhythm

cotton panic

In the centre of Manchester, there’s a statue of Abraham Lincoln. It looks random, but it isn’t; engraved on the pedestal are excerpts from a letter Lincoln wrote to to the cotton workers of Manchester in 1863 thanking them for their solidarity during the Union blockade in the American Civil War. Manchester, like much of the north, developed very rapidly during the first half of the Nineteenth Century, and cotton was the main local industry; when the Union blockaded the Confederate ports, the supply of cotton to Lancashire’s mills dried up, and millworkers whose living conditions were barely adequate to begin with suddenly found themselves living in desperate poverty – and yet at a meeting in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1862, cotton workers gave their support to the blockade, and to Lincoln’s drive to end slavery.

That’s a (very) simplified version, obviously, but it’s a chapter of history that has been half-forgotten, and perhaps shouldn’t be. Cotton Panic is Jane Horrocks‘s tribute to those cotton workers, and it’s the kind of production that could probably only exist as part of something like the Manchester International Festival. Presented – because of course it’s the obvious choice – as a music gig rather than a more formal theatrical performance, incorporating some period folk songs, a couple of recognisable minor pop classics, and Abel Meeropol’s Strange Fruit, all glued together by industrial/electronic music from Stephen Mallinder‘s band Wrangler, the show is a breathless, sometimes breathtaking, deeply idiosyncratic theatrical collage. It really shouldn’t work, and sometimes it doesn’t, but sometimes it’s thrilling.

With anyone other than Horrocks at the centre, the performance might very well collapse. Despite the rich potential of the historical source, in one sense the writing here (shared between Horrocks, her partner Nick Vivian, and the three members of Wrangler) is thin. The most powerful passages are excerpts from period texts – accounts of the horrible conditions endured by the destitute cotton workers during the famine (movingly read by Glenda Jackson, and delivered via three large projection screens), the letter from the Free Trade Hall, the response from Lincoln, a speech by Frederick Douglass (played, again on video, by Fiston Barek, who should be credited for this reading in the programme and isn’t). Some of the linking material is less persuasive, and the idea of writing the opening narration in twee rhyming couplets should really have been dropped in the first draft – although perhaps this is the first draft, because at times it plays like one.

Sit down and analyse the performance, actually, and it becomes very easy indeed to pick holes. A lot of it has the air of the kind of very, very precious devised piece you’d see created by undergraduates as an end-of-term project. It’s politically simplistic – we really don’t need the tacked-on epilogue drawing parallels to the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter protests, that’s a link we’re all capable of making for ourselves – and sometimes far too pretentious, as in the sequence where Horrocks, behind a screen, sings Strange Fruit through some kind of synthetic processed effect to an electro/industrial backing. You can see what they’re trying to do, but it might have been more theatrically effective to let the (astonishing, devastating) lyrics speak for themselves. Worse, in that sequence, is the use of the projected faces of black actors – credited only in tiny, difficult-to-read print in the amateurish-looking programme distributed after the performance – as little more than set-dressing. To use a series of images of silent black faces during a sequence in which a white woman sings a song that is powerfully associated with black performers – a song that, moreover, describes and responds to the cruellest, most vicious form of racism – sends a complicated message, and perhaps not precisely the one the show’s creators intended.

But having said all that, the performance is absolutely compelling, and that’s mostly thanks to Horrocks. She’s always been a somewhat eccentric performer, and – unlike some actors – she’s never been afraid of the big gesture, and those two qualities serve her very well indeed here. She performs  – ‘acting’ isn’t always quite the right word – with absolute conviction, whether she’s giving us a tour through the noise and heat of a pre-1860 cotton mill, playing a destitute millworker begging from the audience, intoning Grace Jones’s Slave To The Rhythm with the doomed air of Claudia Brücken circa 1985, or belting out the Battle Hymn of the Republic. She’s sometimes joined by dancer Lorena Randi, who offers a kind of Jed Hoile to Horrocks’s Howard Jones, bringing us closer to the tribulations of Lancashire’s millworkers via the interpretive medium of clog-dancing. It’s a combination that teeters right on the edge of the most gruesomely self-indulgent kind of self-parody, but they always stop just short of crossing the line. Despite the perfectly-appropriate almost wall-to-wall music from Wrangler, who stand dourly behind a projection screen at the back of the stage, Horrocks’s voice is the lynchpin holding everything together. It’s an unusually pliable instrument – she can sing just about anything convincingly, she can place her voice anywhere between a pitiful whisper and an exultant roar, and that voice, when she wants it to, lends her an authority which is somewhat at odds with her rather slight physical presence. For all that some elements of this production are misguided, you can’t take your eyes off her.

The result, frustrating as it can sometimes be, is utterly sui generis and surprisingly moving. The historical texts are well-chosen and extremely effective, Chris Turner’s ‘visuals’ – that’s the word they use in the programme, and they mostly mean projections – provide a thoughtful, sometimes spectacular counterpoint to the live performers, and the show more than holds your attention throughout the 70-minute running time. You may find yourself contemplating a more traditional theatrical treatment of the events Horrocks portrays here – it’s a rich seam of material, and this chapter of local history, as I said, has been all but forgotten – but even if parts of it could have been thought through a little more clearly, there’s a lot to admire. Cotton Panic takes big risks, and not all of them pay off, but enough works that it’s a memorable experience. MIF’s productions, as I’ve said elsewhere, can be hit and miss, and sometimes really miss. As off-the-wall, even misguided, as some of this event is, it’s saved and indeed elevated by Horrocks’s blazing sincerity. It’s obvious from the moment she walks onstage that she feels a deep connection to this material, she carries the show, and her performance makes it worth looking past the production’s occasional missteps.  I can’t say the production is an absolute triumph, and parts of it are completely bonkers, but it isn’t quite like anything else you’ll see this year – and that’s exactly what festivals like MIF are for.

 

 

 

Hit and MIF

fatherland

Or, good news/bad news. Fatherland, one of the major productions at this year’s Manchester International Festival, is beautifully staged and performed and often quite moving. Constructed by Scott Graham, Karl Hyde, and Simon Stephens out of a series of interviews they conducted in their hometowns (respectively, Corby, Kidderminster, and Stockport), Fatherland contains some compelling oral histories, and offers a fascinating (albeit necessarily limited) examination of fatherhood and masculinity in a country that has gone through enormous social changes over the last half-century. Hyde’s musical settings of reported speech are tremendously effective, Eddie Kay’s choreography finds a sometimes strikingly beautiful physicality in the everyday movements of ordinary men, and the performances are impeccable.

And as a piece of theatre, taken as a whole, it simply doesn’t work.

The problem, unfortunately, is the three authors – literally, because instead of letting their interview subjects stand on their own, they insert themselves into the text of their own play, interrogating their own motives in intermittent exchanges with a reluctant interviewee. There’s no nice way to say it: this framing conceit is toe-curlingly self-indulgent. You can tell the way it’s going to go from about a minute into the show, when the actor playing Stephens smiles diffidently when the actor playing the interviewee says he hasn’t seen Curious Incident, Stephens’s biggest hit, and it’s downhill from there. The result is a performance that is roughly sixty percent fascinating-analysis-of-contemporary-masculinity to forty percent tedious-preoccupation-with-the-authors’-own-navels. The good stuff is genuinely wonderful, but you know that in a couple of minutes your eyes will start rolling upwards again.

Possibly it might have helped if I hadn’t seen Working last week. That show, too, is drawn almost entirely from interviews – or rather, from a book of interviews – but the stage adaptation’s (several) authors and composers leave themselves out of the picture, and let their subjects speak for themselves. The result – perhaps predictably – is that you don’t walk out of the theatre feeling like the show’s creators have just spent a big chunk of the last hour-and-a-half (both shows are intermissionless one-acts running around 90 minutes) masturbating all over the stage. Working, for me, succeeded as theatre; Fatherland, unfortunately, did not, even though a lot of it is very good indeed. Working also managed to employ a live band, despite being produced in a much smaller theatre; here, the music is prerecorded – no musicians are credited in the programme – and in live theatre, making actors sing to prerecorded backing tracks is unacceptable.

The absence of live musicians aside, the problem, simply, is that the stories from the interviews in Fatherland are all – all – more interesting than the dreary navel-gazing of the piece’s three very, very smug creators. There’s the devastating story of a man growing up during World War Two whose homelife was so horrific that his escape was to sit on a hill watching Birmingham burn during air raids, an oil worker with a violent past and a hair-trigger temper talking about his instinct to protect his young daughter, stories about men trying to either emulate or transcend their own fathers, quiet expressions of love from men to whom such things do not come easily. All of this is done exceptionally well – but all of it is undercut every time the focus shifts back to the authors themselves.

That, though, is the deal when you book to see shows like this at events like this: festivals like MIF are a place to experiment. Sometimes the results are glorious, as in the late Victoria Wood’s That Day We Sang, and sometimes you find yourself watching something that’s an abject failure on almost every level, like 2015’s wonder.land. There’s a sincere impulse behind Fatherland, and that’s to be respected; it’s just a pity that the resulting show is so frustratingly intent on shooting itself in the foot.

America singing

working southwark programme

This could so easily have been the dreariest show imaginable. Working is a plotless musical with a piecemeal score supplied by a handful of different songwriters, based on Studs Terkel‘s seminal 1974 book of oral histories about life in the American workplace. It’s not a book that seems to cry out to be adapted as a musical, particularly given that it doesn’t follow anything you’d recognise as a traditional narrative and it doesn’t focus in on any single leading character. As adapted from Terkel’s book by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, it’s essentially a series of vignettes: a selection of songs and monologues, each delivered by a different character, with a kind of dramatic through-line but no “story”, based on real-life interviews in which people talk about their work, how they feel about it, and how (or whether) it defines them.

And it’s wonderful. Having a multitude of composers supply two or three songs each is an approach that really shouldn’t work, but it does here: these are terrific character monologues set to music by composers ranging from the late Mary Rodgers to Lin-Manuel Miranda, with simple, direct lyrics drawn directly from Terkel’s interviews. This isn’t quite verbatim theatre along the lines of London Road or Committee; the songwriters here (who also include, aside from Schwartz, Susan Birkenhead, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, and James Taylor) craft lyrics from the text in the interviews instead of setting reported speech directly to music. The result is a startling, moving, warmly real collection of characters – ordinary people, portrayed without cliché, looking for meaning in ordinary lives. So often, musical theatre trades in the larger-than-life – big characters painted in broad strokes. There’s none of that here, and no tap-dancing either,* and the show is all the better for it.

working southwark song list

The six leading actors all play several characters, and they’re all superb. The brilliant Gillian Bevan is sensational as, among other things, a public school teacher reflecting on how teaching has changed since her career began four decades previously and a waitress who finds tremendous pride and dignity in her work. Krysten Cummings finds huge emotional depth in the affecting “Just a Housewife”. Dean Chisnall throws himself into “Brother Trucker” with unrestrained glee, then later delivers a devastating monologue – which takes on a new immediacy in the wake of the horror of Grenfell Tower – as a firefighter considering the reasons he chose such a dangerous career. Siubhan Harrison delivers as good a performance of James Taylor’s “Millwork” as you’re ever likely to hear, and Liam Tamne finds all the comedy in his collection of young/callow characters, and especially in a monologue as a spoiled brat who gets fired from his first job for gross insubordination. Towering above them all is Peter Polycarpou, offering a masterclass in character acting as he shifts personas at the drop of a hat (or rather, at the punch of a time-card).

The show’s ensemble is made up of half-a-dozen straight-out-of-drama-school performers making their professional debuts, and they’re wonderful, but they aren’t given enough to do. A couple of weeks ago, I saw Miriam-Teak Lee give a flawlessly hilarious debut production in On The Town in Regent’s Park. The six young actors here – Patrick Coulter, Nicola Espallardo, Izuka Hoyle, Luke Latchman, Huon Mackley, and Kerri Norville – are clearly all immensely talented, and their movement, via Fabian Aloise’s character-derived choreography, gives the show much of its energy. In too many scenes, though, they are more or less relegated to singing backing vocals, and that’s a pity. Luke Sheppard’s direction keeps them (and everyone else) moving at a good clip, but you’re left with the impression that they could have been allowed to contribute more. Sheppard does a great job of making the show’s lightning-fast transitions between characters and stories admirably clear, Jean Chan’s blue-collar industrial set provides a fitting backdrop, and the show looks great under Nic Farman’s understated lighting, particularly considering the tiny budget. It might be nice to have more than six musicians – but at this size of venue, at these prices, six is a luxury, and the band sounds great under Isaac McCullough’s sensitive musical direction.

If there’s anything to fault, it’s in the material itself, or rather in how this version of the show was constructed. Terkel’s original book appeared in 1974, and the musical, based on the interviews in Terkel’s book, began development in 1975 and opened in 1977 (there’s a helpful timeline in the programme). Lin-Manuel Miranda, the youngest of the show’s various songwriters, was born in 1980; a revised version of the show was developed between 2009 and 2011, based on new interviews conducted by Stephen Schwartz in 2006-7. Miranda’s two songs are excellent, and sound perfectly in keeping with the rest of the score, and “A Very Good Day”, sung by two underpaid caregivers, is one of the show’s great highlights – but the world of work changed a great deal between 1974 and 2006, and the show doesn’t quite manage to negotiate the transition between then and now. As the (intermissionless) performance moves towards its climax with Craig Carnelia’s closing “Something To Point To”, you may well feel a couple of chapters have been missed along the way.

That’s a minor quibble, though, because in most respects the production is an absolute triumph. Whether it will get one is anyone’s guess, but it certainly deserves a longer life; there’s a rumour that a cast recording may be in the offing (or at least, Peter Polycarpou apparently mentioned in a radio interview that a live album was being made), and if the show’s producers are listening, I will buy a copy the second it comes out. Luke Sheppard’s production makes a strong case for this show as a neglected classic, and the performances are simply flawless. Once again, the Southwark Playhouse comes up trumps: they work on a shoestring, but this is probably as good a musical production as you’ll see all year.

*I don’t hate tap-dancing. Really. I’ve a ticket to see 42nd Street later in the year. I even paid for it myself.