She’s got it! Yeah, baby, she’s got it!

venus in fur

As Vanda, the young woman who dominates (sorry) this limp two-hander, Natalie Dormer offers a ninety-minute masterclass in how to rise above your material. Nothing – and I mean nothing – else is anywhere near as good as she is, and she’s more or less the only reason to buy a ticket.

David Ives‘s undercooked play, a riff on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch‘s 1870 novel Venus in Furs, offers a few very funny lines but is never as clever or as edgy as it thinks it is. The setup is simple: Thomas, the writer/director of an upcoming (we assume way off-Broadway) adaptation of the novel, has spent the day auditioning bad actresses to play the central character. Just as he’s about to leave, a brash, apparently inexperienced young actress named Vanda Jordan appears (accompanied by thunder and lightning) and persuades him to let her audition – and when she starts to read she assumes the character she’s playing eerily quickly,  and it soon becomes obvious that she knows far more than she initially lets on about the novel, Thomas’s unpublished adaptation of it, and Thomas’s relationship with his (unseen) fiancée. What follows is supposed to be a nail-biting battle of the sexes in which Vanda and Thomas, following the pattern set by the characters in the source novel, each try to establish dominance over the other. There’s no interval, so basically the only nail-biting element here is how badly you’ll need to pee by the time the curtain comes down. There are twists and turns, certainly, but you’ll see them all coming a mile off, and the final big reveal – who Vanda really is – is unfortunately kind of spoiled by the tagline on the banner on the front of the theatre. This, I’m afraid, is a Bad Play, and it appears to have been written with little intent other than to objectify the actress playing Vanda, who gets to spend a big chunk of the performance wearing bondage gear and flirting with her leading man. There’s little insight and less tension, the writing tends towards the repetitive, and the script, overall, exudes all the sexual heat of a used teabag. No, not that kind of teabag.

Bad Plays, however, can sometimes be fun, and that’s true here – at least, up to a point. You’ll laugh – intermittently – but Ives’s script will probably mostly leave you rolling your eyes. Patrick Marber‘s staging is efficiently unshowy, and he probably gets as much out of the material as anyone could. And there’s nothing at all wrong with David Oakes‘s Thomas, except he fades into the background whenever Natalie Dormer’s Vanda is onstage, which unfortunately for Mr. Oakes encompasses all but the play’s first two-and-a-half minutes. Ms. Dormer, switching back and forth with dizzying ease between pungent Noo Yawk and a cultured, actressy RP, has dazzling comic timing and the sort of presence no drama school can teach, and her spectacular star turn eclipses pretty much everything else, from her costar and director to the set and the lighting. She can’t quite manage to turn a lousy play into a good one, but she keeps you entertained (lucky, because nothing else will), and she even manages to sell Ives’s howlingly camp ending.

Actually, the script as a whole could do with rather a lot more of the kind of camp you see in the last three minutes.  Dormer is sensational, and this isn’t selling well so there are discounts around; it’s well worth the £15 you’ll pay on Today Tix. Nearly all the way through, it’s simply far too safe. It may – MAY – work better when there’s an actor with more presence (or any presence) playing Thomas, but that still wouldn’t disguise the biggest problem here: Ives’s script is decaf Nescafé when it should be a triple espresso.

 

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Poisson Strange

big fish 1

Or, a tale of the good, the bad, and the unmemorable.

Big Fish, based on a 2003 movie I haven’t seen, really wants to be an enchanting, heartwarming family musical about what fathers pass on to their sons. It also wants to be a celebration of fantastical storytelling, and sometimes the stage equivalent of a Lifetime hospital drama. Will Bloom (Matthew Seadon-Young) has grown up listening to his father Edward (Kelsey Grammer) tell impossibly tall tales about his past. When Edward becomes seriously ill, Will goes back through the stories to try to separate fact from fiction, and uncovers a huge secret. There’s a deathbed scene, the opportunity for a good cry in the second half of the second act, and the potential for a series of great big production numbers in the fantasy sequences. You can see why the show’s creators were drawn to adapting it as a musical – but while there’s possibly a wonderful musical buried somewhere in this source material, this really isn’t it. In terms of the material, what you’re getting here is basically the equivalent of a tuna sandwich from a hospital cafeteria: it’ll keep you going, it tastes OK, and you’ll remember very little about it afterwards.

What you will remember – and he’s probably the reason you bought a ticket – is this production’s above-the-title star. As the storytelling Edward, Kelsey Grammer is the real deal. He’s charming, very funny, and has effortless stage presence and a better singing voice than you might expect. This is a proper old-fashioned star turn, and he’s more than worth your time and money. The trouble is, he’s far more interesting than the show itself. John August’s book, even in the fantasy sequences, is predictable – bearing in mind that I haven’t seen the film, it was a quarter of the way into Act Two before I wasn’t two steps ahead of the plot. That might not be a problem if Andrew Lippa’s score was at all memorable, but it isn’t. It’s always pleasant, but it’s always bland; outside of a couple of  Andrews Sisters-type pastiche numbers (one in each act), there’s very little you’ll remember afterwards. The lyrics are technically proficient, although they tend to announce emotions as if they were headlines, and the music is always superficially attractive, but if you try to dig into the heart of the score – with the exception of one song sung by Sandra Bloom, Edward’s wife – there is no there there.

And that might not be a problem if there was anything inspired about Nigel Harman’s direction, but there isn’t. The Broadway production (which flopped) was apparently too overblown, so this, in response, is the cut-down chamber version; it isn’t a bad idea to set nearly the entire show in Edward’s hospital room, but once you’ve taken the decision to do this show small, the fantasy sequences need an injection of theatrical magic. Not necessarily a big budget or huge set-changes – just imagination and a sure sense of fun. Here, both are notably lacking, despite the herculean efforts of Forbes Masson as a circus ringmaster and Dean Nolan as a misunderstood giant. They’re both terrific, but the songs they’re given aren’t; Harman’s direction and Liam Steele’s choreography don’t hit any clunkers, but they also don’t have the kind of flair that can sometimes elevate tepid material.

It doesn’t help, either, that Jamie Muscato’s Story Edward – the version of Edward Bloom who appears in the older Edward’s fantastic tales – is so singularly charmless. Muscato is a very, very talented performer. He’s a good actor, he can move, he has a wonderful singing voice – and he is absolutely miscast here, to the point where his character and Grammer’s barely seem related to each other. Muscato doesn’t have Grammer’s effortless presence and charm – at all – and without them Story Edward comes across as an egotistical con-man. Muscato works very hard indeed, and it isn’t his fault, but unfortunately it’s this performance that holes the show below the waterline.

Matthew Seadon-Young, though, is a genuinely moving Will Bloom, and Clare Burt is even better as his mother. Her one solo number, ‘I Don’t Need a Roof’, is by far the best thing in the score (and just about the only song in which the emotional subtext isn’t announced at the top of each verse), and she sings it with devastating restraint. It’s a lovely, truthful, absolutely heartbreaking performance; she, like Grammer, is worth the cost of the ticket.

And having said all this, it’s fair to say that a lot of the (more or less capacity) audience seemed to like the show a lot more than I did. There’s a fine set of supporting performances,  decent production values (set and costumes by Tom Rogers, lighting by Bruno Poet), and for all that the material is bland, it is also moving, at least in the second act – though it’s also rather manipulative, and if you’ve experienced losing a parent the final scenes push buttons that are more or less guaranteed to provoke a response. As I said, though, there’s a memorable musical located somewhere in this source material, and this is not it. You’ll leave the theatre remembering Clare Burt’s face when she sings ‘I Don’t Need a Roof’, Matthew Seadon-Young’s final scenes, and (especially) Kelsey Grammer, but the score will have evaporated by the time you get to the tube, and Harmon’s direction might have evaporated before you’ve finished watching it. Go for the cast – they’re worth it – but go with low expectations. And if you want a really memorable fish, try the aquarium.

 

 

 

One message, medium-rare

NT Network 1

“Fasten your seatbelt, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” No, wait, sorry, that’s Ivo van Hove‘s next show. This week, we’re all  going to be mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it any more. Possibly with dinner, if you paid for the onstage seats. With all due deference to Dominic Cooke’s revival of Follies, which is currently playing two flights of stairs up, Network, adapted by Lee Hall from Paddy Chayefsky‘s screenplay, might be the theatrical thrill-ride of the year. Even if you know the screenplay quite well, you’ll be on the edge of your seat; this is a big, bold, wildly inventive, viciously satirical theatrical extravaganza, and Mr. van Hove appears to have thrown his entire bag of tricks at the Lyttelton stage – including the kitchen sink. And a full kitchen, and a bar, and a restaurant. Add an ingenious set by Jan Versweyveld, an endlessly inventive, eye-popping video design by Tal Yarden, a mirrored floor, a lot of video screens, cameras, a control booth, make-up chairs at the back of the stage in full view of the audience, live-action footage projected on a screen above the stage, and a quartet of musicians at the top of the stage pumping out a Kraftwerk-esque electronic score, and you’re pretty much getting the full Ivo van Hove. A seatbelt might actually come in useful: this production is a rollercoaster, and it never lets up.

NT Network 3

I’m not always a fan of flamboyant directorial trickery, and last year I felt van Hove’s production of Lazarus worked far better as performance art or as a gig than as theatre. This time, the technological cleverness, the design, the prominent positioning of audience members eating onstage, the look, the feel, the music, the (very, very fine) performances, are all working in unison towards the same purpose… and here is where a certain kind of purist may snarl, because that purpose isn’t quite simply about telling the story.

Lee Hall’s adaptation, in fact, stays very close indeed to Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay, although it strips away much of the terrorist subplot. This is still, as projected text informs us at the very top of the show, the story of Howard Beale (Bryan Cranston), a veteran newscaster whose on-air nervous breakdown precipitates a spectacular ratings spike for his third-rate television network, which in turn sets off a battle of wits between a driven, more-or-less psychotic producer from the entertainment division determined to exploit Beale’s ratings potential, and the president of the network’s ailing news division, who is deeply wary of the consequences of conflating news with entertainment. The action still takes place in the mid-1970s, although the tech elements use equipment that is light years ahead of anything available “in period”. The production delivers the story with admirable clarity, but there’s more than that going on here: above all else, this is an extended theatrical examination of the way we consume media, or perhaps the way media consumes us. Accordingly, van Hove places the entire show in a fully-functioning television studio that encompasses the entire Lyttelton stage. At home, we sit and flip channels, and shift our attention from the TV to a laptop to a tablet to a phone and back again without thinking about it, so there’s a constant tapestry of action onstage with the main focus constantly moving from live action to the screens and back again. There’s always several things going on in the background; van Hove does an exceptional job of directing your eyes to look where he wants you to, but if you look elsewhere you’ll still pick up relevant information, or at least an amusingly kitsch 70s TV commercial. We consume news as background noise while we’re eating or drinking or talking, so there are tables onstage where we, the audience in the traditional seats, can see an audience consuming food and drink as they watch the play. Several times, the actors play all or part of a scene right in the middle of the onstage audience, and at one point, the play completely breaks the fourth wall and the action moves into the stalls – at which point a camera is directed into the auditorium, and the view from the stage of the Lyttelton is projected onto a screen.

The line between live action and film is constantly blurred; one scene even begins (on screen, but live) outside on the South Bank and moves seamlessly indoors through the National’s corridors until it ends up in the onstage bar area. A warm-up man encourages the audience to join in at key points by shouting out that line – a weirdly uncomfortable experience, since you’re basically being asked to cheer a nervous breakdown. At one key moment video clips, solicited via Twitter, of members of the public shouting that line are projected onto the walls above the stage. Literally and figuratively, it’s an electric theatrical experience, and every element is designed to underpin Chayefsky’s satirical thesis about how people can be manipulated by a corporate-driven media when the boundaries between fact and entertainment start to break down – although the point isn’t made explicitly until a brief video montage shown after the curtain call at the end of the show. Over a couple of minutes, we see clips of  the inauguration of every US President from Nixon to the current incumbent – and that’s all it takes to make the dangers of reality-based entertainment blindingly obvious.

NT Network 2

What you’re getting, then, is a big dose of Marshall McLuhan wrapped up in a lot of shiny electronics and slick stagecraft (television, incidentally, is not the medium, it’s the hardware that delivers the message). It’s a dazzling spectacle, but the spectacle somehow never overwhelms Bryan Cranston’s astonishing performance as Howard Beale. It’s not simply that Cranston effortlessly holds your attention in the middle of a two-hour fireworks-display of a production, even from parts of the stage where you can’t quite see him. It’s that at the centre of an overwhelming, in-your-face production in which every element is designed to reinforce a satirical point about the dehumanising effect of mass media, he perfectly captures Howard Beale’s raw vulnerability and the pitch-black satirical comedy that runs through the heart of the show like the letters in a stick of rock. The “…mad as Hell” monologue is a tour-de-force; in a production packed from wall to wall with eye-popping directorial flourishes, nothing is more memorable than Cranston’s star turn. There’s equally fine work from Douglas Henshall (in the William Holden role), Tunji Kasim (the Robert Duvall role), and Caroline Faber (in the relatively tiny role that won Beatrice Straight an Oscar). Michelle Dockery deploys her two facial expressions to far better effect as Diana Christensen, the psychopathic TV producer (originally played by Faye Dunaway) who will go to any lengths in her quest for ratings, than she ever achieved in Downton Abbey. Surrounding the leads, there’s a stage full of supporting performers, technicians, cameras, and – oh yes – restaurant patrons; it’s a dense, sometimes overwhelming experience to sit through, but it works.

It’s also sold out, even before the reviews appear (I saw one of the final previews; press night is tonight, and in terms of sales the reviews are just about irrelevant). It’s worth lining up for day seats; this production raises a lot of serious questions, and shows us over and over again how terrifyingly prescient Chayefsky’s original screenplay was, but it’s also tremendous fun. As I said, this is a wild rollercoaster of a show, an edge-of-your-seat theatrical joyride that isn’t quite like anything else you’ll see this year. Even if you’re dubious – as I am – about self-consciously tricksy directorial flourishes, go. For once, the gimmicks work – and quite apart from the gimmicks, Bryan Cranston’s performance is one for the ages.

Just maybe do a vocal warmup first – there are signs in the lobby warning that the production “contains loud noises”, but they don’t mention that you’ll be making some of them yourself.

NT Network 4

 

 

Ready for her close-up

sb ria jones

She’s ba-ack!

From Glenn Close’s understudy to headline attraction in her own right, Ria Jones‘s (very belated) big break is an irresistible showbiz-dream-come-true story. She’s always been wonderful – twenty-five years ago, she was a thrillingly-sung Fantine in the first Manchester run of Les Misérables, twenty-one years ago she was flawless in the two leading roles in the chamber musical Romance/Romance at the Bridewell, and she’s toured all over the place and done concerts with just about everyone – but she’s always been one of those people who should be a Great Big Star, and somehow isn’t.

Until now. This time, thanks to the spectacular word-of-mouth that followed the four performances last year when she stood in for an indisposed Glenn Close in a revival of Sunset Boulevard that had basically been packaged and marketed as The Glenn Close Show, it’s Jones’s name above the title on the posters. This production, too, is being sold around the star – and this year’s star is last year’s understudy (which must feel especially sweet given that Jones, in fact, was the first person ever to sing the role of Norma Desmond in a workshop a few years before the original London production). The show itself is what it always was – some good stuff, a lot of musical wallpaper, some real clunkers among the lyrics, and overall a very imperfect adaptation of a more-or-less-perfect film. While the writing isn’t unimpeachable, though, it’s undeniably a great star vehicle. Jones, STARRING as opposed to playing the lead, is superb as Norma Desmond, the forgotten silent movie star whose entanglement with a young writer ends very, very messily indeed; these cut-price touring productions are often faintly dismal affairs, but the production director Nikolai Foster has built around his star is far better than anyone had any right to expect, and in several respects it’s streets ahead of both Lonny Price‘s concert(ish) staging last year and Trevor Nunn‘s overblown original at the Adelphi.

In terms of her strengths in the role, Jones is just about the polar opposite of Glenn Close, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Close’s power in the role came from her immense charisma: she’s a very good actress, but she’s also the kind of Great Big Movie Star whose effortless presence commands an audience’s attention. Her singing, on the other hand, is not her strongest suit – she got away with it, but that’s just about the best you can give her. Jones, on the other hand, is a good actress and a magnificent singer, but she doesn’t bring that kind of movie-star magnetism to the table. Strangely, that’s a combination that turns out to work very well for this role: some of Jones’s predecessors, including Close, were so loudly FABULOUS! that it was difficult to see why Norma Desmond had been forgotten by the public (it’s not as if the transition from silent to talkies was impossible to negotiate: Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Carole Lombard all managed it). Jones avoids the trap (hi, Betty Buckley!) of getting too crazy too quickly, giving us a carefully-mapped descent into madness. She’s absolutely believable as a lonely, lovelorn woman, she sings the living hell out of Norma’s big numbers, and she manages to put her own spin on that monologue in the final scene (and a very smart spin it is too – when her Norma announces that she can’t go on with the scene because she’s too happy, Jones’s Norma genuinely is. She’s completely out to lunch, of course, but she’s happy, not suicidal, because her grip on reality has finally completely snapped). It’s not necessarily the most subtle account of the role you’ll ever see (and I suppose I might mention here that my favourite Norma, as much as I loved Close last year, Jones in this, and Elaine Paige in the original production, is probably Rita Moreno, who delivered an astonishing acting performance and, like Close, just about got away with the demands of the score), but that final scene still raises goosebumps, and I doubt anybody has sung As If We Never Said Goodbye better than Jones sings it in this production.

Opposite her, Danny Mac is a strong Joe Gillis – and for once, in this production, it’s clear that Norma is a character in Joe’s story, rather than the other way around. He sings well, and captures the character’s corrosive self-loathing better than anyone I’ve seen since Kevin Anderson in the original London cast. Molly Lynch is a sweetly girlish Betty Schaefer, Adam Pearce is a just-creepy-enough Max, and there’s nothing to criticise in any of the ensemble performances (some of the casting is a little young, though: whoever plays Hog-Eye, the spotlight operator, needs to look as if he’s been in showbiz for a hell of a lot longer than three decades. Two-and-a-half decades ago, the actor playing the role in this production was a zygote). There’s a superbly evocative Hollywood soundstage set by Colin Richmond (who also supplies the perfectly-apt costumes), enhanced by Douglas O’Connell’s sometimes subtle, sometimes dazzling video projections. The car chase sequences, in particular, work better here than they did in either last year’s revival or the original staging, thanks to cleverly-timed use of rear-projection.

Nikolai Foster’s staging emphasises Hollywood’s artifice: because the whole production takes place on a soundstage, the detritus of moviemaking is always visible somewhere on the stage, even when we’re supposedly in Norma’s mansion. Towers become walls, Norma’s staircase splits into pieces to become other buildings in other locations, there’s usually a camera visible somewhere on the stage, and O’Connell’s projections keep reminding us of the Los Angeles that exists outside Norma’s mansion, which makes the mansion feel all the more claustrophobic. It’s all accomplished on a much smaller budget than the gargantuan, eye-popping original, but it actually makes a better case for the show than Nunn’s production did. The writing is still uneven – the strongest director couldn’t save a number as weak as The Lady’s Paying, though we’re mercifully spared the limp-wristed, lazily-stereotyped camp caricature of a performance that accompanied the song at the Coliseum last year – but the focus here is firmly on the people rather than the set, and the people are worth your attention. Granted, they’re interesting mostly because of Billy Wilder (and Ria Jones and Danny Mac) rather than Lloyd Webber, Christopher Hampton and Don Black, but in a Lloyd Webber show you take what you can get. It’s a pity there are only sixteen musicians in the pit – this music really needs a big string section, and it doesn’t get one here, which means the instrumental passages sound anaemic – but that’s really the only major criticism. It may not have happened without the publicity generated when Jones stood in for Glenn Close last year, but this, it turns out, is a very, very fine revival indeed.

Oh yes – before I finish, a shout out to the front-of-house staff at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, and particularly to the three of you who spent the last fifteen minutes of Act One during Wednesday’s matinee holding a conversation in the aisle right behind the back row of the dress circle. It’s not like the customer experience in this venue is ever good – but my expectations are very low indeed, and you surpassed them. Well done.