At Last the 1948 Show

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There are many, many wonderful things about Opera North‘s revived revival of Kiss Me, Kate, but let’s start with the most surprising: unlike the (abundantly talented, and she should have known better) lady who played the role on the most recent Broadway cast recording, Stephanie Corley’s Lilli Vanessi actually sings I Hate Men instead of mugging and shrieking her way through it as if she’s on a mission to grind every last scrap of humour in the song into a bloody, unrecognisable pulp. Not only does she sing it, she sings it beautifully – and it’s very funny, because the scene is very funny, and because nobody is trying so hard to MAKE IT FUNNY that they kill the joke.

As a show, Kiss Me, Kate absolutely reflects what musical comedy was in 1948 (actually it’s at the more sophisticated end of what musical comedy was in 1948): the score might be Cole Porter‘s masterpiece, and Sam and Bella Spewack‘s book creaks a little around the edges these days. The situation – a show-within-a-show spun off from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, in which the warring relationship between Kate and Petruchio is reflected in the warring relationship between Fred, the actor-manager directing the show and playing Petruchio, and Lilli, the actress playing Kate, who also happens to be Fred’s ex-wife – is full of comic potential, the lines are funny, the characters are real and believable, and it certainly is still playable, as this revival clearly demonstrates. In terms of structure, it is of its time. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing – I loved it more or less without reservation – but musicals these days move a little more quickly, and no longer have to be structured so that scenes using the full stage are dogmatically alternated with scenes performed “in one” on a reduced playing area in front of a backdrop to allow stagehands the time and space to change the set. The last Broadway revival of the show used a (crassly) rewritten version of the book (by John Guare) whose purpose was at least partly to make the show move from scene to scene in a way that just wouldn’t have been possible in the original production. This revival, on the other hand, is essentially a trip straight back to 1948.

That’s not a bad thing. In Jo Davies’s staging, first seen three years ago and revived here by Ed Goggin, the material is given space to breathe. There’s comic business where appropriate – Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin are blissfully funny as the gangsters – but you never get the sense that this cast are being forced at gunpoint to MAKE THEM LAUGH (really, check out the DVD of the London iteration of the last Broadway revival to see a cast of actors playing comedy as if they’re being held hostage). Quirijn de Lang’s Fred has a gorgeous baritone and marvellous timing, Corley’s Lilli is flawless, Alan Burkitt’s Bill Calhoun can tap-dance like a dream, and Zoe Rainey’s Lois Lane effortlessly wrings every last laugh out of Always True To You In My Fashion. The supporting performances are lovely, the chorus singing is beyond reproach, the sets and costumes (Colin Richmond) and lighting (Ben Cracknell) do the job more than well enough given the limitations of a production designed to play in repertory with two or three other shows on tour. And – best of all – there are more than fifty musicians in the pit under the baton of Jim Holmes, who knows how to draw all the wit out of Porter’s dazzling score, and the production is only very lightly miked, so the experience is probably as close as you’re ever going to get at a big musical these days to natural sound. It isn’t LOUD – most musicals these days are LOUD (believe me, I saw this Kiss Me, Kate in the evening after a return visit to Dreamgirls in the afternoon) – and it takes the audience a few minutes to adjust, but then people listened in a way they somehow usually don’t when there’s a sound system turning the volume up to eleven.

Still, though, the fact that this is basically a three-hour trip back to 1948 means it may not be for everyone. As I said, these days new musicals move more quickly. If you’re not prepared to adjust to the (lack of) volume the show may seem a little remote. And in this particular property, as in the Shakespeare play it’s based on, there’s a certain amount of built-in sexism that audiences are far more sensitive to today than they were seventy years ago. Look in the usual places online and you’ll find comments from people disappointed that this production didn’t push the comedy far enough, that it wasn’t loud enough, that the pace was too slow, that the sets weren’t elaborate enough. Depending on your yardsticks, those are not necessarily unreasonable criticisms – there’s no question that a production conceived directly for the West End would have looked and sounded quite different. For those of us prepared to meet this production on its own terms, though, it’s, well, Wunderbar.

 

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I Love Lucy

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I am a world-class nit-picker, so you may want to sit down for this: as performed – gloriously – by the extraordinary Laura Linney, Rona Munro‘s stage adaptation of Elizabeth Strout‘s novel My Name is Lucy Barton is a perfect theatrical experience. This is one of those incredibly rare productions where everything works. The only thing wrong with it is that the run is only three weeks so I won’t get to see it again.

Strout’s novel – and Munro’s stage script – presents a woman looking back, first at an experience in the 1980s when she became ill following a supposedly routine operation and was hospitalised for several weeks, during which time she was visited by her estranged mother, and second at her childhood, and at the causes of her estrangement from her family. From these recollections, she pieces together the process by which she acquired the ruthlessness necessary to forge a successful career as a writer. That’s a simplistic summary, because Munro’s monologue is difficult to reduce to a two-line synopsis; it’s a ninety-minute tiptoe through an emotional minefield, and if there can be such a thing as a low-key tour-de-force, this is it.

Lucy’s story, at times, is certainly harrowing. Growing up on a farm in rural Illinois, in the kind of acute poverty that made other children mock her and her siblings for smelling bad, with a war-veteran father suffering from undiagnosed PTSD and a harshly undemonstrative mother, Lucy’s stories of her early childhood recall Dickens without the warmth. The tone is carefully matter-of-fact, without fireworks or histrionics, because this isn’t an I-survived-abuse confessional. Strout (via Munro) offers, instead, a careful meditation on whether it’s ever possible to escape your upbringing, and on the ways in which we sift through our memories in search of a story to tell. There’s more going on, of course – Lucy’s lengthy hospitalisation occurs in the early 1980s, the spectre of AIDS is hovering over Manhattan (there are some fascinating echoes, here and there, of The Inheritance, another play in which the ways we organise our lives and memories into narratives is a significant theme); Munro’s great achievement is to take Strout’s more-complex-than-they-seem characters and ideas and distil them, with remarkable clarity, into ninety minutes of stage time.

Laura Linney matches the writing with an impeccably-judged, quietly astonishing performance which, again, counts as a low-key tour-de-force. There are no big explosions, no bite-marks in the scenery – just a masterclass in how to tell a story simply and clearly, making every word, every breath, every pause, every gesture count. Linney slips between Lucy, who has acquired the manners and voice of a Big Ten-educated New Yorker, and her mother’s spikily flat Midwestern drawl with forensic precision, and finds all the (considerable) humour in her mother’s tales of People Back Home Who Met a Bad End. More than that, Linney navigates Strout’s complicated emotional territory without grandstanding, and without ever succumbing to oh-pity-me melodramatics; she holds back the tears instead of turning on the waterworks, and navigates a clear course through the three levels of Strout’s timeline. Linney’s presence – for want of a better word – is extraordinary: this is simultaneously a blazing star turn and an intimate character study, and there are very few actors who could navigate that contradictory duality as confidently as she does, particularly in a 900-seat theatre.

It’s beautifully directed, too, by Richard Eyre, on a simple, stark set – three projection screens, one behind the other, at the back of the stage, plus a hospital bed, a nightstand, and a chair – by Bob Crowley. Video projections, which take us from a Manhattan hospital room with a view of the Chrysler Building to an Illinois cornfield and back – are by Luke Hills, and the lighting and sound are by, respectively, Peter Mumford and John Leonard. They appear to be working in perfect unison – as in Linney’s performance, there are no flamboyant flourishes here, just a carefully-modulated exploration of every nuance of Strout and Munro’s text.

It’s safe to assume that it’ll have a life beyond the Bridge, although nothing has yet been announced. Behind that unassuming title there’s a quietly shattering piece of theatre, and Linney’s performance is utterly mesmerising. It’s a given that it’ll be seen in New York, and it’s to be hoped that it will be filmed – it would be perfect as a standalone special for Netflix or HBO – and if I lived any closer to London I’d be back before the end of the run. Don’t be put off by the cosily middlebrow poster art; there are no caveats, no buts, no holes to pick, and it’s (at least) is as good as anything you’ll see this year. Linney’s performance may be as good as anything you’ll see this decade.

 

All the clichés in a row…

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The title number – an ode to the pleasures of the roller-skating rink delivered by a chorus of six men who somehow manage to tap-dance on the stoppers on their rollerskates – is five minutes of pure joy. As choreographed by Fabian Aloise, it might well turn out to be the year’s most spectacular showstopper, never mind that it’s being staged in a 250-seat converted industrial space on Newington Causeway rather than in the West End. The gleefully exuberant performances are an absolute delight,  and the icing on the cake is the holy-shit-we-got-through-it-without-breaking-anything look on the actors’ faces as they hold their poses during the applause. It’s sensational, thrilling, and delivers ten times more sheer fun than any of the overblown tap sequences in the Duracell ad currently playing at Drury Lane. If you love musical theatre, you need to see those five minutes, and you’ll probably want to see them more than once (I would, if I didn’t live so far from London). It’s that good.

Unfortunately, that production number arrives halfway through the second act of a show with more than its share of problems, most of them attributable to the writing. Or rather, mostly attributable to Terrence McNally‘s turd of a book, because about two-thirds of the show’s score is top-tier Kander and Ebb, and the few (relatively) duff songs in it are still better than anything you’ll find in some shows that were much bigger hits. The Rink is set in the late 1970s in a dilapidated roller rink somewhere on the US’s eastern seaboard, and McNally’s book consists of two hours of bickering between the rink’s (co-) owner, Anna Antonelli, who has just sold up and is planning to retire, and her estranged adult daughter Angel(a), who left home in her late teens (i.e. in the mid-60s) to join the protest movement. Between the rounds of bickering, we see (many) flashbacks in which the gradual disintegration of Anna and Angel’s relationship is set against the gradual decline of the boardwalk. Occasionally, seemingly almost at random, McNally throws in a couple of zingers, some of which – to be fair – are genuinely funny (Anna: “If you ever see anybody parked in a brown Toyota with his seatbelt on, that’s Lenny.”). It’s clear from the show’s (feeble) attempt to examine the various social changes seen in the US over the roughly thirty-year span covered by the show’s flashbacks that McNally is aiming for something along the lines of a slightly more intimate Follies; what we get, unfortunately, is an uneven hybrid which plays like a warmed-over mother-daughter movie-of-the-week punctuated by lines from an insipid, long-cancelled sitcom, served up with a generous topping of Italian-American clichés. The book, in short, is bad. Really bad. It’s so bad that you’d never guess it was by the same writer who gave us Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Love! Valour! Compassion! (you might, on the other hand, guess it’s by the same writer who gave us Master Class and Deuce). It’s so bad, it includes a scene in which a father melodramatically announces “I have no son!”. It’s so bad that there is not a single moment anywhere in the show where you won’t a) be three steps ahead of what Mr. McNally must have fondly imagined was the plot, and b) be counting the seconds until everybody stops speaking and starts singing again. If you started to count the clichés in McNally’s dialogue you’d either slash your wrists or run out of numbers. There are a lot of 1980s musicals with really bad books. This is one of the worst, and it’s the reason the show has never been a hit.

The score, fortunately, is better – much better – and if you knew the show at all before this production was announced, chances are the score is what made you buy a ticket. The milieu is perfect for Kander and Ebb, and they deliver in spades: Chief Cook and Bottle Washer, an exultant shout of independence from a woman who has spent decades of her life attending to everybody’s needs except her own; Don’t Ah, Ma Me!, a furiously combative mother-daughter duet; Colored Lights, Angel’s gradual realisation that years on the protest trail have left her unsatisfied and unfulfilled; that glorious title song; the always-darkest-just-before-the-dawn ballad We Can Make It; Marry Me, the most self-effacing marriage proposal number ever written (delivered with exquisite restraint on the original Broadway cast recording by a pre-Seinfeld Jason Alexander); and Wallflower, a sensational dance number for Anna and Angel in a flashback sequence at Angel’s spring prom. It’s unfortunate that All The Children in a Row, Angel’s climactic recollection of her journey through the counterculture movement, includes the worst lyric quatrain Fred Ebb ever wrote (“Why’d you have to take that stuff?/Come on, Danny, that’s enough/We can make it, we’ll survive/Danny, you’re too stoned to drive!”), but that’s four lines out of a mostly stellar whole. The original Broadway cast recording, on which Anna and Angel are played by, respectively, Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli, is spectacular; both stars are at their peak, and the material is perfect for them (Rivera’s role was written specifically for her) There aren’t many opportunities to hear this music performed live; for some, it’ll be worth gritting your teeth through the awful dialogue for the opportunity to hear this cast tear into these songs.

That’s because the good news is that director Adam Lenson has assembled one hell of a cast for this production. It should probably go without saying that Caroline O’Connor can do no wrong – I mean, the last time I saw her in a show I very nearly founded a religion based on worship of her – but she’s every bit as good an Anna as you’d expect. She dances up a storm, of course, and belts the hell out of Anna’s numbers, but she also miraculously, through sheer force of personality, somehow manages to transcend the dazzling hideousness of McNally’s writing. As Angel, Gemma Sutton doesn’t, but it isn’t her fault: her character is badly short-changed by this version of the script, which is significantly revised from the version seen on Broadway in 1984 (and in Manchester in 1987 and London in 1988). In the original script, the show opens with Angel alone onstage singing Colored Lights, a wistful song about her longing for her childhood home. In this version, the show opens with what was originally the next scene – Anna greeting the wreckers who have come to demolish the rink, announcing her retirement and departure, and singing Chief Cook and Bottle Washer – and Colored Lights doesn’t appear until the end of the first act, where there was originally a short reprise of it. The result, unfortunately, is that Angel enters at the end of what is now the first scene and immediately starts arguing with Anna, and that inevitably means the audience sides against her: this version of the script introduces her as a barrier between Anna and her retirement rather than as a woman looking to rediscover her roots, and that change (which is in the current version of the published script as well) damages the first act quite badly. Ms. Sutton is abundantly talented – she’s a beautifully honest actress and a wonderful singer (she does not, however, deserve the dead polecat masquerading as a wig that she is forced to wear in this production), but this revised version of the script – which incidentally solves almost none of the original script’s problems beyond cutting the cringe-inducing flashback scene between a teenage Angel and her lecherous Uncle Fausto – doesn’t do her any favours. When she finally sings Colored Lights, it’s a gorgeous performance.

The rest of the roles – yes, all of them – are played by the six wreckers Anna hires to demolish the rink: Stewart Clarke, Ross Dawes, Michael Lin, Elander Moore, Ben Redfern, and Jason Winter. They’re all flawless, and their two musical numbers – that fabulous title song in Act Two, and the witheringly sarcastic After All These Years in Act One – are among the production’s great highlights. There’s equally flawless musical direction from Joe Bunker, whose seven-piece band sounds terrific, and Bec Chippendale does as much as anybody could to recreate the faded grandeur of a roller rink on the Jersey shore within the confines of the Southwark Playhouse’s auditorium and budget. There’s even a glitterball, and it looks magical under Matt Daw’s lighting. The production, overall, is just about as good as it could possibly be – but it’s a good production of very, very problematic material. You’ll want to see it for O’Connor and the rest of the cast, for that sensational title song, and for the chance to hear this score performed live. It is more than worth the Southwark Playhouse’s standard £25 ticket price. While the musical numbers, though, are genuinely thrilling, don’t be surprised if the show as a whole leaves you unmoved, even given the fiercely committed performances from the two leading actors. Don’t be surprised, either, if you find yourself taking an inner journey during the dialogue scenes. A lot of what you’ll see is very entertaining – but this is, in the end, a superlative production of a show that just doesn’t work.

 

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(Re)fried Rice

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I saw it the first time around too, but I didn’t want to miss it again. Emma Rice‘s adaptation of Brief Encounter – or rather, or Brief Encounter and Still Life, the short play Brief Encounter is based on – may be (a lot) more Emma Rice than Noël Coward, but it’s (still) a thrilling, sometimes breathtaking, thoroughly memorable theatrical experience, and there (still) isn’t anything else quite like it in the West End.

It (still) isn’t precisely a straightforward adaptation of the film, though the film’s plot points are all present and correct (surely for THIS of all things you don’t need a synopsis, do you?). Rice’s calling-card is a larger-than-life theatricality that is less concerned with simply telling a story than in evoking what the characters in her productions are feeling. Rice doesn’t simply stage the screenplay, and she also doesn’t attempt a precise recreation of the film’s look and feel. Instead, she uses a combination of dialogue, song, stylised movement, and projected film to evoke the intensity of Laura and Alec’s feelings as they fall in love, and as they are forced to part. The action spills off the stage into the stalls, characters walk through a screen into and out of scenes being shown on projected film, at one point Alec swings from a chandelier, and a selection of Coward’s songs are performed in counterpoint as a kind of live underscoring. It shouldn’t work, but it does, mostly triumphantly.

Whether it’s as startling now as it was ten years ago, though, is another question. If, like me, this was your introduction to Rice’s distinctive directorial aesthetic, you may well, in 2007, have never seen anything quite like it. It’s not that the production doesn’t stand up to repeat viewing – it’s still thoroughly entertaining – but inevitably on a second viewing the element of surprise is somewhat diminished. It’s still an utterly charming, delightful evening (well, matinée in this case), but it didn’t blow me away this time the way it did the first time I saw it.

That’s no reflection on the performers; there’s perfectly-judged work from Isabel Pollen and Jim Sturgeon as the thwarted lovers, and behind them a terrific ensemble cast, some of whom also play musical instruments, switch roles and personas at the drop of a hat. It’s (still) sometimes surprisingly funny, although without ever diminishing the emotional core of the piece, and in particular this time around Rice and her cast find tremendous humour and warmth in the relationships between the various people working in the station tea room. The singing, right across the cast, is wonderful, with Jos Slovick’s Go Slow, Johnny a particular highlight.

What’s less wonderful this time around are the ticket prices, which top out at £65, which is more than double the show’s £29.50 top price at the same venue ten years ago (in terms of inflation, £29.50 in 2008 would be worth a few pence under £39 today). It’s no secret that ticket prices across the West End have been on a sharply upward trajectory over the past few years; wonderful as the show is, £65 is a lot of money, and while London has always been a very expensive city it stretches credulity beyond breaking-point to suggest the cost of producing theatre there has risen so much faster than inflation over the past decade when wages, to say the least, have not. What’s going on here is a crude form of dynamic pricing: I sat in a seat that is on sale for next week’s Wednesday matinée for £65, and I paid significantly less than that (I paid less, though not much less, than the 2008 top price of £29.50). Discounts are available if you shop around – but only if you shop around, and not for every performance. The top price, presumably, is set where it is in order to allow more room for the possibility of discounts. This show is well worth seeing, particularly if you missed it first time around – but do your homework before you book, because the best price isn’t necessarily going to come from the theatre box office. Go and see it, by all means – it’s (still) wonderful – but purchase carefully.

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