Déjà vu all over again

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Good news/bad news. Danny Rubin and Tim Minchin‘s new musical adaptation of Rubin and Harold Ramis‘s Groundhog Day deserves every single one of the five-star reviews it received last week. It’s a dazzling, inventive, richly rewarding reinvention of the source material, it’s brilliantly staged by Matthew Warchus, and Andy Karl is giving one of those once-in-a-lifetime star-is-born performances in the Bill Murray role.

And if you’re lucky enough to find yourself sat next to the people I was sat next to on Saturday afternoon – apparently repeat visitors – you may find yourself wishing you’d smuggled in an electric cattle prod and a big roll of duct tape.

The show itself bucks a recent trend: it’s almost a given these days that a musical adaptation of a recent-ish film will smooth out the film’s rough edges (assuming it had any), and fillet out everything interesting in the screenplay in order to shoehorn in a selection of bland songs, performed by suitably bland actors who don’t challenge the memory of their screen counterparts. Indeed, Groundhog Day’s director, Matthew Warchus, has form here: his production of Ghost was as vacuous a piece of theatre as has been produced on either side of the Atlantic at any point in the last two or three decades, and the leading lady he imported from New York – the un-fabulous Caissie Levy – gave a performance which redefined the word “inert”.

Warchus, though, also collaborated with composer Tim Minchin on the RSC‘s wildly successful musical adaptation of Roald Dahl‘s Matilda. That show was good; this one, even at this early stage, is better. Minchin and Rubin haven’t simply inserted songs into the original screenplay. They’ve taken the material apart and put it back together again, and found a slightly different, arguably more rewarding spin on Rubin’s tale of Phil Connors, a grouchy, narcissistic weatherman who finds himself endlessly repeating the same day over and over again. The film is more or less The Bill Murray Show, albeit with a couple of memorable supporting cameos, most notably from Stephen Tobolowsky as an irritating insurance salesman. Without sacrificing any of the source material’s comedy, the musical offers a somewhat bigger picture.  More weight is given to some of the supporting characters, starting with Rita, Phil’s producer – the Andie MacDowell role in the film – and prominent (and very effective) musical numbers are given to that irritating insurance salesman, and to Nancy, the pneumatic blonde Phil repeatedly tries to seduce. There’s nothing superflous; without sacrificing any of the comedy, and without ever offering a bald statement of their theme, Rubin and Minchin deliver a quiet, surprisingly perceptive meditation on the various ways people find themselves trapped in cycles they did not necessarily create themselves. Far more so than the film, the payoff at the end is substantial.

All of which makes the show sound Far More Serious than the film, which it certainly isn’t. Rubin, Minchin, and Warchus have a great time mining the ridiculous kitsch surrounding the Groundhog Day festivities (in which, in case you’ve been living under a rock, an oversized rodent is asked each year to predict whether the winter will be long or short) – one number even puts a man in a groundhog suit centre-stage playing drums. Minchin’s offbeat sense of humour is a perfect fit for this material, and his songs are often very funny indeed. Phil’s opening put-down of small-town USA is bracingly mean (in the first line, on waking up in a chintzy B&B, he sings of his “ugly bed/ugly curtains/pointless erection”, and his disdain snowballs from there). Later in the show, there’s a big laugh when Phil, some time into his time loop, sings of having slept with 90% of Punxsutawney’s women “and one boy, when I was bored”. Midway through the first act, an extended production number gleefully rips various alternative/new-age therapies to shreds (reiki comes in for a particularly harsh kicking, and this might be the first musical to include a choreographed enema). The second-act number depicting Phil’s various suicide attempts is pitch-black and absolutely dazzling – not least because of an intricately clever staging which has Phil “miraculously” popping up in bed in the B&B seconds after apparently offing himself on the other side of the stage. Minchin’s pop-flavoured music is melodic, quirky, and always entertaining; this is a fiercely intelligent show, but it’s also always fun, even as it ventures into surprisingly deep emotional territory towards the end of the second act. And it’s greatly to Minchin and Rubin’s credit that they never, even at the show’s finale, open the doors to the material’s enormous potential for trite moralising. That finale – a song called “Seeing You”, which Minchin premiered in concert a while ago – may be the show’s most soaring melody, but it’s also, in terms of the lyrics, a masterpiece of delicacy and restraint.

It’s also given a masterful performance by American actor Andy Karl, who offers a brilliant, (hopefully) star-making turn as Phil Connors. Bill Murray’s performance in the film is (deservedly) one of the best-loved of his career, but Karl proves to be at least his equal. He’s far more conventionally good-looking than Murray, and while he lacks Murray’s weariness, in the first half of the show he presents a character who is significantly more unpleasant than Phil was in Murray’s performance. That’s partly because he simply isn’t Bill Murray: by the time Murray made Groundhog Day, he’d developed a familiar screen persona and sustained it through several movies, including this one. Murray played the role with a slight but always-visible twinkle – however unpleasant the character became, you were always aware you were watching Bill Murray. Karl doesn’t bring an established persona to the table; accordingly, his Phil is an unpleasant, self-absorbed asshole, at least to begin with, and there’s little sugar-coating. For most of the first act the character is not especially likeable, and he almost never leaves the stage – but Karl has a terrific singing voice, superb timing, and enormous charisma, and he makes Phil’s worst excesses tremendously entertaining. All of which, of course, makes his eventual redemption all the more moving, although Minchin and Rubin resist (thank God) the temptation (which must have been there) to make the ending into a manipulative tearjerker. Karl simply doesn’t put a foot wrong. How good is he? If the show turns out to be a hit on Broadway, it could do for him what the National Theatre’s Oklahoma! did for Hugh Jackman.

Opposite him, as Rita, Carlyss Peer has the advantage of recreating a role originally portrayed by Andie MacDowell. MacDowell’s one-note, wooden performance was the film’s single misfire (has she ever made a film in which she didn’t give a one-note, wooden performance? If she has, I missed it); the musical gives Peer a bit more to work with than the screenplay did, and she’s lovely. Peer’s Rita is the show’s normative figure: the townspeople are all more or less drawn as caricatures, at least initially, so Rita serves as the audience’s way in. She’s bright, funny, charming, and a very strong singer (this is apparently her musical debut); unlike MacDowell, she creates a nuanced, three-dimensional character, and she more than holds her own next to Karl’s firing-on-all-cylinders star turn.

As for the rest – Warchus redeems himself for the horror that was Ghost, delivering a fast-paced, carefully detailed staging packed with warmly funny ensemble performances. There’s witty choreography by Peter Darling and Ellen Kane, an evocatively skewed set from Rob Howell (including an eye-poppingly hideous interior for Phil’s B&B bedroom), and a whole host of clever visual grace notes (one favourite, early in the show: as Phil’s attempt to leave Punxsutawney on the first Groundhog Day is thwarted by a snowstorm, we see an actor in a groundhog suit dump a shovelful of fake snow on a toy van crossing the front of the stage). Unlike Ghost, this isn’t a vast technological spectacle; instead, it’s an intricately-choreographed comedy in which the thrills – and there are several – come via Paul Kieve’s sleight-of-hand theatrical illusions, Minchin’s superb score, and Andy Karl’s sensational star turn. I’m more or less running out of superlatives here: this is a tryout production, the show is (eventually) heading to Broadway, and it’s already in tremendously good shape. I loved it.

I did not, unfortunately, particularly love the audience – or at least, I didn’t love the section of it seated immediately to my right. I saw the show at last Saturday’s matinee (August 20th), from the rear of the upper circle (factor in the cost of a train ticket from where I live to London, and theatre these days is getting too expensive to sit anywhere below the “cheap seats” – which, themselves, are not as cheap as they used to be). I was in seat F6 (terrific view for the money); to my right, in seats F7-11, was a group of five people (younger than me, but not that young) who arrived, carrying drinks, right before the house lights went down. They’d obviously seen the show a few times before – bearing in mind it’s only been playing six weeks or so – because not only did they clap/snap their fingers in time with the music, they sang along – accurately – with several of the numbers in the first half. When they weren’t singing, they were talking, and not in a whisper. Subtle attempts – glares, shushes – to get them to shut up were ignored. I eventually told the woman sitting to my right to shut up, and she did… for about five minutes, then she started up again. One woman a couple of seats down from me kept putting her feet up on the back of the seat in front, each time kicking the gentleman sitting there between the shoulder-blades (because of the steep rake) and forcing him to hunch forward in his seat. The best was saved for a woman in the row in front, the companion of the gentleman who kept getting kicked: halfway through the first half, when she’d understandably had enough of these obnoxious pricks, she turned around and told the person sitting behind her to shut up, and got the remnants of someone’s drink thrown over her.

At the start of the interval, I went and found an usher, and asked to speak to a house manager (so did the woman who had the drink thrown over her, and her partner). I explained what had happened, and that I wasn’t prepared to put up with it in the second half; the house manager very kindly found the three of us alternative seats (no mean feat, the performance was almost sold out), and the second half of the show proceeded without interruption, but with the perpetrators still in their seats, and still presumably disrupting the show for everybody who didn’t complain.

That, I’m afraid, isn’t good enough, although I’m certainly grateful for having been given an alternative seat in the second act. In this country, throwing a drink over someone is technically a chargeable offence, not that anybody was considering going down that road. These louts – whose parents must be so, so proud – disrupted the performance for everyone around them, one of them did something that in the strictest legal terms constitutes common assault, and there didn’t appear to be any consequences for them. Where is the disincentive for behaving disruptively the next time they see the show?

Put simply, once the disruptive behaviour crosses the line – or rather, gulf – between a breach of audience etiquette and an actual offence, however minor, the perpetrators should not be allowed back for the second act. The house management’s job is to ensure the whole audience – not just people who take the trouble to complain – get as ideal an experience of a given performance as possible. Dealing with, and if necessary removing, disruptive patrons is not a pleasant part of the job – I know, I’ve done it, and I didn’t take any pleasure in it – but it is part of the job, and allowing disruptive patrons to return for the second act, in the end, shows enormous disrespect to both the audience and the cast.

If I sound angry, there’s a good reason. Think of this from the point of view of a consumer: in most cases, if I buy something and it turns out to be defective, I have some recourse. If I buy an appliance and it turns out to be faulty, it will be replaced. Even if it’s damaged in transit through no fault of the supplier, I retain certain rights, and I’ll get a replacement or a refund. In this case, I purchased an experience, in the form of admission to a performance. The experience, thanks to the gaggle of selfish dickheads sitting to my right, turned out to be defective – and that’s it. It’s gone. Even though I got reseated for the second half, the experience is damaged. The day, furthermore, cost a great deal more than just the theatre ticket, once you add in train fares, lunch and all the rest of it – and having shelled out all that money and travelled a round-trip of roughly 400 miles, I ended up with less than I paid for. That’s galling.

It’s also troubling to consider what the behaviour of these individuals suggests about the nature of fandom. As I said, they sang along to Minchin’s songs accurately. There’s no cast album, and as far as I know only one song from the show has been performed in public out of context. They’d clearly seen it several times, and they clearly identified as super-fans – and they apparently felt it perfectly appropriate to express their fandom in ways that diminished the experience for everyone sitting around them. Andy Karl has a terrific voice; the lady sitting two seats to my right last Saturday afternoon does not, although she certainly knows how to project. Of course it’s a given that these people are selfish and stupid and absolutely incapable of showing consideration for anything beyond themselves, but somewhere along the way, they appear to have got the idea that being the WORLD’S BIGGEST FAN grants them an absolute licence to do as they like, and screw everyone else, because nothing has happened to disabuse them of it – which actually is probably the most compelling reason why they should not have been allowed back into the auditorium for the second act. By letting them back into the theatre even after three complaints about them, the management are essentially granting them permission to be as unpleasant as they like. Given that even the cheapest seat costs at least three or four times the price of a cinema ticket, I find that unacceptable.

So, yes, Groundhog Day. Go and see it. Go and see it several times. It really is as good as the reviews suggest – but please keep quiet while the house lights are down, keep your feet off the seats in front, and keep your drinks to yourself. And if you must sing along, wait until the album comes out and do it at home, OK?

 

 

 

Call it hell, call it heaven…

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Or, some collected thoughts on Wednesday’s matinee performance of the pre-West End tour of Chichester Festival Theatre’s (mostly terrific) revival of Guys and Dolls:

First, heaven.

  • Guys and Dolls is one of the very best of the golden-age musical comedies, and it’s on my (very) short list of shows I think, as writing, are just about perfect.
  • This production more than does it justice. There have been bigger, starrier, glossier revivals, but Gordon Greenberg’s staging here has considerable wit and panache, and an almost ridiculous amount of charm. You’ll come out of the theatre with a great big grin all over your face.
  • That doesn’t mean it’s beyond criticism. For a start, a bigger orchestra would be nice. There are sharp, brassy new orchestrations by Larry Blank, and the band really swings, but for this music fourteen players just aren’t enough.
  • Three of the four leads don’t sing particularly well – Sophie Thompson and David Haig (Miss Adelaide and Nathan Detroit) are actors who can sort of hold a tune, and Siubhan Harrison has a nice-enough voice but is often pitch-approximate. You aren’t going to want a cast recording of this production (not that one has been announced) – but you do want to see them, because they’re all absolutely charming and very, very funny.
  • Jamie Parker’s Sinatra-esque Sky Masterson, though, is brilliantly sung and acted. He’s worth the cost of a ticket on his own.
  • The supporting performances are excellent. Yes, all of them. Gavin Spokes’s Nicely-Nicely Johnson might be first among equals, but there aren’t any weak links.
  • Of course Mr. Spokes stops the show with ‘Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat’ – and Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright’s choreography is great fun (as it is throughout the show) – and of course he gets an encore. ONE encore, and they don’t milk it beyond that. Thank God. (Yes, I remember Clive Rowe’s shameless, self-indulgent mugging in the 1996 National Theatre revival… and the THREE encores, which made it seem like the song was stubbornly refusing to go away).
  • Neil McCaul’s Arvide Abernathy is absolutely lovely, and his ‘More I Cannot Wish You’ – a song which can sometimes seem like an afterthought – is one of this production’s great highlights.
  • That’s partly because Mr. Greenberg is careful to keep the show grounded in a (reasonably) believable emotional reality. It’s a slight comedy with a silly story, but this is a show about people – as opposed to, for example, the Jerry Zaks revival twenty-odd years ago, which was mostly about actors doing schtick.
  • Really good-looking sets and costumes by Peter McKintosh – a sunburst of period billboards, superbly lit by Tim Mitchell. As I said further up, there have been more opulent productions – but other designers, with this show, have spent more and achieved less. Again, I’m thinking of that Jerry Zaks revival, which was far too cartoonish in terms of the design as well as the performances.
  • This was only this company’s second public performance. There are a few timing/pacing issues that I expect will be tightened up by the time the show hits London, particularly in the first half of the first act, which seemed a little tentative; that’s only to be expected at a second preview, and it was crystal clear all the way through that the production is a labour of love for everyone involved.
  • And the few legitimate quibbles, by the end of the show, seem more or less irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that there’s no string section, or that some of the singing is merely adequate, because in every other respect this is a perfectly-pitched, perfectly-judged staging of an acknowledged classic. It’s fresh, funny, absolutely charming, and it doesn’t muck about with the material.
  • It’s following Chichester’s brilliant revival of Gypsy into the Savoy in the West End for a limited season before going out on tour again. Go.

Aaaaand… the Hell.

  • It’s a while since I’ve done a midweek matinee at the Palace, and the audience, as a whole, were not charming. It’s not the Liverpool Empire – I think some of those people actually bite – but there was plenty of bad behaviour on display, and the house management was ineffectual at best.
  • At the top of the show, before the overture began, the theatre played a selection of ringtones over the PA. They did not, however, make any announcement explicitly asking patrons to turn off their phones. The predictable result was that a lot of phones went off during the performance – in the stalls, at least five in each act that I heard, and possibly more.
  • You know that stereotype about how British people love to queue? This audience didn’t. Is elbowing people in the ribs to shove them out of the way as you rush up the aisle now a thing? In Manchester, apparently, yes it is.
  • There was also a constant – and disruptive – stream (sorry) of people leaving their seats, usually from the middle of the row, to go to the toilet mid-act. I know, I know – midweek matinee, so an elderly house, but the show isn’t that long.
  • When you know you’ve got a relatively elderly audience, it’s usually – take it from a former house manager – a good idea to open the doors a little earlier, because getting them all seated is going to take longer. In this instance, at least some of the shoving in the aisles was simply down to bad crowd management: the doors opened relatively late, so there were too many people who don’t move very quickly all trying to get to their seats at the same time.
  • The Ambassador Theatre Group – an organisation which somewhat resembles the Death Star, only a little less benevolent – imposes a not-trivial “transaction fee” on ticket bookings, even if you pick the ticket up from the box office. Given that ticket prices aren’t cheap to begin with, this demonstrates a certain cheek; worse, at 1pm on Wednesday, an hour and a half before showtime, the queue to collect tickets stretched out of the box office onto the pavement and snaked up Oxford Street for the full length of the theatre’s frontage. Since ATG have already bilked  you out of a fee for the privilege of spending your money with them, that’s inexcusable.
  • And then there’s – again – the preview issue. In the West End and on Broadway, ‘preview’ performances prior to the official opening are clearly labelled as such, and are usually sold at a (slight) discount. There’s a reason for that: in previews, the show is still in rehearsal, because there’s a certain point where the actors need to work in front of an audience. The Manchester run is the show’s first date. These are this production’s first public performances, and while the show is in very good shape, there is clearly still a little work to be done in terms of timing/pacing/picking up cues. In other words, this is not a “finished product”, it’s work-in-progress – and that’s fine, as long as it’s labelled and priced as such. It’s hardly the first time ATG have pulled this scam on Manchester audiences; presumably they think people in the provinces don’t know any better, and they’ve sometimes previewed shows here that were in far worse shape than this one, but it still demonstrates a certain contempt for the local audience. Audiences are very forgiving – if you tell them it’s a preview, and that work is still going on, they’ll understand (and they’ll love it if something goes wrong) – but if you’re not selling them a finished product, they need to be informed. To sell a preview performance at full price without labelling it as such is tantamount to bait-and-switch. It’s dishonest, and we deserve better.

Now, God knows, anything goes

…and I sort of wish it didn’t.

There’s nothing at all wrong with the production. In fact, I almost don’t have enough superlatives to describe the production. Under the artistic direction of Daniel Evans, Sheffield’s Crucible has produced an impressive series of musical revivals, many of them directed by Evans himself. His production of My Fair Lady a couple of years ago was impeccable, and this Anything Goes – now on a UK tour after a run in Sheffield at Christmas – is at least as good.

What makes this all the more impressive an achievement is that Anything Goes, despite a stellar score, is not exactly one of the most durable shows in the canon. This is a typical Thirties musical comedy, albeit one whose book has received several spruce-ups over the past eighty years (the version being performed here dates from 1987), which means Cole Porter’s peerless songs are strung around a set of barely-two-dimensional characters and groan-inducing jokes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the show can be glorious, but it does mean it’s rather tricky to get it right. The upbeat songs are brassy, but make them too brassy and the characters singing them can become unpleasantly strident. The romantic numbers are meltingly lovely, but can seem melodramatic next to the comedy material if they aren’t delivered with a light touch. The jokes creak, and you can see half of them coming a mile off, but push the comedy too hard and the show rapidly deflates. It’s a soufflé, and all the ingredients have to be in perfect balance.

Happily, they are. Evans begins his production surprisingly quietly; the opening sequence, which takes place in a Manhattan nightclub, is accompanied only by a solo piano and a (very, very muted) trumpet, and we don’t hear the full band until the action shifts to the cruise ship on which most of the show takes place. What follows is a total delight. We have gorgeous costumes and an elegant forced-perspective Art Deco ocean liner set by Richard Kent, good-humoured but not too on-the-nose choreography by Alistair David, appropriately splashy lighting by Tim Mitchell, and sensitive, swinging musical direction from Tom Brady, leading an impeccably tight nine-piece band. Sure, the plot is outlandishly ridiculous, but when the action is led by Debbie Kurup’s sweet-but-hot evangelist nightclub singer (really!) Reno Sweeney and Matt Rawle’s goofily charming stockbroker Billy Crocker, who cares? They land every single laugh, and so does everybody else, and they find both the wit and the ache in Porter’s effervescent score. There are no stunt-cast X-Factor finalists or has-been pop stars here, and everybody involved clearly loves the material. More than that, everybody involved clearly trusts the material. Evans and his cast don’t try to force or in any way punch up the script’s hoary old groaners; they know the jokes work, ancient as they are, and they give the material room to breathe. Even Simon Baker’s sound design is a cut above what you usually get on the touring circuit – you can actually hear all the lyrics, and the sound system doesn’t assault your eardrums every time the music starts. A larger band might be nice, but this is otherwise about as good as revivals of classic musicals get.

So what’s my beef? Two things. First, cellphones. Yes, AGAIN. I didn’t hear any phones ring, but there were far too many people texting/checking email/whatever when the lights were down. In a darkened theatre, the light from smartphone screens can travel a surprisingly long way. It’s distracting and unnecessary, and it’s also incredibly rude to the actors, who can see those screens from the stage.

And then there are the programme notes. Oh my God, the programme notes. Programmes in this country are not free, like they are on Broadway. You pay for them, and they are relatively expensive – for this show it’s £4.00, and that’s for a programme, not a souvenir brochure. For this you get the usual – cast/creative bios, list of musical numbers, some kind of article about the production, and so on. You do not, in this instance, get bios of the people who actually wrote the show – no bio of Cole Porter, much less of Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, who wrote the version of the show’s book that’s being performed here. That’s bad enough, but it pales next to John Good’s lazy, inaccurate production history of the show, which is the first thing you’re likely to read when you open the (overpriced) programme. Among other things, we are informed that Mr. Crouse and Mr. Weidman wrote a new book for the National Theatre production of the show in 2002 (nope), and Patti LuPone starred in a London revival in 1969 (when she was in college… in New York). Now, OK, most people aren’t as geeky about this stuff as I am, but these are not obscure facts. This is the sort of stuff you can research in ninety seconds by visiting the show’s Wikipedia page, and the fact that this tripe made it into print in a programme we’re expected to pay for reeks of a certain disdain towards the audience – that it’s OK to dash off any old crap for the programme in five minutes without checking it because most people watching won’t know any better, and that it won’t matter if you omit the writers’ bios because they are not, Cole Porter aside, particularly famous in this country (never mind that one of the authors of the show’s original 1930s book is P.G. Wodehouse). When every single thing you see on the stage – every set-piece, every prop, every line, every note of music, every light cue, every dance step, every throwaway aside – is executed with such love of and care for the material, I’m afraid I find that profoundly depressing. It wouldn’t have been very difficult to make the programme as good as the production – or at least not loudly disrespectful towards both the material and the people who wrote it – but the powers-that-be, in this instance, simply couldn’t be bothered. The show’s authors deserve better, and so do we.

One more thing: the theatre (the Opera House in Manchester) was less than half full (granted, it’s one of the largest houses the tour will play). The show is on the road until the early autumn, and it’s well worth seeing. In case I haven’t said this enough, revivals as good as this one don’t come along very often, and this show deserves full houses.

Just maybe skip buying a programme.

Grab the buggers by the bollocks!

If I wore mascara, I’d have looked like a zebra by the end of the opening number. It’s not that I’m a soft touch – Bambi leaves me resolutely dry-eyed – but there’s a short list of things that, in a theatre or concert hall (or, more rarely, a cinema) are capable of reducing me to emotional wreckage. Billy Elliot is very near the top of that list. Not the original film, though – it’s wonderful, but it doesn’t have that effect on me. The stage musical, on the other hand, is a different story. Fortunately this time I was prepared. I’d bought tissues. Lots and lots of tissues.

And I wasn’t even seeing it “properly”, in the theatre. Yesterday, a special performance of the show was broadcast live to cinemas across the UK and Europe (it will be shown later in other territories). I’m not always that much of a fan of live broadcasts of theatre, whether on TV or in the cinema; too often, they end up being somewhat disappointing, not least because a performance which is designed to play to the back of a 1200-seat theatre (or a 3000-seat concert hall) can register very differently on a flatscreen TV or an iPad or a giant cinema screen. Under those circumstances, work which would register as subtle if you saw it “in person” often (though not invariably) comes across as either shrill or (worse) strangely blank. The camera, also, often doesn’t move quite as much as it needs to, and it’s very easy for a filmed stage performance to end up seeming listless and rather static. It’s a great idea to film stage performances – it opens up work done in a single location to a much wider audience, usually at a price that’s lower than the cost of a theatre ticket, and of course that’s a good thing, and for organisations like the National, any additional revenue from cinema screenings must be very welcome. It’s just that the result isn’t always successful.

So, yes, I had some misgivings before it started, although they didn’t stop me from booking a ticket (£16 at a cinema a tram-ride from home vs. West End ticket prices plus the train-fare to London makes the cinema screening a relative bargain). I’ve seen the show in the theatre a couple of times before, and sobbed through it both times (and as I said, that’s not something that happens to me often); I wasn’t sure it would (or even could) have the same effect in a live screening, even on a very large screen, but I took tissues just in case. And it’s a good thing I did, because this particular simultaneous broadcast was done superlatively well – which means, among other things, that I responded to the show precisely the same way in the cinema as I had in the theatre.

And it still seems as fresh as it did when it opened nine and a half years ago. A lot of the adult actors who’ve worked on it have said in interviews that the presence of a rotating cast of children stops the performances from going stale; whatever the reason, what I saw yesterday certainly didn’t play like a show that had been running the better part of a decade. The kids, of course, were phenomenal, but they always are in this show, and Elliot Hanna is probably as good a Billy as there has ever been. There’s also terrific work from the adult ensemble, with Deka Walmsley giving a particularly moving performance as Billy’s dad, and Ruthie Henshall – a big-name replacement – doing what might be the finest work of her career as Mrs. Wilkinson, the dance teacher who notices Billy’s potential and pushes to find him a way out of Easington. She’s not necessarily obvious casting – even after seeing her play Roxie Hart, the kind of bristly backstreet sarcasm the role needs is not the first thing I’d associate with her, and the music isn’t the greatest fit for her voice – but she nails it.

She’s helped – like everyone else – by the production team’s clever, careful planning of where to point the camera. The lengthy “Solidarity” sequence – which I think is still the single finest piece of musical staging I have ever seen – must be nightmarishly complicated to film, because it delivers so much information, and because it compresses events taking place in multiple locations into the same physical space. At the same time, it shows Billy’s slow progress from absolute novice to a dancer of some skill, and a series of pitched battles between striking miners and the police. It’s rendered on screen here with absolute clarity – all the key reaction shots are there, but they also film the choreography so that you can see it properly, instead of filming the dancers from the waist up (see, for example, the movie version of A Chorus Line for a masterclass in how not to film choreography). And that’s true all the way through – at every given point in the show, the camera is looking where you’d want to be looking if you were watching it in the theatre. That sounds simple, but it’s something that these events very often fail to achieve.

The show itself… given Elton John’s other work for the musical stage, to say this is his best score could easily be open to misinterpretation, and that would be unfair. It’s true that the best parts of the score are essentially hymns – the opening “The Stars Look Down” as the miners get the news that a strike has been called, and their proudly defiant admission of defeat in “Once We Were Kings” at the end of the show as they head back to work, the strike having been finally called off by the union – but that goes with the territory: the show, far more than the film, places both the community and the politics front and centre, so of course the score includes at least a couple of socialist protest songs (it’s frankly almost surprising that at no point does anybody in the show break into a chorus of “The Red Flag”). For those songs – and for “Deep into the Ground”, a folk ballad sung to devastating effect by Billy’s father (and, in the last verse, Billy himself) near the top of Act Two – John has, uncharacteristically, dug deep and produced music that is powerfully redolent of both the geographical location and the social milieu in which the show is set. The Thatcher number – a hard-edged rock stomper with a grimly satirical lyric – is the other musical highlight; it, too, fits in perfectly with the show’s period and place.

This is, though, certainly one of those productions in which the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts. Some of the rest of the score is (like most of Elton John’s music these days) rather on the bland side – “Electricity” is a jaw-dropping moment of theatre because you are watching a child more or less literally dancing for his life, rather than because of any qualities inherent in the music itself – although it’s never less than pleasant. Lee Hall’s lyrics are best when he keeps the tone conversational, although some of Mrs. Wilkinson’s zingers in “Shine” have a certain sting to them (“It doesn’t matter if you’re special needs/Maimed or lame, or born in Leeds…”), and his book, like his original screenplay, is sometimes shamelessly manipulative. When Mrs. Wilkinson starts singing the letter from Billy’s dead mother, you can feel your strings being pulled; what saves the moment is the artful simplicity of the lyrics, and the devastating restraint with which the scene is performed. Mrs. Wilkinson doesn’t cry; she struggles to control her emotions, and succeeds – which leaves the audience awash.

Other than that moment, though, I’m not sure I can quite explain why the show has the effect on me that it does – and why it continues to have the same effect on repeat visits. Certainly, it’s partly that I remember the strike very clearly – I was eleven years old when it began, my grandparents lived on the edge of a mining community (and were both from mining communities themselves), and I vividly remember the violence in the air as we drove past the picket lines, and my parents telling us to lock the car doors and keep the windows shut. The show’s opening number – the miners singing in solidarity as they go out on strike – is so moving partly because we know what happens next: the government of the day engineered the strike as a means of breaking the unions, and the strike brought about the collapse of the coal industry and essentially destroyed the miners’ communities, putting hundreds of thousands of people out of work. The strike was one of the defining moments of Thatcher’s government, and it’s a good part of the reason she was so hated in some parts of the country; it was also, around the mining communities themselves, as close as we’ve come to civil war. Both sides played dirty; there was fighting in the streets, and the NUM picketers formed the front line in a battle for, essentially, the principles of democratic socialism on which very nearly all the great institutions of postwar Britain had been built. And while the original film of “Billy Elliot” keeps the politics quite firmly in the background, it’s definitely there – indeed, the film’s most moving scene is the moment when Billy’s father decides he’s prepared to cross the picket line to go back to work to raise the money to pay for the audition. The great achievement of the stage musical, as far as I’m concerned, is the way it pushes the community (and therefore the politics) front and centre, without pulling the focus away from Billy himself. There’s a certain irony in the fact that the most commercially-successful piece of theatre Britain has produced in the past twenty years presents a point of view that isn’t merely liberal-left-wing, but out-and-out pre-New-Labour Bennite socialism; the show is set at more or less the precise moment when Britain’s political landscape took a decisive lurch to the right, but Hall, wisely, largely tells the story without editorialising. The show doesn’t lecture the audience about the devastating effect of the strike on Britain’s mining communities – it simply shows us, and that’s far more powerful.

The opening number of “Billy Elliot”, in fact, is basically the final scene of “Journey’s End” or “Blackadder Goes Forth”: the miners are going to war, and they’re facing oblivion, and so the rest of the story becomes something a little different than it was in the film. This is very definitely the story of the community as well as of Billy himself, and it’s also, far more clearly than in the film, about the different ways to escape a place that is dying on its feet. “Grandma’s Song” and “Shine” both point to a kind of cheap escapism via entertainment; crucially, “Grandma’s Song” introduces the idea of dancing as a means of escape, and suggests that without some kind of escape life in Easington would be brutally hard to endure. “Expressing Yourself” is cute, but has a serious point – although he can’t articulate it, Billy gets the idea from Michael that you can transcend your (grim) surroundings by remaining true to your inner self. And the political situation is clearly set up as a barrier to Billy’s escape, far more than it was in the film – indeed, in “Angry Dance” at the end of the first act, the riot police’s shields form a literal barrier, and while Billy repeatedly hurls himself against them, he does not break through. Of course he escapes in the end, but nobody else does, and his escape is mirrored by the image of the miners, in absolute defeat, going back underground. The stage production juxtaposes the two images in a way that the film couldn’t, because cross-cutting just doesn’t have the same effect. Again, playing those two moments against each other is shamelessly manipulative; Hall and Stephen Daldry get away with it because the show’s dialogue and lyrics, throughout, are startlingly unsentimental.

It’s remarkably effective – at least, if the effect it has on me is anything to go by. Centre-stage, you have a child who you know is going to break free from a place that is about as bleak as life in Britain in the 1980s could possibly be – and that child is surrounded by adults whose lives are about to be destroyed. Hall and Daldry (and Elton John) tread a very delicate line – in some ways it’s an incredibly manipulative show, but the characters in it almost never make a direct appeal to your emotions (even true of the letter from the dead mother, although that’s the most manipulative scene in the show). If you fall for it – and not everybody does, although I certainly did – then you fall hook, line and sinker; I am far from the only person I know who sobbed all the way through it (I wasn’t even the only person in the cinema yesterday who sobbed all the way through it). If you add to that the breathtaking artistry of the children in the show – particularly (though not only) the child playing Billy, who has to negotiate a complex acting role and some incredibly strenuous choreography – which is moving in itself, the result is a kind of theatrical perfect storm.

And in the case of this particular performance, there are a few extras thrown in to prick your tear-ducts even further. In the Swan Lake fantasy sequence in the second act, the older Billy is danced by Liam Mower, one of the three Billys from the original cast back in 2005 (Mr. Mower is now a ballet dancer, and has danced the role of the Prince in Matthew Bourne’s all-male Swan Lake). Of course, this was announced at the start of the screening; this, too, is a lump-in-the-throat moment, and there’s a tenderness to the scene that I don’t quite remember having been there the last time I saw the show. And then there’s the added post-curtain call dance number featuring (nearly) all the kids who have played Billy in London over the past nine and a half years. It’s absolutely charming, and a lovely celebration of a group of absolutely extraordinary young performers.

The result – and I know I’m gushing here – was quite an event. For all my misgivings about theatrical performances being shown on screen, this one turned out to be a knockout. If you missed it, don’t worry – there’s going to be a DVD, and it’s going to hit the shops before Christmas. Very few stage productions have been filmed as well as this; if you like the show at all (or if you teach theatre), it’s probably going to be an essential purchase.

Just buy a couple of boxes of tissues at the same time. You’ll need them.

…and (nearly) all that jazz!

 

(Note – I wrote this a week ago, and then promptly forgot to post it. Oops.)

Praise be, this time they’re not just wearing underwear. It’s very easy to forget that the massively successful revival of Kander and Ebb‘s Chicago, which closed in the West End last year after a roughly 15-year run and is still going strong on Broadway, began life as a streamlined concert presentation. The show – only a moderate success in its original Bob Fosse staging in 1975 – has become familiar almost to the point of ubiquity, even discounting the 2002 film (which messes about with the material in ways that mostly do it no favours at all), but it’s become familiar in a staging that employs almost no conventional scenery, and in which nearly everyone has only a single (black, skimpy) costume. Seeing the show, then, in a staging where there’s an actual colour palette on view (rather than fifty shades of black) is a welcome surprise.

And this, thank God, is a really good production. With the closing of the long-running revival in the West End, the rights to the show have once again become available to regional theatres; more than one has it scheduled for the upcoming season, but the Oldham Coliseum is, I think, the first to get a production up and running. It’s not the first time they’ve done it; they staged the show in the late 80s in a production that starred Caroline O’Connor, and while I did see it, I can’t honestly say I remember a great deal about it. I imagine their earlier staging did not use actor-musicians; this one does (or rather, three full-time musicians plus the cast), and I admit my heart sank when I realised the actors would be doubling as most of the band because all too often the result is simply that the score gets short-changed. This cast, however, pull it off triumphantly. The music sounds good all the way through, the playing is impeccably tight, there are no audible bum notes, and under Kevin Shaw’s assured direction the cast find all kinds of witty ways to incorporate the instruments into scenes – one of the reporters outside the courtroom, for example, uses a trumpet’s mute as the earpiece of a telephone.

The acting performances, too, are good right across the board. Yes, pretty much everyone is about twenty years too young for the role they’re playing, but that’s hardly unusual in a production of this show. Special honours go to Adam Barlow’s sad-sack Amos Hart – he nails the Bert Williams act in ‘Mr. Cellophane’, white gloves and all – but the singing is all good, the zingers all land, and this company is giving a thoroughly entertaining account of the show. Yes, some of the American accents are a bit wonky; yes, putting Helen Power and Marianne Benedict (Roxie and Velma) in wigs and costumes that make them look like Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who played their parts in the movie version, is a strikingly unimaginative choice; and yes, it’s fair to say that not all of the choreography is executed quite as slickly as you’d have expected in the West End revival, but it really doesn’t matter: this production is not as cool or as sexy as the show has sometimes been in the past, but the show has possibly never been more fun than it is here. This, first and foremost, is a musical comedy. It’s sharp, colourful, strikingly performed, and very, very funny indeed, and the cast – all of them – are clearly having a wonderful time.  Yes, it’s very definitely a scaled-down production, but the gains far outweigh the few losses.

It’s also – and this is a bigger achievement than you might think – accomplished with a fraction of the resources available to a commercial West End or Broadway production, and has tickets on sale at just one-third of the average top price for a West End musical. In terms of bang for your buck, when it comes to musical theatre in the UK, this Chicago is just about as good as it gets.

Any criticisms at all? Just one, and it’s of the theatre rather than the show. I love the Coliseum. I’ve been going there, off and on, since I was a very young child – it’s at least 35 years since I first set foot in there. I think they’re great, I think they’re Oldham’s most valuable cultural institution, I think the recent renovation is terrific, I am impressed that they refuse to overcharge for drinks and programmes, and their box-office staff are unfailingly helpful. They’ve now introduced a print-at-home facility for online bookings, and unlike some gougers ticket agencies, they don’t charge an additional fee for it  … but the receipt you print off in lieu of a ticket, although it does include your seat number, makes no mention at all of whether the seat you’ve booked is in the stalls or the circle. I knew what seat I’d booked, but that’s an argument waiting to happen, and it needs to be changed.

 

 

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.

Same sandwich, different ham

I’m not going to write a full review of the play, because I did that already, but this afternoon I saw the second touring production of One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean‘s cleverly updated adaptation of The Servant of Two Masters. Paying a repeat visit to something like this is always a tricky proposition; the first (brief) UK tour took place between the production’s initial run at the National and its first run in the West End, and we got to see the glorious original cast that ended up taking the show to Broadway a few months later. The play itself was fun – a smart, stylish update of a comic classic – but that cast, headed by James Corden, was pretty much perfect, to the point where it wasn’t easy to imagine the play without them.

In fact, it works perfectly without them, although maybe a little differently. While every member of that original cast did superb work, Corden provided the kind of out-and-out comedy star turn that comes along far too rarely these days, and he dominated the reviews (and the awards nominations) so much that it was easy to get the impression, reading about the production, that it was basically The James Corden Show, which is more than a little unfair to the company that surrounded him. This time, with comedian Rufus Hound taking Corden’s role as Francis Henshall, the ex-Skiffle-player-turned-gofer for two on-the-lam criminals, the play’s balance changes. Before, it was a star vehicle with a very fine supporting cast; now, it comes across as more of an ensemble piece, and the other players get a little more of the spotlight. Hound, actually, is terrific, landing the physical comedy and the one-liners with equal aplomb, and he’s quick off the mark as well. Not everything that looks improvised in this show is quite as spontaneous as it seems – and when you see it for a second time, you’ll be anticipating some of the “surprises”, which actually doesn’t make them any less funny – but there certainly is plenty of unscripted interaction with the audience, and an enthusiastic college group from Pontefract meant that there was a little more of it this afternoon than there usually is. Hound works the audience beautifully, is never stumped for a one-liner, and is giving a performance of considerable skill and charm. He possibly doesn’t quite have Corden’s effortless star quality, but it doesn’t matter – he makes the role his own, and you never feel you’re watching a Xerox of his predecessor’s performance, which is all too often the case when you watch a replacement cast.

That’s true of the rest of the cast as well – they’ve all been allowed to put their own spin on their characters, and they’re all giving fine, funny performances. Unusually, the most skilful supporting performance in the show, possibly, comes from a woman whose character is not listed in the program, and whose role is confined to one scene in the first half… and to say much more would be to give too much away, but Alicia Davies does something quite difficult, and does it brilliantly well, maintaining the facade right until… well, to say much more would be to give too much away.

Also impressive: Jodie Prenger as the fabulously full-bosomed feminist book-keeper Dolly. Ms. Prenger has big shoes to fill – Suzie Toase was spectacular in the role in the original cast – and my God, she fills them, and her performance here is an object lesson in why it’s perhaps not a good idea to sneer too much at those cheesy reality casting shows. Here, as in her lengthy stint in Spamalot, aside from her powerful singing voice, she reveals genuine star quality, along with a wonderfully sharp way with a one-liner. Her comic timing, simply, is immaculate, and she proved this afternoon that she’s as quick with an off-the-cuff line as anyone else in this cast. Once upon a time, the TV reality show route wouldn’t have been necessary for someone like her, because musical theatre was full of opportunities for this kind of musical comedienne – but this is 2013, and that’s showbiz, folks.

I was surprised, actually, at how well the show as a whole stood up to a repeat viewing, given that so much of it is based on the comedy of surprise, and on seemingly-improvised bits that aren’t quite as spontaneous as they first appear. Bean’s script is extremely clever, giving the actors a fair bit of room to manoeuvure, but building each scene towards a comic payoff that does not depend on interaction with the audience. Nick Hytner’s seemingly bombproof direction also helps, as do Grant Olding’s surprisingly durable songs and musical interludes (there’s even a cast album – I bought it the first time I saw the show, and I’m surprised how often I find myself listening to it). It’s an out-and-out romp, a show that doesn’t have any purpose other than to give you a good time – but, actually, that’s just about the hardest thing to do in the theatre. Even on a second viewing, without the stellar original cast, this is a show that very definitely lives up to its own hype. These days, that’s far rarer than it should be.

Oh yes – purely coincidentally, on my way to the theatre I ate a hummus sandwich.