Sound and fury, signifying…

Or, a list of things I learned at last Friday’s matinee performance of American Idiot at the Palace Theatre in Manchester:

1.  The show is loud.

2.  I mean, really really loud. I like rock musicals, and rock musicals should be loud, but this one is LOUD.

3.  Although not loud enough to drown out the two women sitting behind me who talked all the way through, but it would probably have taken an apocalypse to shut them up.

4.  This is exciting music, more varied than you expect, and it works well in a theatre…

5.  …particularly when paired with Stephen Hoggett’s restless, jagged choreography, which is the best I’ve seen in a musical in years.

6.  And that’s a good thing, because Billie Joe Armstrong’s lyrics for the show are mostly shallow, whiny, tedious crap sung by barely-two-dimensional characters, and they do not, in this presentation, add up to anything resembling a play.

7.  The bad lyrics are better than the brief dialogue sections written by Mr. Armstrong and Michael Mayer, the production’s director. Neither Mr. Armstrong nor Mr. Mayer should quit their day jobs.

8.  Michael Mayer’s staging, on the other hand, is so stunningly good that it almost made me forgive him for the horror that was Thoroughly Mechanical Millie. But only almost.

9.  Almost equal credit for this should go to Christine Jones, Andrea Lauer, Kevin Adams, and Darrel Maloney – respectively, the set, costume, lighting and video/projection designers. They’ve created a deceptively simple, sharply witty physical production that provides, particularly in its very clever use of video, a great deal of the bite that’s lacking from Armstrong’s generically disaffected lyrics. This show is a visual knockout in ways you won’t expect.

10. The onstage band is terrific, and so are Tom Kitt’s orchestrations and vocal arrangements. 21 Guns, in particular, is quite stunning.

11. The entirely American cast are entirely superb – sang, danced, acted magnificently well, and their energy was astonishing. They’re young, they’re great, they’re worth the cost of a ticket in themselves, even though you’ve probably never heard of any of them, and they all deserve every success.

12. The finale, in which the entire cast line up across the stage, playing acoustic guitars, to sing Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life), is ridiculously charming, and the show’s musical highlight.

13. These UK tour dates add an intermission to the show (which was a one-act on Broadway), basically to let the punters go to the bar, which should tell you everything you need to know about how committed Work Light Productions and the Ambassador Theatre Group are to maintaining the integrity of the shows they present. Shoehorning in an intermission did not help the show, which would have played better as a 95-minute one-act.

14. Two of the three plot strands don’t really work very well – the drugs plotline has been seen before in about a thousand movies-of-the-week on the True Movies channel, and the idea of an addict having a glamorous alter ego who tempts him to get high is neither particularly original nor particularly interesting, despite an absolutely compelling performance from Trent Saunders as the alter ego in question. Yes, we get it. Doing smack a lot really fucks you up. That’s pretty much all the show has to say on the subject, and it’s not enough.

15. The army subplot is far better executed, thanks at least partly to stunning video projections and choreography. The Extraordinary Girl/Before the Lobotomy sequence, in particular, is jaw-dropping – with no thanks to the lyrics, which (again) are thuddingly bathetic.

16. When it was revealed that the young soldier had had his leg amputated below the knee, one of the mouthy women sitting behind me burst out laughing. Laughing at that particular moment, obviously, more or less has to make her stupid on a level that calls Darwin into question, but the fact that she had that particular response at that particular point in the show suggests that the production had not quite succeeded in providing an emotionally gripping narrative to go with the loud music and thrilling visuals.

17. And that’s an understatement. Mayer et al present the show’s three plot strands with exceptional clarity, but the terrible lyrics and (occasional) terrible dialogue mean that we very rarely feel much emotional engagement with the characters onstage. The show is often exciting, but it’s also never moving.

18. It’s very sweary, too, and not particularly suitable for younger children – something which hadn’t quite filtered through to some parents in the audience, who’d brought children considerably younger than ten to see a show that contains all manner of sex, drug use and violence, both stylised and not. I don’t have a problem with any of this content – but I’m forty, and I would not take a nine-year-old to see this.

19. The flying sequences are superb.

20. In the end, it’s probably best to approach the show as a kind of balletic collage set to the music of Green Day, rather than a rock musical. The show’s visual presentation is frequently extraordinary, and the video projections and choreography, in particular, have a grim wit that’s almost entirely lacking in the lyrics. In some ways, American Idiot is an absolute triumph, but the text, in places, is very, very underpowered indeed, despite some excellent music. You’ll get a dazzling show – more or less literally in a couple of places, depending on where you’re sitting – and it’s certainly well worth seeing, but you won’t get much in the way of emotional engagement. There’s a reason it only lasted a little over a year on Broadway while a number of other rock musicals with lesser music (leaving the lyrics entirely out of the equation) have run longer: thrilling visuals and choreography aren’t enough to make up for trite lyrics and a clichéd plot, even with a winning cast. This is as strong a physical production of a musical as I’ve ever seen – but unfortunately, along the way, Mr. Mayer and Mr. Armstrong forgot to write a show to go with it.

Ms. J’Adore, Ms. iPhone, and the screamer

I love theatre. I love going to the theatre more than very nearly anything else. I go to the theatre as often as I can (although not always as often as I’d like), and I’ll see very nearly anything. Theatre excites me, provokes me, makes me happy, very occasionally infuriates me, and however much utter dreck I find myself sitting through – yes, I survived Monkee Business: The Musical with at least some of my braincells intact, and even, God help me, went back for the second act – I can’t ever imagine a life in which I don’t go to the theatre regularly.

I love Fascinating Aida too – that’s the satirical cabaret group with Dillie Keane, Adèle Anderson and (currently) Liza Pulman, not the opera by Verdi (I say this only because I mentioned I was going to see them the other day and a friend asked me if there’d be live elephants). If you’ve been living under a rock, and nobody’s forwarded you the link to Cheap Flights, go and watch it NOW. I’ve been listening to their recordings since the I got the first one in the late 80s  (‘Moscow, Moscow’ is one of those songs that always makes me smile), I’ve seen them live several times, and I am a huge fan. I saw their show last night at the Lowry in Salford, and they were superb. Their material – all written themselves – is terrific, and they have, by now, worked their act up to a standard that very, very few comedy/cabaret groups can match. The new material – including swipes at Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, the Brothers Miliband, Fifty Shades of Grey, Katie Price and Richard Branson – was sharp and very funny, and the excursions into their back catalogue – the pointed takedown of new-age mysticism in ‘One True Religion’, the glorious ‘Getting It’ (a song about the perils of Viagra), the deadly-accurate Weill spoof ‘Leider’ – showed the astonishing breadth of their material. They even, last night, did a more-or-less serious country-and-western number – ‘Glad You’re Gone’, I think it was called, sung beautifully by the wonderful Liza Pulman – along with a serious song called ‘This Table’ that pays tribute to absent friends; the former was great fun, the latter was extremely moving, and the show as a whole was terrific. They’re remarkable, all of them, and it’s always a pleasure to see them.

So I love the theatre, and I love Fascinating Aida. I am, however, beginning to hate theatre audiences.

Take last night. I was sitting in seat G25. On my right, in G24, we had Ms. Marinaded-for-a-week-in-J’Adore-by-Dior. I’ve never really got to grips with the etiquette of applying perfume because I don’t wear cologne myself (I seem to be allergic to quite a lot of it), but I don’t think the process involves running a bath of the stuff and then soaking in it for about four days. This woman’s scent, I’m afraid, was overpowering to the point where her BO would actually have been preferable. If anyone had struck a match, the mushroom cloud would have been visible from space. She was wearing enough of the stuff, anyway, that I spent pretty much the entire show trying not to sneeze. She was also not capable of sitting still, and every time she moved, another Dior-fuelled poison cloud wafted my way. I’m sure she thought she smelled lovely. Nope.

On my left, in seat G26, we had Ms. iPhone. She behaved herself through the first half. Halfway through the second half, she got out her iPhone to check a text message. It took her a surprisingly long time to turn it off. In a darkened theatre, the light from an iPhone’s screen is very distracting. In row G, it would certainly have been visible from the stage. But, of course, her momentary whim to check a message was far more important than the ability of everyone sitting around her to watch the show undisturbed by her appalling lack of manners, so she didn’t let any consideration for anyone else get in the way of that vital text that couldn’t wait another 25 minutes. She was special.

I’m saving the very best for last. Directly behind me, in row H – I think in H27, or one of the seats either side – was the screamer. No, not in any bedroom sense. This lady was Having A Good Time, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. Everyone there was having a good time, or trying to. Ms. Screamer, however, felt the urge to announce to her companions – and, because she clearly needed a larger audience, the rest of the world – that she was Having A Really Good Time. To that end, she did not laugh; she shrieked ‘HA! HA! HA!’, at the top of her considerable voice – and no, it wasn’t a laugh, it was separate syllables, clearly enunciated. In several songs and some of the patter between them, the jokes came thick and fast, so she SHRIEKED rather a lot. In order to demonstrate what a fabulous time she was having, she often rocked back and forth as she did so, which meant that she SHRIEKED her enthusiasm directly into my left ear, at a volume pitch that was somewhere between a Boeing 707 on takeoff and Armageddon. She also had a tendency to either repeat punchlines loudly to her companions or shout ‘BRILLIANT!’ over them, I assume because she was somehow incapable of sitting still and not drawing attention to herself. There’s no point, unfortunately, in complaining to someone like that, because she’s more or less certainly so thoroughly self-centred that she’ll have had no idea at all of how rude and unpleasant her behaviour was to the people sitting around her, all of whom had paid a not-trivial sum of money to be there – although perhaps singling Ms. Screamer out for being self-centred is unfair; all three of these ladies, in their way, were rude and inconsiderate to the people around them, not to mention thoroughly selfish, and all three should have known better. The best I can say about the behaviour of the people around me at the show last night is that at least, thank God, nobody had brought a bag of crisps.

None of these people, of course, were young, and I’m afraid it’s been a recurring theme for a while now that the worst behaviour I encounter at the theatre is from people who are older than I am. Yes, sure, you can complain to the house management – but that’s easier said than done in the middle of an act when you’re in the middle of a row, a dozen seats at least from either aisle. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the show last night – I did, very much, and Fascinating Aida are always worth seeing – but the three “ladies” sitting around me, between them, made the experience much less than it should have been. That, these days, is far too common. Is it really that difficult, at the theatre, to behave in a way that’s respectful to the rest of the audience?

Sex with the light on

“The first few performances are like sex with the light on. They’re fun, but you might see some things you don’t want to.”

I might have paraphrased slightly  – I wasn’t taking notes – but that was Jeff Calhoun, the director and choreographer of the UK tour of the Dolly Parton-scored musical 9 to 5, addressing the audience at the Opera House in Manchester this afternoon during an unscheduled break caused by a scenery malfunction at the show’s second public performance. Apparently they’ve yet to make it all the way through the show without stopping, although this afternoon they got further than they did last night. This afternoon, during the big Act Two production number “Change It”, part of a drop caught on another piece of scenery and threatened to fall down; the stage was cleared, the safety curtain descended, Mr. Calhoun came out to talk to the audience (he was charming, and very funny, and the audience loved him), and the show continued a few minutes later.

It’s live theatre, and it happens. I knew when I bought the ticket that I would be seeing the second public performance of a brand new production, it’s a complicated staging with a lot of moving furniture and drops, and it wasn’t exactly surprising that they had some technical problems. It certainly didn’t spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the show. However… when a show opens in the West End or on Broadway, the first performances (for a big new musical, anything up to the first three or four weeks or performances, in fact) are advertised as previews, which is essentially an admission that you won’t quite be seeing a finished piece of work. When you’re getting a piece of theatre up on its feet – any piece of theatre, but especially a big musical – there is work that cannot be done until there’s an audience present. Previews are when performances get adjusted, the writing is tweaked, and technical problems get resolved. Yes, sure, there are endless tech rehearsals before previews begin, but in a tech rehearsal you can always stop and start a scene again – you don’t have the pressure of having to get through the whole show without a break, which is what you have to aim for as soon as there’s a paying audience watching.

Once upon a time, not all that long ago (meaning within my memory, and I’m not that old), preview performances were sold at a discount. It’s still, I think, the case in the West End and on Broadway that discount codes are more often than not available online for preview performances – at least, if you know where to look. They are, at least, invariably labelled as preview performances in the show’s advertising and on ticketing websites, and instances where they are not have drawn sharp criticism in the press from theatre journalists.

You might have guessed that the Ambassador Theatre Group, which operates the Opera House in Manchester, didn’t bother with any of that. While it is certainly obvious from the tour schedule that the Manchester performances are the production’s first, when I booked the ticket there was no indication anywhere on their booking site that I would be seeing the equivalent of something that, in the West End, would be labelled as a preview, never mind any hint of early performances being sold at any kind of discount. Now, I’ve seen a lot of theatre, I figured it out for myself, and I went ahead and bought the ticket anyway (the Manchester run is not long, later performances here did not work for me, and it’s going to be a good while before the show is playing at any other venue that would be convenient), but it still leaves a faintly nasty taste when something that would, elsewhere, be clearly labelled as work in progress is put on sale at full price as a finished product. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me, given that the Ambassador Theatre Group’s commitment to customer service is not exactly outstanding (really – an almost twenty-minute queue to pick up tickets an hour and a half before the show began  this afternoon, no facility to print tickets at home, a somewhat lackadaisical attitude towards dealing with customer complaints), but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the standards that apply in the West End to apply here too, particularly given that a top-price ticket to this afternoon’s performance, with fees, would have cost over £40 (cheaper than the West End, true, but still not cheap). If it’s a preview, call it a preview. Let the audience know what they’re buying. If the show’s only in town for a week and a half, they’ll come anyway.

All that having been said, when they’ve worked out the kinks – there were a couple of other noticeable flubs, a very obvious misplaced prop which the actors covered beautifully (the phone cord that Doralee is supposed to use to tie Hart up was not where it should have been, and Amy Lennox had to go offstage to get it), and reflections in odd places near the top of the set that suggest there’s still work to be done on Ken Billington’s otherwise fine lighting – it’s going to be terrific. It’s already a very, very entertaining show, albeit one with a few significant flaws that, at this point in the show’s slightly chequered history, are not going to go away. Dolly Parton, of course, starred in the movie (along with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin); for the musical, she’s supplied a score that’s often great fun. No, this is not one of the great contemporary musical theatre scores, but this is an appealing and effective collection of songs, and the good stuff – particularly an extended opening sequence woven out of the movie’s theme song – is really good. True, nearly all of the music sounds like it comes from a Dolly Parton album – she doesn’t really manage to subsume her own distinctive musical voice and write in character – and some of the lyrics clunk, but unlike other recent musicals-adapted-from-films that have passed this way, this score never sounds like musical wallpaper (I’m looking at YOU, Ghost and Sister Act and Legally Blonde). The show flopped in its initial Broadway outing, and the version that’s being performed here reflects the US touring production, which was somewhat revised; the order of songs in Act One has been slightly tweaked, the three separate revenge fantasies have been conflated into a single extended musical sequence (called, of course, ‘Sexist, Egotistical, Lying, Hypocritical Bigot’, which is possibly the film’s most famous line), and two songs – ‘I Just Might’ and  ‘Always a Woman’ – have been cut. The book – like the source film’s screenplay, by Patricia Resnick – is fast and funny, albeit more cartoonish now than the film was; if the denoument currently seems a little breathless, it’ll probably settle down a bit once the actors have a few more performances under their belt.

And the actors, it has to be said, are this production’s biggest asset. In Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Parton and Dabney Coleman, the film fielded a formidable quartet of leads (in the right role, Parton can be a terrific screen actress); the biggest compliment I can pay their counterparts here is that they made me forget their predecessors. Ben Richards is a strong-voiced, hilariously sleazy Hart, Amy Lennox is an adorable Doralee (and has the hardest job, in that she’s playing the Dolly Parton role, and Parton herself – in the form of projected film – narrates the show’s opening and closing sequences and actually comes right out and says that Doralee is her role), Natalie Casey is pretty much perfect as downtrodden Judy, and Jackie Clune’s sassy, sardonic Violet just about walks away with the show. All four have strong singing voices, great presence, and laser-sharp comic timing; none of them are quite ‘stars’ (in the above-the-title, their-name-sells-tickets sense), but all of them should be.

And then there’s Bonnie Langford as office supervisor Roz. It’s a second-banana role with a few scenes, a mediocre song in Act One, and a reprise of the title-song in Act Two, but she cleans up. She takes ‘Heart to Hart’ – a frumpy-secretary-has-the-hots-for-the-boss number that’s just about the least interesting thing in the score, and effortlessly turns it into the production’s biggest showstopper. It helps that she’s given terrific, funny choreography (by Calhoun and Lisa Stevens), but the energy, killer belt and ingenious comic timing are all her own. She’s great, and somebody needs to write her a big old-fashioned musical comedy to star in, stat.

The rest? The ensemble have tons of energy, the bit-parts are all impeccably filled, Kenneth Foy’s witty set (drops, office furniture on castors, Hart’s bedroom) moves fluidly and affectionately mocks ugly late-70s ‘good taste’ (the bright costumes are great too, but – oddly – nobody owns up to them in the programme), the eight-piece band are impeccably tight (the sound design, though, is often muddy, and in the ensemble numbers the bass is turned up way too high – that, again, is something that tends to get worked out in previews), and Calhoun’s slick staging never lets the pace flag. It’s good now, and it’ll be better a few weeks from now. Everyone onstage is clearly having a wonderful time, and that sense of fun spills across the footlights; the writing isn’t always magical, and this performance was rougher around the edges than you’d expect from something that was not sold as a preview, but the cast’s enthusiasm is absolutely infectious, and for once the (more or less obligatory at a big musical at the Opera House) standing ovation did not feel forced.

So yes, it’s well worth going – but if you see it over the next week in Manchester, be aware that they’re still working. It’s great fun, but – as of right now – it isn’t quite finished.

Life is an ersatz cabaret, old chum

[Note: there is a little more to this story. For what happened in the couple of days after I posted this, click here. It’s never fun to get a bad review, but some of Will Young’s fans, it turns out, are hilariously childish and petulant, particularly when they start sending email.]


Welkuurmen, beenvanoo, wilcam… eem cubaray…

No, my spell-check has not gone insane. Those are just a few of the words in ‘Wilkommen’, the opening number of Cabaret, that Mr. Will Young is apparently unable to pronounce, whatever accent he’s trying to do. You might suspect that it’s not a good sign when a show’s above-the-title star mangles the first three words he sings at the top of the first act, and you’d be right, but on this occasion it’s worth exercising a little patience. Not for Mr. Young or for Ms. Michelle Ryan, his leading lady – they’re both awful – but for just about everyone else. It isn’t simply that this London-bound revisal of Rufus Norris’s 2006 revisal is a mixed bag. It’s both better and worse than that. It’s a bold, intriguing, intelligent, stylish production with a strong ensemble and a couple of truly remarkable supporting performances, but with a pair of inept celebrity stunt castees shoehorned in to the two most prominent roles in order to pull in the punters because it’s only about four years since the show was last in the West End. What are they like? Put it this way: Rufus Norris, the director, might as well have cast Kermit and Miss Piggy. In fact, they’d probably be an improvement. At least they’d be interesting.

What saves the production is the fact that, unlike the film, Cabaret on stage has always been an ensemble piece in which the focus is split between several characters. Despite Michael York’s fine work, the film rests mostly on Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey – or at least, it’s their musical numbers that people remember afterwards. While the stage version has gone through, it seems, as many different permutations as it’s had major metropolitan revivals – really, you’d imagine from the show’s production history that Joe Masteroff, who wrote the book, delivered a piece of unplayable crap that directors have spent the past 46 years trying to fix, when in fact his original version is superior in nearly every respect to more or less all the revised versions that have followed – it’s always retained a far wider focus than Jay Presson Allen’s (overrated) screenplay. That’s especially useful here, because it means that this production’s hellish miscasting of the actors playing the Emcee and Sally Bowles does not take the rest of the show down with them. It’s not that they’re not that bad – they just don’t have as much stage time as you might expect. Thank God.

So what’s good? A terrific set of sliding panels, ladders, cages and translucent flats by Katrina Lindsay – we are not, in this production, aping the Sam Mendes staging in which everything took place in the Kit Kat Klub, even when it didn’t, and for that relief much thanks – and equally terrific atmospheric lighting from Mark Howett. This is as good-looking a production of Cabaret as you could ever expect to find, and it does not, thank God, bathe you in sleaze from the moment the curtain rises. You see plenty of people snort cocaine, but none of the dancers have visible track-marks. After the skank-overload that characterised the Mendes revival, trust me, that’s a blessing.

And the dancers are great. Norris and his choreographer, Javier de Frutos, have found a superb ensemble. The bit-parts in scenes are all expertly played, the singing is excellent, and de Frutos’s choreography is often genuinely revelatory. This is a rather more dance-centric production of Cabaret than previous major stagings – not a surprising route to take if you have a choreographer of de Frutos’s calibre on board – but it works, and works well. De Frutos has managed the difficult trick of reimagining each of the show’s iconic musical numbers without changing their intent or their subtext. For ‘Money, Money’, he presents the Emcee in a grotesque balloon fatsuit that gets pricked and deflated as the recession bites. The first ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ – which in this production is the Act One finale – is a truly creepy human puppet-show in which the singer manipulates the chorus line into performing the Nazi salute. We get ‘Mein Herr’ from the film, but there isn’t a wooden chair in sight. The gorilla number uses projections and sleight-of-hand rather than an actor in an actual gorilla costume, and is chillingly effective.

Transitions between scenes are often choreographed, and some numbers – most notably ‘Why Should I Wake Up?’ and ‘Don’t Tell Mama’ – are woven around dialogue to create transitional montages (‘Don’t Tell Mama’, indeed, is seen from behind and only half-heard, as the first scene between Cliff and Bobby takes place ‘backstage’ at the Kit Kat Klub while Sally is out front performing the number). ‘Two Ladies’ features way more than two ladies, several men, and a bed with a trick opening through which any number of people and props can enter and exit. It’s clever, it’s funny, it’s appropriately raunchy and decadent, but it’s also – I keep saying ‘Thank God’, don’t I? – far subtler than the Mendes production was in either its London or North American incarnations, and far less self-consciously skanky (can you tell I really didn’t like the Mendes production very much?). You don’t see a Swastika until the last thirty seconds of Act One, or a Nazi uniform until midway through Act Two – Norris does a far, far better job than Mendes did of showing us the gradual, insidious growth in the Nazi Party’s influence. There’s a concentration camp tableau at the end, but unlike the one Mendes gave us, it doesn’t feel tacked-on or gimmicky. If you have to present a revised version of Cabaret, this is as good as any and better than most.

And yet, and yet… I liked this version of the show, the cuts and alterations are intelligently chosen, and the show plays briskly (theoretically two hours twenty minutes including an intermission), but there wasn’t anything much wrong with the original book and score, beyond the original book’s uncomfortable presentation of Cliff as unequivocally straight. This is not a show that needs extensive revision, but for some strange reason, it usually gets it – although, of course, these days it’s hardly unusual for a major revival of a post-1940s musical to incorporate significant revisions, and the revisions here are less egregious than some.

What else is good? Henry Luxemburg as Cliff. He’s the understudy, and he’s great. One of this particular production’s huge achievements is that it’s always clear that what we’re watching is primarily Cliff’s story – which it technically is in every other version as well, but Cliff often gets somewhat lost among a parade of more colourful supporting characters. That’s not the case here. Also, the wonderful, always-welcome Harriet Thorpe (you might have seen her in AbFab) is a sharp, brassy Fraulein Kost, and Nicholas Tizzard is a stealthily insinuating Herr Ludwig. They’re impeccable. Even better, there’s Sian Phillips and Linal Haft as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. He’s superb, she’s perfect. Her scenes in the second act, in particular, are so riveting that they’re worth the cost of a ticket in themselves.

Which is a good thing, because you won’t get much value out of Mr. Young or Ms. Ryan. Mr. Young is essentially delivering a Xerox of James Dreyfus’s performance as the Emcee in this production’s earlier incarnation. He’s a far better singer than Mr. Dreyfus – his best, most effective moment comes with the interpolated ‘I Don’t Care Much’, because he doesn’t have to do anything much except stand still and sing the damn song – but he’s no kind of actor at all, although he certainly throws himself into it. He has approximately the charisma of a 15-watt lightbulb, and he gives the impression of having learned every gesture, every line and every vocal tic by rote, with no sense at all of what the intentions behind them might have been. And he’s better than Ms. Ryan, who seems completely at sea. She hits all her marks and has the sort of voice and look that could be convincing as Sally Bowles – you don’t need to be a great singer to score in this role – but she is never believable for even a second. She begins the show with an overdone cut-glass accent that seems about to slip off at any moment, as if it was a dress that was four sizes too big – and that’s an interesting place to start with Sally Bowles, but it’s also more or less what Anna Maxwell-Martin did in this production’s previous incarnation, and Ms. Ryan never takes the idea anywhere. Her every line is stilted; the impression you get is less of a performance in character, and more of a child playing dressup. That, too, is potentially an interesting direction in which to take Sally Bowles, but she doesn’t. There’s simply nothing there at all, apart from an uncanny ability to suck all the energy and life out of everything within fifteen feet of her onstage. At any given moment, whatever she’s doing, saying or singing, Ms. Ryan is invariably almost completely blank.

And yes, that’s cruel, but there’s a serious point: Mr. Young is a very, very good pop star. Ms. Ryan can be quite compelling on television (she was great in her guest shot in Doctor Who). This is not their venue; they’re not here because they’re suitable for their roles, they’re here because producers – I’m looking at you, Bill Kenwright – think that punters will pay to go to the theatre to, essentially, watch them jump through hoops as if they were performing seals. There’s nothing at all wrong with casting stars from other branches of the entertainment industry in order to put bums on seats – as long as those stars are capable of giving a competent account of the roles they’re supposed to be playing. This afternoon, at the curtain call, I did something I haven’t done for a very, very long time: when Mr. Young and Ms. Ryan walked out to take their bows, I stopped clapping. I was not alone. The applause dipped noticeably when they walked out, and the chatter I heard around me as I left the building* rather strongly suggested to me that a significant number of people were significantly underwhelmed with these two performers. Regional theatre audiences are not stupid. We know what is good, and we know what is cynical stunt-casting  – and it was clear what people felt they got this afternoon.

If I sound angry, I am: to put it bluntly, Mr. Young and Ms. Ryan’s performances this afternoon were an insult to my Visa statement, because their work was not of a quality that was worth paying for. Tickets are not cheap, even for touring productions; it costs a fair amount of money even to sit in the nosebleed seats, and we’re entitled to expect, once we’ve plunked down the cash or the plastic, to receive something a little more evolved than an ersatz reproduction of a more interesting performance that someone else gave somewhere else five years ago. As it stands, I’ve no idea at all what Mr. Young might bring to the role of the Emcee – I only know that he can be coached to spend two hours hitting all the same marks James Dreyfus did. That’s not theatre, it’s 3D photocopying, and it’s a waste of time and money.

* Three minutes or so before the second act began, the fire alarm went off in the theatre. The theatre’s front-of-house staff did a very, very impressive job indeed of getting people out quickly and calmly, and it was either a false alarm or something very minor because we were back inside within half an hour, but God, some people are stupid. And selfish. NO, if a fire alarm goes off and a recorded voice tells you to evacuate the building via the nearest exit, it probably ISN’T part of the pre-show for Act Two. No, you probably shouldn’t try to shove your way back to your seat against the tide of people streaming towards the exit. When you leave the building, it’s probably not a good idea to mill around immediately in front of the doors. It’s certainly not a good idea to wait for the lift (for a start, if there’s a fire alarm, the lift probably isn’t going to come) or stand at the top of the staircase complaining about having to go outside. The staff, as I said, did an absolutely brilliant job; a small but significant number of patrons made that job harder by, essentially, being stupid or selfish or both.


Yesterday afternoon, I saw Opera North’s magnificent production of Carousel at the Grand Theatre in Leeds. I love the Grand Theatre – it’s one of the most charming of Britain’s major touring theatres, and the auditorium is truly lovely – and I love the show. I’ve written a separate post praising the production to the skies; it should have been a glorious experience. It wasn’t, quite.

The problem, yet again, was disruptive behaviour from somewhere in the auditorium – in this case, exacerbated by the fact that this production is all but unamplified, which means there’s a far greater potential for what I suppose we must call noise pollution. Most of the audience, once they’d clicked into concentrating on a production that is significantly less loud than your average overamplified big musical, sat and listened very intently. A couple of mobile phones rang – there was no pre-show announcement about switching them off, and there should have been – and there was the occasional sound of crinkling candy wrappers. The biggest source of disruption, though, came from a rather more delicate source.

Somewhere in the part of the theatre where I was sitting (the dress circle, I was in the back row), several seats over to my right and not visible from where I was sitting, there was what sounded like an adult woman with some kind of severe mental disability. I never saw this person, so that’s an assumption. What I do know is that most of the show was accompanied by a stream of noise from this person – low (but not quiet) moaning, brief louder wailing, snatches of singing, and a sound that resembled a cross between throat-clearing and blowing a raspberry. I have no idea where this person was sitting, other than in one of seven rows of seats somewhere to my right; I assume she was not unaccompanied. Particularly in a very nearly unamplified production, this was significantly disruptive, and I was not the only person who remarked on it at the interval. I don’t know if anybody said anything to the front of house staff at the interval; I didn’t, partly because, God knows, I can’t help but feel for both this person and whoever was with her, and partly because I couldn’t narrow down the source of the sound any closer than a block of about 150 seats. The disruption in the first half, though, was severe enough that a competent house management should have noticed it and dealt with it off their own bat; evidently they did not, because these sounds continued all through the second half as well.

As much as I feel for this person, and for the people with her, there’s a huge disrespect for the rest of the paying audience in evidence – not on the part of the woman with the disability (the sounds definitely did not come from a child), but from whoever was with her. If you took a child to that kind of event, and they made the kind of noise that would disrupt the experience for other members of the audience, you’d take them out. If you heard a child making that kind of disruptive noise, it would be easier to talk to front of house about it.

At the back of my head, there was the terrifying notion that to make a complaint about this person would somehow be to suggest that people with disabilities should be locked away, and of course that’s not what I think at all. But I do think that anybody attending a live performance (and in this case, I specifically mean the carer/parent/whatever who accompanied this woman to the theatre) should have enough respect for the rest of the audience that they take quick, decisive steps to minimise any behaviour that might disrupt the show for other patrons, and that a competent front-of-house management should pay attention to what is going on in an auditorium during a performance and, if necessary, take action before being prompted by another ticket-holder. Yesterday afternoon’s experience fell considerably short of that. Since these noises continued unimpeded through more or less the entire performance, it’s impossible not to conclude that whoever was accompanying this individual didn’t have any respect or consideration for the rest of the audience. Given that the front-of-house staff did not appear to notice the problem, much less intervene, I’m afraid it’s also difficult not to conclude that their attitude towards their paying customers is not quite what it should be. Now, true, I didn’t complain – but the level of noise was such that I shouldn’t have had to.

Don’t get me wrong – I loved the production. And, probably, in this instance, I should have been less squeamish about coming forward and notifying front-of-house that there was a problem (me and a few hundred other people), and it’s certainly not as if either noisy audience behaviour or inept front-of-house management are at all unusual in British theatres. But going to the theatre and experiencing a show without encountering any kind of bad behaviour from other audience members is becoming the exception rather than the rule, and that’s not good enough, and I’m afraid the front-of-house management have to shoulder some of the responsibility. Theatre tickets are expensive to the degree that it is simply not acceptable for a front-of-house management to adopt a laissez-faire attitude towards disruptive behaviour, whatever the source. I’ve done the job myself, and this is not a pleasant aspect of it, but part of the house management’s job is to ensure that everyone in the auditorium experiences the performance without any disruption from other members of the audience, whether or not anyone makes a complaint. Yesterday afternoon, the front-of-house management in the Grand Theatre in Leeds did not do their job, and their customers deserved better.

Welcome to 1945.

First clue that this is not your standard-issue big musical revival, circa 2012: there’s no sound designer credited in the programme (although there is a sound engineer listed way down in the technical credits at the back). The second clue: the first few rows of seats in the Leeds Grand Theatre’s stalls are missing, swallowed up by the orchestra pit. Yes, there was a similarly-enlarged pit a few weeks ago at Wonderful Town at The Lowry as well, but trust me, it’s unusual.

This time, though, we’re here for Rodgers and Hammerstein, rather than Bernstein: Carousel, as revived by Leeds-based Opera North, which means we get their full orchestra of fifty or so players, a large chorus, and a separate troupe of dancers, and the conductor (Jonathan Gill at yesterday afternoon’s performance) takes a curtain call with the cast. Carousel is probably my favourite of all of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s scores, and the opportunity to hear it with this size orchestra and chorus doesn’t come around very often. Here, the very first article in the (rather expensive) programme – before anything at all about either Rodgers and Hammerstein or the show itself – is a two-page piece about Don Walker’s original orchestrations, which were painstakingly recreated by a team from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization in 2000 (the full set of charts had been missing for decades; the National Theatre revival in 1992 used a new set of orchestrations, based on the originals, by William David Brohn). Clearly, this is not a case of an opera company slumming it at the lighter end of the repertoire. It’s not an absolutely complete presentation of the score because “The Highest Judge of All” is cut (and not particularly missed; it was cut from the National Theatre production as well, and I honestly think that section of the show plays better without it), but it’s obvious that everyone involved here has the utmost respect for this material.

And, it has to be said, this production offers an absolutely glorious account of the music. The orchestra’s playing is impeccable throughout – not stiff and reverential, but gutsy and full of life – and they’re matched by the singers, right down to the last member of the chorus. Carousel is not a pretty show – at core, while it ends with the promise of redemption, it’s a dark, unhappy love story between two people who are each in their way very damaged – and for a full production to work, the material demands a great deal more than an impeccable orchestra and marvellous singers (no, I’m not going to summarise the plot – we’ve all seen it, and if you haven’t, Wikipedia offers a fuller synopsis than I would). There’s a difficult line to tread here – in the National Theatre production, Michael Hayden and Joanna Riding offered devastating acting performances as Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan, but the music sat very uncomfortably on their voices, and they both strained for the higher notes. Here, we have West End actor Keith Higham as Billy (at matinees only; at evening performances the role is played by American opera singer Eric Greene) playing opposite British soprano Gillene Herbert as Julie. Neither has any difficulty at all with the music – Herbert’s “What’s the Use of Wondrin’?” is as good a performance of the song as I’ve ever heard – and they create an utterly convincing portrait of this very, very troubled couple. Their bench scene – the lengthy sequence that includes “If I Loved You” – is simply flawless.

[I could, here, offer a very lengthy aside in which I traced the beginning of the concept of the ‘integrated musical’ to the bench scene in Carousel, rather than to Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration, to which far too many historians attribute far too much influence – but anybody reading this who knows me and has any kind of interest in musicals has probably heard it before, so I won’t… except to say, baldly, that I think the bench scene in Carousel was a more influential moment in the development American musical than the premiere of Oklahoma!. This is a blog post, not an academic paper, and a 5,000-word essay on the subject would be a little over the top.]

The other leads? There’s absolutely delightful work from Clara Boulter and Joseph Shovelton and Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow, a beautifully-danced Louise from Beverley Grant, and a fine, rough Jigger Craigin from Michael Rouse. Towering above them all, there’s Elena Ferrari’s Nettie Fowler. Last year, I saw Ms. Ferrari give a breathtaking performance as the tragic Anna Maurrant in a chamber production of Street Scene. Yesterday, I saw her take “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and sing it simply and directly, as if nobody had ever touched it before, with no hint of grandstanding but with enormous emotional force. Her “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” was warm, funny, and absolutely charming; her “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was probably definitive. And yes, I cried, even though I know that moment in the play is shamelessly manipulative.

The production is lovely to look at, too. Director Jo Davies has shifted the plot forward in time a little, so that this production begins in 1915; that’s still almost a century ago, but it means the clothes and props are a little closer to items that would be worn/used today, and in a production in which the music is privileged above everything else, it’s a choice that takes away a little of the potential for starchiness. Anthony Ward’s set – fairground lights, a bleached treetrunk, ocean vistas, clapboard walls, wooden piers and houses – is deceptively simple and superbly evocative, as are Bruno Poet’s lighting and Andrzej Goulding’s (very lightly-used) video design, and between them, at the beginning of the Act Two  ballet, they manage a startling coup-de-théâtre to show Billy’s descent from Heaven back to Earth (if you haven’t seen this production and are going to in the future, I suppose this is a spoiler, so highlight the following couple of lines to read a description. Louise is first seen at the beach, in scratchy silent film projected on a clapboard wall at the back of the set. The square projected image slowly widens to become a panorama of the beach scene, and then the clapboard wall rises to reveal Louise in exactly the same spot she’d been in in the film, on the beach, in front of projected rolling waves). There’s strong, muscular choreography from Kay Shepherd, and it’s to her very, very great credit that in the crowd scenes it’s difficult to see the join between the singing chorus and the dancers. Occasionally, the pacing could be a little tighter, and the staging of the robbery scene (which, to be fair, is not the show’s best-written moment to begin with) needs revisiting before the production moves on to its runs in London and Paris, but this is, overall, an exceptionally strong staging.

Davies and her company also deserve a lot of credit for not ducking or in any way softening the domestic violence at the heart of the plot. We are no longer living in 1945; today, the scene in which Louise asks Julie if it’s possible for someone to hit you and it not hurt at all reads very, very uncomfortably, and our society’s attitude towards violence towards women has moved on to the degree that it’s impossible not to view that moment through a contemporary filter. We see Billy commit a sin that today is more or less unpardonable – more than once – and then, at the end of the show, we see him get a second chance. In the National Theatre production, when Louise asked that question, Michael Hayden’s Billy mouthed ‘no’. That doesn’t happen here, and there’s no acting around the lines; we simply see in Billy’s face that the question makes him realise what he’s done. The scene is sensitively played, and it’s powerful, but when Julie tells her daughter that yes, it is possible for someone to hit you and it not hurt, it isn’t easy to watch, and nor should it be.

What’s really interesting about this production, though, is watching the audience adjust to receiving a production that is all but unamplified (there is amplification, but it’s so subtle that it’s almost imperceptible). At the beginning of each act, there were three or four minutes in which isolated conversations, I’m afraid, could be clearly heard from various points around the area where I was sitting – and then, by and large, people shut up and listened.

It would be nice to say that there was no bad audience behaviour on display during the performance, but that’s a longer story. Still, this is a spectacular production, and I am, as the song says, mighty glad I came, even given… well, as I said, that’s a longer story.