Shake Your Badonkadonk… but keep away from the toilets and don’t look at the floor.

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If you’d asked me to place a bet, I wouldn’t have put money on William Finn and James Lapine‘s Little Miss Sunshine – yes, an adaptation of the 2006 film – arriving in the UK before their seminal 1992 show Falsettos, which will (finally) be landing at The Other Palace later this year – but here we are. Lucky me, I got to see it at the Arcola last week; it’s touring afterwards, which means you’ll have the opportunity to see it in nineteen other venues, all of which probably have cleaner toilets than the Arcola. That wouldn’t be a very high bar.

William Finn is a distinctive, idiosyncratic musical theatre composer with an instantly-recognisable sound, and it’s easy to see why musicalising the quirky family at the centre of Little Miss Sunshine appealed to him. That said, the show has a troubled history; a 2011 premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in California received an unenthusiastic reception from critics, and a heavily-rewritten 2013 production at New York’s Second Stage Theater didn’t generate enough box-office momentum to transfer to a commercial run elsewhere. This is apparently the show’s European premiere, and it’s a lot more fun than some of the New York and San Diego reviews might suggest, although it isn’t perfect; like all of Finn’s shows, though, it contains at least a handful of songs that are so stunningly wonderful that they’re worth the price of a ticket on their own (good thing, since in some respects my ticket for this was staggeringly overpriced… but we’ll come to that later).

Like the film, the musical follows the down-on-their-luck Hoover family on a road trip  in an ancient, knackered Volkswagen Microbus, driving from Albuquerque, NM to Redondo Beach, CA, where eight-year-old Olive is to compete in a beauty pageant. These characters elevate familial dysfunction to the level of an art form: dad Richard is a failed motivational speaker, and his father – Grandpa, along for the ride – has been kicked out of his retirement home for doing heroin. Uncle Frank, also along for the ride, is recovering from a suicide attempt and can’t be left alone, Olive’s older brother Dwayne has taken a vow of silence, and Olive and Dwayne’s mother Sheryl is struggling to cope with holding everything together under a growing pile of unpaid bills. Sheryl gets the best song in the show: a minor-key heartbreaker called Something Better Better Happen, which closes the first act and returns in the second. It’s lovely, and along with Grandpa’s early solo The Happiest Guy in the Van (a paean to the joys of rampant sex, presented as a slab of wildly inappropriate life advice to his teenage grandson Dwayne) and the ridiculously memorable earworm Shake Your Badonkadonk, it offers the clearest indication of why Finn and Lapine thought this film had potential as a musical. If everything else in the show was as memorably wonderful as those three songs, the show would have been a knockout hit in its first two productions. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of space between those three highlights. The rest of the show is always charming and sometimes very funny, but those three songs are on a different level from the rest of the score, which is great fun, but not first-tier Finn.

Director Mehmet Ergen gets terrific performances out of his small cast – Laura Pitt-Pulford gets the show’s most heartbreaking song and breaks your heart with it once in each act, Gary Wilmot (whose TV comedy work usually had me reaching for the off switch) is riotously funny as Grandpa, and Imelda Warren-Green supplies a brilliant comic cameo as a hospital administrator with the world’s worst case of vocal fry. His direction – and David Woodhead’s bright yellow roadmap set – gets the most out of a small budget and a difficult space, although it’s an odd choice to use a truck unit to represent the VW van all the way through the first act but not for most of the second. The show is performed with an interval in this production, although the rights-holder’s website lists it as a one-act; adding an interval, I’m afraid, is not an improvement.

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Overall, though, this production is sweet, funny, more touching than the film, and considerably better than you might expect from the show’s reception in New York and San Diego.

While the show is charming, though, the theatre, I’m afraid, is not. I understand that people working in this kind of venue are usually overworked and underpaid, but there’s no excuse for the level of surliness I encountered when I picked up my ticket at the box office, and there’s really no excuse for the woman on the door, who told me I had to go back out, pushing my way against the tide of people lining up to get it, and go back in through an outside door, which would have been perfectly OK if she’d been in any way polite or pleasant about it, and if she hadn’t then proceeded to let a couple of dozen other people access the block of seats where I was sitting  through the entrance she’d rather rudely told me not to use. My seat, also, didn’t endear the place to me. I see most of the shows I see from cheap seats, I’m very aware of the trade-offs between price and view, and I certainly don’t expect a third-price seat to have the same view as a top-price one. I also, though, do not expect to find that people who paid half what I did have a clearer view of the stage than I do. I sat in seat D1, which – as you’ll see from the picture below – has a lovely side-on view of a big yellow girder. The people in the £10 restricted view seats at the sides of the balcony had a more or less unobstructed view of the whole stage picture, and I did not even though my seat wasn’t sold as restricted view.  That leaves a rather nasty taste, and tells me a great deal about the theatre and the production company’s attitude towards their customers.

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There’s also no excuse for the toilets, although I might have formed a better impression if I’d visited the Gents before someone peed all over the seat and the floor and up the walls and door of the only available cubicle, whose lock had also seen better days. It’s not as if the rest of the venue was notably clean either – there were cigarette ends on the floor of the auditorium near my seat – although everywhere else was, thank God, cleaner than that cubicle in the Gents (it would pretty much have to have been). There’s a bar, and I think they serve food; the general state of cleanliness I saw elsewhere in the venue – the kindest word would be ‘slovenly’ – is such that I’d go elsewhere. And carry hand-sanitiser.

And then there’s the programme, which is the icing on the cake. I saw four productions in London last week; this one has the most expensive programme of the four – it’s £5 – and it’s also the slimmest and shoddiest. There are the usual cast/creative bios – typed by someone who clearly didn’t pay much attention to when to begin and end italics for titles – and some small rehearsal photographs, but the “articles” are the highlight, and they’re very special: a page on the history of the VW van which seems to be drawn largely from Wikipedia and whose anonymous author doesn’t know how to use an apostrophe, and a staggeringly fatuous short piece on musicals inspired by films whose writer, amid a stream of pure waffle, chooses to inform us that Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit’s musical Nine premiered in 1973, which tells us someone didn’t read past the first sentence of the first paragraph of the show’s Wikipedia entry. If you’re going to charge that amount of money for a programme, the least you can do – the very least you can do – is proof-read and fact-check it. And by “proof-read” and “fact check”, I mean processes involving an actual human being rather than an illiterate chimp.

So… see the show by all means. It’s got some lovely songs in it, the cast are wonderful, and it’s well worth a couple of hours of your time. To get the best out of the experience, though, avoid the lowest-numbered £20 seats in the side block, stay away from the toilets, do your best not to look at the floor, and don’t bother with a programme. Or better yet, pick a venue that isn’t the Arcola, because there are plenty to choose from. You’re welcome.

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(Lower) East Side Story

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The original Broadway production of Rags in 1986 was a notorious flop, running for just four performances. Despite the short run, it received five Tony nominations, including a nod for Best Original Score, and cast member Judy Kuhn gave a memorably fiery performance of the title song on the Tony Awards telecast the following year; a recording was released in 1991 featuring most of the original Broadway cast, with Julia Migenes standing in for original star Teresa Stratas, and that recording is the reason people keep going back to the show to try and make it work. Rags has book problems – even now, after umpteen rewrites, Rags has book problems – but the score as represented on that recording includes the best music Charles Strouse has written for the theatre (‘Blame It On the Summer Night’ might very well be the single best song he has ever written for anything, and it’s certainly among the best individual songs written for Broadway in the past fifty years), and some of Stephen Schwartz‘s most moving lyrics. This show’s music is a potent blend of Broadway, jazz, klezmer and opera, and it’s often magnificent; the structure surrounding it, unfortunately, has never quite lived up to the power of that score.

The show is essentially a kind of sequel to Fiddler on the Roof, which also has a book by Joseph Stein. The plot follows immigrants as they arrive in New York in 1910(ish) and try to establish themselves as new Americans living in tenements on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In all versions of the show – and there are many different versions of this show – the central figure is Rebecca Hershkowitz, a woman fleeing Russia with her young son David. Reading the Broadway production’s reviews, it’s clear there were too many subplots surrounding her; this rewrite, with a new book by David Thompson (Joseph Stein having died in 2010), premiered at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut in 2017, and it does a reasonably good job of paring back the show’s various plot strands into a reasonably coherent narrative that is driven by Rebecca’s struggle to build a life in New York for herself and her son. Alongside this new book, though, Strouse and Schwartz have taken scissors to their score, and unfortunately the result is not an improvement. A certain amount of this music’s grandeur has been lost – and that’s allowing for the fact that in a chamber production like this one you’re never going to get Michael Starobin‘s magnificent original orchestrations – and some songs have been cut up/split/re-sequenced in ways that don’t completely make musical sense. Granted, this may be less of a problem if you’re less familiar with that 1991 recording than I am; even so, it seems a strange choice to make when the score has always been the piece’s biggest asset.

This production, at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, makes a very strong case for the material, though, and director Bronagh Lagan redeems herself here for her abysmal revival of Promises, Promises at the Southwark Playhouse a couple of years ago, which was so bad that her name on the credits almost stopped me from buying a ticket for this. There’s a real sense of community among the cast, Gregor Donnelly’s set somehow makes stacks of suitcases resemble the Lower East Side tenement blocks around which most of the plot takes place, the band (four musicians backstage augmented by four actor-musicians among the ensemble) sounds terrific, and Rebecca Trehearn is giving an absolutely luminous performance as Rebecca. No, she doesn’t have the kind of huge operatic voice you hear in Julia Migenes’s performance on the recording (and that audiences at the original Broadway production must have heard from Theresa Stratas), but she’s a glorious singer and an honest actor, and her rendition of Rebecca’s big anthem ‘Children of the Wind’ at the climax of the second act is very moving indeed.

There’s an excellent ensemble surrounding her, with particularly memorable work from Lydia White as Bella, the young woman Rebecca befriends on the boat to America, from Valda Aviks as a shrewd but charming widow with her eyes on Bella’s father, and from Robert Tripolino as Sal, an Italian union organiser. The choral singing is terrific, particularly in the complex, syncopated ‘Greenhorns’ near the top of the show and the reprise of ‘Children of the Wind’ in the finale. Everybody does their best with the dialogue, and the book – yes, even in this newly-revised version – lets everybody down. Inevitably given the way the show has been chopped and changed so much over the years, we don’t have a cast of characters here so much as a parade of stereotypes. It’s been refashioned from an ensemble piece into what more or less amounts to a vehicle for the actor playing Rebecca, but Thompson doesn’t give her enough to play with. We know she escaped a pogrom, that her husband is dead (that’s a rewrite, and a smart one; her husband was a significant – and obnoxious – character in the original version of the show, and her backstory works better if she’s a widow), that she’s a decent woman and a good mother,  that she can sew, and that arriving in America gives her a push towards a far more independent lifestyle than she’d imagined for herself in Russia… and that’s more or less it, and it’s a story that’s been told many times before, usually more compellingly than it is in Thompson’s book.

Some significant musical material has been cut, too, including a late-in-act-two aria called ‘Dancing With the Fools’; that cut in particular robs Rebecca of a certain amount of depth, although Trehearn somewhat manages to paper over the cracks. Songs are cut up and split apart in ways that are baffling if you know the score from the recording; we hear, for example, the verse of ‘Children of the Wind’ a full act and a half before we hear the (beautiful) refrain. Characters have been cut, new characters have been introduced, and some musical material has been switched between characters, not always to good effect; it makes theatrical sense to turn the title song into the Act One finale, but since this version of the show is Rebecca’s story rather than Bella’s, the song is made into a duet between Rebecca and Bella rather than a solo for Bella. That might not be a problem if the lyrics had been completely rewritten, but they haven’t been, and the song – a howl of rage at having travelled across an ocean to live in poverty in a slum – does not entirely fit the character Trehearn has established by that point in the show, although there’s absolutely nothing wrong with her performance of it. The main portion of the song sounds like the kind of outburst that would come from a much younger woman, probably one who isn’t a mother – which of course fits the character it was originally written for. In the original version of the song, Bella’s father tries to talk her down; here, those lines are given to Bella, and arguments written from the perspective of a middle-aged father just sound plain unconvincing coming from a late-teenage girl. The (re)writing in that section of the show significantly undercuts both the performers and the song; it’s still a powerful moment, but – like a lot of the show – it would be so much more powerful if the lyrics consistently sounded as if they were written for the character(s) singing them.

Having said that, it’s worth seeing. This is not a show that’s going to be done often in the UK, and even though this production messes with the score in ways that don’t improve it, the best moments are certainly memorable, and while Bronagh Lagan doesn’t completely solve every problem in the writing, this is a strong production of difficult material, and it’s wonderful to see a regional fringe theatre take this material on and do such a loving job with it.

There are, however, a couple of things Hope Mill could (still) learn about the audience experience. Now, yes, I booked for the first preview, and first previews happen after a rush of activity that is sometimes difficult to complete within the allotted time. The show I saw was in excellent shape and you’d never have guessed it was the first public performance. HOWEVER, the performance ended up beginning thirty minutes late, and I’m afraid that demonstrates a certain disdain for the audience. This is Greater Manchester, not London; the transport system here shuts down earlier than you might expect (and certainly earlier than it should), and that’s even more the case the further you go from the city centre. For me, that thirty-minute delay was the difference between being able to get all the way home by tram/bus and having to use a taxi for the last part of the journey. The cost of the taxi won’t break me, but it’s money that needn’t have been wasted; there was an apology from the director at the top of the show, but it was sufficiently vague that it did nothing to dispel the suspicion that this production’s creative team consider themselves more important than their audience, which is exactly the wrong way around. Stay later the night before, show up earlier on the day, but fix your problems on YOUR time, not mine, and don’t waste my money because you failed to meet a deadline.

And when you advertise that your lobby/cafe/bar will be open from ninety minutes before showtime for drinks/coffee/light meals/whatever, it is unacceptably rude to keep customers who show up at the opening time you’ve advertised on your website and on the tickets waiting outside the door for twenty minutes because the director and her creative team haven’t got their shit together. That, again, suggests an attitude towards customers that is somewhere between disdain and contempt, particularly since at this theatre’s location there is nowhere else to go. Hope Mill, don’t get me wrong, is a wonderful facility, and a real asset to Manchester’s cultural scene – but the arrogance with which they treated patrons last Saturday night isn’t a good look for them. The work they present is fascinating; their manners, unfortunately, seem to leave a great deal to be desired.

 

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Spend your money somewhere else.

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In the title role in Nottingham Playhouse‘s revival of Alan Bennett‘s The Madness of George III, Mark Gatiss delivers a breathtaking, stunning, dazzling star turn.

Well, delivered, it’s closed now. Lucky you, that means you’ll get to see Mr. Gatiss’s marvellous performance via one of the NT Live Encore screenings, which would have to be a more enjoyable experience than visiting the Nottingham Playhouse. I’ve had asthma attacks that were more enjoyable than visiting the Nottingham Playhouse.

Unfortunately when the overall experience of visiting a theatre is thoroughly unpleasant for reasons that have nothing to do with anything on the stage, it makes it difficult to write a fair review. I’ve sat on this for a couple of weeks – I saw the production at the matinée on November 22nd – and I’ve simmered down a bit, but I’m afraid the impression the theatre gave me from their staff’s behaviour outside the auditorium – I won’t be going back there anytime soon – left a stronger taste than the production itself.

I could start with the casual, offhanded rudeness of the woman behind the box office counter when I picked up my ticket – I’ve done my share of crap customer service jobs, I know perfectly well that people in those positions are underpaid and overworked and usually way overqualified and I certainly don’t expect bowing and scraping, but the least you can do is look up when someone speaks to you instead of handing over the ticket without pausing for breath in your not-work-related conversation with your colleague.

It didn’t add to the experience, either, that rows A, B, and C in the stalls were lacking any signage indicating that they were rows A, B, and C, which led to a certain amount of confusion as people took their seats for the performance. By this time, though, I’d already visited the café, which means any inclination I might have had to give the venue the benefit of the doubt had long since evaporated.

The Playhouse café looks quite nice, doesn’t it? Missing from the description on the website is the chief decorative feature the day of my visit: two small (and admittedly extremely cute) puppies in a hamster cage on the floor next to the drinks fridge. They were very small puppies, true, but they were in a hamster cage. They did not appear to be in distress, and I admit I didn’t take a photograph or phone the RSPCA – but while I’ve never kept dogs myself, I’m not aware of that being the recommended daytime environment for even a very small puppy, never mind two of them. They’d got what had clearly been a water dish, but – being puppies – they had somehow managed to upend it. It contained no water, and one of them was chewing it. As I said, they did not appear to be in distress, but I found the sight startling.

I found it startling enough that I was going to say something, but the lady behind me in the queue got there first, and asked the young woman behind the counter whether the dogs were OK. The question was asked perfectly politely, and out of genuine (and reasonable) concern, and this relatively mild inquiry was met with what I can only describe as a full-blown temper tantrum, delivered as subtext. She managed to restrain herself from offering the full Violet Elizabeth Bott, for which I suppose we should all be thankful, but she did manage to grind out a terse “they’re fine” while simultaneously conveying her fervent hope that anybody who dared express their concern for these poor animals would die a protracted and painful death, preferably right in front of her and with a video replay afterwards. Before she turned her back we were treated to a volley of the kind of glares that could precipitate a new ice age, and this was accompanied by a great deal of theatrical tensing of shoulders and banging of dishes. She was clearly Not Pleased, and intended to put some effort into showing it.

By this time I’d got to the front of the queue, and was trying to order my lunch from her colleague/partner on the till. If anything, he radiated even more hostility; I tried to order their set lunch – £8.25 for a ‘lunch item’, a side dish, and a dessert. That’s a good deal… if you get it. First the gentleman tried to charge me something over £14 for it – a sum that could not be arrived at by adding the prices of the individual item I’d asked for as the ‘lunch item’ – a piece of quiche – and the drink on my tray, or by adding the cost of the lunch deal and the drink on my tray, or by adding together any possible combination of the things I was in the process of trying to order. Far be it from me to suggest that someone is systematically trying to overcharge customers who they think are in a hurry and won’t notice… but it very much looked like someone was systematically trying to overcharge customers who they think are in a hurry and won’t notice. When I pointed out that the total was incorrect, he made a great show of voiding the transaction and starting again, as if asking not to be overcharged by over a fiver made me unusually difficult. When I asked what the side salads were, Ms. Violet Elizabeth Bott, Keeper of Dogs, served the list of salad options with another side order of I-hope-you-die, and when I asked for the chickpea and couscous salad she walloped a spoonful of it into a dish and then slammed it down on the counter in front of me with a force that measured on the Richter scale. The quiche and salad were delivered without cutlery or a napkin; the ‘lunch deal’ includes a dessert item, and I wasn’t even given the chance to order it. As soon as Ms. Sense-Of-Entitlement-Has-Its-Own-Postcode slammed the salad down in front of me, she and her colleague turned their backs on me and got on with the serious business of ruining somebody else’s day.

Now, sure, I should have made a scene, made a noise, demanded what I’d paid for. It was about 45 minutes until showtime, I’d been out of the house since 7.30am, my day had already included a flu jab and a two-hour journey on East Midlands Trains, and at that point I just wanted to get out of there. I had a plastic spoon in my bag so I wasn’t reduced to eating the chickpea and couscous salad with my fingers; I ate the quiche with the spoon too, because any alternative would have involved another conversation with the rampaging egomaniacs behind the counter. No thank you.

And to add insult to insult, the quiche had a soggy bottom.

Of course the result of all of this is that by the time the lights went down I wasn’t in anything close to the right mood to appreciate Mark Gatiss’s flawless performance as the King, Adrian Scarborough‘s equally superb performance as Dr. Willis, the gallery of superb supporting turns from, well, just about everybody, but particularly from Debra Gillett as the Queen and from Louise Jameson as the duplicitous Dr. Warren, who treats the King but reports her observations to the opposition. Director Adam Penford delivers a solid revival with a handsome set (by Robert Jones) of unfolding palace walls and an exceptional cast – but if every other aspect of your visit to the theatre puts you in a terrible mood before you’ve even walked into the auditorium, you might as well stay home.

And certainly after this experience I don’t feel inclined to give any more of my money to the Nottingham Playhouse. After the performance I sought out the bar/restaurant manager; he was horrified and very apologetic – as he should have been – but it’s easy to be apologetic after the event: this is how these people feel empowered to behave towards his customers, under his supervision. Part of me thinks it’s unfair to tar the production with problems arising from peripheral aspects of the experience, but unfortunately the peripheral stuff was unpleasant enough that it turned what should have been a good day out into a distinctly lousy one. At the very least, it’s crystal clear that the Nottingham Playhouse’s front-of-house “management” – and that word is an act of great charity on my part – have no grip at all on the overall visitor experience in their venue.

One more thing: I should probably have said this further up, but I’ll say it now. If you choose to assume responsibility for a domestic animal, it is incumbent upon you to make sure you have made adequate arrangements for that animal’s safety and comfort during your working day, and indeed during any time you spend away from your home. There are no circumstances – NO circumstances – in which providing “adequate arrangements” for the care of two puppies may include shutting them in a hamster cage and then dumping it on the floor in a corner of your workplace (and it doesn’t say much for the Nottingham Playhouse that they allowed staff to do this on their premises). If you can’t manage to provide an adequate environment for animals in your care, you have NO BUSINESS taking them into your care in the first place. And if your response to a sincere, polite expression of concern about two puppies in a hamster cage is a Technicolor hissy fit, then never mind live animals: you aren’t even mature enough to be responsible for the care of a Tamagotchi.

 

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Fingers on the buzzers, please!

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Remember the coughing Major, Charles Ingram, who was tried for and convicted of cheating on the TV game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? by getting signals from plants in the studio audience via the sound of their coughs? You do? I don’t. I was living abroad at the time, and the whole thing passed me by. Whether it’s a good thing to come to Quiz, James Graham‘s new manipulative theatrical stunt play, with no preconceived notions about the central character, is questionable; the show is clearly very carefully designed to take the audience’s preconceptions and toy with them, and it may be a more compelling experience if you actually have some preconceptions going in. If you know next to nothing about the case and you’re hoping for more depth than you’d find in, say, a Wikipedia article, revise your expectations downwards. Sharply downwards.

Having said that, it’s fun. Graham’s conceit is to take the prosecution and defence cases and present them, one per act, in the style of a high-stakes gameshow, allowing the audience to vote (via digital remote controls attached to each seat) at the end of each act on whether the Ingrams – his wife was also implicated, which I might have known if I’d paid any attention to news stories about the trial, but which had also passed me by – are guilty. Graham’s writing is fast-paced, often very funny, and glib; the form dictates the content here, so information is delivered mostly in carefully-packaged bite-size chunks that slot in neatly between Keir Charles’s Teflon-smooth impersonations of a cheesy TV warm-up comedian and various gameshow hosts. The production, which is designed to the hilt by Robert Jones to look as if it’s taking place on the set of a gameshow in a TV studio, is a tremendously entertaining theatrical experience, but there’s a more probing play to be written about the people at the heart of this scandal – the Ingrams, yes, but also the behaviour of the TV executives and lawyers behind the show, which appears to have been far from beyond reproach, particularly in terms of how they presented their evidence against the Ingrams and their alleged co-conspirators – and this is not it. This, instead, is a clever exercise in manipulation: we see the prosecution case in the first act, and are invited to vote on the Ingrams’ guilt after the summation, and the result is inevitable – and then in the second half, we see the defence case, are invited to vote again, and the result is clearly expected to be somewhat different (it wasn’t as different at the performance I saw – the matinee on April 12th – as it apparently usually is at most performances). There are points to be made about the perils of trial by public opinion and – in particular – the vast, yawning chasm between whether someone actually committed a crime versus whether the prosecution proved the case against them beyond reasonable doubt, and Graham mostly glosses over them – but again, to give the benefit of the doubt, perhaps Graham’s point of view, if it extends beyond simply showing how people can be manipulated, comes across more clearly if you know more about the case going in than I did, which wouldn’t be difficult.

The play, then, might not be a masterpiece, but Daniel Evans‘s production of it, which has now transferred to the West End after a successful run last year at Chichester, is pretty much perfect. It is difficult to imagine the play working at all without all the bells and whistles – the devices allowing the audience to vote (a show of hands wouldn’t generate the same tension, because you would be able to see the result all around you as you voted), the video screens, the garish Saturday-night-on-ITV light show, the music and all the rest of it, and Evans manages the difficult trick of orchestrating all of these very, very LOUD elements in a way that doesn’t overshadow the cast. More than that, he draws a very fine, very dignified performance from Gavin Spokes as Ingram, and a carefully calculated did-she-didn’t-she turn from Stephanie Street as Diana Ingram, the Major’s possibly-duplicitous wife. The supporting roles are more caricatures than characters, but the show has a terrific ensemble cast and everyone gets a couple of moments in the sun. There’s some mild audience participation – if you want to avoid being called out, DON’T sit in the front row of the onstage seating areas – but it’s all slick, carefully-managed, good-natured fun, which is also a good-enough description of the show as a whole. It isn’t earth-shattering, and you may emerge longing for an analysis of this story that has a bit more depth to it, but you’ll have a good time.

Oh yes, one more thing – a big shout-out to the usher covering the house-right door into the Royal Circle at the matinee on April 12th. It was just fabulous for those of us sitting near the door to hear you talking into your headset all the way through both acts. I’m sure James Graham designed his play very carefully so that it would be enhanced by the sound of a boorish usher holding a non-work conversation with colleagues over her headset while sitting at the back of the house while the lights were down. It really added to the experience. Well done to the house manager at the Noel Coward Theatre – you’ve clearly trained your staff beautifully.

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Ready for her close-up

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She’s ba-ack!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slave to the rhythm

cotton panic

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Double your fun…

duke of yorks glass menagerieaudra leicester square

Or, two (almost) perfect theatrical experiences in a single day.

I can’t say that The Glass Menagerie has ever been my favourite play, and it’s difficult for me to read it without thinking of For Whom The Southern Belle Tolls, Christopher Durang‘s brutal parody, and dissolving into giggles. Sometimes, though, it’s the actors who pull you into the theatre rather than the play they’re appearing in, and so it is here: I’d never seen Cherry Jones in a play, I had a (very rare) free afternoon in London, and Today Tix had a whopper of a special offer (stalls seats for £15). So I booked.

It didn’t completely change my mind about the play, but the production is more or less perfect. There’s no escaping that this is a memory play: Bob Crowley’s stylised set, which suspends the Wingfields’ apartment above a reflecting pool into which characters onstage occasionally peer, combines with stylised entrances (Laura makes her first entrance and her last exit through the back of a sofa) and Steven Hoggett’s falling-through-space movement in the transitions between Tom’s narration and the flashback scenes to make it very clear that we’re watching a recollection rather than a naturalistic scene set in the characters’ present. John Tiffany’s staging is flawless, Nico Muhly’s music is shimmeringly lovely, and everyone involved gets the tone exactly right. This is material that can teeter on the edge of self-parody; make the performances half a shade too big, or make Laura half a shade too childlike, or push Amanda half a shade too far towards the stereotype of the flightly Southern Belle, and it can easily become (inappropriately) hilarious, which is the reason that Durang parody is so devastating. This is an acknowledged classic, but it’s also a very easy play to ruin.

Here, fortunately, all four performances are exceptional. Michael Esper conveys Tom’s anger and restlessness, but also the odd codependency in his relationship with his mother. Kate O’Flynn’s Laura is childlike at times, but never childish; she’s horribly vulnerable, but it’s always clear that if the right doors opened, she could find a way to live in the adult world, and Amanda’s hopes for her do not, here, seem entirely delusional. Her scene with Brian J. Smith’s gentleman caller is truly lovely – a far more hopeful take on the conversation than is often the case, and again there is the sense that if things were different, if he wasn’t already going steady with the unseen Betty, there would be a real possibility of a future for them. And Cherry Jones’s Amanda is sublime – a straight-backed, dignified, practical woman who has engineered her family’s (financial) survival through the Depression despite her husband’s absence, and who clings tenaciously to the past but does not live there. I went mostly to see Jones, but I’m glad I saw all four; these are very, very fine performances indeed, and they’re surrounded by an exceptionally strong production.

And then, in the evening, something completely different: an informal concert by the (deservedly) much-lauded American actress and singer Audra McDonald, accompanied by Seth Rudetsky on the piano, with a guest appearance from Will Swenson, Ms. McDonald’s husband, who came out and sang two songs while she went backstage to tend to their six-month-old baby. To say the performance was a joy from beginning to end would be a serious understatement: Ms. McDonald is one of the greats, and very few people can put a song across as well as she can, but she’s also a warm, funny, thoroughly down-to-earth presence, and she doesn’t carry even the slightest hint of the diva (take note, Ms. LuPone).

She also – I’m starting to gush and I don’t care – knows her way around the repertoire, and her choice of material extends far beyond the parade of gold-plated standards we’ve all heard every single musical theatre actor who ever lived sing a thousand times. So yes, we got I Could Have Danced All Night – but she encouraged the audience to sing along, including the big substitute high notes at the end, and we also got Go Back Home from The Scottsboro Boys, Adam Gwon’s wrenching I’ll Be Here from his musical Ordinary Days, Jason Robert Brown’s Stars and the Moon (which Ms. McDonald was rather too young to sing when she recorded it way back in 1998), and Bock and Harnick’s glorious When Did I Fall In Love? (from Fiorello!). Ms. McDonald is a Juilliard-trained soprano, and her voice is exquisite, but she’s also a superb actress and a formidably skilled interpreter of song lyrics (three things that by no means always go together), and to hear her sing from a distance of about twenty feet is about as pure a theatrical high as you’ll ever find.

The evening’s informality helped: Mr. Rudetsky proved a genial host, the chatter between songs was spontaneous, genuinely illuminating, and sometimes very funny, and if you haven’t heard a Juilliard-trained classical lyric soprano impersonating Billie Holiday singing I Dreamed a Dream and A New Argentina then trust me, you haven’t lived (and I’ll certainly be back in London later this year to see Ms. McDonald play Billie Holiday at Wyndham’s). Mr. Swenson’s two songs were great fun – I’d have said I don’t really need to hear Stars from Les Misérables out of context, but few people can have sung it better, and his Pirate King was hilarious. It was, as I said, simply an absolute joy to be there.

So, two perfect productions, plus one wonderful catch-up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in the best part of two decades between them. A perfect day? Not quite. It wouldn’t be me if there wasn’t some kind of wrinkle. The show was sold as a 90-minute performance with a start time of 8.45pm; from Leicester Square, that leaves plenty of time to make the 11pm train home from Euston, right? The tickets, furthermore, were unequivocal about punctuality:

LST

You can guess what happened. We got to the theatre about twenty minutes before the published start time to find a long queue of people snaking up the street into Chinatown. The theatre’s front-of-house staff didn’t start letting us in until a couple of minutes before showtime, and the performance started around fifteen minutes late, which isn’t good news when you’ve got a train to catch, particularly when you’ve got to travel about two hundred miles and there isn’t a later one. An usher, when I asked, told me it was a ninety-minute performance and it would definitely be over by ten-thirty. It wasn’t, and I had to dash out of there during the bows and skip the encore. Much as I hate to be that person who rushes up the aisle towards the exit during the curtain-call, this time I had no choice. I made my train, but just barely. In a city where theatres draw from as wide a catchment area as they do in London, it’s not really good enough for a house management to delay a show without explanation, particularly later on in the evening, and doing so may well force people into making a run for it before the show is completely finished. Don’t get me wrong, the show was a wonderful experience and I wouldn’t have missed it – but thanks to the late start, I also got slightly less than I paid for, in that I didn’t get to hear Ms. McDonald’s whole performance.

So – not quite a perfect day, but close. A great play, a collection of great songs, a handful of great actors, one of the great musical theatre voices of our time… and a mad dash up the Northern Line at the end. You can’t win ’em all.