Small ones are more juicy!

No, this isn’t an orange advert from 1985. Playing catch-up again: three small musicals, in (coincidentally) diminishing order of size, seen over the last month or so.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

Yes, the second attempt at a musical based on the great Sue Townsend’s greatest creation. It’s slick, funny, and tuneful, and you’d be hard-pressed not to have a good time – but perhaps it plays up the laughs at the expense of the source material’s underlying pathos a little bit too much, and it certainly sands a lot of the sharpest edges off Townsend’s social satire.

It is, though, absolutely charming, Luke Sheppard directs it with enormous panache, the children are spectacularly good, and Rosemary Ashe is a one-woman riot as Adrian’s hyper-judgmental grandmother. Pippa Cleary and Jake Brunger’s score works beautifully in context, but you won’t necessarily walk out of the theatre humming the tunes… apart from Doreen Slater’s magnificently brassy New Best Friend, which is sung to the hilt by Lara Denning. Is it a problem that a relatively incidental character gets (by far) the best number in the show? Maybe.

Blues In The Night

A revue by Sheldon Epps built around a glorious stack of American jazz standards from the 1930s and 1940s – Bessie Smith, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke, Alberta Hunter et al. It’s a small show, first seen in London over thirty years ago – I am just about old enough to remember watching the original London production on television, it was broadcast on (I think) BBC2 somewhere around 1989 – in which the songs are carefully but rather loosely strung together around four characters (three women, one man) in a hotel in Chicago. You come to this show for the songs rather than the plot.

Having said that, director Susie McKenna has clearly done a lot of detailed work with her cast; the four central actors in the show all clearly have a story, even if it’s clearer to them than to us, and there’s a clear narrative arc here. Given how thin the show’s structure is, that’s an achievement. And these singers – Sharon D. Clarke, Debbie Kurup, Gemma Sutton, and Clive Rowe – are simply magnificent. Sitting in the front row as Sharon D. Clarke tears into Lover Man about four feet away from me might well turn out to be the biggest theatrical thrill I get this year.

Musik

A one-hour cabaret with a script by Jonathan Harvey and songs by Pet Shop Boys, featuring Billie Trix, a character they introduced in their musical Closer To Heaven (no, I didn’t see the recent revival), and performed here by Frances Barber, who originated the role in Closer To Heaven 18 years ago. You don’t need to have seen Closer to Heaven to ‘get it’ – fortunately, since I haven’t – and you also probably don’t need to be a Pet Shop Boys fan, although (all but one of) their songs here are excellent. Harvey’s script packs in more laughs per square inch than you’d think possible, and Frances Barber nails them all.

This is a masterclass, actually, in how to take one joke – really, just one joke – and spin it out for an hour. Billie is a fabulous creation, a grizzled, ageing rock chick in the Nico/Marianne Faithfull mode – but her schtick is that throughout her life, while she’s enjoyed a miraculously Zelig-like ability to land in the right place at the right time, everyone she’s ever encountered has stolen her act. And that’s everyone, from Nico to Warhol to Tracey Emin to the current inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Barber delivers the studiedly outrageous lines – one joke about a K-hole left my neighbour gasping for breath – with an absolutely straight face, and is all the funnier for it, and her singing is, well, unique. Imagine the love-child of Carol Channing and Tom Waits after three bottles of whiskey and an unfeasible quantity of smack and you’ll be in the ballpark. It’s a brilliant star turn, and when she rips into the climax of Friendly Fire – one of the two songs borrowed from Closer to Heaven – the force of her performance pins you to your seat.

Like a rolling stone

OVGirl

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a Bob Dylan jukebox musical or a play with Bob Dylan songs? Well… no, no, and take your pick. The programme lists twenty Dylan songs, drawn from every corner of his career, but this isn’t a greatest hits show, and you won’t hear Blowin’ in the Wind. The songs don’t function the ways the numbers would in a conventional musical; instead, they serve more or less as a live soundtrack to Conor McPherson‘s grab-bag of stories about Duluth (of course, Dylan’s birthplace) during the depression.

On paper, it probably shouldn’t work. McPherson’s script throws together a disparate collection of People With Problems in a rooming-house that is basically the Minnesota equivalent of the Last Chance Saloon. Nick, the owner (Ciaran Hinds) is mortgaged up to his eyeballs and the bank is about to foreclose. His wife Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson) has dementia, and her lucid moments are few and far between. Their son Gene (Sam Reid) is an unemployed drunk, and their daughter Marianne (Sheila Atim), a black foundling they adopted, is mysteriously pregnant. Throw in a sexy widow, a boxer, a malevolent, blackmailing Bible salesman, an on-the-lam apparently middle-class family with a really dark secret, a shoe salesman, and the widowed family doctor, and you’ve got basically the full deck of depression-era clichés crammed together under a single roof for two acts. It could easily be deadly.

That it isn’t is partly down to the performances and musical arrangements, and partly due to the clever way McPherson uses the songs to amplify or comment on the content of the surrounding scenes. The result is a show where the point is less the story itself and more the unlocking of the delicate poetry inside Dylan’s songs – poetry which is only sometimes (there are people who’d throttle me for saying this) apparent in his own performances. It’s hardly a spoiler, given the nature of McPherson’s plot, to say that by the climax of the second act, pretty much everyone’s chickens have come home to roost, and there isn’t much incident in the show that you won’t see coming ten minutes ahead – but what you won’t necessarily expect is the sheer beauty that McPherson, his fine cast, and orchestrator/arranger Simon Hale find in the characters, the songs, and the setting. There are four musicians – keys, violin/mandolin, guitar, and upright bass – onstage, and a couple of members of the cast take turns playing drums when needed, and it’s as if a play and a concert are sharing the same physical space. The music is almost all presented diegetically, with the actors not singing the lead in a given song providing backup vocals; the play and the songs are carefully woven around each other so that while each could stand alone, they’re immeasurably stronger together. At the close of the first act, when the remarkable Shirley Henderson grabs the microphone and tears into Like a Rolling Stone, it’s as if she’s giving voice not simply to every character on the stage, but to an entire era. McPherson’s play offers a collection of characters on a collision course with life, and the song amplifies their frustration in a way that dialogue simply couldn’t match. It’s a mesmerising performance – simultaneously chilling and intensely moving.

There are fine performances, too, from Arinzé Kene as the boxer, Debbie Kurup as an impecunious widow waiting for her ship to come in – her Went To See The Gypsy is another musical standout – and especially from Sheila Atim as the pregnant Marianne. Atim gives the character an extraordinary, quiet dignity; you can’t take your eyes off her, and her gorgeously understated performance of Tight Connection to My Heart may well be as felicitous a meeting of singer and song as you’ll hear in a theatre this year. Ciaran Hinds is very good indeed in a role that doesn’t stretch him. Rae Smith’s spare, suspended-in-space set, with moody projections of Minnesota landscapes on flown-in flats, is tremendously evocative, and McPherson’s detailed but unshowy direction somehow manages to make a piece that probably shouldn’t work at all make perfect sense.

If you walk into the theatre expecting a performance that works along the lines of a traditional musical, then, you’ll probably be disappointed. The best way to approach Girl from the North Country is probably as a kind of two-act theatrical tone poem. Taken alone, the stories McPherson tells about these characters are too thin to sustain two full acts. Paired with the Dylan songs – and with Hale’s hauntingly lovely musical arrangements – the whole is much, much greater than the sum of the parts. You’ll pick all kinds of holes in the script afterwards, but as an experience this show is – surprisingly – moving, memorable, and genuinely beautiful, none of which are words you’d usually expect to apply to a jukebox musical.

Just keep your fingers crossed for a cast album. Once you’ve heard them once, these are performances you’ll want to keep.

 

 

Is that a pink envelope down your underpants, or are you just pleased to see me?

 

There are people who’d probably have me shot for saying this: as much as I love the score, actually attending a production of The Threepenny Opera is not always particularly high on any list of things I’d like to do. Possibly that’s a result of having sat through rather too many po-faced classroom dissections of Brecht, or maybe it’s residual trauma from a University of Toronto School of Music production years ago which, while beautifully sung, took the ‘opera’ part of the title a little bit too seriously. It was performed on a set that could have doubled for a revival of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West,   and the director and cast approached the material with such humourless reverence that I think I aged five years during the three hours or so it took to sit through the show. The National Theatre‘s new revival, though, offers a “new adaptation” by Simon Shepherd, a spectacular cast, and the chance to hear the music presented in a way that closely resembles the original 1928 production, and Travelex tickets are very reasonable. And I’d forgotten, when I booked, how back-breakingly uncomfortable the seats in the Olivier can be.

Fortunately it was well worth the lower back pain. Translator/adapter Simon Stephens and director Rufus Norris both, thank God, understand that the material works best when it’s delivered with an underlying sense of fun, rather than as a straight-faced sit-up-and-eat-your-broccoli treatise on the corruption at the heart of so-called “civilised” society. This might be as close as you’ll get to Brecht-as-musical-comedy, but it works: Norris’s production is a gleefully nasty, funny/brutal ride through London’s underworld, and it’s tremendously entertaining.

It is not, though, quite pure, unadulterated Brecht and Weill. Stephens’s “new adaptation” isn’t exactly a top-down rewrite of the original, but it’s more than simply a loose (and very sweary) translation of the script. All the plot points you expect are present and correct; the biggest change is the addition of The Pink Envelope, a dossier of blackmail material on the future king which Macheath keeps in his underpants, which  (spoiler alert) becomes the means by which Polly secures Macheath’s release from prison in the final scene. It certainly works, and makes for a couple of amusing sight gags, and it means the ending, in this production, makes some kind of dramatic sense – but this change also subverts Brecht’s satirical point about the inherent ludicrousness of happy endings in a certain kind of popular entertainment. Purists might scream; I enjoyed it. There’s also, because there weren’t enough great numbers in this score already, the addition of Surabaya-Johnny as an extra number for Jenny Diver. Again, it works; whether it’s necessary is an entirely different question.

It does, though, give Sharon Small a bit more to do, and that’s always welcome. Her broken Glaswegian doll of a Jenny is this production’s beating heart, and she gives Jenny a compelling combination of ferocity and fragility. She doesn’t have the greatest singing voice in the cast (her single other musical credit, at least as listed in this production’s programme, is the Donmar’s revival of The Threepenny Opera twenty-odd years ago, in which she played Polly; I saw it and have the recording, and I’d somehow completely forgotten it was her), but she’s a formidable actress, and her Surabaya-Johnny is surprisingly moving.

If Sharon Small provides the production’s heart, Rosalie Craig’s Polly Peachum is undoubtedly its brain. Craig’s Polly is a seemingly straight-laced, bespectacled school swot with an inner core of pure steel. It goes without saying that her singing is glorious – her face-off with Debbie Kurup’s feisty, funny Lucy Brown in the Jealousy Duet is by far the production’s musical highlight, with her Pirate Jenny running it a very close second – but it’s a fascinating acting performance too; for once, a character who often seems like a cardboard cutout is rendered in three dimensions. This Polly knows she’s the cleverest person in the room; she’s simultaneously warmly engaging and icily dispassionate, and from the moment Craig tears into Pirate Jenny it’s clear we’re watching a truly formidable woman. And to cap it all, she can’t half time a comic belch.

The production’s comedic tone, on the other hand, is set by the wonderful Nick Holder and Haydn Gwynne as Polly’s lowlife parents. Gwynne’s Mrs. Peachum is an acid-tongued, perpetually hungover riot – all sharp edges and hard angles, like Olive Oyl painted by Otto Dix (her halter-necked long red dress is a direct replica of the dress worn in Dix’s Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber). Holder’s Peachum is even better – an effete, menacing, bisexual thug in Cuban heels, a sharp suit, and a Louise Brooks bob. They’re a splendid double-act – as unpleasant as they need to be, but at the same time truly funny.

There’s superb work, in fact, right across the ensemble. Everyone hits the right tone – sour, brutal, not remotely ingratiating, but with a comic edge – and everybody understands the piece’s Epic Theatre roots, but Norris, thank God, lets his company have fun with the material, and they do. Even the smallest role is perfectly cast, and there are memorable turns from Matt Cross as a perpetually-grinning policeman, George Ikediashi as a memorably velvet-voiced ballad singer (and the messenger in the final scene), and especially from Jamie Beddard as a hilariously foul-mouthed wheelchair-bound member of Macheath’s gang. The band, under the direction of David Shrubsole, offer a tight, tart rendition of Weill’s brilliant score. Norris’s staging, like Stephens’s adaptation of the text, might not be undiluted Epic Theatre, but it knows where the material comes from: this Threepenny Opera is sometimes spectacular but never pretty, and Norris and Imogen Knight, his choreographer, keep the action flowing seamlessly (and blessedly quickly) across Vicki Mortimer’s less-simple-than-it-looks set of frames, paper screens, and scenery-shop staircases.

Which leaves Rory Kinnear’s Macheath, the centre around which the rest of the production revolves. From his first entrance – from the flies aboard a silver crescent moon, ostentatiously dry-humping Rosalie Craig’s Polly – he’s certainly a commanding presence, although he never quite offers the kind of flamboyant star turn other actors have given in the role. Kinnear’s Macheath is a grim-faced, deadpan career killer – thoroughly ruthless, but he derives pride rather than joy from his work. In a production located far closer to the present day than to 1928 – we’re repeatedly told Macheath and Brown served together in Kandahar – that’s an interesting choice; there’s more than a touch of the career politician about him, and he’s as much a villain as a hero. Much has been written of Kinnear’s rediscovery of his long-dormant singing voice, apparently more or less unused since he sang in choirs as a teenager; he’s good, and he more than does the score justice, but he’s still an actor-who-sings, and in a few of the more demanding passages his lack of vocal security is obvious. He’s hardly the first actor-who-sings-a-bit to take on this role, though, and he’s certainly a better singer than Tom Hollander, who did it at the Donmar. Kinnear’s performance is, unusually, somewhat smaller than the bigger-than-life supporting turns surrounding him; it shouldn’t work, but it does, and his quietly chilling performance provides the anchor that stops the production from degenerating into an outsized Brechtian pantomime.

It could still do with losing about ten minutes, and if you need any kind of lower back support you should probably take Ibuprofen with you – really, those seats are painful – but you can’t have everything, and in more or less every other respect Norris’s production is hugely entertaining, even if you think you might be allergic to Brecht (I should admit at this point, since I haven’t already, that while I do love this score, I’m one of those people who prefers Weill’s American period). Messing around with a beloved classic is always a gamble, and usually ill-advised; in this case, Norris and Stephens’s alternative take on the material works triumphantly – though as I said, purists may throw their hands up in horror –  and you’ll go a long way before you hear a more exciting performance of this score.

Now, would it be too bourgeois of me to ask the National to make a cast album?

 

Now, God knows, anything goes

…and I sort of wish it didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just maybe skip buying a programme.