Call it hell, call it heaven…

G D M P

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

First, heaven.

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

Aaaaand… the Hell.

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

Now, God knows, anything goes

…and I sort of wish it didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just maybe skip buying a programme.

Here’s what ‘crass’ looks like:

There are some days you just don’t use as a theme for any kind of marketing initiative. No need to dwell on why – I’m sure we all know where we were and what we were doing when it happened, and have all of the horrific images etched permanently on our retinas – but today is most definitely one of them.

Apparently, unless you’re AT&T. This showed up in their Twitter feed earlier today:

crass

Classy, isn’t it? Not surprisingly, there was something of a backlash on Twitter and elsewhere; also not surprisingly, AT&T very quickly pulled the tweet and issued an “apology”:

ATT

This “apology” itself, though, makes entertaining reading. Look carefully – they apologise to anyone who felt the tweet was in poor taste, and what that means, unfortunately, is that the apology is crashingly insincere. “I’m sorry you feel I offended you” and “I’m sorry I did something offensive” are not the same thing.

At the very least, the person who came up with the concept of the original tweet must be a real piece of work, as must whoever came up with the lame fauxpology when they saw the backlash. It probably won’t, but I really hope this costs AT&T at least some customers. It deserves to.

Edit 12/9/13

…and apparently AT&T’s CEO agrees – or at least, is disturbed enough by the online backlash that it’s dawned on him that the original mealy-mouthed apology-that-isn’t is not really good enough. This morning, he provided a second apology in a post to AT&T’s consumer blog:

We’re big believers that social media is a great way to engage with our customers because the conversation is constant, personal and dynamic.

Yesterday, we did a Facebook post intended to honor those impacted by the events of 9/11. Unfortunately, the image used in the post fell woefully short of honoring the lives lost on that tragic day.

I want to personally express to our customers, employees, and all those impacted by the events of 9/11 my heart felt apologies. I consider that date a solemn occasion each year, a time when I reach out to those I was with on that awful day, share a moment of reflection for the lives lost and express my love of country. It is a day that should never be forgotten and never, ever commercialized. I commit AT&T to this standard as we move forward.

–Randall Stephenson, AT&T Chairman and CEO

That’s better, and a lot less culturally tone-deaf than the lame tweet posted yesterday. I don’t like the use of ‘impact’ as a verb (it’s not technically incorrect, but it’s inelegant; there are better ways to convey the same meaning), and it would be nice if someone who has risen to the level of CEO of a very major corporation could spell ‘heartfelt’, but it’s a reasonable effort. You will, however, note that he’s stating that 9/11 is a day that should “never, ever [be] commercialized” less than 24 hours after his corporation was widely mocked on Twitter for publishing an image that attempts to wring commercial capital out of 9/11. Possibly his attitude yesterday was not the same as his attitude today. That photograph, and the fauxpology that followed, did not spontaneously emerge from a vacuum. That photograph took planning; somebody had the idea, someone else signed off on it, probably more people still were involved in creating the actual image. The CEO sets the tone within a corporation; if any of those several people, or their superiors, “consider[ed] that date a solemn occasion each year”, they wouldn’t have put the image out there in the first place.

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?

Overheard

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.

Monkee poop

Twenty-three songs, twenty-five scenes, twenty actors, seven musicians, two acts, spies (Russian, American and British), three singing nuns… and maybe half a joke. Yes, folks, I sat through Monkee Business: The Musical, a jukebox musical based on the music of The Monkees which is now lumbering through the third week of a tryout run at the Manchester Opera House. In time, I hope, the memories will fade, the scars will begin to heal, and I’ll stop having nightmares. The show is being presented in Manchester under an initiative called Manchester Gets it First, which was created by the Ambassador Theatre Group in an attempt to position Manchester as the UK’s preeminent tryout city for large commercial theatrical productions.  Presumably something violently unpleasant happened to one of ATG’s executives somewhere in Manchester; on the evidence of this show and the dismal Ghost, which premiered here last year, the setting up of this programme in Manchester can only be construed as an act of bitter revenge.

It’s not, actually, that I think a jukebox musical based (mostly) on the back catalogue of The Monkees is an inherently stupid idea – it’s just that this jukebox musical based (mostly) on the back catalogue of The Monkees is built around an inherently stupid idea. We’re in 1968, at the height of The Monkees’ fame; a concert promoter hires four lookalikes to tour Russia, Japan, Italy, Spain, France and England as The Monkees because the band themselves are too busy to make the trip, and wacky hijinks ensue, involving spies, singing nuns (yes, they sing Dominique) and… oh, who cares? It’s not as if any of it makes sense while you’re watching it either.

It wouldn’t matter at all that the plot doesn’t make sense, of course, if any of it actually made you laugh. At all. The Monkees’ original TV series was entirely built around this kind of outlandishly farcical plot-line, and it was consistently fresh and funny. Monkee Business: The Musical is neither. It’s staler than a two-month-old Danish, and about as funny as a migraine. The show’s book was perpetrated by Peter Benedict, who should know better; I refuse to say he ‘wrote’ it because the mess of a musical that’s currently stillborn on the Opera House’s stage strongly suggests that, rather than write the show, Mr. Benedict simply spat it into a napkin after eating bad shellfish. It’s not just that the jokes don’t land – there are no jokes. There are running un-gags about how improbable future inventions like Starbucks, mobile phones and Twitter seem from the perspective of 1968, and even less funny un-gags in which characters onstage periodically break the fourth wall to comment on the artificiality of theatrical performance (“…and by the miracle of theatrical design, we’re there already!”), contained in scenes which seem to start and stop rather than begin and end and which don’t ever add up to anything you could call a coherent plot, punctuated by miscued songs. Structurally, the show isn’t just a mess. It’s an apocalypse with concert lighting, cheap sets, and a band.

You can’t really blame the actors, who do their best with the horrendous material. The four actors playing the fake Monkees – Ben Evans (Davy Jones), Stephen Kirwan (Mickey Dolenz), Tom Parsons (Mike Nesmith, giving the best performance in the show) and Oliver Savile (Peter Tork) – do their best to sell the awful script, and sometimes nearly succeed, and in their musical numbers, they’re legitimately terrific. When they’re singing, they do manage to capture the original band’s infectious sense of fun, and it’s mostly their performances of the songs that kept me from running screaming from the theatre in search of brain bleach when the interval rolled around.

The supporting cast don’t fare as well, mostly because they don’t get to sing as much. Tony Timberlake struggles manfully with a series of not-very-funny comic cameo roles, and has fun duetting with Kirwan’s Mickey Dolenz on ‘Randy Scouse Git’ in the first act. Michelle Bishop, lumbered with playing a Russian spy named Nikita Smirnoff (I know, and that’s about as funny as the show gets), does a good job of slinking around in leather and singing the Beatles’ ‘Back in the USSR’ (why?), and it isn’t her fault that there are more laughs in the last ten minutes of Medea than she manages to raise in this. She clearly has excellent comic timing, but she’s given nothing to use it on. Scarlette Douglas plays a traffic warden, and sings ‘My Boy Lollipop’. I hope she knows why, because I don’t. Cassandra Compton, similarly, does a really good job with her big number, ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’ (the Monkees were not big on solo songs for women), but despite her best efforts she can’t manage to sell a role that stubbornly refuses to make any kind of sense.  And that’s true, more or less, of the rest of the cast. When they sing, even given that the musical staging is usually uninspiring, the show starts to come to life – but then the song ends, and it dies again, and the cast can’t resuscitate it because there was no life in the script to begin with. Even the usually-reliable Linal Haft is defeated by the role of the promoter. I know he can be funny, I’ve seen him do it before, but all he’s given here is a series of shyster stereotypes and the weakest catchphrase ever written (“You wouldn’t like it!”), and it isn’t enough.

(Fact about Mr. Haft – his wife, also an actor, has the best name in showbiz, bar none: Buster Skeggs. She’s really good, too – once upon a time, she was a hysterically funny Amy in Company at the Oldham Coliseum, and she was also an excellent Carlotta in Follies at the Leicester Haymarket.)

None of the actors are helped by the show’s director, David Taylor, whose work is… rudimentary, meaning that it almost rises to the level of Peter Benedict’s book. This kind of show needs pace and energy, and he gives it neither; it just sort of sits there, which means that there’s no comic momentum whatsoever, which leaves you, unfortunately, with ample time to contemplate the many, many shortcomings in the writing (and the person seated about ten rows in front of me who was texting all the way through Act Two). Again, I know he’s done good work before, even in comedy, because I’ve seen it; presumably, for some reason, he chose not to here. Morgan Large’s costumes – straight out of Austin Powers, a far funnier take on the same milieu – are sometimes witty, and his set, which consists mostly of cutout buildings that look like something from a pop-art pop-up book, demonstrates that at least someone involved in the show had something resembling an idea. What he didn’t get is much of a budget; the set looks cheap, although the costumes don’t. The lighting (by James Whiteside) is appropriately lurid. The band, led by Richard Beadle, are excellent, and so is Clem Rawlins’ sound design – it’s a rock musical, so it’s loud, but you can actually hear all of the lyrics, even in the ensemble numbers, and that doesn’t happen as often as you’d think.

And the Monkees’ songs, in fact, do stand up to the jukebox musical treatment, even when they’re surrounded by a show that’s mostly really, really terrible. There are strong, surprisingly durable, thoroughly entertaining pop classics that still sound fresh and fun forty-odd years after they were first released. It’s easy to see the attraction in building a jukebox musical around them, and it’s a great shame that this production’s creative personnel have so thoroughly botched the show they’ve created (I mean, really – at times, I found myself longing for the wit and subtlety of Ben Elton’s book for We Will Rock You, which is possibly the most appallingly crass long-running hit musical London has ever seen). This is the first tryout run, of course, so there’s theoretically time for work to be done, but the odds of this succeeding are not good: the theatre was less than a quarter full, and the show’s third booking (in Sunderland) has been cancelled due to poor ticket sales (the Glasgow performances next week are going ahead, although a glance at the King’s Theatre website suggests that ticket sales there are also pretty dire). Clearly it needs a major overhaul if it’s ever going to reach the West End (or the end of next week); firing Mr. Taylor and Mr. Benedict would be a good place to start, because what this show smacks of, more than anything else, is cynical people who should know better turning in fifth-rate work on a show they intend to palm off on a provincial audience that they condescendingly assume will buy whatever dreck they choose to sell as long as it comes packaged with familiar songs, attractive performers and a flashy light show. The actors and band deserve better, and should run Mr. Taylor and Mr. Benedict out of the theatre, possibly with pitchforks and burning torches, for stranding them in this mess.

But hey, at least Manchester Gets It First. Glasgow, you have been warned.

Unenchanted evening

Or rather, afternoon, although Thursday evening was in some ways similarly unenchanting. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Today, I’m afraid, was just one of those days. I had a ticket this afternoon to the UK tour of South Pacific at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. I love the show, it’s a terrific production, I was looking forward to it. I left home just before 12.30pm to catch a bus into the city – or rather, to catch a bus to somewhere where I could catch a bus into the city – and arrived at the stop a few minutes before the bus (supposed to run every thirty minutes) was due. And I waited… and waited, and waited, and waited, until 1.15pm, thirteen minutes after the following bus was supposed to have come and gone, at which point I realised that even if a bus turned up at that very moment, there was basically no way the bus was going to get me into Manchester in time to make a 2.30pm curtain up at the Palace. I called a taxi. It’s about eleven miles from here into Manchester via the route the taxi took; the fare was significantly expensive. That, I’m afraid, is what you run the risk of getting when you travel with First Manchester. Today was the sixth time in two weeks that I have had to wait for over thirty minutes for one of their services, and they have, in fact, just been fined by the regulator because their services are so consistently unreliable, so I’m a little curious to know what their managing director, Mr. Richard Soper, does to earn his presumably very comfortable salary. Given the generally appalling standard of the bus service around here, I assume not much.

So I wasn’t in a great mood when I got to the theatre, and the fun was only just beginning. The really special portion of the day began when the house lights went down. Between the candy wrappers, the talking, the nearly constant procession of people getting up during the performance to go to the loo, and the cell phones, there was very little of the first half that wasn’t in some way interrupted by some kind of breach of audience etiquette. And the crisps. Oh my God, the crisps. Is bringing large bags of designer crisps to the theatre now a thing? Is it what people do? Because it’s completely obnoxious. If you add the constant munching, crunching, and rustling of plastic wrappers to the talking and the cellphones… well, I might as well have been watching the show from a seat in the food court at a mall.

Unfortunately, when it comes to audience etiquette, the Palace’s management are a useless waste of space. This afternoon, they didn’t even make any announcement asking people to switch off their mobile phones before the show started – so guess what? In the part of the theatre where I was sitting, phones went off three times in the first half and twice in the second. The front-of-house staff, of course, were nowhere to be seen at the interval. They did, however, take the time to open the outside doors – yes, to the street – before the show’s final scene was over. The street is up a flight of stairs from where I was sitting, true, but the moment when Emile appears from the verandah to join Nellie and the children singing ‘Dites-Moi’ at the end of the show was – how can I say this nicely? – not improved at all by the addition of a blast of cold air and traffic noise from Whitworth Street outside. And that’s a pity; an understudy was on as Emile – Stephen John Davis, he was superb, and his ‘This Nearly Was Mine’ raised goosebumps and stopped the show – and it would have been nice to let him get to the end of his (terrific) performance without outside interference. Particularly since, God knows, there was enough interference going in inside the auditorium already.

And unfortunately this sort of appalling audience behaviour is becoming more and more common. The audience was equally delightful when I saw this production during its first stint at the Palace last year, and at a screening of the New York Philharmonic‘s concert of Sondheim‘s Company the other night the two “ladies” sitting behind me had brought sandwiches from home – wrapped in aluminium foil, which they were incapable of unwrapping quietly. They, too, had brought crisps, although their crisps were slightly quieter than the aluminium foil.

I’ve written before that Company is a favourite show of mine; the concert was great fun, and even Ms. Patti LuPone (of whom I am not always a fan) was on her best behaviour, by which I mean her performance did actually include some consonants. Not all of them, obviously, but far more than she usually manages, and she only tortured about a quarter of her vowels. There were lovely performances from everybody else, but particularly from Stephen Colbert and Martha Plimpton, who gave, on I assume relatively little rehearsal, the sharpest, funniest account of the karate scene I’ve ever seen (Colbert is no great shakes as a singer, but he did a touching, sweetly sad job of his portion of ‘Sorry-Grateful’). I really enjoyed it, and I expect to enjoy it even more when I watch it on DVD without the additional, unwanted soundtrack of other people eating, talking, and rustling food wrappers.

One more thing: this is not about young people not knowing how to behave. Most of the rude behaviour I’m talking about came from people who are at least ten years older than I am.  It’s not as if either performance was completely ruined for me – on the contrary, I enjoyed both shows very much. In both cases, though, the whispering, the noisy eating sounds, the rustling wrappers, cellphones and all the rest of it were significantly distracting, and significantly annoying, and – God, I sound like a grumpy old man here – it’s depressing to think that the people I’m writing about have no idea – not a clue – of how their rude, disruptive, selfish behaviour spoiled the show for the people around them.

And, once again, for their failure to even make a gesture towards enforcing any kind of audience etiquette by asking people to turn off their mobile phones, and for their crass, intrusive choice of precisely the wrong moment to open the exit doors at the end of the show, the Palace Theatre Manchester’s front-of-house staff deserve some kind of prize for their absolute, gold-plated, copper-bottomed, neon-lit uselessness.