And the winner is… nobody

A pair of mediocre American actors warbling showtunes. A wincingly unfunny script. Weird camerawork. Bizarre editing. Inexplicable guest performances. Terrible sound. The complete absence, apparently, of anything resembling a point.

No, I haven’t started watching ‘Glee’ again, and season two of ‘Smash’ doesn’t go out here for a while yet. This was ITV’s seemingly ironically-billed broadcast of the ‘highlights’ from this year’s Olivier Awards ceremony. For lovers of really, really, really awful television, it was a feast to savour. For anyone else, particularly anyone who actually likes theatre, it was a waste of time dressed in a parade of dinner suits and posh frocks. How bad was it? Well, put it this way: last night I watched Showgirls, which I’d never seen before, and found that it was executed with a level of wit and style that this year’s Oliviers broadcast could not hope to match.

It was, in fact, quite difficult to work out what the makers of this programme – allegedly directed by one Stuart McDonald, who seems to have been responsible for, among other things, twenty-six episodes of Strictly Come Dancing – were trying to achieve, given that they seemed determined to shove most of the actual awards as far into the background as possible. In a slot of only ninety minutes on a major network – even at 10pm on a Sunday – I don’t particularly have a problem with showing at least some of the technical/supporting awards via a photo, a caption and a voice-over. Yes, set and lighting and costume designers do brilliant work, often under tremendous pressure, and yes, they deserve to be recognised, but if you have to squish the show down to half its actual length to fit it into a TV programme, something has to give, and the tech awards are not what’s going to keep people watching. Unfortunately, the supporting acting awards were relegated to 10-second clips as well, along with the awards for directing and choreography. Given some of what we were shown, that’s a little harder to defend. At least – credit where it’s due – the major award recipients were not limited to 30 seconds for their acceptance speeches; nobody abused the privilege, and the speeches we saw were generally funny, modest and charming. And as an added bonus: I didn’t notice anybody thanking God, which is an awards-show trope that generally sends my eyebrows shooting up into the stratosphere.

Otherwise, though, the show mostly seemed to either miss the point or shoot itself in the foot. No, that’s not quite fair: sometimes it  managed to do both at the same time. Surely the whole point of putting the Oliviers on television in the first place is to put a celebration of/commercial for the best our theatre has to offer in front of as wide an audience as possible? IF that was the aim – and it should have been – then the show was largely a miserable failure. We saw nothing at all of any of the nominated new plays, even though at least some of them are still running, and nothing at all (on the broadcast, at least) of some of the nominated musicals. We saw nothing at all of any of the winning performances, beyond a photograph of the actor in costume. All of the nominated shows, without exception, will have shot some kind of promo footage (quite a lot of it seems to end up on youtube), but we didn’t see any of it. The broadcast included musical numbers/medleys from ‘Top Hat’ and the current revival of ‘A Chorus Line’ (the latter’s number – ‘One’ – cut to under two minutes), and they both looked pretty good, once you learned to look past the bizarre camerawork and came to terms with the terrible sound. For ‘The Bodyguard’, Heather Headley gave a very, very self-indulgent (and, towards the end, surprisingly pitchy) rendition of ‘I Will Always Love You’, in which she managed to stretch the song’s first two lines out for what seemed like half an hour. We were also – oh joy – treated to a reprise of Will Young’s un-performance in ‘Cabaret’, for which he was inexplicably (yes, even in a very lean year) nominated for best actor in a musical. For those of us who had already paid to sit through it, that was just cruel.  Other nominated musicals (both new and revivals) didn’t get a look-in. Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton – two of the biggest names we’ve got – actually won their categories, and didn’t get to perform, presumably because their show closed months ago. There are clips of their (stunning) performances that would have been available, but they weren’t used here.

And, actually, that might have been OK if they’d genuinely been excluded because of time constraints, but they weren’t. Of course co-presenter Sheridan Smith had to have an opening number – she’s warm, funny, absolutely charming, has charisma to burn, and is a genuine, old-fashioned musical comedy star, even though she’s perhaps not the absolute greatest singer or dancer out there. Whatever it is, she’s got tons of it (and she’s also done plenty of TV, which means the people at home know who she is, which isn’t always the case these days with actors with a musical background), and seeing her vamp her way through ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’ was fun, even if the song wasn’t improved by the terrible sub-Sunday Night at the London Palladium arrangement or the equally terrible miking. Given the special award for Gillian Lynne, the closing medley from ‘Cats’ was also entirely appropriate, and again, it was very well performed, even if it wasn’t well filmed or miked. Elsewhere in the show, however, there was a lot of filler. The clumsy jumps back and forth to the ‘public’ stage outside in the Covent Garden piazza didn’t work at all, and the material for the presenters went on for too long, and was so badly written that even Smith and Hugh Bonneville couldn’t sell it. These two actors are capable of being very, very funny indeed; they died up there, it wasn’t their fault, and they should probably put a contract out on whoever wrote their links.

Better – worse? – still were the guest performances. Petula Clark looks great, never mind considering she’s 80, but wheeling her out to sing ‘With One Look’ was a mistake – while she looks great, her voice is gone, and she struggled with the song to the point where it was almost embarrassing to watch. And then we had Idina Menzel and Matthew Morrison, both imported from across the Atlantic for no particular reason to deliver lengthy musical solos. Menzel paid tribute to Marvin Hamlisch by wailing and screeching her way through ‘That’s How I Say Goodbye’  as if she was at a karaoke night on a slightly downmarket cruise ship – because, apparently, no British actor has sung a Marvin Hamlisch song onstage, ever.  And Matthew Morrison gave us a blandly-sung, badly-choreographed solo medley from ‘West Side Story’ that climaxed in a gloopy cheesy-listening arrangement of ‘Maria’ with a power-ballad drum-beat underneath. Well, I say ‘climaxed’ – there might have been more, but that’s when I hit the fast forward button.

It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with having random actors sing showtunes on TV. I like showtunes on TV, and have the DVD collection to prove it. Aside from the fact that so much of this broadcast was just plain bad to begin with, though, I do have a problem with half of the most prominent solo performance slots in a broadcast that should be celebrating and promoting the best of British theatre being given over to American performers who have not done any theatre in this country this year, and whose television show is not even available in every household here, at the expense of performers who were actually nominated and shows that are currently running. Come to that, if the point was to plug the theatre industry on national television, then perhaps the casts of ‘Once’ and ‘The Book of Mormon’  and maybe ‘Merrily We Roll Along’, among others, should have been included in the broadcast, rather than a couple of  actors who’ve been on ‘Glee’, even though those productions opened after the cut-off for nominations. As it stands, as a promotional exercise, this was a wasted opportunity.

The thing is, unbelievable as this may seem, it’s about a decade since the Oliviers – this country’s highest-profile theatre award – have been on television at all, other than via webcasts or the red button. The Tony Awards, on the other hand, are telecast every year – on a major network, yet, and far earlier in the evening than this was – and while they parcel up the tech awards in an hour-long pre-show that airs on PBS, they generally do a reasonable job of celebrating each Broadway season and promoting the nominated shows, and the telecasts, while not perfect, tend to be executed with orders of magnitude more conviction than was on display here. They also – and this is important too – manage to stay on the air in a primetime slot (albeit on Sunday night) despite ratings that are usually lukewarm. It’s a positive step to have the Oliviers back on a mainstream network this year, but if it’s going to be worth keeping them there, ITV are going to have to up their game.

Bluntly, this programme was incompetent. It didn’t work as a celebration of the last year of theatre in the West End, and that might not have mattered if it had, instead, worked as a piece of television, but it failed there as well. It was a badly-conceived, badly-made, badly-scripted parade of pointlessness that, taken as a whole, resembled nothing so much as the arse-end of an under-rehearsed Royal Variety Performance in a really bad year. Given that we produce, in this country, a range of theatre that rivals anything you’ll find anywhere in the English-speaking world, I’m afraid, that just isn’t good enough.


I do my level best to avoid Mormon missionaries. If I see them coming, I cross the street, and if they try to continue talking to me after the first polite rebuff, I tend to ignore them; to me, there is something quite offensive about the idea of going up to a complete stranger and, essentially, telling them that your belief system is better than theirs – not to mention that if you really want to try to make the world a better place, there are plenty of more constructive ways to do it than hanging around on street corners and at bus stops pestering complete strangers about a myth. The Book of Mormon, a new musical by the co-creators of South Park and one of the writers behind Avenue Q, is thankfully far more entertaining than your average encounter with a pair of Mormon missionaries (not difficult, so are most migraines), and it’s arrived on this side of the Atlantic trailing clouds of hype (and ticket sales) that are hard to dismiss. Everywhere it’s played so far, it’s received ecstatic reviews, and everywhere it’s played so far, it’s been formidably difficult to get a ticket. Ticket sales in London are heading in the same direction – best availability is several months from now, and preview performances were almost sold out within days of going on sale – but does the show itself live up to the publicity?

In a word, yes, which makes a nice change. Unlike the last show that was touted by the Broadway critics as the second coming of musical comedy – The Producers, which was never as successful anywhere else as it was on Broadway, and which suffered in the absence of its two original stars – The Book of Mormon appears to be a durable enough show to succeed without the original Broadway cast. In London we have a pair of leads imported from the States – Gavin Creel and Jared Gertner, neither of whom is the originator of their role – as Elders Price and Cunningham, two Mormon missionaries who are sent to try and convert the people of Uganda, alongside an entirely local ensemble. They’re all great – this cast is giving as smart, sharp, and funny a set of performances as you could ever hope to see – but none of them are stars (although all of them probably should be), and it doesn’t matter in the slightest. When they’re replaced – which they will be, the London production is going to be around for a while – the show will play just as well with whoever is next, provided the resident directors and stage management run a tight ship.

The reason is simple: this show is flat-out funny. It’s also gleefully, lethally rude, taking deadly aim at an extraordinarily broad range of targets from the absurdity of the Book of Mormon itself and religious dogma in general, through Western colonialist attitudes to the developing world (in the second act, Bono gets a well-deserved kicking), to The Lion King, with healthy doses of profanity and gross-out humour along the way (it contains, among other things, a rectal insertion joke that has to be seen to be believed, and which made me laugh so hard that it caused me actual physical discomfort). No stone remains unturned, and no sacred cow goes unmolested – but there’s also a point, and the writers pull off a difficult trick: despite the barrage of satirical/scatological humour, this is at core a surprisingly sweet show that has something quite surprising to say about the power of faith. To say too much more would be to give too much away, and the show is certainly loudly and consistently critical of rigidly dogmatic religious leaders, but it’s a far cleverer piece of writing, in terms of the stance it takes towards its subject-matter, than you might expect. For that matter, it’s also a far cleverer piece of writing than Parker and Stone’s South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut or Team America: World Police, both of which – while undeniably very, very funny – are firmly rooted in the blunt-instrument school of satire. Here, while nobody is above making scrotum jokes, there is something a bit more thoughtful going on, although there is never (thank God) a “but seriously though, folks” moment anywhere in the script, and the payoff at the end of the show is surprisingly touching.

How good is it? Well, I think the last musical that made me laugh as much was City of Angels, coincidentally at the same theatre, and that was twenty years ago (omigod, I’m getting old) – and that show, unlike this one, backs itself into a plot corner in the second act and relies on a not-very-convincing deus-ex-machina to get out of it. The Book of Mormon isn’t a perfect show either – while the direction (by co-writer Trey Parker and Casey Nicolaw) and choreography (by Nicholaw) are both blissfully sharp, the physical production (sets by Scott Pask, costumes by Ann Roth, lighting by Brian McDevitt) tends towards the functional, despite a few very clever visual-comedy flourishes. And the score, while always tuneful and always entertaining, peaks early, in that the opening number (‘Hello’, a piece of extended counterpoint in which the would-be missionaries practice their spiel) is better than almost anything else – this might be one of the all-time funniest musicals, but it’s not one of the all-time great scores, although the cast recording is enormous fun. The pace flags a bit, too, in the first half of the second act, but I saw a preview, and it could very well be that that will change as performances are adjusted in the run up to the press night.

Those are minor quibbles, though, and I’m picky: the biggest thing wrong with The Book of Mormon is simply that top-price tickets are priced north of £60 and it’s sold out for months, which means it’s going to be a while before I get to see it again. The best musical comedies – and they are few and far between – leave you walking out of the theatre feeling as though you’re floating on air. On that count, The Book of Mormon unquestionably delivers.

It’s still backwards.

A little over twenty years ago, I saw Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along for the first time – the Leicester Haymarket production, directed by Paul Kerryson and starring Michael Cantwell, Evan Pappas, and Maria Friedman. Back then, I was roughly the same age the three central characters are at the end of the show. This weekend, I’ve seen the Menier Chocolate Factory‘s exceptionally fine new revival, which is also Friedman’s professional debut as a director (she had previously directed a student production at the Central School of Speech and Drama). Now, I’m roughly the same age the three central characters are in the opening scene. Yes, it’s still backwards – but it has possibly never worked as well as it does here.

This is, of course, a show with a famously chequered history. The original Broadway production, in 1981, played more than three times as many previews as performances; during previews, the choreographer and the leading man were both replaced, and all the original costumes were thrown out, so that the show opened with the actors wearing coloured sweatshirts emblazoned with their characters’ names. It was a catastrophic flop, but it yielded a cast recording (recorded the day after the show closed); that recording reveals a score that, while patchy, is sometimes glorious, and that contains some of Sondheim’s most exuberant music.

Sondheim and Furth subsequently made several significant cuts and changes to the show, culminating in the 1992 and 1993 revivals in Leicester and off-Broadway, both of which were recorded. The Leicester production – I saw it twice – made a good case for the show as a problematic but playable piece that, while not perfect, was better than its reputation, despite a book by Furth that is never quite as penetrating or as witty as it thinks it is. It also had good performances from Michael Cantwell and Evan Pappas, and a phenomenal one from Maria Friedman as Mary Flynn, the novelist and critic whose unrequited love for her best friend drives her to alcoholism. That production, too, yielded a cast recording – almost unheard-of from a British regional production that didn’t transfer to London – and while it, like the show itself, is not perfect (not all the performances come across as well on the recording as they did in the theatre, and the percussion is far too high in the mix, and sounds like it’s being played by a Muppet on meth), I’ve listened to it a lot over the past twenty years.

And now it’s been revived again (there was a 2000 revival at the Donmar Warehouse; I was living abroad at the time, so I missed it). This time around, although the script is essentially the same as the one used twenty-one years ago in Leicester, the surprise is the extent to which Friedman and her brilliant cast have made the piece’s inherent difficulties disappear. This is possibly as good a production of the show as you will ever see.

Merrily, at heart, is a show about friendship gone wrong. Sondheim and Furth follow twenty years in the lives of Franklin Shepherd (a composer who sells out to Hollywood), Charley Kringas (a would-be playwright and Frank’s lyricist) and their friend Mary Flynn (a novelist and critic who carries a secret torch for Frank). We first meet them – Frank and Mary in the first scene, Charley in the second – in bitter, alienated middle age; as the show progresses, we slowly go back in time towards the night of Frank and Charley’s first meeting with Mary, and we gradually get to see how the friendship between the three grew and waned, and how Frank and Charley’s writing partnership went off the rails.

The reverse chronology makes it a formidably difficult show to cast; the original production used fresh-out-of-college twenty-year-olds, who by all accounts were not at all successful in the brittle, angry early scenes in Act One. Friedman goes in the opposite direction; she’s cast actors who read at the upper end of the play’s age range, and as the performance progresses they have to gradually age down in front of the audience. Not at all an easy thing to do, particularly in a tiny theatre, but this cast manage it triumphantly – in the final scene, you never, even for a moment, feel you’re watching adults playing kids. Friedman uses a simple framing device (the graduation scenes that originally framed the action are cut from the version of the show that’s now standard) . At the top of the show, as the title song begins, Frank is alone onstage holding what looks like a script; the script turns out to be the two one-act plays Charley wrote in college, and the final image is Frank, costumed as he was in the opening scene, holding the same script. Essentially, then, the show is middle-aged Frank trying to work out where his life went wrong.

To that end, the opening Hollywood party scene is brutal. Mark Umbers’s Frank is clearly not riding the crest of a wave. He’s stretched to breaking-point and full of self-loathing, even as he smiles for his guests; when he finally explodes at Jenna Russell’s Mary, it’s because her barbs have hit him where it hurts. Russell, for her part, makes Mary a truly mean drunk, but you see and feel the genuine hurt underneath her bitterness (it helps, too, that Russell is one of those people who can get a laugh and break your heart on the same beat). In the following scene, Damian Humbley, as Charley, delivers ‘Franklin Shepherd, Inc.’ with devastating force.  It’s a diatribe that clearly comes from years of frustration, and it’s riveting. Throughout the show, Friedman and her cast do an exceptional job of locating the emotional undercurrents between this central trio; even in the very, very bitter opening scenes, you see flashes of their charm, and all three are absolutely compelling. As the show progresses, their charm only increases – ‘Bobby and Jackie and Jack’, which is far from the best thing in the score, gets probably as good a performance as it’s ever had, helped by a wagonload of props and Tim Jackson’s clever choreography – and the final scene is very moving indeed. Their singing, too, is impeccable; in these hands, the glorious ‘Our Time’ soars. These are three phenomenal singing actors, and they’re all giving phenomenal performances.

The good news doesn’t end there. Glyn Kerslake is drily funny as producer Joe Josephson (a role that was played by Jason Alexander, later of ‘Seinfeld’ fame, in the original Broadway production), and Josefina Gabrielle makes man-eating Broadway star Gussie, Frank’s second wife, into a more fascinating figure than you’d ever guess was possible from the script – sexy, materialistic, ambitious, calculating, and far more intelligent than she lets on. She’s matched by Clare Foster’s Beth, who finds all the hurt in ‘Not a Day Goes By’ – in lesser hands, one of Sondheim’s most overly lugubrious ballads – in Act One, and is quietly radiant in the second half. Friedman knows the show backwards (forwards?), and she’s treated it, essentially, as an extended character study; the performances supply most of what’s missing in the book (which, even in this revised version, is not Furth’s best work), and the emotional payoff at the end is substantial. The tiny venue (and stage) helps; you can see into the actors’ eyes, and the intimacy really works for the show.

It’s not quite a perfect production. David Hersey’s lighting is terrific, but while Soutra Gilmour’s unit set – a ‘Mad Men’-era interior whose window opens onto either a swimming pool or the Manhattan skyline – is fine in the opening scenes, it’s too clean a space for the later ones. Her costumes, though, do an excellent job of keeping us aware of when we are in each scene. And giving the final transitional reprise of the title song to the kid playing Frank Jr. is a step too far – it doesn’t really work, although Noah Miller, the child at the performance I saw, was perfectly charming and sang it nicely. There are some rookie mistakes in the blocking – whatever the configuration, the Menier is a tricky space, but a little more attention should have been paid to sightlines.  And while the nine-piece band, under the direction of Catherine Jayes, are terrific, I wish they hadn’t cut about half the overture.

Those quibbles aside, though, this production is a major achievement, and – for Friedman – an astounding directorial debut, despite a couple of caveats. Without resorting to flashy staging flourishes, she’s taken a very, very difficult show – one which has never entirely worked in any previous incarnation – and she’s delivered a reading of it that probes deeper into the material’s heart than you would imagine possible. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Isles of…

It’s here. The opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. I’ll say upfront that I’m more than a little cynical about the games, and particularly about the relentless, neverending marketing of, well, seemingly everything to do with the games.

The team putting together this spectacle, though – headed by Danny Boyle – is intriguing, and it’s the biggest show this country will stage this year. So… liveblog, slightly edited, first, then commentary afterwards.

9.01pm  Opening credits – oh Gawd – start with a parody of EastEnders, mixed with Lloyd Webber’s Paganini variations and a snatch of Muse.

9.03pm Bradley Wiggins can cycle really fast for a long time, but can he ring a bell? Oh, yes he can. Good.

9.04pm Three minutes in, and we’ve got a choir of children singing already. Solo treble singing ‘Jerusalem’. He’s very good. Choirs of children from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – they’re ordinary kids, not choral scholars, and they’re excellent. Rural scenes – grass, fields, farmers, peasants, geese. This might be who we were, but it mostly isn’t who we are today.

9.05pm – Is that Kenneth Branagh in a top hat? And look, there are some less famous actors dressed as poor people. And the choir is back to singing ‘Jerusalem’.

9.06pm – Yes, that’s Kenneth Branagh, and my God, he can mug to the cameras. There’s none of that in ‘Wallander’. Thank God. Apparently he’s playing Brunel; he’s delivering a speech from ‘The Tempest’, and clearly having the time of his life. Good job there’s a lot of scenery, because he’s leaving bite-marks in most of it.

Since this is directed by Danny Boyle, of course, the first thing I want to know is when someone is going to dive head-first into a toilet?

(Our national dignity already did that several days ago, so no, you’ll have to bet on something else.)

9.08pm – Oh, goody. Now we get a tableau vivant depicting the coming of the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent decline of rural Britain. No room in these three hours to go back through more than 250 years of our history, then.  Evelyn Glennie hammering the percussion dressed as a peasant, actors dressed as more peasants walking over turf… it’s huge. Drummers in the aisles, rising mill  chimneys… it’s undeniably impressive. And loud. Mill chimneys rising out of the ground; I’m from the middle of the area where the Industrial Revolution began, and it’s a part of our history that we don’t often show to the rest of the world. For better or worse, what happened here then changed the world, and it’s far more important, in terms of the makeup of our contemporary society, than the bucolic rural scenes we saw at the beginning.

9.13pm – As set-changes go, this one is pretty good. This section, apparently, is called ‘Pandemonium’. Here come the suffragettes. Goodness, we’re moving through history quickly here, aren’t we? The music is loopy, bombastic electro-dreck. Interesting, though, that what we’re seeing is mostly presented from the point of view of workers, with the industrialists/capitalists sidelined in a little group, apart from the main action.

9.14pm – There must be something wrong with my TV set. I can’t see any corporate logos.

9.15pm – Poppies. We’ve reached 1914.

9.16pm – Awww, cute. The Industrialists are pretending to be cho0-choo trains.

9.17pm – it’s the cover of ‘Sargeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’! So two-thirds of the Twentieth Century can be summed up by a war memorial, industrial machinery, and the Beatles.  There’s a parade of (actual) war veterans walking through the middle of this, and it is, yes, entirely appropriate to put them centre stage. It’s a quick skip through history, from which the aristocracy and the Royal Family, so far, are conspicuously absent.

9.19pm – The grass that covered the – pitch? stage? – at the beginning is mostly gone, replaced by what looks like an iron foundry. This, actually, is interesting – a billion people around the world are watching this, and this is not the image of ourselves that we usually sell abroad.

9.21pm – The factory chimneys are sinking into the ground now, because the Tories killed our industrial base in the early 1980s.

9.22pm – and the massive iron foundry has brought forth the Olympic Rings, forged from the blood of peasant workers and Kenneth Branagh’s sweat. Or something. I think this is supposed to be moving as well as breathtakingly spectacular.

9.23pm – Film – ‘Happy and Glorious’ – about the Royal Family’s arrival at the ceremony. Couldn’t they have found something – anything – other than ‘Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’ to play behind the video sequence inside Buckingham Palace?

9.24pm – Yes. the Queen did just address Daniel Craig as Mr. Bond. She’s doing quite a nice job of not giggling at the absolute ridiculousness of it all.

9.25pm – Awww. Corgis.

9.26pm – Oh, bloody hell. The statue of Churchill just waved at HMQ’s copter (well, she’s not in it herself, obviously, it’s her body double and Daniel Craig).

9.28pm – the James Bond Theme. Heralding the Queen’s entrance into the Royal Box. Of course. NOT via parachute, that was a stunt double. And she’s introduced in French first. Like everything else.

9.30pm The Union Flag, brought in by servicemen and women. Flag raising accompanied by a performance of ‘God Save The Queen’ by a choir of deaf and hearing children. And they’re genuinely lovely, and it’s wonderful that they were given such a prominent moment in the ceremony. They get two verses of it as well. They could have gone for the usual suspects – a cathedral choir, trained choristers – and they didn’t, and the show is all the better for it.

9.33pm – ‘Second to the Right and Straight On Till Morning’. Mike Oldfield and a bunch of NHS staff, plus patients and staff from Great Ormond Street hospital. The title – the directions to Neverland that Peter Pan gave Wendy. I can think of plenty of worse things for us to celebrate here than literature for children. We’ve produced a lot of it, and a lot of it is justly celebrated throughout the world.

9.35pm – I’m a little less sure about a big dance number celebrating both kids’ literature and the NHS. The two themes don’t quite hang together. It’s very nicely staged, though. And I’m not sure whether spelling out GOSH in lights – Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital – will make sense to the rest of the world.

9.38pm – J.K. Rowling reading from Peter Pan. This is genuinely moving. If anyone shows that dreams can come true, she does.

9.39pm – Bad dreams, and things that go bump in the night, rendered via dance and puppets, with actors playing Voldemort and the Child Snatcher from ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’. The flying work is terrific; this sequence is surprisingly dark, particularly given the number of kids involved.

9.40pm – and here’s a team of Mary Poppinses (what is the plural of Poppins?), chasing the bad dreams away… which unfortunately leads Mr. Oldfield to begin playing his terminally twee version of ‘In Dulci Jubilo’.

9.44pm – And the children are all safely tucked up in bed. So that’s that. It’s great that we’ve just spent nearly 15 minutes of this paying tribute to the NHS. It would be even greater if our current government wasn’t so hell-bent on dismantling it piece by piece.

9.46pm – ‘Chariots of Fire’, conducted by Simon Rattle, with Mr. Bean on synth.

9.47pm – two minutes of Mr. Bean is about as much as I can stand, and the parody of the beach scene from ‘Chariots of Fire’ is not particularly funny.

9.51pm. Gosh, a red New Mini. Which is manufactured by that well-known British company, BMW. I wonder what’s going to happen next?

Oh. A flashback to the most infamous moment of Michael Fish’s career. The 1987 hurricane that he didn’t forecast. Oops.

9.52pm. British pop music, in the form of OMD’s ‘Enola Gay’. No lyrics. Then a verse of ‘Food Glorious Food’. And was that a brief clip of ‘The Cosby Show’?

9.54pm – we’re celebrating four decades of pop music, apparently. And we’re celebrating it with black-lighting and dayglo tights and leg-warmers.

9.56pm – musical segue from ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ to ‘My Boy Lollipop’. Ouch.

9.57pm – Glam rock. Spandex jumpsuits. It’s like the finale of ‘Mamma Mia’, only bigger and with less of a sense of restraint and decorum. It’s wildly silly, but also infectiously fun, and a good deal more tongue-in-cheek than these things often are.

9.58pm – Better musical segue: Bowie to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. There are dancers playing air guitar in the aisles.

9.59pm – Punk Rock is apparently being represented this evening by a gaggle of dancing leather-clad radishes.

10.00pm – New Order. ‘Blue Monday’. Then Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’. This is the quick-fire 80s musical nightmare. Musical chronology is off – the Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams’ was two years before Frankie’s ‘Relax’.

10.02pm – the dancing radishes are now pogoing on spring-loaded stilts. There, that’s not a sentence you expect to write every day, is it?

10.03pm – a clip of ‘Trainspotting’, followed by everyone singing  ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’, followed by Huge Grunt saying ‘I love you to a walking hatstand Andie McDowell in ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’. Whatever this means, it’s something to do with drugs.

10.05pm – quick flip from hip-hop to Bollywood and back. Gosh, we’re multicultural, aren’t we? Then the obligatory Amy Winehouse clip. No, it’ s not ‘Back to Black’. Then Muse’s awful ‘Uprising’, entertainingly being used as part of the soundtrack of the biggest corporate shindig this country has ever thrown.

10.07pm – and the commentators remind us that the soundtrack will be available to download from tomorrow. Good. We’d gone almost an hour without anyone trying to sell us anything, I was beginning to get worried.

10.09pm – footage of the torch relay. Lots of footage of the torch relay. Because obviously none of us have been watching the news at all at any time in the last seven weeks. I suppose they need the film clips to cover a set change in the stadium.

10.11pm – You know what’s great about this? (Oh, wait, as I typed that there was a brief clip of Camoron. Oh well). It’s about our diversity, and our urban culture. That is to say, it’s about who we really are, and not about the mythical version of this country that we usually wheel out when we try to market ourselves abroad. It’s also a singularly un-Tory vision of Britain (to the point where I suspect that some of the bigger lighting effects might be powered by the spontaneous self-immolation of Daily Mail readers). It’s easy to be cynical about what is essentially a spectacle designed to market us to the rest of the world, but a lot of what I’m seeing is genuinely surprising, and refreshingly unlike the stereotyped version of Great! Britain! that we package to tourists.

10.15pm – memorial section, which apparently means dancers in black leotards writhing to what sounds like an Enya cover of ‘Abide with Me’. Only it’s not Enya, it’s Emeli Sandé.

10.18pm. Still not convinced by the musical arrangement, but her voice is gorgeous, and this is absolutely stunning to watch. It’s even better when the backing track cuts out and she sings the last verse acapella. And I’m impressed by what this is not leaving out – this choreography is about 7/7, and it’s absolutely right that the show is acknowledging that part of our recent history.

10.20pm – and now we’re into the entrance parade of athletes of all nations. This’ll take a while.

10.22pm – Greek kid with a collection bowl. Ouch.

10.23pm – need the loo. Back in a moment.

(Move on, there’s nothing to see here.)

10.26pm – I’m back. That’s better.

10.28pm – the part of me that occasionally had to walk in processionals in church services when I was in choirs as a child/teenager/undergraduate slightly frowns on the sight of athletes filming the audience in the stadium on their smartphones/cameras as they parade in. But this is the biggest thing they’ve ever done, probably, and why the hell not? I’d want footage of it, if it was me.

10.30pm – nice matching cream suits for the Belarus team.

10.34pm – 14 minutes in to the parade, and we’re still only on Brazil. I needn’t have rushed to finish loading the dishwasher before this started.

10.38pm. The Canadian team all appear to have been shopping at Roots.

10.39pm – ooh, ‘West End Girls’. Accompanying the entrance of the teams from Chad, Chile and China.

10.44pm – Did Costa Rica recycle Belarus’s outfits?

10.46pm – the Czech team have chosen to accessorise their very smart blazers with incredibly camp shiny blue wellies and umbrellas, because it always rains here. Ha. I’m actually smiling.

10.50pm – just a reminder: the people who created this spectacle BEGAN THEIR CAREERS IN SUBSIDISED THEATRE. I know I’m shouting. Arts funding is important, and you only develop the kind of imagination you need to do this sort of thing well by learning the ropes away from the commercial arena.

10.52pm – Finland, Finland, Finland… the country where I quite want to be… pony-trekking or camping… or just watching TV… sorry, spaced out there for a moment.

10.54pm – So glad we have Aidan Burley MP’s twitter feed to lend comedy to the proceedings. What. A. Maroon:

10.55pm – Germany: campest outfits so far. Team Germany looked like a gaggle of off-duty dancers from a road production of ‘Footloose’.

11.01pm – the Queen looks like she wants a cup of tea. Can’t say I blame her.

11.05pm – Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeere’s Usain Bolt! Finally.

11.10pm – those drummers must be getting very tired.

11.13pm – Team GB won’t be up for another 45 minutes or so, apparently.

11.17pm – couldn’t Team Montenegro iron their jackets?

11.20pm – Bloody hell. It’s like the voting in Eurovision, only longer. And without the actual voting.

11.27pm – ELO in the background, irritating commentary in the foreground. The BBC’s presenters seem to feel they should deliver a constant voice-over discussion of the procession. They shouldn’t, less would be more.

11.31pm – on the one hand, the sheer number of countries involved is fascinating, and this is probably the only opportunity to show the global reach of the games. On the other hand… a parade this long is not great television, particularly coming after the first hour and a quarter of the show.

11.40pm – those poor sods from countries beginning with ‘A’. They’ve been standing now for an hour and twenty minutes, and there’s a good half-hour to go.

11.45pm – Bonsior, Tunisie!

11.47pm – quick, just time to get a drink before Team GB comes in.

11.48pm – Team USA. They, of course, have had their jackets pressed for the occasion.

11.50pm – Placing Team GB under ‘U’ in the alphabetical procession of nations obviously just a dastardly plot to get us all to watch the whole sodding show.

11.51pm – “Let’s hear it for the drummers, they’ve been at it now for hours.”

11.53pm – Oh. We’re not under ‘U’. Presumably, as host nation, we’re last.

11.55pm – Team GB. White tracksuits with gold lamé armpits. Seven billion bits of biodegradable confetti, representing everybody on the planet. It’s numbingly kitsch, absolutely staggering, and oddly moving, all at the same time.

11.56pm – Dear BBC, please stop showing us David Cameron. You get enough opportunities to do that on the News.

11.59pm – Team GB look very, very happy indeed. That’s because they got there via the Olympic VIP lanes rather than the Central Line.

12.01am – and we move from the procession to the Arctic Monkeys, and fireworks – none of which, unfortunately, are loud enough to drown out their lead singer.

12.03am – someone on Twitter just pointed out that most of the teams looked like airline cabin crew in their uniforms. Yes.

12.04am – Oh my. Cyclists with glow-in-the-dark wings.

12.06am – they were doves. Obviously. Because doves are noted for their love of cycling. It’s… odd, but also oddly lovely. One of them flies over the middle of the stadium, looking strangely like ET on his way to Phone Home.

12.07am – enter Seb Coe. In glasses. Enunciating carefully. Unfortunately he has the charisma of a bowl of Shreddies.

12.11am – Ooh. Platitudes. A bland speech, boringly delivered. Sorry, Seb. You worked very hard to make this happen, but public speaking is not your greatest strength.

12.16am – Speech #2 from Jacques Rogge. Not as good as Coe’s, and in French as well as English. It’s getting late.

12.17am – the Queen looks very, very tired. Not surprising.

12.19am – Doreen Lawrence is the first of the flag-carriers. Brilliant, and having her, of all the people who could have been chosen, lead the entrance of the flag is incredibly moving – cynical as I am about all of this, I have a lump in my throat. She’s a remarkably brave, dignified lady, and she’s absolutely the sort of person who should represent us to the world.

12.20am – and Muhammad Ali, battling Parkinson’s Disease and accompanied by a carer. Powerful.

12.23am – Lord, they’re raising this flag slowly.

12.24am – Becks. Speedboat. Canal. Meeting the final torch-carrier: Steve Redgrave. And quite right too. If anyone deserves to do this, he does.

12.27am – the oaths. These people look very nervous as they read. Huge audience watching all over the world. That can’t be easy.

12.28am – and, yes, the Olympic Torch is introduced in French.

12.30am – no, even better: Steve Redgrave is not the final torch-carrier. He’s handing the torch off to seven young athletes from this year’s team. Quite right, too.

12.33am – OK, yes, this is magnificent. There’s been a lot of insanity surrounding the run-up to this moment, but I doubt anybody has ever staged this part of the proceedings better than this. It’s a dazzling spectacle, and it has real emotional weight. And the flame in the stadium – lit by multiple young athletes, rather than one VIP –  is extraordinarily lovely.

12.37am – and that’s quite a fireworks display.

12.40am – Paul McCartney. Lip-synching, badly. For the first verse of ‘Hey Jude’, his mouth movements and the vocal track are a good four bars apart.

12.43am – at least the crowd are singing live. Unlike Sir Paul.

12.45am – na na hey Jude. Milking it a bit. Particularly since he’s mostly not singing. When so much of what has gone before has been so striking, this is a let-down. It’s a very, very bad performance.

12.47am – aaaand that’s all, folks.  Show’s over.

So… I was expecting a full-evening version of a Debbie Allen Dance Number from the Oscars. This was better than that, often much better, and some of it was genuinely remarkable and surprisingly moving. The stage-management was faultless, the lighting design was superb, and above all else it’s very clear that Danny Boyle and his team have thought long and hard about precisely how they want to present contemporary Britain to the rest of the world. This was mostly not the tourist-board, chocolate-box image of Brand Britain that we peddle abroad. This was very British (and not just English, either), to the point that some of the nuances probably aren’t going to travel abroad terribly well. It very deliberately presented nearly everything from the point of view of everyday people, and it put forward the best version of what we are: a hard-working, secular, multicultural society with a rich history and a vibrant cultural heritage. Of course there was a certain amount of schlock – that’s inevitable – but this was, overall, a far more thoughtful presentation than I think anyone was expecting, and while it was sombre when it needed to be, it was carried off with a genuine sense of fun.

It’s also, of course, important to note that – a few name actors and significant figures aside – the cast was almost entirely made up of volunteers. The performances – apart from Mr. McCartney – were faultless, and the message throughout was very clear: this is for everybody (a slogan that, at one point, was actually spelled out in lights in the stands). My cynical side notes that this of-the-people-for-the-people approach stands in stark contrast to a sporting event whose financing and marketing appears to have been designed mostly to benefit multinational corporations rather than the ordinary inhabitants of the very depressed area of east London where it’s being staged, and the presence in the stadium of Bahrain’s Prince Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Alyev leaves a rather sour taste in the mouth, but it’s still very heartening to see that the directors make a very deliberate choice to place volunteer performers and people who have made a significant contribution to society front and centre, rather than a parade of celebs, politicians and pop stars.

So no, not perfect – but striking, surreal, often gripping, occasionally very moving, and far, far better than we had any right to expect (for one thing, Wenlock and Mandeville, thank God, were nowhere to be seen). I’m surprised and genuinely impressed. This wasn’t simply a by-the-numbers retreat of a series of tired patriotic tropes. It at least attempted to show who we are and where we come from. I expected to giggle, and I mostly didn’t, and some of it was genuinely extremely powerful. By the end, my cynicism had mostly dissolved – at least, in relation to the opening ceremony. This was remarkable television. For once, we really did present our best face to the rest of the world – and it wasn’t quite the face I was expecting to see.

Pay the band, you tightwads!

We’re now less than 100 days from the beginning of the rapture 2012 London Olympics, which of course means that it’s time for our island nation, and LOCOG in particular, to start abandoning any pretence of sanity. This way, we get to give ourselves a gentle warm-up for the opening ceremony, during which we are presumably collectively expected to lose it completely. The official merchandising stand  – which has now appeared nationwide in branches of John Lewis, who usually have more sense – offers ample visual evidence that the 2012 Olympics already got a divorce from any concept of taste or restraint:

Clearly, this divorce was not amicable. That’s Wenlock, the mascot for the summer games, rendered as two different kinds of cuddly toy, both of which look like an unsightly cross between a Dalek, a Cyclops, and some kind of personal stimulation device. It’s lovely to see us choose such dignified imagery as the vehicle via which we sell ourselves to the rest of the world.

It’s not entirely surprising that at this stage, under the surface, some aspects of the event’s organisation are beginning to smell a little. Take, for example, the engagement of musicians for the various park events during the games. There’s a growing suspicion that LOCOG have adopted a policy of not paying professional musicians who are hired to perform during the games. Apparently, the honour of being asked to participate should be payment enough, for musicians at least. Presumably LOCOG are under the boneheaded impression that professional musicians don’t have mortgages, rent, car payments, gas and electricity bills and all the rest of it. The Musicians’ Union is now investigating.

Now, OK, I’m not a professional musician, and nor do I play one on television. But this still strikes me as being a peculiarly obnoxious decision for LOCOG to have taken, particularly in the context of the huge amounts of money that are being lavished on staging the games. Presumably the technicians will be paid – the cameramen, the stagehands, the cleaners and groundsmen and ticket staff and all the rest would not, naturally, be expected to work without pay – and yet the musicians, who are also skilled professionals with bills to pay, are expected to sing for no supper. Sorry, that’s indefensible, particularly given that Heritage Lottery Fund money has already been diverted to the games.

Here’s the thing: despite the hideous logo, the outrageous cost, the problems processing ticket sales and all the rest of it, I want the games to succeed, even though I’m not remotely a sports fan and won’t be attending any of the events myself (or, probably, even watching on television apart from the opening and closing ceremonies). It’s a huge event, and people all over the world will be watching. But it’s because the whole world will be watching that we need to pay attention to how the way the proceedings have been organised will be perceived elsewhere in the world. Leaving aside the fact that professional musicians are as much entitled to be paid for their services as anybody else, adopting a policy of not paying professional musicians to perform at the Olympics just makes us look cheap, particularly given that the amount of money involved is a drop in the ocean in terms of the games’ overall budget. It’s a choice that certainly does not make me proud to be British, or English, or in any way associated via citizenship or geography with the 2012 games; the adoption of this shameful policy does Lord Coe and the rest of LOCOG’s board no credit at all. It’s the nastiest kind of penny-pinching, and it diminishes and demeans the whole event. We’re known, as a nation, to be proud of our artists, their tremendous heritage, and the enormous contribution they make to our society. By refusing to pay professional musicians at Olympic events, LOCOG is simply broadcasting to the world that art, in 2012, is not something that has any value at all to this country’s establishment, and that’s not a message we should be giving the rest of the world as we prepare to host the biggest international event this country has seen in at least half a century.

So, LOCOG – just pay the damn band, OK?

The Michael ‘n’ Imelda Show – now with extra blood!

I’m a little suspicious of standing ovations at the theatre, particularly at big, expensive musicals. I’ve sometimes come away with a sneaking suspicion that there has been something a little mechanical about the way an audience has leapt to its feet during the curtain call, that standing to applaud becomes a way of justifying the expenditure on an expensive ticket, even if what you’ve just seen hasn’t been particularly good. It feels a little silly, particularly if just a few clumps of people stand while everyone else remains seated. I am, I’m afraid, one of those people who stays sitting down if I don’t feel that what I’ve just seen is worth any kind of special gesture; to me, a standing ovation is something that’s reserved for when what you’ve just seen is so good, so extraordinary, that ordinary applause isn’t enough. Shows like that, unfortunately, don’t come around very often.

I say this now because I saw Saturday’s matinée of the new revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd  at the Adelphi Theatre, and I haven’t seen a standing ovation like the one that happened at the curtain call in a very, very long time. This wasn’t just a few isolated groups of people half-heartedly standing because that’s just what you do; the entire audience stood, as far as I could see – yes, me too – and not only did they stand and applaud, they cheered, and pretty much everyone was standing and cheering before Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton, the production’s above-the-title stars, came out to take their bows. Their applause could have been measured using the Richter scale, and both they and the production deserved it. I’ve already gushed over one musical revival this week, and now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to gush over another.

There’s a sound you don’t hear very often when you’re in a large theatre watching a big musical: silence.  Audiences these days are often not particularly attentive. They fidget, whisper, rattle sweet wrappers, eat, play around with cellphones. There was none of that here. When everyone in an audience is completely caught up in what’s happening on stage, something magical happens. You can feel it in this production when the music cuts out and there’s a pause – it’s as if the entire audience is collectively holding their breath. Jonathan Kent, this revival’s director, has achieved something remarkable. He’s taken a show that, yes, is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece, that any musical theatre geek over the age of thirty will have seen at least half-a-dozen times, whose original Broadway production, in its touring incarnation, was preserved on DVD, and that has been revived in London three times within the past twelve years, and he’s delivered a production that quietly, without grandstanding, makes you see every second of a very, very familiar piece of material as if it were completely fresh.

The first clue that this is not a standard-issue Sweeney Todd is Anthony Ward’s set. Like Harold Prince’s original Broadway (and London) production, the show is set in industrial London, but here we’re in the 1930s rather than the mid-nineteenth century. The show takes place in a vast, run-down, semicircular metal-framed workhouse, with dizzyingly steep staircases that lead to a vertiginous catwalk that circles the top of the stage. The costumes, with a couple of exceptions, are everyday period street clothes, Mark Henderson’s lighting is shadowy and sinister, and aside from a couple of visual flourishes – Pirelli’s market stall is a Piaggio three-wheeler van, Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop has a neon sign in the second act, and Todd’s shiny new Act Two barber’s chair is upholstered in red leatherette – the look is depression-era drab. There’s a pre-show sequence in which the ensemble are onstage working – scrubbing the floor, moving sacks, doing something you can’t quite see with metal bars behind the upper-level window-frames – which leads to Kent’s first directorial masterstroke: when the show begins, ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’ is presented as the inmates/workers in this workhouse/factory/whatever it is telling each other the story of Sweeney Todd, for their own amusement. I’ve never seen it staged quite that way before, and it makes rather more dramatic sense than an ensemble of actors somewhat portentously directing the song at the audience. This refocused opening grabs your attention, and Kent and his cast run with it. This Sweeney Todd, more than any other I’ve seen, is a thrilling, chilling roller-coaster ride on which the tension never lets up, even for a moment.

Part of what’s startling about this production’s opening sequence, I have to say, is the presence on stage of a large cast. The original production, by all accounts, was immense, but it’s a show that can be done small, and often is; of the previous productions I’ve seen, I think the largest used 16 actors and the smallest just 11. Here, there are 26, along with a band of 15 in the pit (the very assured musical direction is by Nicholas Skilbeck), which means that none of the actors have to play the trumpet when they’re not in a scene. The ensemble performances are terrific; each member of this cast has clearly done a great deal of detailed character work, the ensemble singing is very, very strong indeed, and they sock ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’ across the footlights with a grim, sardonic intensity that catches you slightly by surprise. It’s an opening number that always works, but it doesn’t always work quite as well as it does here.

Good as the opening is, though, it only hints at what to come, because this production’s real thrills begin with the entrance of the two leads. On paper, I have to say, Michael Ball would not have been my first choice for Sweeney Todd. At the start of his career, he was a likeable but rather bland romantic leading man (with, admittedly, a very, very strong voice); he was perfectly OK in The Pirates of Penzance, Aspects of Love, and Sondheim’s Passion, and he sang all three roles very, very well, but he wasn’t particularly exciting or distinctive, and his concert work, frankly, is the musical equivalent of swimming through a bath of melted processed cheese. He was a major surprise in the British production of Hairspray, in which he was cast way against type as Edna Turnblad (he played the role in London and on tour), but it’s a long way from Edna Turnblad to Sweeney Todd. And yet here he is, nearly unrecognisable in a slicked-back brown wig, staring down the audience and delivering a performance that people are going to be talking about for years. It’s not simply that this is the best work of his career so far, although it certainly is: this performance is so far ahead of everything else I’ve ever seen him do – including his Edna Turnblad, which was also spectacularly good – that if I hadn’t seen it for myself I wouldn’t have believed him capable of it. He’s giving as good a leading performance as I’ve ever seen anywhere, in a play or in a musical. He charts Sweeney’s descent into madness deliberately and carefully, so that his ‘Epiphany’ is a genuine explosion; his is a lighter voice than is often cast as Sweeney, and he saves the fireworks for a few key moments, but the power is there, and when he unleashes it, he’s terrifying. There’s far more to this performance than explosive power, though. In some ways, he’s most impressive in his quietest moments. The range of emotions he wrings out of his very low-key delivery of his part of the ‘Johanna’ quartet in Act Two is extraordinary. He’s fierce, brooding, desperately sad, threatening, demented, and a ticking timebomb, and you can’t take your eyes off him.

Imelda Staunton’s Mrs. Lovett is equally good, and in some ways equally surprising. She’s dabbled in Sondheim before – she was brilliant as the Baker’s Wife in the first London staging of Into the Woods, but her last musical was Guys and Dolls in 1997, and her achievements since have eclipsed her earlier work in musicals to the point where it’s easy to forget that she can sing. Truthfully, better singers than her have played the role – she has a pleasant voice, but she’s no Julia McKenzie – but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone find quite the range of colours in it that she does. She’s one of Britain’s best comic actresses, of course, and she nails all of the laughs in the script, with a few on top for good measure – one of her reactions during the Parlour Songs sequence gets a laugh that stops the show cold for a good twenty seconds – but she’s delivering far more than simple comic relief. Beat by beat, syllable by syllable, she presents Mrs. Lovett in extraordinary detail. Her Mrs. Lovett, yes, is a backstreet pragmatist, but she’s also – at least in the later scenes – possibly a psychopath, and sexually aroused not only by Sweeney himself, but by blood and the possibility of violence. When, relatively early in the show, Sweeney sings ‘My Friends’ to his collection of cut-throat razors, she gives off such palpable sexual heat that you half expect her to have to wring out her knickers at the end of the number, and her shrieks of horror when she discovers Pirelli’s body in the trunk very quickly become almost orgasmic. When she watches Sweeney explode into madness in ‘Epiphany’, she’s simultaneously horrified and absolutely thrilled. She’s the true villain of the piece, but she’s garrulous and charming, and her affection for Tobias is totally genuine – the stricken look on her face during the scene surrounding ‘Not While I’m Around’ when she realises she’s going to have to murder him to stop him from exposing the secret behind her pie shop is perhaps the production’s most thoroughly chilling moment. This, too, is as good a performance as I have ever seen anywhere in pushing thirty years of regular theatregoing.

It’s not just that Ball and Staunton are individually great, either – they play off each other beautifully, and their ‘A Little Priest’ is dazzling even if you know all of the groaners in the lyrics off by heart. And they are matched by a very fine set of supporting performances. Nobody in this cast is less than very good; Peter Polycarpou as Beadle Bamford is magnificent. The last twenty minutes of the show are absolutely electrifying, even though a good proportion of the audience must know exactly what is coming next. I said at the beginning that the audience response was like nothing I’ve seen in a long, long time; it was entirely deserved. This is one of those rare theatrical events where you run the risk of running out of superlatives.

And yes, in case you were wondering, there is blood. Quite a lot of blood, in fact – there’s no faking it by bathing the stage in red light here. When a throat gets slit, the blood spurts. And spurts. It’s impressively gory, particularly towards the end of Act Two when the bodies start to pile up – not as gory as the (misguided and ineffective) film, but it’s about fifty times more chilling. Not to mention orders of magnitude funnier – and, unlike the film, the laughs here are all intentional.

Complaints? Only two. One, the production has yielded a cast recording. If it doesn’t quite convey how marvellous the show is in the theatre, it’s still a very worthwhile, hugely entertaining listen, but unfortunately it’s a single-disc highlights set, and this production is so good that a more complete recording would have been nice. Two, the toilets in the Adelphi are awful, and there aren’t enough of them. The queues for both the ladies and the gents at the interval stretched out of the bathrooms like bread queues in Soviet-era Russia, and the three (just three) urinals in the gents are so close together that you touch shoulders with the person next to you as you attempt to go about your business. In this day and age, the facilities are totally inadequate.

So… yes. This is possibly as good a production of Sweeney Todd as you’ll ever hope to see. It’s playing a limited run of six months, and it can’t extend at the Adelphi because the theatre has another booking in the autumn. The reviews have been so strong that it wouldn’t be too surprising if the production subsequently went on to have another life somewhere else, but don’t count on it: if you love musical theatre, and particularly if you love Sondheim, this is something that’s worth making a considerable effort to see. And since I’ve already seen it, you will at least be spared the unfortunate spectacle of me sitting with my mouth hanging open for two hours and fifty minutes.

Just, when you see it, make sure you use the bathroom somewhere else first. Really. You’ll thank me.

Pig No Pig

Earlier this evening, Betty Blue Eyes played its final performance in the West End. It’s the first new musical Cameron Mackintosh has produced in a decade, it opened in April this year to very positive reviews, and it’s run to half-empty houses for six months and is closing at a loss.

I saw it in April on my one free night on a London trip that was mostly work – the night after it opened, in fact – and loved it, with a few reservations (I’m picky, I’m afraid – I nearly always have a few reservations). It’s an odd, intriguing subject for a musical – the source material is the Alan Bennett-Malcolm Mowbray film A Private Function, a sharp, forensically cold comedy set in austerity-era Yorkshire that follows a meek chiropodist named Gilbert Chilvers  and his ferociously social-climbing wife Joyce as they steal and conceal a pig that has been secretly reared by local bigwigs to provide the main course for a dinner celebrating the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten. I went, I admit, partly because I was curious to see whether that film could be adapted successfully into a musical – I love the film, and nothing about it screamed ‘potential musical’ – and came away mostly charmed and delighted by what I’d seen. It’s a good show – a really good show – and it deserved a longer run.

It’s not entirely surprising, however, that it hasn’t run longer. The film it’s based on is well-regarded but not a blockbuster on the level of a Ghost or a Legally Blonde – and anyway, the musical and the film do not share the same title. The songwriters, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, have had solid careers that encompass a few charming small-scale musicals and additional songs for the stage version of Mary Poppins, but they aren’t household names. The show’s two stars – Sarah Lancashire and Reece Shearsmithare household names, more or less, but there are relatively few stars in this country whose name on a poster makes people pick up the phone and book theatre tickets. For that matter, the audiences that know Shearsmith from The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville on television are not, as a group, necessarily going to be first in the queue to see a stage musical, let alone a relatively old-fashioned musical comedy like this one.  Alan Bennett‘s name on a poster does tend to make people book tickets, but Alan Bennett’s name wasn’t anywhere near the poster. The musical is warmer than the film, but it’s still, when you boil it down, a more or less unflinching social comedy of manners in which it’s hard to find any character who is completely loveable (while the show is warmer than the film, Lancashire’s Joyce is far more of a West Riding Lady Macbeth than Maggie Smith presented on screen in the same role, a comparison that the musical makes explicit midway through the second act). And, at the end of the day, it’s a sharp-but-charming old-fashioned musical comedy, top-price tickets were £65, and the economy is in the toilet. When they opened (to reviews that were far better than we remember, in London at least), Mackintosh’s productions of The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon were events, must-see attractions that were sold out months in advance. Of course, in the late 1980s, people still had disposable income. Betty Blue Eyes got equally good reviews, but never gained that kind of traction at the box office.

With immaculate timing, the cast recording of Betty Blue Eyes became available for download this week. It’s not out on CD until next month; the download version has a couple of additional tracks that will not be on the CD – “Since the War”, an Act Two number set in a gents’ toilet and led by Dr. Swaby, who is the man who has thwarted most of Joyce’s social ambitions, and the full-length version of an Act One number called “Magic Fingers”, which is sung by three of Gilbert’s patients, and which is presented elsewhere on the cast recording without most of the dialogue that separates the verses. It’s a live recording, made in the theatre, and that brings positives and negatives. On the plus side, the performances have an immediacy and a spontaneity that isn’t always easy to capture in a recording studio. On the minus side, the sound quality is not quite as pristine as it would be on a studio recording. By and large, the show comes across very well; the highlight, probably, is Sarah Lancashire’s take-no-prisoners delivery of “Nobody”, Joyce’s determined paean to the art of social climbing, but the ensemble numbers also sound terrific. Lancashire, who has spent most of her career working in rather cosy television dramas, reveals a marvellous singing voice as well as comic timing that is apparently guided by laser  (some of us already knew about her musical comedy skills – in the mid-1990s, she played Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors at the Oldham Coliseum, and she was brilliant), and it’s a joy, on this live recording, to hear the huge ovation she receives as she stops the show cold with “Nobody”; hopefully, this will not be her last musical. There are a few less-than-stellar individual songs here and there, and unfortunately Reece Shearsmith’s Gilbert is saddled with more than his fair share of them – my heart sank, when I saw the show, to see the programme list a song called “The Kind of Man I Am”, and the song, unfortunately, lives down to my low expectations, although Shearsmith does a lovely job of it; he more or less sold it in the theatre, but on a recording, when you can’t see the look on his face as he sings, it’s far less successful. And Adrian Scarborough, as the meat inspector Wormold, struggles manfully with a dazzlingly misconceived production number called “Painting by Heart” that should really have been put down in previews. Scarborough, again, is no singer, although he stays  in tune, but he’s one of our best comic actors; he clearly had a great time wheeling out his best boo-hiss Villainous Acting, but he can’t quite manage to sell a song that, unfortunately, just isn’t good enough.

The rest of it is at least entertaining and often far better than that, and “Magic Fingers” is surprisingly deeply touching, particularly in the full-length version. The music does an excellent job of evoking the postwar setting, despite the rather thin orchestrations (nine players, not enough), the departures from the film’s plot are intelligently conceived (a jitterbug scene at a wartime dance where Gilbert and Joyce meet for the first time under dangerous circumstances, a different ending that shows Joyce achieving social prominence partly via her culinary skills with Spam) and work well, and it’s relatively easy to follow the plot simply by listening to the recording – no bad thing if you purchase the download, which does not come with liner notes or a synopsis.  The title song – a love song to the titular pig – includes several marvellously groan-worthy pig-related rhymes, is ridiculously charming, and has a melody you’ll be humming for weeks. You don’t get to see the animatronic pig on the cast recording, but you can’t have everything. It’s far, far more entertaining music than sludge like the score of Ghost; it is, in fact, the most purely entertaining British cast recording I’ve heard in years.

And yet the show closed. The show got good reviews, and closed. That’s showbiz, folks.