Changing my major to Jeanine

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Take tissues and don’t wear mascara. Your tear-ducts are probably not going to survive the last thirty minutes of the Young Vic‘s exquisite production of Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron‘s Fun Home. I mean, not that I generally wear mascara myself, but if I had I’d have emerged from the theatre looking like a distressed panda, and that isn’t a good look for anyone who isn’t a panda. Based on Alison Bechdel’s peerless autobiographical graphic novel, Fun Home is sweet, sharp, charming coming-of-age story, but it’s also a coming-out story, and (eventually) a shattering examination of the degrees to which we can ever truly understand our parents.

On top of that, it’s a masterclass in how to distill the essence of a full-length novel into an hour and forty minutes of stage time. Lisa Kron’s admirably clear-eyed book separates Bechdel’s coming-of-age story into three separate timelines: the adult Alison (Kaisa Hammarlund) tries to understand the chain of events that led her father (Zubin Varla) to commit suicide, Medium Alison (Eleanor Kane) leaves home for college and the discovery of her own sexuality is quickly followed by a conversation with her mother Helen (Jenna Russell) which includes a shocking revelation about her father’s, and Small Alison (Harriet Turnbull at the performance I saw) navigates her father’s severe, apparently inexplicable mood swings and experiences her first moment, which she doesn’t quite understand, of identification with a strong, butch woman. On paper it sounds painfully earnest, and it isn’t; it begins as a truthful, funny exploration of family dynamics, and then the show somehow sneaks up on you. Despite the three separate narrative strands, the storytelling is absolutely clear throughout, and Kron and Tesori guide us through Alison’s complicated emotional landscape with remarkable precision.

There are two lynchpins holding the show together. One is Jeanine Tesori’s beautiful score, which functions less as a series of standalone numbers (although there are a few very fine standalone numbers) and more as a kind of continuous texture which moves seamlessly from dialogue to recitative to song and back again. You won’t get the kind of Big Melodies you’ll find in something like Les Misérables, but you might get your heart broken – and you also might well come out of the theatre humming ‘Ring of Keys’, Small Alison’s glorious anthem of self-discovery. And you might very well need those tissues during ‘Days and Days’, Helen Bechdel’s devastating aria about how she’s spent her life burying her feelings for the good of her family. It’s a model of musical and lyrical restraint, probably the best thing in the show, and it’s all the more moving because it’s so carefully buttoned-down. The show’s other lynchpin – surprisingly, given that it’s a relatively small role – is Jenna Russell’s quietly stoical Helen Bechdel, whose sacrifices for her family become clear in the last third of the show. There are few fireworks in Russell’s extraordinary performance, but she somehow, without grandstanding, manages to find every last scrap of subtext in a character who keeps nearly everything buried beneath the surface.

But then, under Sam Gold’s careful direction, the performances across the board are ideal. Kaisa Hammarlund is as right for Alison as she was wrong for Sweet Charity, and she brings both warmth and humour to Alison’s growing understanding that she enjoys a freedom her closeted father never experienced. Eleanor Kane makes Medium Alison’s journey of sexual self-discovery sweet as well as funny, and her (brilliant) musical number charting her sexual awakening with a fellow college student – ‘Changing My Major’ – is the closest this show comes to a bravura showstopper. Zubin Varla is both (appropriately) slightly creepy and exceptionally moving as Alison’s father Bruce, presenting a man who can never quite find the courage to be who he knows he is, and who can’t always stop himself from taking out his frustrations on the people around him. Harriet Turnbull is a perfectly charming Small Alison, and her ‘Ring of Keys’ is lovely. The ensemble performances are flawless, and so is the small band. As I said, Gold’s production is exquisite.

It looks exquisite too, thanks to David Zinn’s less-minimalist-than-it-first-seems set. Judging from production photographs, this does not appear to be an exact recreation of Gold’s two previous proscenium stagings of the show (at the Public Theater in New York, and subsequently for a US tour; the Broadway production played at Circle in the Square, and was therefore staged in the round). The show moves from a carefully fluid scenic concept in which various locations – the Bechdel home, the yard outside, the family funeral home which gives the show its title, the adult Alison’s work desk – are suggested via minimal furnishings on an essentially bare stage, to a carefully-detailed (and gorgeous) recreation of the living-room of the historical house – almost a museum – Bruce has spent his life restoring. You don’t come to this kind of show for the spectacle, but the revelation of the house’s interior is a dazzling visual coup; Ben Stanton’s lighting, meanwhile, does an admirable job of keeping the show’s three timelines distinct in the moments when they all occupy the stage simultaneously.

In fact, there really isn’t anything much here to criticise. This is an impeccable production of impeccable writing; you won’t get the sort of verbal and musical pyrotechnics you’ll find at this year’s other big musical import from Broadway – but stunning as it is, there’s nothing in that show as moving as ‘Days and Days’. I confess, I still think Caroline, or Change is Tesori’s masterpiece – but this is up there in the same league, and it’s certainly as good a new American musical as anyone has written in the last twenty years.

So… now that we’ve seen superlative productions of this and Caroline, or Change in London, can somebody please bring us a full-scale professional revival of Violet?

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The Deep End

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It’s brief – under forty minutes – so this will be too. As Alex, the speaker in Simon Stephens‘s monologue Sea Wall, Andrew Scott is quite extraordinary. Stephens’s monologue tells a story about Alex’s relationship with his father-in-law, and moves quite quickly from a charming family portrait to a harrowing exploration of grief; it’s written as an intimate confessional and performed on a bare stage with the house lights up (there is only one lighting cue, and it comes at the very end of the piece), and under George Perrin’s direction Scott somehow manages to make you feel he’s telling his story directly to you, even when (as I was) you’re sitting in the back row of the dress circle. It’s a charming, devastating, profoundly moving performance, and a thrilling masterclass in how to grab the audience’s attention and hold on to it without raising your voice or moving more than a few paces. By now you’ve probably read a dozen pieces praising Scott’s performance to the skies, and he deserves all the acclaim and more.

The piece itself, on the other hand, is effective, but it isn’t as good as the performer delivering it here. Stephens has some excellent lines, and he does a very good job of sketching the dynamics between the various members of Alex’s family in the first few minutes of the monologue, but there’s a point where the writing starts to become predictable; when tragedy looms, you can see it coming a full fifteen minutes away, and that’s an issue in a piece that’s under forty minutes long. Stephens does, though, make one genuinely brilliant writing choice, and paradoxically it’s silence. There is a moment where he could have chosen to make Alex say any number of things, all of which would have been plausible, and chooses instead to leave us to fill in the blanks, and that (long) pause is the most powerful moment in the production.

In the end, though, what you remember is Scott standing in the middle of a bare stage, wearing nondescript clothes, playing the audience like a violin and doing it without breaking a sweat. It’s a short piece, but it’s a remarkable feat of storytelling – even if, as I said, you’ve figured out where the story is going a long time before it gets there.

 

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At Last the 1948 Show

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There are many, many wonderful things about Opera North‘s revived revival of Kiss Me, Kate, but let’s start with the most surprising: unlike the (abundantly talented, and she should have known better) lady who played the role on the most recent Broadway cast recording, Stephanie Corley’s Lilli Vanessi actually sings I Hate Men instead of mugging and shrieking her way through it as if she’s on a mission to grind every last scrap of humour in the song into a bloody, unrecognisable pulp. Not only does she sing it, she sings it beautifully – and it’s very funny, because the scene is very funny, and because nobody is trying so hard to MAKE IT FUNNY that they kill the joke.

As a show, Kiss Me, Kate absolutely reflects what musical comedy was in 1948 (actually it’s at the more sophisticated end of what musical comedy was in 1948): the score might be Cole Porter‘s masterpiece, and Sam and Bella Spewack‘s book creaks a little around the edges these days. The situation – a show-within-a-show spun off from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, in which the warring relationship between Kate and Petruchio is reflected in the warring relationship between Fred, the actor-manager directing the show and playing Petruchio, and Lilli, the actress playing Kate, who also happens to be Fred’s ex-wife – is full of comic potential, the lines are funny, the characters are real and believable, and it certainly is still playable, as this revival clearly demonstrates. In terms of structure, it is of its time. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing – I loved it more or less without reservation – but musicals these days move a little more quickly, and no longer have to be structured so that scenes using the full stage are dogmatically alternated with scenes performed “in one” on a reduced playing area in front of a backdrop to allow stagehands the time and space to change the set. The last Broadway revival of the show used a (crassly) rewritten version of the book (by John Guare) whose purpose was at least partly to make the show move from scene to scene in a way that just wouldn’t have been possible in the original production. This revival, on the other hand, is essentially a trip straight back to 1948.

That’s not a bad thing. In Jo Davies’s staging, first seen three years ago and revived here by Ed Goggin, the material is given space to breathe. There’s comic business where appropriate – Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin are blissfully funny as the gangsters – but you never get the sense that this cast are being forced at gunpoint to MAKE THEM LAUGH (really, check out the DVD of the London iteration of the last Broadway revival to see a cast of actors playing comedy as if they’re being held hostage). Quirijn de Lang’s Fred has a gorgeous baritone and marvellous timing, Corley’s Lilli is flawless, Alan Burkitt’s Bill Calhoun can tap-dance like a dream, and Zoe Rainey’s Lois Lane effortlessly wrings every last laugh out of Always True To You In My Fashion. The supporting performances are lovely, the chorus singing is beyond reproach, the sets and costumes (Colin Richmond) and lighting (Ben Cracknell) do the job more than well enough given the limitations of a production designed to play in repertory with two or three other shows on tour. And – best of all – there are more than fifty musicians in the pit under the baton of Jim Holmes, who knows how to draw all the wit out of Porter’s dazzling score, and the production is only very lightly miked, so the experience is probably as close as you’re ever going to get at a big musical these days to natural sound. It isn’t LOUD – most musicals these days are LOUD (believe me, I saw this Kiss Me, Kate in the evening after a return visit to Dreamgirls in the afternoon) – and it takes the audience a few minutes to adjust, but then people listened in a way they somehow usually don’t when there’s a sound system turning the volume up to eleven.

Still, though, the fact that this is basically a three-hour trip back to 1948 means it may not be for everyone. As I said, these days new musicals move more quickly. If you’re not prepared to adjust to the (lack of) volume the show may seem a little remote. And in this particular property, as in the Shakespeare play it’s based on, there’s a certain amount of built-in sexism that audiences are far more sensitive to today than they were seventy years ago. Look in the usual places online and you’ll find comments from people disappointed that this production didn’t push the comedy far enough, that it wasn’t loud enough, that the pace was too slow, that the sets weren’t elaborate enough. Depending on your yardsticks, those are not necessarily unreasonable criticisms – there’s no question that a production conceived directly for the West End would have looked and sounded quite different. For those of us prepared to meet this production on its own terms, though, it’s, well, Wunderbar.

 

I Love Lucy

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I am a world-class nit-picker, so you may want to sit down for this: as performed – gloriously – by the extraordinary Laura Linney, Rona Munro‘s stage adaptation of Elizabeth Strout‘s novel My Name is Lucy Barton is a perfect theatrical experience. This is one of those incredibly rare productions where everything works. The only thing wrong with it is that the run is only three weeks so I won’t get to see it again.

Strout’s novel – and Munro’s stage script – presents a woman looking back, first at an experience in the 1980s when she became ill following a supposedly routine operation and was hospitalised for several weeks, during which time she was visited by her estranged mother, and second at her childhood, and at the causes of her estrangement from her family. From these recollections, she pieces together the process by which she acquired the ruthlessness necessary to forge a successful career as a writer. That’s a simplistic summary, because Munro’s monologue is difficult to reduce to a two-line synopsis; it’s a ninety-minute tiptoe through an emotional minefield, and if there can be such a thing as a low-key tour-de-force, this is it.

Lucy’s story, at times, is certainly harrowing. Growing up on a farm in rural Illinois, in the kind of acute poverty that made other children mock her and her siblings for smelling bad, with a war-veteran father suffering from undiagnosed PTSD and a harshly undemonstrative mother, Lucy’s stories of her early childhood recall Dickens without the warmth. The tone is carefully matter-of-fact, without fireworks or histrionics, because this isn’t an I-survived-abuse confessional. Strout (via Munro) offers, instead, a careful meditation on whether it’s ever possible to escape your upbringing, and on the ways in which we sift through our memories in search of a story to tell. There’s more going on, of course – Lucy’s lengthy hospitalisation occurs in the early 1980s, the spectre of AIDS is hovering over Manhattan (there are some fascinating echoes, here and there, of The Inheritance, another play in which the ways we organise our lives and memories into narratives is a significant theme); Munro’s great achievement is to take Strout’s more-complex-than-they-seem characters and ideas and distil them, with remarkable clarity, into ninety minutes of stage time.

Laura Linney matches the writing with an impeccably-judged, quietly astonishing performance which, again, counts as a low-key tour-de-force. There are no big explosions, no bite-marks in the scenery – just a masterclass in how to tell a story simply and clearly, making every word, every breath, every pause, every gesture count. Linney slips between Lucy, who has acquired the manners and voice of a Big Ten-educated New Yorker, and her mother’s spikily flat Midwestern drawl with forensic precision, and finds all the (considerable) humour in her mother’s tales of People Back Home Who Met a Bad End. More than that, Linney navigates Strout’s complicated emotional territory without grandstanding, and without ever succumbing to oh-pity-me melodramatics; she holds back the tears instead of turning on the waterworks, and navigates a clear course through the three levels of Strout’s timeline. Linney’s presence – for want of a better word – is extraordinary: this is simultaneously a blazing star turn and an intimate character study, and there are very few actors who could navigate that contradictory duality as confidently as she does, particularly in a 900-seat theatre.

It’s beautifully directed, too, by Richard Eyre, on a simple, stark set – three projection screens, one behind the other, at the back of the stage, plus a hospital bed, a nightstand, and a chair – by Bob Crowley. Video projections, which take us from a Manhattan hospital room with a view of the Chrysler Building to an Illinois cornfield and back – are by Luke Hills, and the lighting and sound are by, respectively, Peter Mumford and John Leonard. They appear to be working in perfect unison – as in Linney’s performance, there are no flamboyant flourishes here, just a carefully-modulated exploration of every nuance of Strout and Munro’s text.

It’s safe to assume that it’ll have a life beyond the Bridge, although nothing has yet been announced. Behind that unassuming title there’s a quietly shattering piece of theatre, and Linney’s performance is utterly mesmerising. It’s a given that it’ll be seen in New York, and it’s to be hoped that it will be filmed – it would be perfect as a standalone special for Netflix or HBO – and if I lived any closer to London I’d be back before the end of the run. Don’t be put off by the cosily middlebrow poster art; there are no caveats, no buts, no holes to pick, and it’s (at least) is as good as anything you’ll see this year. Linney’s performance may be as good as anything you’ll see this decade.

 

All the clichés in a row…

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The title number – an ode to the pleasures of the roller-skating rink delivered by a chorus of six men who somehow manage to tap-dance on the stoppers on their rollerskates – is five minutes of pure joy. As choreographed by Fabian Aloise, it might well turn out to be the year’s most spectacular showstopper, never mind that it’s being staged in a 250-seat converted industrial space on Newington Causeway rather than in the West End. The gleefully exuberant performances are an absolute delight,  and the icing on the cake is the holy-shit-we-got-through-it-without-breaking-anything look on the actors’ faces as they hold their poses during the applause. It’s sensational, thrilling, and delivers ten times more sheer fun than any of the overblown tap sequences in the Duracell ad currently playing at Drury Lane. If you love musical theatre, you need to see those five minutes, and you’ll probably want to see them more than once (I would, if I didn’t live so far from London). It’s that good.

Unfortunately, that production number arrives halfway through the second act of a show with more than its share of problems, most of them attributable to the writing. Or rather, mostly attributable to Terrence McNally‘s turd of a book, because about two-thirds of the show’s score is top-tier Kander and Ebb, and the few (relatively) duff songs in it are still better than anything you’ll find in some shows that were much bigger hits. The Rink is set in the late 1970s in a dilapidated roller rink somewhere on the US’s eastern seaboard, and McNally’s book consists of two hours of bickering between the rink’s (co-) owner, Anna Antonelli, who has just sold up and is planning to retire, and her estranged adult daughter Angel(a), who left home in her late teens (i.e. in the mid-60s) to join the protest movement. Between the rounds of bickering, we see (many) flashbacks in which the gradual disintegration of Anna and Angel’s relationship is set against the gradual decline of the boardwalk. Occasionally, seemingly almost at random, McNally throws in a couple of zingers, some of which – to be fair – are genuinely funny (Anna: “If you ever see anybody parked in a brown Toyota with his seatbelt on, that’s Lenny.”). It’s clear from the show’s (feeble) attempt to examine the various social changes seen in the US over the roughly thirty-year span covered by the show’s flashbacks that McNally is aiming for something along the lines of a slightly more intimate Follies; what we get, unfortunately, is an uneven hybrid which plays like a warmed-over mother-daughter movie-of-the-week punctuated by lines from an insipid, long-cancelled sitcom, served up with a generous topping of Italian-American clichés. The book, in short, is bad. Really bad. It’s so bad that you’d never guess it was by the same writer who gave us Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Love! Valour! Compassion! (you might, on the other hand, guess it’s by the same writer who gave us Master Class and Deuce). It’s so bad, it includes a scene in which a father melodramatically announces “I have no son!”. It’s so bad that there is not a single moment anywhere in the show where you won’t a) be three steps ahead of what Mr. McNally must have fondly imagined was the plot, and b) be counting the seconds until everybody stops speaking and starts singing again. If you started to count the clichés in McNally’s dialogue you’d either slash your wrists or run out of numbers. There are a lot of 1980s musicals with really bad books. This is one of the worst, and it’s the reason the show has never been a hit.

The score, fortunately, is better – much better – and if you knew the show at all before this production was announced, chances are the score is what made you buy a ticket. The milieu is perfect for Kander and Ebb, and they deliver in spades: Chief Cook and Bottle Washer, an exultant shout of independence from a woman who has spent decades of her life attending to everybody’s needs except her own; Don’t Ah, Ma Me!, a furiously combative mother-daughter duet; Colored Lights, Angel’s gradual realisation that years on the protest trail have left her unsatisfied and unfulfilled; that glorious title song; the always-darkest-just-before-the-dawn ballad We Can Make It; Marry Me, the most self-effacing marriage proposal number ever written (delivered with exquisite restraint on the original Broadway cast recording by a pre-Seinfeld Jason Alexander); and Wallflower, a sensational dance number for Anna and Angel in a flashback sequence at Angel’s spring prom. It’s unfortunate that All The Children in a Row, Angel’s climactic recollection of her journey through the counterculture movement, includes the worst lyric quatrain Fred Ebb ever wrote (“Why’d you have to take that stuff?/Come on, Danny, that’s enough/We can make it, we’ll survive/Danny, you’re too stoned to drive!”), but that’s four lines out of a mostly stellar whole. The original Broadway cast recording, on which Anna and Angel are played by, respectively, Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli, is spectacular; both stars are at their peak, and the material is perfect for them (Rivera’s role was written specifically for her) There aren’t many opportunities to hear this music performed live; for some, it’ll be worth gritting your teeth through the awful dialogue for the opportunity to hear this cast tear into these songs.

That’s because the good news is that director Adam Lenson has assembled one hell of a cast for this production. It should probably go without saying that Caroline O’Connor can do no wrong – I mean, the last time I saw her in a show I very nearly founded a religion based on worship of her – but she’s every bit as good an Anna as you’d expect. She dances up a storm, of course, and belts the hell out of Anna’s numbers, but she also miraculously, through sheer force of personality, somehow manages to transcend the dazzling hideousness of McNally’s writing. As Angel, Gemma Sutton doesn’t, but it isn’t her fault: her character is badly short-changed by this version of the script, which is significantly revised from the version seen on Broadway in 1984 (and in Manchester in 1987 and London in 1988). In the original script, the show opens with Angel alone onstage singing Colored Lights, a wistful song about her longing for her childhood home. In this version, the show opens with what was originally the next scene – Anna greeting the wreckers who have come to demolish the rink, announcing her retirement and departure, and singing Chief Cook and Bottle Washer – and Colored Lights doesn’t appear until the end of the first act, where there was originally a short reprise of it. The result, unfortunately, is that Angel enters at the end of what is now the first scene and immediately starts arguing with Anna, and that inevitably means the audience sides against her: this version of the script introduces her as a barrier between Anna and her retirement rather than as a woman looking to rediscover her roots, and that change (which is in the current version of the published script as well) damages the first act quite badly. Ms. Sutton is abundantly talented – she’s a beautifully honest actress and a wonderful singer (she does not, however, deserve the dead polecat masquerading as a wig that she is forced to wear in this production), but this revised version of the script – which incidentally solves almost none of the original script’s problems beyond cutting the cringe-inducing flashback scene between a teenage Angel and her lecherous Uncle Fausto – doesn’t do her any favours. When she finally sings Colored Lights, it’s a gorgeous performance.

The rest of the roles – yes, all of them – are played by the six wreckers Anna hires to demolish the rink: Stewart Clarke, Ross Dawes, Michael Lin, Elander Moore, Ben Redfern, and Jason Winter. They’re all flawless, and their two musical numbers – that fabulous title song in Act Two, and the witheringly sarcastic After All These Years in Act One – are among the production’s great highlights. There’s equally flawless musical direction from Joe Bunker, whose seven-piece band sounds terrific, and Bec Chippendale does as much as anybody could to recreate the faded grandeur of a roller rink on the Jersey shore within the confines of the Southwark Playhouse’s auditorium and budget. There’s even a glitterball, and it looks magical under Matt Daw’s lighting. The production, overall, is just about as good as it could possibly be – but it’s a good production of very, very problematic material. You’ll want to see it for O’Connor and the rest of the cast, for that sensational title song, and for the chance to hear this score performed live. It is more than worth the Southwark Playhouse’s standard £25 ticket price. While the musical numbers, though, are genuinely thrilling, don’t be surprised if the show as a whole leaves you unmoved, even given the fiercely committed performances from the two leading actors. Don’t be surprised, either, if you find yourself taking an inner journey during the dialogue scenes. A lot of what you’ll see is very entertaining – but this is, in the end, a superlative production of a show that just doesn’t work.

 

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Nobody’s on nobody’s side

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There are sixty-seven musicians in the orchestra, and twenty members of the ENO Chorus padding out an already large company. That’s the most important thing about Laurence Connor’s simultaneously gargantuan and undernourished revival of Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice‘s cold-war pop opera Chess, now playing a limited run at the Coliseum. If you love this score – and I really love this score – then you should do whatever you can to see this production at some point over the next three weeks. Chess has always had a dazzling score; despite the many imperfections elsewhere in this particular iteration of the show, that score, under the baton of Murray Hipkin (at the performance I saw; the regular conductor is John Rigby), is served spectacularly well, and to hear this music performed by such a superb orchestra and chorus is genuinely thrilling. As long as you go for the music, you’ll have a wonderful time.

If you’re looking for a piece of musical theatre, on the other hand, better manage your expectations. Chess first appeared as a concept album in 1984, and the biggest hit single from it – I Know Him So Well, in which two women spend four minutes lamenting that neither of them can fulfil their (same) man’s needs, because fuck the Bechdel Test – spent four weeks at number one in the UK pop charts. Since then, the show has gone through a dizzying number of incarnations onstage; the original London production was a moderate hit, but was too expensive to replicate elsewhere, the subsequent heavily-rewritten Broadway production was an eight-week flop, and since then it’s become one of those shows that, like Bernstein’s Candide, seems to get revised for each new production. This production – guess what? – represents yet another attempt to rewrite the show, and the result, as theatre, is – I’ll be kind – not successful.

This version of the show goes back to the concept album, and presents the songs on the album in album order, which is not (at all) the order in which they appeared in the original London production. It’s fair to say that the show’s biggest fault has always been that in constructing the plot, Tim Rice’s reach exceeded his grasp – to make the show’s combination of cold-war politics and international chess work completely probably requires a playwright of the calibre of Christopher Hampton and a lyricist with the skill and range of Stephen Sondheim, and while Rice has his moments he is neither of those things – but there is a viable show somewhere in this material. The basic story – an international chess championship in which the Russian contestant beats the American reigning champion and then defects to the west after falling in love with the American’s (female) second/coach – has potential, and the love story at the centre of the show can be quite touching if it’s played well. While some versions of the show have become bogged down in the layers of political intrigue in the second act, this version of the show goes too far in the opposite direction. For this production, somebody has taken the decision to reduce the show, more or less, to a series of Big Numbers with as little distance between them as possible. A great deal of the material that linked the big numbers in the original London production has been cut, to the point where one major supporting character – Walter, a CIA agent – is missing (and missed, particularly in the second act). Instead, the musical numbers are linked by brief snatches of atrociously simplistic dialogue that sounds like it was written on flashcards (at one point, one character actually announces “My heart is breaking!”).  The result is a script that sucks almost all the depth out of a piece that never had quite as much depth as it thought it did to begin with.

There might have been a good reason for that choice if things had worked out the way I suspect the producers – it’s a coproduction between the ENO and a commercial management – had planned. Similar ENO coproductions have had casting lined up before tickets went on sale – Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson in Sweeney Todd, Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard, Alfie Boe and Katherine Jenkins in Carousel. Chess didn’t, although it did have the same eye-watering ticket prices (peaking at £150, with a transaction charge on top if you book online) as those three earlier shows. Tickets had been on sale for more than three months before the casting for the leads was announced; Michael Ball, playing the Russian chess champion at the centre of the plot, told the Daily Express in an interview that he approached the producers about the role in January, after tickets had already been on sale for a couple of months. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the producers were pursuing some kind of megastar for one or more of the leads, and that the people they were hoping to sign turned it down. That, in turn, probably explains this version of the script: if the aim was to cast pop stars, which is an understandable aim given that the ENO’s previous three musical coproductions have all relied to some extent on superstar casting, then it makes sense to strip out everything that might expose their limitations as stage actors. If you also strip out most of the (already limited) character development, maybe it doesn’t matter if the leading roles are going to be played by the kind of million-megawatt STARS whose personal charisma can fill in the blanks.

That approach, though, falls apart when your star casting falls through and you have to find a set of leads at the last minute. As Florence, the woman who ping-pongs between the American and Russian champions, Cassidy Janson is perfectly OK. She has a really good voice, she sings the hell out of Nobody’s Side – my favourite song in the score – and she’s a decent actress and she manages to deliver some really, really atrocious dialogue with a straight face. She is not the kind of star who can use sheer force of personality to paper over the cracks in the script, particularly in a space the size of the Coliseum, and it shows. She’s very good, but she’d be far better in a version of the show that gave her more to act, which would be literally every single other version of the show that has ever been staged, rather than one designed to accommodate (and protect) stars with limited stage experience. As the Russian wife, Alexandra Burke – who is a pop star – has the opposite problem: she has a stunning voice, but she’s not quite the right kind of singer for most of her music here. Again, she doesn’t have the kind of superstar presence that might compensate for the (huge) gaps in her (very) underwritten role, but she also doesn’t have the kind of nuanced approach to interpreting song lyrics that would get the most mileage out of the interpolated He is a Man, He is a Child. That song, more than anything else in the score, is an extended dramatic monologue, albeit one with a couple of huge musical peaks; Ms. Burke, unfortunately, can’t act. At all. She makes lovely sounds, but they usually seem unconnected to the words she’s singing.

The men fare better. As the Arbiter, Cedric Neal blows the roof off the Coliseum in his one big number. Tim Howar‘s John McEnroe-esque Freddie, the bratty American champion, is so brilliantly sung that it’s easy to forgive his relative lack of charisma in the (brief) scenes. His biggest number, Pity the Child, is a formidably difficult rock howler, and he pulls it off effortlessly (I could have done without the gratuitous “NOOOOOOOOOOOOO” at the end of the song, though – perhaps it snuck in uninvited from Laurence Connor’s mediocre production of Miss Saigon, in which more than one actor does more or less the same thing, but it should have been shown the door the moment it appeared in rehearsals). And as Anatoly, the Russian challenger in the chess championship, Michael Ball is the only one of the production’s leads who has the combination of voice, acting skill, and charisma necessary to make this streamlined version of the show completely work for him. Somehow, despite a script that provides almost no connective tissue between his big numbers, he manages to create a believable character. It’s very easy to make fun of his cheesy vocal mannerisms – he put at least half the cheese into cheesy listening – but he’s on his best behaviour here and his singing is mostly superb, and the cheese, thank God, is mostly left offstage. His Anthem, the defiantly patriotic/internationalist hymn Anatoly sings at the climax of the first act, is the production’s most thrilling musical moment, and also one of the few moments in the production that works as drama.

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As for the production itself, I’m starting to think ‘directed by Laurence Connor’ should be taken as some kind of warning. There’s a spectacular set by Matt Kinley – remarkably spectacular for a five-week run – consisting of grids of square screens which show video projections (designed by Terry Scruby) – sometimes of the actors emoting their way through their big numbers, sometimes of cold-war newsreel footage, and sometimes wince-inducingly naff computerised animation, like the sequence early in the first act when we see Freddie’s private jet descend over Merano then turn (at an improbable angle) and land at the airport. Stephen Mear’s choreography gets the most out of the two big scene-setting dance numbers, and his parade of merchandisers in the opening ceremony sequence is terrific (it’s also the only place where Scruby’s video footage – which in that sequence shows Howar mugging his way through a series of gloriously spot-on ads for chess-themed souvenir merchandise ranging from coffee mugs to toothpaste – manages to be genuinely witty). There’s a lot going on – a lot of people on the stage, a lot of other visual information via the screens, and Connor does manage to marshall it all so nothing collides with anything else, and so that it’s always clear where you should be looking. He’s very good at the big picture, just as he was in Miss Saigon – but again, just like in his production of Miss Saigon, there’s not a great deal of subtlety to any of the performances, his attention to character work seems to stop at big, bland, generic emotions, and he’s prone to letting actors over-emote in places where less would be more. In the Swedish production in which it premiered, the late Josefin Nilsson‘s performance of He is a Man, He is a Child is a masterpiece of restraint – she has big notes, but she deploys them very carefully, and it’s all the more moving for it. Burke, on the other hand, has two volume settings and a tendency to sob, and the result isn’t nearly as moving because there is absolutely no feeling behind it. And Cassidy Janson sings much of the (gorgeous) final duet with tears (and mascara) running down her cheeks; it’s not a good choice, the moment would be more moving if we saw her holding back emotion rather than giving in to it.

But then, this version of the show, as I said at the beginning, probably wasn’t intended to be about acting. In purely musical terms, much of what you’ll hear is superb, and if you go for the music you’ll love it. Several individual numbers received thunderous applause, the show as a whole received a huge standing ovation, and – as a musical experience, as opposed to as a piece of musical theatre – it absolutely deserved it. As a concert with over-the-top visuals, it’s a stunning success. As a piece of theatre, it is lacking. The show might never completely work in any version, but as theatre even Richard Nelson‘s turd of a book from the Broadway production would be an improvement over what’s on offer at the Coliseum. It’ll be a long time before you get to hear these songs played by this kind of orchestra and chorus again, though – at least unless you go to Sweden, where the show is sometimes produced by major opera companies – so if you love the music this is certainly a must-see. Just – as I said – manage your expectations.

Finally, for the Chess geeks among us, the song list:

Act One

Overture (the first half of the overture used on Broadway)
The Story of Chess
Merano
Where I Want to Be (includes the preceding scene from the concept album)
Opening Ceremony/US vs. USSR/Merchandisers
The Arbiter/Chess Hymn
Chess
Quartet (A Model of Decorum and Tranquility)
Nobody’s Side (includes the preceding scene from the concept album)
Der Kleine Franz
Mountain Duet
Chess
Florence Quits
Someone Else’s Story (with Svetlana’s lyrics from the Australian production)
Embassy Lament
Anthem

Act Two:

He is a Man, He is a Child
Golden Bangkok
One Night in Bangkok
Heaven Help My Heart
The Soviet Machine
The Interview
Argument
I Know Him So Well
The Deal (mostly as on the concept album but with Svetlana’s reprise of Where I Want to Be at the beginning)
Pity the Child
Endgame
You And I (musically as on the concept album, incorporating a short reprise of The Story of Chess rather than all of it, but using the Broadway lyrics for the main body of the song rather than the [better] ones from the concept album)

Bows – an instrumental mostly based on Nobody’s Side.

Fingers on the buzzers, please!

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

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

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

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

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