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.

The geeks shall inherit…

Geeks, dorks, the invention of email, and a 2005 rock album. That’s the unlikely combination of ingredients that form the basis of Loserville, the new rock musical currently playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. On paper, it looks like it could be deadly. It isn’t. Actually, it’s always entertaining and sometimes wonderful. This is the rock musical equivalent of a labrador puppy – wide-eyed, full of energy, and out to have fun.

It’s based on a rock album, but it’s not really a jukebox musical (thank God). Songwriter James Bourne and his collaborator Elliot Davis started with a 2005 album called Welcome to Loserville by Bourne’s post-Busted band Son of Dork, but they haven’t simply constructed a show around the album’s ten tracks. Instead, they’ve jettisoned half the album, taken five songs that strongly suggested characters or dramatic situations, and used those songs as the starting-point for an original musical (the five songs from the album that are used in the show are considerably transformed from their original recordings).

The result is yet another rock musical set in an American high school. Yes, from Grease to Glee to High School Musical, we’ve been here before; the twist, here, is that Loserville is told mostly from the point of view of computer geeks and sci-fi nerds. It’s 1971, and Michael Dork, a teenage computer hacker/programmer (think Steve Jobs or Bill Gates) is on the brink of inventing email, but wealthy jock Eddie, the son of the CEO of a computer company, is out to steal his idea. Can Michael win the race to send the first-ever email, and win the heart of Holly, a fellow computer geek who wants to be the first female astronaut? It’s not giving anything at all away to say that yes, he can, because you’re more or less always two steps ahead of the plot. That, though, is almost beside the point.

The thing is, this very slim story is delivered with such energy and charm that any failings in the writing – and there are some – are ultimately curiously irrelevant. Bourne’s songs (which are co-written with Davis and a number of other collaborators) sound nothing at all like the pop music of 1971, but they’re fresh, sharp and tuneful (you will come out of the theatre humming ‘Ticket Outta Loserville’), and they manage the very difficult trick of transforming authentic contemporary rock music into something genuinely theatrical. Davis’s book is fast-paced, funny, commendably economical (each act runs about fifty minutes), and sprinkled with sci-fi/pop culture allusions (many Star Trek references, an extended and suitably over-the-top scene set at a fan convention, and one character – named Lucas – is writing a book that will clearly become a very well-known film franchise. Hint: it’s set in space, and he’s beginning his story with chapter four). The characters in Loserville are all stereotypes, true, but when they’re drawn this colourfully, who cares? The show never takes itself too seriously (although it stops short of being an out-and-out spoof), and in Steven Dexter’s production it’s so exuberant that you can’t help being carried along for the ride. The cast (of 20) and the tight, appropriately loud five-piece band deliver pitch-perfect performances, to the point where it’s unfair to single any individual out for special praise. These actors – all of them – have singing voices with character – there’s no glossy, robotic Lea Michele-style belting here, and thanks to Simon Baker’s impeccably clear sound design you can hear all the lyrics, which is depressingly unusual at rock musicals these days. Nick Winston’s hilariously dorky choreography is so energetic that I think I lost five pounds just watching it, and the show is presented on a marvellously inventive set by Francis O’Connor that mixes early-70s futuristic backdrops (flashing LEDs, printed circuits, spinning data tapes) with outsize educational supplies (notebooks and pencils used to suggest everything from doors and windows to bowling pins) to tremendous comic effect. In a planetarium scene in the first act (lighting by Howard Harrison), it’s even beautiful.

It’s not quite perfect. The character arc for Holly could use a little sharpening, and there’s the occasional maladroit lyric or one-liner that doesn’t quite land. What’s required, though, is judicious tweaking rather than a major rewrite: the show is almost there, and it’s never less than thoroughly entertaining. It certainly deserves a wider audience and a life beyond Leeds.

And, dammit, I want a cast album!