Small ones are more juicy!

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

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

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

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

Blues In The Night

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

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

Musik

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

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

America singing

working southwark programme

This could so easily have been the dreariest show imaginable. Working is a plotless musical with a piecemeal score supplied by a handful of different songwriters, based on Studs Terkel‘s seminal 1974 book of oral histories about life in the American workplace. It’s not a book that seems to cry out to be adapted as a musical, particularly given that it doesn’t follow anything you’d recognise as a traditional narrative and it doesn’t focus in on any single leading character. As adapted from Terkel’s book by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, it’s essentially a series of vignettes: a selection of songs and monologues, each delivered by a different character, with a kind of dramatic through-line but no “story”, based on real-life interviews in which people talk about their work, how they feel about it, and how (or whether) it defines them.

And it’s wonderful. Having a multitude of composers supply two or three songs each is an approach that really shouldn’t work, but it does here: these are terrific character monologues set to music by composers ranging from the late Mary Rodgers to Lin-Manuel Miranda, with simple, direct lyrics drawn directly from Terkel’s interviews. This isn’t quite verbatim theatre along the lines of London Road or Committee; the songwriters here (who also include, aside from Schwartz, Susan Birkenhead, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, and James Taylor) craft lyrics from the text in the interviews instead of setting reported speech directly to music. The result is a startling, moving, warmly real collection of characters – ordinary people, portrayed without clich√©, looking for meaning in ordinary lives. So often, musical theatre trades in the larger-than-life – big characters painted in broad strokes. There’s none of that here, and no tap-dancing either,* and the show is all the better for it.

working southwark song list

The six leading actors all play several characters, and they’re all superb. The brilliant Gillian Bevan is sensational as, among other things, a public school teacher reflecting on how teaching has changed since her career began four decades previously and a waitress who finds tremendous pride and dignity in her work. Krysten Cummings finds huge emotional depth in the affecting “Just a Housewife”. Dean Chisnall throws himself into “Brother Trucker” with unrestrained glee, then later delivers a devastating monologue – which takes on a new immediacy in the wake of the horror of Grenfell Tower – as a firefighter considering the reasons he chose such a dangerous career. Siubhan Harrison delivers as good a performance of James Taylor’s “Millwork” as you’re ever likely to hear, and Liam Tamne finds all the comedy in his collection of young/callow characters, and especially in a monologue as a spoiled brat who gets fired from his first job for gross insubordination. Towering above them all is Peter Polycarpou, offering a masterclass in character acting as he shifts personas at the drop of a hat (or rather, at the punch of a time-card).

The show’s ensemble is made up of half-a-dozen straight-out-of-drama-school performers making their professional debuts, and they’re wonderful, but they aren’t given enough to do. A couple of weeks ago, I saw Miriam-Teak Lee give a flawlessly hilarious debut production in On The Town in Regent’s Park. The six young actors here – Patrick Coulter, Nicola Espallardo, Izuka Hoyle, Luke Latchman, Huon Mackley, and Kerri Norville – are clearly all immensely talented, and their movement, via Fabian Aloise’s character-derived choreography, gives the show much of its energy. In too many scenes, though, they are more or less relegated to singing backing vocals, and that’s a pity. Luke Sheppard’s direction keeps them (and everyone else) moving at a good clip, but you’re left with the impression that they could have been allowed to contribute more. Sheppard does a great job of making the show’s lightning-fast transitions between characters and stories admirably clear, Jean Chan’s blue-collar industrial set provides a fitting backdrop, and the show looks great under Nic Farman’s understated lighting, particularly considering the tiny budget. It might be nice to have more than six musicians – but at this size of venue, at these prices, six is a luxury, and the band sounds great under Isaac McCullough’s sensitive musical direction.

If there’s anything to fault, it’s in the material itself, or rather in how this version of the show was constructed. Terkel’s original book appeared in 1974, and the musical, based on the interviews in Terkel’s book, began development in 1975 and opened in 1977 (there’s a helpful timeline in the programme). Lin-Manuel Miranda, the youngest of the show’s various songwriters, was born in 1980; a revised version of the show was developed between 2009 and 2011, based on new interviews conducted by Stephen Schwartz in 2006-7. Miranda’s two songs are excellent, and sound perfectly in keeping with the rest of the score, and “A Very Good Day”, sung by two underpaid caregivers, is one of the show’s great highlights – but the world of work changed a great deal between 1974 and 2006, and the show doesn’t quite manage to negotiate the transition between then and now. As the (intermissionless) performance moves towards its climax with Craig Carnelia’s closing “Something To Point To”, you may well feel a couple of chapters have been missed along the way.

That’s a minor quibble, though, because in most respects the production is an absolute triumph. Whether it will get one is anyone’s guess, but it certainly deserves a longer life; there’s a rumour that a cast recording may be in the offing (or at least, Peter Polycarpou apparently mentioned in a radio interview that a live album was being made), and if the show’s producers are listening, I will buy a copy the second it comes out. Luke Sheppard’s production makes a strong case for this show as a neglected classic, and the performances are simply flawless. Once again, the Southwark Playhouse comes up trumps: they work on a shoestring, but this is probably as good a musical production as you’ll see all year.

*I don’t hate tap-dancing. Really. I’ve a ticket to see 42nd Street later in the year. I even paid for it myself.

Lights up on Washington Heights…

in the heights kings x
Or, a quick review of the Southwark Playhouse‘s wonderful production of Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s first musical, In the Heights, which is currently playing at the King’s Cross Theatre:

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical, In the Heights, which is currently playing at the King’s Cross Theatre, is wonderful. Go and see it.

Beyond that – bullet points, because it’s been a long week.

  • If you’ve read anything about Lin-Manuel Miranda, the first word you’ll associate with him is probably ‘rap’. There’s a lot more to his music than that. This is a wonderful, inventive score; there’s a lot of rap in it, but there’s also an abundance of more conventional musical numbers incorporating a wide range of influences from white pop to salsa to Sondheim. The music is often thrilling, and so is the wordplay – this show’s text is dense, clever, funny, touching when it needs to be, and often as dazzling as the music. As a Broadway debut, this score is a staggering achievement.
  • It’s served well here by a spectacular cast led by Sam Mackay as Usnavi, the bodega owner at the centre of the show’s (loose) plot. That’s the role Miranda played himself on Broadway, so he has big shoes to fill, but he’s terrific.
  • The ensemble dance their backsides off – you could work up a sweat just watching them – and sing gloriously; this is a Southwark Playhouse production, which means it was staged on a budget of about ¬£2.50, which means there isn’t much of a set to speak of, but Drew McOnie’s breathtakingly energetic choreography provides more than enough spectacle.
  • Standout supporting performances from Lily Frazer, whose incredible voice threatens to blow the roof off the theatre, as well as Jade Ewen, David Bedella, Josie Benson, and Eve Polycarpou as everybody’s favourite Abuela. Bedella and Benson are particularly fine as a pair of bickering/loving parents whose daughter is on the verge of dropping out of college; Benson’s big second-act number – ‘Enough’ – is probably the evening’s dramatic highlight.
  • Sensational band somewhere backstage, led by Phil Cornwell. Nine musicians – fewer than the show used on Broadway, but I think one or two more than it had in the original off-Broadway run before it transferred – and that’s particularly impressive given that it’s hardly unusual, these days, to see a much bigger show with fewer musicians on the payroll.
  • Unusual to see a musical in a traverse staging – the playing area down the middle of the auditorium, with a bank of seats on either side – but for this show, it works very well. The unusual configuration is used because the theatre’s other occupant, a couple of shows a week (and more in the school holidays), is a stage version of The Railway Children, for which a real, full-sized train is used (the tracks are covered by a temporary deck for In the Heights). Luke Sheppard’s direction makes the most of a difficult space and a limited budget; by West End standards, this is a very inexpensive production, but it doesn’t feel like one, and it delivers just as much in terms of pure entertainment as the original Broadway production (or at least, the iteration of it that I saw in California) did.
  • The show has been compared, here and there, to West Side Story, which doesn’t strike me as a particularly apt comparison, other than that they’re both set in New York and they both include a number of Latino characters.In The Heights is an urban story, but not a particularly gritty one – it’s essentially an amiable, sentimentalised love letter to the neighbourhoods Miranda grew up in and the people he grew up with. Quiara Alegria Hudes’s book is arguably short on incident – it feels a little like a movie-of-the-week in which nothing much happens and the loose ends, such as they are, are all nicely tied up at the end of the final act – but the music and the performances are so vivid that it doesn’t really matter.

 

If nothing else, given the extraordinary success of (and buzz surrounding) Hamilton, Miranda’s second musical, which is enjoying once-a-decade levels of hype and acclaim (and ticket sales) on Broadway right now, it’s fascinating to go back and look at Miranda’s first show – particularly since it’ll be next year at least before Hamilton makes it to the UK. Miranda is a major, distinctive talent; the show’s book may not be entirely without fault, but it’s refreshing to see a musical in which the jolts of electricity come courtesy of the music and lyrics rather than the special effects.