Ready for her close-up

sb ria jones

She’s ba-ack!

From Glenn Close’s understudy to headline attraction in her own right, Ria Jones‘s (very belated) big break is an irresistible showbiz-dream-come-true story. She’s always been wonderful – twenty-five years ago, she was a thrillingly-sung Fantine in the first Manchester run of Les Misérables, twenty-one years ago she was flawless in the two leading roles in the chamber musical Romance/Romance at the Bridewell, and she’s toured all over the place and done concerts with just about everyone – but she’s always been one of those people who should be a Great Big Star, and somehow isn’t.

Until now. This time, thanks to the spectacular word-of-mouth that followed the four performances last year when she stood in for an indisposed Glenn Close in a revival of Sunset Boulevard that had basically been packaged and marketed as The Glenn Close Show, it’s Jones’s name above the title on the posters. This production, too, is being sold around the star – and this year’s star is last year’s understudy (which must feel especially sweet given that Jones, in fact, was the first person ever to sing the role of Norma Desmond in a workshop a few years before the original London production). The show itself is what it always was – some good stuff, a lot of musical wallpaper, some real clunkers among the lyrics, and overall a very imperfect adaptation of a more-or-less-perfect film. While the writing isn’t unimpeachable, though, it’s undeniably a great star vehicle. Jones, STARRING as opposed to playing the lead, is superb as Norma Desmond, the forgotten silent movie star whose entanglement with a young writer ends very, very messily indeed; these cut-price touring productions are often faintly dismal affairs, but the production director Nikolai Foster has built around his star is far better than anyone had any right to expect, and in several respects it’s streets ahead of both Lonny Price‘s concert(ish) staging last year and Trevor Nunn‘s overblown original at the Adelphi.

In terms of her strengths in the role, Jones is just about the polar opposite of Glenn Close, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Close’s power in the role came from her immense charisma: she’s a very good actress, but she’s also the kind of Great Big Movie Star whose effortless presence commands an audience’s attention. Her singing, on the other hand, is not her strongest suit – she got away with it, but that’s just about the best you can give her. Jones, on the other hand, is a good actress and a magnificent singer, but she doesn’t bring that kind of movie-star magnetism to the table. Strangely, that’s a combination that turns out to work very well for this role: some of Jones’s predecessors, including Close, were so loudly FABULOUS! that it was difficult to see why Norma Desmond had been forgotten by the public (it’s not as if the transition from silent to talkies was impossible to negotiate: Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Carole Lombard all managed it). Jones avoids the trap (hi, Betty Buckley!) of getting too crazy too quickly, giving us a carefully-mapped descent into madness. She’s absolutely believable as a lonely, lovelorn woman, she sings the living hell out of Norma’s big numbers, and she manages to put her own spin on that monologue in the final scene (and a very smart spin it is too – when her Norma announces that she can’t go on with the scene because she’s too happy, Jones’s Norma genuinely is. She’s completely out to lunch, of course, but she’s happy, not suicidal, because her grip on reality has finally completely snapped). It’s not necessarily the most subtle account of the role you’ll ever see (and I suppose I might mention here that my favourite Norma, as much as I loved Close last year, Jones in this, and Elaine Paige in the original production, is probably Rita Moreno, who delivered an astonishing acting performance and, like Close, just about got away with the demands of the score), but that final scene still raises goosebumps, and I doubt anybody has sung As If We Never Said Goodbye better than Jones sings it in this production.

Opposite her, Danny Mac is a strong Joe Gillis – and for once, in this production, it’s clear that Norma is a character in Joe’s story, rather than the other way around. He sings well, and captures the character’s corrosive self-loathing better than anyone I’ve seen since Kevin Anderson in the original London cast. Molly Lynch is a sweetly girlish Betty Schaefer, Adam Pearce is a just-creepy-enough Max, and there’s nothing to criticise in any of the ensemble performances (some of the casting is a little young, though: whoever plays Hog-Eye, the spotlight operator, needs to look as if he’s been in showbiz for a hell of a lot longer than three decades. Two-and-a-half decades ago, the actor playing the role in this production was a zygote). There’s a superbly evocative Hollywood soundstage set by Colin Richmond (who also supplies the perfectly-apt costumes), enhanced by Douglas O’Connell’s sometimes subtle, sometimes dazzling video projections. The car chase sequences, in particular, work better here than they did in either last year’s revival or the original staging, thanks to cleverly-timed use of rear-projection.

Nikolai Foster’s staging emphasises Hollywood’s artifice: because the whole production takes place on a soundstage, the detritus of moviemaking is always visible somewhere on the stage, even when we’re supposedly in Norma’s mansion. Towers become walls, Norma’s staircase splits into pieces to become other buildings in other locations, there’s usually a camera visible somewhere on the stage, and O’Connell’s projections keep reminding us of the Los Angeles that exists outside Norma’s mansion, which makes the mansion feel all the more claustrophobic. It’s all accomplished on a much smaller budget than the gargantuan, eye-popping original, but it actually makes a better case for the show than Nunn’s production did. The writing is still uneven – the strongest director couldn’t save a number as weak as The Lady’s Paying, though we’re mercifully spared the limp-wristed, lazily-stereotyped camp caricature of a performance that accompanied the song at the Coliseum last year – but the focus here is firmly on the people rather than the set, and the people are worth your attention. Granted, they’re interesting mostly because of Billy Wilder (and Ria Jones and Danny Mac) rather than Lloyd Webber, Christopher Hampton and Don Black, but in a Lloyd Webber show you take what you can get. It’s a pity there are only sixteen musicians in the pit – this music really needs a big string section, and it doesn’t get one here, which means the instrumental passages sound anaemic – but that’s really the only major criticism. It may not have happened without the publicity generated when Jones stood in for Glenn Close last year, but this, it turns out, is a very, very fine revival indeed.

Oh yes – before I finish, a shout out to the front-of-house staff at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, and particularly to the three of you who spent the last fifteen minutes of Act One during Wednesday’s matinee holding a conversation in the aisle right behind the back row of the dress circle. It’s not like the customer experience in this venue is ever good – but my expectations are very low indeed, and you surpassed them. Well done.

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Drugs are bad, OK?

PPT1

Nina is an actress. Nina takes drugs. Nina drinks a lot. Nina believes there is no objective truth. Nina’s life story rather strongly resembles the plot of ‘Hedda Gabler’. Nina is afraid she doesn’t have a personality of her own. Nina is called Emma. Emma is called Sarah. Emma’s therapist looks like Sarah’s mother. Nina’s doctor looks like Emma’s mother. Emma tells lies. Emma needs help. I need an aspirin.

Jeremy Herrin, who directed People, Places and Things – now beginning a short tour at Manchester’s Home (yes, that’s a stupid name for a performing arts complex) after successful runs at the National and in the West End – is a genius. The outstanding moments here, and there are a few, occur when his staging (recreated for the tour in collaboration with Holly Race Roughan) finds a visual translation for the physiological horrors Emma/Sarah undergoes on her path towards recovery. When Emma’s perception of reality blurs as she goes through withdrawal, we see a stageful of Emmas, all experiencing the same symptoms. Subtle shifts in music and lighting (respectively, by Matthew Herbert and James Farncombe) suggest when Emma’s perceptions are altered by “substances”. Andrzej Goulding’s projections on the walls of Bunny Christie’s crisply clinical white box of a set, again sometimes together with Herbert’s electronic music, take us inside Emma’s highs – and the crashes that follow. It’s an extraordinary production, and for that – and sometimes for that alone – it deserves to be seen.

Whether it’s an extraordinary play is more open to question. Duncan Macmillan’s script is packed with ideas, and the central one – that there’s a strong parallel between the theatrical rehearsal process and a twelve-step programme, and (related, and more obvious) that Emma/Sarah’s drive to become an actress and her attraction/susceptibility to narcotics both stem from a need to escape the constraints of her own rather nondescript personality – is certainly compelling enough. When the action calms down, though – when the directorial flourishes and the lightning-fast references to Foucault and Derrida and Barthes recede and we’re left simply watching Emma/Sarah submit to treatment – the result, unfortunately, is a bit too movie-of-the-week. There’s a lot of dazzling stagecraft here, but few new insights into the nature of addiction.

That may partly be down to the casting. At the National and in the West End, the (exhausting) central role was played by Denise Gough, in what was apparently an astonishing performance. Here, Emma is played by Lisa Dwyer Hogg, and she’s very good. She makes Emma’s breakdown and recovery absolutely believable, she finds all of the considerable black humour in the writing, and on one level it’s difficult to fault her performance. What she can’t quite do, unfortunately, is pull the play’s scattershot flow of ideas and split-second shifts between reality and an altered state together into a completely coherent whole. The role needs – and in this production’s original incarnation, apparently got – the kind of thousand-watt star turn that can paper over the cracks in the script. This isn’t that kind of performance; when Macmillan’s writing becomes repetitive, when the insights about the nature of addiction and the recovery process veer a little too close to trite sloganeering, when the writing fails to live up to the dazzling physical production, Hogg doesn’t inject the kind of charismatic spark that might make you look past the shortcomings of the play itself. She’s perfectly fine, but that isn’t enough.

That’s also true of the impeccable supporting performances. They’re faultless, with particularly strong work from Andrew Sheridan as a fellow addict and Matilda Ziegler as Emma/Sarah’s doctor, therapist and mother, but the supporting characters are all – yes, every last one of them – badly underwritten. I suppose the point, which is reinforced in the climactic confrontation/meeting between Sarah and her parents, is that addiction creates narcissists: the play creates Emma/Sarah’s world, and other people simply enter and leave it, but unfortunately that lumbers the other nine actors in the cast with roles that mostly could have been written on flashcards. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of the performances, but the writing doesn’t give the actors much to play with.

The bottom line: it’s worth seeing. The production, as I said, is sensational – but if you go in, having read the reviews from the Dorfman and the West End, expecting it to be a can’t-miss theatrical event, you may be in for a disappointment. This is a dazzling production of an interesting but flawed play – worth seeing, but not the earthquake you might have anticipated.

 

Slave to the rhythm

cotton panic

In the centre of Manchester, there’s a statue of Abraham Lincoln. It looks random, but it isn’t; engraved on the pedestal are excerpts from a letter Lincoln wrote to to the cotton workers of Manchester in 1863 thanking them for their solidarity during the Union blockade in the American Civil War. Manchester, like much of the north, developed very rapidly during the first half of the Nineteenth Century, and cotton was the main local industry; when the Union blockaded the Confederate ports, the supply of cotton to Lancashire’s mills dried up, and millworkers whose living conditions were barely adequate to begin with suddenly found themselves living in desperate poverty – and yet at a meeting in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1862, cotton workers gave their support to the blockade, and to Lincoln’s drive to end slavery.

That’s a (very) simplified version, obviously, but it’s a chapter of history that has been half-forgotten, and perhaps shouldn’t be. Cotton Panic is Jane Horrocks‘s tribute to those cotton workers, and it’s the kind of production that could probably only exist as part of something like the Manchester International Festival. Presented – because of course it’s the obvious choice – as a music gig rather than a more formal theatrical performance, incorporating some period folk songs, a couple of recognisable minor pop classics, and Abel Meeropol’s Strange Fruit, all glued together by industrial/electronic music from Stephen Mallinder‘s band Wrangler, the show is a breathless, sometimes breathtaking, deeply idiosyncratic theatrical collage. It really shouldn’t work, and sometimes it doesn’t, but sometimes it’s thrilling.

With anyone other than Horrocks at the centre, the performance might very well collapse. Despite the rich potential of the historical source, in one sense the writing here (shared between Horrocks, her partner Nick Vivian, and the three members of Wrangler) is thin. The most powerful passages are excerpts from period texts – accounts of the horrible conditions endured by the destitute cotton workers during the famine (movingly read by Glenda Jackson, and delivered via three large projection screens), the letter from the Free Trade Hall, the response from Lincoln, a speech by Frederick Douglass (played, again on video, by Fiston Barek, who should be credited for this reading in the programme and isn’t). Some of the linking material is less persuasive, and the idea of writing the opening narration in twee rhyming couplets should really have been dropped in the first draft – although perhaps this is the first draft, because at times it plays like one.

Sit down and analyse the performance, actually, and it becomes very easy indeed to pick holes. A lot of it has the air of the kind of very, very precious devised piece you’d see created by undergraduates as an end-of-term project. It’s politically simplistic – we really don’t need the tacked-on epilogue drawing parallels to the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter protests, that’s a link we’re all capable of making for ourselves – and sometimes far too pretentious, as in the sequence where Horrocks, behind a screen, sings Strange Fruit through some kind of synthetic processed effect to an electro/industrial backing. You can see what they’re trying to do, but it might have been more theatrically effective to let the (astonishing, devastating) lyrics speak for themselves. Worse, in that sequence, is the use of the projected faces of black actors – credited only in tiny, difficult-to-read print in the amateurish-looking programme distributed after the performance – as little more than set-dressing. To use a series of images of silent black faces during a sequence in which a white woman sings a song that is powerfully associated with black performers – a song that, moreover, describes and responds to the cruellest, most vicious form of racism – sends a complicated message, and perhaps not precisely the one the show’s creators intended.

But having said all that, the performance is absolutely compelling, and that’s mostly thanks to Horrocks. She’s always been a somewhat eccentric performer, and – unlike some actors – she’s never been afraid of the big gesture, and those two qualities serve her very well indeed here. She performs  – ‘acting’ isn’t always quite the right word – with absolute conviction, whether she’s giving us a tour through the noise and heat of a pre-1860 cotton mill, playing a destitute millworker begging from the audience, intoning Grace Jones’s Slave To The Rhythm with the doomed air of Claudia Brücken circa 1985, or belting out the Battle Hymn of the Republic. She’s sometimes joined by dancer Lorena Randi, who offers a kind of Jed Hoile to Horrocks’s Howard Jones, bringing us closer to the tribulations of Lancashire’s millworkers via the interpretive medium of clog-dancing. It’s a combination that teeters right on the edge of the most gruesomely self-indulgent kind of self-parody, but they always stop just short of crossing the line. Despite the perfectly-appropriate almost wall-to-wall music from Wrangler, who stand dourly behind a projection screen at the back of the stage, Horrocks’s voice is the lynchpin holding everything together. It’s an unusually pliable instrument – she can sing just about anything convincingly, she can place her voice anywhere between a pitiful whisper and an exultant roar, and that voice, when she wants it to, lends her an authority which is somewhat at odds with her rather slight physical presence. For all that some elements of this production are misguided, you can’t take your eyes off her.

The result, frustrating as it can sometimes be, is utterly sui generis and surprisingly moving. The historical texts are well-chosen and extremely effective, Chris Turner’s ‘visuals’ – that’s the word they use in the programme, and they mostly mean projections – provide a thoughtful, sometimes spectacular counterpoint to the live performers, and the show more than holds your attention throughout the 70-minute running time. You may find yourself contemplating a more traditional theatrical treatment of the events Horrocks portrays here – it’s a rich seam of material, and this chapter of local history, as I said, has been all but forgotten – but even if parts of it could have been thought through a little more clearly, there’s a lot to admire. Cotton Panic takes big risks, and not all of them pay off, but enough works that it’s a memorable experience. MIF’s productions, as I’ve said elsewhere, can be hit and miss, and sometimes really miss. As off-the-wall, even misguided, as some of this event is, it’s saved and indeed elevated by Horrocks’s blazing sincerity. It’s obvious from the moment she walks onstage that she feels a deep connection to this material, she carries the show, and her performance makes it worth looking past the production’s occasional missteps.  I can’t say the production is an absolute triumph, and parts of it are completely bonkers, but it isn’t quite like anything else you’ll see this year – and that’s exactly what festivals like MIF are for.

 

 

 

Hit and MIF

fatherland

Or, good news/bad news. Fatherland, one of the major productions at this year’s Manchester International Festival, is beautifully staged and performed and often quite moving. Constructed by Scott Graham, Karl Hyde, and Simon Stephens out of a series of interviews they conducted in their hometowns (respectively, Corby, Kidderminster, and Stockport), Fatherland contains some compelling oral histories, and offers a fascinating (albeit necessarily limited) examination of fatherhood and masculinity in a country that has gone through enormous social changes over the last half-century. Hyde’s musical settings of reported speech are tremendously effective, Eddie Kay’s choreography finds a sometimes strikingly beautiful physicality in the everyday movements of ordinary men, and the performances are impeccable.

And as a piece of theatre, taken as a whole, it simply doesn’t work.

The problem, unfortunately, is the three authors – literally, because instead of letting their interview subjects stand on their own, they insert themselves into the text of their own play, interrogating their own motives in intermittent exchanges with a reluctant interviewee. There’s no nice way to say it: this framing conceit is toe-curlingly self-indulgent. You can tell the way it’s going to go from about a minute into the show, when the actor playing Stephens smiles diffidently when the actor playing the interviewee says he hasn’t seen Curious Incident, Stephens’s biggest hit, and it’s downhill from there. The result is a performance that is roughly sixty percent fascinating-analysis-of-contemporary-masculinity to forty percent tedious-preoccupation-with-the-authors’-own-navels. The good stuff is genuinely wonderful, but you know that in a couple of minutes your eyes will start rolling upwards again.

Possibly it might have helped if I hadn’t seen Working last week. That show, too, is drawn almost entirely from interviews – or rather, from a book of interviews – but the stage adaptation’s (several) authors and composers leave themselves out of the picture, and let their subjects speak for themselves. The result – perhaps predictably – is that you don’t walk out of the theatre feeling like the show’s creators have just spent a big chunk of the last hour-and-a-half (both shows are intermissionless one-acts running around 90 minutes) masturbating all over the stage. Working, for me, succeeded as theatre; Fatherland, unfortunately, did not, even though a lot of it is very good indeed. Working also managed to employ a live band, despite being produced in a much smaller theatre; here, the music is prerecorded – no musicians are credited in the programme – and in live theatre, making actors sing to prerecorded backing tracks is unacceptable.

The absence of live musicians aside, the problem, simply, is that the stories from the interviews in Fatherland are all – all – more interesting than the dreary navel-gazing of the piece’s three very, very smug creators. There’s the devastating story of a man growing up during World War Two whose homelife was so horrific that his escape was to sit on a hill watching Birmingham burn during air raids, an oil worker with a violent past and a hair-trigger temper talking about his instinct to protect his young daughter, stories about men trying to either emulate or transcend their own fathers, quiet expressions of love from men to whom such things do not come easily. All of this is done exceptionally well – but all of it is undercut every time the focus shifts back to the authors themselves.

That, though, is the deal when you book to see shows like this at events like this: festivals like MIF are a place to experiment. Sometimes the results are glorious, as in the late Victoria Wood’s That Day We Sang, and sometimes you find yourself watching something that’s an abject failure on almost every level, like 2015’s wonder.land. There’s a sincere impulse behind Fatherland, and that’s to be respected; it’s just a pity that the resulting show is so frustratingly intent on shooting itself in the foot.

There’s gotta be something better than this

sweet-charity

Roll up! Roll up! For your Christmas entertainment, come and watch our heroine get repeatedly slut-shamed while singing a stack of fabulous Cy Coleman tunes, and still emerge with a winsomely optimistic smile plastered all over her cute little face! I mean really, what could possibly be more festive than a musical whose central character exists simply to get dumped by a series of inadequate men, the last time specifically because she isn’t a virgin? It’s fun for all the family… at least, if they’re trapped in the squarest, most conservative corner of 1965.

There’s nothing wrong with the production. There’s strong direction by Derek Bond, entertaining Fosse-inspired choreography from Aletta Collins, a clever, stylish set by James Perkins, and a warm, appealing central performance from Kaisa Hammarlund as Charity Hope Valentine, the taxi dancer with a heart of gold (even typing that phrase makes me feel a little ill). There’s a great-sounding band, a superb ensemble, and a bold, brassy Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields score. This should be glorious night in the theatre.

Unfortunately there’s also Neil Simon‘s book, and it’s a great big steaming pile of misogynistic shit. Based (loosely) on the revered Fellini film Nights of Cabiria, which isn’t nearly so unpleasant, Sweet Charity is a leading entry in the woman-as-kleenex school of dramatic storytelling. In the first act, a (married) boyfriend woos the title character (it’s implied over a period of weeks) and then mugs her and steals her savings, then an Italian film star picks her up to make his girlfriend jealous then hides her under the bed (usually in a wardrobe, but this is a theatre-in-the-round; here, wardrobes are difficult) when she unexpectedly returns. In the second act, she falls for decent, kindly Oscar, who (eventually) tells her it doesn’t matter what she does… and then in the penultimate scene dumps her because it does. And then she picks herself up, dries herself off – two of these dumpings involve Charity ending up in the lake in Central Park, presumably because ending a relationship isn’t humiliating enough unless it also involves a near-drowning – and tries to get us to buy that her resilience gives the show an optimistic ending. It doesn’t work, because Simon’s writing is breathtakingly shallow throughout; instead of characters, he presents us with collections of quirks glued together by one-liners, only some of which are funny. Simon’s Charity simply exists to be humiliated; consequently, the evening is very much subject to the law of diminishing returns. It isn’t very funny the first time, and it becomes more and more uncomfortable as we progress through the episodic plot.

The Fellini film, oddly, is far bleaker, but also considerably less unpleasant. Cabiria is a prostitute, not a taxi dancer – Simon’s turd of a book very carefully informs us that Charity doesn’t do any of “that extracurricular stuff” – and while she’s also used and abused by men, the Oscar storyline is quite different. In the film, he’s another crook out to steal her money, and Cabiria makes a proactive choice. Realising he’s setting her up to be robbed, she throws her purse at his feet – she chooses a way out, and gains strength from her choice (Cabiria, unlike Charity, gets shoved headlong into a body of water once rather than twice, which makes more difference than you might think). In Simon’s rewrite of Fellini’s story, on the other hand, Charity simply gets dumped and begs her useless lump of a man not to leave, and then three minutes later the show ends. How unpleasant is it? At the curtain call, the actor playing Oscar (Daniel Crossley) received good-natured boos from a significant section of the audience.

Possibly the show works better if you have a genuine star dancer in the lead as Charity. Shirley MacLaine just about gets away with it in the film, and in the original Broadway production Gwen Verdon must have been sensational on the nights she didn’t phone it in and leave out half her solo numbers. This is a dance-heavy show; MacLaine, in the film, projects strength through her dancing, and she brings a certain kind of star quality to the role. Here, we have Kaisa Hammarlund, and she simply isn’t that kind of performer. She moves well, but she isn’t in Verdon or MacLaine’s league as a dancer. She’s charming, vulnerable, believably real, but she’s a good actor rather than a larger-than-life star, and I suspect this material only really works if you cast a performer whose presence is much bigger than ‘real’. Hammarlund is thoroughly charming, sings well, and she’s funny. She does everything she can to make the final scene work – but the show needs the kind of star performance that can dazzle you into looking past the book’s essential unpleasantness, not a believable, personable actress who makes you feel every beat of Charity’s heartbreak when Oscar dumps her.

There’s pleasure, at least, in the supporting performances. Bob Harms has great fun with the plastic Italian film star’s flamboyantly insincere ‘Too Many Tomorrows’, and there’s a smartly rethought ‘Big Spender’ – the score’s most famous takeaway tune – which here begins in a dressing-room with the dancers preparing for battle before they go out to meet their clients. For the second-act ‘Rhythm of Life’ sequence – a rather condescending satirical take on 60s counterculture – Bond has cast the wonderful Josie Benson as the hippie preacher Daddy Brubeck. Nobody changes any pronouns; in a programme note, Bond explains that “by making Daddy a formidable woman, the song becomes empowering” – and yes, it does, but that’s fatally undercut by the subsequent dialogue scene, which exists mostly to mock Daddy and her church as hypocrites (marijuana, Daddy informs us, is sinful… “and so expensive”). Benson, though, is the most thrilling thing in the show, and she takes a song that usually comes across as slightly naff and turns it into something genuinely exciting; it’s just a shame that the song and the surrounding scene (like, to be fair, the rest of the book) give off such a strong whiff of smug small-c conservative writers looking down their noses at the onset of the permissive age.

In the end, despite everyone’s best efforts, this revival fails to overcome the material’s inherent nastiness. Bond’s staging looks and sounds great: Chris Walker’s new orchestrations for a nine-piece band preserve more of the character of the originals than you’d think possible given the small number of players, Mark Aspinall’s musical direction puts the score across with tremendous verve, and the singing throughout is terrific. Everybody involved is working at the top of their game – but the material, despite Coleman’s dazzling score, is faintly putrid. Hammarlund’s Charity is nothing if not sweet; too bad the show she’s in leaves such a distinctly sour aftertaste.

Call it hell, call it heaven…

G D M P

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

First, heaven.

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

Aaaaand… the Hell.

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

wonder?land

wonderdotland

“To give music an identity in the modern musical is… some would say suicidal [laughs], but I couldn’t do it unless the music had that real sense of itself.”

There should probably be some kind of law against artists using programme notes to make any kind of grand statement about the genre they’re working in. It’s usually not a good idea. That’s Damon Albarn, of Blur and Gorillaz fame, talking about his new musical wonder.land – wonder-dot-land – which opens at the Palace Theatre in Manchester this week as the centrepiece of the 2015 Manchester International Festival. It’s an ambitious show, and he’s written, with librettist Moira Buffini, a very ambitious score. Unfortunately it doesn’t work – at all – and the most central problem with his contribution is that he seems somehow afraid of letting his music function as the score of a traditional musical.

That’s not to say there’s nothing worthwhile about the production, but it’s one of those frustrating evenings where everybody involved has a lot of great ideas which never quite come together. A present-day sort-of-retelling of Alice in Wonderland in which the ‘rabbit hole’ is the screen of a smartphone is a clever (albeit obvious) concept, and making ‘Alice’ and the other characters in Wonderland avatars in an online game is a logical next step. Making a phone screen the portal to a more attractive world opens the door for a ‘real-life’ parallel story in which an unhappy teenager simultaneously is bullied online and uses her online world to escape her bullies. And showing Aly, the central character, create an idealised version of herself as her avatar in an online game is as good a beginning as any for a plot that’s mostly about coming to terms with who you really are.

By themselves, though, ideas aren’t enough, and unfortunately wonder.land plays as if the writers had a long brainstorming session and then just took the Microsoft OneNote files that came from it and splattered them all over the stage. Albarn talks in the programme about giving his music a real sense of itself, but in its present state the score is meandering and unfocused. A lot of his music is attractive, and a lot of it is interesting, but it’s maddeningly unstructured and rather too pretentious for its own good, apart from one sequence which is apparently supposed to be a Victorian music-hall pastiche but which sounds more like a speed-fuelled gallop through the chorus of ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’. The show is a sort of continuous tapestry of song, underscoring, and dialogue, but the fragments of music rarely coalesce into a satisfying musical number. Buffini’s libretto doesn’t help, either – she and Albarn seem to have excused themselves from making the lyrics sit properly on the music, to the point where there are awkwardly mis-stressed syllables in nearly every line. Worse, her libretto is repetitive; in the (relatively few) musical sequences that are more than mere fragments (a duet for Aly’s estranged parents, Aly’s song to her baby brother, the mad hatter’s tea party sequence, the headmistress/Red Queen’s introduction) you invariably get the point within the first twenty seconds, and then Buffini simply has the character repeat it over and over and over and over again until the scene changes. It doesn’t make for exciting drama; a lot of the time, it isn’t even particularly involving.

The physical presentation, on the other hand, is a knockout. Director Rufus Norris and choreographer Javier de Frutos conjure a fluid, sometimes thrilling staging that moves seamlessly back and forth between Aly’s black-and-white real world and the colourful, surreal gamescape of wonder.land, rendered spectacularly in Rae Smith’s set and 59 Productions’ extraordinary projections. A second-act set-piece involving a zombie-killing computer game is brilliantly realised; elsewhere, wonder.land’s magical garden is as visually fascinating as Buffini’s libretto is dull, and the monochrome tower blocks, bus stops and classrooms that form the backdrop of Aly’s non-virtual real life have a strange, forbidding beauty about them. de Frutos’s choreography neatly delineates which characters are human or computer-generated, but the oddly fragmented score does not leave him many opportunities for dance, as opposed to musical staging. His work is terrific – he even finds an odd poetry in the tired shuffling of a bus queue – but you won’t find any showstopping production numbers here.

And that, actually, points to the show’s basic problem. By allowing the writing to remain so frustratingly unfocused, Albarn and Buffini short-change the cast, none of whom are given enough to do. As the Cheshire Cat, Hal Fowler stalks lasciviously through the action singing the word ‘fabulous’ a lot, but whatever significance he’s supposed to have remains elusive because the musical material he’s given never adds up to any kind of coherent statement. Rosalie Craig’s blonde bombshell of an avatar is a brilliant performance, as far as it goes – her timing, her un-human movement, her unnerving mimicry of the human she’s supposed to reflect are all beyond criticism, but she’s hamstrung by a libretto that gives her too little to play, and by a score that gives her too little to sing. Lois Chimimba’s Aly should be a far more touching figure than she is, and it’s not Ms. Chimimba’s fault: she does everything superbly well, but the writers give her a string of moody-inner-city-teenager clichés rather than an actual character. The most successful performance comes from Anna Francolini as the mean, teenager-hating headmistress Ms. Manxome – Buffini even gives her a couple of jokes that land – but she, too, is held back by the formless writing. Dressed and wigged as a more uptight version of Cruella de Vil (albeit without the penchant for fur), Ms. Francolini launches into her big introductory patter-song with lip-smacking relish – but the song just peters out instead of building to the kind of showstopping conclusion it needs, and the actress is left stranded without the tools she needs to make her character make sense.

What’s missing from the writing, simply, is structure, coupled with a shot of good old-fashioned showbiz pizazz. Albarn is more than capable of composing a memorable song – there are at least half a dozen on every Blur album. Here, though, he and Buffini have allowed themselves to lose focus, and they seem to be more interested in Making Art than in telling their story, defining their characters, or entertaining the audience. As it stands, every single character needs further development, and the music would almost certainly land better if it was broken up into a more defined series of musical numbers. There’s nothing wrong with allowing a song to build to a big finish, ending on a button, and allowing the audience to applaud, and wonder.land desperately needs the infusion of energy that comes when an audience applauds a showstopping number. There is a lot of talent on display on the Palace’s stage – including Albarn and Buffini, who have both done much better work than this – but too often, the show’s heart is as elusive as the White Rabbit Alice spends half the evening chasing. The visuals are great, but they alone are not enough: in the hiatus between the Manchester run and the show’s reopening at the National in late November, Albarn and Buffini need to go back to the drawing-board, sort through the ideas from their (apparently very productive) initial brainstorming session, cut out everything in the libretto and score that wastes time or repeats information we already have, and find some actual characters for their cast to play.

Oh yes, one more thing: a big thank you to the front-of-house staff at the Palace Theatre for letting the show start ten minutes late on Wednesday night and then letting the interval overrun by five minutes. Public transport in Greater Manchester shuts down way earlier than it ought to given that this is the country’s second-largest urban area, and some of us had buses to catch; to where I live, those fifteen wasted minutes were the difference between getting home in under an an hour and getting home after midnight.