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.

Now, God knows, anything goes

…and I sort of wish it didn’t.

There’s nothing at all wrong with the production. In fact, I almost don’t have enough superlatives to describe the production. Under the artistic direction of Daniel Evans, Sheffield’s Crucible has produced an impressive series of musical revivals, many of them directed by Evans himself. His production of My Fair Lady a couple of years ago was impeccable, and this Anything Goes – now on a UK tour after a run in Sheffield at Christmas – is at least as good.

What makes this all the more impressive an achievement is that Anything Goes, despite a stellar score, is not exactly one of the most durable shows in the canon. This is a typical Thirties musical comedy, albeit one whose book has received several spruce-ups over the past eighty years (the version being performed here dates from 1987), which means Cole Porter’s peerless songs are strung around a set of barely-two-dimensional characters and groan-inducing jokes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the show can be glorious, but it does mean it’s rather tricky to get it right. The upbeat songs are brassy, but make them too brassy and the characters singing them can become unpleasantly strident. The romantic numbers are meltingly lovely, but can seem melodramatic next to the comedy material if they aren’t delivered with a light touch. The jokes creak, and you can see half of them coming a mile off, but push the comedy too hard and the show rapidly deflates. It’s a soufflé, and all the ingredients have to be in perfect balance.

Happily, they are. Evans begins his production surprisingly quietly; the opening sequence, which takes place in a Manhattan nightclub, is accompanied only by a solo piano and a (very, very muted) trumpet, and we don’t hear the full band until the action shifts to the cruise ship on which most of the show takes place. What follows is a total delight. We have gorgeous costumes and an elegant forced-perspective Art Deco ocean liner set by Richard Kent, good-humoured but not too on-the-nose choreography by Alistair David, appropriately splashy lighting by Tim Mitchell, and sensitive, swinging musical direction from Tom Brady, leading an impeccably tight nine-piece band. Sure, the plot is outlandishly ridiculous, but when the action is led by Debbie Kurup’s sweet-but-hot evangelist nightclub singer (really!) Reno Sweeney and Matt Rawle’s goofily charming stockbroker Billy Crocker, who cares? They land every single laugh, and so does everybody else, and they find both the wit and the ache in Porter’s effervescent score. There are no stunt-cast X-Factor finalists or has-been pop stars here, and everybody involved clearly loves the material. More than that, everybody involved clearly trusts the material. Evans and his cast don’t try to force or in any way punch up the script’s hoary old groaners; they know the jokes work, ancient as they are, and they give the material room to breathe. Even Simon Baker’s sound design is a cut above what you usually get on the touring circuit – you can actually hear all the lyrics, and the sound system doesn’t assault your eardrums every time the music starts. A larger band might be nice, but this is otherwise about as good as revivals of classic musicals get.

So what’s my beef? Two things. First, cellphones. Yes, AGAIN. I didn’t hear any phones ring, but there were far too many people texting/checking email/whatever when the lights were down. In a darkened theatre, the light from smartphone screens can travel a surprisingly long way. It’s distracting and unnecessary, and it’s also incredibly rude to the actors, who can see those screens from the stage.

And then there are the programme notes. Oh my God, the programme notes. Programmes in this country are not free, like they are on Broadway. You pay for them, and they are relatively expensive – for this show it’s £4.00, and that’s for a programme, not a souvenir brochure. For this you get the usual – cast/creative bios, list of musical numbers, some kind of article about the production, and so on. You do not, in this instance, get bios of the people who actually wrote the show – no bio of Cole Porter, much less of Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, who wrote the version of the show’s book that’s being performed here. That’s bad enough, but it pales next to John Good’s lazy, inaccurate production history of the show, which is the first thing you’re likely to read when you open the (overpriced) programme. Among other things, we are informed that Mr. Crouse and Mr. Weidman wrote a new book for the National Theatre production of the show in 2002 (nope), and Patti LuPone starred in a London revival in 1969 (when she was in college… in New York). Now, OK, most people aren’t as geeky about this stuff as I am, but these are not obscure facts. This is the sort of stuff you can research in ninety seconds by visiting the show’s Wikipedia page, and the fact that this tripe made it into print in a programme we’re expected to pay for reeks of a certain disdain towards the audience – that it’s OK to dash off any old crap for the programme in five minutes without checking it because most people watching won’t know any better, and that it won’t matter if you omit the writers’ bios because they are not, Cole Porter aside, particularly famous in this country (never mind that one of the authors of the show’s original 1930s book is P.G. Wodehouse). When every single thing you see on the stage – every set-piece, every prop, every line, every note of music, every light cue, every dance step, every throwaway aside – is executed with such love of and care for the material, I’m afraid I find that profoundly depressing. It wouldn’t have been very difficult to make the programme as good as the production – or at least not loudly disrespectful towards both the material and the people who wrote it – but the powers-that-be, in this instance, simply couldn’t be bothered. The show’s authors deserve better, and so do we.

One more thing: the theatre (the Opera House in Manchester) was less than half full (granted, it’s one of the largest houses the tour will play). The show is on the road until the early autumn, and it’s well worth seeing. In case I haven’t said this enough, revivals as good as this one don’t come along very often, and this show deserves full houses.

Just maybe skip buying a programme.

Grab the buggers by the bollocks!

If I wore mascara, I’d have looked like a zebra by the end of the opening number. It’s not that I’m a soft touch – Bambi leaves me resolutely dry-eyed – but there’s a short list of things that, in a theatre or concert hall (or, more rarely, a cinema) are capable of reducing me to emotional wreckage. Billy Elliot is very near the top of that list. Not the original film, though – it’s wonderful, but it doesn’t have that effect on me. The stage musical, on the other hand, is a different story. Fortunately this time I was prepared. I’d bought tissues. Lots and lots of tissues.

And I wasn’t even seeing it “properly”, in the theatre. Yesterday, a special performance of the show was broadcast live to cinemas across the UK and Europe (it will be shown later in other territories). I’m not always that much of a fan of live broadcasts of theatre, whether on TV or in the cinema; too often, they end up being somewhat disappointing, not least because a performance which is designed to play to the back of a 1200-seat theatre (or a 3000-seat concert hall) can register very differently on a flatscreen TV or an iPad or a giant cinema screen. Under those circumstances, work which would register as subtle if you saw it “in person” often (though not invariably) comes across as either shrill or (worse) strangely blank. The camera, also, often doesn’t move quite as much as it needs to, and it’s very easy for a filmed stage performance to end up seeming listless and rather static. It’s a great idea to film stage performances – it opens up work done in a single location to a much wider audience, usually at a price that’s lower than the cost of a theatre ticket, and of course that’s a good thing, and for organisations like the National, any additional revenue from cinema screenings must be very welcome. It’s just that the result isn’t always successful.

So, yes, I had some misgivings before it started, although they didn’t stop me from booking a ticket (£16 at a cinema a tram-ride from home vs. West End ticket prices plus the train-fare to London makes the cinema screening a relative bargain). I’ve seen the show in the theatre a couple of times before, and sobbed through it both times (and as I said, that’s not something that happens to me often); I wasn’t sure it would (or even could) have the same effect in a live screening, even on a very large screen, but I took tissues just in case. And it’s a good thing I did, because this particular simultaneous broadcast was done superlatively well – which means, among other things, that I responded to the show precisely the same way in the cinema as I had in the theatre.

And it still seems as fresh as it did when it opened nine and a half years ago. A lot of the adult actors who’ve worked on it have said in interviews that the presence of a rotating cast of children stops the performances from going stale; whatever the reason, what I saw yesterday certainly didn’t play like a show that had been running the better part of a decade. The kids, of course, were phenomenal, but they always are in this show, and Elliot Hanna is probably as good a Billy as there has ever been. There’s also terrific work from the adult ensemble, with Deka Walmsley giving a particularly moving performance as Billy’s dad, and Ruthie Henshall – a big-name replacement – doing what might be the finest work of her career as Mrs. Wilkinson, the dance teacher who notices Billy’s potential and pushes to find him a way out of Easington. She’s not necessarily obvious casting – even after seeing her play Roxie Hart, the kind of bristly backstreet sarcasm the role needs is not the first thing I’d associate with her, and the music isn’t the greatest fit for her voice – but she nails it.

She’s helped – like everyone else – by the production team’s clever, careful planning of where to point the camera. The lengthy “Solidarity” sequence – which I think is still the single finest piece of musical staging I have ever seen – must be nightmarishly complicated to film, because it delivers so much information, and because it compresses events taking place in multiple locations into the same physical space. At the same time, it shows Billy’s slow progress from absolute novice to a dancer of some skill, and a series of pitched battles between striking miners and the police. It’s rendered on screen here with absolute clarity – all the key reaction shots are there, but they also film the choreography so that you can see it properly, instead of filming the dancers from the waist up (see, for example, the movie version of A Chorus Line for a masterclass in how not to film choreography). And that’s true all the way through – at every given point in the show, the camera is looking where you’d want to be looking if you were watching it in the theatre. That sounds simple, but it’s something that these events very often fail to achieve.

The show itself… given Elton John’s other work for the musical stage, to say this is his best score could easily be open to misinterpretation, and that would be unfair. It’s true that the best parts of the score are essentially hymns – the opening “The Stars Look Down” as the miners get the news that a strike has been called, and their proudly defiant admission of defeat in “Once We Were Kings” at the end of the show as they head back to work, the strike having been finally called off by the union – but that goes with the territory: the show, far more than the film, places both the community and the politics front and centre, so of course the score includes at least a couple of socialist protest songs (it’s frankly almost surprising that at no point does anybody in the show break into a chorus of “The Red Flag”). For those songs – and for “Deep into the Ground”, a folk ballad sung to devastating effect by Billy’s father (and, in the last verse, Billy himself) near the top of Act Two – John has, uncharacteristically, dug deep and produced music that is powerfully redolent of both the geographical location and the social milieu in which the show is set. The Thatcher number – a hard-edged rock stomper with a grimly satirical lyric – is the other musical highlight; it, too, fits in perfectly with the show’s period and place.

This is, though, certainly one of those productions in which the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts. Some of the rest of the score is (like most of Elton John’s music these days) rather on the bland side – “Electricity” is a jaw-dropping moment of theatre because you are watching a child more or less literally dancing for his life, rather than because of any qualities inherent in the music itself – although it’s never less than pleasant. Lee Hall’s lyrics are best when he keeps the tone conversational, although some of Mrs. Wilkinson’s zingers in “Shine” have a certain sting to them (“It doesn’t matter if you’re special needs/Maimed or lame, or born in Leeds…”), and his book, like his original screenplay, is sometimes shamelessly manipulative. When Mrs. Wilkinson starts singing the letter from Billy’s dead mother, you can feel your strings being pulled; what saves the moment is the artful simplicity of the lyrics, and the devastating restraint with which the scene is performed. Mrs. Wilkinson doesn’t cry; she struggles to control her emotions, and succeeds – which leaves the audience awash.

Other than that moment, though, I’m not sure I can quite explain why the show has the effect on me that it does – and why it continues to have the same effect on repeat visits. Certainly, it’s partly that I remember the strike very clearly – I was eleven years old when it began, my grandparents lived on the edge of a mining community (and were both from mining communities themselves), and I vividly remember the violence in the air as we drove past the picket lines, and my parents telling us to lock the car doors and keep the windows shut. The show’s opening number – the miners singing in solidarity as they go out on strike – is so moving partly because we know what happens next: the government of the day engineered the strike as a means of breaking the unions, and the strike brought about the collapse of the coal industry and essentially destroyed the miners’ communities, putting hundreds of thousands of people out of work. The strike was one of the defining moments of Thatcher’s government, and it’s a good part of the reason she was so hated in some parts of the country; it was also, around the mining communities themselves, as close as we’ve come to civil war. Both sides played dirty; there was fighting in the streets, and the NUM picketers formed the front line in a battle for, essentially, the principles of democratic socialism on which very nearly all the great institutions of postwar Britain had been built. And while the original film of “Billy Elliot” keeps the politics quite firmly in the background, it’s definitely there – indeed, the film’s most moving scene is the moment when Billy’s father decides he’s prepared to cross the picket line to go back to work to raise the money to pay for the audition. The great achievement of the stage musical, as far as I’m concerned, is the way it pushes the community (and therefore the politics) front and centre, without pulling the focus away from Billy himself. There’s a certain irony in the fact that the most commercially-successful piece of theatre Britain has produced in the past twenty years presents a point of view that isn’t merely liberal-left-wing, but out-and-out pre-New-Labour Bennite socialism; the show is set at more or less the precise moment when Britain’s political landscape took a decisive lurch to the right, but Hall, wisely, largely tells the story without editorialising. The show doesn’t lecture the audience about the devastating effect of the strike on Britain’s mining communities – it simply shows us, and that’s far more powerful.

The opening number of “Billy Elliot”, in fact, is basically the final scene of “Journey’s End” or “Blackadder Goes Forth”: the miners are going to war, and they’re facing oblivion, and so the rest of the story becomes something a little different than it was in the film. This is very definitely the story of the community as well as of Billy himself, and it’s also, far more clearly than in the film, about the different ways to escape a place that is dying on its feet. “Grandma’s Song” and “Shine” both point to a kind of cheap escapism via entertainment; crucially, “Grandma’s Song” introduces the idea of dancing as a means of escape, and suggests that without some kind of escape life in Easington would be brutally hard to endure. “Expressing Yourself” is cute, but has a serious point – although he can’t articulate it, Billy gets the idea from Michael that you can transcend your (grim) surroundings by remaining true to your inner self. And the political situation is clearly set up as a barrier to Billy’s escape, far more than it was in the film – indeed, in “Angry Dance” at the end of the first act, the riot police’s shields form a literal barrier, and while Billy repeatedly hurls himself against them, he does not break through. Of course he escapes in the end, but nobody else does, and his escape is mirrored by the image of the miners, in absolute defeat, going back underground. The stage production juxtaposes the two images in a way that the film couldn’t, because cross-cutting just doesn’t have the same effect. Again, playing those two moments against each other is shamelessly manipulative; Hall and Stephen Daldry get away with it because the show’s dialogue and lyrics, throughout, are startlingly unsentimental.

It’s remarkably effective – at least, if the effect it has on me is anything to go by. Centre-stage, you have a child who you know is going to break free from a place that is about as bleak as life in Britain in the 1980s could possibly be – and that child is surrounded by adults whose lives are about to be destroyed. Hall and Daldry (and Elton John) tread a very delicate line – in some ways it’s an incredibly manipulative show, but the characters in it almost never make a direct appeal to your emotions (even true of the letter from the dead mother, although that’s the most manipulative scene in the show). If you fall for it – and not everybody does, although I certainly did – then you fall hook, line and sinker; I am far from the only person I know who sobbed all the way through it (I wasn’t even the only person in the cinema yesterday who sobbed all the way through it). If you add to that the breathtaking artistry of the children in the show – particularly (though not only) the child playing Billy, who has to negotiate a complex acting role and some incredibly strenuous choreography – which is moving in itself, the result is a kind of theatrical perfect storm.

And in the case of this particular performance, there are a few extras thrown in to prick your tear-ducts even further. In the Swan Lake fantasy sequence in the second act, the older Billy is danced by Liam Mower, one of the three Billys from the original cast back in 2005 (Mr. Mower is now a ballet dancer, and has danced the role of the Prince in Matthew Bourne’s all-male Swan Lake). Of course, this was announced at the start of the screening; this, too, is a lump-in-the-throat moment, and there’s a tenderness to the scene that I don’t quite remember having been there the last time I saw the show. And then there’s the added post-curtain call dance number featuring (nearly) all the kids who have played Billy in London over the past nine and a half years. It’s absolutely charming, and a lovely celebration of a group of absolutely extraordinary young performers.

The result – and I know I’m gushing here – was quite an event. For all my misgivings about theatrical performances being shown on screen, this one turned out to be a knockout. If you missed it, don’t worry – there’s going to be a DVD, and it’s going to hit the shops before Christmas. Very few stage productions have been filmed as well as this; if you like the show at all (or if you teach theatre), it’s probably going to be an essential purchase.

Just buy a couple of boxes of tissues at the same time. You’ll need them.

Sex and Violence

Here, for your entertainment, is a list of things I learned this week at the Royal Exchange Theatre‘s compelling new modern-dress (ish) production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd.

(Yes, bullet points. I mean, really – I’ve written two full-length prose reviews of major productions of Sweeney Todd in the past couple of years, and I don’t think the world is going to end if I duck out of writing a third. If you’re not familiar with the plot, check Wikipedia; if you’re lucky enough to have missed the movie, try to keep it that way.)

Anyway. So.

  • We’re not in Victorian England anymore, although we are still in London – possibly a little further east than where Fleet Street really is, but never mind. This production is set very firmly at the dog-end of the 1970s, in the earliest days of Thatcher’s reign of terror, and the shift in period works beautifully (although news of it has been greeted in a couple of online forums by hysterically overdone pearl-clutching fainting fits from people who, naturally, didn’t bother to see it for themselves before rushing to condemn it. Aren’t fans wonderful?). No, we didn’t transport convicts in the 1960s, but it doesn’t matter in the slightest; Sondheim and Wheeler’s picture of Victorian London is not documentary-accurate, and the story of a man who experiences monstrous inhumanity and wreaks a terrible revenge for it fits very well indeed with the casual cruelty (and, in the second half, the naked capitalism) of the early Thatcher years. And of course there’s no reason this material shouldn’t be moved out of the 1840s – if we can have modern-dress Shakespeare or Molière or Sheridan, we can have a (nearly) modern-dress Sweeney Todd too, as long as it isn’t simply done as a gimmick. And in this case, it certainly isn’t merely being done as a gimmick.

  • The Royal Exchange is a wonderful, wonderful place to see a play, but from a director’s point of view it’s also a startlingly inflexible space. It’s a theatre-in-the-round that can only be a theatre-in-the -round, all entrances and exits (at stage level, at least) have to be made via vomitoriums that pass several rows of seats, and every single exit from the stage leads directly into the theatre’s lobby area. This production – and knowing the Exchange’s idiosyncracies, this rings all kinds of alarm bells – is a co-production with the West Yorkshire Playhouse, which is a very different kind of space (for a start, it has walls, wings, and a backstage area that is not on full public view). The best compliment I can pay director James Brining (and his set and lighting designers, Colin Richmond and Chris Davey) is that you’d never guess the production was not conceived solely for this space.

  • The great benefit of seeing it at the Exchange: this is as up-close-and-personal a production of Sweeney Todd as you’ll ever see. It unfolds right in front of you, you can see the whites (reds?) of the actors’ eyes, and at least one of the murders takes place more or less in the audience’s laps. Other productions – including last year’s dazzling West End revival – have delivered more spectacle, more Grand Guignol grandeur, more sheer size; this one succeeds by taking the show’s subtitle – ‘A Musical Thriller’ – and running with it, except the thrillers it invokes are more Guy Ritchie than Victorian penny dreadful. Some stagings stylise or downplay the show’s violence, but this one doesn’t:, this is a jagged, angry, thoroughly chilling take on the material, and it’s utterly riveting.

  • There’s a lot of blood. I mean a lot of blood. In the final scene, the actor playing Tobias is more or less covered in it from head to foot (which makes perfect sense, given where Tobias has been). Given how lavishly the blood gushes in this production, they do a remarkably good job of keeping it off the floor.

  • There’s also a lot of sex. Well, compared to other productions, anyway. Moving the setting forward to the late 1970s has the effect of bringing the piece’s sexual subtext – which has always been present – much, much closer to the surface. ‘A Little Priest’, here, becomes an extended mating dance that verges on foreplay (the line “then blow on it first” has almost certainly never been dirtier than it is in this production), and that is very clearly going to end with Todd and Mrs. Lovett doing it on top of the banquette that hides Pirelli’s body. And it’s not just Todd and Mrs. Lovett who are at it like knives, either. Johanna may be virginal the first time we see her, but she certainly isn’t by the end of the first act. When she and Anthony sing ‘Kiss Me’ – on a bed – it involves full-on snogging, and the staging of the end of the number makes it obvious that they aren’t going to stop there.  And actually, seeing this subtext writ large is illuminating – this revival offers a genuinely fresh look at these characters and their relationships, and that’s largely because it’s set in a time in which people were far less physically inhibited than they were in Victorian England.

  • And that’s not just about naughty touching. Johanna’s relationship with Judge Turpin has possibly never been as disturbing as it is here. The sexual abuse of minors by authority figures has been much in the news in Britain over the past couple of years; in this production, Judge Turpin gropes Johanna’s breast, and it’s a thoroughly uncomfortable moment – as, of course, it should be. The danger Johanna faces if she doesn’t make her escape is shockingly clear.

  • Despite the shift in period, this production does not cut or change a word of the book or score. Indeed, here, you get all of it – the tooth-pulling sequence, the Judge’s ‘Johanna’, and the Beggar Woman’s full lullaby.

  • However, the first music you hear when the lights go down is not the organ prelude, it’s a scratchy recording of The Carpenters’ ‘(They Long To Be) Close To You’. It’s both jarring and intensely creepy, and it works.

  • This is very much an ensemble show rather than a star vehicle; that said, all of the performances are terrific. And for once, in a British musical revival, everybody in this cast can sing. The singing, in fact, is unimpeachable, and often thrilling. David Birrell and Gillian Bevan do especially fine work as Todd and Mrs. Lovett. He’s slowly being consumed – to the point of madness – by an awful combination of rage and grief (the poster blurb actually describes the show as “a musical thriller about a man driven mad by injustice”, and that angle has possibly never been clearer than it is in Birrell’s performance). Birrell offers, in places, a startlingly quiet interpretation of the role, which makes his occasional explosions all the scarier. His ‘Epiphany’ is genuinely threatening, and not simply because it’s staged far closer to the audience than it would be in a more conventional theatre. He’s matched by Gillian Bevan’s wiry, wily opportunist of a Mrs. Lovett. Bevan plays down the warmth and the laughs in places (the out-and-out music hall turn Angela Lansbury offered in the original Broadway production just would not work in this setting); the plot is driven, here, as much by her (dare I say Thatcherite?) determination to improve her status as by Sweeney’s thirst for revenge, and this Mrs. Lovett, when she wants to be, can be a very scary lady. Bevan also offers as exciting a vocal account of the role as I’ve ever heard, belting notes in ‘The Worst Pies In London’ that pretty much everyone else I’ve ever heard has taken in head voice. But then, every single performance in this production is remarkably fresh, and every single actor finds something in their role that hasn’t been seen in previous productions.

  • There’s a seven-piece band perched in the first circle above the stage. Yes, more players would be nice (but good luck finding space for them in the Exchange), and no, they’re not playing a version of the smaller orchestration Jonathan Tunick did for the National Theatre production. We also, thank God, don’t have any actors playing instruments onstage (well, apart from where indicated by the script and in the organ prologue, which is played onstage by a member of the ensemble), and musical supervisor David Shrubsole actually owns up to his new orchestrations in the programme. They’re perhaps a little keyboard-heavy, but I’ve heard far worse.

  • There are some nice little details in the direction. When Mrs. Lovett offers Todd a ‘bonbon’ in the second half, it comes out of a prescription bottle, which makes sense – his rage is such that of course he’d resort to chemical assistance to keep himself under control. And her bourgeoise fantasies in ‘By The Sea’ are illustrated by a copy of Ideal Home Magazine that she tries to show Sweeney as he watches TV. In the first act, the bird-seller’s birds are origami cranes made from newspaper, and they’re surprisingly lovely.

  • Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop has the filthiest fridge you’ve ever seen, and when Todd spits out the mouthful of pie at the end of ‘The Worst Pies in London’, she puts the half-chewed mess back in the bowl of uncooked pie filling on the counter. It’s totally gross – but of course, that’s what she’d do.

There are some (excellent) production photos here; the production runs another two weeks, and day seats are available every morning. It’s not the grandest Sweeney Todd you’ll ever see, or the most musically lush, or the funniest – but it may be the creepiest, it’s certainly different, and it grabs hold of you as the lights go down and never lets you go. It’s a gripping, startling piece of theatre, and it offers a new and genuinely surprising reassessment at a piece that, to me at least, has become a little bit over-familiar. The production is apparently Brining’s first as artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and also, according to the programme, heralds the start of a “creative partnership” between the Playhouse and the Exchange. If this production is an indication of the level of work that’s coming, that’s very exciting news indeed.

Like, total drag.

Or, some reflections on the experience of attending Wednesday’s matinée performance of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert at the Opera House in Manchester:

It’s fun, sometimes relentlessly so. The film was fun too, but it also had a surprising emotional depth. There’s far less of that in evidence here.

This is very definitely a touring production. While it doesn’t lack spectacle, it’s considerably less elaborate than the Sydney, London and Broadway incarnations of the show, at least judging by the production photographs from those cities.

There’s a bus, but it’s more skeletal than it was, and several larger set-pieces have been cut down, or are simply MIA. The costumes, though, are still incredibly elaborate and often very funny, and the smaller, cheaper set does at least come to us with smaller, cheaper ticket prices attached. And the show plays well enough even with some of the candy-wrapping taken out.

It’s a jukebox musical, meaning there’s no original score. Instead, there’s a nearly nonstop parade of every camp disco classic you’ve ever heard, plus Pat Benatar’s ‘We Belong’ and a couple of ballads. And I never, ever, EVER need to hear Pat Benatar’s ‘We Belong’ again.

This show does, though, do a more intelligent job than usual of making the grab-bag of pop and disco hits fit the plot – even, improbably, in most of the more ‘serious’ scenes. Much of the show’s vocal load is carried by a trio of ‘Divas’ who deliver their numbers in elaborate disco outfits, suspended above the stage. Here, they’re Emma Kingston, Laura Mansell, and Ellie Leah, and they are great, both individually and as a group.

‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’, though, is a misstep. It’s a great song, but it’s used in the funeral scene near the top of the show, it’s given inappropriately silly choreography, and it reduces Bernadette’s very real grief to the level of camp clowning. It’s as if the show’s creative team are afraid of slowing down and Being Serious less than ten minutes into Act One, and it’s a choice that seriously short-changes both the actor playing Bernadette and the show as a whole.

All the lines you remember from the film are present and correct, but they’re all played more for laughs than they were in the film, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. That’s not to slight the cast, all of whom do as well as they possibly could with what they’ve been given. Richard Grieve does particularly strong work as Bernadette, despite a stage script (co-written by Stephan Elliott, the film’s screenwriter) that stubbornly refuses to let anyone hold on to a serious emotion for longer than about three seconds before the next glittery production number begins. He can’t quite sell the funeral scene, but I doubt anybody could; elsewhere, he’s funny, touching and believable, and he makes it his own. Given Terence Stamp’s indelible performance in the film, that’s quite an achievement.

As Tick, Jason Donovan redeems himself here for the one other time I’ve seen him onstage – a dreadful 1996 revival of ‘Night Must Fall’ (it’s a dreadful play, it was a dreadful production, and he was dreadful in it). His singing voice, these days, is a little worn around the edges, but that works for the character; he’s really good in the role, and – like Grieve – he manages to land the laughs and supply as much depth of feeling as the stage version allows.

Yes, there are ping-pong balls, accomplished via theatrical sleight-of-hand. It’s a clever conjuring trick, and Frances Mayli McCann’s Cynthia is raucously funny.

The film wasn’t afraid to show moments of realism and grit – compare the stage’s happy-shiny-drag-show opening with the very dark first scene in the film – and it was all the better for it. The stage version, too often, plays like a brightly-coloured fairytale. Given that the heart of the show is three queer/transgendered people trying to find some accommodation with a world that usually does not treat them kindly, that’s a problem. Despite the best efforts of everyone in this cast, the overall effect is sunnier and ultimately less moving than the film, and the stakes don’t seem nearly as high. But hey, there are dancing cupcakes in ‘Macarthur Park’, so who cares about depth?

It’s not that it’s a bad show, the funeral scene aside. There’s plenty of spectacle, even in this cut-down touring production, and the production numbers are energetic and imaginative, and it’s packed with funny lines. It’s big, loud, slick and very entertaining – but it could have been much, much more.

And I’m afraid that once again, the behaviour of some of the audience at the Opera House didn’t add to the show at all. In front of me in act one, there were two ladies who talked constantly and loudly, occasionally breaking off to swig from bottles of wine – not miniatures, either – that they’d brought in from the Tesco across the street. Their charming response to being asked to quieten down? “You can’t tell me what to do, shut your face!”. The house management very kindly found me a different seat for Act Two, so I didn’t have to listen to them during the rest of the show – but that, of course, ducks the problem somewhat, in that they didn’t take any effective steps to protect the other audience members in that section who hadn’t complained. These two ladies were disruptive enough that a competent house management would have thrown them out; it is simply not acceptable to expect an audience who have all paid non-trivial sums of money for their tickets (prices for this show are far lower than they were in the West End, but that doesn’t mean they’re cheap) to put up with the performance being disrupted by people who don’t know how to behave in a theatre. Unfortunately, the Opera House is an Ambassador Theatre Group venue, and ATG are not exactly known for their stellar customer service. The house manager I spoke to was pleasant, apologetic, and very helpful to me, but she was clearly unwilling to take any action that would involve  directly asking these people to tone down their appalling behaviour, and that, I’m afraid, just isn’t good enough.

Oh yes, one more thing: the show, in Manchester, is being presented under ATG’s increasingly fatuous Manchester Gets It First promotional banner. That’s first, in this instance, after Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, London, Toronto, New York, Sao Paulo,  Minneapolis, Cleveland, and St. Louis. And all of those venues got a more elaborate physical production than we did. Aren’t we lucky? We’re the first to get the cheap version. Big whoop.