Poisson Strange

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Or, a tale of the good, the bad, and the unmemorable.

Big Fish, based on a 2003 movie I haven’t seen, really wants to be an enchanting, heartwarming family musical about what fathers pass on to their sons. It also wants to be a celebration of fantastical storytelling, and sometimes the stage equivalent of a Lifetime hospital drama. Will Bloom (Matthew Seadon-Young) has grown up listening to his father Edward (Kelsey Grammer) tell impossibly tall tales about his past. When Edward becomes seriously ill, Will goes back through the stories to try to separate fact from fiction, and uncovers a huge secret. There’s a deathbed scene, the opportunity for a good cry in the second half of the second act, and the potential for a series of great big production numbers in the fantasy sequences. You can see why the show’s creators were drawn to adapting it as a musical – but while there’s possibly a wonderful musical buried somewhere in this source material, this really isn’t it. In terms of the material, what you’re getting here is basically the equivalent of a tuna sandwich from a hospital cafeteria: it’ll keep you going, it tastes OK, and you’ll remember very little about it afterwards.

What you will remember – and he’s probably the reason you bought a ticket – is this production’s above-the-title star. As the storytelling Edward, Kelsey Grammer is the real deal. He’s charming, very funny, and has effortless stage presence and a better singing voice than you might expect. This is a proper old-fashioned star turn, and he’s more than worth your time and money. The trouble is, he’s far more interesting than the show itself. John August’s book, even in the fantasy sequences, is predictable – bearing in mind that I haven’t seen the film, it was a quarter of the way into Act Two before I wasn’t two steps ahead of the plot. That might not be a problem if Andrew Lippa’s score was at all memorable, but it isn’t. It’s always pleasant, but it’s always bland; outside of a couple of  Andrews Sisters-type pastiche numbers (one in each act), there’s very little you’ll remember afterwards. The lyrics are technically proficient, although they tend to announce emotions as if they were headlines, and the music is always superficially attractive, but if you try to dig into the heart of the score – with the exception of one song sung by Sandra Bloom, Edward’s wife – there is no there there.

And that might not be a problem if there was anything inspired about Nigel Harman’s direction, but there isn’t. The Broadway production (which flopped) was apparently too overblown, so this, in response, is the cut-down chamber version; it isn’t a bad idea to set nearly the entire show in Edward’s hospital room, but once you’ve taken the decision to do this show small, the fantasy sequences need an injection of theatrical magic. Not necessarily a big budget or huge set-changes – just imagination and a sure sense of fun. Here, both are notably lacking, despite the herculean efforts of Forbes Masson as a circus ringmaster and Dean Nolan as a misunderstood giant. They’re both terrific, but the songs they’re given aren’t; Harman’s direction and Liam Steele’s choreography don’t hit any clunkers, but they also don’t have the kind of flair that can sometimes elevate tepid material.

It doesn’t help, either, that Jamie Muscato’s Story Edward – the version of Edward Bloom who appears in the older Edward’s fantastic tales – is so singularly charmless. Muscato is a very, very talented performer. He’s a good actor, he can move, he has a wonderful singing voice – and he is absolutely miscast here, to the point where his character and Grammer’s barely seem related to each other. Muscato doesn’t have Grammer’s effortless presence and charm – at all – and without them Story Edward comes across as an egotistical con-man. Muscato works very hard indeed, and it isn’t his fault, but unfortunately it’s this performance that holes the show below the waterline.

Matthew Seadon-Young, though, is a genuinely moving Will Bloom, and Clare Burt is even better as his mother. Her one solo number, ‘I Don’t Need a Roof’, is by far the best thing in the score (and just about the only song in which the emotional subtext isn’t announced at the top of each verse), and she sings it with devastating restraint. It’s a lovely, truthful, absolutely heartbreaking performance; she, like Grammer, is worth the cost of the ticket.

And having said all this, it’s fair to say that a lot of the (more or less capacity) audience seemed to like the show a lot more than I did. There’s a fine set of supporting performances,  decent production values (set and costumes by Tom Rogers, lighting by Bruno Poet), and for all that the material is bland, it is also moving, at least in the second act – though it’s also rather manipulative, and if you’ve experienced losing a parent the final scenes push buttons that are more or less guaranteed to provoke a response. As I said, though, there’s a memorable musical located somewhere in this source material, and this is not it. You’ll leave the theatre remembering Clare Burt’s face when she sings ‘I Don’t Need a Roof’, Matthew Seadon-Young’s final scenes, and (especially) Kelsey Grammer, but the score will have evaporated by the time you get to the tube, and Harmon’s direction might have evaporated before you’ve finished watching it. Go for the cast – they’re worth it – but go with low expectations. And if you want a really memorable fish, try the aquarium.

 

 

 

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Ready for her close-up

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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.

Wind ’em up and watch ’em go!

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You will have a good time watching the revival of 42nd Street at Drury Lane.

Is that clear? You WILL have a good time watching the revival of 42nd Street at Drury Lane.

Sorry, I don’t think you’ve quite got it yet. YOU WILL HAVE A GOOD TIME WATCHING THE REVIVAL OF 42ND STREET AT DRURY LANE.

YOU WILL BE ASSIMILATED.

ALL DISSENT IS TREASON.

Actually, snark aside, you’ll be entertained, and often a lot more than that. It’s just that by the curtain call you may also be exhausted. This is a great big brightly-coloured juggernaut of a show. It’s slick, fast-paced, a bit too loud, and absolutely relentless; it’s often great fun, but it might be more fun if the production occasionally paused for breath. There’s a huge ensemble of tap-dancers, drilled to within an inch of their lives by choreographer Randy Skinner. There are gaudy, spectacular sets by Douglas W. Schmidt, who seems to have had a great time taking every single Busby Berkeley cliché and hurling the whole lot of them at Drury Lane’s vast stage. Roger Kirk’s sequins-and-spangles costumes for the chorus are noisier than Gareth Owen’s ear-splitting sound design. It’s an eye-popping, jaw-dropping two-and-a-half-hours of sensory overload, and sometimes it’s glorious.

It’s so relentlessly BIG, though, that the puny little human beings at the centre of it sometimes seem curiously irrelevant. There’s no need to discuss the plot because everybody knows about the film, even if these days not everybody has seen it: it’s not simply that the film is the ultimate go-out-a-nobody-and-come-back-a-star fantasy writ large – the film created most of the go-out-a-nobody-and-come-back-a-star clichés, and that scene where the director tells the chorus girl to (getting the point yet?) go out there a nobody and come back a star is a widely-referenced, universally-recognisable touchstone in American popular culture. That the film has become a CULTURAL MONOLITH, though, isn’t only down to the plot or the musical numbers. The film gained the currency it did because, on top of spectacle and an irresistible story, the cast list is a roll call of irresistible, memorable movie stars: Ruby Keeler, Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell. Here, in their place, we have a lot of very efficient performances. Everybody hits their notes and their marks, but Mark Bramble appears to have directed most of his cast to act in semaphore. With very few exceptions, there’s little subtlety and less charm. The sheer energy emanating from the stage will be enough to carry you along – don’t have a coffee or shoot amphetamines before the show, artificial stimulants might push you over the edge – and the LAUGHS are telegraphed LOUDLY enough that you won’t be able to help laughing too, but the film traded in personalities as well as plot, and this production mostly doesn’t. And I mean it mostly really doesn’t.

There are a few exceptions, fortunately, and they’re wonderful. As Maggie Jones, a co-author of the show chorus-girl Peggy Sawyer is supposed to Go Out And Become The Star Of, Jasna Ivir is warm, funny, and an absolute delight. It’s unfortunate that her ability to project a charming, human performance despite the steamroller of a production surrounding her makes a few of the show’s supporting players seem even more like robots, but you can’t have everything. Clare Halse’s Peggy, too, is the real deal: a good singer, a terrific dancer, presence to spare, and she, like Ivir, pulls off the neat trick of demonstrating an actual personality instead of being dwarfed by the garish costumes and gargantuan dance routines. I’ve no idea what top-billed Sheena Easton is like as fading star Dorothy Brock because she was out on Tuesday night; she probably sings the hell out of her songs (in this production, she gets an extra one – ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ – because if your biggest star is a star singer and her character is onstage for only four-and-a-half minutes of the second act, you really need to throw her a bone), but her understudy, CJ Johnson, gave a fine, flawless account of the role, and Ms. Easton was not missed. As Julian Marsh, the tough-talking director of the show-within-the-show, Tom Lister seems, until late in the second act, to be perfecting a very good Jerry Orbach impersonation – but then right at the end of the second act, after the final big production number, the show finally slows down and takes a breath, finishing with a sweetly touching scene between director and chorus-girl-turned-star and Marsh’s solo rendition of the title song. At that point – but only at that point – Lister makes the role his own. Those last few minutes, in fact, despite not including forty-odd tap-dancers, mirrors, dance props, moving scenery, or any notably gaudy costumes, are by far the best thing in the show.

The bottom line: you WILL have a good time, though you may also leave the theatre feeling like you’ve been bludgeoned into submission. The choreography is often dazzling, Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s songs are classics of their genre, there’s a superb band under the direction of Jae Alexander (and a nifty little lift under the conductor’s podium in the pit which propels him upwards into a spotlight so that the audience can see him conduct the overture and entr’acte), and the show as a whole, wearyingly relentless at it sometimes seems, is bright, shiny, colourful fun. If it sometimes – OK, often – feels like a theme-park recreation of a Thirties musical comedy, that’s because it IS: this material was never conceived for the stage, even though it’s about the creation of a stage musical, and the production’s relentlessly overcaffeinated imitation of the various performance tropes associated with Thirties backstage movie musicals is so shamelessly overhyped that the extravaganza now on display at Drury Lane inevitably seems (more than) a little ersatz. It is great fun – genuinely – but you may very well end up with the odd suspicion that you’re being forced to have fun at gunpoint. That the show doesn’t feel like it’s being performed entirely by animatronics or replicants is largely down to Clare Halse and Jasna Ivir – really, whatever they’re being paid, it isn’t enough. When they’re onstage – and in Halse and Lister’s final scene, too – this 42nd Street can charm as well as overwhelm. The rest of the time? As I said, YOU WILL HAVE FUN.

 

The mirror’s getting blurred

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Sally should have died the first time. Phyllis tells a drinks waiter he’s getting her all wet. Weismann hits on a waitress. There’s no interval, so slamming down a venti Americano before you take your seat probably isn’t a good idea unless you’re wearing Depends. We are, thank God, back in 1971 in more ways than one: for this production, the cut-down-and-smoothed-out revised version of James Goldman‘s book for Follies has been well and truly buried. May it never return.

Follies, more than most, is a show with a bumpy production history. The original Broadway production ran for more than 500 performances but lost a then-unheard-of $800,000. A 1987 London production had a completely rewritten book; it had a longer run but also lost money. There have been two Broadway revivals since 2000; they each used the watered-down rewrite of the book that has become the standard version, and neither was a hit. This is a show fans obsess over – yes, me too, I even wrote about it for part of my MA thesis. The score, underappreciated by critics in 1971, is an embarrassment of riches; Goldman’s original book, though, is probably too bleak ever to be a long-running commercial success. Set at a reunion of former showgirls in a now-defunct Ziegfeld Follies-style extravaganza, the show ostensibly focuses on the unhappy marriages of two ex-chorines, Sally and Phyllis, and their less-than-completely-faithful husbands, (respectively) oil rig salesman Buddy and politician/businessman Ben. On one level, the slender plot is simple: Sally and Phyllis danced together in the final season of the Weismann Follies in 1941, and were roommates. Sally married Buddy, Phyllis married Ben – but Sally and Ben had a fling before their engagements, and Sally arrives at the reunion having spent the past thirty years pining for what might have been. Actually, it’s about far more than that: during the reunion, the show’s characters are confronted by their younger selves, dredging up questions of memory and identity that locate the book in a surreal no-man’s-land between Pinter and Pirandello, with a hefty dollop of Fellini thrown in and a sprinkling of Albee on top. And on top of THAT, the whole thing is a metaphor for America’s postwar decline. It’s wonderful (if you don’t get one of the various watered-down rewrites), and I love it, but if you just want tap-dancing chorus girls you’re better off at 42nd Street.

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God knows what the National had to do in order to persuade James Goldman’s widow to allow them to use the not-watered-down bleak-but-brilliant original book, but we can all be very glad they did: Dominic Cooke’s production more than does it justice, although it isn’t without flaws. This isn’t quite precisely the unadulterated original text; there have been a few interesting tweaks here and there, and they’re all intelligent choices – although none of them amount to life-or-death changes. In the dumbed-down rewrite that has become the standard published text, there are a couple of crossovers in the final scene – minor characters leaving the party, given a couple of lines each. Those are inserted earlier in the show, before the surreal Follies-as-metaphor Loveland sequence, and it’s perhaps useful, by that point in the show, to emphasise the lateness of the hour as the four central characters succumb to a combination of alcohol, obsession, and spectacular self-loathing. Cooke keeps the “ghosts” onstage far more than the stage directions suggest; they’re almost always present somewhere, and all the party guests are mirrored/stalked/haunted by their own pasts. Accordingly, in the long opening sequence, the first fragment of song (as opposed to underscoring) comes from two of the ghosts: Young Ben and Young Buddy get a “hey up there/way up there/whaddya say up there?” (the opening phrase of ‘Waiting for the Girls Upstairs’, a song that arrives twenty minutes or so later) before anyone else has sung a word. ‘Bolero d’Amour’, on the other hand, has been cut, although it was apparently in the show during early previews (I saw the last-but-one preview before press night). And – purists will seethe, but this is London not New York and this choice makes sense – in ‘I’m Still Here’ Carlotta sings that she got through Shirley Temple rather than Brenda Frazier. I suppose they could have explained Brenda Frazier in a programme note, but who reads those?

(I do, actually, and in this case you should too: the programme includes fine, informative, well-written essays by David Benedict, Russell Jackson, and Gary Yershon, and a snippet of Ted Chapin’s wonderful book about the making of the original production. It’s well worth the £5.)

A big part of Cooke’s achievement here is that he understands the rhythm of the piece, and with Follies that is by no means always the case. Until the ‘Loveland’ show-within-a-show at the evening’s climax, Follies is structured as a continuous tapestry rather than as a succession of individual scenes, using a theatrical equivalent of cinematic crossfades – as one piece of the action ends, another begins somewhere else on the stage and your eye is drawn to it. Harold Prince’s original Broadway production achieved this effect using several moving platforms (there is some archival footage available); here, Cooke makes judicious use of the Olivier’s revolve (though not the drum) and Paule Constable’s perfectly-eerie lighting to keep the action spinning, and to shift focus between different areas of Vicki Mortimer’s desolate-but-beautiful derelict-backstage set.

He understands the rhythm of the dialogue as well, and that’s something that also appears to have eluded some directors. Goldman’s script starts out looking naturalistic, at least if you look past the ghosts, but it really isn’t. These are emblems rather than fully fleshed-out characters – remember, the whole show is a metaphor – and that’s a deliberate choice. The characters are simultaneously slightly larger-than-life and slightly less than three-dimensional, and there’s a surreal, arch theatricality to the dialogue that can feel painfully stilted if the actors don’t catch the correct rhythm. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Restoration comedy, only with a darker edge, and it requires the same kind of discipline and pace. Cooke makes it make perfect sense; in this production, the dialogue crackles with electricity and the pace never lets up. Dark as the material becomes, though, the delivery in this production stays just the right side of being too arch; there are laughs too – though not in the last ten to fifteen minutes – and they’re all present and correct, and again that isn’t an easy thing to achieve in material as ostensibly bleak as this.

And those ghosts are everywhere. There’s a ghostly entrance parade (way) upstage behind the older women during ‘Beautiful Girls’, the Whitmans dance with their younger selves in ‘Rain on the Roof’, Carlotta’s ghost looks down on her as she sings ‘I’m Still Here’. It sounds like embellishment, but it’s a choice that consistently pays off; everyone in this Follies is haunted by the past, but some are much better than others at facing it down.

Cooke also draws fine performances from his actors, right down to the smallest roles. Billy Boyle and Norma Atallah are absolutely charming as the Whitmans, and their ‘Rain on the Roof’ is a delight. Geraldine Fitzgerald is a drily funny Solange. Di Botcher cannily underplays ‘Broadway Baby’, so that a song that these days can seem like a cliché feels absolutely fresh. They get to do the trio ending combining their three numbers, and it’s a showstopper. Bruce Graham is a golden-voiced Roscoe, and Gary Raymond is a fascinatingly haunted/haunting Dmitri Weismann. As Stella Deems, Dawn Hope sings the hell out of ‘Who’s That Woman?’, the memorable tap number in which the ex-chorus girls literally dance with their younger selves.

The score is an embarrassment of riches, but so is this cast. As fading soprano Heidi Schiller, Josephine Barstow is simply beautiful. ‘One More Kiss’, a mock-Viennese waltz with a sting in the lyric, is the score’s loveliest song; as sung by Barstow and Alison Langer’s Young Heidi, it has possibly never been lovelier. Tracie Bennett’s Carlotta Campion – the show’s great survivor, a former Follies girl who became a film and television star – seems to be channeling (pre-breakdown) Judy Garland, but that’s a choice that works for the role, and that impression is probably reinforced by having seen Bennett’s powerhouse performance as Garland in Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow. Bennett’s Carlotta is strong, unsentimental, almost flinty – but at a certain point Bennett lets you see vulnerability too, and her I’m Still Here isn’t quite like any other performance of the song I’ve encountered. It starts as a reminiscence to friends, but then once she’s left alone onstage, halfway through the number, it becomes something darker and more complex: simultaneously a triumphant shout of survival and a more introspective acknowledgment of the emotional toll that comes with enduring adversity. It’s surprisingly moving, and an original, subtle take on a song that too often just gets steamrollered into the ground.

As for the central quartet and their younger counterparts, it’s mostly good news there too. Peter Forbes is an ideal Buddy – affable, ingratiating, sad around the edges. He isn’t a tap-dancer, but ‘The Right Girl’ is reconceived as an almost-adversarial dance duet with Fred Haig’s equally ideal Young Buddy, and it works very well indeed. Philip Quast brings tremendous gravitas to his portrayal of Ben, and in his hands ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ – Sondheim’s baldest statement of the show’s overriding theme – is as affecting as it has ever been. And you’ll probably want to go home and erect some kind of shrine to Janie Dee’s Phyllis, because she’s perfect.

That leaves Imelda Staunton’s Sally, which is an impeccable performance in every way except one. Staunton does not fall into the trap of making Sally manic or bipolar from the top of the show. She very carefully charts a slow descent into madness, and it’s a very, very fine acting performance. Sondheim’s music, on the other hand, is not a good fit for her voice. She doesn’t commit the kind of crimes against the human eardrum perpetrated by Bernadette Peters on the most recent Broadway cast album, but Sally’s songs demand a soprano and she just isn’t one. That said, she more or less gets away with it: her ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’ is absolutely transfixing (and yes, she does hit all the notes, though I think it’s been taken down a step for her), because the acting performance is compelling enough to carry the music with it – and to be fair, she floats a lovely pianissimo whatever-it-is on the last note of the song. She takes the middle of ‘Too Many Mornings’ down an octave, but does hit the high notes at the end of the song. Her Loveland number, ‘Losing My Mind’, is less successful, but that’s partly because the staging is too busy: she sings a good part of the song in profile to the audience, sitting at a dressing table, and it would help if she was allowed to face the audience from the beginning.

Part of the problem, though, is undeniably the mismatch between the song and the performer. Staunton is a brilliant actor with a versatile voice that can encompass a wider range of musical roles than you might imagine – but she does not have the kind of glorious one-of-a-kind singing voice that could stand in the same league as some of her predecessors in the role. When Dorothy Collins, Barbara Cook or Julia McKenzie sang the song – and all three are/were superb actors too – their voices could do some of the heavy lifting. McKenzie literally just stood completely still then raised both arms on the penultimate line of the final verse; as careful as her acting choices in that moment were, she also has the kind of voice that makes an entire theatre stop breathing until she’s finished the number, and her physical stillness was a powerful statement in itself given that the song essentially spends four minutes describing a state of emotional paralysis. Staunton doesn’t have that kind of voice, so the song is given more elaborate blocking (in profile, face forward, pick up a glass and take a drink, stand for the final verse, yada yada) as if to compensate. The acting choices make perfect sense, and she (correctly) plays the performance pastiche rather than the nervous breakdown underpinning the song – but the song benefits enormously from a thrilling voice, and it doesn’t get one.

And having said all that, Staunton’s performance in the final scene is so heartbreaking that you’ll probably forgive her more or less anything for her delivery of the line “Oh dear God, it IS tomorrow.”. Her presence in the role brings gains and losses; she’s wonderful, but she’s also imperfect – and perhaps all the more so next to the marvellous Alex Young’s Young Sally, because Young has the acting chops and the voice.

The Loveland sequence as a whole, in fact, is somewhat problematic. Cooke’s direction, so perfect in the preceding scenes, goes off the rails a little with the onset of the climactic show-within-a-show. Loveland is basically a metaphorical Ziegfeld Follies performance in which the four principal characters each perform their own individual folly; the transition into Loveland is handled well enough, although the Loveland set could usefully look a little more opulent, and the scene-setting numbers for the Young quartet are perfectly charming. Forbes’s “Margie” and “Sally” in ‘Buddy’s Blues’ are chorus boys in drag; it’s not a damaging choice, and there’s nothing wrong with the performance, but it is a definite choice, and there’s no discernible reason for it.

[Edit – I’m informed by friends who would know – and I should have known too because I’ve read the same books – that using two chorus boys here was the way the number was originally conceived and staged, although that version of it didn’t make it as far as the Broadway opening. Oops.]

The staging of ‘Losing My Mind’ pulls your focus away from what Staunton’s Sally is feeling, and places it instead on what she’s doing. Phyllis’s ‘Story of Lucy and Jessie’, in which she tries to reconcile the chasm between her present and younger selves, is the most completely successful of the four numbers; Dee’s Phyllis, in a black dress that redefines va-va-voom, dances with Zizi Strallen’s Young Phyllis as well as a gaggle of chorus boys. Again, a definite choice, and not quite what the stage directions suggest, but it works, Bill Deamer’s choreography is terrific, and it’s crystal clear in this staging that Phyllis’s “folly” is her inability to reconcile the persona she assumed after marrying Ben with the (relatively) carefree but unschooled young woman she used to be (I think it’s crystal clear in the lyrics as well, but it’s a point that seems to have come as a surprise to at least one of London’s theatre critics). Quast’s ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ is great until the onset of the breakdown that takes us out of Loveland and back into the derelict theatre. His collapse simply isn’t big enough – and the issue is with the direction rather than the actor, because the scripted chaos/cacophony that accompanies the moment is also more subdued than it needs to be.

And again, having said all that, the final scene – with every line from the orignal version restored – is superb, and well worth whatever missteps the production might have taken during the preceding twenty minutes.

Other reservations? Purists might prefer Michael Bennett’s original choreography for ‘Who’s That Woman?’ to Deamer’s account of the number, in which the ‘ghosts’, in the tap section, take the stage alone before dancing with their older counterparts. It’s different, it works, and the number stops the show – and having the ghosts briefly supplant their older counterparts is entirely in keeping with the way this production uses the ghosts from the beginning as living memories who inhabit the theatre and refuse to be put to rest – but the original choreography is justifiably celebrated (and has occasionally been used in subsequent productions), and it’s momentarily jarring to see such a decisively different take on the song. And when just about everything else in Cooke’s production is executed with commendable subtlety and restraint, it’s (to say the least) a step too far to have the large electric WEISSMAN FOLLIES sign hanging over the stage sputter and fade so it just says LIES during the chaos sequence that takes us from Loveland back to the bare stage of the Weissman Theatre. We already got the point; it doesn’t need illuminating, particularly not with a several-feet-high sign made of lightbulbs.

And – not that this has anything to do with anything on the stage – exercise caution in the National Theatre bookshop after the show. If you care about such things, the new edition of the published script with this production’s artwork on the cover unfortunately does not reflect the version of the text used in this production:

NTF5

No, I didn’t buy it. There’s a long-out-of-print Random House edition of the original 1971 book; I once owned a copy but it went AWOL a few years ago; another is on the way. Secondhand copies cost more than the new published edition, but can be found within my pain threshold (and for less than I paid for the theatre ticket). Caveat emptor – and while I certainly understand the impulse to have a copy of the published script on sale to tie in with this revival, the differences between the two scripts mean this leaves a slightly sour taste. The revised script essentially reads as if Goldman went through his original book with a razor and carefully cut out everything that made it interesting. It’s a pale imitation; this production, despite a couple of flaws, offers the real deal.

Goodness, this went on for a long time, didn’t it? Overall, while this production makes a few missteps, a lot of it is thrilling. Cooke’s great achievement is to demonstrate loudly and clearly that despite the show’s “failure” back in 1971, the original book plays beautifully and is vastly superior to every subsequent rewrite. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent, sometimes dazzling production of difficult material, and – mostly – an impeccable presentation of Sondheim’s glorious score. You even get Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations, courtesy of a twenty-piece band tucked away at the back of the Olivier’s vast stage (the flawless musical direction is by Nigel Lilley). It isn’t quite the idealised revival of the show I’ve been carrying around in my head for the last twenty-plus years, but it probably couldn’t be; parts of it don’t match up, and parts of it are better than anything I’d imagined. Given the National’s budgetary constraints – the transition into Loveland really needs to look as if the designers threw a lot of money at the stage, and here it just doesn’t – and the fact that the show has never turned a profit in a commercial production, this is probably as good a revival as anyone could ever have expected. Cooke and Deamer’s choices, though, mean that devotees of the show – there are people, God help us, who are more obsessive than I am – are going to be arguing about this staging, and about at least a couple of the performances (Staunton and Bennett, and maybe Quast in the breakdown/chaos sequence) for years. Me? I’m just glad I get to see it again before it closes in January.

NTF2

 

Welcome to Portcullis House

 

 

 

Yes, that’s the title: The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence on Whitehall’s Relationship with Kids Company. Yes, it’s a musical, albeit a very unusual one. Drawn largely from the edited transcript of the October 15th 2015 oral evidence session at Portcullis House, with additional material drawn from other evidence sessions in the committee’s inquiry into Whitehall’s relationship with the failed charity Kids Company, this is probably as unusual a new musical as you’ll encounter this year. It might be the most unusual new musical you’ll encounter this decade. How unusual is it? In maybe thirty-five years of regular theatregoing, this is the first new musical I’ve ever seen whose programme includes what amounts to a bibliography:

dcb

The result, perhaps surprisingly, is an enthralling piece of theatre, though it would possibly – despite a careful introduction in which a parliamentary clerk explains the difference between these proceedings and a trial – make rather less sense if you weren’t British or hadn’t been following this particular story (or politics in general) in the news over the last several years. This is a story that cuts right to the heart of the political schisms in contemporary Britain, the people involved are flawed, colourful (very colourful), and fascinating, and the collapse of Kids Company ended up being about far more than the mismanagement of a charity. As the government’s austerity programme forced deep cuts to social services, charities and volunteers were left to pick up the slack; Kids Company, under the direction of its charismatic founder, Camila Batmanghelidjh, expanded very quickly, and was undeniably extremely effective in the way it was able to provide immediate assistance, via drop-in centres, to vulnerable/at-risk children. The charity’s chaotic management structure and record-keeping, hand-to-mouth financial management, and unorthodox distribution practices put Kids Company on a collision course with the government, particularly after Kids Company began to receive significant funding from government grants; Batmanghelidjh, as the charity’s public face and most visible figurehead, became an increasingly contentious public figure as negative stories related to the charity began to appear with some regularity in the less scrupulous tabloids. In August 2015, the charity abruptly folded; in the aftermath, there was a lot of talk about financial mismanagement, misuse or misappropriation of government grants and all the rest of it, but there was (depressingly) far less discussion of how or whether the essential services Kids Company provided – support for which had been hugely cut back and in some cases even withdrawn by local authorities as a result of the coalition government’s austerity-based funding cuts – might continue.

The October 15th transcript runs to 69 pages, and a lot of it boils down to a discussion of the charity’s processes – essential, probably, in the context of the way the charity collapsed, but it makes rather dry reading. The show runs around 80 minutes; writers Hadley Fraser and Josie Rourke have, thank God, edited significantly, and brought in third-party testimony from other hearings, and they’ve essentially boiled the hearing down into a confrontation between two opposing philosophies. On the one hand, there’s the government, as represented by the panel of MPs who are (justifiably) determined to establish that public funds have not been used carelessly or indiscriminately. On the other, there’s the charity’s chief of trustees, Alan Yentob, and Ms. Batmanghelidjh, the founder and chief executive, and Ms. Batmanghelidjh’s primary concern is simply to do what she can to help suffering/vulnerable/at-risk children. This is not, though, precisely a simple contest between good and bad/practicality vs. idealism/efficiency vs. compassion, and that’s largely due to the complexities of the characters involved, and particularly to the way Mr. Yentob and Ms. Batmanghelidjh presented themselves during the hearing. From what we hear of their testimonies – and while what we hear during the performance is edited, the impression is backed up by reading the full transcript – neither has much grasp on the processes necessary to keep a charity the size of Kids Company afloat financially, even though we hear Ms. Batmanghelidjh was a tireless fundraiser. Mr. Yentob – and again, this impression is backed up by the full transcript – sometimes appears more concerned with maintaining the access to cabinet ministers conferred by his position as one of the charity’s figureheads than with the charity’s actual mission. Both come across as egocentric, both evade questions, and both are occasionally petulant in the face of the panel’s more persistent questions.

And this – finally – is where Tom Deering‘s music comes in. This is not exactly Hello, Dolly!; there are no big memorable take-home tunes. The show moves seamlessly from speech to singing and back again, and the score exists in a twilight zone between Adam Cork’s music for London Road and contemporary chamber opera. The music’s function here is largely to provide subtext; when the panel intone ‘We want to learn…” in the manner of a church choir singing a psalm, you sense a certain sanctimoniousness. Mr. Yentob, on the other hand, is made to sing with operatic pomposity; there’s a clear subtext of disdain for the proceedings running through his testimony (in the full transcript as well), and the carefully formal music and use of an operatic voice (the other roles are all cast with performers who work primarily in musical theatre, where the prevailing sound is more relaxed) suggest what he never explicitly says: that his inquisitors, and the hearing itself, are far below his pay grade. As for Ms. Batmanghelidjh, she’s given, in her closing statement to the hearing (which is not quite where her testimony ended in the actual transcript, but Fraser and Rourke are allowed some theatrical licence), the closest thing to a full-out aria, an impassioned indictment of society for letting vulnerable children fall through the cracks, and the media and government for paying more attention to procedural problems at Kids Company than to the plight of the children it served. Her music captures her deep commitment to her cause, but also – via underlying dissonance in the accompaniment, and via abrupt shifts between relatively lyrical melodic lines and something rather more jagged – her essential slipperiness. Deering’s score is a compelling musical achievement; a committee hearing is essentially static, and Deering’s music provides a great deal of the piece’s dramatic tension.

As for the production, it’s more or less flawless. Josie Rourke’s direction finds more variety and more movement in the essentially motionless situation than you’d imagine possible; clever use of moving desks in Robert Jones’s carefully-accurate committee-room set allows the actors playing the MPs and clerks to step “outside” their roles in the hearing to become individuals giving third-party testimony, some of which is very moving (for example, an ex-headteacher and former Kids Company employee testifying to the remarkable speed with which the Kids Company machine could move to provide protection to a child whose home situation placed him in significant danger). It’s a joy these days to see a musical where the music is all provided by proper instruments, in this case a grand piano (on a platform above the stage) and a string quartet. The pacing is spot-on, and that’s not an easy thing to achieve in a piece whose setup basically has all the actors sitting at desks for most of the show’s running time.

donmar committee set

The performances, too, are impossible to fault. Alexander Hanson sings superbly and captures Bernard Jenkin‘s slight smugness without caricaturing it. As chair of the session, Jenkin is perhaps most responsible for the panel’s inability/reluctance/failure to engage with the extent of the social issues Kids Company had to deal with, and with the question – tellingly, acknowledged in the transcript by Ms. Batmanghelidjh, but not by any of the MPs, Tory or Labour, on the panel – of why a charity, rather than government, became responsible for helping some of society’s most vulnerable children. Omar Ebrahim is a perfectly slippery Alan Yentob, Rosemary Ashe skirts just this side of caricature as the appalling Kate Hoey – but then, so does Ms. Hoey (one of the details we learn about Ms. Hoey from the introductions at the top of the show is that her constituency website hilariously refers to her office phone number as the “Hoey Hotline”). And Sandra Marvin’s Camila Batmanghelidjh is a minor miracle, from her turban right down to her pink Crocs: beautifully sung, of course, and she doesn’t sidestep Ms. Batmanghelidjh’s infuriating evasiveness and tendency towards almost-childlike self-justification, but Marvin presents a woman of great complexity – refreshing, since a good number of the news reports into the collapse of Kids Company simply offered Ms. Batmanghelidjh up as a kind of sacrificial buffoon.

It’s not exactly a fun evening (or afternoon, in my case) at the theatre, of course, but it’s also probably not quite like any other musical you’ve ever seen. It’s unusual for a new musical to dive into a ripped-from-the-headlines ongoing story, and doubly so for it to do so via official transcripts of recorded events. The question of government’s responsibility towards society’s most vulnerable has become even more resonant since the horror experienced by the inhabitants of Grenfell Tower in June; this show doesn’t necessarily provide any answers, although it’s a telling authorial choice that the final significant statement in the show, unlike in the transcript of the hearing, is given to Ms. Batmanghelidjh. It does, though, raise all kinds of questions about government and accountability. Given the show’s premise, the fact that it manages to take those questions and turn them into 80 minutes of thoroughly absorbing theatre is little short of astonishing.

hoey hotline

 

The best of all possible worlds

CHC

Apologies in advance, but I’m probably about to run out of superlatives. Candide is one of those shows whose production history is so complicated that there is probably a PhD thesis in untangling the differences between the various different versions (see also Chess and Merrily We Roll Along). A flop in its original Broadway production in 1956, it has endured largely because of Leonard Bernstein‘s glorious music, despite a book that has, over the years, gone through more changes than Céline Dion’s nose.

In a concert production, fortunately, you don’t have to worry too much about whether the book works. As Freddie Tapner, the conductor and founder of the London Musical Theatre Orchestra, pointed out in his opening remarks, the show’s plot is “bonkers” – a picaresque procession of murder, coincidence, shipwrecks and natural disasters (there’s a volcanic eruption in there somewhere). Far easier to concentrate on the music, which is more or less all wonderful, and there’s an off-the-shelf concert version available which delivers the bulk of the score, tied together with dryly funny narration (originally written by Bernstein and John Wells) delivered by the actor playing Dr. Pangloss. The narration has been spruced up a little – we’re treated, among other things, to an explanation of how the tropes of a picaresque plot apply to The Fate of the Furious – but the music is centre-stage. This is not an Encores!-style semi-staged “concert production” – there’s no choreography, the principals stand at music stands at the front of the stage, the men are in dinner jackets and the ladies wear nice frocks, and the chorus are lined up behind the 34-piece orchestra. There’s minimal amplification, a very simple lighting plot, and the performers are (technically) on book.

CH

The miracle is that in this rather rarefied setting – Cadogan Hall is lovely, but it’s nothing if not genteel – Tapner and his cast do an admirable job of capturing the show’s wide-eyed, bawdy humour – and the musical values are impeccable right across the board. Often, with this material, you get one thing or the other – it’s beautifully played and sung, or it’s funny (if you’re lucky – sometimes it’s neither, as in Kristin Chenoweth‘s cataclysmically unfunny, tasteless assault on the role of Cunegonde in a televised concert staging a few years ago). Here, you get almost none of the dialogue, but you get a conductor and a set of principal performers – and an orchestra and chorus – who know exactly where the humour in this score is located, and find all of it.

James Dreyfus – not the world’s strongest singer, though he’s done a couple of musicals – is a perfect host/narrator/Pangloss, and his just-right, slightly sardonic delivery sets the tone for everyone else. Rob Houchen’s wide-eyed, gloriously-sung Candide is a joy from start to finish, and his It Must Be So – my favourite thing in the score – is very lovely indeed. The concert format rather short-changes the actors playing Maximilian and Paquette – Stewart Clarke and Jessica Duncan – because those characters usually have more to say than to sing, and the dialogue is mostly gone, but their (brief) appearances leave you wanting to hear more from them. Louise Gold is reliably funny as the Old Lady, and Michael Matus wrings more laughs than you’d imagine possible in a concert staging out of his several roles, and brings the house down in ‘Bon Voyage’. And Anna O’Byrne‘s Cunegonde is simply glorious. Glitter and be Gay is a formidably difficult aria, but O’Byrne negotiates the piece’s somewhat satirical melodramatic humour without ever descending into vulgar schtick – take notes, Ms. Chenoweth. She also tosses off the song’s fast-paced coloratura with dazzling ease; it’s a thrilling vocal performance, but it’s also simply enormous fun, and that’s not always the easiest balance to find.

But then, that’s true of everyone involved. This is, on one level, Bernstein’s most serious, difficult musical theatre score, but it’s packed with humour too, and everybody involved here, from Tapner down to the last member of the chorus, is clearly having a wonderful time performing this music. Shaun Kerrison’s unobtrusive direction makes sure everyone hits and maintains the correct tone – again, not the easiest task with this material, as that awful televised New York concert loudly demonstrated – and there’s an underlying sense of sheer joy running through the whole evening. The orchestra sound marvellous and so do the chorus, and I might have had something in my eye during the final verse of ‘Make Our Garden Grow’. There’s no set, no costumes (apart from a stick-on moustache), no staging – but there’s also nothing missing. Candide is a very, very difficult piece, and this one-night-only production might well be as perfect an iteration of it as you could ever expect. It’s something I’ll remember for a long, long time.

CHO

 

America singing

working southwark programme

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

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

working southwark song list

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

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

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

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

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