FIVE REVIEWS FOR THE PRICE OF ONE!!!!!

Yes, five: the UK tour of Lincoln Center’s revival of The King and I in Manchester, Fiddler on the Roof, the last night of the National Theatre revival of Follies, and The Play That Goes Wrong in London, and Sweeney Todd in Liverpool. All seen around the middle of May – but the rest of May and most of June have passed by in a blur, and here we are. So, a quick catch-up – capsule reviews, bullet points, all in one post. Normal service will be resumed as soon as I find a reasonable definition of ‘normal’.

THE KING AND I

* Gorgeous set and costumes.
* Pacing sometimes glacially slow.
* Superb performance from Jose Llana as the King.
* Competent performance from Annalene Beechey as Mrs. Anna. Never bad, but also never interesting.
* Cezerah Bonner’s Lady Thiang is the best thing in the show, and her ‘Something Wonderful’ is thrilling.
* Out of kindness, I won’t name the actors who played Lun Tha and Tuptim. Screech-o-rama.
* At these prices – a bit lower than the West End, but only a bit – and in a theatre this size, it’s taking the piss to have just fourteen musicians in the pit.
* The member of the front-of-house staff who rolled the very noisy shutters on the stalls bar (actually in the auditorium) up and then down again during the overture has no business working in a theatre.
* These days, the show’s colonialist point of view looks – let’s be kind – rather patronising.
* The score is marvellous, but this is, I’m afraid, my least favourite of the big Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, and this revival didn’t change my mind.

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF

* A Menier production, booted into the West End – but this time, they’ve done a reasonable job of taking something tiny and building it up.
* They’ve built the set out into the Playhouse’s proscenium, with a runway through the stalls on which actors enter and exit. It pulls you right into the village, and you do, in the stalls at least, have a sense of the show happening all around you.
* Whoever designed the new layout for the seats in the stalls didn’t bother to take into account the fact that people have knees. Ouch.
* Andy Nyman’s Tevye warm, real, moving. Particularly enjoyed the way the deedle-deedle-dums in If I Were A Rich Man became sighs as he washed himself at the village pump.
* Judy Kuhn is vocally massively over-qualified for the role of Golde; it goes without saying that her singing is flawless, but it’s a wonderfully spare, austere acting performance. She’s remarkable.
* Too bad you missed her, she was replaced by Maria Friedman a couple of weeks ago.
* Decent turns in all the supporting roles, too.
* While it’s beautifully acted and designed, director Trevor Nunn doesn’t manage to tap into the piece’s contemporary relevance in the way that, for example, Gemma Bodinetz did in her (even smaller) revival at the Everyman in Liverpool a couple of years ago.
* Selling Anatevka-themed cocktails in the bar before the show is remarkably crass, even by the standards of the Ambassador Theatre Group.

FOLLIES

* Yes I know I’ve written about this production before. I saw it six times. Deal with it.
* I’ve already said that this year’s return engagement was better in nearly every respect than the production’s first iteration in 2017. This final performance was as thrilling an evening as I’ve ever spent in a theatre.
* Thunderous applause as the ladies walked down the staircase in Beautiful Girls; I tend to find that kind of mid-show ovation easy to resist, but this time you couldn’t help get carried along with it.
* Thunderous applause, too – deservedly – for Claire Moore’s Broadway Baby, Tracie Bennett’s I’m Still Here, and Joanna Riding’s astonishing Losing My Mind.
* My God, Janie Dee. The most dazzling jewel in an evening that provides, as the song has it, ‘dazzling jewels by the score’. And she was clearly thoroughly moved by the audience’s response at the curtain call.
* Good as Felicity Lott was earlier in the run, it was wonderful to see Josephine Barstow’s heartbreaking, intense Heidi one last time, and she and Alison Langer gave a more-or-less definitive One More Kiss.
* This is a production Sondheim fans will be arguing over for years; for me, even though director Dominic Cooke made a few choices I wouldn’t have made myself, it stands as one of the National’s landmark achievements. It’s certainly as good as anything I’ve ever seen there.


THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG

*A masterclass in how to take one joke – JUST one joke – and stretch it over two full acts.
* It’s not a long show, and it needs to lose fifteen minutes.
* At best, it’s very funny indeed. The second act is better than the first.
* I didn’t see the original cast, but I can’t imagine them being any better than the current one.

SWEENEY TODD

* Possibly even more austere than the Everyman’s revival of Fiddler on the Roof a couple of years ago.
* Set in the present, and definitely an austerity-era Sweeney Todd. This is a startlingly angry production, and the piece’s statement about social (in)justice has possibly never been clearer than it is here.
* It’s in the round and in your face; there’s very little set apart from a few chairs, the turntable stage is moved by the cast, and the costumes are straight out of Primark. And it works.
* It’s not – by far – the best-sung Sweeney Todd you’ve ever seen, although Liam Tobin’s Sweeney and Kacey Ainsworth’s hard-as-nails Mrs. Lovett are stronger singers than most of the supporting players.
* Kacey Ainsworth’s Mrs. Lovett is extraordinary – yes, she sacrifices some of the role’s laughs, but it doesn’t matter: she’s utterly terrifying, a backstreet capitalist who will do literally anything to get ahead, and she’s this production’s driving force.
* In such a small production – there’s a cast of just nine – I’ve no issue with there being just four musicians in the band. Tarek Merchant’s arrangements, though, are ham-fisted and not particularly subtle, and there are places – many places – where different choices might have resulted in less of the score’s musical texture being lost.
* And that’s the issue with this production: there’s brilliant work from director Nick Bagnall, from the designers, and from the cast – but it’s a musical, and while I understand the production has limited resources to play with, there’s only so far you can strip back the instrumentation before you start diminishing the piece’s richness. Here, that line is crossed far too frequently, and it needn’t have been, even with just four musicians.

So… there. All caught up. Four musicals, one play, one blog post. As I said, normal service will be resumed… sometime.

Namastaaaaaaaaaaaaaay….

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We’re all familiar by now with preshow announcements about cellphones and smartphones, right? After last Wednesday night’s performance of the National Theatre‘s very, very wonderful adaptation/revival of Tartuffe, I have a new pet hate: smart watches. The lady sitting to my left was wearing one, and while it didn’t make a noise it lit up every time she received a notification – and when I say ‘lit up’, I mean the kind of light you’d use to guide an Airbus onto a runway. It clearly hadn’t occurred to her that the light from her device might be distracting, but then I suppose to her, it’s her world, and everybody else just happens to live in it too. I’m sure these watches are wonderful things – but please, if you’re going to the theatre, take it off, stick it in your pocket, shove it up your arse, leave it at home, or find SOME way of not imposing the light pollution from your snazzy new toy on your fellow audience members. Leave the light show in the auditorium to the lighting designer.

If you’re lucky enough NOT to find yourself sitting next to Ms. Fuck-The-Rest-Of-The-Audience-I’m-Not-Taking-My-Watch-Off, you’ll have a great time – at least, if you manage to get to one of the last two performances, because the last night is on Tuesday. John Donnelly’s script is more a contemporary riff on Molière than a direct translation of him, and it’s none the worse for that – it means the production can hit a slew of topical targets (Brexit, new-age spirituality, political corruption, police violence, and many more) without the references feeling forced. Donnelly’s script is fast, funny, and very clever – I bought a copy on my way out of the theatre, and it reads as well as it plays – and so is Blanche McIntyre’s production. It takes place very firmly in the present, and very firmly in England – Highgate, to be precise, which allows Donnelly to skewer a richly deserving, spectacularly insular/up-itself tranche of affluent North London (and make a splendidly snide but absolutely on-the-nose joke about Archway, which is icing on the cake). There’s a not-very-subtle and richly-deserved swipe at people who made money out of the 2016 referendum by short-selling the pound, Robert Jones’s living-room set has great fun with the ridiculousness of what interior design magazines pass off as expensive good taste, and McIntyre and her cast keep things moving at an impressive clip.

And sorry, but I’m now going to have to take a week off and build some kind of shrine to Olivia Williams. My fault, the only thing I remembered seeing her in before this is Dollhouse, I had no idea she had such extraordinary comic timing. Her Elmire – Orgon’s second wife (I mean, do I really have to give a synopsis of Tartuffe?) – is the funniest thing in a pricelessly funny production, and the funniest comedic performance I’ve seen in a long while. She shoots one-liners like arrows from a bow, throws herself all over the stage during some spectacular physical business, and manages to be many times larger than life without ever sacrificing the character’s essential emotional truth (yes that’s a wanky phrase, deal with it). She gets huge laughs, but she gets them by being believably real, even when she’s doing something utterly ridiculous (watch what happens – oh wait, you can’t unless you go tomorrow or Tuesday – when she forces Orgon into a concealed compartment in a coffee table so that he can eavesdrop on her when she’s “alone” with Tartuffe).

There should probably be some kind of shrine built to everyone else in the production, but Ms. Williams’s performance was the biggest surprise. Denis O’Hare goes for broke in the title role, and it pays off; his pronounced-but-indefinable somewhere-in-Europe accent can make the word ‘namaste’ sound like a devastating put-down, the sequence in which he washes himself (yes, including down there) with ice-cubes out of a champagne bucket is indecently funny, and he somehow manages to make his Tartuffe into a ruthless opportunist and a genuinely plausible guru (he tells Orgon he’s “never pretended to be anything I’m not”, and you believe him). Kevin Doyle’s Orgon is clearly capable of being a ruthless opportunist – it’s implied he made his fortune by using inside information to play the markets against his own government – and he’s clearly (chastely) besotted with Tartuffe to a degree that stops him seeing Tartuffe’s machinations until it’s far too late, but there’s a sweet sadness to him too, and his search for some kind of redemption for business transactions he describes as “treason” is quite touching.

There are sharp comic turns, too, from Kathy Keira Clarke as all-seeing, all-knowing housekeeper Dorine, from Kitty Archer as Orgon’s spoilt-brat-with-a-backbone daughter Mariane, from Enyi Okoronkwo as Mariane’s nice-but-dim brother Damis, and from Geoffrey Lumb as Mariane’s boyfriend Valere, reinvented by Donnelly as a socialist street poet who believes rhyme is an insult to the Revolution. Everyone manages to negotiate a sharp shift in tone in the final scene – there’s a lot more blood visible than you’d usually expect in a production of Tartuffe – and the shift in tone works well; this is essentially a contemporary play based on Molière rather than an English translation of Molière’s words, and Donnelly has a definite point about inequality and injustice in modern Britain, and (in that final scene, after Tartuffe is arrested) about the way this country treats foreigners, but he makes his points without driving them home with a sledgehammer: this is a pitch-perfect production of a funny, funny script, and if I lived closer to London I’d be back tomorrow night to see it again before the end of the run.

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Sympathy for the Devil

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Mad props, or something, to the very intense woman seated three seats down the front row from me at Wednesday afternoon’s performance of Bruce Norris‘s Downstate, a play so relentlessly bleak that it makes Sweat look like something by Feydeau. Ms. Intensity arrived about twelve minutes before the lights went down, spent most of those twelve minutes trying to engage the attention of anyone who would listen with a breathless monologue about how dated the decor was in the living-room set onstage in front of us – “I mean, it’s like something out of the nineties” – and then sat through the first half, occasionally emitting a gasp audible three seats away, and fled as soon as the lights went up for the interval. Lesson learned: nobody goes to a group home for sex offenders for the interior decor.

Todd Rosenthal’s set, like just about everything else in Pam MacKinnon‘s extraordinary production, is studiedly, carefully, absolutely naturalistic. There’s no candy-wrapping, no sugar-coating, no sweetening the pill here: this is a grim play about unpleasant people, and it’s hard work to sit through. It’s also absolutely gripping, though you may leave thinking the playwright has stacked the decks in ways that are rather too cynically manipulative. The play takes place in the communal living-room of a group home for sex offenders somewhere in downstate Illinois (the exact location is never named, but it’s emphatically not Chicago, it’s a city large enough to have major chain stores and a bus service, and it’s located along I-55), and is primarily concerned with two confrontations, both involving residents in the home – the first concerning a meeting between an elderly (and paraplegic) sex offender and one of the children he abused, thirty years after the abuse took place, and the second a probation officer’s interrogation of a resident who has violated the terms of his release.

Norris raises a lot of valid questions about the way society treats offenders whose offences are considered beyond the pale, and he’s written a set of plausible, initially-sympathetic characters, not all of whom deserve our sympathy (the most outwardly unsympathetic characters, on first acquaintance, are grown-up abuse victim Andy’s brittle wife Em and convicted abuser Gio’s work colleague Effie, and they’re the only characters we see who are not an abuser or a victim or a police officer). There’s undoubtedly a worthwhile point to be made about how monsters don’t always look or sound like monsters, and while the technique of letting these characters charm us before confronting us with the full horrors of what they did is obvious, it’s also undeniably effective. The play, as I said, is absolutely gripping.

It is, though, also fair to say that there is something cynically mathematical about the way Norris sets up his debate in the play, as if he’s balancing an equation. It’s a little bit too perfectly symmetrical that Dee, who at first seems like he’s been cast as the play’s moral compass, turns out to be the most vehemently unrepentant about what he did (these are not spoilers, you’ll see most of the second act coming twenty minutes before it happens), or that Andy’s abuser Fred has himself, as a result of publicity surrounding his trial for abusing Andy and other children, been the victim of an act of violence that has left him permanently disabled, or that when Andy tries to make Fred read through the reconciliation contract he’s brought for Fred to sign we’re asked to question whether he remembers a significant detail about Fred’s anatomy. The play’s discussions of recidivism, of the different kinds of victimhood, about how how society treats criminals whose crimes it considers unspeakable, about whether whether forcing registered offenders to adhere to sometimes remarkably petty rules and restrictions serves to protect society from predators, are often provocative and always engaging, and the play may very well lead you to question some of your own assumptions; there are times, though, when it feels like you’re watching the playwright deliver a lecture, rather than characters interacting within a scene, and the climactic event of Act Two is telegraphed so obviously that when it happens it’s no particular surprise.

The performances, direction, and design, on the other hand, are flawless. This is a co-production between the National and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the cast is a mixture of British and American actors, the acting is remarkable, and you can’t see the join. First among equals, perhaps, is Cecilia Noble as wearily pragmatic probation officer Ivy, but every beat, every line, every gesture from every single member of the company is right on target. There’s no false theatricality, no sense of anybody pushing too hard or going over the top, just an absolute commitment to finding the emotional truth in every word and every action. This is as fine an ensemble performance as you could hope to see, and there’s no faulting MacKinnon’s direction either. There aren’t many surprises in this play, in terms of the way the plot (slowly) unfolds, but MacKinnon and her cast orchestrate a carefully rising, squirm-inducing line of tension even though you’ll probably have figured out what the play’s big explosion will be half an hour before it arrives.

This kind of collaboration is precisely the sort of work the National ought to be doing – as opposed to something like Hadestown, in which an American commercial producer got to use the National’s taxpayer-funded facilities to get a price-break on a pre-Broadway tryout, and in which the British performers were all relegated to the chorus – and it’s fascinating to get to watch a production staged according to Steppenwolf’s (very recogniseable) aesthetic four thousand miles from Chicago. Yes, Downstate is hard work, and sometimes makes very uncomfortable viewing, and there are some legitimate holes you can pick in Norris’s script – but it’s unusual and very brave for a piece of theatre to confront the ground this play covers head-on, and the actors are astonishing.

And yes, the furniture and decor in that living-room set is dated and shabby. You can’t win ’em all.

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The Right Girl

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It’s back, and it’s (even) better. The first time around, Dominic Cooke’s revival of Follies at the National Theatre was simultaneously thrilling, breathtaking, and slightly flawed. Cooke put together a text that is far closer to the 1971 original than the more recent, less-corrosive revised edition that formed the basis for the last three major US revivals, and his cast did a generally excellent job of capturing the odd, febrile tone of James Goldman‘s stylised dialogue. On the minus side, Bill Deamer’s choreography for the show’s biggest production number didn’t quite deliver, and while Imelda Staunton delivered a stunning acting performance, her singing voice was not an entirely happy match for her character’s music.

For this return engagement, Mr. Deamer’s choreography has been tweaked, Ms. Staunton’s role is one of several that have been recast, and Mr. Cooke has made a number of mostly small adjustments to his staging. This isn’t simply a by-the-numbers retread of the 2017 production; it’s a thorough overhaul, and the changes are (almost) all improvements. First time around, this was a splendid revival with a lot of caveats. This time, while there are still elements that Sondheim devotees will be arguing over for years, for my money it’s more or less a complete triumph.

The show is what it always was: a masterpiece, part showbiz extravaganza and part Pirandellean identity play, in which the middle-aged guests at a reunion party for former performers in a Ziegfeld Follies-esque Broadway revue are (literally) confronted by the ghosts of their former selves. It’s a strange cocktail of glitter and rage and regret in which the former showgirls, and particularly the two unhappily-married couples at the centre of the plot, become a lens through which we’re asked to examine the ways in which people deal – or don’t – with the gulf between their youthful aspirations and middle-aged reality, and (because that’s not bleak enough already) the whole thing is an extended theatrical metaphor for America’s postwar decline. And on top of all that, Stephen Sondheim‘s extraordinary score may very well turn out to be the crowning achievement of his extraordinary career. It’s a dazzling blend of 1970-contemporary Broadway and spot-on pastiche, and the show’s climactic sequence of musical numbers, which finds the four protagonists trapped inside a metaphorical Ziegfeld Follies production in which they each examine their individual failures via a period-pastiche musical performance, is as brilliant a piece of writing as anything in the American musical theatre canon.

It’s matched, finally, by a revival whose brilliance in this incarnation seems as effortless as it was laboured first time around. Cooke’s first masterstroke – last time too – was to stage the piece to make it clear that the ghosts haven’t arrived at the party – we have entered their space. The show takes place in the rubble of the derelict Weismann Theatre, which is about to be torn down; a ghostly showgirl gives the signal that sets the performance in motion, we see the past before we see the (1971) present, and the ghosts recognise their present-day selves before their present-day selves see them. The ghosts are in James Goldman’s book for the show, of course, but Cooke’s staging always deployed them (even) more than Goldman does, and Cooke deploys them even more here. We’re always aware, even watching minor supporting characters, of the simmering tension between the past and the present, and a (new) tableau in which some of the ghosts watch their present-day selves leaving the party is both moving and visually beautiful.

There’s still a remarkable set of performances in the supporting roles, too. As the aging Viennese soprano Heidi Schiller, Felicity Lott perhaps doesn’t quite have Josephine Barstow’s devastating intensity (Barstow will return to the production later in the run, and played the press night when Lott fell ill), but I doubt One More Kiss has ever been sung more gloriously than it is here, and Alison Langer’s Young Heidi is (still) sublime. Dawn Hope’s ‘Who’s That Woman?’ raises goosebumps, and Deamer has rechoreographed the number so that it’s now the showstopper it should have been first time around. No, it’s not the original Michael Bennett choreography, which was used in the original London production in 1987, and yes, I’d still prefer it if it was, but the version they’re doing now is a huge improvement over Deamer’s first pass at it. Tracie Bennett has found even more colours in her take on I’m Still Here, and – best of all – Claire Moore slams the last sixteen bars of Broadway Baby into the back of the house with the kind of force that could easily level the entire building.

The biggest difference, though, comes in the recasting of two of the four leads – that is, one-half of the two married couples at the centre of the plot (in case you’ve forgotten – and why have you? – Sally Durant and Phyllis Rogers danced together in the final season of the Weismann Follies in 1941, and were roommates. At the end of the season, Sally married Buddy Plummer and Phyllis married Ben Stone – but Sally had had a fling with Ben before he got engaged to Phyllis, and when her own marriage proved less than idyllic she spent the next thirty years pining for him, and has arrived at the reunion in the hope of winning him back). Peter Forbes is still a heartbreaking Buddy, a travelling salesman who loves Sally too much to leave her and knows he’d be happier if he did. Janie Dee’s Phyllis has – seemingly impossibly, because she was perfect the first time – grown in stature; she’s an arresting combination of heart and hauteur, ice and fire, sharp edges and raw nerves. Alexander Hanson replaces Philip Quast, and he doesn’t have Quast’s gravitas. Hanson’s Ben is a shallow charmer who has coasted to success on the back of a combination of bravado and a boyish smile, and knows it. This Ben’s descent into self-loathing is more sudden than it was with Quast in the role, and more shocking; there’s a desperation to Ben’s climactic breakdown that was slightly lacking in this production’s first incarnation, and the chaos sequence that takes us out of Ben’s Follies number and back into the final (spoken) scene works better – much better – with Hanson at the centre of it than it did in 2017. Hanson isn’t quite as wonderful a singer as Quast, but he’s more than good enough, and he’s giving a very fine performance.

The biggest difference, though, is Joanna Riding’s Sally. Imelda Staunton is an extraordinary actor whose singing voice was never quite right for this role. Riding, whose casting, I admit, did not particularly excite me, has all the voice she needs for this music, and she sings the role as beautifully as you’d expect (and – thank God – without taking any of the higher notes in her big duet with Hanson’s Ben down an octave). Her acting choices, though, are fascinating, and quite different from Staunton’s. Staunton offered an unhappy woman slowly descending into insanity. Riding’s Sally is a self-absorbed romantic who operates (far) more through her emotions than her intellect, and who seems to see herself as a character in one of the trashy romance novels she says she reads to pass the time – and when her illusions are abruptly shattered, her (quick) emotional collapse is ugly, and mesmerising to watch. Riding’s rendition of Losing My Mind, Sally’s pastiche number in the show’s climactic Follies sequence, is quite breathtaking, although (following Staunton’s lead), it’s a startlingly angry interpretation, and it’s staged as a scene in a period romantic drama rather than simply as a torch song. Like every song in the Loveland sequence, Losing My Mind was conceived as a song in which the singer performs a metaphorical representation of her folly, rather than as a scene in which the actor acts the character’s emotional disintegration. In the 1987 London production, Julia McKenzie gave us the former, and I think I stopped breathing during the four minutes or so it took for her to sing the song. In 2017, Imelda Staunton gave us the latter, and the first time I saw it it didn’t quite work for me, although I warmed to her choices a little more on subsequent viewings. Riding somehow manages both, although not quite in the manner suggested by the script: she sings it powerfully, easily encompassing the big notes in the final verse (those notes severely tested her predecessor in this production), and begins playing it as a scene in a romantic melodrama, sitting at a dressing-table in a glamorous art deco boudoir. As the song continues, Riding’s Sally appears to struggle to maintain the artifice of the performance, gradually sinking into a combination of fury, grief and despair; she pops pills in the final verse, stands trembling as she holds the final note, and on the last beat of the song she removes her wig – a gesture which seems to leave her pitifully naked (albeit fully-clothed). If you know the show, if you know how previous interpretations of this moment have worked, this staging sounds ham-fisted, overdone, and completely wrong-headed – but in Riding’s hands (and voice), it’s absolutely riveting and somehow absolutely right.

As for the rest – there are fine performances from the new quartet of actors playing the younger incarnations of the four principal characters (Harry Hepple, Ian McIntosh, Christine Tucker, and Gemma Sutton as, respectively, Young Buddy, Young Ben, Young Phyllis, and Young Sally). Vicki Mortimer’s derelict theatre set is still stunning, and one still wishes a little more money could have been thrown at the Loveland sets for the climactic recreation of a Follies show, because those sets really need to be a little more opulent than they are here – although it’s clear the National have pushed the boat out as far as they can on this production, and the costumes are (still) magnificent. For Joanna Riding, Sally’s hair and party dress have been tweaked, and the new design is a significant improvement over the costume Imelda Staunton wore. The band is still conducted by Nigel Lilley, and they’re still wonderful, and Paule Constable’s appropriately crepuscular lighting is still pretty much perfect.

There’s still no intermission, which for this show is as it should be, and Cooke directs his new cast to give, if anything, an even more electrifying account of Goldman’s archly theatrical dialogue than their predecessors did. Once again, Vicki Mortimer’s turntable set moves us seamlessly through the various different levels of the derelict Weismann Theatre, and once again – in fact, even more than last time – it’s obvious everybody involved understands this show’s rather unusual tone and rhythm (imagine a mid-century American Restoration drama with script revisions by Edward Albee and songs drawn from every corner of musical theatre’s golden age). There were always many, many good things in this production – but last time, there was a great deal to argue against as well. This time, Cooke and his creative team have given us as good a revival of Follies as I ever expect to see. It’s an intelligent, precise, thrilling presentation of rich, multi-layered material, possibly as good a musical production as the National has ever done and certainly as good as anything I’ve ever seen there. If you saw it last time, you need to see it again. In almost every way, this incarnation of the production is stronger, smarter, sharper, and deeper than the first. In terms of Sondheim revivals, this is just about as good as it gets.

And yes, that means it’s rather a pity that the first cast, rather than this one, got to preserve their performances via an NT Live presentation and a cast recording. That, I’m afraid, is showbiz.

 

Next stop, Hell

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André de Shields knows the value of silence. At the very beginning of Hadestown, the Anaïs Mitchell folk opera currently playing a pre-Broadway tryout at the National Theatre, he steps forward and teases the audience by waiting to speak until the expectant hush in the Olivier’s auditorium borders on deafening. It’s a masterful beginning to a masterful performance, and Mr. de Shields is one of the great highlights in a show that is never less than entertaining.

Hadestown, which began life as a 2010 concept album by Ms. Mitchell and arrives in London following productions at New York Theatre Workshop in 2016 and the Citadel in Edmonton, Alberta in 2017, is essentially a blue-collar rough-theatre retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. The action begins and ends in a down-home bar somewhere in the American South – probably New Orleans – in what might be the present, or might be a post-apocalyptic hellscape, and Hell, when we (eventually) get there, has what might best be described as a post-industrial expressionist aesthetic (think along the lines of Metropolis or The Adding Machine). The story is told almost entirely in song – thank God, because the few bits of linking narration, some of which involve actors speaking in (barely-)rhyming couplets, are cringe-inducingly dire. The songs, however, are terrific. Ms. Mitchell’s music is an appealing gumbo of folk, jazz, blues and pop, there’s a superb band, and there are thrilling performances from Mr. de Shields, from Patrick Page as an über-capitalist/industrialist Hades, from Amber Gray as a Persephone who really knows how to have a good time in the months she’s allowed out of Hadestown, and from Carly Mercedes Dyer, Rosie Fletcher, and Gloria Onitiri as the three slinkily fabulous Fates whose commentary punctuates the action.

The storytelling, on the other hand, is less successful, although it’s clearer in the second act than the first. Hadestown presents us with a simplified version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, but it still takes far too much of the first half for the plot to swing into gear, and you won’t find a great deal of nuance in the portrayal of Orpheus or Eurydice. That’s partly due to the writing, which unfortunately gives the two central characters the show’s most blandly generic songs, and partly down to the two blandly generic performers cast in those roles. As Orpheus, we have Reeve Carney; he’s good-looking, he has a nice voice, he plays the guitar nicely, and he can’t act at all. Eva Noblezada’s Eurydice is a little more compelling: she’s also good-looking, she has an absolutely stunning voice, and she can act a bit more than Mr. Carney, by which I mean she’s capable of mustering more than one-and-a-half facial expressions. We’re supposed to believe that theirs is one of the great tragic love stories, so it would be nice if they had some chemistry together. Or any chemistry together. Or any stage presence. They sound fantastic, but this is theatre, not a recording studio.

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And that, I’m afraid, sums up the problem with Hadestown: despite inventive direction by Rachel Chavkin (this made me really look forward to seeing her production of The American Clock later this year), a terrific barroom/bandstand set by Rachel Hauck, impeccable lighting by Bradley King, and muscular choreography from David Neumann, Hadestown is ultimately a thrilling musical experience – thrilling enough, certainly, to be worth an evening of your time – rather than a moving piece of theatre. The problem is exemplified by the way the show deploys the ensemble of “workers” – they function as a chorus, sing as a chorus, and are given basically no opportunities to show any individuality. That’s a definite choice, and potentially a strong choice, but it’s a choice that needs to be justified, and the show never does, which means that too often they just seem like backing singers/dancers (also – directors, you DO NOT cast the amazing Seyi Omooba in a show without giving her at least one opportunity to let rip with that incredible voice, even if it’s just for four bars). Everything looks great, sounds great, moves beautifully, but Ms. Mitchell’s lyrics, while often appealingly colloquial, don’t carry the weight of the narrative, and neither do the two performers in the central roles. My God, though, the thrilling moments are thrilling, whether it’s André de Shields showing us a masterclass in how to hold the audience in the palm of your hand in the opening number Road to Hell, or Patrick Page’s Hades leading the chorus in the borderline-fascistic Cheetolini-eque Why We Build The Wall at the close of the first act, or Amber Gray swinging her way through Our Lady of the Underground. There are more than enough thrilling moments for Hadestown to be absolutely worth the cost of a ticket (or the cost of a recording – the cast album, which was made after the NYTW production, is pretty wonderful, and features Patrick Page and Amber Gray), but they’re all – all – about the music rather than the story. Hadestown is often wonderful, but it’s a wonderful concert (albeit a concert presented with a great deal of theatrical flair) as opposed to a wonderful musical.

Then there’s the question of what it’s doing at the National in the first place (answer: filling a gap – a couple of years ago the National announced they were developing a musical version of The Witches to play during the 2018 Christmas season, but nothing has been heard of it beyond the initial announcement; presumably it’s either not ready or has fallen through, leaving the National with a Christmas slot to fill in their largest auditorium, which just happens to a have a similar configuration to the Citadel in Edmonton, where Hadestown played last year) . If the National had commissioned Anaïs Mitchell and Rachel Chavkin to create a new piece for them, I’d have no argument with it – they’re interesting artists and there’s certainly room for them in the National’s programming.  If the show had been developed by the National in collaboration with NYTW and/or the Citadel (or Canadian Stage, or the American Repertory Theater, or A.C.T., or wherever), again, there’d be no problem; I’d love to see the National engage in more cross-border collaborations, and I have a ticket for Downstate, developed with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, later this year. This, though, is not that kind of collaborative enterprise. This is a show developed by a nonprofit theatre in New York and subsequently produced in a nonprofit theatre in Canada that has been picked up by commercial producers for presentation on Broadway.

It’s great for the show and for Ms. Mitchell that a team of producers think it deserves a commercial run, and there’s nothing about the show in itself that should make it fall outside the National’s remit – except that this appears to be a case of a commercial management using the National’s resources, which are supported by significant public funding paid for out of the tax base, to get their pre-Broadway tryout run at a bargain rate. This isn’t a National Theatre production that’s going to Broadway, it’s a Broadway musical playing a preview run at the National, presumably because to do so is cheaper than a commercial tryout in Boston or Chicago or Seattle or wherever. There isn’t even any mention of the National on the front page of the Broadway production’s website:

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The casting, also, is problematic. All five principals – including the two who don’t make a full personality between them – are imported from the US under the Equity exchange scheme. No problem with that, it was a genuine pleasure to see Mr. de Shields, Mr. Page, and Ms. Gray (and as for Mr. Carney and Ms. Noblezada… it was a genuine pleasure to see Mr. de Shields, Mr. Page, and Ms. Gray), and the traffic runs in both directions. Or the traffic SHOULD run in both directions. We have five American leads who are going to Broadway with the show, and an ensemble of UK-based performers who it’s safe to assume are not (if the same cast was going to be playing London and Broadway, it would have been announced by now). In this show, as I said, the ensemble performers are kept firmly behind the five leads, which is a defendable choice – but in the National Theatre, it leaves a slightly sour taste to see a show in which all the leads are imported from overseas and all the homegrown performers are employed in ensemble roles or as understudies. To say the least, this does not suggest the Broadway production’s producers view working at the National as a collaboration between equals.

It’s not – as I said – that there is any problem with the National bringing in performers from overseas – Bryan Cranston’s performance in Network was quite extraordinary, and I’m looking forward very much to seeing Denis O’Hare in Tartuffe in April. Both of those productions, though, place(d) UK-based performers alongside the star in leading roles, rather than relegating homegrown talent to the chorus, whereas the nature of the casting of Hadestown carries with it a fart-like whiff of exploitation of the local talent pool by Broadway producers looking to save a few bucks (Equity pay rates for actors are way lower in London than on Broadway or the US touring circuit). It is to be hoped that the financial arrangements underpinning this production benefit the National as much as the American co-producers; the programme note from those co-producers thanking the National for supporting the creative team’s vision, as opposed to for collaborating in the show’s development, raises some questions. And that’s being kind.

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As for the show itself, it’s an exciting, distinctive event, and – as I said – a thrilling musical experience. It’s worth experiencing this score live, there’s a superb band, the singing is wonderful, and André de Shields, Patrick Page, and Amber Gray are more than worth the trip. If you’re looking for the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, on the other hand, go ahead and book a ticket – you’ll get a kick out of seeing the way Ms. Mitchell’s songs riff on top of it – but maybe pick up book ten of Ovid’s Metamorphoses on the way to the theatre and read it on the train home.

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Money changes everything

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It’s probably as well to say this upfront: Stefano Massini‘s The Lehman Trilogy, at least as adapted into English by Ben Power, is basically an extended theatrical stunt. Three (superlative) actors play the three brothers who founded Lehman Brothers in 1850 – and they play everybody else as well, switching characters, genders, ages at lightning speed as they tell the story of the bank’s rise and fall. I suppose having the three actors who played the three original Lehman Brothers play every role is probably meant to make some kind of point about the dynamics within a business dynasty, but that point begins to break down in the final act, because by the time of the bank’s demise in 2008 it had been almost forty years since a family member sat on the board.

If you don’t dwell too much on why Ben Power chose this rather eccentric form of storytelling for his adaptation of Stefano Massini’s original script, which allows for a significantly larger cast, you’ll be rewarded with a dazzling three hours of theatrical storytelling. Under Sam Mendes‘s meticulously precise direction, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, and Adam Godley are on top form as they embody (and switch between) a dizzying array of characters; as they navigate Es Devlin’s revolving monochrome glass-and-steel office set, we see the story of American capitalism reflected in the story of this one bank, and the fact that this story, and the ramifications of it, comes across so clearly as delivered by three middle-aged men dressed in 19th Century frock coats is a spectacular theatrical achievement. Yes, you’re essentially watching a (very long) history lesson, but in the hands of Mendes and these actors it’s also great fun, and sometimes very funny (Simon Russell Beale is pricelessly funny in one scene as a procession of potential fiancées). This subject-matter could easily produce an incredibly dry play, and it’s to everyone’s credit that The Lehman Trilogy is anything but.

If you’re looking for a thorough examination of the bank’s collapse, though, this is not it. Yes, we see the seeds for the bank’s collapse being sown long before it happens, and we’re shown the crash and the effects of it – the final tableau, indeed, directly shows the effects of the crash on the bank’s employees, and is the most moving thing in the production – but you won’t get a detailed lecture about the complexities of the subprime mortgage crisis (if you’d like one – and really, what could be more fun? – then The Big Short is on Netflix). Power’s adaptation of Massini’s original (and significantly longer) Italian script glosses over a number of significant points in the history of Lehman Brothers as an institution, including the bank’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, which isn’t mentioned at all – an odd choice given that a significant chunk of the first (of three) acts is given over to the American Civil War.

And – after Hamilton and The Inheritance this seems to be a recurring theme this year – if third-person narration in the theatre irritates you, this show will irritate the hell out of you. Mendes and his cast tell their story brilliantly – but they tell more of the story than they dramatise, because that’s the inevitable result of cramming over 160 years of history into three acts and three actors. The flow of information is such that you can’t sit back and let it wash over you – this is a show where you have to pay attention (yes, I know, that’s soooooooo last-century). It’s a testament to the skill of Mendes and his cast that it’s always absolutely clear who each actor is embodying even though switching characters is accomplished without costume changes, but if you let your mind wander for even a second it would be easy to get lost. This is in many ways a tremendously exciting piece of theatre, but it’s hard work, particularly when you’re sitting in the thigh-busting lower-back-breaking cheap seats at the front.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go, although at this point it’s day seats only. The Lehman Trilogy is often stunningly good, the actors are truly brilliant, and Es Devlin and Luke Halls’s set and video projections provide a far more varied visual palette than you’d imagine possible from what amounts to a single glass-and-steel Mad Men-era office and a monochrome backdrop (you may need Dramamine in the lengthy sequence in the final act in which the office structure and the projections appear to be revolving in opposite directions). Candida Caldicot’s solo piano accompaniment (there are also prerecorded music cues; the music is by Nick Powell) often gives the show the feel of a silent movie, and that’s certainly one of the major influences in the production’s visual aesthetic. It’s a spectacular, overwhelming, thrilling piece of theatre – but, as I said, in this version it’s basically a stunt. You’ll be bowled over, but you’ll also be picking holes in it for days afterwards. Like last year’s Network in the same space, this is very definitely a show to experience. The production, overall, is far more fascinating than (this version of) the script.

Oh yes – and Simon Russell Beale’s brief-ish turn as the cynical, sharp-tongued Manhattan divorcée who marries a prominent Lehman descendant is worth the cost of the ticket in itself. In an evening of brilliant caricature acting, he’s first among equals.

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Got wood?

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Set design? Check.
Enormous puppets? Check.
Special effects? Check.
Whale? Check.
Script?

[crickets]

Oh. Oops. Never mind.

There’s a lot to unpack about the National Theatre‘s new adaptation of Pinocchio, whose poster chooses to inform us that it uses songs from the Walt Disney film while neglecting to mention either Carlo Collodi, who wrote the original Italian novel that every iteration of this story is based on, or any of the authors of the Disney screenplay (there are articles on both buried inside the programme, but that still falls short of giving credit where credit is due). Clearly someone hoped this would be another War Horse or The Lion King, and – with work – it could be. As it stands, despite a few rave reviews (and some less enthusiastic ones, and some very, very negative word-of-mouth during previews), it probably isn’t going anywhere without some kind of overhaul.

Bluntly, the show is suffering from an identity crisis. There’s a beautiful, if sometimes sparse, scenic design by Bob Crowley, who is also responsible for the tremendously detailed costumes. The songs from the film, and additional music sourced from material created during the film’s production process, sound terrific in Martin Lowe’s new arrangements and orchestrations, and there’s an excellent 15-piece band in the pit. Crowley and puppet co-designer Tony Olié have designed fabulous larger-than-life puppets to represent the story’s adult figures and Jiminy Cricket (Pinocchio himself is played by an adult actor, as are all the children in the story), enabling a spectacular perspective shift in the final scene. Jamie Harrison’s illusions are sometimes eye-popping and always impressive. Everybody involved – including Dennis Kelly, who wrote what passes for the script – does a good job of telling the story simply and clearly. John Tiffany’s staging almost always looks good, and the last few minutes of the show are genuinely wonderful.

A lot of water has to flow under the bridge before you get to those last few minutes though, and the production is holed below the waterline by the simple fact that nobody involved seems to be sure of exactly what kind of show they’re doing. The National Theatre’s publicity materials advertise it as being “for brave 8-year-olds and above”; OK, but there were audible signs that a good number of the children sitting behind me (I was in the cheap seats in the front row) were becoming restless over the show’s two hours of stage time. It’s not unreasonable to expect children that young, or even younger, to pay attention over that length of time, particularly since there’s an interval – each act runs around an hour – but you have to meet them halfway. Despite the grindingly over-enunciated Play School delivery adopted by most of the cast – a tone which frankly is a little on the young side for a show intended for children older than 8 – that’s exactly what the show doesn’t do. A prologue in which the Fox – in this version, he’s never referred to as J. Worthington Foulfellow – cuts down the enchanted tree whose wood Gepetto uses to make Pinocchio’s head and body is simply too long; it’s lovely to look at, but by the time we’ve seen the Blue Fairy magically appear, obtain the wood, and commision Gepetto to make a puppet out of it, getting on for a quarter of the first act has passed before the plot enters familiar territory. That’s OK in a show for adults, but a tough sell in one aimed at children.

If the show opened with a musical number it might get away with it, but the creative team, bizarrely, appear to have spent the entire production process sitting on the fence about whether they were making an actual musical or just a play with a few songs thrown in. Where songs are used, they are sometimes – sometimes – very effective, but then the show keeps undercutting itself in the transitions between song and dialogue. Choreographer Steven Hoggett makes I’ve Got No Strings into a terrific production number towards the end of the first act, but it doesn’t end on a button, which means there’s no opportunity for the audience to applaud. That’s more important than it sounds, because there’s a reason (most) musicals allow the audience to applaud after each number: the applause releases tension and functions almost as a reset button, and without that tiny pause the transition from song back into speech is often more difficult for the audience to negotiate. That’s unfortunately the case here: in the following scene, you can feel the audience’s attention start to wander, and this pattern is repeated all the way through the show.

Act Two’s lengthy Pleasure Island sequence is also problematic, and is the physical production’s one great misstep. For no discernible reason, Bob Crowley’s designs for Pleasure Island jump from storybook Victoriana to a mid-Twentieth-Century aesthetic that is straight out of a two-and-six Ladybird Book. Lampwick, the young tearaway Pinocchio befriends in Pleasure Island, is rechristened ‘Lampy’, played by a woman, and endowed with a pudding-basin haircut and a slathered-on-with-a-trowel Glaswegian accent so reminiscent of Wee Jimmy Krankie that it can’t be a coincidence. Leaving aside the sheer laziness of London-based theatre practitioners using a working-class regional accent to define a character whose main attribute is bad behaviour, the sequence is jarringly out of kilter with everything else in the show, and it doesn’t really work on any level.

The show is best, actually, when it stays close to the heart of the story: Gepetto’s yearning for a son, and Pinocchio’s longing to become a “real boy”. Mark Hadfield is quite moving as Gepetto, and the conceit of the presenting the character via a three-times-larger-than-life puppet until the final scene works very well. Joe Idris-Roberts – a human playing a puppet – captures Pinocchio’s pysicality very well indeed and doesn’t shy away from the character’s essential obnoxiousness in the first half. Audrey Brisson’s just-irritating-enough Jiminy Cricket is a convincing conscience for Pinocchio, although if you grew up watching children’s television in the 1970s she might put you in mind of a bossier, germ-phobic Carol Leader on a cocaine bender. Their scenes generally work rather well, as does anything involving Annette McLaughlin’s mesmerising, gorgeously-sung Blue Fairy (McLaughlin is also the only member of the cast NOT to fall victim to what I suppose we might call CBeebies Syndrome when delivering her lines). The trip inside the stomach of Monstro the whale is brilliantly spooky, and the final few minutes, when Gepetto finds his son, Pinocchio finds his humanity, and order is restored, are glorious, as is McLaughlin’s closing rendition of When You Wish Upon A Star, the Disney film’s biggest take-away tune. At that point, finally, this Pinocchio feels like a show that works.

It takes far too long to get there, though, and that’s a pity, because there’s a wonderful show buried in here somewhere. The effects are marvellous – the Blue Fairy appears as a tiny blue flame floating high above the stage, then appears to step out of thin air in Gepetoo’s workshop. The Fox throws a knife at Pinocchio and it hits him – and sticks – right in the middle of his chest. Pinocchio burns a finger and the Blue Fairy makes the burn disappear with a single touch. That final sequence in which Pinocchio is transformed into a real boy is absolutely magical. For an adult, a lot of the rest of the show is entertaining enough (we’ll draw a polite veil over the entire Pleasure Island sequence). For children, even of the suggested age range, Kelly’s script and Tiffany’s production are simultaneously a bit too self-consciously arty and arch, and a little bit condescending. If this is a show for children older than 8, the actors don’t need to speak as if they’re addressing a kindergarten. It sometimes seems as if nobody on the creative team has ever met an actual human child.

It’s probably not, then, the greatest choice for an Easter holiday treat for kids. For adults, particularly if you’ve any nostalgia for the Disney film, it’s worth the cost of a day seat and a couple of hours of your time. Some of it is wonderful – but all of it could have been, and the good stuff here is more than worth another look. Maybe if you wish upon a star, Kelly and Tiffany will take another pass at the script, kick up the pace in the first act, work with Martin Lowe to turn the piece into a proper musical, and make a definitive decision about whether they’re pitching the show to nostalgic adults or very young children. You never know; as the song says, dreams can come true.