Revolting Children

matilda palace manchester

They aren’t, of course, whatever the song says. The kids in this touring production of the RSC’s musical adaptation of Roald Dahl‘s Matilda are all perfectly delightful. I’d tell you their names but I left my programme on the tram, so that’s £4.00 I’ll never get back. They’re listed on the website, of course, but there are multiple kids cast for each of the leading roles and the website doesn’t include photos next to their bios. There are currently six kids listed as playing Matilda; the one I saw at the matinee on November 21st (I’ve been busy, deal with it) was great (so were the kids in all the other roles), but I don’t know what she’s called. That’s showbiz, kid.

The show itself is what it is, and this touring iteration of the original Stratford/London production isn’t going to change anybody’s mind. I love it, but there seems, here and there, to be a perception that it’s a show for small children, and it really isn’t. It’s a grown-up musical in which the leading role is played by a child. Miss Trunchbull, in particular, is genuinely scary, and Tim Minchin’s score makes very few concessions to the younger members of the audience. The words come thick and fast, and the moments where Minchin goes for the deeper emotional undercurrents behind the story – as in the glorious When I Grow Up, which has always been the best thing in the show – are likely to go over the heads of the youngest members of the audience, despite the bravura staging.

Matthew Warchus’s production is (still) magnificently inventive, there are lovely performances in all the adult roles – particularly Carly Thoms as an especially sweet Miss Honey and Craige Els as the evil Miss Trunchbull – and it’s nice to see a touring production that isn’t in any way cut down for the provinces, even if tickets are priced at the far edge of what provincial markets will bear (during the Manchester run some prices for midweek performances dropped significantly, and the theatre still wasn’t anywhere near full at the performance I saw). As touring productions go, this is up there with the best – but I can’t help but wince when ticket prices in Manchester are pushing £80 for premium seats, particularly in the context of an economy in which vast swathes of the workforce haven’t seen a meaningful pay increase in a decade. These prices push decent seats beyond the reach of a lot of people; ticket prices, over the last several years, have risen way faster than inflation, and costs, even in the theatre, have not shot up at the same rate. It’s show business, yes, but the number of empty seats suggests that these producers need a different business plan.

The heat is off in Saigon

miss saigon palace manchester

I’m old. I saw the original London production of Miss Saigon way, way back in 1989 – September 23rd, 1989, in fact – on the first Saturday matinee after it opened. Yes, I saw Jonathan Pryce, and yes, I saw (and slightly winced at) the eye makeup (not to mention at the yellowface elsewhere in the cast, because Pryce wasn’t the only white actor cast as a Vietnamese character) – and yes, I loved it. Even at not-quite-seventeen I could pick all kinds of holes in it, but it blew me away. I loved the music, I loved Nicholas Hytner‘s production, and Lea Salonga gave what is still just about as good a performance as I’ve ever seen.

From there to here is quite a distance, and in more ways than one. I’m older, the show is older, I haven’t seen it “live” since a return visit a few years into the original London run, and the world in general – most of it, anyway – is at least a little bit more woke when it comes to issues of postcolonialism and representation and all the rest of it than it was three decades ago. It still offers a rather uneasy Western view of south-east Asia – far more uneasy, in some ways, than something like The King and I, which is so far removed from reality that it’s probably best taken as a fairytale – and while the show’s point of view is undoubtedly that America’s involvement in Vietnam was disastrous and damaging for everybody involved, the show’s writers begin to develop a thesis about how American complacency contributed to an ongoing tragedy after the war was over and they don’t take it nearly far enough, particularly in the last third of the second act when the melodrama at the centre of the plot kicks into gear.

That plot, though, is the same as it always was: a smarter-than-it-looks rehash of Madam Butterfly in which an American GI meets and very quickly falls for a Vietnamese bar girl in the last days before the fall of Saigon; he fails to get her out with him when he’s forced to evacuate, and when, years later, he finds out she’s survived and has a child, he and his new American wife offer to support the child but refuse to give him a home in America, with tragic consequences. Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr., the show’s original librettists, find more light and shade than you’d expect within this scenario (this production credits “additional lyrics”, none of which are an improvement over the originals, to Michael Mahler), although they possibly still don’t find quite enough, and while some of Claude-Michel Schönberg‘s music is bombastic and thuddingly banal, some of it is very lovely indeed. It’s always been to the show’s great credit that despite some gratuitously Hallmark-card lyrics, the Vietnamese heroine, Kim, is portrayed as a woman of immense strength and courage rather than as a lovelorn sap. It’s equally to the show’s credit that Chris, the Pinkerton figure, isn’t simply a colonial shit or a stereotypical Ugly American, and that Ellen, his American wife, is never portrayed as a villain either – Chris suffers as a result of leaving Kim in Vietnam, and Ellen is perfectly willing to help support a child she didn’t know about. That their support – or rather, their western complacency – imposes boundaries may be the engine that drives the melodrama towards the climax of the second act, but the writing isn’t as one-dimensional as it could have been. There are shades of grey here, and an understanding that well-meaning people sometimes do not behave well when confronted with complex moral decisions. In this kind of steamroller of a blockbuster musical, those shades of grey are relatively rare.

Those shades of grey, though, don’t entirely survive intact in the production currently playing in Manchester, which is the touring iteration of the revival that was recently seen in the West End and on Broadway (and on DVD). As directed – mostly in the sense of directing traffic – by Laurence Connor, this is a very efficient reading of the show: the big moments are all present and correct, including the (admittedly still dazzling) helicopter effect in the Fall of Saigon scene, and the actors all emote the hell out of their big numbers, and there is absolutely no depth or complexity in almost all of the performances. It’s loud and crass and sometimes even slightly distasteful in a way the original production never was (yes, even despite the original production’s yellowface): Nicholas Hytner’s original production, even years into the run with the umpteenth replacement cast, told a story about the tragic aftermath of the Vietnam war, whereas this production, despite being smaller in scale and budget, takes the tragic aftermath of the Vietnam war and makes a spectacle out of it. There’s a giant statue of Ho Chi Minh, a Saigon bar, various interiors, a dragon dance, twirling ribbons, projected film of orphaned American-Vietnamese children, a Cadillac, a shiny chrome representation of the head of the Statue of Liberty, and a more-or-less life-size (model) helicopter that lands on the stage – but there’s no emotional content at all, just a careful facsimile of it. It’s not that any of the performances are bad, exactly – indeed, this production is, by and large, very, very well-sung. It’s that every last scrap of subtlety appears to have been ironed out of a piece that, while more subtle than it could have been, was never that subtle to begin with. How unsubtle is it? There’s more than one instance in which a character stands/kneels centre stage, face contorted in a careful imitation of anguish, and screams “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!”. That did not happen – and I mean did not happen, not once – in the original production.

As for individual performances, they’re mostly, well… accurate. Everybody hits their notes and their marks, and nearly everybody seems completely devoid of inner life. There are two honourable exceptions: Vinny Coyle’s Chris, who sings the role very well indeed and works strenuously to put back some of the shades of subtlety that have largely been bleached – and I chose that word very carefully – out of this production, and Red Concepción as the Engineer, the Pandarus-like pimp whose bar/whorehouse is the venue for Kim and Chris’s first meeting, and whose machinations get Kim and her child out of Vietnam at the end of the first act. Concepción’s Engineer is gleefully, bracingly nasty, sung with show-stopping fervour, and somehow believably real in a way that eludes nearly everyone else.  Coyle, incidentally, is an understudy, though you’d never have guessed, and his appearance in the role was not announced in the theatre before the performance, which is inexcusable. As Kim, Sooha Kim has a lovely voice, but doesn’t manage to transcend the production’s essential hollowness. And it’s a tiny role, but Acielle Santos’s Gigi – the prostitute who sings The Movie in my Mind, which used to be my favourite song in the score before it was disembowelled by this production’s lyric rewrites – exemplifies the problem with most of the performances here: she has a great voice, and she sings the song very well indeed, but the emotions are all on the surface. She sobs through it, ends the number in tears, and the moment is far more powerful (as, in the theatre, many moments are more powerful) if the performer doesn’t emote the song to death. In the original cast – you can even hear this on the original London cast recording – Isay Alvarez brought a devastating, absolutely haunting dignity to the song; it was very moving indeed, but it was moving because it was performed with restraint. In this production, the actress weeps all the way through the song’s climax – and because she weeps, we don’t.

Elsewhere, Connor repeats Hytner’s one big misstep, and shows a slide-show of real Vietnamese orphans during the act two opener, a (terrible) song called Bui-doi, which is basically a (God help us) raise-the-roof showstopper about mixed-race orphans trapped in a society where they’re largely shunned. In Hytner’s production this was crass, but there was at least a genuine emotional impulse behind the song (and Peter Polycarpou gave a very, very good performance indeed as the ex-solder who sings it); here there isn’t, which means the plight of these poor children merely becomes set-dressing in an expensive western theatrical spectacle, and it’s spectacularly tasteless.

The show itself, though, is solid enough – even given that the writing is far from unimpeachable – that it works on some level even in less than ideal circumstances. In many ways, this touring production is impressive: as I said, it’s sung very well indeed. The orchestrations are reduced, but reduced carefully; fifteen musicians are never going to sound like the original production’s twenty-four, and the lack of a larger string section contributes significantly to the near-complete absence in this production of the fine emotional shading that made the original so powerful. The band never sounds bad, but they never sound as good either; this is a show that really needs a big, lush sound, so it’s inevitably diminished by the smaller orchestra. The special effects are terrific, particularly in a touring production – the helicopter effect is superb (technology can do things now that just were not possible in 1989) – but when this story, the most nakedly human and intimate of all the big 1980s megamusicals, becomes a show dominated by special effects, it’s a problem. The effects were immense in 1989 too, but you walked out of the theatre remembering Lea Salonga and Simon Bowman, not the helicopter and the Ho Chi Minh statue. Now, because the performances are mostly painted with such a broad emotional brush, you barely remember the people at all, and the result is a show that’s impressive to look at but emotionally empty. Everybody works hard, but this Miss Saigon, in the end, is the equivalent of watching a hurriedly-made Saturday morning cartoon version of something that was originally written for grown-ups.

Ready for her close-up

sb ria jones

She’s ba-ack!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Call it hell, call it heaven…

G D M P

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

First, heaven.

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

Aaaaand… the Hell.

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

wonder?land

wonderdotland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound and fury, signifying…

Or, a list of things I learned at last Friday’s matinee performance of American Idiot at the Palace Theatre in Manchester:

1.  The show is loud.

2.  I mean, really really loud. I like rock musicals, and rock musicals should be loud, but this one is LOUD.

3.  Although not loud enough to drown out the two women sitting behind me who talked all the way through, but it would probably have taken an apocalypse to shut them up.

4.  This is exciting music, more varied than you expect, and it works well in a theatre…

5.  …particularly when paired with Stephen Hoggett’s restless, jagged choreography, which is the best I’ve seen in a musical in years.

6.  And that’s a good thing, because Billie Joe Armstrong’s lyrics for the show are mostly shallow, whiny, tedious crap sung by barely-two-dimensional characters, and they do not, in this presentation, add up to anything resembling a play.

7.  The bad lyrics are better than the brief dialogue sections written by Mr. Armstrong and Michael Mayer, the production’s director. Neither Mr. Armstrong nor Mr. Mayer should quit their day jobs.

8.  Michael Mayer’s staging, on the other hand, is so stunningly good that it almost made me forgive him for the horror that was Thoroughly Mechanical Millie. But only almost.

9.  Almost equal credit for this should go to Christine Jones, Andrea Lauer, Kevin Adams, and Darrel Maloney – respectively, the set, costume, lighting and video/projection designers. They’ve created a deceptively simple, sharply witty physical production that provides, particularly in its very clever use of video, a great deal of the bite that’s lacking from Armstrong’s generically disaffected lyrics. This show is a visual knockout in ways you won’t expect.

10. The onstage band is terrific, and so are Tom Kitt’s orchestrations and vocal arrangements. 21 Guns, in particular, is quite stunning.

11. The entirely American cast are entirely superb – sang, danced, acted magnificently well, and their energy was astonishing. They’re young, they’re great, they’re worth the cost of a ticket in themselves, even though you’ve probably never heard of any of them, and they all deserve every success.

12. The finale, in which the entire cast line up across the stage, playing acoustic guitars, to sing Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life), is ridiculously charming, and the show’s musical highlight.

13. These UK tour dates add an intermission to the show (which was a one-act on Broadway), basically to let the punters go to the bar, which should tell you everything you need to know about how committed Work Light Productions and the Ambassador Theatre Group are to maintaining the integrity of the shows they present. Shoehorning in an intermission did not help the show, which would have played better as a 95-minute one-act.

14. Two of the three plot strands don’t really work very well – the drugs plotline has been seen before in about a thousand movies-of-the-week on the True Movies channel, and the idea of an addict having a glamorous alter ego who tempts him to get high is neither particularly original nor particularly interesting, despite an absolutely compelling performance from Trent Saunders as the alter ego in question. Yes, we get it. Doing smack a lot really fucks you up. That’s pretty much all the show has to say on the subject, and it’s not enough.

15. The army subplot is far better executed, thanks at least partly to stunning video projections and choreography. The Extraordinary Girl/Before the Lobotomy sequence, in particular, is jaw-dropping – with no thanks to the lyrics, which (again) are thuddingly bathetic.

16. When it was revealed that the young soldier had had his leg amputated below the knee, one of the mouthy women sitting behind me burst out laughing. Laughing at that particular moment, obviously, more or less has to make her stupid on a level that calls Darwin into question, but the fact that she had that particular response at that particular point in the show suggests that the production had not quite succeeded in providing an emotionally gripping narrative to go with the loud music and thrilling visuals.

17. And that’s an understatement. Mayer et al present the show’s three plot strands with exceptional clarity, but the terrible lyrics and (occasional) terrible dialogue mean that we very rarely feel much emotional engagement with the characters onstage. The show is often exciting, but it’s also never moving.

18. It’s very sweary, too, and not particularly suitable for younger children – something which hadn’t quite filtered through to some parents in the audience, who’d brought children considerably younger than ten to see a show that contains all manner of sex, drug use and violence, both stylised and not. I don’t have a problem with any of this content – but I’m forty, and I would not take a nine-year-old to see this.

19. The flying sequences are superb.

20. In the end, it’s probably best to approach the show as a kind of balletic collage set to the music of Green Day, rather than a rock musical. The show’s visual presentation is frequently extraordinary, and the video projections and choreography, in particular, have a grim wit that’s almost entirely lacking in the lyrics. In some ways, American Idiot is an absolute triumph, but the text, in places, is very, very underpowered indeed, despite some excellent music. You’ll get a dazzling show – more or less literally in a couple of places, depending on where you’re sitting – and it’s certainly well worth seeing, but you won’t get much in the way of emotional engagement. There’s a reason it only lasted a little over a year on Broadway while a number of other rock musicals with lesser music (leaving the lyrics entirely out of the equation) have run longer: thrilling visuals and choreography aren’t enough to make up for trite lyrics and a clichéd plot, even with a winning cast. This is as strong a physical production of a musical as I’ve ever seen – but unfortunately, along the way, Mr. Mayer and Mr. Armstrong forgot to write a show to go with it.

Unenchanted evening

Or rather, afternoon, although Thursday evening was in some ways similarly unenchanting. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Today, I’m afraid, was just one of those days. I had a ticket this afternoon to the UK tour of South Pacific at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. I love the show, it’s a terrific production, I was looking forward to it. I left home just before 12.30pm to catch a bus into the city – or rather, to catch a bus to somewhere where I could catch a bus into the city – and arrived at the stop a few minutes before the bus (supposed to run every thirty minutes) was due. And I waited… and waited, and waited, and waited, until 1.15pm, thirteen minutes after the following bus was supposed to have come and gone, at which point I realised that even if a bus turned up at that very moment, there was basically no way the bus was going to get me into Manchester in time to make a 2.30pm curtain up at the Palace. I called a taxi. It’s about eleven miles from here into Manchester via the route the taxi took; the fare was significantly expensive. That, I’m afraid, is what you run the risk of getting when you travel with First Manchester. Today was the sixth time in two weeks that I have had to wait for over thirty minutes for one of their services, and they have, in fact, just been fined by the regulator because their services are so consistently unreliable, so I’m a little curious to know what their managing director, Mr. Richard Soper, does to earn his presumably very comfortable salary. Given the generally appalling standard of the bus service around here, I assume not much.

So I wasn’t in a great mood when I got to the theatre, and the fun was only just beginning. The really special portion of the day began when the house lights went down. Between the candy wrappers, the talking, the nearly constant procession of people getting up during the performance to go to the loo, and the cell phones, there was very little of the first half that wasn’t in some way interrupted by some kind of breach of audience etiquette. And the crisps. Oh my God, the crisps. Is bringing large bags of designer crisps to the theatre now a thing? Is it what people do? Because it’s completely obnoxious. If you add the constant munching, crunching, and rustling of plastic wrappers to the talking and the cellphones… well, I might as well have been watching the show from a seat in the food court at a mall.

Unfortunately, when it comes to audience etiquette, the Palace’s management are a useless waste of space. This afternoon, they didn’t even make any announcement asking people to switch off their mobile phones before the show started – so guess what? In the part of the theatre where I was sitting, phones went off three times in the first half and twice in the second. The front-of-house staff, of course, were nowhere to be seen at the interval. They did, however, take the time to open the outside doors – yes, to the street – before the show’s final scene was over. The street is up a flight of stairs from where I was sitting, true, but the moment when Emile appears from the verandah to join Nellie and the children singing ‘Dites-Moi’ at the end of the show was – how can I say this nicely? – not improved at all by the addition of a blast of cold air and traffic noise from Whitworth Street outside. And that’s a pity; an understudy was on as Emile – Stephen John Davis, he was superb, and his ‘This Nearly Was Mine’ raised goosebumps and stopped the show – and it would have been nice to let him get to the end of his (terrific) performance without outside interference. Particularly since, God knows, there was enough interference going in inside the auditorium already.

And unfortunately this sort of appalling audience behaviour is becoming more and more common. The audience was equally delightful when I saw this production during its first stint at the Palace last year, and at a screening of the New York Philharmonic‘s concert of Sondheim‘s Company the other night the two “ladies” sitting behind me had brought sandwiches from home – wrapped in aluminium foil, which they were incapable of unwrapping quietly. They, too, had brought crisps, although their crisps were slightly quieter than the aluminium foil.

I’ve written before that Company is a favourite show of mine; the concert was great fun, and even Ms. Patti LuPone (of whom I am not always a fan) was on her best behaviour, by which I mean her performance did actually include some consonants. Not all of them, obviously, but far more than she usually manages, and she only tortured about a quarter of her vowels. There were lovely performances from everybody else, but particularly from Stephen Colbert and Martha Plimpton, who gave, on I assume relatively little rehearsal, a sharply funny account of the karate scene  (Colbert is no great shakes as a singer, but he did a touching, sweetly sad job of his portion of ‘Sorry-Grateful’). I really enjoyed it, and I expect to enjoy it even more when I watch it on DVD without the additional, unwanted soundtrack of other people eating, talking, and rustling food wrappers.

One more thing: this is not about young people not knowing how to behave. Most of the rude behaviour I’m talking about came from people who are at least ten years older than I am.  It’s not as if either performance was completely ruined for me – on the contrary, I enjoyed both shows very much. In both cases, though, the whispering, the noisy eating sounds, the rustling wrappers, cellphones and all the rest of it were significantly distracting, and significantly annoying, and – God, I sound like a grumpy old man here – it’s depressing to think that the people I’m writing about have no idea – not a clue – of how their rude, disruptive, selfish behaviour spoiled the show for the people around them.

And, once again, for their failure to even make a gesture towards enforcing any kind of audience etiquette by asking people to turn off their mobile phones, and for their crass, intrusive choice of precisely the wrong moment to open the exit doors at the end of the show, the Palace Theatre Manchester’s front-of-house staff deserve some kind of prize for their absolute, gold-plated, copper-bottomed, neon-lit uselessness.