Déjà vu all over again



Good news/bad news. Danny Rubin and Tim Minchin‘s new musical adaptation of Rubin and Harold Ramis‘s Groundhog Day deserves every single one of the five-star reviews it received last week. It’s a dazzling, inventive, richly rewarding reinvention of the source material, it’s brilliantly staged by Matthew Warchus, and Andy Karl is giving one of those once-in-a-lifetime star-is-born performances in the Bill Murray role.

And if you’re lucky enough to find yourself sat next to the people I was sat next to on Saturday afternoon – apparently repeat visitors – you may find yourself wishing you’d smuggled in an electric cattle prod and a big roll of duct tape.

The show itself bucks a recent trend: it’s almost a given these days that a musical adaptation of a recent-ish film will smooth out the film’s rough edges (assuming it had any), and fillet out everything interesting in the screenplay in order to shoehorn in a selection of bland songs, performed by suitably bland actors who don’t challenge the memory of their screen counterparts. Indeed, Groundhog Day’s director, Matthew Warchus, has form here: his production of Ghost was as vacuous a piece of theatre as has been produced on either side of the Atlantic at any point in the last two or three decades, and the leading lady he imported from New York – the un-fabulous Caissie Levy – gave a performance which redefined the word “inert”.

Warchus, though, also collaborated with composer Tim Minchin on the RSC‘s wildly successful musical adaptation of Roald Dahl‘s Matilda. That show was good; this one, even at this early stage, is better. Minchin and Rubin haven’t simply inserted songs into the original screenplay. They’ve taken the material apart and put it back together again, and found a slightly different, arguably more rewarding spin on Rubin’s tale of Phil Connors, a grouchy, narcissistic weatherman who finds himself endlessly repeating the same day over and over again. The film is more or less The Bill Murray Show, albeit with a couple of memorable supporting cameos, most notably from Stephen Tobolowsky as an irritating insurance salesman. Without sacrificing any of the source material’s comedy, the musical offers a somewhat bigger picture.  More weight is given to some of the supporting characters, starting with Rita, Phil’s producer – the Andie MacDowell role in the film – and prominent (and very effective) musical numbers are given to that irritating insurance salesman, and to Nancy, the pneumatic blonde Phil repeatedly tries to seduce. There’s nothing superflous; without sacrificing any of the comedy, and without ever offering a bald statement of their theme, Rubin and Minchin deliver a quiet, surprisingly perceptive meditation on the various ways people find themselves trapped in cycles they did not necessarily create themselves. Far more so than the film, the payoff at the end is substantial.

All of which makes the show sound Far More Serious than the film, which it certainly isn’t. Rubin, Minchin, and Warchus have a great time mining the ridiculous kitsch surrounding the Groundhog Day festivities (in which, in case you’ve been living under a rock, an oversized rodent is asked each year to predict whether the winter will be long or short) – one number even puts a man in a groundhog suit centre-stage playing drums. Minchin’s offbeat sense of humour is a perfect fit for this material, and his songs are often very funny indeed. Phil’s opening put-down of small-town USA is bracingly mean (in the first line, on waking up in a chintzy B&B, he sings of his “ugly bed/ugly curtains/pointless erection”, and his disdain snowballs from there). Later in the show, there’s a big laugh when Phil, some time into his time loop, sings of having slept with 90% of Punxsutawney’s women “and one boy, when I was bored”. Midway through the first act, an extended production number gleefully rips various alternative/new-age therapies to shreds (reiki comes in for a particularly harsh kicking, and this might be the first musical to include a choreographed enema). The second-act number depicting Phil’s various suicide attempts is pitch-black and absolutely dazzling – not least because of an intricately clever staging which has Phil “miraculously” popping up in bed in the B&B seconds after apparently offing himself on the other side of the stage. Minchin’s pop-flavoured music is melodic, quirky, and always entertaining; this is a fiercely intelligent show, but it’s also always fun, even as it ventures into surprisingly deep emotional territory towards the end of the second act. And it’s greatly to Minchin and Rubin’s credit that they never, even at the show’s finale, open the doors to the material’s enormous potential for trite moralising. That finale – a song called “Seeing You”, which Minchin premiered in concert a while ago – may be the show’s most soaring melody, but it’s also, in terms of the lyrics, a masterpiece of delicacy and restraint.

It’s also given a masterful performance by American actor Andy Karl, who offers a brilliant, (hopefully) star-making turn as Phil Connors. Bill Murray’s performance in the film is (deservedly) one of the best-loved of his career, but Karl proves to be at least his equal. He’s far more conventionally good-looking than Murray, and while he lacks Murray’s weariness, in the first half of the show he presents a character who is significantly more unpleasant than Phil was in Murray’s performance. That’s partly because he simply isn’t Bill Murray: by the time Murray made Groundhog Day, he’d developed a familiar screen persona and sustained it through several movies, including this one. Murray played the role with a slight but always-visible twinkle – however unpleasant the character became, you were always aware you were watching Bill Murray. Karl doesn’t bring an established persona to the table; accordingly, his Phil is an unpleasant, self-absorbed asshole, at least to begin with, and there’s little sugar-coating. For most of the first act the character is not especially likeable, and he almost never leaves the stage – but Karl has a terrific singing voice, superb timing, and enormous charisma, and he makes Phil’s worst excesses tremendously entertaining. All of which, of course, makes his eventual redemption all the more moving, although Minchin and Rubin resist (thank God) the temptation (which must have been there) to make the ending into a manipulative tearjerker. Karl simply doesn’t put a foot wrong. How good is he? If the show turns out to be a hit on Broadway, it could do for him what the National Theatre’s Oklahoma! did for Hugh Jackman.

Opposite him, as Rita, Carlyss Peer has the advantage of recreating a role originally portrayed by Andie MacDowell. MacDowell’s one-note, wooden performance was the film’s single misfire (has she ever made a film in which she didn’t give a one-note, wooden performance? If she has, I missed it); the musical gives Peer a bit more to work with than the screenplay did, and she’s lovely. Peer’s Rita is the show’s normative figure: the townspeople are all more or less drawn as caricatures, at least initially, so Rita serves as the audience’s way in. She’s bright, funny, charming, and a very strong singer (this is apparently her musical debut); unlike MacDowell, she creates a nuanced, three-dimensional character, and she more than holds her own next to Karl’s firing-on-all-cylinders star turn.

As for the rest – Warchus redeems himself for the horror that was Ghost, delivering a fast-paced, carefully detailed staging packed with warmly funny ensemble performances. There’s witty choreography by Peter Darling and Ellen Kane, an evocatively skewed set from Rob Howell (including an eye-poppingly hideous interior for Phil’s B&B bedroom), and a whole host of clever visual grace notes (one favourite, early in the show: as Phil’s attempt to leave Punxsutawney on the first Groundhog Day is thwarted by a snowstorm, we see an actor in a groundhog suit dump a shovelful of fake snow on a toy van crossing the front of the stage). Unlike Ghost, this isn’t a vast technological spectacle; instead, it’s an intricately-choreographed comedy in which the thrills – and there are several – come via Paul Kieve’s sleight-of-hand theatrical illusions, Minchin’s superb score, and Andy Karl’s sensational star turn. I’m more or less running out of superlatives here: this is a tryout production, the show is (eventually) heading to Broadway, and it’s already in tremendously good shape. I loved it.

I did not, unfortunately, particularly love the audience – or at least, I didn’t love the section of it seated immediately to my right. I saw the show at last Saturday’s matinee (August 20th), from the rear of the upper circle (factor in the cost of a train ticket from where I live to London, and theatre these days is getting too expensive to sit anywhere below the “cheap seats” – which, themselves, are not as cheap as they used to be). I was in seat F6 (terrific view for the money); to my right, in seats F7-11, was a group of five people (younger than me, but not that young) who arrived, carrying drinks, right before the house lights went down. They’d obviously seen the show a few times before – bearing in mind it’s only been playing six weeks or so – because not only did they clap/snap their fingers in time with the music, they sang along – accurately – with several of the numbers in the first half. When they weren’t singing, they were talking, and not in a whisper. Subtle attempts – glares, shushes – to get them to shut up were ignored. I eventually told the woman sitting to my right to shut up, and she did… for about five minutes, then she started up again. One woman a couple of seats down from me kept putting her feet up on the back of the seat in front, each time kicking the gentleman sitting there between the shoulder-blades (because of the steep rake) and forcing him to hunch forward in his seat. The best was saved for a woman in the row in front, the companion of the gentleman who kept getting kicked: halfway through the first half, when she’d understandably had enough of these obnoxious pricks, she turned around and told the person sitting behind her to shut up, and got the remnants of someone’s drink thrown over her.

At the start of the interval, I went and found an usher, and asked to speak to a house manager (so did the woman who had the drink thrown over her, and her partner). I explained what had happened, and that I wasn’t prepared to put up with it in the second half; the house manager very kindly found the three of us alternative seats (no mean feat, the performance was almost sold out), and the second half of the show proceeded without interruption, but with the perpetrators still in their seats, and still presumably disrupting the show for everybody who didn’t complain.

That, I’m afraid, isn’t good enough, although I’m certainly grateful for having been given an alternative seat in the second act. In this country, throwing a drink over someone is technically a chargeable offence, not that anybody was considering going down that road. These louts – whose parents must be so, so proud – disrupted the performance for everyone around them, one of them did something that in the strictest legal terms constitutes common assault, and there didn’t appear to be any consequences for them. Where is the disincentive for behaving disruptively the next time they see the show?

Put simply, once the disruptive behaviour crosses the line – or rather, gulf – between a breach of audience etiquette and an actual offence, however minor, the perpetrators should not be allowed back for the second act. The house management’s job is to ensure the whole audience – not just people who take the trouble to complain – get as ideal an experience of a given performance as possible. Dealing with, and if necessary removing, disruptive patrons is not a pleasant part of the job – I know, I’ve done it, and I didn’t take any pleasure in it – but it is part of the job, and allowing disruptive patrons to return for the second act, in the end, shows enormous disrespect to both the audience and the cast.

If I sound angry, there’s a good reason. Think of this from the point of view of a consumer: in most cases, if I buy something and it turns out to be defective, I have some recourse. If I buy an appliance and it turns out to be faulty, it will be replaced. Even if it’s damaged in transit through no fault of the supplier, I retain certain rights, and I’ll get a replacement or a refund. In this case, I purchased an experience, in the form of admission to a performance. The experience, thanks to the gaggle of selfish dickheads sitting to my right, turned out to be defective – and that’s it. It’s gone. Even though I got reseated for the second half, the experience is damaged. The day, furthermore, cost a great deal more than just the theatre ticket, once you add in train fares, lunch and all the rest of it – and having shelled out all that money and travelled a round-trip of roughly 400 miles, I ended up with less than I paid for. That’s galling.

It’s also troubling to consider what the behaviour of these individuals suggests about the nature of fandom. As I said, they sang along to Minchin’s songs accurately. There’s no cast album, and as far as I know only one song from the show has been performed in public out of context. They’d clearly seen it several times, and they clearly identified as super-fans – and they apparently felt it perfectly appropriate to express their fandom in ways that diminished the experience for everyone sitting around them. Andy Karl has a terrific voice; the lady sitting two seats to my right last Saturday afternoon does not, although she certainly knows how to project. Of course it’s a given that these people are selfish and stupid and absolutely incapable of showing consideration for anything beyond themselves, but somewhere along the way, they appear to have got the idea that being the WORLD’S BIGGEST FAN grants them an absolute licence to do as they like, and screw everyone else, because nothing has happened to disabuse them of it – which actually is probably the most compelling reason why they should not have been allowed back into the auditorium for the second act. By letting them back into the theatre even after three complaints about them, the management are essentially granting them permission to be as unpleasant as they like. Given that even the cheapest seat costs at least three or four times the price of a cinema ticket, I find that unacceptable.

So, yes, Groundhog Day. Go and see it. Go and see it several times. It really is as good as the reviews suggest – but please keep quiet while the house lights are down, keep your feet off the seats in front, and keep your drinks to yourself. And if you must sing along, wait until the album comes out and do it at home, OK?




Call it hell, call it heaven…


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.

Now, God knows, anything goes

…and I sort of wish it didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just maybe skip buying a programme.

Like, total drag.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Buses


This is a photograph of the front of one of the buses I took to get home this evening, taken so that I could get a record of the vehicle number. What you can’t see in this photograph is the driver – clearly one of First Manchester‘s finest – giving me the finger through the windscreen. Presumably this is what they mean in their customer promise when they pledge to provide “helpful, friendly driving staff”.

It hadn’t been a very successful evening. I’d got to the bus stop at the top of Oldham Street in Manchester at about 8.40pm, hoping to catch a bus towards Oldham. Between the 83 and the 183/184 services, there should, at that time on a Sunday night, be a bus every ten minutes. Nearly thirty minutes later (!), an 83 arrived (this kind of interruption in this particular service, unfortunately, is not at all unusual) – destination Sholver, so this was the 9.10pm service (God only knows what happened to the 8.50pm 180 or the 9.00pm 83, but that’s all part of the joy of travelling with First Manchester). There was quite a crowd waiting to board this service – this stop is the terminus – and as I boarded, there were a lot of people behind me who were also trying to get on the bus. In front of me, there was a woman who was trying to buy a ticket from the driver. In order to avoid creating a bottleneck at the door, I stepped around her while showing the driver my pass. You’d think this would be the sensible thing to do, right?


The driver didn’t like it. Oh no, he didn’t like it at all. He started shouting at me – I hadn’t said a word to him at this point – telling me off as if I was a naughty schoolboy. The best gem in his stream of invective was the part where he told me he couldn’t bloody multitask because he wasn’t a bloody woman. Now, yes, there is a way of delivering that line that would put a (sexist) comic spin on it – but no, he was deadly serious. It was a full-on tempter tantrum – one which other passengers commented on – and it was provoked by nothing more than my trying to step aside so that other people could step onto the bus. Since there were a lot of people trying to board behind me, I said nothing and took a seat; a couple of people behind me, though, did tell the driver he was out of order.

When the bus arrived in Oldham about thirty minutes later – I connect there to another service – I had a choice. I could get off the bus and say nothing, which would probably have been the wisest move, or I could tell this driver that I found his behaviour unacceptable and ask for an apology. On the one hand, given his temper tantrum when I boarded, clearly there was no way any complaint about his behaviour would end well. On the other hand, I am a paying customer, and I am not prepared to be yelled at for the heinous crime of stepping to one side while holding up a bus pass. I do, though, understand that sometimes people snap in the heat of the moment (because, really, my holding up a bus pass while simultaneously stepping aside to allow space for other people to step up onto the bus must have been so excruciatingly stressful for him that it’s a wonder he didn’t end up with PTSD), and I think it’s only fair to ask for an apology directly before putting in any kind of complaint – if he’d said sorry, that would have been that. There was, sure, probably also an element of my having just Had Enough after enduring day after day after week after week after year after year of appalling service from this company. And anyway,  First Manchester‘s complaints process, more often than not, is a waste of time – either they don’t bother to respond, or they send an insincere and sometimes badly-spelled letter of apology, and then three days later the exact same thing you just complained about invariably happens again.

So, when the bus had stopped at Oldham bus station, I went to the driver, told him I’d found his behaviour unacceptable, and suggested he owed me an apology. I didn’t raise my voice. I didn’t use bad language. I did, I suppose, offend him simply because I refuse to be bullied, but that’s not my problem.  The predictable result: more yelling. He doesn’t come to my workplace to tell me how to do his job, apparently, and I could bloody get off his bloody bus. During this rant – which went on for rather longer than those couple of sentences – he was pink and shaking with rage, and repeatedly jabbed his finger at me. Nice.

Again, let’s go back to First Manchester‘s pledge to provide “friendly, helpful driving staff”. This particular gentleman was so friendly and helpful, he must have undergone intensive training. When you encounter this level of rudeness, the management deserve at least some of the credit. This driver would not have started shouting in the first place unless he knew he could get away with it.

I got off the bus – I was getting off there anyway – and stepped in front of the vehicle (which wasn’t going to be leaving for a couple of minutes, there was a line of people waiting to board), and got out my BlackBerry to take a photo of the vehicle number on the front (on First Manchester‘s newest buses, this number is not clearly visible anywhere inside – it’s somewhere up above the driver’s head, and given that he was yelling at me and shaking with rage, asking him to move his head a bit so I could see the vehicle number was probably a non-starter). Guess what? More yelling, loud enough that I could hear it through the windscreen. I wasn’t going to take his photograph (I wasn’t trying to), and if I didn’t put my ****ing phone away he’d call the… whatever, that’s when I stopped listening and walked away. As I walked away, he gave me the finger; he’d already done so once as I was taking the photograph. Again, nice. Presumably there’s a page in his training manual which outlines in detail under exactly which circumstances that gesture may be employed.

Now, OK, asking for an apology, given his previous volatility, was probably “asking for it”. But this is a company whose front-line employees, again and again, seem to be under the impression that they are entitled to treat their customers like dirt (it speaks volumes for First Manchester‘s management that the vast majority of drivers can’t even manage basic courtesies like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’), and really, enough is enough. His original behaviour was thoroughly unacceptable, and I don’t have to stand there meekly and accept being yelled at for no good reason by some arrogant jerk in a tatty uniform who gets off on treating his customers like crap, just because he can. This evening’s experience, granted, was particularly bad, but it’s not as if rude drivers are at all unusual. Polite drivers are the exception, and they’re rare enough to be worth remarking on. This evening’s driver, though, was something else. For a start, somebody that angry is probably not fit to be in charge of a vehicle on the public highway, much less any kind of vehicle carrying paying passengers.

So, yes, I’m still waiting for that apology. I won’t be holding my breath. For First Manchester, awful customer service is simply par for the course, and unless they start employing people who know the difference between customers and cattle, that isn’t going to change.

Note – credit where it’s due: over the past week or so, the weather here has been dreadful, and has caused significant disruption on the roads; First Manchester have done a much better job, this year, of keeping services running through bad weather and keeping their customers informed than they ever have in the past, and that’s an encouraging sign. But today the snow was mostly gone, and services were running normally, and their impressive work over the weekend does not excuse or in any way mitigate the treatment I received this evening.

Ms. J’Adore, Ms. iPhone, and the screamer

I love theatre. I love going to the theatre more than very nearly anything else. I go to the theatre as often as I can (although not always as often as I’d like), and I’ll see very nearly anything. Theatre excites me, provokes me, makes me happy, very occasionally infuriates me, and however much utter dreck I find myself sitting through – yes, I survived Monkee Business: The Musical with at least some of my braincells intact, and even, God help me, went back for the second act – I can’t ever imagine a life in which I don’t go to the theatre regularly.

I love Fascinating Aida too – that’s the satirical cabaret group with Dillie Keane, Adèle Anderson and (currently) Liza Pulman, not the opera by Verdi (I say this only because I mentioned I was going to see them the other day and a friend asked me if there’d be live elephants). If you’ve been living under a rock, and nobody’s forwarded you the link to Cheap Flights, go and watch it NOW. I’ve been listening to their recordings since the I got the first one in the late 80s  (‘Moscow, Moscow’ is one of those songs that always makes me smile), I’ve seen them live several times, and I am a huge fan. I saw their show last night at the Lowry in Salford, and they were superb. Their material – all written themselves – is terrific, and they have, by now, worked their act up to a standard that very, very few comedy/cabaret groups can match. The new material – including swipes at Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, the Brothers Miliband, Fifty Shades of Grey, Katie Price and Richard Branson – was sharp and very funny, and the excursions into their back catalogue – the pointed takedown of new-age mysticism in ‘One True Religion’, the glorious ‘Getting It’ (a song about the perils of Viagra), the deadly-accurate Weill spoof ‘Leider’ – showed the astonishing breadth of their material. They even, last night, did a more-or-less serious country-and-western number – ‘Glad You’re Gone’, I think it was called, sung beautifully by the wonderful Liza Pulman – along with a serious song called ‘This Table’ that pays tribute to absent friends; the former was great fun, the latter was extremely moving, and the show as a whole was terrific. They’re remarkable, all of them, and it’s always a pleasure to see them.

So I love the theatre, and I love Fascinating Aida. I am, however, beginning to hate theatre audiences.

Take last night. I was sitting in seat G25. On my right, in G24, we had Ms. Marinaded-for-a-week-in-J’Adore-by-Dior. I’ve never really got to grips with the etiquette of applying perfume because I don’t wear cologne myself (I seem to be allergic to quite a lot of it), but I don’t think the process involves running a bath of the stuff and then soaking in it for about four days. This woman’s scent, I’m afraid, was overpowering to the point where her BO would actually have been preferable. If anyone had struck a match, the mushroom cloud would have been visible from space. She was wearing enough of the stuff, anyway, that I spent pretty much the entire show trying not to sneeze. She was also not capable of sitting still, and every time she moved, another Dior-fuelled poison cloud wafted my way. I’m sure she thought she smelled lovely. Nope.

On my left, in seat G26, we had Ms. iPhone. She behaved herself through the first half. Halfway through the second half, she got out her iPhone to check a text message. It took her a surprisingly long time to turn it off. In a darkened theatre, the light from an iPhone’s screen is very distracting. In row G, it would certainly have been visible from the stage. But, of course, her momentary whim to check a message was far more important than the ability of everyone sitting around her to watch the show undisturbed by her appalling lack of manners, so she didn’t let any consideration for anyone else get in the way of that vital text that couldn’t wait another 25 minutes. She was special.

I’m saving the very best for last. Directly behind me, in row H – I think in H27, or one of the seats either side – was the screamer. No, not in any bedroom sense. This lady was Having A Good Time, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. Everyone there was having a good time, or trying to. Ms. Screamer, however, felt the urge to announce to her companions – and, because she clearly needed a larger audience, the rest of the world – that she was Having A Really Good Time. To that end, she did not laugh; she shrieked ‘HA! HA! HA!’, at the top of her considerable voice – and no, it wasn’t a laugh, it was separate syllables, clearly enunciated. In several songs and some of the patter between them, the jokes came thick and fast, so she SHRIEKED rather a lot. In order to demonstrate what a fabulous time she was having, she often rocked back and forth as she did so, which meant that she SHRIEKED her enthusiasm directly into my left ear, at a volume pitch that was somewhere between a Boeing 707 on takeoff and Armageddon. She also had a tendency to either repeat punchlines loudly to her companions or shout ‘BRILLIANT!’ over them, I assume because she was somehow incapable of sitting still and not drawing attention to herself. There’s no point, unfortunately, in complaining to someone like that, because she’s more or less certainly so thoroughly self-centred that she’ll have had no idea at all of how rude and unpleasant her behaviour was to the people sitting around her, all of whom had paid a not-trivial sum of money to be there – although perhaps singling Ms. Screamer out for being self-centred is unfair; all three of these ladies, in their way, were rude and inconsiderate to the people around them, not to mention thoroughly selfish, and all three should have known better. The best I can say about the behaviour of the people around me at the show last night is that at least, thank God, nobody had brought a bag of crisps.

None of these people, of course, were young, and I’m afraid it’s been a recurring theme for a while now that the worst behaviour I encounter at the theatre is from people who are older than I am. Yes, sure, you can complain to the house management – but that’s easier said than done in the middle of an act when you’re in the middle of a row, a dozen seats at least from either aisle. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the show last night – I did, very much, and Fascinating Aida are always worth seeing – but the three “ladies” sitting around me, between them, made the experience much less than it should have been. That, these days, is far too common. Is it really that difficult, at the theatre, to behave in a way that’s respectful to the rest of the audience?

Shall I tell you what I think of you?

This afternoon, I saw the current UK tour of The King and I at the Liverpool Empire. Unless hell freezes over, or I get forced to at gunpoint, or I suffer some kind of permanent concussion, the likelihood of my ever going to see anything else at the Liverpool Empire is somewhere close to nil.

It wasn’t the show’s fault, although I was less than impressed, going in, to see that this theatre charges £4.00 for a programme, which is a rip-off. I can’t, in all honesty, say that this is an absolutely ideal production of The King and I, simply because the circumstances in which it was produced inevitably mean that it doesn’t use the full original orchestrations,  and this score, of all scores, is never going to sound its best played by an “orchestra” of just nine, even if the reduced orchestration (by Julian Kelly) has been tastefully done. You don’t ever hear anything that sounds like a synthesiser, for which relief much thanks – the band uses ‘real’ musical instruments, just not enough of them.

Aside from the lack of about twenty more people in the orchestra pit, though, this is a confident, stylish, very entertaining staging that makes as good a case as anyone could for a show that, while an acknowledged classic with a gorgeous score, is not quite top-drawer Rodgers and Hammerstein. Everybody knows the story, so I’m not going to recap it here; the show’s examination of people from two different cultures clashing and ultimately learning from each other has dated a little around the edges. Western attitudes towards other cultures have changed a great deal since 1951, mostly for the better, and there is now a slightly uncomfortable whiff of colonialist condescension hanging over the material; that said, given the distant-land-far-away setting and a score that, while beautiful, does not entirely convincingly evoke the far east (particularly when it’s dressed in the reduced orchestrations used here), perhaps the best approach these days is simply to view the show as an exotic fable, despite the piece’s roots in autobiography.

And viewed through that lens, this production certainly delivers. The production originated at Curve, like the revival of Gypsy I gushed over the other week, and the touring production, unusually, is produced by a consortium of receiving houses rather than by a regular producer (which basically means, according to a programme note, that each venue stumped up part of the production cost in return for a greater slice of the profits than they’d get from a conventionally-funded production). That’s something to celebrate; there are certainly ratty, tacky, stripped-down musical revivals out on the road (I remember, with not much pleasure at all, a particularly excruciating Hello Dolly that made the rounds a few years ago whose set looked like it was made mostly out of cornflake packets and sticky-back plastic), but this isn’t one of them. Like most musicals that come out of Curve, it’s directed by Paul Kerryson, who knows his way around a musical revival. The show looks good, with elegant sets and costumes by Sara Perks and evocative lighting by Philip Gladwell. There’s a cast of over twenty – not huge by Broadway standards, but very large for something coming from a subsidised regional theatre – and a team of sixteen children. And there’s effective choreography by David Needham that culminates in an absolutely glorious version of the Act Two ‘Small House of Uncle Thomas’ ballet.

Most of all, there are lovely performances. The children are charming, the ensemble are terrific, and while there might not be a lush orchestra here, the singing, across the board, is very, very fine, with particularly strong work from Adrian Li Donni and Claire-Marie Hall as Lun Tha and Tuptim. And there’s certainly no faulting Josefina Gabrielle and Ramon Tikaram as Mrs. Anna and the King – they sing beautifully (yes, him too), they have marvellous chemistry, and they’re both absolutely compelling.

So, yes, I liked the production very much, but this afternoon’s experience is still not one I’d ever willingly repeat. What was wrong with the show? The audience. Oh my God, the audience. Sitting in the Liverpool Empire for three hours with those people was so unpleasant that wild horses couldn’t drag me back there.

In Act One, there was a group of about half-a-dozen ladies sitting in the row directly behind me. They talked, and not at a whisper. They rattled crisp packets and sweet wrappers more than you would think humanly possible, even after my last trip to the Palace Theatre in Manchester. If anyone turned around, glared, tried to shut them up, they either gawped or laughed. When Josefina Gabrielle started to sing ‘Getting to Know You’, at least two of them sang along. I wrote, a while back, about the obnoxious people sitting behind me at a performance of Mamma Mia; today’s charmers, I’m afraid, were louder, although they did, to their slight credit, seem to be somewhat less addicted to the F-word. And it wasn’t just them, either – the sound of crinkling, rustling plastic from behind me was more than intrusively loud, but similar sounds were audible from other people much further away, along with conversation, banging doors when people either arrived late or walked out in the middle of the act to go to the loo, and pretty much everything else that falls under the heading of distracting audience behaviour (with one exception: miraculously, as far as I could tell, nobody’s mobile phone went off).

I gritted my teeth until the end of the first act, then at the start of the intermission I went to find a member of the front-of-house staff, and asked to be reseated for the second act because of the obnoxious behaviour that had been going on behind me all through the first. The usher I spoke to went to find the house manager, who went off to the box-office to check the seating chart, and came back and offered me a choice of alternate locations. The lady was pleasant, apologetic, and helpful, and I certainly don’t have any complaint about the way she handled the situation.

The fun really began at the end of the intermission, when I sat down in one of the unoccupied seats the house manager had suggested. My sitting down in this previously unoccupied seat prompted the start of a running commentary from the two astonishingly foul-mouthed ladies sitting in the row behind (do you sense a recurring theme here?) – unbelievably, along the lines of “he’s f***ing taken that seat, it isn’t his, they should f***ing throw him out” (I suspect that the taller of these two classy examples of humanity was annoyed because her coat had been draped over the back of the seat). They’d bought ice creams during the intermission. I bet you think ice cream tubs are a quiet food, don’t you? Not where these ladies were concerned. I think one of them was perhaps trying to dig a tunnel to China through the bottom of the cardboard tub. You wouldn’t imagine it was possible to make that much noise armed only with a cardboard ice cream tub and the tiny wooden spoon that comes with it. Through this bizarre rhapsody of scraping – which obliterated most of ‘I Have Dreamed’ – they kept up a commentary on both me (as if where I was sitting was any of their business) and the show, none of which was conducted at a whisper. The absolute nadir came when the gentleman sitting next to me – whose behaviour was impeccable – decided he’d had enough, and turned around and hissed at them to shut up… at which point one or other of these fine specimens of charm and good breeding (I couldn’t see which) yelled  ‘what did you f***ing say to me?’ and clipped me round the earhole. The last person who did that was my dad, and he’s been dead for nearly a decade… and I don’t think I ever, in twenty-nine years, heard him use that particular word.

There’s nothing I could have done that wouldn’t have somehow resulted in even more disruption, even though there was nobody sitting between me and the end of the row, so I sat there seething. They were a little quieter after this, but only a little, and Act Two, in any case, came with the same background symphony of conversation, crisps and sweet wrappers as Act One, so essentially there wasn’t a single moment of the performance that wasn’t accompanied by some kind of distraction. As I got up to leave at the end of the curtain call, the taller (and louder) of these two ‘ladies’ again loudly announced to the world that ‘they should have f***ing thrown you out’. Nice. Again, there’s nothing much I could have said that wouldn’t have caused the situation to deteriorate into a shouting-match, so I just left as quickly as I could.

I don’t feel particularly good about saying this, because my experience of Liverpool has mostly been of a fun, vibrant, fascinating city full of friendly, genuinely lovely people – but this afternoon’s experience, all of it, was really, really unpleasant, and there’s nothing much that the theatre’s staff could have done that they didn’t do, willingly and promptly, as soon as they were asked. The only step the theatre’s management could possibly have taken to prevent this afternoon’s litany of appalling behaviour would have been to put every single member of the audience in shackles and duct-tape their mouths as they entered the auditorium. It might have been worth it, but human rights groups would probably find those measures a little extreme.

Fortunately for me, the Empire presents more or less nothing that doesn’t also tour to at least one other venue within a similar distance of home.  Going to the theatre shouldn’t involve negotiating an assault-course of distractions, or getting whacked around the ear because someone else asked somebody to shut up. The audience, I’m afraid, completely ruined the production; no part of sitting in the Liverpool Empire this afternoon was pleasant, and the fact that I paid for this Godawful experience is… well, what’s the opposite of icing on the cake? All that being the case, the answer seems to be very simple: I won’t be going back. Hell is (sometimes) other people; seeing a classic musical shouldn’t be.


[Edit – 11/4/12 – the Empire’s management got in touch with me today via Twitter and made a very kind gesture of goodwill because I’d had such an unpleasant experience. While I chose not to take them up on their very generous offer, I do appreciate the gesture very much, and they deserve a lot of credit for monitoring blogs and social networking sites and paying attention to what their customers say about the experience of seeing a show in their venue.]


Celibate nuns out there shaking their buns…

They’re ba-aack! And this week they’re in Leeds. Sister Act: The Musical has hit the road in Britain, billed as being ‘direct from the London Palladium‘. ‘Direct’, in this case, involves a 7,000-mile round trip across the Atlantic and back, since the version of the show that’s now touring Britain is essentially the heavily-revised incarnation of the show that opened on Broadway last year, rather than the ham-fisted, thuddingly obvious, (very) intermittently entertaining show that graced the West End in 2009 (tellingly, the programme lists the show’s first performance as the Broadway opening, not the London one). It’s been heavily revised, so it has to be better this time around, right? Well… sorta kinda. The worst bits suck less (that’s a technical term), the good bits still work, the whole thing is slicker and faster, and the Mother Superior no longer has a cringe-worthy line in which she refers to the bulges in the gangsters’ trouser pockets. All of these things, particularly the last, are cause for celebration… but don’t infer from any of the above that the revised show is good. It’s better than it was, but it’s not there yet.

And, really, it’s had enough time by now for the various people involved to work out the kinks in the book and the score. Based, of course, on the 1992 movie (I’m not going to outline the plot because everyone who might be remotely interested in a review of the stage musical has seen the film already), the stage musical version was first staged in Pasadena in 2006, and that production then moved to Atlanta in 2007. After undergoing some revisions, it opened in London in 2009 to decidedly mixed reviews, and then it underwent a lot more revision (including what amounts to an entire new book) before it arrived on Broadway in 2011. In all incarnations, the show somewhat rethinks its source material: it’s now set in Philadelphia, rather than Reno, in 1977 rather than the present day, and Alan Menken‘s music is best when it pastiches the soul/gospel/disco styles of that era. The musical also takes the brave decision to throw out all of the nuns’ performance numbers from the film and replace them with new music written specifically for the show, and those new numbers, although they’re gaudy and splashy and slightly too on-the-nose (not to mention way overchoreographed and over-designed), work well and are great fun, and that’s an achievement given how successful the movie’s musical numbers were. That’s good news, but it’s also where the good news ends, more or less.

The show’s biggest problem is the book, although ‘book’, in this incarnation, is overstating things – it’s more of a plot delivery device punctuated by weak one-liners. The source film, God knows, isn’t perfect, but it does at least manage to present a set of warm, believable, funny characters, and it’s to the film’s very great credit that it never once, even for a second, presents the nuns as buffoons, even though some of them are certainly eccentric. Because, in the musical, everybody seems to get a song, the book has been filleted down so that most scenes, now, seem to consist of two or three lines of exposition followed by a song cue. Given the clunking horror of a book – credited to Cheri Steinkellner & Bill Steinkellner, whose list of theatrical credits is not extensive – that was in place when the show opened in London, this is an improvement; the ‘additional book material’ by Douglas Carter Beane (a nice way of saying ‘whole new book by’) is a lot less than completely successful, but at least it contains no lines that are so bad they make you stuff your fist in your mouth and squirm in your seat.

Unfortunately, because there’s so little of it, it also contains no actual characters, only stick figures with a single defining characteristic each. Deloris might as well walk onstage at the top of the show and announce, “Hi, everybody! I’m black and sassy!” – that’s all the actress is given to play until the last ten minutes of the second act. The roles of the gangsters and Eddie the cop have been beefed up at the expense of Sister Mary Patrick (the Kathy Najimy role) and Sister Mary Robert, significant supporting roles in the film that are almost relegated to bit-parts here, even though Mary Robert gets her own song in Act Two. Key plot points don’t happen, they’re announced, which means that the final scene between Deloris and the Mother Superior, which was quietly, sweetly touching in the film, registers precisely no emotional impact here, although the hard-working actors do what they can with the material. The show plays like a first draft, rather than the latest in a series of rewrites that stretches across at least five years.

The show does at least come to life a little when people start to sing, and the book scenes are so brief that a song is almost never more than a couple of minutes away. Deloris’s top-of-Act-One ‘Fabulous, Baby!’ and the nuns’ performance numbers – ‘Take Me to Heaven’, ‘Sunday Morning Fever’, and ‘Spread the Love Around’ – are the best things in the show; during those songs – and only during those songs – we get a glimpse of the vibrant, exciting musical comedy that this could have been but isn’t. The songs for the gangsters and Eddie the cop are fun but strangely irrelevant – they’re entertaining enough, but they don’t tell us anything we don’t already know, and they stop the show cold in precisely the wrong way. The rest of the score is not exactly top-tier Menken; the title song is pleasant but generic and utterly forgettable, and the Mother Superior’s two songs are almost magnificently dull. Worst of all is Sister Mary Robert’s ‘The Life I Never Led’, a climb-every-molehill howler that, astonishingly, gets a reprise; it ends on a big-ass money note, and before that it consists almost entirely of hot air. The just-about-adequate lyrics are by Glenn Slater, whose worst excesses – contained in a truly witless number for the nuns called ‘How I Got the Calling’ – have, thank God, been removed from this version of the show. The replacement number – ‘It’s Good to be a Nun’ – might not be exactly good, but at least we no longer get to hear Sister Mary Patrick relate the story of how she saw the face of Jesus in a coconut cream pie (I wish I was making that up). All of the musical numbers – good or bad, fast or slow, strident or introspective – are delivered at ear-splitting, headache-inducing, brain-numbing volume, presumably because it’s easier to grab the audience’s attention by turning up the sound system than by writing material that’s actually engaging.

What we do have here, at least, is a mostly very strong cast. Cynthia Erivo is a real find as Deloris – great voice, moves well, charisma to burn, and she’s a RADA-trained actress who manages to supply at least a little of the subtlety that is almost entirely missing from the book and the score. If she can’t quite sell the title song, she does as much with it as anybody could (and certainly is at least as good as Patina Miller, who originated the role in London and on Broadway), and when she rips into ‘Fabulous, Baby!’, she’s absolutely thrilling. Denise Black throws everything she’s got at the role of the Mother Superior, and she’s miraculously funny given the limitations of the script; she’s defeated by her two bad songs, but anyone would be. The cops and gangsters are fine, and Michael Starke is great fun as the Monsignor; given the score, it’s possibly to his advantage that he isn’t lumbered with a song, and he gets (and lands) a fair number of the best lines. Laurie Scarth’s Sister Mary Patrick is badly short-changed by the book and score; she does what she can, but in this incarnation of the show it’s not a role in which anyone is going to make much of an impression. Julie Atherton’s Sister Mary Robert, however, is something else entirely – honest, charming, sweetly funny, and she’s got the closest thing anyone in the show has to an actual character arc. She even – twice – more or less manages to sell the dire ‘The Life I Never Led’. She’s great, and it’s a great shame that her material isn’t nearly as good as she is. The choir of nuns are wonderful when they’re singing, and less wonderful when they’re not, largely because the dialogue they’re given is so perfunctory.

All of which makes the show sound completely awful. It isn’t. Jerry Zaks’ direction is slick and fast-moving, and the show’s pace is such that you never have to dwell too long on material that doesn’t work (it’s certainly an improvement over the work of Peter Schneider, who directed the London production – his greatest achievement was making sure the actors didn’t bump into either each other or the set). Anthony Van Laast’s choreography is energetic, obvious, and best when it parodies period disco moves; watching a choir of nuns shake their booties is fun the first time but subject to the law of diminishing returns unless you take the idea and develop it, and adding gaudy costumes with lots of sequins does not count as developing a choreographic idea, although the writing for the choir numbers is strong enough that those sequences would probably land if the nuns just stood there doing the hand jive. The show is often almost completely soulless, and yet the few really good sequences are legitimately exciting and great fun; they, and the cast, make it worth sitting through the mass of material that doesn’t work as well as it should. Klara Zieglerova’s set and Lez Brotherston’s costumes provide an occasionally witty excursion through 70s kitsch; Natasha Katz’s lighting is unrestrained by base considerations like good taste and subtlety. This show is loud, both to listen to and to look at, and Gareth Owen, the sound designer, should be locked away and made to do some kind of penance until he promises never to do it again. His work here isn’t a sound design, it’s an aural mugging stretched over two hours of stage time.

The great shame of it is that the show should have been so much better than it is. A stage musical based on Sister Act is not an inherently terrible idea, and everyone involved has done better work elsewhere. The cast work hard, and this iteration of the show has, in Ms. Erivo and Ms. Black, two really terrific leading ladies. In the few moments where the show really comes to life, it’s wonderful; unfortunately, those moments are few and far between. What’s truly dispiriting is that the show, even after having been developed through so many previous incarnations, still doesn’t completely work, given that the necessary fixes aren’t all that difficult to spot. Sister Act, unfortunately, is mostly a disappointment, even now – the only consolation is that it’s a disappointment with three or four really good things in it. At these prices, I’m afraid, that’s not enough.

Oh yes – and finally, let’s all give a big shout-out to the lady on the far end of row C in the stalls, house-left, who took flash photographs all the way through the second act. Madam, you’re a credit to your species. Whatever that might be.

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.

Rotten Apple

Or, My Trip to the Apple Store. On the enjoyment scale, it did not rate ten out of ten.

[Edit – there is more to this story. Apple subsequently made amends, spectacularly. I’m leaving this post up because first impressions count, and the impression of Apple that I received yesterday was absolutely dreadful, but the company is clearly extremely concerned that it shouldn’t be perceived as being in any way arrogant or unhelpful. So… the story that follows here is why I got angry, and there’s another post detailing what Apple did about it.]

My nephew has an iPod. Unfortunately it doesn’t work; for some reason, it won’t charge. We’ve tried charging it via several different cables and a docking station, but it stubbornly refuses to suck up any power. It’s not just sick, it’s deader than Kerry Katona’s music career. Since I’m in Manchester city centre more often than anybody else in the family at the moment, my brother asked me if I’d take it back to the Apple Retail Store from whence it came and see if they could send it away to be fixed. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? It should have been simple. It wasn’t.

So, anyway, this particular tale of joy commences – and, actually, ends fairly abruptly – at the Apple Store in the Manchester Arndale. I walked in at about 3.30pm, and started heading towards the back of the store to talk to someone about the dead iPod. As always in an Apple Store, there were a lot of people hanging around playing with the MacBooks/iPads/iPods on display, but the staff appeared to be – well, the opposite of busy. I was stopped, about a third of the way towards the back of the shop, by an unfriendly young woman in a blue Apple T-shirt who asked me what I was looking for. I told her I was bringing back an iPod that wasn’t working, and this is where the experience started to become surreal. She asked me if I’d made an appointment. I hadn’t. When I told her I hadn’t made an appointment, her charming response, delivered with the most sarcastic inflection possible, was “You did know you had to make an appointment, didn’t you?”

Given that I’ve never in my life been asked to make an appointment in order to return a defective item to the shop it came from, that would be a no.

This charmless young woman then moved to a nearby MacBook, brought up a blank screen (!), and told me that there were no appointments available at any point for the rest of the day… at 3.30pm on a Monday, when the store wasn’t busy, with four-and-a-half hours left until closing time. I was, let’s say, a little surprised at this; when I started to say that all I wanted to do was return a defective product, that I wasn’t expecting anyone to fix it on the spot, and that I was prepared to wait, she cut me off in mid-sentence and started in with a lecture, delivered in an inappropriately hectoring tone, about how she couldn’t let me see someone – you know, for the three whole minutes it would have taken them to package the broken iPod up in a jiffy bag and send it away to be fixed – because it wouldn’t be fair to let me jump the queue in front of customers who had had the presence of mind to make appointments. And this in a shop in which approximately 60% of the visible staff were standing around chatting. I’ve put in my years working in retail, and I certainly don’t begrudge people taking advantage of a quiet period to slow down a little – I know what Saturdays are like on a shop floor – but this wasn’t a Saturday, the staff weren’t visibly busy, and I object to being told that nobody is available to help me when that very, very obviously is not the case.

ANYway. Apparently, it’s very difficult for Apple’s staff because they sell so many products – at least, that’s what Ms. Charm-of-Pol-Pot tried to tell me. Two kinds of laptop, three kinds of desktop, four kinds of iPod, iPads, iPhones, Apple TV and a few peripherals. As my nephew would say, big whoop. Compare that to, say, John Lewis, a full-line department store with thousands and thousands of product lines that sets the gold standard when it comes to customer service, and that does not, as far as I know, force you to book in advance if you need to bring in a faulty item they sold you so that they can send it away to the manufacturer to be fixed. I wouldn’t have minded so much if this woman had been remotely conciliatory, or even vaguely pleasant, instead of entering the conversation with an attitude so enormous that it probably needs to be housed on its own planet. Since I obviously wasn’t going to get anywhere, and since she didn’t appear to feel disposed to let me finish a sentence, I left – fortunately, in the middle of one of her sentences, which saved me from another thirty or so words of her spectacular condescension.

I am, obviously, in awe of Apple’s outstanding commitment to achieving excellence in the field of customer service.

I love my iPod. Or rather, I love my iPods, there’s one in a dock next to my bed and another one residing permanently in my backpack. It’s beautifully designed, easy to use, and I love the fact that I can carry thousands and thousands of pieces of music with me wherever I go. I’m sure, at some point, I’ll buy another one – I’d like one with larger capacity, and I don’t know of anybody who makes a better music player. And while my nephew’s iPod seems to have perfected an impersonation of the dodo, my two, so far, have been absolutely reliable.

I’ve also, for years, licked the steam off Apple’s laptops in various shop windows – again, they’re beautifully designed, and I have several friends who are absolutely devoted to them. And I’m intending to replace my laptop next year (it’s currently three years old, so by next year it’ll be time to start thinking about upgrading it), and I have to say that this afternoon’s experience does not exactly encourage me in the direction of buying a MacBook.

Here’s the thing: Apple sell design as much as performance, and they position themselves as offering premium products. For certain types of device, like music players, they dominate the market, but that can’t be said of every product line they sell, and some of the things they sell, like MacBooks, are significantly – as in a sum that’s in three figures – more expensive than equivalent Windows-based products that do essentially the same job, only a little less seductively. Part of that premium, sure, goes on design (both in terms of the look of the machine and the feel of the user environment), but part of the premium, equally, supposedly goes to pay for a certain level of service.

And yet this company, apparently, is so monumentally arrogant that it demands – unlike any other retailer I’ve ever encountered – that you make an appointment to take one of their products back to the shop it came from to get it sent away for repair, and their store management, on the evidence of my delightful experience this afternoon, can’t be bothered to train their front-line customer service staff to deliver even the most minimal level of courtesy. Unemployment is up, we may well be heading for a double-dip recession, consumer spending is flat, and yet when I attempted to take a relatively expensive luxury item back to the Apple Store where it had been purchased, the first and only staff member I had any contact with acted as though she was doing me some kind of favour by even deigning to speak to me, and sent me away – despite the fact that the shop was neither full nor busy – with the broken item still in my coat pocket because I hadn’t telepathically deduced that I needed to perform some kind of arcane online booking ritual before I entered the store.  On the bright side, I suppose, it’s lovely for her that she feels so secure in her job that she doesn’t have to bother with piddling little inconveniences like being pleasant and helpful to her customers.

Doesn’t exactly encourage you to get out your Visa card, does it?