Sweet sorrow

See all those stars on the poster? Matthew Warchus’s stellar revival of Present Laughter deserves every last one of them, and so does Andrew Scott. This is a blissfully funny, absolutely pitch-perfect production of one of Noel Coward’s better plays: every laugh lands, Scott finds the undercurrent of melancholy underpinning washed-up matinée idol Gary Essendine’s preening, the supporting cast are faultless, and the gender-switching of a couple of key characters works spectacularly well (if you haven’t seen it – it’s on for another week and a half, I saw it a month ago and I’m playing catch-up again – it’s getting the National Theatre Live treatment, but not until November). And the fabulous high-waist wide-leg trousers designer Rob Howell gives Indira Varma’s dryly hilarious Liz Essendine deserve an Olivier award of their own.

NOT so stellar, unfortunately, is the visitor experience at the Old Vic, and I don’t mean the outside toilets. The usher in the section where I was sitting – dress circle left – took an unfeasible amount of pleasure in yelling at anyone she suspected of taking a photograph. I do get why they don’t want people taking pictures of the set, although if you don’t want people taking pictures of the set one very simple solution would be NOT to build the stage out beyond the proscenium so that you can’t hide the set behind the curtain until the lights go down – but I’m afraid I take great exception to being scolded as if I was a naughty schoolboy, in public, for taking a photograph when I wasn’t. I’m the first one to say theatres should put a bit more effort into policing audience behaviour, but if you’re going to tell someone off you damn well make sure they’re actually doing whatever you’re telling them off for. I complained to the house manager, he apologised – the usher didn’t – and the theatre made a conciliatory gesture, but it shouldn’t have happened in the first place (and a couple of conversations on Twitter and elsewhere suggest I’m far from the only person who has been yelled at for no reason by this particular usher). We’re customers, not cattle; as I said, I do understand that certain audience behaviours need to be policed, but there’s a fine line there between what’s acceptable and what isn’t, and this usher went way over it.

The thing is, theatre is ephemeral, and the visitor experience contributes to whatever it is you take away from the show. In THIS case, what I took away from the show is that it’s a really, really terrific production – and that I paid for a theatre ticket (admittedly not a particularly expensive one), and for train tickets (more than double the cost of the theatre ticket) on top, for the privilege of getting a bollocking for no good reason from a surly usher who appeared to be on some kind of power trip. The house manager apologised, the theatre took steps to make amends – but I didn’t get the experience I paid for, and since I live 200 miles from London it’s not like it’s easy for me to go back and see the show again. That, I’m afraid, is a waste of my money.


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

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

THE KING AND I

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

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF

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

FOLLIES

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


THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG

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

SWEENEY TODD

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

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

Shake Your Badonkadonk… but keep away from the toilets and don’t look at the floor.

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If you’d asked me to place a bet, I wouldn’t have put money on William Finn and James Lapine‘s Little Miss Sunshine – yes, an adaptation of the 2006 film – arriving in the UK before their seminal 1992 show Falsettos, which will (finally) be landing at The Other Palace later this year – but here we are. Lucky me, I got to see it at the Arcola last week; it’s touring afterwards, which means you’ll have the opportunity to see it in nineteen other venues, all of which probably have cleaner toilets than the Arcola. That wouldn’t be a very high bar.

William Finn is a distinctive, idiosyncratic musical theatre composer with an instantly-recognisable sound, and it’s easy to see why musicalising the quirky family at the centre of Little Miss Sunshine appealed to him. That said, the show has a troubled history; a 2011 premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in California received an unenthusiastic reception from critics, and a heavily-rewritten 2013 production at New York’s Second Stage Theater didn’t generate enough box-office momentum to transfer to a commercial run elsewhere. This is apparently the show’s European premiere, and it’s a lot more fun than some of the New York and San Diego reviews might suggest, although it isn’t perfect; like all of Finn’s shows, though, it contains at least a handful of songs that are so stunningly wonderful that they’re worth the price of a ticket on their own (good thing, since in some respects my ticket for this was staggeringly overpriced… but we’ll come to that later).

Like the film, the musical follows the down-on-their-luck Hoover family on a road trip  in an ancient, knackered Volkswagen Microbus, driving from Albuquerque, NM to Redondo Beach, CA, where eight-year-old Olive is to compete in a beauty pageant. These characters elevate familial dysfunction to the level of an art form: dad Richard is a failed motivational speaker, and his father – Grandpa, along for the ride – has been kicked out of his retirement home for doing heroin. Uncle Frank, also along for the ride, is recovering from a suicide attempt and can’t be left alone, Olive’s older brother Dwayne has taken a vow of silence, and Olive and Dwayne’s mother Sheryl is struggling to cope with holding everything together under a growing pile of unpaid bills. Sheryl gets the best song in the show: a minor-key heartbreaker called Something Better Better Happen, which closes the first act and returns in the second. It’s lovely, and along with Grandpa’s early solo The Happiest Guy in the Van (a paean to the joys of rampant sex, presented as a slab of wildly inappropriate life advice to his teenage grandson Dwayne) and the ridiculously memorable earworm Shake Your Badonkadonk, it offers the clearest indication of why Finn and Lapine thought this film had potential as a musical. If everything else in the show was as memorably wonderful as those three songs, the show would have been a knockout hit in its first two productions. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of space between those three highlights. The rest of the show is always charming and sometimes very funny, but those three songs are on a different level from the rest of the score, which is great fun, but not first-tier Finn.

Director Mehmet Ergen gets terrific performances out of his small cast – Laura Pitt-Pulford gets the show’s most heartbreaking song and breaks your heart with it once in each act, Gary Wilmot (whose TV comedy work usually had me reaching for the off switch) is riotously funny as Grandpa, and Imelda Warren-Green supplies a brilliant comic cameo as a hospital administrator with the world’s worst case of vocal fry. His direction – and David Woodhead’s bright yellow roadmap set – gets the most out of a small budget and a difficult space, although it’s an odd choice to use a truck unit to represent the VW van all the way through the first act but not for most of the second. The show is performed with an interval in this production, although the rights-holder’s website lists it as a one-act; adding an interval, I’m afraid, is not an improvement.

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Overall, though, this production is sweet, funny, more touching than the film, and considerably better than you might expect from the show’s reception in New York and San Diego.

While the show is charming, though, the theatre, I’m afraid, is not. I understand that people working in this kind of venue are usually overworked and underpaid, but there’s no excuse for the level of surliness I encountered when I picked up my ticket at the box office, and there’s really no excuse for the woman on the door, who told me I had to go back out, pushing my way against the tide of people lining up to get it, and go back in through an outside door, which would have been perfectly OK if she’d been in any way polite or pleasant about it, and if she hadn’t then proceeded to let a couple of dozen other people access the block of seats where I was sitting  through the entrance she’d rather rudely told me not to use. My seat, also, didn’t endear the place to me. I see most of the shows I see from cheap seats, I’m very aware of the trade-offs between price and view, and I certainly don’t expect a third-price seat to have the same view as a top-price one. I also, though, do not expect to find that people who paid half what I did have a clearer view of the stage than I do. I sat in seat D1, which – as you’ll see from the picture below – has a lovely side-on view of a big yellow girder. The people in the £10 restricted view seats at the sides of the balcony had a more or less unobstructed view of the whole stage picture, and I did not even though my seat wasn’t sold as restricted view.  That leaves a rather nasty taste, and tells me a great deal about the theatre and the production company’s attitude towards their customers.

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There’s also no excuse for the toilets, although I might have formed a better impression if I’d visited the Gents before someone peed all over the seat and the floor and up the walls and door of the only available cubicle, whose lock had also seen better days. It’s not as if the rest of the venue was notably clean either – there were cigarette ends on the floor of the auditorium near my seat – although everywhere else was, thank God, cleaner than that cubicle in the Gents (it would pretty much have to have been). There’s a bar, and I think they serve food; the general state of cleanliness I saw elsewhere in the venue – the kindest word would be ‘slovenly’ – is such that I’d go elsewhere. And carry hand-sanitiser.

And then there’s the programme, which is the icing on the cake. I saw four productions in London last week; this one has the most expensive programme of the four – it’s £5 – and it’s also the slimmest and shoddiest. There are the usual cast/creative bios – typed by someone who clearly didn’t pay much attention to when to begin and end italics for titles – and some small rehearsal photographs, but the “articles” are the highlight, and they’re very special: a page on the history of the VW van which seems to be drawn largely from Wikipedia and whose anonymous author doesn’t know how to use an apostrophe, and a staggeringly fatuous short piece on musicals inspired by films whose writer, amid a stream of pure waffle, chooses to inform us that Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit’s musical Nine premiered in 1973, which tells us someone didn’t read past the first sentence of the first paragraph of the show’s Wikipedia entry. If you’re going to charge that amount of money for a programme, the least you can do – the very least you can do – is proof-read and fact-check it. And by “proof-read” and “fact check”, I mean processes involving an actual human being rather than an illiterate chimp.

So… see the show by all means. It’s got some lovely songs in it, the cast are wonderful, and it’s well worth a couple of hours of your time. To get the best out of the experience, though, avoid the lowest-numbered £20 seats in the side block, stay away from the toilets, do your best not to look at the floor, and don’t bother with a programme. Or better yet, pick a venue that isn’t the Arcola, because there are plenty to choose from. You’re welcome.

Seeing Stars

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There’s a moment late in the second act of Jeremy Herrin‘s star-driven revival of All My Sons, which just opened at the Old Vic, when Sally Field‘s Kate Keller appears to age twenty years and lose six inches of height in the space of about fifteen seconds. Field is the biggest, though by no means the only, star featured in this production, and this is in no way an example of cringeworthy stunt-casting: she’s magnificent, she’s delivering an exceptionally moving performance in this rather creaky play’s juiciest role, and she’s the reason this revival is a must-see even if you think you’re All Millered Out for the year (full disclosure: I do not have a ticket to see Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic, mostly because I’d already bought tickets for this and The American Clock by the time it was announced). This is a grand old-fashioned Star Performance, but it’s also a thoroughly nuanced, very intelligent, sharply restrained portrayal of a grieving, haunted woman, and Field shows herself to be an accomplished stage actor who is more than capable of holding her own against, well, pretty much anyone.

She certainly makes mincemeat of her co-star. As Joe Keller, the industrialist whose decision to supply an aircraft manufacturer with cracked cylinder heads cost twenty-one airmen their lives and indirectly led to his own son Larry’s probable suicide, Bill Pullman is perfectly OK. He brings an easy all-American charm to the role, and he has plenty of presence – but that’s all he has. There’s nothing wrong with his performance, but there’s also nothing particularly surprising about it, and other actors have found more colours in the character than he does. Next to Field’s blazing star turn, Pullman sometimes seems to fade into the background.

There’s a similar imbalance among this production’s younger players. As fiancée Ann Deever – the one who has The Letter That Explains Everything tucked away in her purse – Jenna Coleman is almost as remarkable as Field. It’s a marvellous, utterly truthful performance, and it’s made all the more remarkable by the fact that she has to negotiate the play’s creakiest plot twist – the revelation of that letter – and she gets away with it, and makes it absolutely plausible that Ann has, for reasons nobody ever explains, chosen to wait three years to reveal the contents of the letter to the Kellers. Opposite her, Colin Morgan – the production’s fourth Big Star, playing surviving son Chris Keller – is, like Pullman, perfectly OK – that is, until the play’s denoument. There’s a fine line between ‘anguished’ and ‘shouty’, and Morgan crosses it several times. A little less, in places, would have been far more.

The production surrounding them is surprisingly by-the-numbers given that it’s directed by Jeremy Herrin. Save for two directorial flourishes – one right at the beginning of the performance, the other right at the very end – this is more or less exactly what you’d expect a star-driven West End revival of this kind of play to look like. That opening coup-de-théâtre, in which the Keller house slowly emerges (on tracks) from a projected collage of images of postwar American suburbia, is dazzlingly theatrical, and the production that follows it, while impeccably paced and consummately tasteful, could do – Ms. Field and Ms. Coleman aside – with a little more grit and a lot more electricity. The play, as I said, creaks around the edges – there’s a reason it has never left the repertoire (just as there’s a reason almost nobody ever revives The American Clock), and it has an undeniable power, but it isn’t Miller’s best piece of writing by any means, and the denoument relies somewhat implausibly on a letter-from-beyond-the-grave that has been kept secret for three years. At the same time, it undeniably still has a great deal of resonance – just look at the horrifying news stories about the design and certification of the Boeing 737 Max, or the ongoing scandal about tainted ground beef that has left more than 170 people across 10 states infected with E.coli – and Herrin is the kind of director who might be expected to underscore the parallels between this play’s plot and present-day news stories about the perils of deregulation. It’s quite surprising, actually, that he doesn’t go there – but he doesn’t, and aside from those opening and closing (at the end, the house slowly disappears back upstage into darkness) moments this is simply a straightforward star vehicle.

It’s not, to be fair, as if there’s anything wrong with reviving a classic drama as a vehicle for a quartet of big stars. It’s just that the combination of these actors and this director could and should have produced something a little less safe than this production. Max Jones’s backyard set, complete with broken tree felled by force-nine symbolism, is expensively naturalistic and full of rich detail – it looks like a house a family has lived in for a long time – and it’s beautifully lit by Richard Howell. There’s no faulting the actors cast as the neighbours either, with particularly charming work from Gunnar Cauthery and Bessie Carter as Frank and Lydia Lubey. Everything is carefully, tastefully put together – but Field and Coleman provide fireworks, and the production surrounding them doesn’t.

Namastaaaaaaaaaaaaaay….

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

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

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

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

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

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Sympathy for the Devil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

downstate 2

(Lower) East Side Story

rags

The original Broadway production of Rags in 1986 was a notorious flop, running for just four performances. Despite the short run, it received five Tony nominations, including a nod for Best Original Score, and cast member Judy Kuhn gave a memorably fiery performance of the title song on the Tony Awards telecast the following year; a recording was released in 1991 featuring most of the original Broadway cast, with Julia Migenes standing in for original star Teresa Stratas, and that recording is the reason people keep going back to the show to try and make it work. Rags has book problems – even now, after umpteen rewrites, Rags has book problems – but the score as represented on that recording includes the best music Charles Strouse has written for the theatre (‘Blame It On the Summer Night’ might very well be the single best song he has ever written for anything, and it’s certainly among the best individual songs written for Broadway in the past fifty years), and some of Stephen Schwartz‘s most moving lyrics. This show’s music is a potent blend of Broadway, jazz, klezmer and opera, and it’s often magnificent; the structure surrounding it, unfortunately, has never quite lived up to the power of that score.

The show is essentially a kind of sequel to Fiddler on the Roof, which also has a book by Joseph Stein. The plot follows immigrants as they arrive in New York in 1910(ish) and try to establish themselves as new Americans living in tenements on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In all versions of the show – and there are many different versions of this show – the central figure is Rebecca Hershkowitz, a woman fleeing Russia with her young son David. Reading the Broadway production’s reviews, it’s clear there were too many subplots surrounding her; this rewrite, with a new book by David Thompson (Joseph Stein having died in 2010), premiered at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut in 2017, and it does a reasonably good job of paring back the show’s various plot strands into a reasonably coherent narrative that is driven by Rebecca’s struggle to build a life in New York for herself and her son. Alongside this new book, though, Strouse and Schwartz have taken scissors to their score, and unfortunately the result is not an improvement. A certain amount of this music’s grandeur has been lost – and that’s allowing for the fact that in a chamber production like this one you’re never going to get Michael Starobin‘s magnificent original orchestrations – and some songs have been cut up/split/re-sequenced in ways that don’t completely make musical sense. Granted, this may be less of a problem if you’re less familiar with that 1991 recording than I am; even so, it seems a strange choice to make when the score has always been the piece’s biggest asset.

This production, at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, makes a very strong case for the material, though, and director Bronagh Lagan redeems herself here for her abysmal revival of Promises, Promises at the Southwark Playhouse a couple of years ago, which was so bad that her name on the credits almost stopped me from buying a ticket for this. There’s a real sense of community among the cast, Gregor Donnelly’s set somehow makes stacks of suitcases resemble the Lower East Side tenement blocks around which most of the plot takes place, the band (four musicians backstage augmented by four actor-musicians among the ensemble) sounds terrific, and Rebecca Trehearn is giving an absolutely luminous performance as Rebecca. No, she doesn’t have the kind of huge operatic voice you hear in Julia Migenes’s performance on the recording (and that audiences at the original Broadway production must have heard from Theresa Stratas), but she’s a glorious singer and an honest actor, and her rendition of Rebecca’s big anthem ‘Children of the Wind’ at the climax of the second act is very moving indeed.

There’s an excellent ensemble surrounding her, with particularly memorable work from Lydia White as Bella, the young woman Rebecca befriends on the boat to America, from Valda Aviks as a shrewd but charming widow with her eyes on Bella’s father, and from Robert Tripolino as Sal, an Italian union organiser. The choral singing is terrific, particularly in the complex, syncopated ‘Greenhorns’ near the top of the show and the reprise of ‘Children of the Wind’ in the finale. Everybody does their best with the dialogue, and the book – yes, even in this newly-revised version – lets everybody down. Inevitably given the way the show has been chopped and changed so much over the years, we don’t have a cast of characters here so much as a parade of stereotypes. It’s been refashioned from an ensemble piece into what more or less amounts to a vehicle for the actor playing Rebecca, but Thompson doesn’t give her enough to play with. We know she escaped a pogrom, that her husband is dead (that’s a rewrite, and a smart one; her husband was a significant – and obnoxious – character in the original version of the show, and her backstory works better if she’s a widow), that she’s a decent woman and a good mother,  that she can sew, and that arriving in America gives her a push towards a far more independent lifestyle than she’d imagined for herself in Russia… and that’s more or less it, and it’s a story that’s been told many times before, usually more compellingly than it is in Thompson’s book.

Some significant musical material has been cut, too, including a late-in-act-two aria called ‘Dancing With the Fools’; that cut in particular robs Rebecca of a certain amount of depth, although Trehearn somewhat manages to paper over the cracks. Songs are cut up and split apart in ways that are baffling if you know the score from the recording; we hear, for example, the verse of ‘Children of the Wind’ a full act and a half before we hear the (beautiful) refrain. Characters have been cut, new characters have been introduced, and some musical material has been switched between characters, not always to good effect; it makes theatrical sense to turn the title song into the Act One finale, but since this version of the show is Rebecca’s story rather than Bella’s, the song is made into a duet between Rebecca and Bella rather than a solo for Bella. That might not be a problem if the lyrics had been completely rewritten, but they haven’t been, and the song – a howl of rage at having travelled across an ocean to live in poverty in a slum – does not entirely fit the character Trehearn has established by that point in the show, although there’s absolutely nothing wrong with her performance of it. The main portion of the song sounds like the kind of outburst that would come from a much younger woman, probably one who isn’t a mother – which of course fits the character it was originally written for. In the original version of the song, Bella’s father tries to talk her down; here, those lines are given to Bella, and arguments written from the perspective of a middle-aged father just sound plain unconvincing coming from a late-teenage girl. The (re)writing in that section of the show significantly undercuts both the performers and the song; it’s still a powerful moment, but – like a lot of the show – it would be so much more powerful if the lyrics consistently sounded as if they were written for the character(s) singing them.

Having said that, it’s worth seeing. This is not a show that’s going to be done often in the UK, and even though this production messes with the score in ways that don’t improve it, the best moments are certainly memorable, and while Bronagh Lagan doesn’t completely solve every problem in the writing, this is a strong production of difficult material, and it’s wonderful to see a regional fringe theatre take this material on and do such a loving job with it.

There are, however, a couple of things Hope Mill could (still) learn about the audience experience. Now, yes, I booked for the first preview, and first previews happen after a rush of activity that is sometimes difficult to complete within the allotted time. The show I saw was in excellent shape and you’d never have guessed it was the first public performance. HOWEVER, the performance ended up beginning thirty minutes late, and I’m afraid that demonstrates a certain disdain for the audience. This is Greater Manchester, not London; the transport system here shuts down earlier than you might expect (and certainly earlier than it should), and that’s even more the case the further you go from the city centre. For me, that thirty-minute delay was the difference between being able to get all the way home by tram/bus and having to use a taxi for the last part of the journey. The cost of the taxi won’t break me, but it’s money that needn’t have been wasted; there was an apology from the director at the top of the show, but it was sufficiently vague that it did nothing to dispel the suspicion that this production’s creative team consider themselves more important than their audience, which is exactly the wrong way around. Stay later the night before, show up earlier on the day, but fix your problems on YOUR time, not mine, and don’t waste my money because you failed to meet a deadline.

And when you advertise that your lobby/cafe/bar will be open from ninety minutes before showtime for drinks/coffee/light meals/whatever, it is unacceptably rude to keep customers who show up at the opening time you’ve advertised on your website and on the tickets waiting outside the door for twenty minutes because the director and her creative team haven’t got their shit together. That, again, suggests an attitude towards customers that is somewhere between disdain and contempt, particularly since at this theatre’s location there is nowhere else to go. Hope Mill, don’t get me wrong, is a wonderful facility, and a real asset to Manchester’s cultural scene – but the arrogance with which they treated patrons last Saturday night isn’t a good look for them. The work they present is fascinating; their manners, unfortunately, seem to leave a great deal to be desired.

 

hope mill