Welcome to Portcullis House

 

 

 

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

dcb

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

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

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

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

donmar committee set

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

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

hoey hotline

 

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The best of all possible worlds

CHC

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

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

CH

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

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

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

CHO

 

The zoo is up, Madame Tussauds is down

on the town programme

If you live in the UK, it takes a certain optimism to book months in advance for a show in an open-air theatre, even if the performance date is just a couple of days after the longest day of the year. “Summer” here is sometimes more of an abstract concept; if you don’t live in London and can’t book at the last minute, you roll the dice then spend the week before the show nervously looking at the weather forecast.

I caught the tail-end of our “heatwave”, actually – people who live in places where there are genuinely hot summers, stop giggling – so I didn’t get the full Open Air Theatre experience. You know, sitting hunched up in a cheap plastic rain poncho for twenty minutes waiting for a downpour to pass so the show can resume. There was some light drizzle, which began, with impeccable timing, right on the second line of “I Feel Like I’m Not Out Of Bed Yet” – yes, “the sun is warm…” – but that’s all. Rain ponchos (£3 at the bar, or bring your own) were not necessary. Some people put umbrellas up, but they were quickly admonished by the front-of-house staff (absolutely right, they block the view for people sitting behind). And we had an unscheduled several-minute pause halfway through Act One so that stagehands could mop the deck dry:

on the town mop

It was worth the drizzle (and the hay fever, because our damp parody of a summer doesn’t do anything to ameliorate my allergies). Years ago – so many years ago that it’ll make me feel very old if I do the subtraction – I saw the Barbican concert production that begat the Tyne Daly recording (everybody else in the cast was a better singer than Ms. Daly, and she blew them all off the stage), but I’d never seen a production that had an actual set and costumes. It might be my favourite of Bernstein’s theatre scores – or my favourite might be Wonderful Town!, depending on the day – and seeing a full production has been one of my theatrical holy grails for… well, since I saw that concert at the Barbican. I missed the ENO’s revival a few years ago, and have been kicking myself for it ever since; I wasn’t going to miss this.

The weather, actually, might have been just about the only thing wrong with Drew McOnie’s sensational revival. This is a difficult piece to direct: the slender story about three sailors exploring New York during a 24-hour shore leave requires a very light touch, and it’s difficult to find the correct balance between the book scenes, which are more or less simply a series of linked comic sketches, and the achingly bittersweet ballets. Underpinning the whole thing is the fact that the characters onstage know, as do we, that the lighthearted, what-larks plot isn’t as lighthearted as it seems: it’s 1944, these three sailors are shipping out to war tomorrow morning, and there’s a very good chance some or all of them won’t be coming back. We know, too, about the horrors they’re about to face even if they do make it through the rest of the war (physically) uninjured; if you can get through the second act’s farewell song, “Some Other Time”, without a lump forming in your throat, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am.

Fortunately, McOnie gets it pretty much exactly right. His production never stops moving, the ballets are truly lovely – a reinterpretation of the Act One pas de deux to show a sailor’s brief, secretive dalliance with another man is particularly poignant – and he and his terrific cast find all the jokes without ever pushing the comedy too hard. Danny Mac makes a tremendous Gabey – great dancer, charm to spare, good timing, and just enough voice to land “Lonely Town”, the score’s most beautiful song. He, Jacob Maynard (Chip) and Samuel Edwards (Ozzie) form an appealing trio; they’re effortlessly funny, and in this material that’s not as easy as it seems  – witness the cast recording of the recent Broadway revival, on which every single member of the cast mugs to the point where you wonder if they’re all hooked up to a caffeine drip. As the maneating cab driver Hildy – yes, the role I saw Tyne Daly sing all those years ago- Lizzy Connolly offers a dazzling, showstopping, wonderfully dirty rendition of the innuendo-laden “I Can Cook Too”, a song which – spoiler alert – is not really about cooking. She even – unlike Alysha Umphress, the lady who assaults the role on that most recent recording – sings the song’s melody as written, without jazzing it up or inserting self-indulgent scatting that isn’t in the score (I’d love to know what Ms. Umphress believes qualifies her to rewrite Bernstein; her “improvements” really aren’t). Siena Kelly is a charming Miss Turnstiles (if you don’t know the plot, just go with it – it’s one of those comedies that only really makes sense if you see it), Maggie Steed offers a smashing turn as dipsomaniac music teacher Madam Dilly, who is the closest thing the show has to a villain, and Naoko Mori’s Lucy Schmeeler gets more laughs out of a sneeze than you’d ever think possible. Best of all, there’s Miriam-Teak Lee’s Claire de Loon, the anthropologist who gets “Carried Away” when she spots Chip in the Museum of Natural History. This, unbelievably, is her professional debut; she has a glorious soprano and sensational timing, and her work here is absolutely flawless. And she’s gorgeous too, which doesn’t hurt.

There’s a good-looking, less-simple-than-it-seems scaffolding set from Peter McKintosh – it can unfold to show apartments, nightclubs, a diner, and even a subway train, and it manages the difficult job of evoking 1940s Manhattan amid the trees of Regent’s Park. Economic realities dictate that there’s only a 15-piece band, and this music really needs more than that; we get (most of) the brass, but some strings would have been nice. The playing is impeccable, and finding space to pay for more players in a presumably (very) finite budget was probably not possible, but this music deserves better; it’s easy enough for producers looking to rein in finances to trim the orchestra, on the grounds that audiences can’t tell the difference, but some of us can. A clever orchestrator can make 15 musicians sound like more than 15 musicians, but you can’t pull an entire string section out of thin air when there isn’t the money to pay for one.

That’s a minor complaint, though – or rather, if not a minor complaint, inevitable these days, because seeing golden-age musicals with the original complement of musicians in the pit has become the (rare) exception, rather than the rule. In every other respect, this revival is just about ideal. I’ve been waiting, as I said, for decades to see a fully-staged production of this show; this one, for once, was well worth the wait.

 

 

Dreamgirls will never leave you…

DGP

First, a confession: I never liked Glee. I didn’t dislike Amber Riley in it (and I loathed a couple of her co-stars), but when she was announced to star in a (long-overdue) London production of Dreamgirls, I was far more interested in seeing the show than in seeing her in it. I’d have been perfectly happy to go on a Monday night, when Ms. Riley is not scheduled to perform. I wouldn’t have been at all bothered if one of the alternates had been on. Seeing the clip of her singing on the Olivier Awards did not change my mind, and neither did reviewing the production’s cast album. In both cases, I thought her singing was terrific, but there wasn’t anything that convinced me this was one of those drop-everything-and-book-a-ticket must-see performances.

As it turns out, though, I didn’t see the show on a Monday. Ms. Riley was on, and I was completely wrong about her. Two-thirds of the way through And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going, I found myself doing something I don’t remember doing in a very long time: applauding a performance in the middle of a song. I knew she had a great voice, but the blazing intensity she brought to that moment is not something I expected from her – and she was even more remarkable in the second act. I found myself applauding in the middle of I Am Changing and Listen as well, and she deserved it. I’m sure her alternates are great, but Ms. Riley is delivering a genuine star performance, and I’m (to my surprise) very glad I got to see it.

I’m glad I finally got to see the show itself, too. Dreamgirls was a reasonably substantial hit on Broadway in 1981, but for some reason it’s taken 35 years for it to be produced in London. The composer’s hilariously awful Siamese twin musical Side Show, which has flopped on Broadway twice (I saw the first version) and which, in a song called I Will Never Leave You, contains possibly the stupidest lyrics ever performed on the musical stage, arrived in London (slightly) before Dreamgirls, albeit in a fringe production rather than in the West End. A London production of Dreamgirls has been an occasional feature of the theatrical rumour mill for as long as I’ve been paying attention, to the point where it’s actually slightly surprising to see that the show is up and running.

And not only is it up and running, it’s up and running in a very strong production indeed. Casey Nicholaw‘s direction and choreography pays careful homage to Michael Bennett‘s original Broadway staging  – no I didn’t see it, but there’s enough footage out there and enough has been written about it that we all know how it worked – without ever directly reproducing it. It’s slick, fast-paced, and (occasionally literally) dazzling; as in Bennett’s staging, the main element of the set consists of four sliding, revolving columns of spotlights, and the show’s action unfolds in constant, fluid motion. There are no blackouts between scenes, and relatively few pauses for applause (which is one reason we all found ourselves applauding Amber Riley two-thirds of the way through her first big number). A couple of big performance set-pieces aside, Tim Hatley’s set includes relatively little scenery – no walls, no rooms, just minimal furniture, with changes in location suggested by those constantly-moving light towers, Gregg Barnes’s spectacular costumes, Hugh Vanstone’s endlessly inventive lighting, and a lot of wigs. Dreamgirls evokes (and is set during) a period in which pop music aspired to glamour rather than grunge; there may be less to the physical production than meets the eye, in terms of the number of elements that make up the set, but the show looks gorgeous.

It sounds gorgeous too, but then it has to. Dreamgirls is the story of a black girl-group called the Dreamettes (later just the Dreams) from Chicago, their ascent to national fame, and the rift that opens up when the group’s original lead singer is fired just as they’re on the cusp of stardom. The parallels with The Supremes are obvious – Effie White, the lead singer who gets fired and has to learn to strike out on her own, is basically Florence Ballard, if Florence Ballard didn’t die halfway through the story’s second act. Deena Jones, the prettier, lighter-voiced, thinner backing singer who is promoted to lead in order to project a more glamorous image, is pretty much Diana Ross, right down to wanting (in the second act) to disband the group so that she can go and star in a film. So far, so obvious, but what makes the show so fascinating is the way Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen‘s brilliant score takes you on a guided tour of black American popular music of the 60s and 70s, along the way carefully showing how musical styles that were originally dismissed as “race music” had to be gradually adjusted/sanded-down/whitened in order to receive mainstream acceptance. On one level, this is simply another gotta-make-it-in-showbiz backstage musical, but there’s considerable subtext in the music, in terms of the way in which it shows how black performers (and by extension black people in general) had (and still have) to conform to the expectations of their white peers in order to “fit in”. It’s a very, very clever piece of writing, and the fact that Krieger and Eyen accomplish this via a parade of electrifying individual songs makes their achievement here all the more remarkable. There’s almost an embarrassment of riches here: Move (You’re Stepping On My Heart), Cadillac Car, Steppin’ to the Bad Side, Heavy, And I Am Telling You…, I Am Changing, Ain’t No Party, One Night Only, Listen, and the title song are all thrilling, distinguished, distinctive musical numbers of a kind that certain more recent “hit musicals” – including some that have played at the Savoy – would kill to match even once. This is one of the great Broadway scores of the late Twentieth century, and the band and cast here more than do it justice.

Amber Riley’s Effie White is, as I already said, a sensational star performance; she manages to nail every one of her bg moments without ever calling to mind Jennifers Holliday and Hudson, the originators of the role on (respectively) stage and film, and she’s more than worth whatever they’re paying her. Don’t dwell too much on the moment in the first act when Liisi LaFontaine’s just-about-perfect Deena Jones says she can’t sing like Effie – she certainly can, and when she and Ms. Riley finally face off in a belt-your-tonsils-out duet late in the second act – Listen, dragged in from the film with new lyrics by Willie Reale – they practically blow the roof off the theatre. As third member of the group Lorrell Robinson (the Supremes’ Mary Wilson, more or less) Asmeret Ghebremichael offers a blazing Ain’t No Party. These women all have incredible, powerhouse voices, but they blend beautifully when they sing as a group as well, and that’s not always as easy to achieve as you’d think. The men, perhaps, are less individually distinctive, but their performances are all impeccable, as is Nick Finlow’s musical direction. It’s hard to imagine a production of the show that sounds better than this one.

Criticisms… really, not many. I’d held off booking a ticket because prices in the West End seem to be on a sharply upward trajectory, to the point where the seat that cost me £49 for Gypsy in the same theatre two years ago is on sale at £72.50 for this, which (to put it nicely) is not a price rise that can be attributed to inflation – but actually, as it turns out, there are some bargains elsewhere in the theatre if you do a bit of research and know where to look, and they aren’t all in the upper circle. The programme is another matter: yes, it’s glossy, contains some nice production photos and three pages of costume sketches, and the articles in it, for once, are not written by a moron, but it costs £8.00, and that’s a blatant cash-grab. Now, granted, I fell for it – I bought one, and I don’t particularly regret it – but £8.00 is just too much money. And while this production is glorious, the cast recording is disappointing for reasons that have nothing to do with the material or the performers. The poster art is a little bit naff, but that’s par for the course in the West End these days.

The show itself, though, really is as good as its reputation, and this production does it proud. From the insistent cowbell at the top of the show to the final note of the reprise of the title song at the very end, this Dreamgirls grabs your attention and never lets go. It’s a real theatrical thrill-ride – and the thrills, for once, come via voices rather than hydraulics. It’s brash and loud, sure, but it’s packed with sensational songs and wonderful performances, and – don’t faint – the show’s book and lyrics never once insult your intelligence, which unfortunately is becoming an increasingly unusual quality in big commercial musicals. If you haven’t seen it yet, you need to; this is just about as good as the West End gets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fun and games

pvwp

It’s every bit as good as you thought it would be. Go and see it now… oh, wait, you can’t, it closed yesterday. Keep an eye out of the NT Live encore screening, because if you admire the play at all this is something you need to see.

Beyond that, actually, I don’t have a huge amount to say about it. I’ve said before that this is a play I admire rather than love, and that’s true this time as well, but this revival – directed beautifully by James Macdonald – is a bit more of a roller-coaster ride than the last one I saw. Usually, productions of this play are a bit like ordering off a set menu where you can have one item from each column – so you can have the laughs and the viciousness, or the deep hurt and the vulnerability, or the rage and the regret, but you can’t have them all together. Not this time. This time, thanks to a stunning quartet of actors, you get the lot. Imelda Staunton, as you’d expect, is a perfect Martha, and she does a staggering job of capturing all of the character’s oppositions (fierce/pathetic, funny/vicious, loving/hateful, wounded/wounding and all the rest), but in this production it’s really George’s play, which is by no means always the case. Conleth Hill is extraordinary – very, very funny, he somehow manages the odd trick of dominating while (or possibly by) being downtrodden, and he’s exceptionally moving when he allows George’s sardonic mask to slip.

As the younger couple, Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots are also spectacularly good. Treadaway’s Nick is slick, ambitious, and somewhat lacking a moral compass – he can barely be bothered to disguise how much he dislikes his wife, and he doesn’t appear to have any qualms at all about making out with Martha while George is in the room. And Imogen Poots’s Honey is a riot until she sobers up and starts to dimly grasp the truth about her own marriage; this is Poots’s professional stage debut, and it’s a very fine performance indeed.

There’s fine, unobtrusive direction from James Macdonald and a handsome/worn-around-the-edges Craftsman living-room set from Tom Pye, but you don’t go to this play for the set design or for directorial tricks. You go to hear four great actors dish out Albee’s spectacularly brittle dialogue, and this production delivers all the fireworks you could want. There’s music in this play’s dialogue, and these actors find all of it.

Do I have any complaints? Only one: it’s great that this was filmed for NT Live, but I wish that, like Staunton’s Gypsy, it had been taped for television.

Better to be dead

whisper house other palace

What to make of Whisper House, the new(ish) musical currently running at The Other Palace? Well… not much. For a start, it’s very short. The Thursday matinée I attended last week began fairly promptly at just after 2.30pm, and including a (completely unnecessary) 20-minute intermission we were out of the theatre more or less on the dot of 4. Signs in the lobby suggested it ran an hour and 45 minutes. They lie.

Beyond that, it’s an odd piece, and it doesn’t remotely add up to a satisfying piece of theatre. Set in and around a lighthouse on the coast of Maine during World War Two Whisper House is a ghost story of sorts: a young boy is taken in by his aunt after his parents are lost to the war, the aunt has a secret which may or may not have something to do with the singing ghosts that haunt the lighthouse she keeps, and the aunt’s Japanese handyman puts her and the young boy on a collision course with the local sheriff when the US government orders that Japanese residents be kept away from sensitive coastal installations like lighthouses. To say the show has a ‘plot’ would be to lend the writing a dignity it doesn’t deserve; there’s a rather too on-the-nose programme note from the lyricist/librettist (Kyle Jarrow) drawing a link between Trump’s xenophobia and World War Two internment camps, with a coy suggestion that “xenophobia isn’t unique to the US” – tell us about it, we’ve all lived through last year’s appalling referendum campaign and the even more appalling aftermath – and that, unfortunately, is more interesting than any of the lines Mr. Jarrow gives his “characters” (I’m using that word in the very loosest sense). The ghosts sing, the sheriff broods, the aunt limps around the stage like a depressive cross between Katharine Hepburn and Jake the Peg, the kid behaves like a perfect little proto-fascist, and after about an hour and a quarter of stage time you’re out on the street looking for a coffee. It’s true that brevity is supposed to be the soul of wit, but unfortunately Mr. Jarrow’s book and lyrics don’t contain any.

There’s some interesting (if occasionally repetitive) music by Duncan Sheik, though, and the cast, led by Dianne Pilkington as the limping aunt, are all beyond reproach. Playing the two ghosts, Simon Bailey and Naimh Perry get the bulk of the singing, and they’re both superb, even when the words they’re singing are not (‘Better to be Dead’, the opening number, gets reprised so often that it makes the recurring ‘Marilyn Monroe’ in Blood Brothers look like a monument to subtlety and restraint). The show looks good, too, with a suitably evocative set (Andrew Riley) and projections (Mark Holthusen). It’s a pity Gregory Clarke’s sound design is so muddy… except given Mr. Jarrow’s lyrics, which are terrible, perhaps it isn’t (sorry, Kyle – ‘Japan’ does not rhyme with ‘land’).

Put simply, the show is a mess. It isn’t a dead loss, because the cast are worth the cost of the ticket (assuming you sat in the cheap seats) and the physical production, sound design aside, is flawless, but for all the pleasures in the performances and (some of) the music, it just doesn’t work. It’s far too slight a piece to stand alone; there isn’t enough story here to sustain two acts, and shoehorning in an interval, which blows a great big hole in the tiny little scrap of tension director Adam Lenson has managed to establish during the first forty minutes, is not the solution. Whisper House might – might – work a little better as half of a double-bill, but it might work better still if it was (re)written by someone who isn’t Kyle Jarrow.

Reviews of the premiere production in San Diego in 2010 suggest the show had all the same problems the first time around; that given, it’s difficult to see why The Other Palace put it on the schedule in the first place, since it’s clear that no serious attempt has been made since 2010 to fix the show’s (many) weak spots. It’s an interesting curiosity, and I’m grateful I got to see it, but I’m not sure the other 36 people in the audience last Thursday afternoon all felt the same way, since the tepid applause barely lasted through the bows. The cast deserved better; the material, I’m afraid, did not. On The Other Palace’s website, their mission statement informs us that “discovering, developing and reimagining musical theatre is at the heart of what The Other Palace is about.” That’s a laudable goal – but given the talent that’s out there, surely they could have found something better than this?

God damn it, voilà!

H2S

Or, a few brief thoughts about Wilton’s Music Hall‘s very, very problematic revival of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, which closed yesterday:

  • It is very nearly impossible to kill this material. Many of this production’s reviews have rather sniffily compared this show to Loesser‘s much better-known Guys and Dolls; it’s true that workplace mores have changed more than a little since the show’s debut in 1962, but to assume any shortcomings are the fault of the material rather than the director is too easy. Done with the right (light) touch, it can play like gangbusters, even today.
  • Saying that upfront may lead you to some assumptions about this production. Those assumptions would be entirely correct.
  • It’s worth saying upfront that everybody involved here clearly respects and loves the material. The production has, for example, paid for a 9-piece band; that’s a huge outlay in a 300-seat venue, and the score – a longtime favourite of mine – sounds terrific. The singing, too, is distinguished throughout. But while everybody involved clearly loves and respects the material, it is unfortunately not absolutely clear whether everybody involved understands it.
  • A note for Benji Sperring, this production’s director: IT. IS. A. SATIRE. And that goes for every character, not just the more obviously caricatured supporting roles.
  • There’s obviously more than one way to play a character, but in this case it’s worth going back to Robert Morse‘s performance in the original (easily enough available on film), although you don’t necessarily have to imitate it. This is a story about ambition – the central character, J. Pierrepont Finch, rises from the mailroom to chairman of a huge corporation in an impossibly short time by following the pithy advice of the self-help book (itself a parody) by Shepherd Mead that gives the show its title – but it is not simply a portrayal of a ruthless young man’s swift corporate ascent, and it’s also not a treatise against the evils of big business. It’s a satire – but a gentle, knowing one.
  • The thing about Morse’s portrayal: he was adorable in the role. However duplicitous the character became, however badly he behaved towards Rosemary, his love-interest, you rooted for him. Watch the film: there’s a sweetness and a guilelessness to Morse’s performance that lets his Finch get away with pretty much anything.
  • Under Sperring’s direction, Mark Pickering plays Finch as a lizard in a suit. And if the acting choices weren’t misguided enough, it doesn’t help at all that Nic Farman, the lighting designer, chooses to illuminate Finch’s many fourth-wall-breaking takes to the audience either by bathing the stage in green light, or by isolating Finch in an ice-blue spotlight. Under those conditions, there’s no opportunity at all for Pickering to communicate anything resembling warmth – and if Finch comes across as cold, if you can’t like him, the show starts to come apart at the seams. This simply is not a story in which a villain/antihero prevails – but that’s what you get here.
  • Given the rest of the production, my inclination would be to blame the director. I’m pretty sure the performance I saw Pickering give is the performance Sperring wanted. Make of that what you will.
  • Hannah Grover’s Rosemary, on the other hand, is pretty much perfect. She has the right combination of wide-eyed ingenuousness and steel backbone, she delivers a delightful ‘Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm’ (yes, the show’s sexual politics are firmly rooted in the early 60s), and she’s warmly funny throughout.
  • Andrew C. Wadsworth, luxury-cast as boss JB Biggley, is an absolute delight.
  • So is Lizzii Hills’s delightfully dim Hedy LaRue, Biggley’s smart-dumb bimbo of a mistress. My inner feminist might have cringed, but Hills is so funny that I didn’t care.
  • Maisey Bawden’s Miss Jones is in the Lillias White mode – in ‘Brotherhood of Man’, she lets rip with a stream of fabulous scat-singing, rather than an operatic obbligato. It’s not quite the joke Loesser wrote, but the joke does work (at least, it worked in the 1995 Broadway revival – which, yes, I saw). It doesn’t work here because Bawden simply reads as being at least thirty years too young to portray a starchy, spinsterly senior office manager – and while Loesser didn’t write scat-singing for Miss Jones anyway, in either case the joke is about an older, conservative, straight-laced woman falling under Finch’s “spell” and letting loose at the climax of the song, rather than just a supporting character who hasn’t sung before revealing that she has a voice.
  • The production has clearly been put up on the kind of budget that makes the Southwark Playhouse look like an offshoot of the Las Vegas Strip. Mike Lees’s pop-art corporate HQ backdrop looks perfectly fine, although reports elsewhere suggest the (presumably plywood) elevator doors have been somewhat temperamental. The costumes and wigs, I’m afraid, simply look cheap, to the point where the waist of Rosemary’s dress is cinched with a length of ribbon instead of a belt.
  • Whatever the production’s shortcomings – and the production, in case you hadn’t guessed by now, has many, many shortcomings – it’s a treat to hear this music performed live, and performed well.
  • Lovely as the venue is, it is less than a treat to sit on the Wilton Music Hall’s seats, which resemble something you’d expect to find in a school assembly, for the length of the ninety-minute first act. Yes, that first act is long, and is always long. If it’s done well, it passes in a blink; if it isn’t, it’s a real arse-paralyser, and so are those chairs.

The bottom line: it doesn’t work, and I’m glad I went. The band is great, there are some incredibly talented performers in supporting roles, it’s a wonderful score, and any production of this show, on some level, is going to be worthwhile. But it’s a far more nuanced piece than this director understands, and the misguided choices surrounding the central role torpedo the production right at the top of the show. Pity.

And in future, if you’re going to see anything longer than the briefest one-act in this venue, be warned: take a cushion, or anaesthetise your buttocks before you go in.