Whatever happened to Dainty June?

Or, two reviews in one. There’s a tenuous link between these shows – I mean, other than that I saw them both – and it’s that the central female character in each is named Fran, and that I’ve seen each actress-playing-Fran play June in a revival of Gypsy: Daisy Maywood at Curve, and Gemma Sutton at the Savoy. And in both cases, they’re the best thing about the show they’re in right now. Given the shows they’re in right now, that doesn’t necessarily suggest a very high bar, but they’re both wonderful, even if the shows surrounding them are not.

Strictly Ballroom, to be fair, counts as a near-miss. Baz Lurhmann‘s gaudily kitsch camp-fest of a film is an obvious choice for adaptation as a stage musical, and the show – somewhat retooled after its Australian premiere two years ago – gets a lot of things right. The plot is still completely ludicrous, the camp/bitchy one-liners still come thick and fast, and the costumes are so LOUD you’ll come out of the theatre with day-glo lime-green taffeta permanently etched on the back of your eyeballs. The book, “adapted” by Terry Johnson from Luhrmann and Craig Pearce’s original(s) (Luhrmann and Pearce have co-written every incarnation of the material so far, from the play that begat the film to the book the musical used in Australia), is fast and funny, Drew McOnie’s choreography in the big production numbers is sensational, and Soutra Gilmore’s revolving multilayered set almost, nearly makes it look as if the production had a lavish budget.

There’s a superb cast, too. As Fran – just Fran – the mousy, bespectacled young woman who has only been dancing for two years and who is yearning to express her inner longings via the paso doble blah blah blah (this is not a show where you’re going to be surprised by anything the plot throws at you, even if you’ve never seen the film), Gemma Sutton is pretty much perfect – she sings gloriously, tugs your heartstrings convincingly, and has whatever quality it is that draws you to someone whenever they’re onstage. Opposite her, as Scott Hastings, the dancer who just wants to dance his own steps but the judges won’t let him blah blah blah, we have Dale White standing in for an indisposed Sam Lips (who incidentally has the best name in showbiz since Buster Skeggs), and he’s perfectly OK. He dances very well indeed (he’s the production’s dance captain as well as an understudy), acts and sings well enough, and doesn’t leave anyone feeling short-changed, although he also doesn’t quite bring the fiery star quality you perhaps need to sell material as silly as this. The wonderful Eve Polycarpou makes something warmly touching out of Just Fran’s ethnic cliché of an Abuela, Tamsin Carroll’s comic timing as Shirley Hastings, Scott’s insanely ambitious mother, could cut through steel, and the supporting roles are all perfectly, colourfully filled.

So what’s missing? Bluntly, a score. Luhrmann and his colleagues haven’t given the job of writing the show’s score to one single songwriting team. Instead, they seem to have collared anyone who didn’t run away fast enough and persuaded/coerced them into supplying one or two numbers, and then thrown in the songs from the movie soundtrack for good measure. This doesn’t work at all; the new songs are uniformly dismal, the familiarity of the older ones from the movie makes the new songs seem even worse, and the show, which is great fun whenever the actors are speaking or dancing, sags badly whenever anybody opens their mouth and starts to sing. Even Ms. Sutton can’t quite save it, although she comes closer than anyone else to selling the parade of forgettable songs she’s being paid to sing (actually that’s not quite fair: Beautiful Surprise, Scott and Fran’s big duet, is insinuating enough that you probably won’t forget it in a hurry, although it’s so utterly banal that you’ll keep trying). Strictly Ballroom, at least in this incarnation, is certainly a viable musical, so it’s too bad that the music is the element that holes the production below the waterline. Really, the only way the show is going to work is if they throw the whole lot out and start again, preferably using people who have at least a passing acquaintance with the concept of wit.

Promises Promises, at the Southwark Playhouse, has more or less exactly the opposite problem. While it’s rarely revived in this country, it’s a minor 60s classic, and the music – so far, Burt Bacharach‘s single original score for the theatre – is peerless. The material surrounding the score, on the other hand, is less than completely successful, although that’s partly simply because sexual politics are very different now than they were when the show premiered on Broadway in 1968. Based on the Billy Wilder/Jack Lemmon/Shirley MacLaine film The Apartment, Promises Promises is the sordid-but-wholesome story of Chuck Baxter, a lowly office grunt who lends his apartment to various senior colleagues for them to use as a venue for their extramarital liaisons, then discovers that Fran Kubelik, the woman he’s trying to date, is the frequent houseguest of his boss. Wacky hijinks – including a suicide attempt – ensue, and it all ends happily ever after, three arse-numbing hours after we all first walked into the theatre. The saving grace is the score, and it’s brilliant – a parade of dazzling standards including Half As Big As Life, Knowing When To Leave, Wanting Things, Whoever You Are (I Love You), and the glorious I’ll Never Fall In Love Again. As for the book – if you’d like to see a version of this story that really works, go back to Billy Wilder.

The problem, actually, isn’t that the material is sexist – it’s a period piece, and while attitudes have certainly changed, it hasn’t become uncomfortable in the way that, for example, Sweet Charity (also with a book by Neil Simon) has. It’s simply that Neil Simon’s compulsive, reflexive instinct to go for the gag doesn’t sit very well next to the melodrama of Fran’s suicide attempt in Act Two – we go from three-handkerchief weepie to a wince-inducingly schticky musical number from the (very stereotypically) Jewish doctor who lives downstairs in the space of about three lines. It may be possible to negotiate that transition without making it seem like a great big yawning chasm, but Bronagh Lagan and her cast don’t manage it.

Throughout, unfortunately, the tone is often at least a little off. Lagan tells us in a programme note that she loves The Apartment, film noir, and clowning, but she doesn’t appear to have much idea of how to balance those elements in a production of Promises Promises. Her leading actors – the wonderful Daisy Maywood as Fran Kubelik, and the much, much less wonderful Gabriel Vick as Baxter – are costumed and styled to look, it seems, as similar as possible to Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon in the original Wilder film, right down to Fran Kubelik’s rather severe short haircut; since they aren’t Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon, this choice does them no favours. There are noirish projections of Manhattan brownstones visible on the upper level of Simon Anthony Wells’s set in some scenes; sometimes they’re effective, and sometimes they work against the comedic content of the scene in front of them. The pacing is sometimes painfully slack. Wells’s set is dominated by a rising garage door which reveals a bar or Chuck Baxter’s apartment, depending on the scene, and you can while away the dead moments by guessing whether or not it’s going to open/close properly the next time it’s used (answer: probably not). When (most) people are singing, the show is a delight – but there’s a lot of space between the songs. It doesn’t help, either, that Gabriel Vick’s Chuck Baxter is barely audible when he sings – and that’s from the third row (of five). He’s charming enough and funny enough in the dialogue scenes, but when he starts to sing he simply disappears. It’s as if he’s interpreted Half As Big As Life, the title of his opening number, as a stage direction; at Saturday’s matinee, his performance of the title song late in the second act was met with stone cold silence from the audience, because nobody could hear him over the backing vocals.

The production is well worth seeing, though, despite the (many) deficiencies in the direction, thanks to Daisy Maywood’s luminously lovely performance as Fran Kubelik and Alex Young’s showstopping, hilarious turn as Marge, the man-eating drunk who picks Chuck up in a bar in the first scene in the second act. It’s not simply that the show comes to life whenever they’re onstage, although it certainly does; they’re both so good that it’s worth sitting through the rest of it to see these two performances. As Marge, Young has two scenes and half a song, and she very nearly walks away with the entire show; Maywood’s Fran, meanwhile, is sincerely played and beautifully sung, and she makes the plot’s happy ending genuinely touching, which is no mean feat in a production in which so little works as it should. This is the text used in the recent Broadway revival, which means two more Bacharach standards – Say A Little Prayer and A House Is Not A Home – are uncomfortably shoehorned in as additional solos for Fran; in context, neither song makes much sense, but Maywood sings them beautifully and just about manages to sell them in character. Maywood and Young both, thank God, bring Gabriel Vick’s semi-inert performance somewhat to life when he’s sharing the stage with them; in I’ll Never Fall In Love Again, his big second-act duet with Maywood, he’s even mostly audible.

In the end, though – like Strictly Ballroom, albeit for different reasons – this is a wildly imperfect production. Maywood and Young are great, and it’s lovely to get the opportunity to hear Bacharach and David’s marvellous score in an actual production rather than just via a CD, but Bronagh Lagan consistently fails to capture the show’s tone. Better pacing would help – the production could easily stand to lose at least twenty minutes – but Lagan seems to think she’s directing a film noir, and doesn’t seem to understand the difference between the show and the source material.

How Glory Goes

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Or, ten things about Jonathan Butterell‘s revival of Adam Guettel and Tina Landau‘s Floyd Collins at Wilton’s Music Hall:

  1. If you’re going to write a show in which the title character spends nearly the entire performance trapped in a single spot, you’d better have something up your sleeve to keep people interested. Floyd Collins, which is based on real events, tells the story of the death of the title character, an American cave explorer in the 1920s whose entrapment underground sparked the first modern media circus as journalists raced to cover his rescue. The show’s secret weapon is Adam Guettel’s astonishing score, which blends a set of musical influences ranging from bluegrass to Bartok into something which turns out to be far more theatrically potent than you might guess from the slightly remote-sounding cast recording from the original off-Broadway production. The music is often dissonant, at least by the standards of contemporary musical theatre (anyone describing it as ‘atonal’ should be taken outside and beaten until they promise never to do so again), but it’s also surprisingly lush given that there are only eight pieces in the band, it’s full of soaring melodies, and the show’s big musical moments carry a tremendous emotional pull. The orchestrations, incidentally, are by Bruce Coughlin, who isn’t mentioned anywhere in the programme or on the show’s window card, and should be.
  2. Tina Landau’s book is a model of efficiency, and that’s a compliment. In this show, everything is in service to the music. In most musicals, the book is the backbone; that isn’t the case here.
  3. The lengthy opening sequence in which Floyd explores the caves is a musical tour-de-force, and a masterclass in how to use sound to tell a story. When Floyd finds the Great Sand Cave, he yodels a line of music, and an echo comes back (via the miracle of electronic voice capturing) – and then Guettel brilliantly transforms Floyd’s singing and the subsequent echos into a fugue.It’s a thrilling moment in the theatre, and it must be fiendishly difficult to perform, but it’s also a strikingly unusual piece of theatrical storytelling: you don’t see the cave, you simply hear it, and thanks to Guettel’s dazzling score, that’s more than enough.
  4. Or at least, it was more than enough for me. This is a musical that expects you to listen, and listen carefully. You can’t let it wash over you, the ending is bleak, the music is very demanding, and not everyone is going to enjoy it. And that’s OK. There should be room for things like this as well as for the Phantoms and Wickeds.
  5. Jonathan Butterell’s clearly-focused, unshowy direction puts the material centre-stage and gets out of the way. There’s little choreography, the set is mostly scaffolding, there are relatively few props, and the backdrop is the artfully-distressed bare plaster walls of the theatre itself. Nothing feels superfluous – at any given moment, it’s clear where your attention should be directed.
  6. The central performances are impeccable. Ashley Robinson sings the title role superbly, and makes that difficult opening number seem effortless. He’s an engaging actor, too, and he never puts a foot wrong in a role which must require tremendous concentration (for most of the show, he’s directly facing the audience on a narrow platform above the stage). His careful, restrained delivery of the show’s final number, ‘How Glory Goes’, is very moving indeed.
  7. That final number is as moving as anything written for the musical stage in the past twenty-five years. Guettel brilliantly dramatises Floyd’s death, again, using echoes: in the last sixteen bars of music, as Floyd once again sings against the echoes of his own voice, the band gradually dies away beneath him, and then the echoes slowly die away too. It’s a stunning, powerful ending, even if you know what’s coming.
  8. Lovely work, too, from Sara Ingram as Floyd’s stepmother,  and Samuel Thomas as his brother. Among the ensemble, the singing is flawless; the acting, however, is occasionally a little overcooked, most significantly in a song called ‘Is That Remarkable?’, a slyly sarcastic depiction of the spiralling media circus surrounding the attempts to rescue Floyd from the cave. It’s a clever song with biting lyrics, and the actors attack Guettel’s scalding three-part harmonies with enormous verve – but they also play the subtext on the surface to a degree that threatens to cross the line into cheap mugging, and less would have been considerably more. Not everything needs to be underlined.
  9. If there was any justice – and in showbusiness there often isn’t – Rebecca Trehearn would be well on the way to becoming a huge, huge star. She’s the real deal, and this is the second time this year I’ve seen her give a brilliant performance in a difficult role. As Floyd’s sister Nellie, who we’re told has recently been discharged from an asylum, Trehearn is simply mesmerising. She has tremendous presence, she finds precisely the right balance between adult strength and childlike simplicity, and she sings her (difficult) music beautifully.
  10. Going to the theatre in this country, particularly in London, often leaves you feeling as if someone is trying to extract money from you via every possible orifice. It’s refreshing, then, to arrive at Wilton’s – which is a lovely space to begin with – and find that programmes, which are so often a complete rip-off, cost just £3.00, which in this instance buys you a glossy A4 publication containing several full-colour production photos, along with bios of the writers, creative team, and cast. Ticket prices are more than fair, drinks are reasonable, the staff are friendly, and the toilets are clean. Other theatres, please take note.

One stepladder, other stepladder

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Or, Southwark Playhouse‘s wonderful revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s rarely-performed musical Allegro, which I saw last Saturday afternoon. Bullet points, because it’s been that kind of week:

  • Way back in 1947, Stephen Sondheim was famously a gofer on the original Broadway production. He obviously paid attention: it’s fascinating to connect the dots between this material and his later work.
  • It really, really, REALLY doesn’t play like a show from 1947. Or rather, in terms of the writing, it’s 1947 vocabulary constructed using syntax that, at the time, must have seemed quite alien in a Broadway musical. The writing throughout is very, very stylised, apart from in the major solos and duets; in particular, the show’s (spoken/intoned) Greek chorus lends the show’s storytelling an almost Brechtian air that would not necessarily have sat comfortably with an audience expecting to see another Carousel.
  • The score is wonderful. The show may not have found much success on Broadway, but it’s difficult to fault the music. The two big takeaway tunes – ‘So Far’ and ‘The Gentleman is a Dope’ – are highlights, but they’re the tip of the iceberg. The choral writing, in particular, is often quite beautiful.
  • Hammerstein’s (original, not adapted from another source) story of a smalltown doctor making his way in the big city, on the other hand, is rather slight. We’re clearly supposed to infer that Joseph Taylor, Jr. is an Everyman figure and that the story of his life is supposed to carry some kind of metaphorical weight, but the sweetly charming first act doesn’t provide a firm enough foundation for the ethical dilemma the character faces in the later scenes in Act Two.
  • The Majestic Theatre‘s large, wide stage and proscenium arch also probably didn’t do the show any favours. Thom Southerland’s Southwark Playhouse production gains enormously from the small space: viewing Joseph Taylor, Jr. up close, it’s very easy to become invested in his story, despite the thinness of some scenes in Hammerstein’s book.
  • Southerland’s staging is more or less flawless. Using a traverse stage puts the action right in the audience’s lap, which with this material is an enormous advantage. The budget was obviously minimal – Anthony Lamble’s cleverly simple set consists of a couple of stepladders, a couple of interlocking planks, a moveable scaffold, and an assortment of wooden chairs – but Southerland and his choreographer, Lee Proud, turn simplicity into a virtue, keeping the show’s (almost) ever-present chorus in (almost) constant motion, so that there’s always something new to look at.
  • Never mind the tiny budget – some key moments are executed with considerable flair. The staging of ‘The Gentleman is a Dope’ is masterful: much of the song is sung from the upper level of a scaffold which chorus members move from one end of the stage to the other, above a line of umbrella-toting customers at (what I assume we’re supposed to infer is) a taxi rank.
  • The performances are impeccable, right down to every last member of the ensemble, and Gary Tushaw is an enormously appealing Everyman. The singing is superb, both from each individual principal player and from the chorus.
  • The production does very well indeed by the score’s two hit songs. Leah West’s ‘So Far’ is shimmeringly lovely, and Katie Bernstein’s sharply rueful ‘The Gentleman is a Dope’ is probably the evening’s highlight (or rather, afternoon’s highlight, I saw a matinee) – all the more remarkable given than she sings a good chunk of it while being trundled from one end of the stage to the other on top of a scaffold.
  • Ideal as the performances are, the cast can’t quite paper over the significant second-act cracks in Hammerstein’s book. Taylor’s big epiphany at the show’s climax is a huge dramatic outburst that the rest of the show doesn’t quite support – and because the scene, as written, doesn’t quite work to begin with, the actors, particularly Tushaw, push too hard, so that it feels like the show takes a sudden left turn from A Real Nice Clambake straight into Act Three of King Lear. The show, structurally, is far ahead of its time, and here is where it shows the most: what the moment needs, essentially, is something along the lines of Rose’s Turn, which was never going to be forthcoming from Richard Rodgers – at least, not in 1947.
  • Yes, every note of the big Act Two ballet is included. These performers mostly aren’t dancers, but Lee Proud gets a tremendously entertaining account of the title song from his cast. Again, the tight space probably helps.
  • There’s a band of 8, and I was never aware of the unpleasantly metallic sound of a synthesiser string pad, which is often a feature of reduced orchestrations in this kind of production.Mark Cumberland’s new orchestrations get an impressive range of colours out of this small band, and there’s sensitive music direction from Dean Austin. The chorus singing is impressively tight, the production is only very lightly amplified (you might question the need for any amplification at all in such a small space, but this theatre is housed in a former warehouse and I suspect the auditorium’s natural acoustics are somewhat challenging), and it’s thrilling to get to experience this score up close – at least, for musical theatre geeks like me.
  • It’s a nice feature of Southwark Playhouse productions that they bring the whole band, rather than just the MD, out to take a bow during the curtain call. The musicians are as important as anyone on the stage; in musical theatre, that’s too often forgotten.
  • In terms of bang for your buck, the Southwark Playhouse is a bargain. Tickets are £25, preview tickets are significantly cheaper, programmes are £3, drinks are very reasonable indeed. In this instance, for £25 you got a cast of 16 professional actors and 8 musicians – all of whom got paid – giving a thoroughly lovely account of a beautiful, rarely-heard score, directed by someone who is clearly an expert at getting the absolute most of out every penny spent on each production. Not only that, they do extremely impressive outreach work within their local community, particularly via their Young Company. In more ways than one, they do good work.

Overall? If Southerland and his cast never quite manage to convince you that you’re watching a lost masterpiece, it’s still wonderful to have the opportunity to hear this score in a theatre. It’s never going to be revived on Broadway or in the West End; while the show doesn’t quite work, there’s more than enough good in it to make it worth another look, and the score, as I said, is glorious.

Déjà vu all over again

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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?

 

 

 

Is that a pink envelope down your underpants, or are you just pleased to see me?

 

There are people who’d probably have me shot for saying this: as much as I love the score, actually attending a production of The Threepenny Opera is not always particularly high on any list of things I’d like to do. Possibly that’s a result of having sat through rather too many po-faced classroom dissections of Brecht, or maybe it’s residual trauma from a University of Toronto School of Music production years ago which, while beautifully sung, took the ‘opera’ part of the title a little bit too seriously. It was performed on a set that could have doubled for a revival of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West,   and the director and cast approached the material with such humourless reverence that I think I aged five years during the three hours or so it took to sit through the show. The National Theatre‘s new revival, though, offers a “new adaptation” by Simon Shepherd, a spectacular cast, and the chance to hear the music presented in a way that closely resembles the original 1928 production, and Travelex tickets are very reasonable. And I’d forgotten, when I booked, how back-breakingly uncomfortable the seats in the Olivier can be.

Fortunately it was well worth the lower back pain. Translator/adapter Simon Stephens and director Rufus Norris both, thank God, understand that the material works best when it’s delivered with an underlying sense of fun, rather than as a straight-faced sit-up-and-eat-your-broccoli treatise on the corruption at the heart of so-called “civilised” society. This might be as close as you’ll get to Brecht-as-musical-comedy, but it works: Norris’s production is a gleefully nasty, funny/brutal ride through London’s underworld, and it’s tremendously entertaining.

It is not, though, quite pure, unadulterated Brecht and Weill. Stephens’s “new adaptation” isn’t exactly a top-down rewrite of the original, but it’s more than simply a loose (and very sweary) translation of the script. All the plot points you expect are present and correct; the biggest change is the addition of The Pink Envelope, a dossier of blackmail material on the future king which Macheath keeps in his underpants, which  (spoiler alert) becomes the means by which Polly secures Macheath’s release from prison in the final scene. It certainly works, and makes for a couple of amusing sight gags, and it means the ending, in this production, makes some kind of dramatic sense – but this change also subverts Brecht’s satirical point about the inherent ludicrousness of happy endings in a certain kind of popular entertainment. Purists might scream; I enjoyed it. There’s also, because there weren’t enough great numbers in this score already, the addition of Surabaya-Johnny as an extra number for Jenny Diver. Again, it works; whether it’s necessary is an entirely different question.

It does, though, give Sharon Small a bit more to do, and that’s always welcome. Her broken Glaswegian doll of a Jenny is this production’s beating heart, and she gives Jenny a compelling combination of ferocity and fragility. She doesn’t have the greatest singing voice in the cast (her single other musical credit, at least as listed in this production’s programme, is the Donmar’s revival of The Threepenny Opera twenty-odd years ago, in which she played Polly; I saw it and have the recording, and I’d somehow completely forgotten it was her), but she’s a formidable actress, and her Surabaya-Johnny is surprisingly moving.

If Sharon Small provides the production’s heart, Rosalie Craig’s Polly Peachum is undoubtedly its brain. Craig’s Polly is a seemingly straight-laced, bespectacled school swot with an inner core of pure steel. It goes without saying that her singing is glorious – her face-off with Debbie Kurup’s feisty, funny Lucy Brown in the Jealousy Duet is by far the production’s musical highlight, with her Pirate Jenny running it a very close second – but it’s a fascinating acting performance too; for once, a character who often seems like a cardboard cutout is rendered in three dimensions. This Polly knows she’s the cleverest person in the room; she’s simultaneously warmly engaging and icily dispassionate, and from the moment Craig tears into Pirate Jenny it’s clear we’re watching a truly formidable woman. And to cap it all, she can’t half time a comic belch.

The production’s comedic tone, on the other hand, is set by the wonderful Nick Holder and Haydn Gwynne as Polly’s lowlife parents. Gwynne’s Mrs. Peachum is an acid-tongued, perpetually hungover riot – all sharp edges and hard angles, like Olive Oyl painted by Otto Dix (her halter-necked long red dress is a direct replica of the dress worn in Dix’s Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber). Holder’s Peachum is even better – an effete, menacing, bisexual thug in Cuban heels, a sharp suit, and a Louise Brooks bob. They’re a splendid double-act – as unpleasant as they need to be, but at the same time truly funny.

There’s superb work, in fact, right across the ensemble. Everyone hits the right tone – sour, brutal, not remotely ingratiating, but with a comic edge – and everybody understands the piece’s Epic Theatre roots, but Norris, thank God, lets his company have fun with the material, and they do. Even the smallest role is perfectly cast, and there are memorable turns from Matt Cross as a perpetually-grinning policeman, George Ikediashi as a memorably velvet-voiced ballad singer (and the messenger in the final scene), and especially from Jamie Beddard as a hilariously foul-mouthed wheelchair-bound member of Macheath’s gang. The band, under the direction of David Shrubsole, offer a tight, tart rendition of Weill’s brilliant score. Norris’s staging, like Stephens’s adaptation of the text, might not be undiluted Epic Theatre, but it knows where the material comes from: this Threepenny Opera is sometimes spectacular but never pretty, and Norris and Imogen Knight, his choreographer, keep the action flowing seamlessly (and blessedly quickly) across Vicki Mortimer’s less-simple-than-it-looks set of frames, paper screens, and scenery-shop staircases.

Which leaves Rory Kinnear’s Macheath, the centre around which the rest of the production revolves. From his first entrance – from the flies aboard a silver crescent moon, ostentatiously dry-humping Rosalie Craig’s Polly – he’s certainly a commanding presence, although he never quite offers the kind of flamboyant star turn other actors have given in the role. Kinnear’s Macheath is a grim-faced, deadpan career killer – thoroughly ruthless, but he derives pride rather than joy from his work. In a production located far closer to the present day than to 1928 – we’re repeatedly told Macheath and Brown served together in Kandahar – that’s an interesting choice; there’s more than a touch of the career politician about him, and he’s as much a villain as a hero. Much has been written of Kinnear’s rediscovery of his long-dormant singing voice, apparently more or less unused since he sang in choirs as a teenager; he’s good, and he more than does the score justice, but he’s still an actor-who-sings, and in a few of the more demanding passages his lack of vocal security is obvious. He’s hardly the first actor-who-sings-a-bit to take on this role, though, and he’s certainly a better singer than Tom Hollander, who did it at the Donmar. Kinnear’s performance is, unusually, somewhat smaller than the bigger-than-life supporting turns surrounding him; it shouldn’t work, but it does, and his quietly chilling performance provides the anchor that stops the production from degenerating into an outsized Brechtian pantomime.

It could still do with losing about ten minutes, and if you need any kind of lower back support you should probably take Ibuprofen with you – really, those seats are painful – but you can’t have everything, and in more or less every other respect Norris’s production is hugely entertaining, even if you think you might be allergic to Brecht (I should admit at this point, since I haven’t already, that while I do love this score, I’m one of those people who prefers Weill’s American period). Messing around with a beloved classic is always a gamble, and usually ill-advised; in this case, Norris and Stephens’s alternative take on the material works triumphantly – though as I said, purists may throw their hands up in horror –  and you’ll go a long way before you hear a more exciting performance of this score.

Now, would it be too bourgeois of me to ask the National to make a cast album?

 

Mrs. ‘Arris Goes To Sheffield

 

flowers for mrs harris

 

This is something very special. ‘Flowers for Mrs. Harris’ is a new musical by Richard Taylor and Rachel Wagstaff, based on a novel by Paul Gallico. Gallico’s Mrs. Harris is a widowed cleaning-lady in postwar London who sees a Dior dress hanging in the bedroom of one of her wealthy clients and is so struck by its beauty that she embarks on a quest to buy one for herself, in the process bringing about profound changes both in her own life and in the lives of the people she encounters on her journey to Paris. The novel is slight but charming; in 1992 it was made into a slight but less-than-charming TV movie starring Angela Lansbury, and you’d never guess from either that the property could be transformed into a musical that is as moving as anything I’ve seen in – well, let’s say the last twenty years.

What Taylor and Wagstaff have done is quite simple, although Taylor’s (often very beautiful) music is anything but: between them, they’ve done an extraordinarily good job of making you see the world through their heroine’s eyes, and feel everything she feels. Taylor’s score is through-composed (in the operatic sense; the show has a fair amount of spoken dialogue, though more in the second act than the first), with few extractable songs, and you aren’t going to come out of the theatre humming the show’s big hit – but while the music is certainly complex, it somehow also manages to go straight for the heartstrings. Taylor and Wagstaff find something profoundly moving in this rather odd story about a woman whose life is unexpectedly transformed by an encounter with an expensive dress, and they’ve spun from it a musical of considerable, surprising power.

There’s something almost miraculous, too, about Clare Burt’s performance in the title role. She’s nothing like Angela Lansbury in the film, thank God – much as I love Lansbury, playing working-class characters who are not music-hall caricatures is not her greatest strength, and every note of her performance in the film rings false. Burt, by contrast, is absolutely compelling. Mrs. Harris’s Road to Damascus moment when she first sees the dress ten minutes into Act One (cleverly suggested by Mark Henderson’s endlessly subtle lighting, you don’t see an actual Dior dress until a third of the way into Act Two) could easily seem ridiculous or comical, but in Burt’s performance it’s neither (in the film, that scene doesn’t work at all). It’s a surprisingly moving, surprisingly emotional moment, as is the parade of dresses when Mrs. Harris finally gets to the Dior boutique in Paris. As someone who is usually completely uninterested in clothes (I mean, I wear them, obviously, but I didn’t even pay much attention to fashion when I was a teenager, and I haven’t been a teenager for a very long time now), I would never have expected a fashion show to move me to the brink of tears, but Mrs. Harris is enraptured by the moment, and because she is, so are we. It goes without saying, of course, that Burt’s singing is superb, but this is as remarkable an acting performance as you’re likely to see in a musical this year. It’s not a great big grandstanding star turn along the lines of Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard (not that there’s anything wrong with that) – it’s simply a quietly luminous portrayal of an ordinary woman who is transformed by an encounter with something she finds beautiful. Burt, along with the writers, treads a very careful line – the material is unabashedly sentimental, and in the wrong hands the whole show could easily turn to treacle – and their softly-softly, subtle approach pays huge dividends.

Elsewhere, the cast includes a selection of musical theatre’s best and brightest performers, all working at the top of their game (and all playing more than one role). Mark Meadows is a joy as the late Mr. Harris (act one) and a kindly Marquis who befriends Mrs. Harris in Paris, and then there are glorious turns from Anna-Jane Casey (Mrs. Harris’s friend/neighbour Violet, and a French charlady), Rebecca Caine (the owner of the dress Mrs. Harris sees in London, and the vendeuse in the Dior boutique in Paris), Laura Pitt-Pulford (a self-centred actress in London, and a kind-hearted model in Paris), Nicola Sloane (a countess in London, Dior’s seamstress in Paris), and Louis Maskell (one of Mrs. Harris’s clients in London, Dior’s accountant in Paris). Director Daniel Evans, in his swan-song at the Sheffield Crucible, does a fine job of keeping the plot moving while making sure the show has just the right amount of sweetness, Lez Brotherston’s set makes a great deal out of relatively little – London and Paris backdrops (Battersea Power Station and the Eiffel Tower figure prominently), a staircase, a few pieces of furniture, Mrs. Harris’s tiny kitchen  – and the finale, in which the Crucible’s turntable brings the show’s title to literal, glorious life, is a wonder to behold.

The show is that rare thing: an exquisitely-constructed entertainment that builds on its source material rather than dumbing it down (if you want a dumbed-down version of this story, you can always watch the Lansbury TV movie, which craps all over the novel from a very great height and rips the ending to shreds. Don’t say I didn’t warn you), and the whole, with this cast, is even greater than the sum of the parts. Apart from the remarkably self-absorbed “lady” sitting behind me who seemed unable to keep her mouth shut while the house lights were down – and that, sadly, is becoming par for the course when you go to the theatre these days – this is just about as perfect a theatrical experience as you could ever hope for. The cast, at the curtain call, clearly knew how special this show is. It’s sublime, and there simply aren’t enough superlatives to do it justice.

Whether it would be a hit in the West End is another question. This is, as I said, as good a new British musical as there has been in quite a while – beautiful score, literate book, perfect design and direction, stunning central performance, flawless supporting cast – and the run is just two and a half weeks, finishing tomorrow (and yes, if I had the time, I’d go back and see it again). It deserves to be remounted somewhere else, and it deserves to be recorded, because writing and performances as good as we have here ought to be preserved. In an ideal world, for a show as good as this, people would be storming the box office in a rush to get tickets… but this isn’t an ideal world, and about a third of the seats were empty at the performance I saw, and this isn’t the kind of show where you can rope in the punters by casting a couple of has-been X-Factor runners-up in bit parts. Unfortunately, that’s showbiz.

 

 

Call it hell, call it heaven…

G D M P

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

First, heaven.

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

Aaaaand… the Hell.

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