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.

It’s the freakiest show…

lazarus

[Yes, this is another late review. I saw Lazarus at the matinée on November 12th.]

Alienated alien alienates audience. How to describe Lazarus, the sprawling mess of a David Bowie jukebox musical now playing a limited run in a big tent behind King’s Cross station? Musically thrilling, certainly, and visually stunning… but when the actors stop singing and start to speak, frustratingly remote and thuddingly earthbound.

The show’s chief attribute is the stack of David Bowie songs – some old, some among the last new work he produced before his death in January this year – which have been cobbled together to form a score. As you might expect, Life on Mars? Heroes, and Changes are all present and correct – and all receive dazzling performances – but the less familiar material is just as exciting. If, like me, you’ve usually enjoyed Bowie’s music but wouldn’t necessarily consider yourself a fan, the brilliance of the songwriting here might well come as a surprise.

If you’re familiar with Enda Walsh‘s work on the stage adaptation of Once, though, his book for Lazarus might well also come as a surprise – but not a pleasant one. In Lazarus, Walsh offers a sequel to/riff upon the film adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel The Man Who Fell To Earth, in which Bowie played the central character. It’s not that you need to have seen the film in order for Lazarus to make sense; the show’s action, such as it is, is not at all difficult to follow, but Walsh’s book is so self-consciously enigmatic that by halfway through the performance it becomes almost impossible to care about what is happening onstage. Characters enter and leave for no particular reason, the dialogue is studiedly impenetrable (at best; at worst, it is sometimes simply bathetic), and the overwhelming whiff of self-importance emanating from the stage is more than a little off-putting. Of course the show centres on Thomas Newton, the humanlike alien hero of The Man Who Fell To Earth; in Lazarus, he’s living a reclusive, perpetually-drunk existence in a Manhattan penthouse (which apparently only contains a bed, a fridge, and a stack of Bowie albums), visited only by his assistant Elly, his former business partner, a teenage ‘muse’ who is probably a figment of his imagination, and tracked from afar by a violently obsessive man named Valentine. There are other characters floating around on the sidelines, but they don’t appear to be there for any particular reason. The book, in short, is a hot mess.

Fortunately, there’s never too long to wait between songs, and the songs are thrillingly performed by the show’s admirable cast and band. As Newton, Michael C. Hall has to spend the majority of the performance projecting a state of drunken despair; Walsh gives him very few notes to play with, but he somehow always manages to be fascinating, even when the material isn’t, and his singing is unimpeachable. He kicks the show off with an electrifying performance of the title song, and gets better and better from there. Similarly, the rest of the cast have to grapple with underwritten/misconceived/banally symbolic characters, but while they’re singing you (temporarily) forget the deficiencies in Walsh’s misguided book. Amy Lennox – an adorable Doralee in the UK tour of 9 to 5 – does everything she can as the confused/susceptible/lovelorn Elly, a collection of misogynistic clichés that even in her capable hands can’t hope to add up to anything resembling a coherent character; while she doesn’t make sense of the terrible writing (nobody could), her rendition of Changes is almost worth the cost of the ticket in itself. As Michael, Newton’s former business partner, Tom Parsons offers a suitably brooding reading of The Man Who Sold The World; he’s lucky enough to be killed off early on, so he’s spared the production’s worst excesses. Michael Esper brings a jolt of old-fashioned showbiz razzmatazz to his portrayal of the murderous Valentine, and his big number – Valentine’s Day – is another highlight. And Sophia Anne Caruso, who is just fifteen years old, miraculously navigates the worst writing in the show and emerges with her dignity intact, in part thanks to her uncanny ability to deliver even the stupidest dialogue with absolute conviction, but mostly thanks to her sensational, goosebump-inducing take on Life on Mars?, which is the show’s musical peak. This is a stellar cast and a stellar set of songs – it’s just a shame that the material holding them together lets everybody down.

Whether Ivo van Hove‘s coolly distancing direction helps or hurts is open to question. His staging is elegant, stylish, and oddly remote, even from the sixth row. Jan Versweyveld’s chilly, minimalist set and Tal Yarden’s eye-popping video design ensure the show is always diverting to look at. You’ll be more than entertained whenever anyone is singing, and you may even be intrigued – but unless you’re a hardcore Bowie fan, and therefore privy to layers of Meaning that remain inaccessible to us mere mortals, you’re unlikely to be moved.

You may, however, be irritated by the process of getting in to the theatre itself. The show runs an hour and fifty minutes without intermission, and your print-at-home ticket loudly informs you that you must arrive 45 minutes before showtime in order for the front-of-house staff to carry out ID checks and bag searches. In the event, at the performance I attended, neither took place; instead, patrons were herded, 45 minutes before the show, into a dimly-lit lobby area with relatively few seats, in which the only things visible through the murky darkness were the astonishingly overpriced bar and souvenir stand, where you could buy the (superb) New York cast recording for £6 more than it’ll cost you at your local HMV. The only programme available – a glossy souvenir brochure which does, at least, include some nice production photos – costs an eye-watering £8. The request that you arrive early has nothing to do with security; it’s simply about encouraging you to spend more money before the show starts. When tickets are relatively expensive to begin with, that’s unpleasantly cynical.

As for the show itself, it is well worth seeing, despite Walsh’s epic catastrophe of a book. The music, as I said, is thrilling, and so are the performances. Go expecting something resembling a traditional musical, and you’ll probably be disappointed. Treat it as performance art – as a collage of superb songs and interesting visuals, fronted by a spectacular cast and an impeccable band – and you’ll have a great time. Just allow yourself a few extra minutes after the show to locate your eyeballs. During the final scene, which involves Ms. Caruso lying on the floor for several minutes in a large puddle of milk, they may well have rolled so far upwards that you’ll be able to see the underside of your own brain.

Stick it to the… oh, never mind.

 

school-of-rock

Yes, this is late. I saw School of Rock at the November 5th matinée, but the rest of this month has passed by in a blur. So, random thoughts:

It’s tremendously entertaining. Like the film it’s based on, it isn’t going to change the world, but it’s great fun. This is Andrew Lloyd Webber at his least serious, and the show is all the better for it.

You’ll probably be two steps ahead of the plot all the way through, even if the film is a dim and distant memory. We’ve all seen the unikely-teacher-helps-kids-find-themselves story a thousand times; Lloyd Webber and his bookwriter and lyricist – Julian Fellowes and Glenn Slater – don’t add anything new to it here, but it doesn’t matter in the slightest. The heart of this show – the thing that makes it well worth the cost of the ticket – lies in the closing concert sequence, in which a stageful of brilliantly talented kids more or less blow the roof off the theatre. Yes, they play their instruments themselves, and they are sensational; it’s oddly moving to see the adult band, on a circle-level platform at stage right, grooving along to the music and ostentatiously not playing their instruments.

The adult cast are just as good, with Florence Andrews a particular standout (and far better than her counterpart on the show’s Broadway cast recording) as the prim headteacher who has lost touch with her inner Stevie Nicks. It’s a shame the wonderful Preeya Kalidas’s character has lost her one solo (‘Give Up Your Dreams’, replaced by a reprise of ‘Mount Rock’); it’s a funny song, and she’d have sung the hell out of it, but never mind.

As failed-rock-guitarist-turned-substitute-teacher Dewey Finn – the Jack Black role, of course – we saw Joel Montague, one of the understudies. If I didn’t know (via his Twitter) that this was his first time on in the role, I would never have guessed. There’s a particular thrill to seeing an understudy go out and nail a leading role, especially while a show is still in previews; Montague simply didn’t put a foot wrong. How good was he? It’s difficult to imagine anyone giving a better account of the role. I’m sure David Fynn is wonderful – but if you don’t get to see him, you’ll be in safe hands.

Don’t go expecting much from Lloyd Webber’s co-writers, though. Glenn Slater’s lyrics are professional but predictable, and while Julian Fellowes’s book is stuffed with funny lines, the characters in it are barely two-dimensional. Give them all credit, though – I laughed like a drain at the sharply funny self-referential gag referencing “this theatre” and the big takeaway ballad from Cats.

As for Lloyd Webber’s contribution, the best part – oddly – is the parade of big, full-throated rock songs for Dewey and the kids. They’re just the right side of knowing parody, they’re ridiculously catchy, and they’ll have you walking out of the theatre with a great big grin on your face. The other characters get short-changed; Florence Andrews gives 150% to Ms. Mullins’s ‘Where Did The Rock Go?’, but even she can’t disguise that it’s a second-tier power ballad which fizzles out forty seconds before it actually ends (this is not, thank God, a jukebox musical, but I wish we could have heard her sing more of Stevie Nicks’s ‘Edge of Seventeen’, which she sings a little of in the preceding scene). The non-diegetic songs for the kids and the teachers, too, make little impression: they’re pleasant enough, there’s nothing in the show that’s bad, but there’s a strong sense that the big concert sequences are what interested the writers, and elsewhere they were just phoning it in.

The bottom line? It’s great entertainment. It is not necessarily a great musical. It’s fun, but it isn’t art. I loved it, but I’m not sure I’d have loved it at £95 (booking hint: the seats in the far side blocks in the stalls, in cost terms, are a comparative steal. They’re technically “restricted view”, but you won’t miss much), particularly since the various trailers/clips of the Broadway production available online suggest that here, while Laurence Connor’s staging is essentially the same as it was on Broadway, we’re getting a significantly less elaborate set.

Oh yes – and let us all take a moment to celebrate the hilarious irony of Andrew Lloyd Webber, who last year took time out of his busy schedule to attend the House of Lords in order to vote to cut tax credits to the working poor, putting his name to a show whose score includes a song called “Stick It To The Man”. Breathtaking, isn’t it?

Meatballs and glitter

 

Are you excited? I can tell you’re excited. I’m excited… or maybe that’s just the two cups of stronger-than-death coffee I had this afternoon. YES, it’s Eurovision time. Again. Whoopee.

As ever, I am not watching this live, because the only way to get through this experience without slamming my head repeatedly into a lamppost is to reserve the right to resort to the fast-forward button. Also, I didn’t watch the semi-finals because there’s enough suffering in the world already. And finally, while I know this might be considered foolhardy, I am watching this stone-cold sober, although I do have paracetamol on hand and it’s a clear run from where I’m sitting to the bathroom.

While I am not watching this live, though, I have managed to remain completely spoiler-free. I mean, it’s safe to say that there’ll be glitter, fireworks, off-pitch screlting, and an almost transcendent absence of taste, but apart from that I’m in the dark. I haven’t even heard this year’s UK entry all the way through yet. It’s going to be a lovely surprise.

ANYway. So. We’re in Stockholm, because Sweden won last year. I have no memory of anything about last year’s winning entry, beyond that the staging involved the (bland) singer interacting with animated stick figures.The techno-ish music behind the opening procession of flags is loud enough that it almost drowns out Graham Norton. Boo. No actual flags this year – just projections onto a rear screen and a lot of people wearing bizarre paper costumes, accompanied by the kind of light show that makes a nuclear detonation look subtle and restrained.

Actually, the paper costumes are sort of fabulous, in a they-must-have-been-stoned-when-they-thought-of-this kind of way. Also, many, many nude bodysuits. It’s going to be that kind of evening.

And now it’s time to meet the hosts: last year’s winner, Mans Zelmerlow, who I still don’t remember even though I’m looking at him RIGHT NOW, and the faaaaaaaabulous Petra Mede, whose Swedish Smorgasbord interval number the last time Eurovision was hosted in Sweden is the best thing this show has seen since… well, since 1974. And we all know what happened at Eurovision in 1974, don’t we? They’re funny and charming, and you have to have watched a few of these to know how remarkable that is in this context.

Mr. Norton is explaining this year’s new voting process, which is quite complicated. I’d listen, but I don’t actually give a flying crap about the voting – except that the new formula apparently means it’s unlikely anyone will end up with nul points, which is a shame.

As usual, the contest kicks off with the presenters saying “May the best song win!” What the hell, there’s always a first time.

(I mean, since 1974.)

The theme this year is ‘come together’. Does everyone have tissues ready? Good. Let’s begin.

1. Belgium. Laura Tesoro, ‘What’s the Pressure’ (with no question mark. Three lyricists, but no question mark).

It starts off with an intro that sounds like a blatant rip-off of ‘Another One Bites The Dust’, and morphs into a slab of aimiably upbeat, slightly old-fashioned pop. I’ve no idea what the lyrics are about, but she’s clearly having a great time, and so are her backing singers. And it looks like silver hot pants are back this year, which is lovely. Good but not great voice, good but not great song, fun performance. She’s very young and very enthusiastic, and this isn’t bombastic enough to win.

2. The Czech Republic, in the Grand Final for the first time ever. Gabriela Guncikova, ‘I Stand’.

Mournful piano ballad, and she’s singing about the monsters in her head as the stage lights up in fuchsia pink underneath her. It’s terribly melodramatic and meaningful – or it might be meaningful if the sound system wasn’t obliterating half the lyrics – and she’s got a great voice. The song, though, is tedious Euro-sludge.

Oh. Now she’s shreiking and they’ve turned on the wind machine. Apparently nobody has ever won performing in the second slot in the running order. This isn’t going to change that statistic.

3. The Netherlands. Douwe Bob, ‘Slow Down’.

Gosh. They’re singing on a giant clock. I can’t imagine what this song is about, can you? Douwe Bob apparently never mastered the fine art of singing with your eyes open, and he has a very large tattoo of something at the base of his neck, with his shirt buttoned up just far enough that we can’t see what it is. The song is pleasant enough hipsterish country-and-western, the band’s grins are all slightly unnatural… and in the middle he stops for ten whole seconds and mouths ‘I love you’ – or maybe ‘please die soon’ – at the camera, which is quite creepy. He’s so confident of his chances, we’re told, that he’s placed a large-ish bet that he’ll win. Say bye-bye to your money, Bob, this is not your year.

4. Azerbaijan (don’t mention human rights). Samra, ‘Miracle’.

Lyrics about burning fire, sequinned nude jump suit, and apparently it’s going to take a miracle for her country’s regime to stop imprisoning people without trial. She can sing, and this is pleasant, inoffensive, unmemorable pop, and I suppose she isn’t responsible for the fact that her country is run by some truly awful people. There are fireworks, of course – if you don’t vote for her, her dancers will come round and barbecue your goolies.

5. Hungary. Freddie, ‘Pioneer’.

Freddie seems to have sandpapered his vocal cords daily since about 1997. He has a Tibetan monk onstage with him, and three Gap-clad male backing singers. Once again, you can’t hear the lyrics at all, although the title suggests he’s singing in English. It’s bonkers, but not bonkers enough. Fast-forward time.

6. Italy. Francesca Michielin, ‘No Degree of Separation’

She’s very pretty, and has a very pretty voice… and the staging has her standing on an island in the middle of a (projected) pool, making lots of overwrought hand gestures as if she was delivering the keynote at a political rally. She’s singing in Italian, despite the title, so I’ve no idea what she’s singing about; given the pool and the big projected tree behind her, it possibly has something to do with nature, or possibly the director was on painkillers. Lots and lots and lots of painkillers.

7. Israel. Hovi Star, ‘Made of Stars’.

Mr. Star looks like the love child of Marc Almond and Alan Cumming. It’s another Terribly Meaningful piano ballad, and two acrobats are circling the stage in a spinning hoop behind him. There’s a full-on power ballad climax worthy of Céline Dion, except he doesn’t have Céline’s voice. It’s all very sincere, and he does hit all the notes dead on, but the song itself, even by Eurovision standards, is Not Very Good.

8. Bulgaria. Poli Genova, ‘If Love Was A Crime’. This performance, we are told, contains flashing images and strobe effects. You have been warned.

She’s wearing all the eye makeup in Bulgaria, plus polystyrene earrings, and it’s another slab of European dance pop – rather a good one, actually. Fun, catchy, completely disposable, and it says a great deal for Ms. Genova that she holds your attention against the ridiculous lighting effects.

Oh. Her shoulder-pads and knees light up on the final chorus.

9. Sweden, our hosts. Frans, ‘If I Were Sorry’.

Also known as the please-don’t-make-us-pay-for-this-next-year entry. He’s bland, his song is bland, his outfit is bland, his voice is lousy, and he has slightly less charisma than a plate of meatballs in the cafeteria at IKEA. I lasted forty seconds. Moving on.

“What can we say?”, asks Petra as the Swedish contestant leaves the stage. How about, “thank Christ that’s over”?

10. Germany.  Jamie-Lee, ‘Ghost’.

Jamie-Lee sounds a bit like Bjork, if Bjork didn’t have a personality and actually sang in tune, and she seems to have come dressed as some nightmare cross between Hello Kitty and the contents of a Cath Kidston shop, complete with tinsel deely boppers. Weirdly Tim Burton-esque projections around her, as if they just decided to make the entire performance look as strange as possible because they knew the song wasn’t very good.  Sadly, while her performance is completely ridiculous, it lacks the great unifying stupidity of the best Eurovision kitsch-fests.

11. France. Amir, J’ai Cherché

Standard-issue Francophone chart pop with a ridiculously catchy hook in the chorus. He grins a lot, the light show is completely loopy, and he’s obviously having the time of his life. It’s fun – for once, for the right reasons.

He’s a dentist, apparently. That might be why he grins a lot. He can use this as an ad clip if his pop career goes down the dumper next week.

12. Poland. Michal Szpak, ‘Color Of Your Life’.

Sorry, anyone using the American spelling of ‘colour’ in Eurovision, in which the US does not participate, should automatically receive nul points and be sent to bed without dessert. His song is very, very anguished, his red tailcoat has more charisma than he does, and Bernadette Peters would like her hair back. Moving swifly on.

Don’t worry, says Petra. We still have fourteen songs to go. Yay.

Mans is in the stadium next door with two past Swedish winners and 10,000 tanked-up fans. Past Swedish Winner #2, Loreen (not Soreen, Loreen), is dressed entirely in black, as if she’s attending a drunken wake for music… which she more or less is.

13. Australia… which is not in Europe.  Dami Im, ‘Sound of Silence’. No, not THAT Sound of Silence.

There are no sequins left in Australia, they’re all on Ms. Im’s dress. She has a hell of a voice, it’s a great big thumping power ballad, and for some reason known only to her and her director she’s sitting four feet above the stage on a big glittery black box. Her song isn’t bad, but it’s not as interesting as her bionic glitter hand. The light show is insane, and probably visible from space.

14. Cyprus. Alter Ego, ‘Minus One’. Again, a (redundant) warning about strobe lights.

Killers-esque stadium rock, with everyone except the lead singer locked up in cages. It’s catchy, although the singer is a bit pitch-approximate, and it’s a welcome relief from the steady stream of power ballads and Eurodisco stompers we’ve heard so far this evening. It’s compentent enough, although the lead singer’s tattoos have more attitude than he does, and it doesn’t have a hope in hell of winning. In the middle of the song he tries howling like a wolf, which is a hell of a lot funnier than he thinks it is. Never mind.

15. Serbia. Zaa Sanja Vucic, ‘Goodbye (Shelter)’

A serious song about domestic abuse and violence, according to Mr. Norton.Stressed-metal voice, black rubber dress with tassels in all kinds of unlikely places, bearded male backing dancer wearing a black skirt and a see-through black T-shirt, and unfortunately the worst song of the evening so far. It isn’t even entertainingly strange. It’s just plain bad. Taxi for Ms. Vucic, please.

16. Lithuania. Donny Montell, ‘I’ve Been Waiting For This Night’. Haven’t we all?

Another song with a drippy verse leading into an overwrought chorus, but it’s not bad, and he can sing. Shame he can’t open his eyes at the same time because he looks constipated, even as he does a somersault off a trampoline in the middle of the song.

17. Croatia. Nina Kraljic, ‘Lighthouse’.

Ms. Kraljic seems to be wearing an architect’s model of the tent-like main terminal at Denver Airport, or perhaps something you’d throw over your car to protect it from bad weather. It’s got helpful grip-handles on each shoulder, hopefully so someone can yank her offstage when her song gets too unbearable, which will be in about fifteen seconds. Oh no, they just removed her top layer of clothing. She’s still there, and now she’s wearing a recycled skyscraper with tassels. Her clothes, unfortunately, are far more interesting than her song or her voice. She seems to have only the most tenuous relationship with whatever note she’s supposed to be singing, and her demeanour rather strongly suggests that she isn’t entirely convinced by her own act. The only way to get away with this kind of full-on batshit-insane Eurovision staging, I’m afraid, is to commit to it completely, and do it with a completely straight face. Adios, Nina, it’s been real.

18. Russia. The favourite, apparently. Sergey Lazarev, ‘You Are The Only One’.

It’d be fun if the gayest international TV event on the planet took place in Russia next year, wouldn’t it, given that Mr. Putin has enacted some of the most repressive anti-gay legislation on the books anywhere outside of Uganda. Like last year’s winner, Mr. Lazarev performs interacting with projected images on a screen. It’s cleverly directed and choreographed, the song is a decent-enough chunk of 6/8 Eurodisco, and the staging in the middle of the song, where he appears to climb up projected images on the screen behind him, is undeniably spectacular, and the best we’ve seen so far, albeit blatantly ripped off from Mans Zelmerlow’s ‘Heroes’ last year. The song isn’t the best we’ve heard so far, but the best song almost never wins. Well, apart from that one time in 1974.

(The wall is apparently set up at a slight angle and covered with rubber, which is how he climbed up it. Now you know.)

19. Spain. Y viva Espana. Barei, ‘Say Yay!’

OK, Barei. Yay.
Barei is wearing a thigh-length chainmail wifebeater, or maybe a minidress, and a lot of bracelets, and we’re back in Eurodisco-land.Better song than the last one, I think, but the staging isn’t anywhere near as inventive. She has a great pop voice, and this is great fun, but this competition – yes, despite the title – isn’t just about the song. The crowd loves it, though.

Petra reminds us that we’re watching Eurovision, and informs us that the CD of this year’s entries is available for us all to take home and treasure forever, along with a Eurovision straitjacket. Your bonus question for this evening: which of this year’s contestants already owns one, but managed to chew through the straps?

20. Latvia. Justs, ‘Heartbeat’.

Justs is apparently intending to open an ‘alternative music school’ at some point in the future, so obviously it’s time to abandon all hope. It starts off sounding like an odd cross between A-ha and mid-80s Depeche Mode. He has a great voice, but the song meanders a bit, and the mean-and-moody posturing seems as calculated as his designer leather jacket and carefully-ripped black drainpipe jeans. He’s certainly throwing himself into it, though, and a team of stagehands have just been sent to scrape his tonsils off the back wall of the arena.

21. Ukraine. Jamala, ‘1944’. No political content there, then.

Sincere, compelling, oddly moving performance of a song that is obviously very deeply personal to her (she wrote it herself). If only the song itself was better. It’s an arresting statement, though, and it does get better when the full orchestra kicks in towards the end. It’s apaprently about Stalin’s deportation of Tartars – including Jamala’s great-grandmother – from the Crimea in 1944. The middle 8 is basically just Jamala keening in 4/4 time. It’s on an entirely different plane to everything else so far, and it gets a surprisingly emotional response from the crowd.

(Eurovision entries are supposed, in theory, to be apolitical, and this one is right on the line. It got by because the lyrics apparently deal exclusively in verifiable historical fact – though of course, given that it’s about Russians driving Ukrainians out of Crimea, it doesn’t take a genius to apply a more contemporary interpretation.)

22. Malta. Ira Losco, ‘Walk on Water’.

She’s pregnant. Aww. First we see her projected face singing out of the stage floor… and that’s the most interesting thing in her performance. Nice sequinned gold dress, nice dancer behind her, nice enough song, nice voice, and nice doesn’t win this competition. Never mind, Ms. Losco, the cruise-ship circuit is beckoning.

23. Georgia. Nika Kocharov and Young Georgian Lolitaz, ‘Midnight Gold’. Contains prolonged strobe lighting effects, we are told, so have a cushion ready if you need to take cover. Duly noted.

Are you ready to RAWK? Of course you aren’t, this is Eurovision. Never mind. One of their guitarists obviously really wants to be in Oasis, or he thinks he’s going to a fancy dress party as Liam Gallagher. The lighting effects amount to a declaration of war, the song isn’t very good, and the feeling that it’s a welcome change of pace from the stream of power ballads and disco anthems we’ve been hearing all night only lasts until about halfway through the first verse.

24. Austria. Zoe, ‘Loin d’ici’

She’s very pretty. Her song is very pretty. Her dress is very pretty.Poppies grow on the screen behind her every time she raises her hands, she seems to be singing from the middle of a projected Yellow Brick Road, it’s surprisingly danceable, and it has a catchy chorus. She has a nice voice, too. It’s absolutely charming, and probably better than whatever is going to win, which won’t be this.

25. Royaume-Uni. Joe and Jake, ‘You’re Not Alone’.

Yes, they look a bit like a cross between Jedward and Ant and Dec. In an evening full of songs with catchy hooks, this is one of the catchiest. It’s a great big endearing slice of guitar-led summer pop, and they sing it really well, although there are better voices in the competition this evening. It’s the best thing we’ve entered in about a decade and a half, and one of the few recent UK entries that doesn’t make you want to hide behind the sofa. Joe and Jake – no I don’t know which is which – give it their all, and it gets a good response from the crowd.

26. The last one. Armenia. Iveta Mukuchyan, ‘Lovewave’.

It starts with her muttering into the microphone, and it’s never a great sign when the wind machine has been switched on before the song begins. She’s wearing a few twist ties and a long black cape, and it’s all very overwrought. We’re on planet rock rather than planet disco, and it’s quite a finale. She has a spectacular voice; it’s a shame the song itself isn’t better.

So that’s it. Surprisingly little OMGWTF this year. Mans and Petra are back to introduce a short bonus scene from ITV’s un-hilarious sitcom ‘Vicious’. I hope Mr. Jacobi and Mr. McKellen got paid a LOT of money for this. Again, we’re told about the new voting system; it’s still a relatively recent innovation that the lines don’t open until after all the acts have performed, which should probably tell you everything you need to know about the integrity of the voting process, which I’ll mostly be fast-forwarding through, because really, do I need to spend an hour and a quarter watching that?

The lines are open. Or were, I’m watching on catchup so I don’t need the 26-song recap of all the acts we’ve seen. Fast-forward time.

And now we have a special guest appearance from that well-known European icon, Justin Timberlake, who is here on the comeback trail chasing the show’s enormous global audience in order to flog his latest putrid heap of decaying shit new single.He almost sounds sincere when he says he wanted to perform at Eurovision. Almost. It’s particularly wince-inducing watching him condescend to this evening’s contestants – all of whom, even Mr. Boring from Sweden, sing better than he does – about how well they did. There’s just never a giant anvil hanging precariously from a fraying rope when you need one, is there?

And now buckle up,says Petra, because we’re heading back to 1974 to begin a survey of Swedish pop music since the dawn of time. Hello, Abba. And also Bjorn Skifs, Tommy Korberg, Roxette, and Neneh Cherry, with a whole second and a half of ‘Gold Can Turn To Sand’ from ‘Kristina fran Duvemala’ thrown in for good measure.Fun, though it’s a pity Robyn isn’t represented by ‘Konichiwa Bitches’. Sadly, our tour of unforgettable moments in Swedish musical history did not include Petra Mede’s Swedish Smorgasbord. Swiz.

And heeeeere’s Mr. Timberlake, who I’ve been really looking forward to not watching this evening. I gave him a minute, and that’s generous. It’s like a Superbowl half-time show, only crap.

Another recap. Fast-forward time. And now the winner of last year’s Junior Eurovision – Destiny, from Malta. She’s sweet. And the lines are still open to vote… unless you were too chickenshit to watch this three-and-a-half-hour glittergasm live, like I was.

And now Petra and Mans are trying to find a common thread between all the previous winners. Cue a gloriously over-the-top production number ripping to shreds every single common Eurovision performance trope. It’s smart, sly, funny, and Petra and Mans find just the right not-quite-winking-at-the-audience tone. Of course it’s the best thing we’ve seen all evening. It even includes special appearances from Lordi lookalikes,  a gaggle of Russian-looking grandmas and a man running in a hamster wheel. It ends with all the fireworks in Sweden, and the audience goes wild.

Unfortunately, Sarah Dawn Finer’s Lynda Woodruff isn’t as funny as she thinks she is. Just like last time. Her appearance is mercifully brief. The magnificently deadpan documentary film – Nerd Nation – about Sweden’s obsession with Eurovision is better (guess what the ‘esc’ key on Swedish computers stands for?), but it goes on a little bit too long, presumably in order to give Mans time to make a costume change and get to the main stage.

45 seconds until the votes close and I can start fast-forwarding a lot. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, finito. Buh-bye. Just time for a quick number from Mans before we get into the points. He and his dancers are performing on hoverboards. Well, they don’t actually hover, but that’s what the kids seem to call them. I hope someone checked all the batteries. In THIS show, if something exploded, nobody would notice. Mans, of course, is a better singer than Justin Timberlake (really, who isn’t?). His first number segues into a reprise of his winning entry from last year, ‘Heroes’, and this is better than a lot of what we’ve seen this evening, partly because he’s won already so he can just have fun with it.

And we’re into the results. FINALLY. Good evening Europe, hello Stockholm, blah blah blah. The Austrian lady appears to be wearing something by Clarice Cliff. Why?

Petra gets special regards from the Icelandic representative’s dog. Nice. Iceland gives the Netherlands 12 points, because presumably their antidepressants haven’t kicked in yet.

San Marino’s points are announced by a very, very white rapper. I mean whiter than Justin Timberlake. Whiter than John Major. Whiter than fresh snow before a dog pees on it. He’s so white, he could be the ‘after’ in a toothpaste ad. Yikes.

So far each country is only announcing their 12-point awards, and everything else is being added to the points table automatically. They should have done this years ago.

Malta gives us 12 points. Whoopee. At this point, the voting is all over the place, with no clear winner. Fast forward time.

Cyprus gives 12 points to Russia. I’m sure we’re all shocked.

Quick tip to the green room, because we’re milking it this evening. Australia are in the lead at the moment, because Europe. Ukraine in second place, and she sings the chorus of Mans’s winning song from last year back to him, which is rather sweet. She’s nervous, she’s charming. What would it mean for her to win Eurovision? A giant one-finger salute to Russia, but that’s not the answer she gives (“It would mean Europe understands me.”).

Norway’s points are presented by a Bobbysock. Let it swing. Ooh, 1985 flashback.

And I fast-forwarded to the end of the jury points because the tension was just too much to bear. Or something. Australia is first, followed by Ukraine and France. Public vote still to come, as Petra reminds us. Whoop-de-frigging-doo.

OK. Public vote time. The Czech Republic got nul points from the public – deservedly – and we’re second from the bottom. Someone at the BBC is very, very happy – we don’t have to pay to host the show next year, so that’s another kind of win for us. We’re still going to end up near the bottom of the pile. Meanwhile, there’s an enormous gulf between the jury vote and the popular vote, which means the voting process, for once, is a bit interesting – at least if you fast-forwarded through half the last hour. Austria, for example, scored big with the public but not with the juries. Sweden also did inexplicably well in the public vote. That’s bizarre and slightly scary. And Poland got dick-all from the juries and are in the top four with the public. People obviously really loved his long red tailcoat, or maybe his constipated grimacing just scared them. Unlike the way the votes used to get announced, this is actually fun to watch.

Aaaand the winner is… wow. Russia won the public vote, but not the juries, leaving him in third place. Ukraine wins. Yes, UKRAINE. Jamala is heading back to the stage, armed with three light-up bracelets and a Ukrainian flag. I kraine, you kraine, he kraines, we kraine, you kraine, they kraine… we all kraine. She really wants peace and love for everyone, which is nice. For once, something sincere and heartfelt won. It wasn’t the best song, and I don’t need to hear it again, but it’s interesting. This is not the way this contest usually goes.

So… overall, disappointingly subdued – an odd thing to say about an evening whose light show resembles Armageddon with a larger budget and less restraint, but this is Eurovision – and the absence of any novelty acts in national costume performing with strange props is disappointing. Petra and Mans’s interval act was inspired, Sweden put on a terrific show, and the new method of tabling the results led to a surprisingly tense finish. As for the winner, next year should be quite special. I hear spring in Kiev is lovely, and let’s all pray the 2017 Russian entry doesn’t involve tanks.

Here’s Jamala:

 

 

 

 

Here come the girls…

 

Or, a tale of two musicals. They’re both based on films, they’re both (more or less) true stories, and – guess what? – I saw them both last week.

In another respect, though, they exist at opposite ends of the theatrical spectrum. Grey Gardens, while it eventually played on Broadway, originated in the nonprofit sector at Playwrights Horizons and was written as a chamber musical; it’s produced here by the Southwark Playhouse on a shoestring budget for a limited run in a (relatively) tiny theatre. The Girls, on the other hand, while it isn’t that big a show, is very obviously a product of the commercial sector – it’s based on a big hit film that has already spawned a big hit (nonmusical) stage version, it has a big-name songwriter attached, and while this was a tryout production, it is obviously aimed squarely at the West End, where it’ll probably run for years.

And surprise, surprise – they’re both wonderful. Grey Gardens, of course, is based on the 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles, and it introduces us to two Edies: Mrs. Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, and her daughter, Miss Edith Bouvier Beale – or rather, Big Edie and Little Edie. Distant relatives of the Kennedys, they are shown in the documentary to be living in some squalor in the crumbling wreck of the Grey Gardens estate; the documentary forms the basis for the musical’s second act, and the first act, set in the 1940s, shows Big Edie carefully sabotaging Little Edie’s engagement to Joe Kennedy (an event which may or may not have actually happened). The show charts both their decline from a position of wealth and priviledge into cat- and raccoon-infested poverty, and the strange, codependent, fractious relationship between mother and daughter.

The result, as directed by Thom Southerland, is very definitely an art-house musical (no surprise, since it’s based on an art-house film). Doug Wright’s book and Michael Korie’s lyrics show us two difficult, complicated women; despite a rather disingenuous programme note in which they solemnly tell us that the Maysles advised them, in writing the musical, not to “take sides”, it’s clear that their sympathies are more with Little Edie than her mother, although Big Edie is never presented as a villain. It’s simply that the meat of the show is in the second act, and in the second act Little Edie has the showier, more memorable role.

The fictional first act, though, is somewhat problematic. It’s entertaining enough, and Scott Frankel’s music is often lovely, but it doesn’t quite add up – the broken-engagement story, and the scenes with the young Jackie Kennedy and Lee Radziwill, are a bit too movie-of-the-week, and if you’ve seen, for example, High Society, then you’ve seen it all before. It’s not until the second act that the pieces fall into place; the first act (or at least, a first act) is necessary, and it does add to your understanding of the strange dynamic in the dysfunctional/codependent relationship between mother and daughter, but there’s still a sense, watching it, that the writers are somehow marking time, and it’s undeniably the weaker of the show’s two halves. It doesn’t help, either, that save for the beautiful “Will You?”, which closes the first act, the score’s most memorable, distinctive material is also all in the second half. The three major Act Two numbers for Little Edie – ‘The Revolutionary Costume for Today’, ‘Around the World’, and (especially) ‘Another Winter in a Summer Town’ – are superb; with the exception of “Will You”, nothing in the first act is quite at the same level.

The performances, however, are impeccable. Jenna Russell finds the pathos in the charming-but-flinty Big Edie of Act One, but her eccentric, vulnerable Little Edie in Act Two is a brilliant creation. It goes without saying that she sings the score beautifully; she nails Little Edie’s odd, nasal speaking voice without descending into caricature, and she’s fierce, funny and heartbreaking, often at the same time. Her ‘Another Winter in a Summer Town’ is simply mesmerising; it’s a tiny theatre, you can see right into her eyes as she sings the song, and those four minutes are more than worth the cost of the ticket. As Act Two’s Big Edie, Sheila Hancock has less to do, but does it beautifully. She finds the right balance between charmingly-dotty-old-lady and subtle ruthlessness, and when she and Russell’s Little Edie square off, sparks fly. The supporting cast are all perfectly fine, though they have more to do in the first half, which means they don’t get the best of the material, but Hancock and Russell’s double-act in Act Two is what makes the production a must-see. They’re spectacular, and to see work of this calibre up close in a 250-seat theatre is genuinely thrilling.

And for the money, the production values are seriously impressive. Tickets cost £25, which is roughly a third of the top price you’d expect to pay these days for a musical in the West End. Set, costumes and lighting (by, respectively, Tom Rogers, Jonathan Lipman, and Howard Hudson) are all excellent, even given the obvious budgetary constraints, and somewhere backstage there are nine musicians and a conductor giving us the full original orchestrations – which, OK, were conceived for a small theatre, but Playwrights Horizons has considerably more money to play with than the Southwark Playhouse. Not only that, the conductor and the musicians were brought onstage and given a bow at the curtain call. This is a good production of a difficult show, but in an age when bands in musical theatre are routinely getting smaller, it’s genuinely surprising to see a tiny theatre with a shoestring budget find a way to engage and pay for this number of musicians. It’s not as if any of London’s theatre critics would have batted an eyelid – or in most cases, even noticed – if the band had been cut from nine to four or five. In this theatre, clearly, the music is considered to be as important as anything else onstage. In musical theatre, that shouldn’t be unusual, but these days it often is.

Which brings us to The Girls, the new musical adaptation of Calendar Girls by Gary Barlow and the film’s screenwriter Tim Firth. This isn’t, actually, a case of good show/bad show – as I said, I liked it very much. In terms of the way it’s produced, though, it’s the polar opposite of this production of Grey Gardens. It’s a big show, trying out in a big theatre (the Lowry’s Lyric Theatre seats 1750 – that’s seven times as many patrons per performance as will fit in the Southwark Playhouse), and it’s obviously aimed squarely at the West End and the touring circuit, where it’s likely (if the ecstatic audience response at last Wednesday’s matinee is anything to go by) to be a substantial hit.

It’s easy to be cynical about stage musicals based on popular movies (as opposed to musicals like Grey Gardens, whose source film is rather more esoteric) – particularly if you happen to have sat through shows like Legally Blonde or Ghost, in which it’s almost impossible to discern any artistic impulse behind the decision to put the thing up on a stage. Indeed, it’s not as if Gary Barlow himself doesn’t have form when it comes to pointless stage musical adaptations of recent-ish films; on the evidence of the cast recording, his score for Finding Neverland is polished, professional, and more or less completely devoid of human feeling – a solid-but-uninspired by-the-numbers songwriting job by a hired hand, but no more than that (interestingly, the earlier – and in terms of the score, much better – version of the show that played in England in October 2012 had a score by Frankel and Korie, who were replaced because the show’s producer apparently prefers vapid-but-bouncy pop hits to writing with actual depth).

This time, though, Barlow seems to have found a connection with the material that eluded him on his first stage assignment. Of course this is a plot that is always going to push your emotional buttons – we all know people who have been through cancer, we all know people who have died too young, and we’ve all experienced bereavement – but Firth and Barlow, here, have managed to turn the material into a genuine emotional rollercoaster. Firth’s screenplay was full of quiet humour, but it treated the film’s emotional core with almost too much restraint, as if he was (understandably) afraid of treading on the toes of the (very) real people whose story he was writing. The musical, on the other hand, goes for big laughs and big emotions, and succeeds on both levels. It might be manipulative, it might be obvious, but it works. You’ll laugh (a lot), you’ll cry, you’ll walk out of the theatre with Yorkshire (the opening number, reprised at the curtain call) rolling around in your head… and it’ll be lodged between your ears for days. As a songwriter, Barlow is not without faults, and I still think he sings like a potato, but he certainly knows how to write a catchy tune.

And actually, in this case, that’s selling him short. There’s no shortage of catchy tunes in this show – you’ll also probably be humming ‘Dare’ and ‘Who Wants a Silent Night?’ on your way home – but the heart of the show lies in the songs for Annie, the widow whose bereavement sets the plot in motion, and her best friend Chris. Joanna Riding’s Annie is given two lovely, moving ballads, one in each act: ‘Scarborough’, in which Annie contemplates all the little things in her life that will change after her husband dies, and ‘Kilimanjaro’, about the sheer physical effort of coping with grief. Equally good is the radiant ‘Sunflower’, sung by Claire Moore’s Chris – a bright, upbeat song about finding joy in unexpected places, and while it’s upbeat, it packs a surprising emotional punch. Perhaps it’s Firth’s influence – he and Barlow are jointly responsible for the show’s book, music and lyrics – but there’s more feeling in this score than in pretty much everything Barlow has released in at least the past decade, put together.

It helps, too, that Firth (and presumably Barlow) have made (mostly) smart choices in adapting Firth’s original screenplay. The film’s (weak) final act, which mostly took place in Los Angeles, is gone, though a couple of conversations from it show up earlier in act two, and so is most of the section dealing with the British media furore that followed the release of the calendar (we’ve all seen the film fifty thousand times, it’s not like I need to fill in the plot here). Instead, this is simply the story of a woman losing her husband, and how her loss prompts her friends to try to raise money for charity in his memory. The teenage subplot has been significantly rewritten, and is all the better for it, and the photo session for the calendar, in this version, is a brilliant extended set-piece rather than the series of (more or less) sketches we saw in the film. Throw in a superb cast – Riding and Moore, in the leads, are as good as they’ve ever been, and there’s wonderful support from the ensemble, including standout turns from Sara Kestelman, Claire Machin, Vivien Parry and James Gaddas – plus confident direction from Firth and Roger Haines and clever sets and costumes by Robert Jones, and you have all the makings of a bomb-proof, copper-bottomed, big fat smash hit. It’s that comparatively rare thing: a stage musical adapted from a film that is actually better than the film it’s based on.

The realities of commercial theatre in 2016 are a little depressing, though. This show has 20-odd actors onstage. It has a terrific, incredibly inventive set in which higgledy-piggledy stacks of green wooden cabinets are arranged to form the hillsides of the Yorkshire Dales. There’s a van onstage, there are about fifty thousand sunflowers in the finale, there’s gorgeous, evocative lighting by Tim Lutkin and funny, perfectly-in-keeping musical staging by Stephen Mear… and the Southwark Playhouse’s Grey Gardens had more musicians on the payroll than this does. Barlow’s score, true, is at the pop end of the musical theatre canon – but with only eight musicians in the pit, in Richard Beadle’s orchestrations, the band sounds thin. I’m not suggesting it needs an orchestra of thirty, but it does need woodwinds as well as a synthesiser, a brass section with more than one person in it (particularly since it’s set in Yorkshire), and a couple more strings. As it stands, the show doesn’t look cheap, but it sounds it, and this material deserves better. When everything else is so good, it’s a pity to see the show get short-changed by the lack of resources in the pit – but unfortunately these days the band is the first thing that gets cut back, because producers assume audiences don’t know the difference. Sorry, guys – some of us do. And I’m afraid when a fringe production staged on a budget of about £3.99 employs and pays more musicians than a big would-be blockbuster that is more or less certain to be a huge hit once it rolls into London, it’s a sign that commercial producers, in terms of music at least, are no longer interested in quality.

On the bright side, maybe there’ll be additional musicians on the cast recording. The producers will only have to pay them once.

 

 

 

Flash! Ah-ah, she’ll save every one of us!

As a hook, it’s pretty much irresistible. Watch Meryl Streep, who apparently can’t pour herself a cup of coffee without taking on a new accent and getting an Oscar nomination for it, strap on a guitar and unleash her inner rock goddess. That, right there, is about half a dozen reasons to shell out for a cinema ticket. Who cares if the film itself is any good?

Well… it’s better than you might think, and not as good as it could be. Streep is phenomenal – and, sure, worth the cost of the ticket on her own – and the film that surrounds her is sharply witty and never less than entertaining, but Diablo Cody’s screenplay treats the plot’s darker emotional undercurrents with rather too light a touch, and the feelgood ending, while not unmotivated, arrives a little too quickly.

Streep plays Ricki Rendazzo – or rather, a former housewife called Linda from Indianapolis who abandoned her husband and young children and moved to Los Angeles in the hope of becoming a rock star. At the start of the film, she’s fronting a covers band in a dive bar in the San Fernando Valley and working a day-job as a checkout clerk in a high-end (but low-paying) supermarket; the plot kicks into gear when she’s called back home by her ex-husband (Kevin Kline) to help her now-grown-up daughter (Mamie Gummer), who has had a kind of breakdown following the end of her marriage.

Did I mention that this is a comedy?

The early encounters between Ricki and her estranged adult children, in fact, are among the best things in the film. Gummer, in particular, is a whirlwind of rage and resentment, and yet she somehow manages the very difficult trick of making her character’s edgy bitterness towards her mother funny. She and Streep – her real-life mother – play off each other beautifully, and their gradually-thawing relationship is surprisingly touching. Sebastian Stan and Nick Westrate as Ricki’s sons have too little to do, but do it very well; the restaurant dinner-from-Hell at which Ricki sees her adult sons for the first time in years is bracingly sharp-edged and, again, a perfectly-judged comedy of (bad) manners.

The trouble is, there’s more to this story than we’re ever allowed to see. At the centre of the film is a societal double-standard: a man would not necessarily be condemned for turning his back on his children in order to focus on his career, but for a woman it’s considered one of the ultimate sins. Cody’s screenplay even has Ricki make that point explicitly in one scene; we don’t get enough sense, though, of the force that drove Linda to walk away from her family and reinvent herself as Ricki, particularly given that it’s clear throughout that she does love her children, even if she doesn’t always know how to deal with them. Character details are raised and then dropped; we learn that Ricki is a conservative Republican who voted for George W. Bush twice, and the film (admirably) doesn’t condemn or mock her for it, but Cody doesn’t really explore the interesting contrast between Ricki’s conservative politics and her free-spirit lifestyle. Kline is perfectly charming as Ricki’s ex-husband, but there’s little sense of how two characters so unlike each other that they could have come from different planets could ever believably have been married to each other.

And then there’s Audra McDonald as Ricki’s ex-husband’s second wife. She’s billed fourth, behind Streep, Kline, and Gummer, she has a handful of Emmy nominations and about four hundred and fifty Tony Awards, and she basically has two scenes. She’s great, and she brings a very entertaining passive-aggressive acidity to her showdown with Streep, but she’s one of the best actors of her generation and she has two scenes. It’s like buying a Maserati and then only ever driving it around a supermarket car-park. The role, as written, perhaps doesn’t need to be any bigger, and possibly needs someone with a certain gravitas in order for the character’s big scene with Streep to work, but still. Two scenes. McDonald is a luminous presence on screen – the camera loves her – and she’s someone who really should be playing meatier roles rather than bit-parts.

What saves the film – and, you won’t be surprised to learn, what saves the day at the plot’s final turn – is the music. I said earlier that the main reason to buy a ticket was to see Streep pick up a guitar and rock out, and that’s where the film unquestionably delivers. Is there nothing she can’t do? She is absolutely believable as a woman who lives for her music, she plays a mean guitar, and she fronts a band which features Rick Springfield, Rick Rosas, and Bernie Worrell, and gets away with it. Director Jonathan Demme shoots the band’s performances with loving care; they’re genuinely exciting, right down to Streep’s appropriately rough-around-the-edges vocals. Even though you know fifteen minutes into the film that Ricki, in the end, is going to heal her broken relationships with her children via the transformative power of her music blah blah blah, it’s a pity there are a couple of chapters that seem to be missing from Cody’s screenplay before that finale rolls around. Fortunately, the performance scenes are enjoyable enough that they paper over the screenplay’s cracks, at least while you’re watching them.

Overall? It’s great fun, but not a great film. It’s worth seeing for Streep and Gummer, Streep’s scene with McDonald, and (above all) the band, and you’ll walk out of the cinema with a smile on your face, but there’s a fair amount in the screenplay that doesn’t quite bear close scrutiny.

And brace yourselves, because somebody somewhere must be thinking about trying remake it as a jukebox musical for the stage. I wonder – does Patti LuPone play the guitar?

wonder?land

wonderdotland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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