Girl Power!

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Fun fact: if you were once married to a king, you can still belt out the big notes even after you’ve been beheaded. Six, the clever one-act musical currently touring prior to a second London run next year, is based on a simple conceit: Henry VIII‘s wives – yes, all six of them – have got together and formed a girl group, and they’re giving a concert tonight in which they’ll each in turn tell their stories via the medium of pop music. It begins with that mnemonic, and what follows is a breathless, thoroughly entertaining romp through sixteenth-century history and twenty-first-century pop. Yes, at the same time. It probably shouldn’t work, but it really does.

That it works so well is a credit to Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s writing, and particularly to their songs (the music is by Marlow) – a dead-on-target series of pastiches inspired by current/recent chart divas (you’ll find the “queenspiration” for each Queen’s number listed in the programme, and also in the CD liner notes). Catherine of Aragon channels Beyoncé and Shakira. Anne Boleyn, Lily Allen and Avril Lavigne, and even if there was nothing else good in the show, I would love the writers for making Anne Boleyn sing “everybody chill/It’s totes God’s will!”. Jane Seymour gets a power ballad, so (naturally) the musical models are Adele and Sia. Anna of Cleves gets down in – or is it with? I’m not exactly down with the kids these days – the style of Nicki Minaj and Rihanna. Katherine Howard gives us her best Ariana Grande and – gloriously – Britney Spears. And last but by no means least, Catherine Parr’s song is modelled after Alicia Keys and Emeli Sandé. The Haus of Holbein sequence gives more than a nod to the music and performance stylings of Lady Gaga, and for the title song we’re squarely in the territory of British girl groups – think the Spice Girls or Girls Aloud. You don’t need to be able to check off the inspirations to enjoy this score, though – this is exciting, melodic pop music, it’s full of memorable hooks, and Marlow’s pastiches more than hold their own against the music that inspired them. This is a really terrific debut score.

It’s performed to the hilt, too, by this touring production’s fabulous cast: Jarnelia Richard-Noel as Catherine of Aragon, Millie O’Connell as Anne Boleyn, Natalie Paris as Jane Seymour, Alexia McIntosh as Anna of Cleves, Aimie Atkinson as Katherine Howard, and Maiya Quansah-Breed as Catherine Parr. It’s unfair to single any of them out, because they’re all spectacular: they’ve all got sharp comic timing, they all stay just the right side of knowing parody, and they all have magnificent voices. Their Ladies-in-Waiting are an impeccably tight four-piece (all-female, of course) band, and together, performing Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s impeccable concert choreography under Tim Deling’s rock-stadium lighting and in Gabriella Slade’s Greensleeves-meets-glam-rock costumes, they raise the roof. By the finale, you WILL be on your feet and dancing.

There’s a serious feminist message underpinning the show – these were six remarkable women in their own right, and history remembers them largely because of the man they (all) married – but Marlow and Moss deliver it with a very light touch. The show is just 75 minutes long; co-directors Moss and Jamie Armitage keep the pace up and the spaces between the songs short, and they’ve already learned one of theatre’s most difficult lessons, which is that it’s better to leave an audience wanting more than to drown them in an embarrassment of riches. Six may be Marlow and Moss’s debut, but it’s the real deal: it’s short, sassy, enormous fun, and the six ladies in the cast are thrilling singers. How good is it? I bought the CD from the souvenir stand on the way out.

lowry night

Welcome to the land of Lola

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It’s probably damning Kinky Boots with faint praise to say that it’s one of the better recent-ish musicals adapted from recent-ish films. It might also raise your expectations slightly too far. The 2005 movie about a man who saves his late father’s ailing shoe factory by manufacturing a range of outrageous stiletto boots for drag queens has a lot of very obvious song cues, and they’re duly ticked off in Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper‘s very obvious adaptation. The good news is that unlike, say, Legally Blond, not all of this show feels like it’s been written on autopilot. The bad news is that the parts that do are nearly all in the first twenty minutes.

Once you’ve sat through those first twenty minutes of not-very-interesting exposition, the show kicks up several notches with the entrance of Lola, the fabulous drag queen who inspires Charlie-the-owner-of-the-shoe-factory-that’s-going-down-the-toilet to shift production towards a new demographic. Cyndi Lauper, making her debut as a composer of musicals, has great fun with Lola’s material, the big production numbers are choreographed to the hilt by Jerry Mitchell, and Callum Francis’s Lola is one of those great big star turns you’ll be talking about all the way home.

The trouble is, next to Lola everything else looks a little bit drab. This touring cast features very strong performances from Joel Harper-Jackson as Charlie, from Adam Price as factory foreman George, from Demitri Lampra as Don, the unreconstructed bigot who clashes with Lola on the factory floor and learns a big lesson as a result, and especially from Paula Lane as Lauren, the factory worker with a secret crush on her boss, but only ‘The History of Wrong Guys’, Lauren’s showstopping diatribe about her tendency to fall for inappropriate men, has as much impact as Lola’s big production numbers.

None of it – after the first twenty minutes, anyway – is bad which is to say that the production is excecuted with a great deal of professional competence. Jerry Mitchell’s staging is impressively slick, David Rockwell’s set moves efficiently from a factory in Northampton to a drag club in London to a catwalk in Milan, Kenneth Posner’s lighting is riotously dazzling when it needs to be, and the ensemble is full of sharp, funny performances in the minor roles. You’ll have a good time. You may not want to compare Harvey Fierstein’s stage script too closely with Tim Firth and Jeff Deane’s screenplay for the film, though, because Fierstein’s adaptation is sometimes numbingly simplistic. Nearly all of the nuance is gone from the relationship between Charlie and Lola, to the point where the plot simply doesn’t make sense: in the film, Charlie doesn’t entirely overcome his prejudices until the very end, whereas Fierstein has Charlie accepting Lola for who he is from the beginning and then berating Lola for not being properly masculine halfway through Act Two. Nicola, Charlie’s upwardly-mobile fiancée, is reduced to a boo-hiss villain. Fierstein almost completely glosses over the question of Lola’s sexuality, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions; the screenplay makes Lola/Simon unequivocally straight, which is a far more interesting choice in terms of confronting the audience’s preconceptions about drag performers. Throughout, the musical replaces nearly all of the film’s grit with glitter, and the film didn’t have that much grit to begin with. The result is a show that is great fun, at least once you’ve sat through those first twenty minutes, but which could have been a great deal more than that.

Callum Francis’s star turn as Lola, though, is something to see. He’s the real thing: a fabulous singer, superb comic timing, star presence, and he manages to put back a lot of the emotional heft Harvey Fierstein has so carefully filleted out of the book. He’s more than worth the cost of the ticket, and the show offers a thoroughly entertaining night out as long as you don’t think too hard about what you’re watching. You do, at least, get some sense of what attracted the show’s creators to this source material – again, unlike Legally Blonde – and while it’s a pity that sense of inspiration (very) obviously did not extend to every character or every element of the plot, Lola’s numbers are good enough that they more than compensate for the deficiencies in the writing elsewhere. Don’t go expecting a “great musical”, though. Whenever Francis is onstage, this is great entertainment – but that’s all.

Muito queijo

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Here we are again – it’s May, it’s Saturday night, and it’s time to sandblast our retinas and eardrums watching the continent-wide celebration of unrestrained kitsch that is the Eurovision Song Contest. Whoopeee. One thought before we start: it would be super, wouldn’t it, if the UK won and we ended up having to host a televised celebration of European pop culture six weeks after we leave the EU next year?* I mean it won’t happen, obviously, because there’s no way in hell we’ll win, but if I was every other country in Europe I’d give the UK douze points all the way simply for the chance to stick two fingers up at the Brexiteers. And then, for good measure, I’d make Jacob Rees-Mogg and Andrea Leadsom put on spandex jumpsuits and host next year’s show.

*IF we leave the EU, which is not a foregone conclusion.

As usual, I am not watching the show live – although it hasn’t finished yet and I have remained spoiler-free – because the therapy bills would probably break me. I’ve recorded it, because I need to be able to pause/fast-forward/scream/go and lie down in a darkened room if it all gets too much. And the one certainty at Eurovision is that at some point in the evening it WILL all get too much.

I am also, as ever, watching completely stone-cold sober, if you don’t count the little bit of white wine in the chicken à la king I made earlier (yes I know it’s supposed to be sherry, I hadn’t got any). I hope you appreciate my bravery.

And no, of course I didn’t watch the semi-finals. Do you think I enjoy pain?

(I’m watching the Eurovision Song Contest. Maybe don’t answer that.)

ANYway. So. Lisbon, because Portugal was last year’s winner. I remember nothing whatsoever of last year’s winning entry. We open with a lot of footage of Lisbon’s (gorgeous) cityscape, which reminds me that I was last there 24 years ago. Apparently a lot of the “big hitters” didn’t make it through to the grand final, which I might have known if I’d watched the semi-finals. Or if I cared.

The disappointingly subdued opening begins with a guy in a black suit playing classical guitar accompanying a lady named Ana Moura singing something called ‘Loucura (Sou du Fado)’. It’s very Portuguese and rather lovely, although her ragged black frock seems to have crept in from the aftermath of a battle scene in ‘Game of Thrones’. It’s… tasteful, which in this context is quite frightening.

Oh, wait, no. Bye bye good taste, now we’re watching a row of military drummers behind a thin screechy lady in a glittery low-cut flesh-coloured gown. Whatever she’s singing – I don’t speak Portuguese – is obviously deeply meaningful to her. She and Ms. Moura end up at the front of the runway in front of the stage, and the crowd goes wild.

Now, we’re informed by Graham Norton, we’re having a flag ceremony, backed by “the world DJ scratching champions”. The wooden grid at the back of the set is apparently supposed to represent shipbuilding, so now you know. Flags of each participating nation are carried around the runway, and we meet the contestants one (group) by one. There are no LED screens on the set, which – according to Mr. Norton – means the staging of some of the numbers is going to be “quite bonkers”. Good, that’s what we’re here for.

There is apparently no clear winner, which might mean we’re all actually going to have to watch the voting. Pray for us all.

So that was the flag ceremony. Now it’s time to meet our hosts. Four young women, all wearing improbably shiny dresses, and all smiling in a way that suggests rubber bands pulled very, very tight.

Voting doesn’t open until after the last song has been performed, and in the UK we can vote by app but not text. Not that I’ll be voting, because I’m two hours behind the rest of Europe.

The majority of tonight’s performances, we are reminded, contain flashing lights and strobe effects. We’d want a refund if they didn’t.

And without further ado, we’re into the songs. Everybody got their paracetamol handy? Good. Let’s begin.

One. Ukraine. Melovin, which sounds like something you’d apply to an open wound, with Under the Ladder.
He begins in what looks like a cross between a coracle and a sarcophagus, lit from within in red, and then the bars open and he’s standing on a platform above the stage looking like an extra from a Twilight film. The song is catchy, generic Europop, and I think he might be about to turn everybody in the front row into vampires.
Oh. Now he’s whipped his jacket off, the platform thing is actually a piano at the top of a staircase, and he’s playing the piano as he sings and the staircase is burning while bolts of flame shoot into the air behind him and interpretive dancers whirl meaningfully as fire rages around them. If the sound system wasn’t obliterating nearly all the lyrics, this might make sense.

Oh, wait. This is Eurovision. Probably not.

Two. Spain. Amaia y Alfred – a real-life couple, apparently, though not for very long – with Tu Canción. A reminder: nothing in the second slot has ever won.
We’re beginning in minor-key drippy piano ballad territory, with the singers moving towards each other from opposite sides of the stage. It’s pretty and sweet and sincere and incredibly dull. It builds to a nicely-sung final chorus with swooping strings in the background, but – sorry, Amaia y Alfred – it still isn’t interesting.

Three. Slovenia. Lea Sirk, singing Hvala, ne!, which apparently means “thanks but no thanks”. Hands up who’s hoping for a blast of Previn, Comden and Green? Just me? Oh well.
Ms. Sirk has (mostly) pink hair, and co-wrote the song herself. It doesn’t appear to have a melody, but never mind. There are dancers in metallic bodices doing vaguely ‘street’ vogueing that might have been au courant in 1994, and Ms. Sirk’s personality is unfortunately drowned out by the hyperactive light-show. At one point she stops the music and tries, not successfully, to get the audience to clap along. That’s the best bit.

Four. Lithuania. leva Zasimauskaitè, with When We’re Old.
Another piano ballad. No gimmicky staging. She’s very young, very pretty – naturally pretty, as opposed to the rather plastic airbrushed-and-blow-dried-into-infinity look that so often passes for pretty at Eurovision – and the song is low-key and rather touching. She has an appealingly throaty voice, and can pull out a hell of a belt when she wants to. I don’t think she’ll win, but it’s an interesting contrast with the brain-shredding schlock you usually expect at Eurovision.

Five. Austria. Cesár Sampson, whose aunt is apparently Pepsi from Pepsi and Shirlie, with Nobody But You.
Jazzy baritone, unfortunate rubber T-shirt and trousers, decent song, and for some reason he’s standing on a platform with lights underneath that looks a bit like the alien spaceship that abducts Fallon in The Colbys. The song has a very strong, very catchy chorus, he can really sing, there’s a gospel choir somewhere offstage, and he throws in a couple of spectacular high notes in the final refrain. It’s a really good performance, though not the kind of mesmerising star turn that won the contest for Austria a few years ago.

Six. Estonia. Elina Nechayeva, singing something called La Forza. Her dress, we are told, cost €65,000. All the clothes I’ve ever bought in my life wouldn’t add up to more than a fraction of that.
She’s a proper singer, and we seem to be in Sarah Brightman crossover territory. Her dress lights up from underneath and then starts showing projections as she sopranos off into the stratosphere. She has a hell of a voice, but the projections-on-a-dress effect has been done before, although it possibly hasn’t been done better. It’s absurdly OTT, she hits her big high note at the end dead-on, and overall it’s a really good performance. Whether the song itself is memorable enough to do well, though, is a different question.

Seven. Norway. Alexander Rybak, who won in 2009, back for more with a song called That’s How You Write A Song.
He mimes playing violin, then drums, then guitar, then starts singing. It’s an upbeat, slightly kitsch, bouncy blast of pop, and he certainly throws himself into it. The song, despite the title, isn’t that great, but he’s a terrific performer. Yes, he plays violin for real in the bridge. The overall effect, though, is of a relentlessly upbeat production number from the kind of musical that opens on Broadway to mediocre reviews, runs seven months, and doesn’t win any Tony awards.

Eight. Portugal. Our hosts. Cláudia Pascoal, singing O Jardim. Her pink hair is way pinker than Lea Sirk’s.
It’s a wispy ballad, she’s singing with her eyes closed, and this is clearly the please-don’t-make-us-pay-to-host-the-show-next-year entry. She has a nice voice, it’s a nice-enough song, and things don’t perk up when the songwriter joins in halfway through.

An interruption from the hosts. If you listened to all the songs ever performed at Eurovision back-to-back, it would take nearly 73 hours. Or you could just watch the show, which won’t take 73 hours but might feel like it. There’s a very forced gay/straight joke buried somewhere within their spiel. Ms. Shiny Dress #4 is wearing a temporary shoulder tattoo saying “the commentators rock”. She gets Ms. Estonia to sing an arpeggio. She really does have a hell of a voice. Ms. Estonia, not Ms. Shiny Dress #4.

Nine. United Kingdom. Us. SuRie, with a song called Storm which I haven’t heard before RIGHT NOW.
Memorable chorus, decent voice, bland lyrics. She still believes in chasing rainbows, apparently. Is this a song about the European Research Group? She’s Terribly Sincere. Imagine a cross between Annie Lennox and Yazz and you’re on the right track.
Oh. There’s a stage invasion – a man in a tracksuit shouting something about Nazis and the UK – and he gets really, scarily close to her. Security guards drag him offstage, and SuRie – impressively – doesn’t miss a beat. Very, VERY cool handling of what must have been a frightening moment. She finishes to huge applause and deserves it. Whether she’ll get to perform again, we don’t know.

Ms. Shiny Dress #4 is talking to the Ukrainian singer via an interpreter. She tells him he looks like a vampire. Yes, we know. He moves into bite her. This is an unscheduled pause, we’re told, while the backstage management figure out what to do about the moment of OMGWTF we’ve just witnessed. For now, we’re going on to the next song.

Ten. Serbia. Sanja Ilic and Balkanika, singing Nova Deca.
Ooh. Wind machine. Beardy man playing a flute/recorder thing. Three women in black and white intoning meaningfully while a big bald bearded man who obviously considers himself a sex god – he isn’t – sings the lead vocal in a surprisingly wimpy voice and someone bangs steel drums rhythmically at the side of the stage. I can’t help wondering whether they’re all members of a death cult – and if they are, is it us or them who is supposed to end up dead? It’s… not very good.

He represented Yugoslavia in 1982, apparently, and came 14th.

Eleven. Germany. Michael Schulte, You Let Me Walk Alone, apparently inspired by the death of his father. We’re told he’s the German Ed Sheeran… presumably if Ed Sheeran had more hair.
And yes, his song is right out of the Ed Sheeran how-to-write-a-sincere-ballad manual. The chorus, though, is basically the verse of Adele’s Someone Like You, only speeded up a bit, so let’s knock off a few points there. His performance is suitably anguished, and a lot of people like this sort of thing more than I do. Which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right. It builds to a ghastly melodramatic climax as swirling beams of red light go insane behind him. It’s clearly a popular entry, but it’s also completely dreadful.

Twelve. Albania. Eugent Bushpepa, with Mall. The Chinese network objected to Eugent’s tattoos, it seems, so the show – all of it – isn’t being shown there this year. He looks like Jake Gyllenhaal playing Dave Gahan, and – a common Eurovision trope, this – his voice isn’t nearly as tough as his outfit. A wailing rock tenor number that isn’t quite as rock-n-roll as it thinks it is, and it all falls apart when he starts screlting near the end.

Thirteen. France. Madame Monsieur, with Mercy, a song inspired by the refugee crisis.
Monsieur plays guitar, Madame sings. It’s low-key modern political pop, presented without gimmicks, and none the worse for that. If you’re at all familiar with Francophone pop there are no surprises here at all, but it’s a decent song with a strong singalong final section, and she sings it very well indeed.

Fourteen. Czech Republic. Mikolas Josef, Lie To Me (Mr. Norton’s aside: “OK, I think you’re going to win.”)
He’s wearing a bowtie, braces, and glasses, and – why? – a leather backpack, and it’s a very white take on New York hip-hop from circa 1985. Yes, there is breakdancing. Breakdancing dancers in shell suits. It’s – what’s the phrase I’m looking for? – fucking awful. He yells “WASSUP EUROVISION?” towards the end, and the crowd screams, I think more in fear than anything else.

Fifteen. Denmark. Rasmussen, with Higher Ground.
Rasmussen looks a bit like Tilda Swinton, if Tilda Swinton had a big bushy red hipster beard. Beard grooming, unfortunately, might have been a higher priority for Rasmussen than coming up with a decent song. There are four similarly hipster-beardy backing singers, and it’s basically like watching Take That, if Take That hadn’t shaved for two years and had forgotten how to write a chorus. “NOW COME ON, WALK WITH US!”, he yells. No. A wind machine blows fake snow over them as the song lumbers towards what I assume must have been intended as a climax, but unfortunately they don’t get buried in a fake snowdrift.

Sixteen Australia. Yes I know Australia isn’t in Europe, deal with it and move on. Jessica Mauboy, We Got Love.
Jessica is a huge, huge star in Australia. She’s wearing blue tinfoil and chewing up most of her consonants, she sounds like Danni Minogue imitating Natalie Imbruglia, and her song is terrible. She tries to get the crowd to sing along with the chorus, and they don’t. Ouch.

Two of the shiny presenter ladies are back to tell us we’re all having a great time. Especially the stage invader, I’m sure.

The Serbian wannabe-sex-God is telling shiny presenter lady #4 that he’s in love with her. It’s not creepy at all. Then she asks Mr. Rubber Outfit from Austria to lift her up three times in five seconds. He does. There’s a subtext here, and perhaps we don’t want to delve into it too deeply.

Seventeen. Finland, Finland, Finland. The country where I quite want to be. Pony-trekking or camping, or just watching TV… where was I? Not in Finland. Damn. OK. Saara Aalto, Monsters. Hit it, Saara.
Saara has a very elaborate top-knot/plait thing on her head, and eye make-up that goes back to the top of her ears. She sings the first verse while being spun upside-down on a rotating disk. She’s backed by a team of S&M prison guards doing fascistic interpretive dance – the kind of moves that might have been daring in a Eurythmics video in 1982 – and she does have a really good voice. She doesn’t have a really good song, but the staging is weird enough that it might not matter. Yes, of course there are fireworks at the end.

OK. So. SuRie was offered the chance to perform again, and declined, saying that she had nothing to prove. She’s right.

Eighteen. Bulgaria. Equinox, singing Bones.
Four bars in and the screaming starts. One of the singers, I think, not me, but I had to check. It’s another hipster invasion, and another group who might be singing about a death cult. They can all sing, although the song is quite tedious, but I can’t shake the feeling that this, to them, is what passes for an uplifting song. It’s all a bit overwrought, there’s dry ice AND the wind machine, and the screamy lady in the middle ends with a screamy countermelody over the final refrain.

Nineteen. Moldova. DoReDos, My Lucky Day.
The staging involves overexcited people opening doors/windows in a white wall and grimacing/gesturing/shaking their hips, while other overexcited people sing and prance about in front, and sometimes the people in front of the wall swap places with the (identical) people behind it. It’s a slab of cheerfully naff Europop, performed by hyperactive CBeebies presenters dressed up for a night out on the piss at a 1970s theme bar in Wigan. It’s jaw-droppingly bonkers and great fun.

Twenty. Sweden. In the pre-performance clip he’s shown making cheese, which in a sense is what everybody connected to this show has been doing all evening. Benjamin Ingrosso, Dance You Off.
Solo performance in front of a coolly stylish light show consisting of horizontal bars of light. The visuals are better than the song, but it’s got a memorable hook in the chorus and it’s somehow fresher and more up-to-date than most of what we’ve seen this evening even though it also sounds like a Bee Gees offcut from twenty years ago. He doesn’t have a huge voice, but he can sing, he can move, and it’s very watchable. And then it ends, and the lights stop flashing, and you can see his improbably tight/rigid trousers properly for the first time, and it suddenly becomes clear why his voice moved sharply upwards as if he was regressing back towards puberty every time he moved his legs.

Twenty-one. Hungary. A metal group, oh joy. AWS, Vislát Nyár. Brace yourselves.
They are obviously ready to rock. I’m not sure anyone else is. There’s lots of grimacing and attitude, flames start shooting out of the front of the stage, and miraculously none of their improbably floppy fringes get singed. The singer is barefoot, the guitarist does a stage dive, and the drummer should have worn more anti-perspirant. It ends in a scream, which eerily matches what we’ve all been doing internally for the last three minutes.

Twenty-two. Israel. Netta, with a song called Toy.
Netta looks a little bit like Dawn French playing Bjork. She’s fabulously eccentric; she’s standing in front of a table with three panels that light up like a Simon Says game, behind her are two walls of shelves filled with golden toy cats with metronome-like wagging tails, and there are three dancers in black and pink tracksuits doing a Jane Fonda Workout on a bridge off to her left. Netta also has one hell of a voice, and is giving the most original performance we’ve seen all night. The song is also eccentric, and at two points seems to involve Netta making chicken noises – but of all the things we’ve seen so far, this is the one that looks most like a winner.

Twenty-three. Nearly there now. Netherlands. Waylon, who was one of the Common Linnets, who came close to winning in 2014, singing Outlaw in ‘Em.
It’s a passable pastiche of American country-rock. Everybody’s got a little outlaw in ’em, according to the chorus, and I assume whoever designed Waylon’s shiny animal-print coat has been on the run from the law for quite some time. It’s an enjoyable performance, but not the greatest song; his 2014 entry, a rather lovely country song called Calm After the Storm, was far better (and far better, actually, than nearly anything that has been performed at Eurovision since).

Twenty-four. Ireland. Ryan O’Shaughnessy, Together.
Pretty ballad, he hits all the high notes in the chorus, but the staging – which has a boy-meets-boy courtship enacted by two dancers behind Mr. O’Shaughnessy and his pianist – is better than the song. The song is lovely, actually – but the staging is a knockout.

Twenty-five. Cyprus. Eleni Foureira, Fuego. I assume she won’t be singing about a Renault.
She opens the song in a metallic flame-patterned jumpsuit while the lights form what looks like a ten-foot-high vagina behind her, and that’s just about the most memorable thing about it. It’s bog-standard Greek Europop, the sort of thing you hear all summer in every beach bar in every Mediterranean resort east of Brindisi; given the title it’s inevitable that the staging will involve flames, and it does. We’re told this is the bookies’ favourite, and I – seriously – can’t imagine why.

Twenty-six. Italy. The last number. Ermal Meta e Fabrizio Moro, Non mi avete fatto niente
It’s apparently about overcoming your fear of being a victim of terrorism. It’s very well-meaning, they’ve both got good voices, and it needs a little bit more urgency. A tasteful, low-key performance, and not a bad song, but it’s not going to win.

So that’s all the songs. There’ll be a recap before the voting lines open, except I’m two hours behind so voting has already closed (no I don’t know who won, I am still spoiler-free). The four shiny presenter ladies have changed into new, even shinier frocks, and it’s time to take a loo break.

Two of the shiny presenter ladies are shouting HAVE YOU VOTED? over and over again. No I haven’t, please don’t hurt me.

Now we’re being invited to get a bit mellow and get into Lisbon’s groove. It’s the interval act. It is indeed mellow. The singer who opens the sequence is terrific; I’m sure the guy rapping in Portuguese is too, but I’ve no idea what any of it means. The music is a rather charming intersection of Europe, Africa and Brazil; it’s all rather subdued and tinged with melancholy around the edges, and it makes a rather nice change from the Debbie Allen Dance Number knockoffs you often get in the interval act.

Now two of the shiny presenter ladies are handed a phone by a naked man whose dangly bits are conveniently hidden by the onscreen graphics. One of them tells him he’d better leave before the graphics get taken off. Oh, how we laughed.

Now we’re getting a quick tour through some of the 53 songs Portugal entered in Eurovision before they finally won. It’s grim. People who aren’t funny trying to be funny in front of a TV audience of 200 million. Moving swiftly on…

…to the Junior Eurovision winner. Polina Bogusevich, a Russian 14-year-old with one hell of a voice. We see a clip of her winning song, and it’s completely batshit insane. She sings a couple of lines a capella, and she is so very pleased to be here on this amazing stage. That’s nice.

Now we get last year’s winner performing his new single. Like many things this evening, I’m sure it’s terribly meaningful if you speak Portuguese, but the closest I can get is GCSE Spanish, which I took almost thirty years ago. Fast forward time.

Another recap of the 26 songs in tonight’s contest before the voting lines close. Fast forward time again.

First, the jury votes, which are based on the dress rehearsal performance last night. I’ll be fast forwarding a lot… again.
A dozen countries in and the UK has nul points. I’m (cough) shocked, and it has nothing to do with the performance or the song.
(I mean, really, what did we expect? Our leaders, most of our newspapers, and a chunk of the public have all spent the past couple of years metaphorically sticking two fingers up at Europe, and what goes around comes around. Especially at Eurovision, which is a grudge match as much as it’s a song contest.)
Mel Giedroyc announces the points from the UK jury. Mel is in Uxbridge, which is currently represented in the House of Commons by Boris Johnson. Sorry, Mel, but we all have our crosses to bear. We’ve given 8 to Bulgaria – perhaps the screamy lady frightened the judges – and 10 to Israel, with douze points going to Mr. Rubber Pants from Austria. Bye Mel, you can get the hell out of Uxbridge now. Quickly, before Boris farts in your general direction.

Halfway through the Jury votes, Norway’s points are being awarded by a man in a shiny red jacket and Darth Vader. Israel and Austria are tied in the lead, with Cyprus third and Germany fourth.

Three-quarters of the way through, Austria is in the lead, Israel is second, Sweden is third. The UK is third from the bottom.

The last jury to award votes is Portugal. Portugal’s twelve points go to Estonia, who are a third of the way down the board; Austria is first, Sweden is second, Israel is third, the UK is fourth from the bottom.

As a result of the public vote, though, everything can change. And often does. Mr. Rubber Pants is really, really touched, he says. Not through those pants, he isn’t.

And before the public vote is revealed, a quick word from Eurovision’s executive something-or-other, I stopped listening and so did everybody else. Blah blah blah, platitude platitude platitude, shut the fuck up already and let’s get to the end of this shitfest.

So… the public vote. Did the public agree with the jury? Probably not, that’d be boring.
Australia got just nine points from the public vote. That’s eleven more than they deserved. The UK got 25, which gives us a total of 48, which means we won’t be coming last. Phew.
(Like I care.)

Two-thirds of the way through the public vote, Austria and Sweden are both out of the running to win even though they were first and second in the jury vote, and the potential winners are Israel, Germany, or Cyprus. I can’t remember Cyprus’s entry and it’s less than an hour since I saw it.

And the public vote boots Denmark from near the bottom of the board to near the top, and kicks Mr. Rubber Pants into third place. Netta wins for Israel, Cyprus is second, and it’s all very exciting. Portugal finished last, so their plan worked. We’re third from the bottom, and – again – I can’t possibly imagine what 52% of the electorate, a gaggle of our politicians, and a big chunk of our media might have done to so piss off both the juries and the public voters right across Europe.

Netta is clearly overjoyed and overcome. The trophy – a cut-glass microphone on a plastic stand – is staggeringly hideous, the waving golden cats are wheeled out again, and Netta gives us a reprise as the show’s grand finale.

So… next year in Tel Aviv, presumably. While you’re waiting, here’s Netta:

 

 

 

 

Blow Us All Away

HVP1

Yes, it really is THAT good. Yes, the tidal-wave of hype is absolutely justified. Yes, this very American story plays perfectly well to a British audience. And yes, it seems like nearly every single review of the London production of Hamilton has begun by saying exactly the same thing, but the last musical to arrive here from Broadway trailing this level of advance expectation was probably The Lion King, 19 years ago.

As just about everybody knows by now, Hamilton – book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda – tells the story of the rise and fall of Alexander Hamilton, one of the US’s founding fathers and the man whose face appears on the $10 bill. Miranda’s twist is to tell the story of America’s very, very white founding fathers using a cast and a musical palette that reflects America today: a diverse, multicultural tossed salad of ethnicities and influences in which everybody who isn’t wholly descended from Indigenous Americans can trace their ancestry back to somewhere outside the country, and where the white hegemony in popular culture has long since dissolved into a smorgasbord of genres and influences whose roots stretch far beyond the US’s borders. The show has a notably diverse cast – white performers are a distinct minority – and Manuel’s score travels all over the musical map from rap to hip-hop to contemporary musical theatre, somehow managing to blend influences and musical/lyrical allusions that range from Eminem, Beyoncé and Tupac Shakur to the Beatles to Gilbert and Sullivan and Sondheim into a coherent, compelling, thoroughly theatrical whole. It’s a dense, dazzling, genuinely exciting piece of writing, and it appears to have captured the public’s imagination in a way very few new musicals have managed in recent years; the Broadway production was nominated for 16 Tony awards and won 11, along with the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and the (flawlessly-produced) cast recording made it to Number One in the Billboard 200, has gone triple platinum in the US, topped the soundtracks (I know, I know) chart in the UK six months before the London production even began taking bookings, and won a Grammy. Tickets went on sale for the London production about eleven months before previews were scheduled to begin, and sold very quickly; bar a few returns, the initial booking period is sold out. This is, in short, an event. It’s become far more than just a musical that opened at New York’s Public Theater and did well enough there to warrant a transfer: it’s become a cultural touchstone, an instantly-recognisable entertainment product whose title seems to inspire an almost ludicrous degree of reverence. Michelle Obama – Michelle! Obama! – is said to have proclaimed it “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.”

I wouldn’t quite go that far, and I’m not sure that kind of hyperbolically extravagant praise is helpful: it creates the kind of expectations that are almost impossible for mere mortals to live up to. Hamilton is very, very good indeed. It’s a thrilling, original, daring piece of writing, it tells a complex story admirably clearly, and it is brilliantly staged and performed. It is not perfect, and it’s far too soon to tell whether it’s going to prove to be the game-changer some have labelled it. That said, Miranda succeeds remarkably well in delivering a potentially rather dry slab of history in a way that is consistently engaging and entertaining; his music is terrific, but the meat of this score is in the lyrics, which are clever, dense, sometimes tongue-twisting, and so packed with allusions that you’ll never get everything on first listen. And you will have to listen – in sharp contrast to the vapid green oz-fest playing across the street, you’ll have to pay close attention to these lyrics. To his very great credit, Miranda’s lyrics are a world away from the blandly generic greetings-card sentiments that characterise so much contemporary writing for musical theatre; the flow of information is almost dizzying, and you have to work to keep up.

That’s the piece’s biggest strength, but also its biggest failing: you could strip away Thomas Kail’s kinetic staging, Andy Blankenbuehler’s restlessly energetic choreography, the sets, the costumes, the lighting and everything else, and present the score with the band onstage and the actors behind mike stands, and the plot would still come across loudly and clearly, because Miranda’s score tells the story of Alexander Hamilton rather than dramatising it. What Miranda has written, essentially, is a dazzling contemporary oratorio; the piece was first conceived as a concept album, and it shows. The performance unfolds as a series of tableaux in which much of the plot is announced, which probably goes with the territory when rap is a primary storytelling tool. This should be a serious flaw, and in just about any other kind of musical it would be, but Miranda gets away with it because his text is so rich and so fast-paced that you never get the sense, the way you do in something like Miss Saigon, that the plot is being delivered via flashcards.

And certainly, when he slows down to allow the show to take an emotional beat, the show is far more moving than you’d expect from the premise. Burn, Eliza Hamilton’s condemnation of her husband following the public revelation of his affair with Maria Reynolds, isn’t a generically tear-stained you-broke-my-heart Big Ballad, and it’s all the better for it (Burn is as good a traditional theatre song as anybody has written in the past twenty years). Instead, Miranda shows Eliza methodically burning her husband’s letters to her; she knows she is part of a significant moment in history, and Miranda shows her protecting her dignity and privacy by burning the letters so that historians will have no insight into her reaction to such public humiliation.

The finale, too, is surprising, more powerful than you’d expect, and conceived very cleverly: in a show in which there are relatively few big moments for the women in the cast (somewhat – although only somewhat – inevitable given the subject-matter), Miranda gives the last word to Eliza, in a song about her efforts to secure her husband’s legacy after his death. Almost the last thing we learn in the show is that Eliza founded an orphanage in New York City, and that she sees her husband’s face in the faces of the children she sees growing up there. It’s as close as Miranda comes to an explicit statement about the motivation for the production’s carefully colour-conscious (emphatically not “colour-blind”) casting: it’s something that should go without saying, but given the ugly history of race relations in the USA over the past 200 years, and the demonstrable fact that fifty years after the Voting Rights Act the USA is still a society in which your rights are defined by your skin tone, putting those lines in the mouth of an actress who is not white, who is playing a historical figure who was (more or less) white, surrounded by a (fabulous) multicultural cast of performers who are (also) almost all playing white historical figures makes a very definite statement. So, come to that, does the curtain call: company bows only, and no exit music. Again, although the show doesn’t quite say it explicitly, the message we’re clearly meant to take away is that Hamilton-the-show is not just the story of Alexander Hamilton. The title of that finale – Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story – drops a big hint: the show is nothing less than a breathtakingly audacious attempt to (re)define the USA’s origin myth in a way that (correctly) encompasses all of the people who came together to build America, and the brilliance of Miranda’s writing – and, to be fair, of Thomas Kail’s production – is that while it’s certainly a very wordy show, it succeeds in making the point crystal clear without delivering a lecture. In lesser hands – actually, in almost any other hands – delivering that lesson would probably have turned the finale into a thuddingly didactic company anthem full of the kind of shut-up-and-eat-your-broccoli sloganeering that makes the audience squirm in their seats. Miranda and Kail manage to deliver the lesson without delivering the lesson, and it’s an interesting paradox that in a show where, much of the time, the biggest fault in the writing is that too much is told instead of shown, the biggest lesson of all is delivered via the cast, or rather via the casting.

And for London, it has to be said, they’ve assembled a hell of a cast, and they’ve done it – are you listening, Book of Mormon? – by casting out of the local talent pool instead of parachuting a set of leads in from New York. Jamael Westman, in the title role, lists only two professional credits in his bio; he graduated from RADA about ten minutes ago, and you’d never guess he was just out of drama school. He’s absolutely at home with Miranda’s tongue-twisting way with language, and his Hamilton carefully grows from diffident student to intellectual heavyweight, somehow – and this is a very difficult trick indeed – gaining both stature and star power along the way. As Aaron Burr (Sir), Hamilton’s nemesis, Giles Terera offers more grit than we got from Leslie Odom, Jr.’s Teflon-smooth performance on the Broadway cast recording, and that’s no bad thing. Terera grabs hold of The Room Where It Happens, the score’s showiest showstopper, and slams it across the footlights to a wall of applause. Jason Pennycooke’s George Washington is located somewhere between Little Richard and Purple Rain-era Prince, and yet he manages to offer something far more complex and interesting than the one-joke punchline that description suggests. As Eliza’s sister Angelica, Rachel John makes the breathless, breathtaking Satisfied – Angelica’s lifelong battle between intellect and unrequited love, condensed into five minutes – into the show’s musical highlight. Rachelle Ann Go, who is quite dreadful in a relatively small role (Gigi) on the DVD of the recent revival of Miss Saigon, is guilty of a few LuPone-esque modified vowel sounds here (and she is the only member of this cast to suffer from that particular disease); I was all ready to dislike her, but her big moments – Burn and the finale – are both beautifully understated and very moving indeed. And Michael Jibson, luxury-cast in the three-verses-and-off comic-relief role as the British King George, rescues his one song from the clutches of Jonathan Groff’s excruciatingly unfunny performance on the original Broadway cast recording, finds every scrap of humour in lyrics which reimagine the Declaration of Independence as a bitter break-up between two very mismatched lovers, and somehow manages to bring the house down just by slightly raising one eyebrow. The ensemble performances are flawless, and – unusually – while I’m sure each performance is as carefully, mechanically timed and tracked as any other major musical production, there’s a much greater sense than you usually get at a big musical of the ensemble as a collection of distinct personalities rather than as a single mass. The dehumanising effect described in the finale of A Chorus Line – which, like Hamilton, began at the Public – is missing here, and I don’t remember the last time I saw a big musical whose production offered such a strong sense of each individual contributing something unique to the whole. The singing throughout is superb (granted, Westman isn’t really a singer, but Miranda wrote the title role for himself, and neither is he); I’m sure a London cast recording is unlikely, but these performances certainly deserve to be preserved.

It remains to be seen, though, whether the London production maintains the kind of impossible-ticket momentum the show has in the USA, and the fact that ticket prices moved sharply upwards for the just-opened second booking period (August to December this year) may slow sales down a little. My £57.50 seat – dress circle, way off to the side – would now cost £100, and it simply is not worth the same price as a seat further towards the centre of the house; worse, a fair number of seats that were £89.50 in the first booking period have been reclassified as “premium” seats, and now go for £250 each. Whether these prices are healthy for theatre as an art-form is a whole other discussion (spoiler: they are not); presumably the production was going to be profitable at the original prices, so the price hikes look unpleasantly like gouging. There are ways to see the show more affordably, and it is certainly worth the effort, but there’s also a distinctly nasty-tasting contrast between the studied all-in-this-together egalitarianism of Miranda’s writing and Kail’s staging and price hikes that make two seats in the centre stalls as expensive as a weekend in Italy. If you’re going to blow a wad of cash on a single theatrical event, this is certainly the one to pick – particularly since Network is only around until the end of March – but relegating the plebs, by which I mean those of us who can’t cough up £100 and up for a ticket, to the upper circle smacks of the worst kind of 1%-ism. Yes, it’s live theatre, and live theatre costs money – but it doesn’t cost that much money.

The show itself, though – as I said at the beginning – really is THAT good, and it lives up to the hype. The most remarkable thing about it, actually, was possibly the audience at the performance I attended. I wanted to come to the material relatively fresh when I saw it; of course I’d bought the cast album and a copy of the great big hardcover book containing the script and the story of the show’s genesis, but when I booked the ticket(s) a year ago (I’m seeing it again in June; I assumed they’d bump the priced up after the first booking period, and I wasn’t about to throw away my shot at a second visit) I stopped listening to the album and put the book back on the shelf. Apparently that puts me in a very small minority; it was clear from the way they responded to the show that a good chunk of the 1600 or so other people in the Victoria Palace knew the material word for word. More than that, they knew it off by heart and they were listening (I’ve been a front-of-house manager; believe me, you can tell when the audience aren’t listening). At a big musical these days that’s a less common experience than you’d think; there wasn’t, for example, any particularly egregious bad behaviour on display the night I saw 42nd Street back in October, but this audience engaged with the show in a way that that one just didn’t (granted, the current revival of 42nd Street is the musical theatre equivalent of a steamroller; you don’t have to concentrate on it because it more or less beats you into submission). That, again, is an achievement worth noting. As I’ve already said, it’s at least a decade and a half too soon to tell whether Hamilton turns out to be the kind of game-changer too many tedious articles smugly tell us it is, but for it to inspire that response in London, where the history it depicts is mostly not familiar and mostly not ours, is very impressive indeed. This is a brilliantly-conceived, thrillingly-executed piece of entertainment… so now that the prices have gone up, assuming you’d like to see it from a seat where you can see the actors without binoculars, you’d better start saving. It may take a while, but it’s worth it.

Dreamgirls will never leave you…

DGP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.