Nobody’s on nobody’s side

chess coliseum 3

There are sixty-seven musicians in the orchestra, and twenty members of the ENO Chorus padding out an already large company. That’s the most important thing about Laurence Connor’s simultaneously gargantuan and undernourished revival of Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice‘s cold-war pop opera Chess, now playing a limited run at the Coliseum. If you love this score – and I really love this score – then you should do whatever you can to see this production at some point over the next three weeks. Chess has always had a dazzling score; despite the many imperfections elsewhere in this particular iteration of the show, that score, under the baton of Murray Hipkin (at the performance I saw; the regular conductor is John Rigby), is served spectacularly well, and to hear this music performed by such a superb orchestra and chorus is genuinely thrilling. As long as you go for the music, you’ll have a wonderful time.

If you’re looking for a piece of musical theatre, on the other hand, better manage your expectations. Chess first appeared as a concept album in 1984, and the biggest hit single from it – I Know Him So Well, in which two women spend four minutes lamenting that neither of them can fulfil their (same) man’s needs, because fuck the Bechdel Test – spent four weeks at number one in the UK pop charts. Since then, the show has gone through a dizzying number of incarnations onstage; the original London production was a moderate hit, but was too expensive to replicate elsewhere, the subsequent heavily-rewritten Broadway production was an eight-week flop, and since then it’s become one of those shows that, like Bernstein’s Candide, seems to get revised for each new production. This production – guess what? – represents yet another attempt to rewrite the show, and the result, as theatre, is – I’ll be kind – not successful.

This version of the show goes back to the concept album, and presents the songs on the album in album order, which is not (at all) the order in which they appeared in the original London production. It’s fair to say that the show’s biggest fault has always been that in constructing the plot, Tim Rice’s reach exceeded his grasp – to make the show’s combination of cold-war politics and international chess work completely probably requires a playwright of the calibre of Christopher Hampton and a lyricist with the skill and range of Stephen Sondheim, and while Rice has his moments he is neither of those things – but there is a viable show somewhere in this material. The basic story – an international chess championship in which the Russian contestant beats the American reigning champion and then defects to the west after falling in love with the American’s (female) second/coach – has potential, and the love story at the centre of the show can be quite touching if it’s played well. While some versions of the show have become bogged down in the layers of political intrigue in the second act, this version of the show goes too far in the opposite direction. For this production, somebody has taken the decision to reduce the show, more or less, to a series of Big Numbers with as little distance between them as possible. A great deal of the material that linked the big numbers in the original London production has been cut, to the point where one major supporting character – Walter, a CIA agent – is missing (and missed, particularly in the second act). Instead, the musical numbers are linked by brief snatches of atrociously simplistic dialogue that sounds like it was written on flashcards (at one point, one character actually announces “My heart is breaking!”).  The result is a script that sucks almost all the depth out of a piece that never had quite as much depth as it thought it did to begin with.

There might have been a good reason for that choice if things had worked out the way I suspect the producers – it’s a coproduction between the ENO and a commercial management – had planned. Similar ENO coproductions have had casting lined up before tickets went on sale – Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson in Sweeney Todd, Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard, Alfie Boe and Katherine Jenkins in Carousel. Chess didn’t, although it did have the same eye-watering ticket prices (peaking at £150, with a transaction charge on top if you book online) as those three earlier shows. Tickets had been on sale for more than three months before the casting for the leads was announced; Michael Ball, playing the Russian chess champion at the centre of the plot, told the Daily Express in an interview that he approached the producers about the role in January, after tickets had already been on sale for a couple of months. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the producers were pursuing some kind of megastar for one or more of the leads, and that the people they were hoping to sign turned it down. That, in turn, probably explains this version of the script: if the aim was to cast pop stars, which is an understandable aim given that the ENO’s previous three musical coproductions have all relied to some extent on superstar casting, then it makes sense to strip out everything that might expose their limitations as stage actors. If you also strip out most of the (already limited) character development, maybe it doesn’t matter if the leading roles are going to be played by the kind of million-megawatt STARS whose personal charisma can fill in the blanks.

That approach, though, falls apart when your star casting falls through and you have to find a set of leads at the last minute. As Florence, the woman who ping-pongs between the American and Russian champions, Cassidy Janson is perfectly OK. She has a really good voice, she sings the hell out of Nobody’s Side – my favourite song in the score – and she’s a decent actress and she manages to deliver some really, really atrocious dialogue with a straight face. She is not the kind of star who can use sheer force of personality to paper over the cracks in the script, particularly in a space the size of the Coliseum, and it shows. She’s very good, but she’d be far better in a version of the show that gave her more to act, which would be literally every single other version of the show that has ever been staged, rather than one designed to accommodate (and protect) stars with limited stage experience. As the Russian wife, Alexandra Burke – who is a pop star – has the opposite problem: she has a stunning voice, but she’s not quite the right kind of singer for most of her music here. Again, she doesn’t have the kind of superstar presence that might compensate for the (huge) gaps in her (very) underwritten role, but she also doesn’t have the kind of nuanced approach to interpreting song lyrics that would get the most mileage out of the interpolated He is a Man, He is a Child. That song, more than anything else in the score, is an extended dramatic monologue, albeit one with a couple of huge musical peaks; Ms. Burke, unfortunately, can’t act. At all. She makes lovely sounds, but they usually seem unconnected to the words she’s singing.

The men fare better. As the Arbiter, Cedric Neal blows the roof off the Coliseum in his one big number. Tim Howar‘s John McEnroe-esque Freddie, the bratty American champion, is so brilliantly sung that it’s easy to forgive his relative lack of charisma in the (brief) scenes. His biggest number, Pity the Child, is a formidably difficult rock howler, and he pulls it off effortlessly (I could have done without the gratuitous “NOOOOOOOOOOOOO” at the end of the song, though – perhaps it snuck in uninvited from Laurence Connor’s mediocre production of Miss Saigon, in which more than one actor does more or less the same thing, but it should have been shown the door the moment it appeared in rehearsals). And as Anatoly, the Russian challenger in the chess championship, Michael Ball is the only one of the production’s leads who has the combination of voice, acting skill, and charisma necessary to make this streamlined version of the show completely work for him. Somehow, despite a script that provides almost no connective tissue between his big numbers, he manages to create a believable character. It’s very easy to make fun of his cheesy vocal mannerisms – he put at least half the cheese into cheesy listening – but he’s on his best behaviour here and his singing is mostly superb, and the cheese, thank God, is mostly left offstage. His Anthem, the defiantly patriotic/internationalist hymn Anatoly sings at the climax of the first act, is the production’s most thrilling musical moment, and also one of the few moments in the production that works as drama.

chess coliseum 1

As for the production itself, I’m starting to think ‘directed by Laurence Connor’ should be taken as some kind of warning. There’s a spectacular set by Matt Kinley – remarkably spectacular for a five-week run – consisting of grids of square screens which show video projections (designed by Terry Scruby) – sometimes of the actors emoting their way through their big numbers, sometimes of cold-war newsreel footage, and sometimes wince-inducingly naff computerised animation, like the sequence early in the first act when we see Freddie’s private jet descend over Merano then turn (at an improbable angle) and land at the airport. Stephen Mear’s choreography gets the most out of the two big scene-setting dance numbers, and his parade of merchandisers in the opening ceremony sequence is terrific (it’s also the only place where Scruby’s video footage – which in that sequence shows Howar mugging his way through a series of gloriously spot-on ads for chess-themed souvenir merchandise ranging from coffee mugs to toothpaste – manages to be genuinely witty). There’s a lot going on – a lot of people on the stage, a lot of other visual information via the screens, and Connor does manage to marshall it all so nothing collides with anything else, and so that it’s always clear where you should be looking. He’s very good at the big picture, just as he was in Miss Saigon – but again, just like in his production of Miss Saigon, there’s not a great deal of subtlety to any of the performances, his attention to character work seems to stop at big, bland, generic emotions, and he’s prone to letting actors over-emote in places where less would be more. In the Swedish production in which it premiered, the late Josefin Nilsson‘s performance of He is a Man, He is a Child is a masterpiece of restraint – she has big notes, but she deploys them very carefully, and it’s all the more moving for it. Burke, on the other hand, has two volume settings and a tendency to sob, and the result isn’t nearly as moving because there is absolutely no feeling behind it. And Cassidy Janson sings much of the (gorgeous) final duet with tears (and mascara) running down her cheeks; it’s not a good choice, the moment would be more moving if we saw her holding back emotion rather than giving in to it.

But then, this version of the show, as I said at the beginning, probably wasn’t intended to be about acting. In purely musical terms, much of what you’ll hear is superb, and if you go for the music you’ll love it. Several individual numbers received thunderous applause, the show as a whole received a huge standing ovation, and – as a musical experience, as opposed to as a piece of musical theatre – it absolutely deserved it. As a concert with over-the-top visuals, it’s a stunning success. As a piece of theatre, it is lacking. The show might never completely work in any version, but as theatre even Richard Nelson‘s turd of a book from the Broadway production would be an improvement over what’s on offer at the Coliseum. It’ll be a long time before you get to hear these songs played by this kind of orchestra and chorus again, though – at least unless you go to Sweden, where the show is sometimes produced by major opera companies – so if you love the music this is certainly a must-see. Just – as I said – manage your expectations.

Finally, for the Chess geeks among us, the song list:

Act One

Overture (the first half of the overture used on Broadway)
The Story of Chess
Merano
Where I Want to Be (includes the preceding scene from the concept album)
Opening Ceremony/US vs. USSR/Merchandisers
The Arbiter/Chess Hymn
Chess
Quartet (A Model of Decorum and Tranquility)
Nobody’s Side (includes the preceding scene from the concept album)
Der Kleine Franz
Mountain Duet
Chess
Florence Quits
Someone Else’s Story (with Svetlana’s lyrics from the Australian production)
Embassy Lament
Anthem

Act Two:

He is a Man, He is a Child
Golden Bangkok
One Night in Bangkok
Heaven Help My Heart
The Soviet Machine
The Interview
Argument
I Know Him So Well
The Deal (mostly as on the concept album but with Svetlana’s reprise of Where I Want to Be at the beginning)
Pity the Child
Endgame
You And I (musically as on the concept album, incorporating a short reprise of The Story of Chess rather than all of it, but using the Broadway lyrics for the main body of the song rather than the [better] ones from the concept album)

Bows – an instrumental mostly based on Nobody’s Side.

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Sunshine on Leeds

sunshine on leith

What do you do on the sunniest May bank holiday weekend in years? If you’re me, you go to the theatre. Granted, I booked the ticket months before I saw the weather forecast, and I don’t much like sitting in the sun – but as it turns out, the West Yorkshire Playhouse‘s revival of Sunshine on Leith, the jukebox musical based on the songs of the Proclaimers, is even more uplifting than a concentrated dose of sunshine, and you won’t get sunburned.

If you’ve seen the film – and if you haven’t, you should – you’ll know what you’re getting: a slightly soap-opera-ish romantic-comedy-slash-family-drama centred on two soldiers returning home to Leith from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, and carefully woven around a stack of Proclaimers songs. The film is a gorgeous, glorious joy from beginning to end; in James Brining’s new production, the stage version is a little grittier, a little more carefully working-class, and it doesn’t have the film’s pull-out-all-the-stops flash-mob finale outside the Scottish National Gallery, but it’s utterly charming, and Stephen Greenhorn‘s book tells a sweetly touching story of ordinary people muddling through their ordinary lives.

There are lovely performances, too, from everyone in the ensemble cast (some of whom also play instruments – guitar, sax, trumpet – to supplement the production’s fine seven-piece band). You don’t get the film’s string section, but David Shrubsole’s folk-pop arrangements suit the stage production’s more down-to-earth tone very well, and remind us, as the film did, that this is a superb set of songs. They’re beautifully sung here, too – yes, by everyone, although Hilary Maclean’s movingly restrained take on the title song might be first among equals. Brining’s production keeps the pace moving but never feels rushed, Colin Richmond’s cleverly simple set takes us from a patrol in Helmand to a pub on Leith Walk to a Leith tenement via a hospital, a supermarket, and even Waverley Station, and the finale – yes, ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)‘, and get ready to sing along – is a jolt of pure theatrical ecstasy. The cast and band are clearly having the most wonderful time doing this show, the audience – me too – had a wonderful time watching it, the standing ovation at the curtain call was absolutely spontaneous and very well-deserved, and the Proclaimers, via video screen, got the final bow.

That’s as it should be; Greenhorn’s book is a tremendously skilful piece of writing (he’s given it a light update this time around; at one point, a Brexit reference gets a huge laugh), but there’s a clear-eyed, unsentimental realness to these songs, and they’re the element that gives the show its emotional depth. This is that rarest of things: a genuinely moving jukebox musical that elevates rather than diminishes the songbook it draws from, and that charms the audience instead of trying to beat them into submission (well, more or less – I got a balloon in my face in the finale, but I’ll live). I didn’t have to walk 500 miles to see it, but it would have been worth it.

Better to be dead

whisper house other palace

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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.