One stepladder, other stepladder

allegro

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

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

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

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Overheard

Yesterday afternoon, I saw Opera North’s magnificent production of Carousel at the Grand Theatre in Leeds. I love the Grand Theatre – it’s one of the most charming of Britain’s major touring theatres, and the auditorium is truly lovely – and I love the show. I’ve written a separate post praising the production to the skies; it should have been a glorious experience. It wasn’t, quite.

The problem, yet again, was disruptive behaviour from somewhere in the auditorium – in this case, exacerbated by the fact that this production is all but unamplified, which means there’s a far greater potential for what I suppose we must call noise pollution. Most of the audience, once they’d clicked into concentrating on a production that is significantly less loud than your average overamplified big musical, sat and listened very intently. A couple of mobile phones rang – there was no pre-show announcement about switching them off, and there should have been – and there was the occasional sound of crinkling candy wrappers. The biggest source of disruption, though, came from a rather more delicate source.

Somewhere in the part of the theatre where I was sitting (the dress circle, I was in the back row), several seats over to my right and not visible from where I was sitting, there was what sounded like an adult woman with some kind of severe mental disability. I never saw this person, so that’s an assumption. What I do know is that most of the show was accompanied by a stream of noise from this person – low (but not quiet) moaning, brief louder wailing, snatches of singing, and a sound that resembled a cross between throat-clearing and blowing a raspberry. I have no idea where this person was sitting, other than in one of seven rows of seats somewhere to my right; I assume she was not unaccompanied. Particularly in a very nearly unamplified production, this was significantly disruptive, and I was not the only person who remarked on it at the interval. I don’t know if anybody said anything to the front of house staff at the interval; I didn’t, partly because, God knows, I can’t help but feel for both this person and whoever was with her, and partly because I couldn’t narrow down the source of the sound any closer than a block of about 150 seats. The disruption in the first half, though, was severe enough that a competent house management should have noticed it and dealt with it off their own bat; evidently they did not, because these sounds continued all through the second half as well.

As much as I feel for this person, and for the people with her, there’s a huge disrespect for the rest of the paying audience in evidence – not on the part of the woman with the disability (the sounds definitely did not come from a child), but from whoever was with her. If you took a child to that kind of event, and they made the kind of noise that would disrupt the experience for other members of the audience, you’d take them out. If you heard a child making that kind of disruptive noise, it would be easier to talk to front of house about it.

At the back of my head, there was the terrifying notion that to make a complaint about this person would somehow be to suggest that people with disabilities should be locked away, and of course that’s not what I think at all. But I do think that anybody attending a live performance (and in this case, I specifically mean the carer/parent/whatever who accompanied this woman to the theatre) should have enough respect for the rest of the audience that they take quick, decisive steps to minimise any behaviour that might disrupt the show for other patrons, and that a competent front-of-house management should pay attention to what is going on in an auditorium during a performance and, if necessary, take action before being prompted by another ticket-holder. Yesterday afternoon’s experience fell considerably short of that. Since these noises continued unimpeded through more or less the entire performance, it’s impossible not to conclude that whoever was accompanying this individual didn’t have any respect or consideration for the rest of the audience. Given that the front-of-house staff did not appear to notice the problem, much less intervene, I’m afraid it’s also difficult not to conclude that their attitude towards their paying customers is not quite what it should be. Now, true, I didn’t complain – but the level of noise was such that I shouldn’t have had to.

Don’t get me wrong – I loved the production. And, probably, in this instance, I should have been less squeamish about coming forward and notifying front-of-house that there was a problem (me and a few hundred other people), and it’s certainly not as if either noisy audience behaviour or inept front-of-house management are at all unusual in British theatres. But going to the theatre and experiencing a show without encountering any kind of bad behaviour from other audience members is becoming the exception rather than the rule, and that’s not good enough, and I’m afraid the front-of-house management have to shoulder some of the responsibility. Theatre tickets are expensive to the degree that it is simply not acceptable for a front-of-house management to adopt a laissez-faire attitude towards disruptive behaviour, whatever the source. I’ve done the job myself, and this is not a pleasant aspect of it, but part of the house management’s job is to ensure that everyone in the auditorium experiences the performance without any disruption from other members of the audience, whether or not anyone makes a complaint. Yesterday afternoon, the front-of-house management in the Grand Theatre in Leeds did not do their job, and their customers deserved better.

Welcome to 1945.

First clue that this is not your standard-issue big musical revival, circa 2012: there’s no sound designer credited in the programme (although there is a sound engineer listed way down in the technical credits at the back). The second clue: the first few rows of seats in the Leeds Grand Theatre’s stalls are missing, swallowed up by the orchestra pit. Yes, there was a similarly-enlarged pit a few weeks ago at Wonderful Town at The Lowry as well, but trust me, it’s unusual.

This time, though, we’re here for Rodgers and Hammerstein, rather than Bernstein: Carousel, as revived by Leeds-based Opera North, which means we get their full orchestra of fifty or so players, a large chorus, and a separate troupe of dancers, and the conductor (Jonathan Gill at yesterday afternoon’s performance) takes a curtain call with the cast. Carousel is probably my favourite of all of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s scores, and the opportunity to hear it with this size orchestra and chorus doesn’t come around very often. Here, the very first article in the (rather expensive) programme – before anything at all about either Rodgers and Hammerstein or the show itself – is a two-page piece about Don Walker’s original orchestrations, which were painstakingly recreated by a team from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization in 2000 (the full set of charts had been missing for decades; the National Theatre revival in 1992 used a new set of orchestrations, based on the originals, by William David Brohn). Clearly, this is not a case of an opera company slumming it at the lighter end of the repertoire. It’s not an absolutely complete presentation of the score because “The Highest Judge of All” is cut (and not particularly missed; it was cut from the National Theatre production as well, and I honestly think that section of the show plays better without it), but it’s obvious that everyone involved here has the utmost respect for this material.

And, it has to be said, this production offers an absolutely glorious account of the music. The orchestra’s playing is impeccable throughout – not stiff and reverential, but gutsy and full of life – and they’re matched by the singers, right down to the last member of the chorus. Carousel is not a pretty show – at core, while it ends with the promise of redemption, it’s a dark, unhappy love story between two people who are each in their way very damaged – and for a full production to work, the material demands a great deal more than an impeccable orchestra and marvellous singers (no, I’m not going to summarise the plot – we’ve all seen it, and if you haven’t, Wikipedia offers a fuller synopsis than I would). There’s a difficult line to tread here – in the National Theatre production, Michael Hayden and Joanna Riding offered devastating acting performances as Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan, but the music sat very uncomfortably on their voices, and they both strained for the higher notes. Here, we have West End actor Keith Higham as Billy (at matinees only; at evening performances the role is played by American opera singer Eric Greene) playing opposite British soprano Gillene Herbert as Julie. Neither has any difficulty at all with the music – Herbert’s “What’s the Use of Wondrin’?” is as good a performance of the song as I’ve ever heard – and they create an utterly convincing portrait of this very, very troubled couple. Their bench scene – the lengthy sequence that includes “If I Loved You” – is simply flawless.

[I could, here, offer a very lengthy aside in which I traced the beginning of the concept of the ‘integrated musical’ to the bench scene in Carousel, rather than to Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration, to which far too many historians attribute far too much influence – but anybody reading this who knows me and has any kind of interest in musicals has probably heard it before, so I won’t… except to say, baldly, that I think the bench scene in Carousel was a more influential moment in the development American musical than the premiere of Oklahoma!. This is a blog post, not an academic paper, and a 5,000-word essay on the subject would be a little over the top.]

The other leads? There’s absolutely delightful work from Clara Boulter and Joseph Shovelton and Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow, a beautifully-danced Louise from Beverley Grant, and a fine, rough Jigger Craigin from Michael Rouse. Towering above them all, there’s Elena Ferrari’s Nettie Fowler. Last year, I saw Ms. Ferrari give a breathtaking performance as the tragic Anna Maurrant in a chamber production of Street Scene. Yesterday, I saw her take “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and sing it simply and directly, as if nobody had ever touched it before, with no hint of grandstanding but with enormous emotional force. Her “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” was warm, funny, and absolutely charming; her “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was probably definitive. And yes, I cried, even though I know that moment in the play is shamelessly manipulative.

The production is lovely to look at, too. Director Jo Davies has shifted the plot forward in time a little, so that this production begins in 1915; that’s still almost a century ago, but it means the clothes and props are a little closer to items that would be worn/used today, and in a production in which the music is privileged above everything else, it’s a choice that takes away a little of the potential for starchiness. Anthony Ward’s set – fairground lights, a bleached treetrunk, ocean vistas, clapboard walls, wooden piers and houses – is deceptively simple and superbly evocative, as are Bruno Poet’s lighting and Andrzej Goulding’s (very lightly-used) video design, and between them, at the beginning of the Act Two  ballet, they manage a startling coup-de-théâtre to show Billy’s descent from Heaven back to Earth (if you haven’t seen this production and are going to in the future, I suppose this is a spoiler, so highlight the following couple of lines to read a description. Louise is first seen at the beach, in scratchy silent film projected on a clapboard wall at the back of the set. The square projected image slowly widens to become a panorama of the beach scene, and then the clapboard wall rises to reveal Louise in exactly the same spot she’d been in in the film, on the beach, in front of projected rolling waves). There’s strong, muscular choreography from Kay Shepherd, and it’s to her very, very great credit that in the crowd scenes it’s difficult to see the join between the singing chorus and the dancers. Occasionally, the pacing could be a little tighter, and the staging of the robbery scene (which, to be fair, is not the show’s best-written moment to begin with) needs revisiting before the production moves on to its runs in London and Paris, but this is, overall, an exceptionally strong staging.

Davies and her company also deserve a lot of credit for not ducking or in any way softening the domestic violence at the heart of the plot. We are no longer living in 1945; today, the scene in which Louise asks Julie if it’s possible for someone to hit you and it not hurt at all reads very, very uncomfortably, and our society’s attitude towards violence towards women has moved on to the degree that it’s impossible not to view that moment through a contemporary filter. We see Billy commit a sin that today is more or less unpardonable – more than once – and then, at the end of the show, we see him get a second chance. In the National Theatre production, when Louise asked that question, Michael Hayden’s Billy mouthed ‘no’. That doesn’t happen here, and there’s no acting around the lines; we simply see in Billy’s face that the question makes him realise what he’s done. The scene is sensitively played, and it’s powerful, but when Julie tells her daughter that yes, it is possible for someone to hit you and it not hurt, it isn’t easy to watch, and nor should it be.

What’s really interesting about this production, though, is watching the audience adjust to receiving a production that is all but unamplified (there is amplification, but it’s so subtle that it’s almost imperceptible). At the beginning of each act, there were three or four minutes in which isolated conversations, I’m afraid, could be clearly heard from various points around the area where I was sitting – and then, by and large, people shut up and listened.

It would be nice to say that there was no bad audience behaviour on display during the performance, but that’s a longer story. Still, this is a spectacular production, and I am, as the song says, mighty glad I came, even given… well, as I said, that’s a longer story.

Shall I tell you what I think of you?

This afternoon, I saw the current UK tour of The King and I at the Liverpool Empire. Unless hell freezes over, or I get forced to at gunpoint, or I suffer some kind of permanent concussion, the likelihood of my ever going to see anything else at the Liverpool Empire is somewhere close to nil.

It wasn’t the show’s fault, although I was less than impressed, going in, to see that this theatre charges £4.00 for a programme, which is a rip-off. I can’t, in all honesty, say that this is an absolutely ideal production of The King and I, simply because the circumstances in which it was produced inevitably mean that it doesn’t use the full original orchestrations,  and this score, of all scores, is never going to sound its best played by an “orchestra” of just nine, even if the reduced orchestration (by Julian Kelly) has been tastefully done. You don’t ever hear anything that sounds like a synthesiser, for which relief much thanks – the band uses ‘real’ musical instruments, just not enough of them.

Aside from the lack of about twenty more people in the orchestra pit, though, this is a confident, stylish, very entertaining staging that makes as good a case as anyone could for a show that, while an acknowledged classic with a gorgeous score, is not quite top-drawer Rodgers and Hammerstein. Everybody knows the story, so I’m not going to recap it here; the show’s examination of people from two different cultures clashing and ultimately learning from each other has dated a little around the edges. Western attitudes towards other cultures have changed a great deal since 1951, mostly for the better, and there is now a slightly uncomfortable whiff of colonialist condescension hanging over the material; that said, given the distant-land-far-away setting and a score that, while beautiful, does not entirely convincingly evoke the far east (particularly when it’s dressed in the reduced orchestrations used here), perhaps the best approach these days is simply to view the show as an exotic fable, despite the piece’s roots in autobiography.

And viewed through that lens, this production certainly delivers. The production originated at Curve, like the revival of Gypsy I gushed over the other week, and the touring production, unusually, is produced by a consortium of receiving houses rather than by a regular producer (which basically means, according to a programme note, that each venue stumped up part of the production cost in return for a greater slice of the profits than they’d get from a conventionally-funded production). That’s something to celebrate; there are certainly ratty, tacky, stripped-down musical revivals out on the road (I remember, with not much pleasure at all, a particularly excruciating Hello Dolly that made the rounds a few years ago whose set looked like it was made mostly out of cornflake packets and sticky-back plastic), but this isn’t one of them. Like most musicals that come out of Curve, it’s directed by Paul Kerryson, who knows his way around a musical revival. The show looks good, with elegant sets and costumes by Sara Perks and evocative lighting by Philip Gladwell. There’s a cast of over twenty – not huge by Broadway standards, but very large for something coming from a subsidised regional theatre – and a team of sixteen children. And there’s effective choreography by David Needham that culminates in an absolutely glorious version of the Act Two ‘Small House of Uncle Thomas’ ballet.

Most of all, there are lovely performances. The children are charming, the ensemble are terrific, and while there might not be a lush orchestra here, the singing, across the board, is very, very fine, with particularly strong work from Adrian Li Donni and Claire-Marie Hall as Lun Tha and Tuptim. And there’s certainly no faulting Josefina Gabrielle and Ramon Tikaram as Mrs. Anna and the King – they sing beautifully (yes, him too), they have marvellous chemistry, and they’re both absolutely compelling.

So, yes, I liked the production very much, but this afternoon’s experience is still not one I’d ever willingly repeat. What was wrong with the show? The audience. Oh my God, the audience. Sitting in the Liverpool Empire for three hours with those people was so unpleasant that wild horses couldn’t drag me back there.

In Act One, there was a group of about half-a-dozen ladies sitting in the row directly behind me. They talked, and not at a whisper. They rattled crisp packets and sweet wrappers more than you would think humanly possible, even after my last trip to the Palace Theatre in Manchester. If anyone turned around, glared, tried to shut them up, they either gawped or laughed. When Josefina Gabrielle started to sing ‘Getting to Know You’, at least two of them sang along. I wrote, a while back, about the obnoxious people sitting behind me at a performance of Mamma Mia; today’s charmers, I’m afraid, were louder, although they did, to their slight credit, seem to be somewhat less addicted to the F-word. And it wasn’t just them, either – the sound of crinkling, rustling plastic from behind me was more than intrusively loud, but similar sounds were audible from other people much further away, along with conversation, banging doors when people either arrived late or walked out in the middle of the act to go to the loo, and pretty much everything else that falls under the heading of distracting audience behaviour (with one exception: miraculously, as far as I could tell, nobody’s mobile phone went off).

I gritted my teeth until the end of the first act, then at the start of the intermission I went to find a member of the front-of-house staff, and asked to be reseated for the second act because of the obnoxious behaviour that had been going on behind me all through the first. The usher I spoke to went to find the house manager, who went off to the box-office to check the seating chart, and came back and offered me a choice of alternate locations. The lady was pleasant, apologetic, and helpful, and I certainly don’t have any complaint about the way she handled the situation.

The fun really began at the end of the intermission, when I sat down in one of the unoccupied seats the house manager had suggested. My sitting down in this previously unoccupied seat prompted the start of a running commentary from the two astonishingly foul-mouthed ladies sitting in the row behind (do you sense a recurring theme here?) – unbelievably, along the lines of “he’s f***ing taken that seat, it isn’t his, they should f***ing throw him out” (I suspect that the taller of these two classy examples of humanity was annoyed because her coat had been draped over the back of the seat). They’d bought ice creams during the intermission. I bet you think ice cream tubs are a quiet food, don’t you? Not where these ladies were concerned. I think one of them was perhaps trying to dig a tunnel to China through the bottom of the cardboard tub. You wouldn’t imagine it was possible to make that much noise armed only with a cardboard ice cream tub and the tiny wooden spoon that comes with it. Through this bizarre rhapsody of scraping – which obliterated most of ‘I Have Dreamed’ – they kept up a commentary on both me (as if where I was sitting was any of their business) and the show, none of which was conducted at a whisper. The absolute nadir came when the gentleman sitting next to me – whose behaviour was impeccable – decided he’d had enough, and turned around and hissed at them to shut up… at which point one or other of these fine specimens of charm and good breeding (I couldn’t see which) yelled  ‘what did you f***ing say to me?’ and clipped me round the earhole. The last person who did that was my dad, and he’s been dead for nearly a decade… and I don’t think I ever, in twenty-nine years, heard him use that particular word.

There’s nothing I could have done that wouldn’t have somehow resulted in even more disruption, even though there was nobody sitting between me and the end of the row, so I sat there seething. They were a little quieter after this, but only a little, and Act Two, in any case, came with the same background symphony of conversation, crisps and sweet wrappers as Act One, so essentially there wasn’t a single moment of the performance that wasn’t accompanied by some kind of distraction. As I got up to leave at the end of the curtain call, the taller (and louder) of these two ‘ladies’ again loudly announced to the world that ‘they should have f***ing thrown you out’. Nice. Again, there’s nothing much I could have said that wouldn’t have caused the situation to deteriorate into a shouting-match, so I just left as quickly as I could.

I don’t feel particularly good about saying this, because my experience of Liverpool has mostly been of a fun, vibrant, fascinating city full of friendly, genuinely lovely people – but this afternoon’s experience, all of it, was really, really unpleasant, and there’s nothing much that the theatre’s staff could have done that they didn’t do, willingly and promptly, as soon as they were asked. The only step the theatre’s management could possibly have taken to prevent this afternoon’s litany of appalling behaviour would have been to put every single member of the audience in shackles and duct-tape their mouths as they entered the auditorium. It might have been worth it, but human rights groups would probably find those measures a little extreme.

Fortunately for me, the Empire presents more or less nothing that doesn’t also tour to at least one other venue within a similar distance of home.  Going to the theatre shouldn’t involve negotiating an assault-course of distractions, or getting whacked around the ear because someone else asked somebody to shut up. The audience, I’m afraid, completely ruined the production; no part of sitting in the Liverpool Empire this afternoon was pleasant, and the fact that I paid for this Godawful experience is… well, what’s the opposite of icing on the cake? All that being the case, the answer seems to be very simple: I won’t be going back. Hell is (sometimes) other people; seeing a classic musical shouldn’t be.

 

[Edit – 11/4/12 – the Empire’s management got in touch with me today via Twitter and made a very kind gesture of goodwill because I’d had such an unpleasant experience. While I chose not to take them up on their very generous offer, I do appreciate the gesture very much, and they deserve a lot of credit for monitoring blogs and social networking sites and paying attention to what their customers say about the experience of seeing a show in their venue.]

 

Unenchanted evening

Or rather, afternoon, although Thursday evening was in some ways similarly unenchanting. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Today, I’m afraid, was just one of those days. I had a ticket this afternoon to the UK tour of South Pacific at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. I love the show, it’s a terrific production, I was looking forward to it. I left home just before 12.30pm to catch a bus into the city – or rather, to catch a bus to somewhere where I could catch a bus into the city – and arrived at the stop a few minutes before the bus (supposed to run every thirty minutes) was due. And I waited… and waited, and waited, and waited, until 1.15pm, thirteen minutes after the following bus was supposed to have come and gone, at which point I realised that even if a bus turned up at that very moment, there was basically no way the bus was going to get me into Manchester in time to make a 2.30pm curtain up at the Palace. I called a taxi. It’s about eleven miles from here into Manchester via the route the taxi took; the fare was significantly expensive. That, I’m afraid, is what you run the risk of getting when you travel with First Manchester. Today was the sixth time in two weeks that I have had to wait for over thirty minutes for one of their services, and they have, in fact, just been fined by the regulator because their services are so consistently unreliable, so I’m a little curious to know what their managing director, Mr. Richard Soper, does to earn his presumably very comfortable salary. Given the generally appalling standard of the bus service around here, I assume not much.

So I wasn’t in a great mood when I got to the theatre, and the fun was only just beginning. The really special portion of the day began when the house lights went down. Between the candy wrappers, the talking, the nearly constant procession of people getting up during the performance to go to the loo, and the cell phones, there was very little of the first half that wasn’t in some way interrupted by some kind of breach of audience etiquette. And the crisps. Oh my God, the crisps. Is bringing large bags of designer crisps to the theatre now a thing? Is it what people do? Because it’s completely obnoxious. If you add the constant munching, crunching, and rustling of plastic wrappers to the talking and the cellphones… well, I might as well have been watching the show from a seat in the food court at a mall.

Unfortunately, when it comes to audience etiquette, the Palace’s management are a useless waste of space. This afternoon, they didn’t even make any announcement asking people to switch off their mobile phones before the show started – so guess what? In the part of the theatre where I was sitting, phones went off three times in the first half and twice in the second. The front-of-house staff, of course, were nowhere to be seen at the interval. They did, however, take the time to open the outside doors – yes, to the street – before the show’s final scene was over. The street is up a flight of stairs from where I was sitting, true, but the moment when Emile appears from the verandah to join Nellie and the children singing ‘Dites-Moi’ at the end of the show was – how can I say this nicely? – not improved at all by the addition of a blast of cold air and traffic noise from Whitworth Street outside. And that’s a pity; an understudy was on as Emile – Stephen John Davis, he was superb, and his ‘This Nearly Was Mine’ raised goosebumps and stopped the show – and it would have been nice to let him get to the end of his (terrific) performance without outside interference. Particularly since, God knows, there was enough interference going in inside the auditorium already.

And unfortunately this sort of appalling audience behaviour is becoming more and more common. The audience was equally delightful when I saw this production during its first stint at the Palace last year, and at a screening of the New York Philharmonic‘s concert of Sondheim‘s Company the other night the two “ladies” sitting behind me had brought sandwiches from home – wrapped in aluminium foil, which they were incapable of unwrapping quietly. They, too, had brought crisps, although their crisps were slightly quieter than the aluminium foil.

I’ve written before that Company is a favourite show of mine; the concert was great fun, and even Ms. Patti LuPone (of whom I am not always a fan) was on her best behaviour, by which I mean her performance did actually include some consonants. Not all of them, obviously, but far more than she usually manages, and she only tortured about a quarter of her vowels. There were lovely performances from everybody else, but particularly from Stephen Colbert and Martha Plimpton, who gave, on I assume relatively little rehearsal, a sharply funny account of the karate scene  (Colbert is no great shakes as a singer, but he did a touching, sweetly sad job of his portion of ‘Sorry-Grateful’). I really enjoyed it, and I expect to enjoy it even more when I watch it on DVD without the additional, unwanted soundtrack of other people eating, talking, and rustling food wrappers.

One more thing: this is not about young people not knowing how to behave. Most of the rude behaviour I’m talking about came from people who are at least ten years older than I am.  It’s not as if either performance was completely ruined for me – on the contrary, I enjoyed both shows very much. In both cases, though, the whispering, the noisy eating sounds, the rustling wrappers, cellphones and all the rest of it were significantly distracting, and significantly annoying, and – God, I sound like a grumpy old man here – it’s depressing to think that the people I’m writing about have no idea – not a clue – of how their rude, disruptive, selfish behaviour spoiled the show for the people around them.

And, once again, for their failure to even make a gesture towards enforcing any kind of audience etiquette by asking people to turn off their mobile phones, and for their crass, intrusive choice of precisely the wrong moment to open the exit doors at the end of the show, the Palace Theatre Manchester’s front-of-house staff deserve some kind of prize for their absolute, gold-plated, copper-bottomed, neon-lit uselessness.

Put it away, and SHUT UP!

I’ve been to the theatre a couple of times this week – the very, very fabulous satirical cabaret group Fascinating Aida at the Lowry in Salford, and then the UK tour of Lincoln Center Theater‘s production of South Pacific at the Palace in Manchester. I’ll talk about the shows in a minute. First, I want to talk about the audiences. Oh God, the audiences. Specifically, what I want to talk about is why some people, after shelling out a medium-hefty sum of money for a theatre ticket, apparently find it so difficult to sit still and shut up.

It wasn’t so bad on Tuesday at the Lowry (for some reason, audiences at the Lowry seem to be rather more polite than audiences at the Palace or the Opera House). Fascinating Aida played in the smaller theatre, the Quays, and it was a packed house; mostly, as far as I could tell, the audience behaviour wasn’t hideous. There was one idiot somewhere near the front who hadn’t switched off her mobile phone, and then there was a party of four people who, unfortunately, were sitting directly to my right (if anybody reading this was at the 5pm performance on Tuesday October 25th, these charmers were in row G, seats 1-4 in the stalls). It’s not just that they periodically made comments to each other slightly too loudly (by which I mean they made no attempt to whisper). It’s that they arrived with snacks. Specifically, with bags of different flavours of designer crisps, which they proceeded to offer each other – not quietly – throughout the whole of the second half. Apparently sitting for a whole hour without putting some kind of fried potato product into their mouths would have caused them some kind of serious physical hardship. It’s not really possible to pass cellophane crisp packets around silently, not that they tried. The show was hilarious, but unfortunately, for me, it came accompanied with an intermittent running commentary (from four people who, I’m afraid, were neither as funny or as clever as they thought they were, and certainly nowhere near as funny or as clever as the three people on the stage), and the sound of crunching and rustling plastic.

And then there was South Pacific at the Palace. I booked for this ages ago – back in January, in fact – and spent a fair amount of money on the ticket: £50, when you factor in Ticketmaster‘s obscene booking fees (these people, astonishingly, have the unmitigated gall to charge you a fee of a few pounds to print off your ticket yourself, on your own printer, using your own ink, on top of their regular booking fee. Thieves and crooks, the lot of them, and if there’s any justice they’ll be first against the wall when the revolution comes. Or maybe second, after Simon Cowell. But I digress.) I’d been looking forward to it for a long time. I suppose it’s a measure of how far downhill we’ve slid that I don’t regard this afternoon’s audience as having been that bad (you know, rather in the manner of, say, infected peritonitis not being that bad compared to pancreatic cancer). So… South Pacific, Palace Theatre in Manchester, matinée performance on Saturday October 29th. Some highlights:

First off, let’s all offer our congratulations to the adorable couple seated in seats E-23 and E-24. She stood in the aisle for ten minutes before the start of the show then took her seat as the overture began – those seats, of course, are right in the middle of the centre block, and so naturally she waited until everybody between those seats and the aisle had sat down, because otherwise there might have been someone in that row that she wouldn’t have been able to disturb. He took his seat 90 seconds into the overture, presumably to make absolutely sure that everybody had sat down after getting up to let his wife pass. They whispered to each other through the rest of the overture and into the first scene – an urgent conversation about precisely where he’d had to park the car to avoid paying for parking (sorry, if you can afford to drop £100 on two stalls seats for a musical, you can afford to pay to park your car in the car park next to the theatre so that you’ll get to your seats before the lights go down). One must assume that they each had something pressing to do before leaving home that prevented them from leaving ten minutes earlier so that they could take their seats on time and not disrupt the start of the show for several dozen people who had all paid about £50 a pop to be there. Or perhaps they were just rude or selfish or inconsiderate. Hmm.

Then let’s all give it up for the lady – I use the term loosely, ‘lady’ implies someone who has manners – who was seated in seat E-18. Her handbag contained a plastic bottle of orange juice, which was itself contained within a Sainsbury’s plastic carrier bag. Every time she wanted a sip of juice, she rustled around in her handbag for the plastic bag, rustled the carrier bag getting the bottle out of it, crinkled the carrier bag in her hands as she took a drink, rustled the carrier bag again as she put the juice bottle back into it, then rustled it again as she put it back into her handbag. She did this approximately every six minutes, all the way through the show. Her routine added greatly to the climax of “This Nearly Was Mine”, but she managed to sprinkle her special kind of magic stardust over several of the show’s key moments. It’s not like she just crinkled her plastic bag during the loud bits.

Equally entertaining was the near-constant procession of people heading to the toilets in the last thirty minutes of Act One and the last fifteen minutes of Act Two. People, if sitting still and not having a wee for a maximum period of 90 minutes is seriously impossible for you, get a colostomy bag fitted, wear Depends, or at least book an aisle seat in a side block. It’s a theatre, not your living room, and neither age nor a pressing need to take a whizz translate into any kind of right to disrupt the performance for the people around you. Suck it up, hold it in, and don’t go to the bar before the performance starts.

A lady sitting behind me had a bag of Cadbury Eclairs. They’re individually wrapped in cellophane. She wasn’t as loud as the lady with the Sainsbury’s carrier bag, but she was even better at picking her moment.

And two general notes:

One, some people, believe it or not, actually want to listen to the overture and entr’acte. When they start, SHUT UP. At the very least, shut your trap when the lights go down.

Two, leaving during the curtain call is rude. The actors have been working their backsides off for (in this particular case) the last three hours, delivering marvellous performances in the face of talking, rustling carrier bags, crinkling sweet wrappers, and a procession of people taking trips to the loo during the play’s key scenes. The least you can do – the very least you can do – is applaud them when they’re done. If you have to put another pound into the machine in the car park, boo-hoo.

I sound cranky, don’t I? This wasn’t an audience from hell, and it certainly didn’t compare to the hideous experience I had the last time I saw a show at the Palace. This afternoon’s audience, I’m afraid, pretty much reflected the normal standard of behaviour in theatres these days (and a friend who saw Legally Blonde at the Opera House the other day had very similar things to say afterwards about the general state of audience behaviour from the people sitting around her) – and, sorry, if this is normal, it isn’t good enough. Surely it can’t be so incredibly difficult for grown adults to switch off their mobile phones and then sit still, shut up, stop fidgeting and not eat for an hour and a half?

So, yes, the shows. Fascinating Aida: they’re great. They’ve a new soprano this time – Sarah-Louise Young – and she’s got a great voice and killer comic timing (her solo show and recording –  Cabaret Whore – is well worth checking out). The new material is excellent (they open with a song about the financial meltdown: “Companies Using Nifty Taxation Systems”), the old material still plays well (and yes, Dillie Keane still does her amazing piano-stool acrobatics during “Lieder”), and I don’t think there will ever be a time when “Yes, But Is It Art?” fails to make me laugh. They’re wonderful, they should be national treasures, and their Bulgarian Song Cycles are touched by near-Godlike comic genius.

South Pacific… this is a British touring remount of the Lincoln Center production, which means it isn’t designed for the vast stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, which means that you don’t get that glorious moment halfway through the overture where the stage’s apron slides back to reveal the orchestra underneath. It’s still a very handsome show to look at. One original Broadway cast member in Manchester: Loretta Ables Sayre as Bloody Mary, and she’s wonderful. Jason Howard is also wonderful as Emile (he took over the role on Broadway and played it through much of the US tour), and his “This Nearly Was Mine” is deeply moving, even when it comes accompanied by a selfish old trout rattling a plastic carrier bag all the way through. And Samantha Womack’s Nellie is a huge, huge surprise. Unlike Kelli O’Hara, who originated the role in this production on Broadway, she doesn’t have a spectacular, one-off voice. She’s a perfectly capable singer, though, with more than a touch of Mary Martin about her, and she’s giving a performance that’s honest, truthful, thoroughly charming and ultimately extremely touching. More than that, she has whatever that undefinable quality is that makes you look at her when she walks onstage. She’s not the greatest singer and she might not be the most versatile actress, but she’s giving a superb performance here. But then, so is everybody, right down to the last member of the chorus. This is almost – almost – as good a production of South Pacific as you could ever expect to see.

There’s always a quibble, isn’t there? This time, it’s the orchestra. On Broadway, this production (according to the reviews; I downloaded the cast album so I don’t have a list of the orchestra members) had 30 players delivering Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations, and on that album (and on the telecast) they sound absolutely glorious. This incarnation also delivers those original orchestrations, but it does so via only 17 players, which I assume is the absolute bare minimum number of warm bodies needed to deliver what’s on those charts. There’s no synthesisers, no string pad, no virtual orchestra – and believe me I’m thrilled that there’s none of those things – but there’s also a violin section of two. The musicians play beautifully under the musical direction of Jae Alexander, but there’s a certain thrilling sound that comes from having a big string section; this score needs it, and it isn’t present in this production.

They do, however, win points for selling a beautiful glossy souvenir brochure full of large, full-colour production photos for only £4.00; they get a couple of points knocked off, though, for including an article in the regular programme that perpetuates the lazy and historically inaccurate myth that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! was the first-ever properly integrated musical play. Nope.

Still, it’s a glorious production, and my complaints are essentially quibbles. I loved it, it moved me, Bartlett Sher has drawn exquisite performances from every member of his cast, it looks great even in this touring version, and I’m fully intending to see it again when the tour swings back into this part of the world next year.

And who knows? Next time, I might even get to sit among audience members who can keep still and shut up after the lights go down. As someone says in act two, there’s always a chance.