Hello, Dillie!

dk quays

Was I sitting close enough, do you think?

There’s not a great deal to say about Dillie Keane’s act, which I saw last night at the Lowry, other than that as a comedienne/cabaret singer/songwriter she’s more or less without peer. Here, she offers a joyride through her back catalogue, most of it written in partnership with Adèle Anderson, who Keane generously acknowledges several times through the course of the evening, giving us a collection of songs about love that range from the riotously rude (‘This Ain’t The Hokey Cokey Any More‘, about the perils of attempting athletic sex when your body will no longer cooperate) to deeply moving (‘Little Shadows‘, in which a childless woman counts her blessings and tries to convince herself she has no regrets). There are no false notes, no weak spots, no filler numbers – just a succession of wonderful songs, linked by funny/disarming stories. Keane has been performing this kind of material for more than thirty years; plenty of people have prettier voices, but nobody can deliver a song the way she can, and she has the audience – me too – eating out of the palm of her hand. With piano accompaniment by the brilliant Michael Roulston, who duets with Keane on the hilarious ‘Song of Sexual Re-Orientation’, the evening is a reminder that Keane and Anderson are as good a songwriting team as we’ve got. It’s pretty much a perfect night at the theatre – and it’s educational too: in the first-act closer, a spurned wife’s through-gritted-teeth takedown of her husband’s mistress, you’ll discover more rhymes for ‘Pam‘ than you ever thought possible.

In case you hadn’t guessed, I laughed until it hurt and then laughed some more. I even bought the DVD, because performances this good should be worshipped on a regular basis. How good was it? I walked into the Lowry with the kind of headache that starts wars, and ten minutes into the show I’d forgotten it. Dillie Keane: Better than Panadol. They should put that on the posters.

 

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Here come the girls…

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Same sandwich, different ham

I’m not going to write a full review of the play, because I did that already, but this afternoon I saw the second touring production of One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean‘s cleverly updated adaptation of The Servant of Two Masters. Paying a repeat visit to something like this is always a tricky proposition; the first (brief) UK tour took place between the production’s initial run at the National and its first run in the West End, and we got to see the glorious original cast that ended up taking the show to Broadway a few months later. The play itself was fun – a smart, stylish update of a comic classic – but that cast, headed by James Corden, was pretty much perfect, to the point where it wasn’t easy to imagine the play without them.

In fact, it works perfectly without them, although maybe a little differently. While every member of that original cast did superb work, Corden provided the kind of out-and-out comedy star turn that comes along far too rarely these days, and he dominated the reviews (and the awards nominations) so much that it was easy to get the impression, reading about the production, that it was basically The James Corden Show, which is more than a little unfair to the company that surrounded him. This time, with comedian Rufus Hound taking Corden’s role as Francis Henshall, the ex-Skiffle-player-turned-gofer for two on-the-lam criminals, the play’s balance changes. Before, it was a star vehicle with a very fine supporting cast; now, it comes across as more of an ensemble piece, and the other players get a little more of the spotlight. Hound, actually, is terrific, landing the physical comedy and the one-liners with equal aplomb, and he’s quick off the mark as well. Not everything that looks improvised in this show is quite as spontaneous as it seems – and when you see it for a second time, you’ll be anticipating some of the “surprises”, which actually doesn’t make them any less funny – but there certainly is plenty of unscripted interaction with the audience, and an enthusiastic college group from Pontefract meant that there was a little more of it this afternoon than there usually is. Hound works the audience beautifully, is never stumped for a one-liner, and is giving a performance of considerable skill and charm. He possibly doesn’t quite have Corden’s effortless star quality, but it doesn’t matter – he makes the role his own, and you never feel you’re watching a Xerox of his predecessor’s performance, which is all too often the case when you watch a replacement cast.

That’s true of the rest of the cast as well – they’ve all been allowed to put their own spin on their characters, and they’re all giving fine, funny performances. Unusually, the most skilful supporting performance in the show, possibly, comes from a woman whose character is not listed in the program, and whose role is confined to one scene in the first half… and to say much more would be to give too much away, but Alicia Davies does something quite difficult, and does it brilliantly well, maintaining the facade right until… well, to say much more would be to give too much away.

Also impressive: Jodie Prenger as the fabulously full-bosomed feminist book-keeper Dolly. Ms. Prenger has big shoes to fill – Suzie Toase was spectacular in the role in the original cast – and my God, she fills them, and her performance here is an object lesson in why it’s perhaps not a good idea to sneer too much at those cheesy reality casting shows. Here, as in her lengthy stint in Spamalot, aside from her powerful singing voice, she reveals genuine star quality, along with a wonderfully sharp way with a one-liner. Her comic timing, simply, is immaculate, and she proved this afternoon that she’s as quick with an off-the-cuff line as anyone else in this cast. Once upon a time, the TV reality show route wouldn’t have been necessary for someone like her, because musical theatre was full of opportunities for this kind of musical comedienne – but this is 2013, and that’s showbiz, folks.

I was surprised, actually, at how well the show as a whole stood up to a repeat viewing, given that so much of it is based on the comedy of surprise, and on seemingly-improvised bits that aren’t quite as spontaneous as they first appear. Bean’s script is extremely clever, giving the actors a fair bit of room to manoeuvure, but building each scene towards a comic payoff that does not depend on interaction with the audience. Nick Hytner’s seemingly bombproof direction also helps, as do Grant Olding’s surprisingly durable songs and musical interludes (there’s even a cast album – I bought it the first time I saw the show, and I’m surprised how often I find myself listening to it). It’s an out-and-out romp, a show that doesn’t have any purpose other than to give you a good time – but, actually, that’s just about the hardest thing to do in the theatre. Even on a second viewing, without the stellar original cast, this is a show that very definitely lives up to its own hype. These days, that’s far rarer than it should be.

Oh yes – purely coincidentally, on my way to the theatre I ate a hummus sandwich.

Ms. J’Adore, Ms. iPhone, and the screamer

I love theatre. I love going to the theatre more than very nearly anything else. I go to the theatre as often as I can (although not always as often as I’d like), and I’ll see very nearly anything. Theatre excites me, provokes me, makes me happy, very occasionally infuriates me, and however much utter dreck I find myself sitting through – yes, I survived Monkee Business: The Musical with at least some of my braincells intact, and even, God help me, went back for the second act – I can’t ever imagine a life in which I don’t go to the theatre regularly.

I love Fascinating Aida too – that’s the satirical cabaret group with Dillie Keane, Adèle Anderson and (currently) Liza Pulman, not the opera by Verdi (I say this only because I mentioned I was going to see them the other day and a friend asked me if there’d be live elephants). If you’ve been living under a rock, and nobody’s forwarded you the link to Cheap Flights, go and watch it NOW. I’ve been listening to their recordings since the I got the first one in the late 80s  (‘Moscow, Moscow’ is one of those songs that always makes me smile), I’ve seen them live several times, and I am a huge fan. I saw their show last night at the Lowry in Salford, and they were superb. Their material – all written themselves – is terrific, and they have, by now, worked their act up to a standard that very, very few comedy/cabaret groups can match. The new material – including swipes at Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, the Brothers Miliband, Fifty Shades of Grey, Katie Price and Richard Branson – was sharp and very funny, and the excursions into their back catalogue – the pointed takedown of new-age mysticism in ‘One True Religion’, the glorious ‘Getting It’ (a song about the perils of Viagra), the deadly-accurate Weill spoof ‘Leider’ – showed the astonishing breadth of their material. They even, last night, did a more-or-less serious country-and-western number – ‘Glad You’re Gone’, I think it was called, sung beautifully by the wonderful Liza Pulman – along with a serious song called ‘This Table’ that pays tribute to absent friends; the former was great fun, the latter was extremely moving, and the show as a whole was terrific. They’re remarkable, all of them, and it’s always a pleasure to see them.

So I love the theatre, and I love Fascinating Aida. I am, however, beginning to hate theatre audiences.

Take last night. I was sitting in seat G25. On my right, in G24, we had Ms. Marinaded-for-a-week-in-J’Adore-by-Dior. I’ve never really got to grips with the etiquette of applying perfume because I don’t wear cologne myself (I seem to be allergic to quite a lot of it), but I don’t think the process involves running a bath of the stuff and then soaking in it for about four days. This woman’s scent, I’m afraid, was overpowering to the point where her BO would actually have been preferable. If anyone had struck a match, the mushroom cloud would have been visible from space. She was wearing enough of the stuff, anyway, that I spent pretty much the entire show trying not to sneeze. She was also not capable of sitting still, and every time she moved, another Dior-fuelled poison cloud wafted my way. I’m sure she thought she smelled lovely. Nope.

On my left, in seat G26, we had Ms. iPhone. She behaved herself through the first half. Halfway through the second half, she got out her iPhone to check a text message. It took her a surprisingly long time to turn it off. In a darkened theatre, the light from an iPhone’s screen is very distracting. In row G, it would certainly have been visible from the stage. But, of course, her momentary whim to check a message was far more important than the ability of everyone sitting around her to watch the show undisturbed by her appalling lack of manners, so she didn’t let any consideration for anyone else get in the way of that vital text that couldn’t wait another 25 minutes. She was special.

I’m saving the very best for last. Directly behind me, in row H – I think in H27, or one of the seats either side – was the screamer. No, not in any bedroom sense. This lady was Having A Good Time, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. Everyone there was having a good time, or trying to. Ms. Screamer, however, felt the urge to announce to her companions – and, because she clearly needed a larger audience, the rest of the world – that she was Having A Really Good Time. To that end, she did not laugh; she shrieked ‘HA! HA! HA!’, at the top of her considerable voice – and no, it wasn’t a laugh, it was separate syllables, clearly enunciated. In several songs and some of the patter between them, the jokes came thick and fast, so she SHRIEKED rather a lot. In order to demonstrate what a fabulous time she was having, she often rocked back and forth as she did so, which meant that she SHRIEKED her enthusiasm directly into my left ear, at a volume pitch that was somewhere between a Boeing 707 on takeoff and Armageddon. She also had a tendency to either repeat punchlines loudly to her companions or shout ‘BRILLIANT!’ over them, I assume because she was somehow incapable of sitting still and not drawing attention to herself. There’s no point, unfortunately, in complaining to someone like that, because she’s more or less certainly so thoroughly self-centred that she’ll have had no idea at all of how rude and unpleasant her behaviour was to the people sitting around her, all of whom had paid a not-trivial sum of money to be there – although perhaps singling Ms. Screamer out for being self-centred is unfair; all three of these ladies, in their way, were rude and inconsiderate to the people around them, not to mention thoroughly selfish, and all three should have known better. The best I can say about the behaviour of the people around me at the show last night is that at least, thank God, nobody had brought a bag of crisps.

None of these people, of course, were young, and I’m afraid it’s been a recurring theme for a while now that the worst behaviour I encounter at the theatre is from people who are older than I am. Yes, sure, you can complain to the house management – but that’s easier said than done in the middle of an act when you’re in the middle of a row, a dozen seats at least from either aisle. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the show last night – I did, very much, and Fascinating Aida are always worth seeing – but the three “ladies” sitting around me, between them, made the experience much less than it should have been. That, these days, is far too common. Is it really that difficult, at the theatre, to behave in a way that’s respectful to the rest of the audience?

Life is an ersatz cabaret, old chum

[Note: there is a little more to this story. For what happened in the couple of days after I posted this, click here. It’s never fun to get a bad review, but some of Will Young’s fans, it turns out, are hilariously childish and petulant, particularly when they start sending email.]

 

Welkuurmen, beenvanoo, wilcam… eem cubaray…

No, my spell-check has not gone insane. Those are just a few of the words in ‘Wilkommen’, the opening number of Cabaret, that Mr. Will Young is apparently unable to pronounce, whatever accent he’s trying to do. You might suspect that it’s not a good sign when a show’s above-the-title star mangles the first three words he sings at the top of the first act, and you’d be right, but on this occasion it’s worth exercising a little patience. Not for Mr. Young or for Ms. Michelle Ryan, his leading lady – they’re both awful – but for just about everyone else. It isn’t simply that this London-bound revisal of Rufus Norris’s 2006 revisal is a mixed bag. It’s both better and worse than that. It’s a bold, intriguing, intelligent, stylish production with a strong ensemble and a couple of truly remarkable supporting performances, but with a pair of inept celebrity stunt castees shoehorned in to the two most prominent roles in order to pull in the punters because it’s only about four years since the show was last in the West End. What are they like? Put it this way: Rufus Norris, the director, might as well have cast Kermit and Miss Piggy. In fact, they’d probably be an improvement. At least they’d be interesting.

What saves the production is the fact that, unlike the film, Cabaret on stage has always been an ensemble piece in which the focus is split between several characters. Despite Michael York’s fine work, the film rests mostly on Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey – or at least, it’s their musical numbers that people remember afterwards. While the stage version has gone through, it seems, as many different permutations as it’s had major metropolitan revivals – really, you’d imagine from the show’s production history that Joe Masteroff, who wrote the book, delivered a piece of unplayable crap that directors have spent the past 46 years trying to fix, when in fact his original version is superior in nearly every respect to more or less all the revised versions that have followed – it’s always retained a far wider focus than Jay Presson Allen’s (overrated) screenplay. That’s especially useful here, because it means that this production’s hellish miscasting of the actors playing the Emcee and Sally Bowles does not take the rest of the show down with them. It’s not that they’re not that bad – they just don’t have as much stage time as you might expect. Thank God.

So what’s good? A terrific set of sliding panels, ladders, cages and translucent flats by Katrina Lindsay – we are not, in this production, aping the Sam Mendes staging in which everything took place in the Kit Kat Klub, even when it didn’t, and for that relief much thanks – and equally terrific atmospheric lighting from Mark Howett. This is as good-looking a production of Cabaret as you could ever expect to find, and it does not, thank God, bathe you in sleaze from the moment the curtain rises. You see plenty of people snort cocaine, but none of the dancers have visible track-marks. After the skank-overload that characterised the Mendes revival, trust me, that’s a blessing.

And the dancers are great. Norris and his choreographer, Javier de Frutos, have found a superb ensemble. The bit-parts in scenes are all expertly played, the singing is excellent, and de Frutos’s choreography is often genuinely revelatory. This is a rather more dance-centric production of Cabaret than previous major stagings – not a surprising route to take if you have a choreographer of de Frutos’s calibre on board – but it works, and works well. De Frutos has managed the difficult trick of reimagining each of the show’s iconic musical numbers without changing their intent or their subtext. For ‘Money, Money’, he presents the Emcee in a grotesque balloon fatsuit that gets pricked and deflated as the recession bites. The first ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ – which in this production is the Act One finale – is a truly creepy human puppet-show in which the singer manipulates the chorus line into performing the Nazi salute. We get ‘Mein Herr’ from the film, but there isn’t a wooden chair in sight. The gorilla number uses projections and sleight-of-hand rather than an actor in an actual gorilla costume, and is chillingly effective.

Transitions between scenes are often choreographed, and some numbers – most notably ‘Why Should I Wake Up?’ and ‘Don’t Tell Mama’ – are woven around dialogue to create transitional montages (‘Don’t Tell Mama’, indeed, is seen from behind and only half-heard, as the first scene between Cliff and Bobby takes place ‘backstage’ at the Kit Kat Klub while Sally is out front performing the number). ‘Two Ladies’ features way more than two ladies, several men, and a bed with a trick opening through which any number of people and props can enter and exit. It’s clever, it’s funny, it’s appropriately raunchy and decadent, but it’s also – I keep saying ‘Thank God’, don’t I? – far subtler than the Mendes production was in either its London or North American incarnations, and far less self-consciously skanky (can you tell I really didn’t like the Mendes production very much?). You don’t see a Swastika until the last thirty seconds of Act One, or a Nazi uniform until midway through Act Two – Norris does a far, far better job than Mendes did of showing us the gradual, insidious growth in the Nazi Party’s influence. There’s a concentration camp tableau at the end, but unlike the one Mendes gave us, it doesn’t feel tacked-on or gimmicky. If you have to present a revised version of Cabaret, this is as good as any and better than most.

And yet, and yet… I liked this version of the show, the cuts and alterations are intelligently chosen, and the show plays briskly (theoretically two hours twenty minutes including an intermission), but there wasn’t anything much wrong with the original book and score, beyond the original book’s uncomfortable presentation of Cliff as unequivocally straight. This is not a show that needs extensive revision, but for some strange reason, it usually gets it – although, of course, these days it’s hardly unusual for a major revival of a post-1940s musical to incorporate significant revisions, and the revisions here are less egregious than some.

What else is good? Henry Luxemburg as Cliff. He’s the understudy, and he’s great. One of this particular production’s huge achievements is that it’s always clear that what we’re watching is primarily Cliff’s story – which it technically is in every other version as well, but Cliff often gets somewhat lost among a parade of more colourful supporting characters. That’s not the case here. Also, the wonderful, always-welcome Harriet Thorpe (you might have seen her in AbFab) is a sharp, brassy Fraulein Kost, and Nicholas Tizzard is a stealthily insinuating Herr Ludwig. They’re impeccable. Even better, there’s Sian Phillips and Linal Haft as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. He’s superb, she’s perfect. Her scenes in the second act, in particular, are so riveting that they’re worth the cost of a ticket in themselves.

Which is a good thing, because you won’t get much value out of Mr. Young or Ms. Ryan. Mr. Young is essentially delivering a Xerox of James Dreyfus’s performance as the Emcee in this production’s earlier incarnation. He’s a far better singer than Mr. Dreyfus – his best, most effective moment comes with the interpolated ‘I Don’t Care Much’, because he doesn’t have to do anything much except stand still and sing the damn song – but he’s no kind of actor at all, although he certainly throws himself into it. He has approximately the charisma of a 15-watt lightbulb, and he gives the impression of having learned every gesture, every line and every vocal tic by rote, with no sense at all of what the intentions behind them might have been. And he’s better than Ms. Ryan, who seems completely at sea. She hits all her marks and has the sort of voice and look that could be convincing as Sally Bowles – you don’t need to be a great singer to score in this role – but she is never believable for even a second. She begins the show with an overdone cut-glass accent that seems about to slip off at any moment, as if it was a dress that was four sizes too big – and that’s an interesting place to start with Sally Bowles, but it’s also more or less what Anna Maxwell-Martin did in this production’s previous incarnation, and Ms. Ryan never takes the idea anywhere. Her every line is stilted; the impression you get is less of a performance in character, and more of a child playing dressup. That, too, is potentially an interesting direction in which to take Sally Bowles, but she doesn’t. There’s simply nothing there at all, apart from an uncanny ability to suck all the energy and life out of everything within fifteen feet of her onstage. At any given moment, whatever she’s doing, saying or singing, Ms. Ryan is invariably almost completely blank.

And yes, that’s cruel, but there’s a serious point: Mr. Young is a very, very good pop star. Ms. Ryan can be quite compelling on television (she was great in her guest shot in Doctor Who). This is not their venue; they’re not here because they’re suitable for their roles, they’re here because producers – I’m looking at you, Bill Kenwright – think that punters will pay to go to the theatre to, essentially, watch them jump through hoops as if they were performing seals. There’s nothing at all wrong with casting stars from other branches of the entertainment industry in order to put bums on seats – as long as those stars are capable of giving a competent account of the roles they’re supposed to be playing. This afternoon, at the curtain call, I did something I haven’t done for a very, very long time: when Mr. Young and Ms. Ryan walked out to take their bows, I stopped clapping. I was not alone. The applause dipped noticeably when they walked out, and the chatter I heard around me as I left the building* rather strongly suggested to me that a significant number of people were significantly underwhelmed with these two performers. Regional theatre audiences are not stupid. We know what is good, and we know what is cynical stunt-casting  – and it was clear what people felt they got this afternoon.

If I sound angry, I am: to put it bluntly, Mr. Young and Ms. Ryan’s performances this afternoon were an insult to my Visa statement, because their work was not of a quality that was worth paying for. Tickets are not cheap, even for touring productions; it costs a fair amount of money even to sit in the nosebleed seats, and we’re entitled to expect, once we’ve plunked down the cash or the plastic, to receive something a little more evolved than an ersatz reproduction of a more interesting performance that someone else gave somewhere else five years ago. As it stands, I’ve no idea at all what Mr. Young might bring to the role of the Emcee – I only know that he can be coached to spend two hours hitting all the same marks James Dreyfus did. That’s not theatre, it’s 3D photocopying, and it’s a waste of time and money.

* Three minutes or so before the second act began, the fire alarm went off in the theatre. The theatre’s front-of-house staff did a very, very impressive job indeed of getting people out quickly and calmly, and it was either a false alarm or something very minor because we were back inside within half an hour, but God, some people are stupid. And selfish. NO, if a fire alarm goes off and a recorded voice tells you to evacuate the building via the nearest exit, it probably ISN’T part of the pre-show for Act Two. No, you probably shouldn’t try to shove your way back to your seat against the tide of people streaming towards the exit. When you leave the building, it’s probably not a good idea to mill around immediately in front of the doors. It’s certainly not a good idea to wait for the lift (for a start, if there’s a fire alarm, the lift probably isn’t going to come) or stand at the top of the staircase complaining about having to go outside. The staff, as I said, did an absolutely brilliant job; a small but significant number of patrons made that job harder by, essentially, being stupid or selfish or both.

Get hep! Get hep! Get a REALLY big band!

The orchestra pit ate the first five rows of the stalls, and it contains a grand piano, along with eight viola players, five saxophonists, twenty-two violinists, four trumpeters, three trombonists, and a whole crowd of others adding up to a grand total of sixty-seven musicians. In 2012, at a musical comedy, this is not business as usual. And those musicians aren’t just any musicians: this pit band is the Hallé, a Manchester-based symphony orchestra that has been performing since 1858, under the baton of Sir Mark Elder.

I repeat: this is the pit band.

The occasion is a rare collaboration between the Hallé and the Royal Exchange Theatre: a fully-staged production of Wonderful Town, directed by Braham Murray, one of the Exchange’s founding artistic directors, with the Hallé – all of them – as the pit band. Because all of those musicians wouldn’t fit in the Exchange’s own theatre (a glass-and-steel theatre-in-the-round, somewhat resembling the Apollo Lunar Module, that’s suspended from the supporting pillars of the former commodities exchange trading floor in the Royal Exchange building in Manchester city centre), the show is being staged in the Lyric Theatre at The Lowry. It’s apparently taken about five years for a window to open up in which all three organisations had a gap in their schedule at the same time.

It’s been worth the wait: this Wonderful Town is, well, wonderful. Last revived in Britain twenty-six years ago (in a production starring the great Maureen Lipman, whose performance in it is one of my happiest teenage theatregoing memories), Wonderful Town is possibly the quintessential golden-era New York musical comedy. Based on My Sister Eileen, a play by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov that is itself based on a collection of autobiographical short stories by Ruth McKenney, Wonderful Town’s loose plot follows the adventures of two wide-eyed sisters, Ruth and Eileen Sherwood (lightly fictionalised versions of McKenney and her own sister Eileen), who move from Columbus, Ohio to Greenwich Village, hoping to make it big in New York City. On paper, it looks as if it’s going to be a piece of inconsequential fluff, but the show has a smart, funny book by Chodorov and Fields, and smarter, funnier, lightly satirical lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, topped off with what is possibly Leonard Bernstein‘s fizziest, most beguiling music.

And it’s the music that’s the most important thing here. Under Elder’s direction, the Hallé sound absolutely terrific; they really swing, capturing all of the heat and the sweetness in Bernstein, Comden and Green’s glorious score. This is possibly the most luxurious pit band you’ll ever hear, and it’s an absolute privilege to spend an afternoon in their company (tellingly, the theatre didn’t begin to empty until after they’d finished playing the exit music). Happily, they’re matched nearly every step of the way by Braham Murray’s production, which sets the show in a vibrant, dizzyingly colourful world of forced-perspective skyscrapers and tenement fronts (the evocative sets and costumes are by Simon Higlett; there’s even a model subway train that crosses the stage on a bridge). Murray isn’t Britain’s most experienced director of musicals, but he’s a peerless director of comedy, and he’s rarely done better work than he offers here;  if the transitions between dialogue and song occasionally seem a little forced, that’s probably at least partly the result of the piecemeal way in which the show was written (Bernstein, Comden and Green wrote the score in about four weeks around a book that had already been written, to replace an already-written score by Leroy Anderson and Arthur B. Horwitt, who quit the production five weeks before rehearsals were due to begin). Wonderful Town is not a musical drama like, say, West Side Story; it’s a confection, a slight charm piece, and it depends on perfectly-pitched performances from both the stars and the ensemble, and on a director who can land the frothy, slightly underwritten love story at the centre of the book while maintaining the piece’s comic momentum. While the music and the band are undoubtedly this production’s biggest attraction, Murray’s greatest achievement here is that the spectacular band in the pit does not overwhelm the rest of the show.

It helps, of course, that this Wonderful Town has a wonderful ensemble cast. Every performance is impeccable, and Andrew Wright’s choreography does a brilliant job of building show-stopping production numbers on the personality quirks of a cast that is almost entirely not made up of trained dancers. I could, though, have done without the programme note from Braham Murray in which he claims that the choreography is “so original that it is nothing like what happened before, and people who have seen [the show] before either on Broadway or in London and have seen the routines will say ‘My God, this is completely different and original and very exciting.'” – it’s good, certainly, and it’s exciting, but this is hardly the first time a choreographer has built spectacular dances around personalities rather than moves.

It helps even more that the three leads are superb. Michael Xavier’s Bob Baker, a newspaper editor who falls for one sister but ends up with the other, has an easy charm, an impressive voice, and a lovely, slightly rumpled way with a comic line, and when he finally realises he’s fallen for Ruth rather than Eileen, late in the second act, the moment is sweetly touching. Lucy Van Gasse – a trained opera singer, though she has a few musical theatre credits – is more or less perfect as Eileen, the younger, prettier, blonde sister who wants to be an actress. She has a gorgeous voice, of course – her ‘A Little Bit in Love’ is absolutely luscious – but she also has a wonderfully daffy, charming sense of comic timing, and she’s often very, very funny. The biggest surprise, though, comes from the performer in the biggest role: reality TV winner Connie Fisher as Ruth. Ms. Fisher, of course, was the winner of the BBC’s How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, and went on to play Maria in The Sound of Music in the West End and on tour. She has, however, been in the wars over the past few years; on tour with The Sound of Music she experienced severe vocal difficulties that ultimately led to surgery for a congenital vocal problem, leaving her without the ringingly clear soprano that won her her big break, and after her surgery she was told by doctors that it was possible she would never sing again. And yet here she is, dancing up a storm, landing every single laugh, singing in a strong, beautifully controlled alto, and exuding a warm charisma that somehow eluded her in The Sound of Music. There, she was a competent leading lady with a lovely voice; here, she’s a star. OK, she’s sporting an accent that seems to have bypassed Ohio entirely and landed somewhere in the Texas Panhandle, but it doesn’t matter. She comes across, more than anything else, as a deeper-voiced Olive Oyl – bright, tart, charming, gangly, funny, and utterly adorable.

The bad news? If you’re reading this, you’ve missed the Hallé, who are only playing for the first two weeks of the Manchester run. For next week’s Manchester performances and the subsequent eleven-week tour, there’ll be a seventeen-piece band in the pit, made up of musicians who have previously played with the Hallé. The cast and production are strong enough that this Wonderful Town would still be worth catching without the spectacular orchestra that played the show this afternoon, and the production’s publicity is admirably clear about which orchestra will be playing at which performance, but the smaller band will inevitably give a less glorious account of the score – which probably accounts for the very nearly sold-out house this afternoon for a show that, in this country, is hardly the best-known export from Broadway. The show, incidentally, is very lightly amplified; even with sixty-seven musicians in the pit, it doesn’t hit you in the ears the way most musicals do these days, and that’s all to the good: this production is many things, but most of all it’s an object lesson in just how crassly overamplified most musicals these days have become. And the more delicate balance of sound between the pit and the stage works entirely to the show’s advantage: this afternoon’s audience sat still and paid attention to a far greater degree than audiences at several other musical revivals I’ve attended recently. This afternoon, every note counted – but so did every word.

There’s a tantalising hint in the programme that there may be more of these collaborative productions on the horizon: in an interview, Sir Mark Elder says that one of his future ambitions is to conduct a production of Frank Loesser‘s The Most Happy Fella. This afternoon’s performance of Wonderful Town was a two-and-a-half-hour trip to musical comedy heaven. The chance to hear this kind of orchestra do this kind of work in the context of a full theatrical production rather than a concert comes around very, very rarely; if and when Elder ever gets to conduct The Most Happy Fella, I will move mountains, fly oceans, cross continents to be there.

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.