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.

 

 

 

Come follow the bland…

Or, the tour of the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Barnum, as seen yesterday at the Lowry in Salford. Bullet points again, because if the show’s writers can’t be arsed to write a proper book for their musical, I can’t be arsed to write proper prose for the review.

* Brian Conley is really, really, really, REALLY annoying on television.

* Oddly, the qualities that make him so annoying on TV – the glib insincerity, the cheesy grin – work well here.

* His voice is rougher around the edges than it used to be, but he can still sing. More than that, onstage he has presence. He commands attention, and he delivers the score’s rapid-fire patter songs with considerable aplomb. And most of all, he knows how to work an audience, and that’s vital – whoever plays Barnum needs to be a performer as much as an actor. Mr. Conley, somewhat to my surprise – as I said, I can’t stand him on TV – is absolutely terrific.

* So it’s a pity the writers give him so little to do – which, yes, is an odd thing to say about a role in which the actor almost never leaves the stage, and performs a variety of circus tricks as well as singing, dancing and (in theory) acting.

* Here’s the problem: for all the razzle-dazzle of the presentation, Mark Bramble’s book for the show is thin to the point of being emaciated. It’s little more than a set of flashcards; there’s no point of view, the characters are drawn so sketchily that they aren’t even cardboard, and you end the show knowing very little more about P.T. Barnum than you knew going in. Sure, the show’s authors give us the barest biographical details, but there’s no attempt at all to explore what made the man tick. We don’t see where he comes from, we don’t see how he learns the art of humbug (an unkind person might call it con-artistry), and there’s more or less no attempt to explore whatever contradictions might be inherent in, for example, a man who made a considerable fortune by essentially stretching the truth to breaking-point AND who toured the lecture circuit promoting temperance. He’s a loveable con-artist at the beginning of the show, and a loveable con-artist at the end of it, and that’s pretty much all the show’s writers have to say about him.

* We don’t even get much sense of why Bramble, Coleman and Stewart thought this story was worth telling on the musical stage. I mean, Mr. Bramble provides a lengthy programme note on the subject, which is lovely of him, but the effort of writing it might have been better spent on adding some depth – any depth – to the show’s actual book. As it is, the show’s writers seem to be perversely determined to present their subject in the blandest terms possible. It’s as if they simply expect us to accept that Barnum was a great showman, and then just go along for the ride.

* And of course that’s not enough to hang a show on, even when you throw a dozen or so Cy Coleman songs into the mix. The show’s book might be tissue-thin, but the bouncy, brassy score is (mostly) great fun, even if it isn’t first-tier Cy Coleman.

* And yet, despite the (many) flaws in the writing, the show is never less than entertaining. That’s partly because of the excellent ensemble cast, and partly because the physical production is an absolute knockout. Presented more or less as a succession of sideshow acts, the show famously incorporates all manner of circus tricks, from tightrope-walking and fire-eating (both by the actor playing Barnum himself) to trapeze work, stilt-walking, and acrobatics (other members of the cast). There’s always something to look at, even if there’s almost never anything to think about.

* As Chairy, Barnum’s long-suffering wife, Linzi Hateley is some kind of miracle. Of course her singing is peerless – in terms of the vocal requirements, she’s way overqualified for the role – but she manages to create a warm, touching character out of writing that doesn’t even rise to the level of a succession of clichés. ‘The Colours Of My Life’, as a song, is limper than fortnight-old lettuce, but she turns her half of it  into something lovely, and manages to make you forget that the words she’s singing are absolutely vacuous.

* This production is based on the Chichester Festival revival of two years ago (though Timothy Sheader, that production’s director, didn’t bother to show up to direct it again, and his direction has been recreated by an underling – which might matter if the show’s book had any dramatic content at all, so it’s a good thing it doesn’t), so of course it substitutes the new ‘Barnum’s Lament’ (an aria for Barnum midway through the second act, cobbled together from bits of the show’s other musical numbers) in place of ‘The Prince of Humbug’. It’s not an improvement. The show, up until that point, has been entirely superficial. The song comes an hour and a half of stage time into the show, and it’s the very first time we’ve been asked to take an interest in Barnum’s emotional state. Therefore, of course, it just sits there. It’s jarringly out of step with everything we’ve seen and heard up until that moment; Mr. Conley does his best to sell it, but it simply doesn’t work.

* All of this makes it sound like the show is a disaster. It isn’t. It’s great fun if you simply treat it as a spectacle with songs. Stop and think about what you’re watching, though – at all – and the whole confection quickly begins to deflate. I said earlier that it’s never less than entertaining, and that’s true, but it’s never more than that either, and you always have the sense that there’s a much more interesting story that could have been told about P.T. Barnum’s life.

* One more thing: the biggest laugh came when Barnum announced he’d borrowed the money to finance – God knows, maybe Jenny Lind’s contract, or perhaps a Taco Bell franchise – from “a reputable Scottish bank”. Ouch.

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?

Mediocrity loves company

On Wednesday afternoon, I went to the Lowry in Salford to see a production of Cabaret. It was a bit of a mixed bag – a lot of things I liked very much, and two central performances (Will Young as the Emcee, and Michelle Ryan as Sally Bowles) that didn’t work for me on any level. I came home, wrote a review – in which I explained in some detail what I liked and what I didn’t, and why – and put it up on this blog, then went to bed.

That’s when the fun began.

Now, OK, I certainly didn’t mince my words in the review. What I saw, I’m afraid, was a mostly very strong production, with several excellent supporting performances and one – Sian Phillips as Fraulein Schneider – for which there are not enough superlatives, but whose two above-the-title stars – Mr. Young and Ms. Ryan – delivered work that wasn’t just poor, but barely of a professional standard. Mr. Young is a pop star, and a very good one, and he sang well and hit all his marks,  but he basically delivered a learned-by-rote imitation of the actor who originated his role in this production’s previous incarnation, and it just wasn’t very interesting to watch. Ms. Ryan was far worse – her un-performance was a stilted, wooden, dead-behind-the-eyes horror of epic proportions. She hit all her marks and most of her notes, but she wasn’t believable at all, and the excellent work from the supporting actors and the ensemble made her seem even worse in comparison. So yes, I came in for the grand slam – but I spent more time talking about the things I actually liked about the production.

Then the emails and comments started coming. I’ve left a couple of relatively mild comments up, although I closed comments on the post (I don’t like doing that, but I got to a point where enough was enough) – they’re childish (‘totally biased’, ‘biased, almost hateful’, ‘this person clearly has an agenda’ – because, obviously, anyone who strongly dislikes something you like must be bitter or biased or possessed of some kind of ulterior motive), but they don’t contain any direct insults, although the spelling and grammar are entertaining. The ones that just said ‘loser’ or ‘hater’ went straight in the spam file.

And then there were the tweets (none of which were from people who follow me) and the emails. A dozen or so of each, each more hilarious than the last (and, later, one polite, friendly, calm message from a lady named Rosemary who, while she didn’t agree with my assessment of these two performances at all, made her case without resorting to cheap namecalling – I enjoyed writing back to her, and it was an interesting conversation). Again, the words ‘hater’ and ‘loser’ and ‘biased’ were regular features; one enterprising individual suggested I should write Mr. Young a personal apology, another charming person suggested I was a ‘fucking idiot’, a couple used the word ‘cunt’, and one particularly hysterical (I assume, I didn’t read beyond the first line) email was headed “Who the FUCK do you think you are?” These messages, of course, were all deleted, and I used the ‘block’ feature in Twitter more in a single afternoon than I think I have in the past two years.

When I looked at the blog stats, I saw something interesting: that particular post had had significantly more readers than I’d usually expect to get on a given day (there are all sorts of things I could do to try to get more readers, I suppose, but that’s not really why I write here). A significant number of them had clicked from a Will Young fansite – BabyDevoted, an unofficial site which, the front page clearly informs you, has no connection to Will Young (if the obnoxious emails I received are any indication of what the people who post there are like, he’s probably quite relieved about that). I certainly never posted a link to the review there – anyway, their forums appear to be closed to visitors. I put it up on Twitter and Google+ (public) and Facebook (in my case, not public), but didn’t post the link anywhere else.

Now, of course, once you post a link anywhere online, it can travel, and you don’t have any control at all over where it might end up – and that’s true even if you post it on a Facebook timeline whose privacy settings are fairly tightly locked down. And, certainly, I imagine that anyone who identified themselves as a Will Young fan would be less than delighted by what I wrote about his awful performance in ‘Cabaret’. But, really – ‘hater’? ‘loser’? ‘fucking idiot’? ‘cunt’? Some people need to get a sense of proportion. Particularly given that, in this case, one or some or all of these people must have looked for this review that they found so upsetting. It’s childish of me, I know, but I keep seeing this picture of a gaggle of foaming-at-the-mouth Will Young fans sitting in a circle passing round the smelling salts. If they get this upset over a review, God knows how they’d cope if they were faced with any kind of actual crisis.

The thing is, I enjoy interacting with people here – most of the time. Some interesting conversations, and a few really great Twitter/Facebook friendships, have come out of responses to stuff I’ve posted here, and I’m really happy to have met those people, if only online. And, honestly, I’m more amused by all of this than anything – really, I have no influence. None at all. I’ve been (albeit briefly) on both sides of the theatrical fence, and it’s certainly no fun getting a bad review, but getting bad reviews is part of the deal, including from people whose writing has far more reach than mine does. I do also get – really – that sometimes you read something annoying online and a red mist descends – but there’s a fair distance between a red mist descending and sending a complete stranger an email with the F-bomb in the header. At least, there is if you’re over the age of about twelve.

I’m not a professional theatre critic. I don’t get press comps (I have, in the past, reviewed for a website and received press comps, but not in this country, and not for a while now). I pay for the tickets for the shows I see, and I make my choices carefully – theatre tickets are not cheap, and I don’t get out the plastic and pay for a ticket unless I’m reasonably sure I’m going to enjoy the performance. In this particular instance, I wrote an angry review of two performances (in a production, don’t forget, which I otherwise liked very much) very specifically because tickets are not cheap and the work these two actors delivered was not worth the money, and because – rightly or wrongly – I perceive a certain amount of cynicism in the increasingly common practice of casting TV actors and pop singers in touring productions of musicals in the hope that their C-list celebrity will draw in the punters, with little regard as to whether they are capable of giving a competent account of their roles. It’s not, actually, that I have any problem per se with pop stars or TV performers getting big roles in stage musicals – I’ve seen people from both arenas do very, very well on the musical stage (Vanessa Olivarez in the Toronto production of ‘Hairspray’, Marcus Brigstocke in the UK tour of ‘Spamalot’). I simply have a problem with spending a chunk of money on a ticket and seeing crap.

Another common theme of the first couple of lines of the emails (I didn’t read much further) was that the review was ‘subjective’. Well, duh. Whether they’re written by a blogger, or Michael Billington, or Ben Brantley, or God, that’s what reviews are. It’s one person’s opinion, that’s all – nothing more, nothing less. And that, actually, is what makes this whole petulant hissy-fit from some of the more childishly extreme members of Will Young’s fan community so hilarious: Michael Billington or Ben Brantley, if they write an unfavourable review, might have a noticeable effect on a production’s box-office performance. I don’t. I know how many readers I get here, I do this for fun (and, when I write about theatre, to keep some record of the shows I’ve seen), I’m not particularly looking for a wider audience (at least, not here), and I’m certainly not under any illusion that I’m delivering some kind of Big Objective Truth for an adoring readership. I react to what I see, I hope people are entertained by what I write here if they find it (and I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree with everything I have to say, here or anywhere else) – but it is, in the end, just one opinion. It simply isn’t worth getting that upset. It certainly isn’t worth getting worked up to the point where you send a complete stranger an email calling him a cunt.

And, really, if you object to something someone writes online, the best way to bring them around to your way of thinking probably isn’t to send them a badly-spelled, rambling email in which you call them names and swear at them. That, I’m afraid, is pathetic, and it will have precisely one effect: it will just make the recipient laugh. At you. A lot.

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.

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.