Got wood?

NT P 2

Set design? Check.
Enormous puppets? Check.
Special effects? Check.
Whale? Check.
Script?

[crickets]

Oh. Oops. Never mind.

There’s a lot to unpack about the National Theatre‘s new adaptation of Pinocchio, whose poster chooses to inform us that it uses songs from the Walt Disney film while neglecting to mention either Carlo Collodi, who wrote the original Italian novel that every iteration of this story is based on, or any of the authors of the Disney screenplay (there are articles on both buried inside the programme, but that still falls short of giving credit where credit is due). Clearly someone hoped this would be another War Horse or The Lion King, and – with work – it could be. As it stands, despite a few rave reviews (and some less enthusiastic ones, and some very, very negative word-of-mouth during previews), it probably isn’t going anywhere without some kind of overhaul.

Bluntly, the show is suffering from an identity crisis. There’s a beautiful, if sometimes sparse, scenic design by Bob Crowley, who is also responsible for the tremendously detailed costumes. The songs from the film, and additional music sourced from material created during the film’s production process, sound terrific in Martin Lowe’s new arrangements and orchestrations, and there’s an excellent 15-piece band in the pit. Crowley and puppet co-designer Tony Olié have designed fabulous larger-than-life puppets to represent the story’s adult figures and Jiminy Cricket (Pinocchio himself is played by an adult actor, as are all the children in the story), enabling a spectacular perspective shift in the final scene. Jamie Harrison’s illusions are sometimes eye-popping and always impressive. Everybody involved – including Dennis Kelly, who wrote what passes for the script – does a good job of telling the story simply and clearly. John Tiffany’s staging almost always looks good, and the last few minutes of the show are genuinely wonderful.

A lot of water has to flow under the bridge before you get to those last few minutes though, and the production is holed below the waterline by the simple fact that nobody involved seems to be sure of exactly what kind of show they’re doing. The National Theatre’s publicity materials advertise it as being “for brave 8-year-olds and above”; OK, but there were audible signs that a good number of the children sitting behind me (I was in the cheap seats in the front row) were becoming restless over the show’s two hours of stage time. It’s not unreasonable to expect children that young, or even younger, to pay attention over that length of time, particularly since there’s an interval – each act runs around an hour – but you have to meet them halfway. Despite the grindingly over-enunciated Play School delivery adopted by most of the cast – a tone which frankly is a little on the young side for a show intended for children older than 8 – that’s exactly what the show doesn’t do. A prologue in which the Fox – in this version, he’s never referred to as J. Worthington Foulfellow – cuts down the enchanted tree whose wood Gepetto uses to make Pinocchio’s head and body is simply too long; it’s lovely to look at, but by the time we’ve seen the Blue Fairy magically appear, obtain the wood, and commision Gepetto to make a puppet out of it, getting on for a quarter of the first act has passed before the plot enters familiar territory. That’s OK in a show for adults, but a tough sell in one aimed at children.

If the show opened with a musical number it might get away with it, but the creative team, bizarrely, appear to have spent the entire production process sitting on the fence about whether they were making an actual musical or just a play with a few songs thrown in. Where songs are used, they are sometimes – sometimes – very effective, but then the show keeps undercutting itself in the transitions between song and dialogue. Choreographer Steven Hoggett makes I’ve Got No Strings into a terrific production number towards the end of the first act, but it doesn’t end on a button, which means there’s no opportunity for the audience to applaud. That’s more important than it sounds, because there’s a reason (most) musicals allow the audience to applaud after each number: the applause releases tension and functions almost as a reset button, and without that tiny pause the transition from song back into speech is often more difficult for the audience to negotiate. That’s unfortunately the case here: in the following scene, you can feel the audience’s attention start to wander, and this pattern is repeated all the way through the show.

Act Two’s lengthy Pleasure Island sequence is also problematic, and is the physical production’s one great misstep. For no discernible reason, Bob Crowley’s designs for Pleasure Island jump from storybook Victoriana to a mid-Twentieth-Century aesthetic that is straight out of a two-and-six Ladybird Book. Lampwick, the young tearaway Pinocchio befriends in Pleasure Island, is rechristened ‘Lampy’, played by a woman, and endowed with a pudding-basin haircut and a slathered-on-with-a-trowel Glaswegian accent so reminiscent of Wee Jimmy Krankie that it can’t be a coincidence. Leaving aside the sheer laziness of London-based theatre practitioners using a working-class regional accent to define a character whose main attribute is bad behaviour, the sequence is jarringly out of kilter with everything else in the show, and it doesn’t really work on any level.

The show is best, actually, when it stays close to the heart of the story: Gepetto’s yearning for a son, and Pinocchio’s longing to become a “real boy”. Mark Hadfield is quite moving as Gepetto, and the conceit of the presenting the character via a three-times-larger-than-life puppet until the final scene works very well. Joe Idris-Roberts – a human playing a puppet – captures Pinocchio’s pysicality very well indeed and doesn’t shy away from the character’s essential obnoxiousness in the first half. Audrey Brisson’s just-irritating-enough Jiminy Cricket is a convincing conscience for Pinocchio, although if you grew up watching children’s television in the 1970s she might put you in mind of a bossier, germ-phobic Carol Leader on a cocaine bender. Their scenes generally work rather well, as does anything involving Annette McLaughlin’s mesmerising, gorgeously-sung Blue Fairy (McLaughlin is also the only member of the cast NOT to fall victim to what I suppose we might call CBeebies Syndrome when delivering her lines). The trip inside the stomach of Monstro the whale is brilliantly spooky, and the final few minutes, when Gepetto finds his son, Pinocchio finds his humanity, and order is restored, are glorious, as is McLaughlin’s closing rendition of When You Wish Upon A Star, the Disney film’s biggest take-away tune. At that point, finally, this Pinocchio feels like a show that works.

It takes far too long to get there, though, and that’s a pity, because there’s a wonderful show buried in here somewhere. The effects are marvellous – the Blue Fairy appears as a tiny blue flame floating high above the stage, then appears to step out of thin air in Gepetoo’s workshop. The Fox throws a knife at Pinocchio and it hits him – and sticks – right in the middle of his chest. Pinocchio burns a finger and the Blue Fairy makes the burn disappear with a single touch. That final sequence in which Pinocchio is transformed into a real boy is absolutely magical. For an adult, a lot of the rest of the show is entertaining enough (we’ll draw a polite veil over the entire Pleasure Island sequence). For children, even of the suggested age range, Kelly’s script and Tiffany’s production are simultaneously a bit too self-consciously arty and arch, and a little bit condescending. If this is a show for children older than 8, the actors don’t need to speak as if they’re addressing a kindergarten. It sometimes seems as if nobody on the creative team has ever met an actual human child.

It’s probably not, then, the greatest choice for an Easter holiday treat for kids. For adults, particularly if you’ve any nostalgia for the Disney film, it’s worth the cost of a day seat and a couple of hours of your time. Some of it is wonderful – but all of it could have been, and the good stuff here is more than worth another look. Maybe if you wish upon a star, Kelly and Tiffany will take another pass at the script, kick up the pace in the first act, work with Martin Lowe to turn the piece into a proper musical, and make a definitive decision about whether they’re pitching the show to nostalgic adults or very young children. You never know; as the song says, dreams can come true.

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Blow Us All Away

HVP1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Je suis émotif

r a g 1

I’d tell you to rush to book a ticket, but the run ended two days after I saw it, and that was two weeks ago. Oops. Romantics Anonymous is a tiny, perfect little gem of a musical. It has magic chocolate (no, really), a glorious score by Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond, a witty, moving book and fabulously clever staging by Emma Rice, gorgeous performances, Lauren Samuels as a self-help tape with major attitude, and a radio-controlled model 2CV. It’s wonderful, flawless, utterly charming, and the perfect antidote to a crappy grey British January.

And it closed. Never mind. What did you miss? A lovely, tentative love story between a chocolatier who is so painfully shy that she faints when people look at her, and a chocolate factory owner so repressed that he spends half his life sitting on the floor of his office listening to self-help tapes with the blinds closed. It’s based on (and much better than) a French film called Les Emotifs Anonymes; the title comes from Angélique-the-chocolatier’s therapy group. It’s a romantic comedy, so of course on one level it’s absolutely predictable: you know just from looking at the poster that Angélique-the-chocolatier and Jean-René-the-factory-owner are going to end up together, and that whatever impediments to true happiness block their path along the way will be magically resolved by the finale. The journey, though, is so thoroughly delightful that it doesn’t matter if you can see each plot twist a mile away.

Carly Bawden and Dominic Marsh are sweet but never too sweet as Angélique and Jean-René; the show tells us more than once that the magical element in chocolate is the note of bitterness behind the sugar, and in both performances there’s a hint of deep unhappiness just beneath the surface that prevents the material’s inherent sweetness from ever becoming cloying. They both sing beautifully, too. Around them, the hardworking ensemble – they all play at least three roles – never put a foot wrong, with standout turns from Joanna Riding as a factory book-keeper, Angélique’s flinty, oversexed mother, and a therapist, and from Gareth Snook as the riotously funny just-escaped-from-an-Italian-opera confiseur Mme. Marini. The production, overall, gives you the full Emma Rice experience – there’s airborne acrobatics, neon, too many witty visual gracenotes to count, tremendous warmth, generous humour, and even a square of “magic chocolate” so that we can miraculously hear French characters as if they were speaking English. It could all so easily have been painfully twee – except, again, there’s always that note of bitterness, of real unhappiness, underneath. Kooman and Dimond’s score – unfortunately no list of musical numbers in the programme – is sublime; as an extra treat, if you’re in the lobby during the intermission you’ll hear Philip Cox as Jean-René’s overprotective father singing a very funny song about all the horrible things that could happen to you before you go back to your seat (don’t go into the courtyard, you might get struck by lightning). The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse imposes a certain aesthetic on the production, but Lez Brotherston’s gorgeous neon-and-venetian-blind set bridges the gap between the replica-Jacobean woodwork and the show’s contemporary setting with considerable flair. Romantics Anonymous is lovely to watch, to see, to listen to; as Angélique and Jean-René fall in love with each other, you can feel the audience falling in love with the show.

Which – on a final, rather bitter note to (again) undercut the sweetness – makes the machinations that brought about the rather public ending of the artistic relationship between Emma Rice and the Globe all the more baffling. Rice, by now, is an established director, not some obscure fringe figure. She’s developed her own aesthetic, her work with Kneehigh attracted a great deal of positive attention, and the Globe’s board presumably knew who she was and what she does when they hired her. To recruit an artistic director with a very individual, idiosyncratic theatrical aesthetic and then balk when she brings that aesthetic into her productions in your venue is beyond perverse, and sets an uncomfortable precedent for Michelle Terry, Rice’s successor. In terms of this particular production, too, it seems particularly strange: a new musical with a contemporary setting may not be precisely the kind of show the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was built to house (the bum-breaking, backless seats suggest it wasn’t built for anything longer than about forty minutes, but that’s another gripe for another time), but at the performance I saw there was a more or less full house, and people left the theatre, to quote the finale, ‘dancing on air’. This show makes people happy; it also, I imagine, brought quite a few new patrons into the venue for the first time, which of course should make it easier to bring them back to see other productions in future. I don’t see any downside – but presumably this kind of work wasn’t what the Globe’s board wanted. As I said, baffling.

As for the show itself – can somebody please make a cast recording? Pretty please?

 

r a g 2

 

 

“You’ve just crossed over into…”

twilight zone

Eight episodes of a TV show cut into bits and glued into a theatrical collage by the playwright who brought us Mr. Burns. An assortment of aliens, murderers, childhood traumas, a portal into another dimension, possible nuclear annihilation, plastic surgery, a ventriloquist’s dummy, space exploration, suspended animation, insomnia, a seductive singing cat-woman, all thrown together on the Almeida‘s not-especially-large stage. It’s one of those shows that has the potential, on paper, to be either brilliant or catastrophically bad.

Fortunately the result is closer to the former, although it’s not an unqualified success. Under Richard Jones’s witty, endlessly inventive direction, the terrific cast hit exactly the right just-arch-enough tone; they don’t quite wink at the material, but they don’t play it entirely straight either. Washburn does a very clever job of dismantling eight separate stories and reassembling them into a two-act montage; the stories she chooses are mostly about fear, paranoia, and memory, and those themes certainly carry at least as much resonance today as they would have when the series originally aired, but she and Jones preserve the wide-eyed, deadpan playfulness of her source material. There’s a terrific infinite-space set by Paul Steinberg, unimpeachable costumes and lighting by (respectively) Nicky Gillibrand and Mimi Jordan Sherin, and Sarah Angliss’s score is exactly right – sometimes lush, often unsettling, and a persuasive homage to the music from the TV show. The pace never flags, the production looks and sounds great, the show is sometimes very funny and it delivers a couple of real jolts, and Jones’s direction throughout is masterful. It’s thoroughly entertaining.

Or rather, it’s thoroughly entertaining until the last five minutes, when Washburn brings on a narrator – John Marquez, who (like everyone else in the cast) plays several other roles – in the persona of Rod Serling, the creator of the original TV series, to tie everything together and underline the present-day relevance of the mind-bending period-pieces we’ve just seen. It isn’t the actor’s fault, but this closing monologue just doesn’t work; the show suddenly becomes static and didactic, and seems to grind to a halt. It’s not a fatal blow, but it does leave you walking out of the theatre wondering if you’ve just spent two hours watching Eight Plots in Search of a Point.

If you’re looking for something with an overall arc, then, rather than what amounts to a series of sketches, you may well walk away disappointed. The show clearly wants to use a pop culture artifact as a jumping-off point to explore something more complex, and it sometimes succeeds; it’s probably best, though, to approach it as a theatrical equivalent of a fairground ride. It really is great fun; it could and should have been more than that, but it delivers more than enough entertainment to make it worth the cost of the ticket. And if you find yourself taking an inner journey during that final monologue, then… well, maybe your next stop really is the Twilight Zone.

 

Runyonland, uptown

rx gd4

I have a (very) short list of musicals I think, as writing, are just about perfect, and Guys and Dolls is very close to the top of that list. It’s a glorious American classic, one of the shining jewels of Broadway’s golden age, and it works beautifully. It doesn’t need anybody messing with it.

This production – a co-production between Manchester’s Royal Exchange and the Talawa Theatre Company – messes with it. The setting is booted 90-odd blocks uptown from Times Square to Harlem, the score gets a swinging Harlem Renaissance makeover from (re)orchestrator Simon Hale, and A Bushel and a Peck – one of the show’s most famous numbers – is dropped and replaced (as it was in the film) with a lesser (Loesser?)-known song called Pet Me, Poppa. This is the point where the purists start swooning onto their fainting-couches; swoon if you like, but while I wouldn’t want to see most (or really, any) of these changes in a more traditional revival, the result is more or less a complete triumph.

Because of Talawa’s involvement, some kind of reexamination of the piece was inevitable. This isn’t the first production of Guys and Dolls with an all-black cast, but it’s the first in the UK. The (relatively slight) shift in setting (and, let’s be fair, the nine-piece band imposed by a relatively small budget) mean it makes sense to arrange the score for a jazz band, so bye-bye strings. In a nightclub in Harlem, Pet Me, Poppa perhaps makes a little more sense than a quasi-striptease performed by a gaggle of “farmgirls”. And the venue itself imposes a certain performance style; the Royal Exchange is completely in the round, with the audience placed very close to the actors, so the frenzied, (much) larger-than-life comic tone adopted by (to give an example I actually saw) Jerry Zaks’s 1992 Broadway revival isn’t going to do the material any favours here.

rx gd5

That’s all to the good, as far as I’m concerned: this is a show that works best when it’s about people rather than schtick. Under Michael Buffong’s tremendously subtle direction (‘tremendously subtle’ is not a description you always get to apply to revivals of this particular show), we’re allowed to see more than just a parade of archetypes – and yes, I know there’s more than just a parade of archetypes on the page, but depending on a director’s choices that’s sometimes all you get in the theatre. Here, the romance between Ashley Zhangazha’s Sky Masterson and Abiona Omuna’s Sarah Brown is as lovely as it’s ever been – he’s genuinely surprised by how hard he falls for her, she’s whip-smart and absolutely sure of herself, and the moment they first melt – in a gently swinging I’ve Never Been In Love Before at the climax of the first act – is very touching indeed. Ray Fearon’s Nathan Detroit is a heavy with a heart of gold, and there’s a wonderful warmth between him and Lucy Vandi’s sweetly rueful Adelaide. Of all the principals, Vandi probably strays furthest from the mould in which her role is usually cast; her Adelaide’s Lament is a bittersweet, humorously reflective character solo rather than a comedic tour-de-force, and it’s an interpretation that you’d think really shouldn’t work – but it does, and she’s wonderful, and her fabulous rendition of Pet Me, Poppa just about blows the roof off the joint.

There are gains and losses, of course – the laughs (and this applies right across the cast) are all there, but they’re maybe not as big as they have been in other revivals of the show – but Buffong and his cast offer a startlingly fresh look at very familiar material; if you’re willing to submit to a reading of the show that isn’t what you’ll have been expecting, there’s a great deal to enjoy here. There’s muscular choreography from Kenrick Sandy (Luck Be a Lady is as big a showstopper here as it’s ever been), riotously colourful costumes from designer Soutra Gilmour, evocative lighting from Johanna Town. The singing is splendid right across the board, the supporting performances are flawless, Ako Mitchell sings the hell out of Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat, and Buffong – thank God – lets the song stop the show, but then doesn’t milk it by subjecting the audience to 37,000 encores of the last 16 bars (yes, I still bear the residual scars from the National Theatre revival, in which Clive Rowe flogged the dead horse to a degree that makes the Brexit negotiation process look imprudently brief). This is as good a Christmas show as you’ll see this year, and probably as good a revival of Guys and Dolls as you’ll see anywhere; it’s different, yes, but for this production Buffong’s approach pays dividends. These are clichés, but they’re all true: it’s a joy from beginning to end, it will sweep you away, and you’ll leave the theatre walking on air.

And it’s a crying shame productions from the Royal Exchange don’t generally get cast recordings, because have I mentioned already that Lucy Vandi is fabulous?

 

 

She’s got it! Yeah, baby, she’s got it!

venus in fur

As Vanda, the young woman who dominates (sorry) this limp two-hander, Natalie Dormer offers a ninety-minute masterclass in how to rise above your material. Nothing – and I mean nothing – else is anywhere near as good as she is, and she’s more or less the only reason to buy a ticket.

David Ives‘s undercooked play, a riff on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch‘s 1870 novel Venus in Furs, offers a few very funny lines but is never as clever or as edgy as it thinks it is. The setup is simple: Thomas, the writer/director of an upcoming (we assume way off-Broadway) adaptation of the novel, has spent the day auditioning bad actresses to play the central character. Just as he’s about to leave, a brash, apparently inexperienced young actress named Vanda Jordan appears (accompanied by thunder and lightning) and persuades him to let her audition – and when she starts to read she assumes the character she’s playing eerily quickly,  and it soon becomes obvious that she knows far more than she initially lets on about the novel, Thomas’s unpublished adaptation of it, and Thomas’s relationship with his (unseen) fiancée. What follows is supposed to be a nail-biting battle of the sexes in which Vanda and Thomas, following the pattern set by the characters in the source novel, each try to establish dominance over the other. There’s no interval, so basically the only nail-biting element here is how badly you’ll need to pee by the time the curtain comes down. There are twists and turns, certainly, but you’ll see them all coming a mile off, and the final big reveal – who Vanda really is – is unfortunately kind of spoiled by the tagline on the banner on the front of the theatre. This, I’m afraid, is a Bad Play, and it appears to have been written with little intent other than to objectify the actress playing Vanda, who gets to spend a big chunk of the performance wearing bondage gear and flirting with her leading man. There’s little insight and less tension, the writing tends towards the repetitive, and the script, overall, exudes all the sexual heat of a used teabag. No, not that kind of teabag.

Bad Plays, however, can sometimes be fun, and that’s true here – at least, up to a point. You’ll laugh – intermittently – but Ives’s script will probably mostly leave you rolling your eyes. Patrick Marber‘s staging is efficiently unshowy, and he probably gets as much out of the material as anyone could. And there’s nothing at all wrong with David Oakes‘s Thomas, except he fades into the background whenever Natalie Dormer’s Vanda is onstage, which unfortunately for Mr. Oakes encompasses all but the play’s first two-and-a-half minutes. Ms. Dormer, switching back and forth with dizzying ease between pungent Noo Yawk and a cultured, actressy RP, has dazzling comic timing and the sort of presence no drama school can teach, and her spectacular star turn eclipses pretty much everything else, from her costar and director to the set and the lighting. She can’t quite manage to turn a lousy play into a good one, but she keeps you entertained (lucky, because nothing else will), and she even manages to sell Ives’s howlingly camp ending.

Actually, the script as a whole could do with rather a lot more of the kind of camp you see in the last three minutes.  Dormer is sensational, and this isn’t selling well so there are discounts around; it’s well worth the £15 you’ll pay on Today Tix. Nearly all the way through, it’s simply far too safe. It may – MAY – work better when there’s an actor with more presence (or any presence) playing Thomas, but that still wouldn’t disguise the biggest problem here: Ives’s script is decaf Nescafé when it should be a triple espresso.

 

Poisson Strange

big fish 1

Or, a tale of the good, the bad, and the unmemorable.

Big Fish, based on a 2003 movie I haven’t seen, really wants to be an enchanting, heartwarming family musical about what fathers pass on to their sons. It also wants to be a celebration of fantastical storytelling, and sometimes the stage equivalent of a Lifetime hospital drama. Will Bloom (Matthew Seadon-Young) has grown up listening to his father Edward (Kelsey Grammer) tell impossibly tall tales about his past. When Edward becomes seriously ill, Will goes back through the stories to try to separate fact from fiction, and uncovers a huge secret. There’s a deathbed scene, the opportunity for a good cry in the second half of the second act, and the potential for a series of great big production numbers in the fantasy sequences. You can see why the show’s creators were drawn to adapting it as a musical – but while there’s possibly a wonderful musical buried somewhere in this source material, this really isn’t it. In terms of the material, what you’re getting here is basically the equivalent of a tuna sandwich from a hospital cafeteria: it’ll keep you going, it tastes OK, and you’ll remember very little about it afterwards.

What you will remember – and he’s probably the reason you bought a ticket – is this production’s above-the-title star. As the storytelling Edward, Kelsey Grammer is the real deal. He’s charming, very funny, and has effortless stage presence and a better singing voice than you might expect. This is a proper old-fashioned star turn, and he’s more than worth your time and money. The trouble is, he’s far more interesting than the show itself. John August’s book, even in the fantasy sequences, is predictable – bearing in mind that I haven’t seen the film, it was a quarter of the way into Act Two before I wasn’t two steps ahead of the plot. That might not be a problem if Andrew Lippa’s score was at all memorable, but it isn’t. It’s always pleasant, but it’s always bland; outside of a couple of  Andrews Sisters-type pastiche numbers (one in each act), there’s very little you’ll remember afterwards. The lyrics are technically proficient, although they tend to announce emotions as if they were headlines, and the music is always superficially attractive, but if you try to dig into the heart of the score – with the exception of one song sung by Sandra Bloom, Edward’s wife – there is no there there.

And that might not be a problem if there was anything inspired about Nigel Harman’s direction, but there isn’t. The Broadway production (which flopped) was apparently too overblown, so this, in response, is the cut-down chamber version; it isn’t a bad idea to set nearly the entire show in Edward’s hospital room, but once you’ve taken the decision to do this show small, the fantasy sequences need an injection of theatrical magic. Not necessarily a big budget or huge set-changes – just imagination and a sure sense of fun. Here, both are notably lacking, despite the herculean efforts of Forbes Masson as a circus ringmaster and Dean Nolan as a misunderstood giant. They’re both terrific, but the songs they’re given aren’t; Harman’s direction and Liam Steele’s choreography don’t hit any clunkers, but they also don’t have the kind of flair that can sometimes elevate tepid material.

It doesn’t help, either, that Jamie Muscato’s Story Edward – the version of Edward Bloom who appears in the older Edward’s fantastic tales – is so singularly charmless. Muscato is a very, very talented performer. He’s a good actor, he can move, he has a wonderful singing voice – and he is absolutely miscast here, to the point where his character and Grammer’s barely seem related to each other. Muscato doesn’t have Grammer’s effortless presence and charm – at all – and without them Story Edward comes across as an egotistical con-man. Muscato works very hard indeed, and it isn’t his fault, but unfortunately it’s this performance that holes the show below the waterline.

Matthew Seadon-Young, though, is a genuinely moving Will Bloom, and Clare Burt is even better as his mother. Her one solo number, ‘I Don’t Need a Roof’, is by far the best thing in the score (and just about the only song in which the emotional subtext isn’t announced at the top of each verse), and she sings it with devastating restraint. It’s a lovely, truthful, absolutely heartbreaking performance; she, like Grammer, is worth the cost of the ticket.

And having said all this, it’s fair to say that a lot of the (more or less capacity) audience seemed to like the show a lot more than I did. There’s a fine set of supporting performances,  decent production values (set and costumes by Tom Rogers, lighting by Bruno Poet), and for all that the material is bland, it is also moving, at least in the second act – though it’s also rather manipulative, and if you’ve experienced losing a parent the final scenes push buttons that are more or less guaranteed to provoke a response. As I said, though, there’s a memorable musical located somewhere in this source material, and this is not it. You’ll leave the theatre remembering Clare Burt’s face when she sings ‘I Don’t Need a Roof’, Matthew Seadon-Young’s final scenes, and (especially) Kelsey Grammer, but the score will have evaporated by the time you get to the tube, and Harmon’s direction might have evaporated before you’ve finished watching it. Go for the cast – they’re worth it – but go with low expectations. And if you want a really memorable fish, try the aquarium.