Poisson Strange

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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.

 

 

 

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One message, medium-rare

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“Fasten your seatbelt, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” No, wait, sorry, that’s Ivo van Hove‘s next show. This week, we’re all  going to be mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it any more. Possibly with dinner, if you paid for the onstage seats. With all due deference to Dominic Cooke’s revival of Follies, which is currently playing two flights of stairs up, Network, adapted by Lee Hall from Paddy Chayefsky‘s screenplay, might be the theatrical thrill-ride of the year. Even if you know the screenplay quite well, you’ll be on the edge of your seat; this is a big, bold, wildly inventive, viciously satirical theatrical extravaganza, and Mr. van Hove appears to have thrown his entire bag of tricks at the Lyttelton stage – including the kitchen sink. And a full kitchen, and a bar, and a restaurant. Add an ingenious set by Jan Versweyveld, an endlessly inventive, eye-popping video design by Tal Yarden, a mirrored floor, a lot of video screens, cameras, a control booth, make-up chairs at the back of the stage in full view of the audience, live-action footage projected on a screen above the stage, and a quartet of musicians at the top of the stage pumping out a Kraftwerk-esque electronic score, and you’re pretty much getting the full Ivo van Hove. A seatbelt might actually come in useful: this production is a rollercoaster, and it never lets up.

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I’m not always a fan of flamboyant directorial trickery, and last year I felt van Hove’s production of Lazarus worked far better as performance art or as a gig than as theatre. This time, the technological cleverness, the design, the prominent positioning of audience members eating onstage, the look, the feel, the music, the (very, very fine) performances, are all working in unison towards the same purpose… and here is where a certain kind of purist may snarl, because that purpose isn’t quite simply about telling the story.

Lee Hall’s adaptation, in fact, stays very close indeed to Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay, although it strips away much of the terrorist subplot. This is still, as projected text informs us at the very top of the show, the story of Howard Beale (Bryan Cranston), a veteran newscaster whose on-air nervous breakdown precipitates a spectacular ratings spike for his third-rate television network, which in turn sets off a battle of wits between a driven, more-or-less psychotic producer from the entertainment division determined to exploit Beale’s ratings potential, and the president of the network’s ailing news division, who is deeply wary of the consequences of conflating news with entertainment. The action still takes place in the mid-1970s, although the tech elements use equipment that is light years ahead of anything available “in period”. The production delivers the story with admirable clarity, but there’s more than that going on here: above all else, this is an extended theatrical examination of the way we consume media, or perhaps the way media consumes us. Accordingly, van Hove places the entire show in a fully-functioning television studio that encompasses the entire Lyttelton stage. At home, we sit and flip channels, and shift our attention from the TV to a laptop to a tablet to a phone and back again without thinking about it, so there’s a constant tapestry of action onstage with the main focus constantly moving from live action to the screens and back again. There’s always several things going on in the background; van Hove does an exceptional job of directing your eyes to look where he wants you to, but if you look elsewhere you’ll still pick up relevant information, or at least an amusingly kitsch 70s TV commercial. We consume news as background noise while we’re eating or drinking or talking, so there are tables onstage where we, the audience in the traditional seats, can see an audience consuming food and drink as they watch the play. Several times, the actors play all or part of a scene right in the middle of the onstage audience, and at one point, the play completely breaks the fourth wall and the action moves into the stalls – at which point a camera is directed into the auditorium, and the view from the stage of the Lyttelton is projected onto a screen.

The line between live action and film is constantly blurred; one scene even begins (on screen, but live) outside on the South Bank and moves seamlessly indoors through the National’s corridors until it ends up in the onstage bar area. A warm-up man encourages the audience to join in at key points by shouting out that line – a weirdly uncomfortable experience, since you’re basically being asked to cheer a nervous breakdown. At one key moment video clips, solicited via Twitter, of members of the public shouting that line are projected onto the walls above the stage. Literally and figuratively, it’s an electric theatrical experience, and every element is designed to underpin Chayefsky’s satirical thesis about how people can be manipulated by a corporate-driven media when the boundaries between fact and entertainment start to break down – although the point isn’t made explicitly until a brief video montage shown after the curtain call at the end of the show. Over a couple of minutes, we see clips of  the inauguration of every US President from Nixon to the current incumbent – and that’s all it takes to make the dangers of reality-based entertainment blindingly obvious.

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What you’re getting, then, is a big dose of Marshall McLuhan wrapped up in a lot of shiny electronics and slick stagecraft (television, incidentally, is not the medium, it’s the hardware that delivers the message). It’s a dazzling spectacle, but the spectacle somehow never overwhelms Bryan Cranston’s astonishing performance as Howard Beale. It’s not simply that Cranston effortlessly holds your attention in the middle of a two-hour fireworks-display of a production, even from parts of the stage where you can’t quite see him. It’s that at the centre of an overwhelming, in-your-face production in which every element is designed to reinforce a satirical point about the dehumanising effect of mass media, he perfectly captures Howard Beale’s raw vulnerability and the pitch-black satirical comedy that runs through the heart of the show like the letters in a stick of rock. The “…mad as Hell” monologue is a tour-de-force; in a production packed from wall to wall with eye-popping directorial flourishes, nothing is more memorable than Cranston’s star turn. There’s equally fine work from Douglas Henshall (in the William Holden role), Tunji Kasim (the Robert Duvall role), and Caroline Faber (in the relatively tiny role that won Beatrice Straight an Oscar). Michelle Dockery deploys her two facial expressions to far better effect as Diana Christensen, the psychopathic TV producer (originally played by Faye Dunaway) who will go to any lengths in her quest for ratings, than she ever achieved in Downton Abbey. Surrounding the leads, there’s a stage full of supporting performers, technicians, cameras, and – oh yes – restaurant patrons; it’s a dense, sometimes overwhelming experience to sit through, but it works.

It’s also sold out, even before the reviews appear (I saw one of the final previews; press night is tonight, and in terms of sales the reviews are just about irrelevant). It’s worth lining up for day seats; this production raises a lot of serious questions, and shows us over and over again how terrifyingly prescient Chayefsky’s original screenplay was, but it’s also tremendous fun. As I said, this is a wild rollercoaster of a show, an edge-of-your-seat theatrical joyride that isn’t quite like anything else you’ll see this year. Even if you’re dubious – as I am – about self-consciously tricksy directorial flourishes, go. For once, the gimmicks work – and quite apart from the gimmicks, Bryan Cranston’s performance is one for the ages.

Just maybe do a vocal warmup first – there are signs in the lobby warning that the production “contains loud noises”, but they don’t mention that you’ll be making some of them yourself.

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A view from the Bridge

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This week, a shiny new play in a shiny new theatre. The Bridge Theatre‘s publicity machine would like us to believe that it’s the first new commercial theatre to open in London in several decades, which it isn’t unless you follow the statement with several caveats, but I suppose a certain amount of creative exaggeration in the marketing material is justified: the theatre is gorgeous. Located in the shadow of Tower Bridge, in the base of the kind of half-empty cash-receptacle apartment building where you have to prove you’re a bona fide oligarch before the estate agent will hand you the particulars, the theatre itself is a not-so-little gem. There’s a spacious lobby with plenty of seats, more than enough toilets, classy catering options, free water fountains, and a lovely, welcoming atmosphere – which isn’t the easiest thing to achieve in that kind of building.

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More importantly, while it’s great that they’ve mostly got the hospitality side of things exactly right, the auditorium itself is wonderful. It’s understated and functional rather than ornate – a flexible space which can be configured as a traditional proscenium theatre, a thrust stage, or a theatre in the round, with three tiers of galleried seating surrounding the lowest (stalls/stage floor) level. It’s a purely commercial venture that will operate without Arts Council subsidies, but – admirably – there are inexpensive seats at every level, including in the stalls, and the house is carefully designed so that there should be a good, clear view from every level and every price bracket.

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Nobody is going to find themselves sitting behind a pillar, or in a seat where you can’t see over the head of the person in front of you. It seats around 900, but feels more intimate.

And, being cheap – I live about 200 miles from London, which means I spend more on train fares than on theatre tickets – I particularly appreciated the theatre’s best bargain: the folding strapontin seats in the stalls, which are perched on the ends of alternate rows in the centre seating block, and which allow those of us whose budgets preclude buying top-price tickets all the time to see the show from the centre stalls and sacrifice a (tiny) bit of comfort in order to save a (bigger) chunk of cash.

 

For a saving of £40, you get a slightly narrower seat base and no armrest. The regular seats would be more comfortable, but this was hardly the kind of arse-paralyser you get at, for example, Wilton’s Music Hall. It was a perfectly acceptable seat – and as someone who often finds myself sitting upstairs near the back, or at some angle where seeing the whole of the stage leaves me with a crick in my neck, it was great to be able to see a show from fifth-row centre without making my Visa card scream in agony when I made the booking.

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The show itself? Well, bear in mind that you’ll be sitting in, essentially, a temple to middlebrow entertainment. This is a commercial establishment; if your idea of a play about Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels involves a two-hour treatise on dialectical materialism, this is not the show for you (and you must be a real hit at parties). Young Marx is – or at least starts out as – a boisterous comedy, rather than a Serious Drama. The first act is a rowdy rollercoaster ride through the perils of Victorian poverty: struggling to pull in enough money to pay the rent, feed his family, and (not the least of these priorities) go out on the piss, Rory Kinnear’s Marx spends the first act being pursued by policemen, baliffs, and other contributors to the revolution (they want to kill Queen Victoria, Marx just wants to sink a pint in every pub in Tottenham Court Road), and trying to keep his wife (a very fine performance from Nancy Carroll) on side. It’s often very funny; Bean and Coleman are experts at this kind of stuff, and – up until the interval – the show is pretty much exactly what you’d expect of a play about a young Karl Marx co-written by the author of One Man, Two Guvnors. There’s a chase across Soho’s rooftops, a lot of hiding in cupboards/up chimneys, a fair amount of anachronistic commentary (particularly in relation to the nature of policing in Victorian London), a scattering of groaners, and a vast assortment of variations on the theme of drunken staggering, and the banter between Marx and Engels often resembles a music-hall comedy duo, to the point where they occasionally break into comic ditties, one of which, blissfully, is sung to the tune of ‘Ode to Joy’ (ten minutes into the show, you’ll be in no doubt as to where Bean and Coleman stand on the Brexit issue). Nicholas Hytner’s fluid direction effortlessly mines every laugh, every double-take, every reaction; it’s tremendous fun, but it’s also, despite the fine performances, a little predictable.

Halfway through the second act, the play takes a sharp turn towards the serious; Bean has taken a few licences here and there, but he sticks broadly to the truth of Karl Marx’s life circa 1850, which means there’s an event he can’t work around – and it’s at this point, unexpectedly, that Young Marx becomes a much stronger, much more interesting play. The second act is not without one or two memorable comic set-pieces – an extended fight scene in the reading room at the British Museum (Charles Darwin is involved – and later contributes a hilarious conjuring trick involving a toy rabbit) is a particular triumph, not least for Kate Waters, the fight director – but the later scenes are genuinely moving, and the play ends on a moment of quiet resolution that feels absolutely earned. Kinnear, Carroll, Oliver Chris (Engels) and Laura Elphinstone (Nym, the Marx’s housekeeper) negotiate the play’s sudden three-quarter-turn beautifully: the comedy in the first act is always grounded in emotional truth, and the seeds for the second act’s shift in tone are very carefully sown earlier in the play. In less assured hands, it wouldn’t work – but here, it works beautifully.

There are fine production values, too – a revolving, unfolding cube of a set by Mark Thompson that makes the (many) scene changes look deceptively simple, appropriately moody lighting from Mark Henderson, and appropriately anarchic electro-punk (until the play’s tone changes) music from Grant Olding. There’s a large cast – fifteen adults, two children – and a faultless set of performances; this is a quality production of a play that turns out to be a lot more interesting than you’d guess from the first act (so it’s a pity the lady sitting immediately to my left left at the start of the interval, but that’s her loss). There aren’t that many holes to pick – except for one rather big one that, unfortunately, is simply a reflection of a much bigger cultural issue. There are fifteen adult actors in the production. Commendably, they’re not all white – but among the supporting actors, the non-white performers are assigned to play, respectively, a turncoat (and the prime villain of the piece), a Prussian spy, a comically clichéd foreign revolutionary, the bailiff who repossesses the Marx family furniture, and a bumbling halfwit. There’s nothing wrong with any of the performances, but assigning all those roles – amid a large ensemble – to minority-ethnic performers is simply plain old-fashioned economy-sized lazy stereotyping, although I’m sure it wasn’t intentional. In 2017, we should be able to do better than that.

Otherwise, this is pretty much a faultless production of a play that is stronger and more complex than it first appears. As we saw last year in the National’s dazzlingly foul-mouthed revival of The Threepenny Opera, Rory Kinnear makes a sensationally compelling antihero, and that’s even more the case here: he’s giving a great big glorious star turn, and he’s worth the cost of the ticket on his own. As for the play, it’s undeniably true that on one level it doesn’t run particularly deep – but while you might not learn much about Marx that you didn’t already know going in, you will be entertained (well, assuming you aren’t the hatchet-faced prune who was sitting on my left during Act One on Saturday afternoon). If this is an indication of things to come, Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr’s tenure at the Bridge is off to a flying start. The venue itself is a triumph, and so is the opening show. That this is a commercial venture is all the more remarkable. It deserves your support, and it deserves to succeed.

Up the jungle

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Last week a stroke, this week Alzheimer’s. I hadn’t planned to see two plays (partly) about aphasia back-to-back, it just happened. Terry Johnson‘s Prism, which is coming to the end of a run at the Hampstead Theatre, is a wildly different kind of play than Wings; unfortunately the comparison doesn’t flatter it.

In Prism, Johnson presents an examination of the celebrated photographer and cinematographer Jack Cardiff, the man responsible for some of the most iconic photographs of Hollywood legends like Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn, and Lauren Bacall. The play shows him in (we assume, but are never quite told) his 80s, in the grip of Alzheimer’s, only sporadically able to distinguish the present from the past. Johnson sets up a situation with four characters: Cardiff, his (younger) wife Nicola, his son Mason, who wants him to hurry up and finish an autobiography before he completely loses his marbles, and a care-worker named Lucy. The prism of the title is an essential component of the three-strip Technicolor process, of which Cardiff was an early adopter: a prism inside the camera split the incoming beam of light into green, magenta, and blue streams, each of which was recorded on a separate strip of film; when the three negatives were combined, they captured a far wider spectrum of colour than had been possible using earlier processes.

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Johnson wisely gets the technical explanations out of the way very early on; the prism, here, is a metaphor for the way Johnson’s Cardiff’s vision splits between the present and the past. We’re shown, more than once, that when Cardiff looks at his wife he sometimes sees Katharine Hepburn; Lucy, the carer, is sometimes confused with Marilyn Monroe, and Johnson’s son is sometimes Arthur Miller, sometimes Humphrey Bogart. In a spectacular coup-de-théâtre, Tim Shortall’s set takes us from the memorabilia-packed garage/studio where the bulk of the play is located to the Congolese jungle location where scenes from The African Queen were filmed, and then later to a Hollywood soundstage where Cardiff photographed Marilyn Monroe. The conversations in these imagined landscapes recall and even overlap with conversations in the play’s present day – indeed, Cardiff’s Act Two conversation with Marilyn Monroe is a word-for-word retread of an earlier conversation with Lucy (both, of course, are played by the same actress). It’s a fascinating idea, and Lindsay, while he’s two decades too young for the role, offers a gripping performance as Cardiff – never quite sure where or when he is, proud of his accomplishments, frustrated by his inability to keep track of anything, fighting his way through imaginary jungles that once were absolutely real, and terrified of losing his sight. Johnson’s great gift has always been the ability to find comedy even in the most unexpected places, and that’s still true here (this is his first full-length play in ten years); compared to his earlier work, though, the tone is elegiac, even though there are big laughs scattered all the way through the play. Lindsay is sometimes tremendously moving – but audiences expecting an out-and-out comedy along the lines of Dead Funny (still, I think, his best play) or Hysteria are likely to be disappointed.

But then, they may well be disappointed anyway. The underlying idea is fascinating, and Lindsay and Claire Skinner (as Nicola and Katharine Hepburn) are giving tremendous performances, but the play as a whole, I’m afraid, comes across as a parade of interesting ideas and lovely moments that never coalesce into a coherent whole. It’s short – two hours and ten minutes including an interval – and somewhat slight, and at the end you’re unfortunately left with the impression that what you’ve just seen is two scenes short of having a point. The supporting performances don’t help; Barnaby Kay is blank space as Cardiff’s son and Arthur Miller, and actively bad in his brief scene as Humphrey Bogart; Rebecca Night’s Lucy, meanwhile, is saddled with the kind of terrible generic northern accent that can only come from someone to whom the north (by which I mean anything beyond the top of the Northern Line) is little more than an abstract concept. To be fair, neither is given much help by the script; as written, Mason is basically a device to enable Lindsay’s Cardiff to give us exposition, and Lucy is a walking cipher. In the second act, we’re given hints of something awful in her home life, but the information (that she has a child who has been taken into care) comes from nowhere and goes nowhere, which doesn’t give Night enough to play. And while the set design is superb, some of the wigs are truly scary; presumably someone has to take the one Skinner wears as Hepburn out for a walk between shows, because it looks like it might otherwise break free and attack the front row.

A frustrating play, then, that circles its subject without quite landing on a reason for telling us this story, but at the centre of it Robert Lindsay is giving a genuine star turn. It’s just a pity his vehicle feels like an unfinished prototype – some nice lines, some interesting details, but too many bumps along the way, and it’s never quite clear what kind of play this is supposed to be. Having said that, though, Johnson is incapable of writing a dull play. Prism doesn’t work – at all – but it’s a fascinating ride.

Oh, you know. Just hanging around.

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Another one ticked off the list. I first read Arthur Kopit‘s Wings maybe twenty-five years ago, and I’ve been curious to see a production ever since. An odd, distinctive, fiercely intelligent and unsentimental play, it offers a unique portrayal of a stroke victim trying to feel her way back towards a world she can no longer understand, and in which she can no longer make herself understood. It’s not exactly a barrel of laughs, and it’s hardly the kind of entertainment where you can just sit back and let it wash over you – but it’s a fascinating piece of writing, and it isn’t often produced in this country.

As far as I’m concerned, Natalie Abrahami‘s astonishing revival at the Young Vic more than does it justice – but it does appear to be something of a Marmite proposition. This is not a straightforward revival, although it doesn’t (as far as I can tell) mess about with the text. Kopit gives Mrs. Stilson, his stroke victim, an interesting past: in her youth, she was an aviator and wing-walker in aerobatic shows. Accordingly, Abrahami uses flight as a visual metaphor to underline Mrs. Stilson’s disconnection from the world she’s known up until her stroke: in a bravura performance, Juliet Stevenson‘s Mrs. Stilson spends almost the entire show suspended on a wire, only sporadically making contact with the ground in the character’s more lucid moments.

In Kopit’s script, language fractures around Mrs. Stilson, so that there’s a gulf between what she’s trying to express and what she thinks she understands. The wire conceit/gimmick emphasises the character’s physical removal from the world she’s always lived in, in that it (admittedly not subtly) reinforces the point that a stroke can impose physical as well as mental constraints. For much of the performance, Mrs. Stilson is trapped outside the world the rest of the play’s characters inhabit – sometimes six inches above it, sometimes six feet, sometimes the full length of the stage away. Her mental contortions as she tries to piece together her fractured mind are expressed via aerial movement – swoops, somersaults and all the rest of it. It’s spectacular to watch, and breathtakingly effective – if it works for you, because this appears to be one of those stagings where you either love it or don’t buy it for a second.

As for Stevenson herself, she’s flawless, magnificent, superb – this is a remarkable actress giving as remarkable a performance as she’s ever given. The text doesn’t sentimentalise the character or the situation and neither does she, but Stevenson negotiates the script’s difficult language flawlessly, and creates a memorable, intense, deeply moving portrayal of a woman shattered by her inability to communicate. It’s an astonishing physical performance, too – negotiating seventy minutes of aerial movement, some of it quite acrobatic, is no mean feat (the movement is choreographed/created/set by Anna Morrisey, with flying effects from Freedom Flying), and the result adds a spectacular new dimension to a fascinating text.

It’s often beautiful to look at too, with Stevenson soaring and swooping through a surreal dreamscape created by Guy Hoare’s lights and Will Duke’s projections. Aside from Lorna Brown as a therapist, the supporting cast don’t have much to do – for at least two-thirds of its length, the play is essentially a fractured monologue – but they do it well enough, and Brown’s performance is lovely. It’s Stevenson’s show, though – for all the spectacular flourishes of Abrahami’s direction, the thing you’ll remember most clearly is her voice, trying to find a way back towards a world she recognises. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe her performance; if it works for you, there aren’t enough superlatives to describe Abrahami’s staging either – but it may not work for you. As I said, this appears to be a Marmite proposition. Lucky me, I like Marmite.

 

 

Wind ’em up and watch ’em go!

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You will have a good time watching the revival of 42nd Street at Drury Lane.

Is that clear? You WILL have a good time watching the revival of 42nd Street at Drury Lane.

Sorry, I don’t think you’ve quite got it yet. YOU WILL HAVE A GOOD TIME WATCHING THE REVIVAL OF 42ND STREET AT DRURY LANE.

YOU WILL BE ASSIMILATED.

ALL DISSENT IS TREASON.

Actually, snark aside, you’ll be entertained, and often a lot more than that. It’s just that by the curtain call you may also be exhausted. This is a great big brightly-coloured juggernaut of a show. It’s slick, fast-paced, a bit too loud, and absolutely relentless; it’s often great fun, but it might be more fun if the production occasionally paused for breath. There’s a huge ensemble of tap-dancers, drilled to within an inch of their lives by choreographer Randy Skinner. There are gaudy, spectacular sets by Douglas W. Schmidt, who seems to have had a great time taking every single Busby Berkeley cliché and hurling the whole lot of them at Drury Lane’s vast stage. Roger Kirk’s sequins-and-spangles costumes for the chorus are noisier than Gareth Owen’s ear-splitting sound design. It’s an eye-popping, jaw-dropping two-and-a-half-hours of sensory overload, and sometimes it’s glorious.

It’s so relentlessly BIG, though, that the puny little human beings at the centre of it sometimes seem curiously irrelevant. There’s no need to discuss the plot because everybody knows about the film, even if these days not everybody has seen it: it’s not simply that the film is the ultimate go-out-a-nobody-and-come-back-a-star fantasy writ large – the film created most of the go-out-a-nobody-and-come-back-a-star clichés, and that scene where the director tells the chorus girl to (getting the point yet?) go out there a nobody and come back a star is a widely-referenced, universally-recognisable touchstone in American popular culture. That the film has become a CULTURAL MONOLITH, though, isn’t only down to the plot or the musical numbers. The film gained the currency it did because, on top of spectacle and an irresistible story, the cast list is a roll call of irresistible, memorable movie stars: Ruby Keeler, Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell. Here, in their place, we have a lot of very efficient performances. Everybody hits their notes and their marks, but Mark Bramble appears to have directed most of his cast to act in semaphore. With very few exceptions, there’s little subtlety and less charm. The sheer energy emanating from the stage will be enough to carry you along – don’t have a coffee or shoot amphetamines before the show, artificial stimulants might push you over the edge – and the LAUGHS are telegraphed LOUDLY enough that you won’t be able to help laughing too, but the film traded in personalities as well as plot, and this production mostly doesn’t. And I mean it mostly really doesn’t.

There are a few exceptions, fortunately, and they’re wonderful. As Maggie Jones, a co-author of the show chorus-girl Peggy Sawyer is supposed to Go Out And Become The Star Of, Jasna Ivir is warm, funny, and an absolute delight. It’s unfortunate that her ability to project a charming, human performance despite the steamroller of a production surrounding her makes a few of the show’s supporting players seem even more like robots, but you can’t have everything. Clare Halse’s Peggy, too, is the real deal: a good singer, a terrific dancer, presence to spare, and she, like Ivir, pulls off the neat trick of demonstrating an actual personality instead of being dwarfed by the garish costumes and gargantuan dance routines. I’ve no idea what top-billed Sheena Easton is like as fading star Dorothy Brock because she was out on Tuesday night; she probably sings the hell out of her songs (in this production, she gets an extra one – ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ – because if your biggest star is a star singer and her character is onstage for only four-and-a-half minutes of the second act, you really need to throw her a bone), but her understudy, CJ Johnson, gave a fine, flawless account of the role, and Ms. Easton was not missed. As Julian Marsh, the tough-talking director of the show-within-the-show, Tom Lister seems, until late in the second act, to be perfecting a very good Jerry Orbach impersonation – but then right at the end of the second act, after the final big production number, the show finally slows down and takes a breath, finishing with a sweetly touching scene between director and chorus-girl-turned-star and Marsh’s solo rendition of the title song. At that point – but only at that point – Lister makes the role his own. Those last few minutes, in fact, despite not including forty-odd tap-dancers, mirrors, dance props, moving scenery, or any notably gaudy costumes, are by far the best thing in the show.

The bottom line: you WILL have a good time, though you may also leave the theatre feeling like you’ve been bludgeoned into submission. The choreography is often dazzling, Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s songs are classics of their genre, there’s a superb band under the direction of Jae Alexander (and a nifty little lift under the conductor’s podium in the pit which propels him upwards into a spotlight so that the audience can see him conduct the overture and entr’acte), and the show as a whole, wearyingly relentless at it sometimes seems, is bright, shiny, colourful fun. If it sometimes – OK, often – feels like a theme-park recreation of a Thirties musical comedy, that’s because it IS: this material was never conceived for the stage, even though it’s about the creation of a stage musical, and the production’s relentlessly overcaffeinated imitation of the various performance tropes associated with Thirties backstage movie musicals is so shamelessly overhyped that the extravaganza now on display at Drury Lane inevitably seems (more than) a little ersatz. It is great fun – genuinely – but you may very well end up with the odd suspicion that you’re being forced to have fun at gunpoint. That the show doesn’t feel like it’s being performed entirely by animatronics or replicants is largely down to Clare Halse and Jasna Ivir – really, whatever they’re being paid, it isn’t enough. When they’re onstage – and in Halse and Lister’s final scene, too – this 42nd Street can charm as well as overwhelm. The rest of the time? As I said, YOU WILL HAVE FUN.

 

Drugs are bad, OK?

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Nina is an actress. Nina takes drugs. Nina drinks a lot. Nina believes there is no objective truth. Nina’s life story rather strongly resembles the plot of ‘Hedda Gabler’. Nina is afraid she doesn’t have a personality of her own. Nina is called Emma. Emma is called Sarah. Emma’s therapist looks like Sarah’s mother. Nina’s doctor looks like Emma’s mother. Emma tells lies. Emma needs help. I need an aspirin.

Jeremy Herrin, who directed People, Places and Things – now beginning a short tour at Manchester’s Home (yes, that’s a stupid name for a performing arts complex) after successful runs at the National and in the West End – is a genius. The outstanding moments here, and there are a few, occur when his staging (recreated for the tour in collaboration with Holly Race Roughan) finds a visual translation for the physiological horrors Emma/Sarah undergoes on her path towards recovery. When Emma’s perception of reality blurs as she goes through withdrawal, we see a stageful of Emmas, all experiencing the same symptoms. Subtle shifts in music and lighting (respectively, by Matthew Herbert and James Farncombe) suggest when Emma’s perceptions are altered by “substances”. Andrzej Goulding’s projections on the walls of Bunny Christie’s crisply clinical white box of a set, again sometimes together with Herbert’s electronic music, take us inside Emma’s highs – and the crashes that follow. It’s an extraordinary production, and for that – and sometimes for that alone – it deserves to be seen.

Whether it’s an extraordinary play is more open to question. Duncan Macmillan’s script is packed with ideas, and the central one – that there’s a strong parallel between the theatrical rehearsal process and a twelve-step programme, and (related, and more obvious) that Emma/Sarah’s drive to become an actress and her attraction/susceptibility to narcotics both stem from a need to escape the constraints of her own rather nondescript personality – is certainly compelling enough. When the action calms down, though – when the directorial flourishes and the lightning-fast references to Foucault and Derrida and Barthes recede and we’re left simply watching Emma/Sarah submit to treatment – the result, unfortunately, is a bit too movie-of-the-week. There’s a lot of dazzling stagecraft here, but few new insights into the nature of addiction.

That may partly be down to the casting. At the National and in the West End, the (exhausting) central role was played by Denise Gough, in what was apparently an astonishing performance. Here, Emma is played by Lisa Dwyer Hogg, and she’s very good. She makes Emma’s breakdown and recovery absolutely believable, she finds all of the considerable black humour in the writing, and on one level it’s difficult to fault her performance. What she can’t quite do, unfortunately, is pull the play’s scattershot flow of ideas and split-second shifts between reality and an altered state together into a completely coherent whole. The role needs – and in this production’s original incarnation, apparently got – the kind of thousand-watt star turn that can paper over the cracks in the script. This isn’t that kind of performance; when Macmillan’s writing becomes repetitive, when the insights about the nature of addiction and the recovery process veer a little too close to trite sloganeering, when the writing fails to live up to the dazzling physical production, Hogg doesn’t inject the kind of charismatic spark that might make you look past the shortcomings of the play itself. She’s perfectly fine, but that isn’t enough.

That’s also true of the impeccable supporting performances. They’re faultless, with particularly strong work from Andrew Sheridan as a fellow addict and Matilda Ziegler as Emma/Sarah’s doctor, therapist and mother, but the supporting characters are all – yes, every last one of them – badly underwritten. I suppose the point, which is reinforced in the climactic confrontation/meeting between Sarah and her parents, is that addiction creates narcissists: the play creates Emma/Sarah’s world, and other people simply enter and leave it, but unfortunately that lumbers the other nine actors in the cast with roles that mostly could have been written on flashcards. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of the performances, but the writing doesn’t give the actors much to play with.

The bottom line: it’s worth seeing. The production, as I said, is sensational – but if you go in, having read the reviews from the Dorfman and the West End, expecting it to be a can’t-miss theatrical event, you may be in for a disappointment. This is a dazzling production of an interesting but flawed play – worth seeing, but not the earthquake you might have anticipated.