“…and we need to know our worst sides aren’t ignored!”

It seems almost unbelievable that London has had to wait twenty-seven years for a professional production of Falsettos, the seminal 1992 Broadway musical about a New York family that breaks apart and slowly comes back together again when one parent comes out as gay, but somehow it’s 2019 and this is the show’s UK premiere. Well, sort of. Falsettos is formed from two earlier one-acts – March of the Falsettos, which premiered off-Broadway in 1981, and Falsettoland, which premiered in 1990 – and only the former has already received a professional production in the UK (there’s a third one-act – In Trousers – including some of the same characters; it preceded these two shows, premiering in 1979). It’s easy to forget now how strikingly unusual it was back in 1990 to see a piece of relatively mainstream theatre that placed same-sex couples and the spectre of AIDS in the context of a loving, accepting family, and did so without resorting to limp-wristed flaming-queen caricatures, something which cannot be said for, for example, the musical adaptation of La Cage Aux Folles a few years earlier; Falsettos is one of those landmark pieces of writing that represented a decisive step forwards, and it also – fortunately – happens to be a terrific, idiosyncratic, thoroughly moving piece of theatre with a score that is probably still William Finn’s masterpiece.

It’d be lovely, then, to be able to say this long-awaited London production does the show justice, wouldn’t it? Sorry, you can’t have everything. There were alarm bells in August, when a group of UK-based Jewish artists wrote an open letter to the Stage protesting – justifiably – that there appeared to be no Jewish people represented among the cast or creative team of this very, very New-York-Jewish show (the opening number is called Four Jews In A Room Bitching, five out of seven characters in the show are Jewish, there are Yiddish words sprinkled among the lyrics, the climactic scene in the second act takes place at a Bar Mitzvah). The resulting furore included a lot of people deliberately and disingenuously misunderstanding the complaint – look on theatre-related bulletin boards and you’ll find a plethora of witless straw man “arguments” of the how-dare-they-not-cast-CATS-with-actual-cats variety – and the production company’s statement in response to the letter was rather less conciliatory than it might have been given that it was addressing an entirely valid request from a minority group that they be included in the telling of one of their stories. It’s unfair to judge work that, at that point, hadn’t yet been seen on the basis of what rapidly, on social media, turned into a rather unpleasant debate, but it wasn’t an auspicious start.

And to be fair, the biggest problem with this production – and there are many problems with this production – is emphatically not simply that none of the actors are Jewish, which was how a number of people (cynically) misconstrued the points raised in that letter. The problem here is also emphatically not that this production’s cast are untalented – these are all superb singers and actors, they’ve all got impressive CVs, and they’re all, in theory, more than capable of excelling in these roles.

Something, though, is out of balance somewhere, although maybe it’s not so obvious if you haven’t previously seen a production that worked better than this one does (I saw the touring iteration of the original Broadway production in Washington DC in 1993, and I’ve seen the filmed version of the 2016 Broadway revival). Particularly in the first half, the tone seems more than a little off – the effortlessness of the performances on the two original off-Broadway cast recordings makes it easy to forget that this is very, very tricky material to perform. Both acts are through-sung, and Finn’s dazzling but rather eccentric score includes a number of quick-fire passages which aren’t exactly recitative, but in which dialogue is twisted and compressed into the constraints of the structure of a song. The singing in this production is terrific. The direction, unfortunately, really isn’t.

The first act is more problematic than the second. In the first act – March of the Falsettos – Marvin, the show’s central character, has left his wife (Trina) for a male lover (Whizzer, and let’s take a moment to regret that Finn and James Lapine, his collaborator, didn’t see fit to include the splendidly-titled Whizzer Going Down from In Trousers when they glued March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland together to make Falsettos), Trina gets engaged to Mendel, Marvin’s psychiatrist, and Marvin and Trina’s ten-year-old son Jason struggles to come to an understanding that his own interpretations of masculinity and sexuality do not necessarily have to reflect his father’s choices. It’s tricky, subtle emotional territory, given a fast-paced, very New York tragicomic spin – the score often suggests an overcaffeinated combination of Sondheim, Woody Allen, and Jules Feiffer, with lines and observations that sometimes seem to have come straight from a BEK cartoon – and while some of the material is very funny, there’s real emotion in there too, not to mention a lot of anger.

As (badly) directed by Tara Overfield-Wilkinson, what we’re served up here is closer in tone to a second-tier episode of a third-rate New York-set sitcom. Until the last five minutes of the first act, almost every single significant moment is somehow botched, mostly because Ms. Overfield-Wilkinson (presumably) directs her cast to push too hard (I have to assume they’re giving the performances they’ve been directed to give; I’ve seen most of them in other things, and they’re all capable of much, much better work than they’re doing here). The result, I’m afraid, is a mess: five abundantly talented actor-singers marooned on PJ McEvoy’s startlingly ugly, too-cartoonish set, mugging to such a ridiculous degree that they kill half the laughs and strangle most of the piece’s emotional content.

Worse, Ms. Overfield-Wilkinson’s staging of the first act’s title song – a surreal dream sequence in which the four male characters perform a soft-shoe number in falsetto, a voice range which falls outside traditional stereotypes associated with masculinity – is simply catastrophically bad: under her direction, it’s little more than two-and-a-half minutes of silliness, and the point – yes, there is one – is completely lost. Throughout the first half, every word, every gesture, every choreographed movement is a little bit too big, a little bit too broad, a little bit too laboured. It’s only in the last five minutes, as Daniel Boys’s Marvin sings a beautiful, quiet song called Father to Son to Jason, that you catch a glimpse of what this half of the show should have been.

If Ms. Overfield-Wilkinson finds herself on surer footing in the second half, that’s partly because Falsettoland has always been the stronger of the show’s two constituent one-acts. in Falsettoland, which takes place in 1981, Marvin gets back together with Whizzer, Marvin and Trina argue over preparations for Jason’s forthcoming Bar Mitzvah, and Whizzer falls ill and is diagnosed with an as-yet-unnamed disease with a terrifyingly bleak prognosis. Even in a less than completely successful production, I defy anyone to remain unmoved by the last twenty minutes of the show; throughout, Finn’s songs for Falsettoland still rank among the very best things he’s ever written (for my money, the best of all is Whizzer’s devastatingly unflinching You Gotta Die Sometime), and in this production they’re all sung beautifully. There’s far less of the first act’s hyperactive mugging in the second half of the show; that’s not because the direction in the second half is any better, because it mostly isn’t, but simply because the plot and tone allow fewer opportunities for it.

Still, though, something isn’t quite right. Since the tone in the second half isn’t quite as hyperactively neurotic, there’s more time to focus on the absence of any chemistry between any of the adult actors, and to note that all three romantic couples we see in the show – Daniel Boys and Oliver Savile as Marvin and Whizzer, Laura Pitt-Pulford and Joel Montague (a late replacement for another performer) as Trina and Mendel, and Gemma Knight-Jones and Natasha J Barnes as Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia, an underwritten pair of “lesbians from next door” who appear only in the second half – give the impression of having met for the first time backstage at the five-minute call. Again, these actors are all – all – capable of far better work than they’re doing here; it seems reasonable to assume that whatever went wrong, and something clearly did, went wrong during the rehearsal process and probably stems from choices made by the director.

This production, I’m afraid, seems to be terrified of intimacy, and particularly terrified of intimacy within same-sex couples. It’s one thing for the relationship between Trina and Mendel to read as being less than completely passionate, because that’s more or less a plot point, and the relationship between Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia is given relatively little stage time. The staging choices in the relationship between Marvin and Whizzer, on the other hand, seem carefully calculated to – there’s no nice way of putting this – rinse away the gay, as if it’s only OK to tell a story placing male homosexuals in the context of a family with – gasp! – a child if you render them completely sexless. Take, for example, Ms. Overfield-Wilkinson’s staging of What More Can I Say? Marvin’s Act Two love song to Whizzer. The stage directions in the published script suggest something very specific, in terms of the intimacy the moment is supposed to carry:

In Ms. Overfield-Wilkinson’s staging, both actors are fully-clothed, and Whizzer has dozed off on a sofa with a book in his lap – the book, of course, strategically positioned over the genital area so that there isn’t even the slightest possibility of any kind of naughty touching going on. I’m the last person, generally, to dictate that directors stick slavishly to stage directions in a published script – but if you’re going to change something, be aware of what you’re changing. If you can’t get a bed onto your (hideous) set – and they could have, in another scene Trina is seen in bed alone – find some alternative that preserves the intimacy suggested in the script, instead of following Ms. Overfield-Wilkinson’s example here and giving us something that looks more like a badly-thought-out Eddie Bauer advert than a moment of sensual tenderness between two lovers. In this show, of all shows, there is no excuse for approaching a same-sex relationship so timidly. It’s such a disastrous failure of nerve on the part of this director that it’s actually disrespectful to the material.

On the other hand, it’s taken twenty-seven years for this show to land in this country, and it’s anyone’s guess when (or even whether) we’ll see it here again, so if you love musical theatre this is probably something you need to see. After you’ve seen it, though, track down the recordings from the orignal off-Broadway productions; even without visuals, they give a much better sense of what this material can be when it’s done properly, something you’ll unfortunately get very little sense of at The Other Palace.

And one last thing: this production, too, has fallen victim to the Marketing Curse whereby the bar staff are doomed to develop and promote themed cocktails tied into whatever show happens to be playing. Yes, in a show whose plot encompasses a family coming to terms with the implications of the onset of AIDS, you can order yourself a themed cocktail at the interval and contemplate the horror of the AIDS crisis by sipping a delightfully tart combination of pomelo and pink grapefruit gin and grenadine. If you were to try to compile a list of all the reasons our decadent civilisation is doomed, this would certainly be on it.

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Southern Gothic

Razor-sharp, ice cold, meaner than a box of snakes, and VERY funny. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s thermonuclear family drama goes off with the force of a fifteen-kiloton bomb. We’re in a plantation mansion in Alabama, the family patriarch has died, the house is rotting at the seams, and his three children are sorting through the house’s contents and getting ready to put the place up for auction. The discovery of an album of photographs of lynchings, and then a box full of – let’s put this delicately – associated memorabilia is the catalyst for a series of explosive revelations. To say too much more would be to give too much away; every character has some kind of secret, and of course the defining feature of this kind of play is that by the end, every secret has been exposed. The shockwaves keep coming, and continue even after the actors have all left the stage; Ola Ince’s perfectly-pitched production is a two-hour white-knuckle ride, and it’s fascinating to see how Jacobs-Jenkins uses the framework of a one-set family drama to construct an explosive critique of the way white (southern) Americans interact with black America’s history. This is one of those plays where you’ll come out wanting to buy the script, so save a little money and buy it with your programme as you go in (there’s a combo deal). As Toni, the (astonishingly) embittered oldest sibling, Monica Dolan is first among equals amid a superb cast – she somehow manages to make you feel for Toni despite the character’s rage (and in one scene, blatant racism), AND to make you laugh. I could gush for several more paragraphs, but you’ve got the point already: this is as good as anything I’ve ever seen at the Donmar.

Small ones are more juicy!

No, this isn’t an orange advert from 1985. Playing catch-up again: three small musicals, in (coincidentally) diminishing order of size, seen over the last month or so.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

Yes, the second attempt at a musical based on the great Sue Townsend’s greatest creation. It’s slick, funny, and tuneful, and you’d be hard-pressed not to have a good time – but perhaps it plays up the laughs at the expense of the source material’s underlying pathos a little bit too much, and it certainly sands a lot of the sharpest edges off Townsend’s social satire.

It is, though, absolutely charming, Luke Sheppard directs it with enormous panache, the children are spectacularly good, and Rosemary Ashe is a one-woman riot as Adrian’s hyper-judgmental grandmother. Pippa Cleary and Jake Brunger’s score works beautifully in context, but you won’t necessarily walk out of the theatre humming the tunes… apart from Doreen Slater’s magnificently brassy New Best Friend, which is sung to the hilt by Lara Denning. Is it a problem that a relatively incidental character gets (by far) the best number in the show? Maybe.

Blues In The Night

A revue by Sheldon Epps built around a glorious stack of American jazz standards from the 1930s and 1940s – Bessie Smith, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke, Alberta Hunter et al. It’s a small show, first seen in London over thirty years ago – I am just about old enough to remember watching the original London production on television, it was broadcast on (I think) BBC2 somewhere around 1989 – in which the songs are carefully but rather loosely strung together around four characters (three women, one man) in a hotel in Chicago. You come to this show for the songs rather than the plot.

Having said that, director Susie McKenna has clearly done a lot of detailed work with her cast; the four central actors in the show all clearly have a story, even if it’s clearer to them than to us, and there’s a clear narrative arc here. Given how thin the show’s structure is, that’s an achievement. And these singers – Sharon D. Clarke, Debbie Kurup, Gemma Sutton, and Clive Rowe – are simply magnificent. Sitting in the front row as Sharon D. Clarke tears into Lover Man about four feet away from me might well turn out to be the biggest theatrical thrill I get this year.

Musik

A one-hour cabaret with a script by Jonathan Harvey and songs by Pet Shop Boys, featuring Billie Trix, a character they introduced in their musical Closer To Heaven (no, I didn’t see the recent revival), and performed here by Frances Barber, who originated the role in Closer To Heaven 18 years ago. You don’t need to have seen Closer to Heaven to ‘get it’ – fortunately, since I haven’t – and you also probably don’t need to be a Pet Shop Boys fan, although (all but one of) their songs here are excellent. Harvey’s script packs in more laughs per square inch than you’d think possible, and Frances Barber nails them all.

This is a masterclass, actually, in how to take one joke – really, just one joke – and spin it out for an hour. Billie is a fabulous creation, a grizzled, ageing rock chick in the Nico/Marianne Faithfull mode – but her schtick is that throughout her life, while she’s enjoyed a miraculously Zelig-like ability to land in the right place at the right time, everyone she’s ever encountered has stolen her act. And that’s everyone, from Nico to Warhol to Tracey Emin to the current inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Barber delivers the studiedly outrageous lines – one joke about a K-hole left my neighbour gasping for breath – with an absolutely straight face, and is all the funnier for it, and her singing is, well, unique. Imagine the love-child of Carol Channing and Tom Waits after three bottles of whiskey and an unfeasible quantity of smack and you’ll be in the ballpark. It’s a brilliant star turn, and when she rips into the climax of Friendly Fire – one of the two songs borrowed from Closer to Heaven – the force of her performance pins you to your seat.

Bitter lemon

Oh, come on. You didn’t think a David Mamet play about the Me Too movement with a thinly-disguised Harvey Weinstein figure as the central character was actually going to be good, did you?

Please.

YES, Bitter Wheat is a thoroughly, utterly, completely dreadful play. Once upon a time, David Mamet might have been capable of writing a pungent, sharply funny satire about horrible Hollywood people doing horrible things and then trying to evade the consequences of their horrible behaviour. That time, on the evidence of the fiasco currently lumbering through a summer run at the Garrick, is long past. The plot is predictable enough – Barney Fein, producer and all-round sleazeball, invites/entices jet-lagged young Anglo-Korean film-maker Yung Kim Li into his apartment and attempts to Do Nasty Things To Which She Doesn’t Consent, she sets off the fire alarm, and the scandal finishes his career – after which, God help us, wacky hijinks, or what Mr. Mamet believes are wacky hijinks, ensue in the final scene. Mamet seems to be somehow under the impression that he’s written a comedy. To say he hasn’t is a breathtaking understatement.

It’s not the scenario, actually, that’s at fault here. It would be as good a starting-off point as any for a satire about the repulsive behaviour of a powerful Hollywood shitbag-in-a-suit. Mamet, unfortunately, doesn’t appear to be attempting anything as evolved as satire here. Bitter Wheat, it turns out, is less a play and more just an over-the-hill reactionary prick ejaculating sexist/racist/unpleasantly right-wing comments over the stage for 85 minutes, interspersed with feeder lines from a cast of (very good) supporting actors who all have too little to do. That might be OK, or at least not completely excruciating to sit through, if Barney Fein’s verbal diarrhoea was funny; there are two or three reasonably big laughs in the first half of the play, but it mostly isn’t.

And that, in turn, might not matter so much if the production’s above-the-title star seemed to be in any way awake. John Malkovich – an astonishingly potent stage actor when he wants to be, as anyone who saw him in Burn This (also far from a first-rate play) years ago will tell you – is phoning it in here. And by ‘phoning it in’, I mean he seems to be faxing his performance over a dodgy connection from a small town somewhere in Uzbekistan. It can’t be easy to take a starring role and then have to get up eight times a week in front of a less-than-completely-enthusiastic audience, wearing a laughably bad fat suit, to deliver an incoherent string of witless lines in a slack mess of a play sloppily directed by its entirely too self-regarding author, but when hundreds of people per performance have paid mostly to see him it would be nice if he could give the impression that he is actually in the building when he’s onstage. Apparently that’s too much trouble.

The supporting actors, while they don’t have enough to do, all emerge with their dignity intact. Matthew Pidgeon is lucky – he has nothing to do between the first scene and the curtain call, which means he’s spared having to navigate the (considerable) worst of his brother-in-law’s writing – and Teddy Kempner, whose epic beard is worth at least a couple of bonus points, does as much as he can as Fein’s slightly dubious doctor, a role Mamet possibly wrote while unconscious. Doon Mackichan, as Fein’s PA Sondra, makes by far the strongest impression, and she’s the most interesting person onstage – a woman working for a man she knows is a serial sex abuser, who disapproves of his behaviour but has made a great deal of money because of him, who has never been on the receiving end of that side of him herself, and who isn’t inclined to rat him out to the FBI when the shit hits the fan. Somewhere within those contradictions there’s a much better play, and a much more insightful look at how people like Harvey Weinstein managed to get away for so long with behaviour everybody knew about. The key, probably, would be to keep the Weinstein character offstage for as long as possible, rather than wallowing in his repulsive behaviour for 85 minutes of stage time. Twenty-five years ago, that’s a play Mamet could possibly have written. Twenty-five years is a long time… as you’ll learn in the twenty-five-minute second act of Bitter Wheat, which feels like it.

Sweet sorrow

See all those stars on the poster? Matthew Warchus’s stellar revival of Present Laughter deserves every last one of them, and so does Andrew Scott. This is a blissfully funny, absolutely pitch-perfect production of one of Noel Coward’s better plays: every laugh lands, Scott finds the undercurrent of melancholy underpinning washed-up matinée idol Gary Essendine’s preening, the supporting cast are faultless, and the gender-switching of a couple of key characters works spectacularly well (if you haven’t seen it – it’s on for another week and a half, I saw it a month ago and I’m playing catch-up again – it’s getting the National Theatre Live treatment, but not until November). And the fabulous high-waist wide-leg trousers designer Rob Howell gives Indira Varma’s dryly hilarious Liz Essendine deserve an Olivier award of their own.

NOT so stellar, unfortunately, is the visitor experience at the Old Vic, and I don’t mean the outside toilets. The usher in the section where I was sitting – dress circle left – took an unfeasible amount of pleasure in yelling at anyone she suspected of taking a photograph. I do get why they don’t want people taking pictures of the set, although if you don’t want people taking pictures of the set one very simple solution would be NOT to build the stage out beyond the proscenium so that you can’t hide the set behind the curtain until the lights go down – but I’m afraid I take great exception to being scolded as if I was a naughty schoolboy, in public, for taking a photograph when I wasn’t. I’m the first one to say theatres should put a bit more effort into policing audience behaviour, but if you’re going to tell someone off you damn well make sure they’re actually doing whatever you’re telling them off for. I complained to the house manager, he apologised – the usher didn’t – and the theatre made a conciliatory gesture, but it shouldn’t have happened in the first place (and a couple of conversations on Twitter and elsewhere suggest I’m far from the only person who has been yelled at for no reason by this particular usher). We’re customers, not cattle; as I said, I do understand that certain audience behaviours need to be policed, but there’s a fine line there between what’s acceptable and what isn’t, and this usher went way over it.

The thing is, theatre is ephemeral, and the visitor experience contributes to whatever it is you take away from the show. In THIS case, what I took away from the show is that it’s a really, really terrific production – and that I paid for a theatre ticket (admittedly not a particularly expensive one), and for train tickets (more than double the cost of the theatre ticket) on top, for the privilege of getting a bollocking for no good reason from a surly usher who appeared to be on some kind of power trip. The house manager apologised, the theatre took steps to make amends – but I didn’t get the experience I paid for, and since I live 200 miles from London it’s not like it’s easy for me to go back and see the show again. That, I’m afraid, is a waste of my money.


FIVE REVIEWS FOR THE PRICE OF ONE!!!!!

Yes, five: the UK tour of Lincoln Center’s revival of The King and I in Manchester, Fiddler on the Roof, the last night of the National Theatre revival of Follies, and The Play That Goes Wrong in London, and Sweeney Todd in Liverpool. All seen around the middle of May – but the rest of May and most of June have passed by in a blur, and here we are. So, a quick catch-up – capsule reviews, bullet points, all in one post. Normal service will be resumed as soon as I find a reasonable definition of ‘normal’.

THE KING AND I

* Gorgeous set and costumes.
* Pacing sometimes glacially slow.
* Superb performance from Jose Llana as the King.
* Competent performance from Annalene Beechey as Mrs. Anna. Never bad, but also never interesting.
* Cezerah Bonner’s Lady Thiang is the best thing in the show, and her ‘Something Wonderful’ is thrilling.
* Out of kindness, I won’t name the actors who played Lun Tha and Tuptim. Screech-o-rama.
* At these prices – a bit lower than the West End, but only a bit – and in a theatre this size, it’s taking the piss to have just fourteen musicians in the pit.
* The member of the front-of-house staff who rolled the very noisy shutters on the stalls bar (actually in the auditorium) up and then down again during the overture has no business working in a theatre.
* These days, the show’s colonialist point of view looks – let’s be kind – rather patronising.
* The score is marvellous, but this is, I’m afraid, my least favourite of the big Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, and this revival didn’t change my mind.

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF

* A Menier production, booted into the West End – but this time, they’ve done a reasonable job of taking something tiny and building it up.
* They’ve built the set out into the Playhouse’s proscenium, with a runway through the stalls on which actors enter and exit. It pulls you right into the village, and you do, in the stalls at least, have a sense of the show happening all around you.
* Whoever designed the new layout for the seats in the stalls didn’t bother to take into account the fact that people have knees. Ouch.
* Andy Nyman’s Tevye warm, real, moving. Particularly enjoyed the way the deedle-deedle-dums in If I Were A Rich Man became sighs as he washed himself at the village pump.
* Judy Kuhn is vocally massively over-qualified for the role of Golde; it goes without saying that her singing is flawless, but it’s a wonderfully spare, austere acting performance. She’s remarkable.
* Too bad you missed her, she was replaced by Maria Friedman a couple of weeks ago.
* Decent turns in all the supporting roles, too.
* While it’s beautifully acted and designed, director Trevor Nunn doesn’t manage to tap into the piece’s contemporary relevance in the way that, for example, Gemma Bodinetz did in her (even smaller) revival at the Everyman in Liverpool a couple of years ago.
* Selling Anatevka-themed cocktails in the bar before the show is remarkably crass, even by the standards of the Ambassador Theatre Group.

FOLLIES

* Yes I know I’ve written about this production before. I saw it six times. Deal with it.
* I’ve already said that this year’s return engagement was better in nearly every respect than the production’s first iteration in 2017. This final performance was as thrilling an evening as I’ve ever spent in a theatre.
* Thunderous applause as the ladies walked down the staircase in Beautiful Girls; I tend to find that kind of mid-show ovation easy to resist, but this time you couldn’t help get carried along with it.
* Thunderous applause, too – deservedly – for Claire Moore’s Broadway Baby, Tracie Bennett’s I’m Still Here, and Joanna Riding’s astonishing Losing My Mind.
* My God, Janie Dee. The most dazzling jewel in an evening that provides, as the song has it, ‘dazzling jewels by the score’. And she was clearly thoroughly moved by the audience’s response at the curtain call.
* Good as Felicity Lott was earlier in the run, it was wonderful to see Josephine Barstow’s heartbreaking, intense Heidi one last time, and she and Alison Langer gave a more-or-less definitive One More Kiss.
* This is a production Sondheim fans will be arguing over for years; for me, even though director Dominic Cooke made a few choices I wouldn’t have made myself, it stands as one of the National’s landmark achievements. It’s certainly as good as anything I’ve ever seen there.


THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG

*A masterclass in how to take one joke – JUST one joke – and stretch it over two full acts.
* It’s not a long show, and it needs to lose fifteen minutes.
* At best, it’s very funny indeed. The second act is better than the first.
* I didn’t see the original cast, but I can’t imagine them being any better than the current one.

SWEENEY TODD

* Possibly even more austere than the Everyman’s revival of Fiddler on the Roof a couple of years ago.
* Set in the present, and definitely an austerity-era Sweeney Todd. This is a startlingly angry production, and the piece’s statement about social (in)justice has possibly never been clearer than it is here.
* It’s in the round and in your face; there’s very little set apart from a few chairs, the turntable stage is moved by the cast, and the costumes are straight out of Primark. And it works.
* It’s not – by far – the best-sung Sweeney Todd you’ve ever seen, although Liam Tobin’s Sweeney and Kacey Ainsworth’s hard-as-nails Mrs. Lovett are stronger singers than most of the supporting players.
* Kacey Ainsworth’s Mrs. Lovett is extraordinary – yes, she sacrifices some of the role’s laughs, but it doesn’t matter: she’s utterly terrifying, a backstreet capitalist who will do literally anything to get ahead, and she’s this production’s driving force.
* In such a small production – there’s a cast of just nine – I’ve no issue with there being just four musicians in the band. Tarek Merchant’s arrangements, though, are ham-fisted and not particularly subtle, and there are places – many places – where different choices might have resulted in less of the score’s musical texture being lost.
* And that’s the issue with this production: there’s brilliant work from director Nick Bagnall, from the designers, and from the cast – but it’s a musical, and while I understand the production has limited resources to play with, there’s only so far you can strip back the instrumentation before you start diminishing the piece’s richness. Here, that line is crossed far too frequently, and it needn’t have been, even with just four musicians.

So… there. All caught up. Four musicals, one play, one blog post. As I said, normal service will be resumed… sometime.

Shake Your Badonkadonk… but keep away from the toilets and don’t look at the floor.

lms 1

If you’d asked me to place a bet, I wouldn’t have put money on William Finn and James Lapine‘s Little Miss Sunshine – yes, an adaptation of the 2006 film – arriving in the UK before their seminal 1992 show Falsettos, which will (finally) be landing at The Other Palace later this year – but here we are. Lucky me, I got to see it at the Arcola last week; it’s touring afterwards, which means you’ll have the opportunity to see it in nineteen other venues, all of which probably have cleaner toilets than the Arcola. That wouldn’t be a very high bar.

William Finn is a distinctive, idiosyncratic musical theatre composer with an instantly-recognisable sound, and it’s easy to see why musicalising the quirky family at the centre of Little Miss Sunshine appealed to him. That said, the show has a troubled history; a 2011 premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in California received an unenthusiastic reception from critics, and a heavily-rewritten 2013 production at New York’s Second Stage Theater didn’t generate enough box-office momentum to transfer to a commercial run elsewhere. This is apparently the show’s European premiere, and it’s a lot more fun than some of the New York and San Diego reviews might suggest, although it isn’t perfect; like all of Finn’s shows, though, it contains at least a handful of songs that are so stunningly wonderful that they’re worth the price of a ticket on their own (good thing, since in some respects my ticket for this was staggeringly overpriced… but we’ll come to that later).

Like the film, the musical follows the down-on-their-luck Hoover family on a road trip  in an ancient, knackered Volkswagen Microbus, driving from Albuquerque, NM to Redondo Beach, CA, where eight-year-old Olive is to compete in a beauty pageant. These characters elevate familial dysfunction to the level of an art form: dad Richard is a failed motivational speaker, and his father – Grandpa, along for the ride – has been kicked out of his retirement home for doing heroin. Uncle Frank, also along for the ride, is recovering from a suicide attempt and can’t be left alone, Olive’s older brother Dwayne has taken a vow of silence, and Olive and Dwayne’s mother Sheryl is struggling to cope with holding everything together under a growing pile of unpaid bills. Sheryl gets the best song in the show: a minor-key heartbreaker called Something Better Better Happen, which closes the first act and returns in the second. It’s lovely, and along with Grandpa’s early solo The Happiest Guy in the Van (a paean to the joys of rampant sex, presented as a slab of wildly inappropriate life advice to his teenage grandson Dwayne) and the ridiculously memorable earworm Shake Your Badonkadonk, it offers the clearest indication of why Finn and Lapine thought this film had potential as a musical. If everything else in the show was as memorably wonderful as those three songs, the show would have been a knockout hit in its first two productions. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of space between those three highlights. The rest of the show is always charming and sometimes very funny, but those three songs are on a different level from the rest of the score, which is great fun, but not first-tier Finn.

Director Mehmet Ergen gets terrific performances out of his small cast – Laura Pitt-Pulford gets the show’s most heartbreaking song and breaks your heart with it once in each act, Gary Wilmot (whose TV comedy work usually had me reaching for the off switch) is riotously funny as Grandpa, and Imelda Warren-Green supplies a brilliant comic cameo as a hospital administrator with the world’s worst case of vocal fry. His direction – and David Woodhead’s bright yellow roadmap set – gets the most out of a small budget and a difficult space, although it’s an odd choice to use a truck unit to represent the VW van all the way through the first act but not for most of the second. The show is performed with an interval in this production, although the rights-holder’s website lists it as a one-act; adding an interval, I’m afraid, is not an improvement.

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Overall, though, this production is sweet, funny, more touching than the film, and considerably better than you might expect from the show’s reception in New York and San Diego.

While the show is charming, though, the theatre, I’m afraid, is not. I understand that people working in this kind of venue are usually overworked and underpaid, but there’s no excuse for the level of surliness I encountered when I picked up my ticket at the box office, and there’s really no excuse for the woman on the door, who told me I had to go back out, pushing my way against the tide of people lining up to get it, and go back in through an outside door, which would have been perfectly OK if she’d been in any way polite or pleasant about it, and if she hadn’t then proceeded to let a couple of dozen other people access the block of seats where I was sitting  through the entrance she’d rather rudely told me not to use. My seat, also, didn’t endear the place to me. I see most of the shows I see from cheap seats, I’m very aware of the trade-offs between price and view, and I certainly don’t expect a third-price seat to have the same view as a top-price one. I also, though, do not expect to find that people who paid half what I did have a clearer view of the stage than I do. I sat in seat D1, which – as you’ll see from the picture below – has a lovely side-on view of a big yellow girder. The people in the £10 restricted view seats at the sides of the balcony had a more or less unobstructed view of the whole stage picture, and I did not even though my seat wasn’t sold as restricted view.  That leaves a rather nasty taste, and tells me a great deal about the theatre and the production company’s attitude towards their customers.

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There’s also no excuse for the toilets, although I might have formed a better impression if I’d visited the Gents before someone peed all over the seat and the floor and up the walls and door of the only available cubicle, whose lock had also seen better days. It’s not as if the rest of the venue was notably clean either – there were cigarette ends on the floor of the auditorium near my seat – although everywhere else was, thank God, cleaner than that cubicle in the Gents (it would pretty much have to have been). There’s a bar, and I think they serve food; the general state of cleanliness I saw elsewhere in the venue – the kindest word would be ‘slovenly’ – is such that I’d go elsewhere. And carry hand-sanitiser.

And then there’s the programme, which is the icing on the cake. I saw four productions in London last week; this one has the most expensive programme of the four – it’s £5 – and it’s also the slimmest and shoddiest. There are the usual cast/creative bios – typed by someone who clearly didn’t pay much attention to when to begin and end italics for titles – and some small rehearsal photographs, but the “articles” are the highlight, and they’re very special: a page on the history of the VW van which seems to be drawn largely from Wikipedia and whose anonymous author doesn’t know how to use an apostrophe, and a staggeringly fatuous short piece on musicals inspired by films whose writer, amid a stream of pure waffle, chooses to inform us that Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit’s musical Nine premiered in 1973, which tells us someone didn’t read past the first sentence of the first paragraph of the show’s Wikipedia entry. If you’re going to charge that amount of money for a programme, the least you can do – the very least you can do – is proof-read and fact-check it. And by “proof-read” and “fact check”, I mean processes involving an actual human being rather than an illiterate chimp.

So… see the show by all means. It’s got some lovely songs in it, the cast are wonderful, and it’s well worth a couple of hours of your time. To get the best out of the experience, though, avoid the lowest-numbered £20 seats in the side block, stay away from the toilets, do your best not to look at the floor, and don’t bother with a programme. Or better yet, pick a venue that isn’t the Arcola, because there are plenty to choose from. You’re welcome.