The mirror’s getting blurred

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Sally should have died the first time. Phyllis tells a drinks waiter he’s getting her all wet. Weismann hits on a waitress. There’s no interval, so slamming down a venti Americano before you take your seat probably isn’t a good idea unless you’re wearing Depends. We are, thank God, back in 1971 in more ways than one: for this production, the cut-down-and-smoothed-out revised version of James Goldman‘s book for Follies has been well and truly buried. May it never return.

Follies, more than most, is a show with a bumpy production history. The original Broadway production ran for more than 500 performances but lost a then-unheard-of $800,000. A 1987 London production had a completely rewritten book; it had a longer run but also lost money. There have been two Broadway revivals since 2000; they each used the watered-down rewrite of the book that has become the standard version, and neither was a hit. This is a show fans obsess over – yes, me too, I even wrote about it for part of my MA thesis. The score, underappreciated by critics in 1971, is an embarrassment of riches; Goldman’s original book, though, is probably too bleak ever to be a long-running commercial success. Set at a reunion of former showgirls in a now-defunct Ziegfeld Follies-style extravaganza, the show ostensibly focuses on the unhappy marriages of two ex-chorines, Sally and Phyllis, and their less-than-completely-faithful husbands, (respectively) oil rig salesman Buddy and politician/businessman Ben. On one level, the slender plot is simple: Sally and Phyllis danced together in the final season of the Weismann Follies in 1941, and were roommates. Sally married Buddy, Phyllis married Ben – but Sally and Ben had a fling before their engagements, and Sally arrives at the reunion having spent the past thirty years pining for what might have been. Actually, it’s about far more than that: during the reunion, the show’s characters are confronted by their younger selves, dredging up questions of memory and identity that locate the book in a surreal no-man’s-land between Pinter and Pirandello, with a hefty dollop of Fellini thrown in and a sprinkling of Albee on top. And on top of THAT, the whole thing is a metaphor for America’s postwar decline. It’s wonderful (if you don’t get one of the various watered-down rewrites), and I love it, but if you just want tap-dancing chorus girls you’re better off at 42nd Street.

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God knows what the National had to do in order to persuade James Goldman’s widow to allow them to use the not-watered-down bleak-but-brilliant original book, but we can all be very glad they did: Dominic Cooke’s production more than does it justice, although it isn’t without flaws. This isn’t quite precisely the unadulterated original text; there have been a few interesting tweaks here and there, and they’re all intelligent choices – although none of them amount to life-or-death changes. In the dumbed-down rewrite that has become the standard published text, there are a couple of crossovers in the final scene – minor characters leaving the party, given a couple of lines each. Those are inserted earlier in the show, before the surreal Follies-as-metaphor Loveland sequence, and it’s perhaps useful, by that point in the show, to emphasise the lateness of the hour as the four central characters succumb to a combination of alcohol, obsession, and spectacular self-loathing. Cooke keeps the “ghosts” onstage far more than the stage directions suggest; they’re almost always present somewhere, and all the party guests are mirrored/stalked/haunted by their own pasts. Accordingly, in the long opening sequence, the first fragment of song (as opposed to underscoring) comes from two of the ghosts: Young Ben and Young Buddy get a “hey up there/way up there/whaddya say up there?” (the opening phrase of ‘Waiting for the Girls Upstairs’, a song that arrives twenty minutes or so later) before anyone else has sung a word. ‘Bolero d’Amour’, on the other hand, has been cut, although it was apparently in the show during early previews (I saw the last-but-one preview before press night). And – purists will seethe, but this is London not New York and this choice makes sense – in ‘I’m Still Here’ Carlotta sings that she got through Shirley Temple rather than Brenda Frazier. I suppose they could have explained Brenda Frazier in a programme note, but who reads those?

(I do, actually, and in this case you should too: the programme includes fine, informative, well-written essays by David Benedict, Russell Jackson, and Gary Yershon, and a snippet of Ted Chapin’s wonderful book about the making of the original production. It’s well worth the £5.)

A big part of Cooke’s achievement here is that he understands the rhythm of the piece, and with Follies that is by no means always the case. Until the ‘Loveland’ show-within-a-show at the evening’s climax, Follies is structured as a continuous tapestry rather than as a succession of individual scenes, using a theatrical equivalent of cinematic crossfades – as one piece of the action ends, another begins somewhere else on the stage and your eye is drawn to it. Harold Prince’s original Broadway production achieved this effect using several moving platforms (there is some archival footage available); here, Cooke makes judicious use of the Olivier’s revolve (though not the drum) and Paule Constable’s perfectly-eerie lighting to keep the action spinning, and to shift focus between different areas of Vicki Mortimer’s desolate-but-beautiful derelict-backstage set.

He understands the rhythm of the dialogue as well, and that’s something that also appears to have eluded some directors. Goldman’s script starts out looking naturalistic, at least if you look past the ghosts, but it really isn’t. These are emblems rather than fully fleshed-out characters – remember, the whole show is a metaphor – and that’s a deliberate choice. The characters are simultaneously slightly larger-than-life and slightly less than three-dimensional, and there’s a surreal, arch theatricality to the dialogue that can feel painfully stilted if the actors don’t catch the correct rhythm. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Restoration comedy, only with a darker edge, and it requires the same kind of discipline and pace. Cooke makes it make perfect sense; in this production, the dialogue crackles with electricity and the pace never lets up. Dark as the material becomes, though, the delivery in this production stays just the right side of being too arch; there are laughs too – though not in the last ten to fifteen minutes – and they’re all present and correct, and again that isn’t an easy thing to achieve in material as ostensibly bleak as this.

And those ghosts are everywhere. There’s a ghostly entrance parade (way) upstage behind the older women during ‘Beautiful Girls’, the Whitmans dance with their younger selves in ‘Rain on the Roof’, Carlotta’s ghost looks down on her as she sings ‘I’m Still Here’. It sounds like embellishment, but it’s a choice that consistently pays off; everyone in this Follies is haunted by the past, but some are much better than others at facing it down.

Cooke also draws fine performances from his actors, right down to the smallest roles. Billy Boyle and Norma Atallah are absolutely charming as the Whitmans, and their ‘Rain on the Roof’ is a delight. Geraldine Fitzgerald is a drily funny Solange. Di Botcher cannily underplays ‘Broadway Baby’, so that a song that these days can seem like a cliché feels absolutely fresh. They get to do the trio ending combining their three numbers, and it’s a showstopper. Bruce Graham is a golden-voiced Roscoe, and Gary Raymond is a fascinatingly haunted/haunting Dmitri Weismann. As Stella Deems, Dawn Hope sings the hell out of ‘Who’s That Woman?’, the memorable tap number in which the ex-chorus girls literally dance with their younger selves.

The score is an embarrassment of riches, but so is this cast. As fading soprano Heidi Schiller, Josephine Barstow is simply beautiful. ‘One More Kiss’, a mock-Viennese waltz with a sting in the lyric, is the score’s loveliest song; as sung by Barstow and Alison Langer’s Young Heidi, it has possibly never been lovelier. Tracie Bennett’s Carlotta Campion – the show’s great survivor, a former Follies girl who became a film and television star – seems to be channeling (pre-breakdown) Judy Garland, but that’s a choice that works for the role, and that impression is probably reinforced by having seen Bennett’s powerhouse performance as Garland in Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow. Bennett’s Carlotta is strong, unsentimental, almost flinty – but at a certain point Bennett lets you see vulnerability too, and her I’m Still Here isn’t quite like any other performance of the song I’ve encountered. It starts as a reminiscence to friends, but then once she’s left alone onstage, halfway through the number, it becomes something darker and more complex: simultaneously a triumphant shout of survival and a more introspective acknowledgment of the emotional toll that comes with enduring adversity. It’s surprisingly moving, and an original, subtle take on a song that too often just gets steamrollered into the ground.

As for the central quartet and their younger counterparts, it’s mostly good news there too. Peter Forbes is an ideal Buddy – affable, ingratiating, sad around the edges. He isn’t a tap-dancer, but ‘The Right Girl’ is reconceived as an almost-adversarial dance duet with Fred Haig’s equally ideal Young Buddy, and it works very well indeed. Philip Quast brings tremendous gravitas to his portrayal of Ben, and in his hands ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ – Sondheim’s baldest statement of the show’s overriding theme – is as affecting as it has ever been. And you’ll probably want to go home and erect some kind of shrine to Janie Dee’s Phyllis, because she’s perfect.

That leaves Imelda Staunton’s Sally, which is an impeccable performance in every way except one. Staunton does not fall into the trap of making Sally manic or bipolar from the top of the show. She very carefully charts a slow descent into madness, and it’s a very, very fine acting performance. Sondheim’s music, on the other hand, is not a good fit for her voice. She doesn’t commit the kind of crimes against the human eardrum perpetrated by Bernadette Peters on the most recent Broadway cast album, but Sally’s songs demand a soprano and she just isn’t one. That said, she more or less gets away with it: her ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’ is absolutely transfixing (and yes, she does hit all the notes, though I think it’s been taken down a step for her), because the acting performance is compelling enough to carry the music with it – and to be fair, she floats a lovely pianissimo whatever-it-is on the last note of the song. She takes the middle of ‘Too Many Mornings’ down an octave, but does hit the high notes at the end of the song. Her Loveland number, ‘Losing My Mind’, is less successful, but that’s partly because the staging is too busy: she sings a good part of the song in profile to the audience, sitting at a dressing table, and it would help if she was allowed to face the audience from the beginning.

Part of the problem, though, is undeniably the mismatch between the song and the performer. Staunton is a brilliant actor with a versatile voice that can encompass a wider range of musical roles than you might imagine – but she does not have the kind of glorious one-of-a-kind singing voice that could stand in the same league as some of her predecessors in the role. When Dorothy Collins, Barbara Cook or Julia McKenzie sang the song – and all three are/were superb actors too – their voices could do some of the heavy lifting. McKenzie literally just stood completely still then raised both arms on the penultimate line of the final verse; as careful as her acting choices in that moment were, she also has the kind of voice that makes an entire theatre stop breathing until she’s finished the number, and her physical stillness was a powerful statement in itself given that the song essentially spends four minutes describing a state of emotional paralysis. Staunton doesn’t have that kind of voice, so the song is given more elaborate blocking (in profile, face forward, pick up a glass and take a drink, stand for the final verse, yada yada) as if to compensate. The acting choices make perfect sense, and she (correctly) plays the performance pastiche rather than the nervous breakdown underpinning the song – but the song benefits enormously from a thrilling voice, and it doesn’t get one.

And having said all that, Staunton’s performance in the final scene is so heartbreaking that you’ll probably forgive her more or less anything for her delivery of the line “Oh dear God, it IS tomorrow.”. Her presence in the role brings gains and losses; she’s wonderful, but she’s also imperfect – and perhaps all the more so next to the marvellous Alex Young’s Young Sally, because Young has the acting chops and the voice.

The Loveland sequence as a whole, in fact, is somewhat problematic. Cooke’s direction, so perfect in the preceding scenes, goes off the rails a little with the onset of the climactic show-within-a-show. Loveland is basically a metaphorical Ziegfeld Follies performance in which the four principal characters each perform their own individual folly; the transition into Loveland is handled well enough, although the Loveland set could usefully look a little more opulent, and the scene-setting numbers for the Young quartet are perfectly charming. Forbes’s “Margie” and “Sally” in ‘Buddy’s Blues’ are chorus boys in drag; it’s not a damaging choice, and there’s nothing wrong with the performance, but it is a definite choice, and there’s no discernible reason for it.

[Edit – I’m informed by friends who would know – and I should have known too because I’ve read the same books – that using two chorus boys here was the way the number was originally conceived and staged, although that version of it didn’t make it as far as the Broadway opening. Oops.]

The staging of ‘Losing My Mind’ pulls your focus away from what Staunton’s Sally is feeling, and places it instead on what she’s doing. Phyllis’s ‘Story of Lucy and Jessie’, in which she tries to reconcile the chasm between her present and younger selves, is the most completely successful of the four numbers; Dee’s Phyllis, in a black dress that redefines va-va-voom, dances with Zizi Strallen’s Young Phyllis as well as a gaggle of chorus boys. Again, a definite choice, and not quite what the stage directions suggest, but it works, Bill Deamer’s choreography is terrific, and it’s crystal clear in this staging that Phyllis’s “folly” is her inability to reconcile the persona she assumed after marrying Ben with the (relatively) carefree but unschooled young woman she used to be (I think it’s crystal clear in the lyrics as well, but it’s a point that seems to have come as a surprise to at least one of London’s theatre critics). Quast’s ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ is great until the onset of the breakdown that takes us out of Loveland and back into the derelict theatre. His collapse simply isn’t big enough – and the issue is with the direction rather than the actor, because the scripted chaos/cacophony that accompanies the moment is also more subdued than it needs to be.

And again, having said all that, the final scene – with every line from the orignal version restored – is superb, and well worth whatever missteps the production might have taken during the preceding twenty minutes.

Other reservations? Purists might prefer Michael Bennett’s original choreography for ‘Who’s That Woman?’ to Deamer’s account of the number, in which the ‘ghosts’, in the tap section, take the stage alone before dancing with their older counterparts. It’s different, it works, and the number stops the show – and having the ghosts briefly supplant their older counterparts is entirely in keeping with the way this production uses the ghosts from the beginning as living memories who inhabit the theatre and refuse to be put to rest – but the original choreography is justifiably celebrated (and has occasionally been used in subsequent productions), and it’s momentarily jarring to see such a decisively different take on the song. And when just about everything else in Cooke’s production is executed with commendable subtlety and restraint, it’s (to say the least) a step too far to have the large electric WEISSMAN FOLLIES sign hanging over the stage sputter and fade so it just says LIES during the chaos sequence that takes us from Loveland back to the bare stage of the Weissman Theatre. We already got the point; it doesn’t need illuminating, particularly not with a several-feet-high sign made of lightbulbs.

And – not that this has anything to do with anything on the stage – exercise caution in the National Theatre bookshop after the show. If you care about such things, the new edition of the published script with this production’s artwork on the cover unfortunately does not reflect the version of the text used in this production:

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No, I didn’t buy it. There’s a long-out-of-print Random House edition of the original 1971 book; I once owned a copy but it went AWOL a few years ago; another is on the way. Secondhand copies cost more than the new published edition, but can be found within my pain threshold (and for less than I paid for the theatre ticket). Caveat emptor – and while I certainly understand the impulse to have a copy of the published script on sale to tie in with this revival, the differences between the two scripts mean this leaves a slightly sour taste. The revised script essentially reads as if Goldman went through his original book with a razor and carefully cut out everything that made it interesting. It’s a pale imitation; this production, despite a couple of flaws, offers the real deal.

Goodness, this went on for a long time, didn’t it? Overall, while this production makes a few missteps, a lot of it is thrilling. Cooke’s great achievement is to demonstrate loudly and clearly that despite the show’s “failure” back in 1971, the original book plays beautifully and is vastly superior to every subsequent rewrite. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent, sometimes dazzling production of difficult material, and – mostly – an impeccable presentation of Sondheim’s glorious score. You even get Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations, courtesy of a twenty-piece band tucked away at the back of the Olivier’s vast stage (the flawless musical direction is by Nigel Lilley). It isn’t quite the idealised revival of the show I’ve been carrying around in my head for the last twenty-plus years, but it probably couldn’t be; parts of it don’t match up, and parts of it are better than anything I’d imagined. Given the National’s budgetary constraints – the transition into Loveland really needs to look as if the designers threw a lot of money at the stage, and here it just doesn’t – and the fact that the show has never turned a profit in a commercial production, this is probably as good a revival as anyone could ever have expected. Cooke and Deamer’s choices, though, mean that devotees of the show – there are people, God help us, who are more obsessive than I am – are going to be arguing about this staging, and about at least a couple of the performances (Staunton and Bennett, and maybe Quast in the breakdown/chaos sequence) for years. Me? I’m just glad I get to see it again before it closes in January.

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Slave to the rhythm

cotton panic

In the centre of Manchester, there’s a statue of Abraham Lincoln. It looks random, but it isn’t; engraved on the pedestal are excerpts from a letter Lincoln wrote to to the cotton workers of Manchester in 1863 thanking them for their solidarity during the Union blockade in the American Civil War. Manchester, like much of the north, developed very rapidly during the first half of the Nineteenth Century, and cotton was the main local industry; when the Union blockaded the Confederate ports, the supply of cotton to Lancashire’s mills dried up, and millworkers whose living conditions were barely adequate to begin with suddenly found themselves living in desperate poverty – and yet at a meeting in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1862, cotton workers gave their support to the blockade, and to Lincoln’s drive to end slavery.

That’s a (very) simplified version, obviously, but it’s a chapter of history that has been half-forgotten, and perhaps shouldn’t be. Cotton Panic is Jane Horrocks‘s tribute to those cotton workers, and it’s the kind of production that could probably only exist as part of something like the Manchester International Festival. Presented – because of course it’s the obvious choice – as a music gig rather than a more formal theatrical performance, incorporating some period folk songs, a couple of recognisable minor pop classics, and Abel Meeropol’s Strange Fruit, all glued together by industrial/electronic music from Stephen Mallinder‘s band Wrangler, the show is a breathless, sometimes breathtaking, deeply idiosyncratic theatrical collage. It really shouldn’t work, and sometimes it doesn’t, but sometimes it’s thrilling.

With anyone other than Horrocks at the centre, the performance might very well collapse. Despite the rich potential of the historical source, in one sense the writing here (shared between Horrocks, her partner Nick Vivian, and the three members of Wrangler) is thin. The most powerful passages are excerpts from period texts – accounts of the horrible conditions endured by the destitute cotton workers during the famine (movingly read by Glenda Jackson, and delivered via three large projection screens), the letter from the Free Trade Hall, the response from Lincoln, a speech by Frederick Douglass (played, again on video, by Fiston Barek, who should be credited for this reading in the programme and isn’t). Some of the linking material is less persuasive, and the idea of writing the opening narration in twee rhyming couplets should really have been dropped in the first draft – although perhaps this is the first draft, because at times it plays like one.

Sit down and analyse the performance, actually, and it becomes very easy indeed to pick holes. A lot of it has the air of the kind of very, very precious devised piece you’d see created by undergraduates as an end-of-term project. It’s politically simplistic – we really don’t need the tacked-on epilogue drawing parallels to the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter protests, that’s a link we’re all capable of making for ourselves – and sometimes far too pretentious, as in the sequence where Horrocks, behind a screen, sings Strange Fruit through some kind of synthetic processed effect to an electro/industrial backing. You can see what they’re trying to do, but it might have been more theatrically effective to let the (astonishing, devastating) lyrics speak for themselves. Worse, in that sequence, is the use of the projected faces of black actors – credited only in tiny, difficult-to-read print in the amateurish-looking programme distributed after the performance – as little more than set-dressing. To use a series of images of silent black faces during a sequence in which a white woman sings a song that is powerfully associated with black performers – a song that, moreover, describes and responds to the cruellest, most vicious form of racism – sends a complicated message, and perhaps not precisely the one the show’s creators intended.

But having said all that, the performance is absolutely compelling, and that’s mostly thanks to Horrocks. She’s always been a somewhat eccentric performer, and – unlike some actors – she’s never been afraid of the big gesture, and those two qualities serve her very well indeed here. She performs  – ‘acting’ isn’t always quite the right word – with absolute conviction, whether she’s giving us a tour through the noise and heat of a pre-1860 cotton mill, playing a destitute millworker begging from the audience, intoning Grace Jones’s Slave To The Rhythm with the doomed air of Claudia Brücken circa 1985, or belting out the Battle Hymn of the Republic. She’s sometimes joined by dancer Lorena Randi, who offers a kind of Jed Hoile to Horrocks’s Howard Jones, bringing us closer to the tribulations of Lancashire’s millworkers via the interpretive medium of clog-dancing. It’s a combination that teeters right on the edge of the most gruesomely self-indulgent kind of self-parody, but they always stop just short of crossing the line. Despite the perfectly-appropriate almost wall-to-wall music from Wrangler, who stand dourly behind a projection screen at the back of the stage, Horrocks’s voice is the lynchpin holding everything together. It’s an unusually pliable instrument – she can sing just about anything convincingly, she can place her voice anywhere between a pitiful whisper and an exultant roar, and that voice, when she wants it to, lends her an authority which is somewhat at odds with her rather slight physical presence. For all that some elements of this production are misguided, you can’t take your eyes off her.

The result, frustrating as it can sometimes be, is utterly sui generis and surprisingly moving. The historical texts are well-chosen and extremely effective, Chris Turner’s ‘visuals’ – that’s the word they use in the programme, and they mostly mean projections – provide a thoughtful, sometimes spectacular counterpoint to the live performers, and the show more than holds your attention throughout the 70-minute running time. You may find yourself contemplating a more traditional theatrical treatment of the events Horrocks portrays here – it’s a rich seam of material, and this chapter of local history, as I said, has been all but forgotten – but even if parts of it could have been thought through a little more clearly, there’s a lot to admire. Cotton Panic takes big risks, and not all of them pay off, but enough works that it’s a memorable experience. MIF’s productions, as I’ve said elsewhere, can be hit and miss, and sometimes really miss. As off-the-wall, even misguided, as some of this event is, it’s saved and indeed elevated by Horrocks’s blazing sincerity. It’s obvious from the moment she walks onstage that she feels a deep connection to this material, she carries the show, and her performance makes it worth looking past the production’s occasional missteps.  I can’t say the production is an absolute triumph, and parts of it are completely bonkers, but it isn’t quite like anything else you’ll see this year – and that’s exactly what festivals like MIF are for.

 

 

 

Better to be dead

whisper house other palace

What to make of Whisper House, the new(ish) musical currently running at The Other Palace? Well… not much. For a start, it’s very short. The Thursday matinée I attended last week began fairly promptly at just after 2.30pm, and including a (completely unnecessary) 20-minute intermission we were out of the theatre more or less on the dot of 4. Signs in the lobby suggested it ran an hour and 45 minutes. They lie.

Beyond that, it’s an odd piece, and it doesn’t remotely add up to a satisfying piece of theatre. Set in and around a lighthouse on the coast of Maine during World War Two Whisper House is a ghost story of sorts: a young boy is taken in by his aunt after his parents are lost to the war, the aunt has a secret which may or may not have something to do with the singing ghosts that haunt the lighthouse she keeps, and the aunt’s Japanese handyman puts her and the young boy on a collision course with the local sheriff when the US government orders that Japanese residents be kept away from sensitive coastal installations like lighthouses. To say the show has a ‘plot’ would be to lend the writing a dignity it doesn’t deserve; there’s a rather too on-the-nose programme note from the lyricist/librettist (Kyle Jarrow) drawing a link between Trump’s xenophobia and World War Two internment camps, with a coy suggestion that “xenophobia isn’t unique to the US” – tell us about it, we’ve all lived through last year’s appalling referendum campaign and the even more appalling aftermath – and that, unfortunately, is more interesting than any of the lines Mr. Jarrow gives his “characters” (I’m using that word in the very loosest sense). The ghosts sing, the sheriff broods, the aunt limps around the stage like a depressive cross between Katharine Hepburn and Jake the Peg, the kid behaves like a perfect little proto-fascist, and after about an hour and a quarter of stage time you’re out on the street looking for a coffee. It’s true that brevity is supposed to be the soul of wit, but unfortunately Mr. Jarrow’s book and lyrics don’t contain any.

There’s some interesting (if occasionally repetitive) music by Duncan Sheik, though, and the cast, led by Dianne Pilkington as the limping aunt, are all beyond reproach. Playing the two ghosts, Simon Bailey and Naimh Perry get the bulk of the singing, and they’re both superb, even when the words they’re singing are not (‘Better to be Dead’, the opening number, gets reprised so often that it makes the recurring ‘Marilyn Monroe’ in Blood Brothers look like a monument to subtlety and restraint). The show looks good, too, with a suitably evocative set (Andrew Riley) and projections (Mark Holthusen). It’s a pity Gregory Clarke’s sound design is so muddy… except given Mr. Jarrow’s lyrics, which are terrible, perhaps it isn’t (sorry, Kyle – ‘Japan’ does not rhyme with ‘land’).

Put simply, the show is a mess. It isn’t a dead loss, because the cast are worth the cost of the ticket (assuming you sat in the cheap seats) and the physical production, sound design aside, is flawless, but for all the pleasures in the performances and (some of) the music, it just doesn’t work. It’s far too slight a piece to stand alone; there isn’t enough story here to sustain two acts, and shoehorning in an interval, which blows a great big hole in the tiny little scrap of tension director Adam Lenson has managed to establish during the first forty minutes, is not the solution. Whisper House might – might – work a little better as half of a double-bill, but it might work better still if it was (re)written by someone who isn’t Kyle Jarrow.

Reviews of the premiere production in San Diego in 2010 suggest the show had all the same problems the first time around; that given, it’s difficult to see why The Other Palace put it on the schedule in the first place, since it’s clear that no serious attempt has been made since 2010 to fix the show’s (many) weak spots. It’s an interesting curiosity, and I’m grateful I got to see it, but I’m not sure the other 36 people in the audience last Thursday afternoon all felt the same way, since the tepid applause barely lasted through the bows. The cast deserved better; the material, I’m afraid, did not. On The Other Palace’s website, their mission statement informs us that “discovering, developing and reimagining musical theatre is at the heart of what The Other Palace is about.” That’s a laudable goal – but given the talent that’s out there, surely they could have found something better than this?

I kraine, you kraine, he/she/it kraines…

evh

 

Don’t mention the… everything.

Live – if I wasn’t actually too chickenshit to watch it live – from sunny Kyiv, there’s a whole galaxy of political subtext surrounding this year’s Eurovision, what with Putin sticking his dick in all kinds of places it doesn’t belong, from Crimea to (apparently) several foreign elections. Russia were supposed to be competing, which is hilarious given their recent history with Ukraine – but, oops, their contestant had previously travelled directly from Russia to Crimea instead of entering Crimea via Ukraine, which now leads to an automatic ban on entering Ukraine. So, no Russia… which probably saves a great deal of unpleasantness in the green room. Never mind.

Otherwise, it’s more or less business as usual. There’ll be glitter, flames, the kind of lighting effects that make the late, lamented Debbie Allen Dance Numbers from the Oscars look like something you’d see staged in a fringe theatre on a budget of £1.50, and music will die several times during the course of the evening. The theme this year, apparently, is ‘celebrating diversity’ – presumably unless you’re representing a country whose president likes occupying stuff that isn’t his, in which case you can just fuck back off home, which is understandable enough.

The parade of flags/contestants at the beginning is demented as ever. I am, as I said, not watching this live, because it’s foolish to put yourself through this kind of trauma without the ability to resort to the fast-forward button when things get too painful. I am also WATCHING THIS SHIT COMPLETELY STONE-COLD SOBER. I don’t drink, and staring down Eurovision is one of the few times I regret that. I have paracetamol and Maltesers, and that’s as rock and roll as I get.

While I am not watching this live, though, I have managed to remain spoiler-free. And of course I didn’t watch the semifinals, because there’s already enough suffering in the world.

We’re celebrating diversity by welcoming three white men as hosts. Well, I say “men”; that probably needs to be confirmed by some kind of independent observer. They are painfully terrible, and I can’t remember their names – a reminder, again, that Sweden’s fabulous Petra Mede is the only decent host the show has seen in at least a decade (with all due respect to Graham Norton snarking in the background).

So… the songs.

One. Israel. Imri, ‘I Feel Alive’.

Imri obviously prioritises the gym over singing lessons. That’s a valid lifestyle choice for most people, but maybe not if you’re planning to participate in a televised international singing contest. The song is a slab of generic Mediterranean disco, Imri’s permagrin is slightly terrifying, and there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before. The opening slot is a killer – this isn’t going to win, and it doesn’t deserve to. Bye, Imri, have a lovely flight back to Tel Aviv.

Two. Poland. Kasia Mos, ‘Flashlight’.

In the pre-song video clip, we see Kasia jumping into a muddy puddle. That’s the good bit. Her song is an oddly tuneless power ballad, there’s a lone violinist cavorting around the stage behind her, her white dress seems to be mostly made of bandage, and the lyrics are completely unintelligible. As she pelts into her final chorus, she looks, more than anything else, like she’s being controlled by wires from the grid above the stage.

Three. Belarus, Naviband, ‘Story Of My Life’.

Boy/girl couple who look as though they’ve escaped from the chorus of ‘Half a Sixpence’. For some reason they’re standing in a boat with big fans on the back. I have no idea what language they’re singing in, but it’s a pleasingly eccentric, energetic performance. The song is genuinely infectious, they’re obviously having a good time, and it’s FUN. They end with a bout of full-on snogging centre-stage.

Four. Austria, Nathan Trent, ‘Running On Air’

He opens sitting in a glitterball moon. The song seems to be aiming for a kind of breezy la-la-land jazz vibe, but it misses by a mile and ends up sounding like a Take That reject. There’s nothing in Mr. Trent’s cheesetastic performance that sells the material, although he seems to have borrowed Imri’s permagrin. He isn’t going to pull a Conchita Wurst.

Five. Armenia, Artsvik, ‘Fly With Me’

Flamenco dancer from hell surrounded by an eternity of dry ice. She’s wearing chainmail and a lot of silver, and the song exists somewhere in the musical intersection between Enya and middle-era Depeche Mode. To sell this properly, I suspect she’d need to grin less. Fast forward time.

Oh no. There’s a dance break. And flames. And wailing. Thank you, Armenia, that was (ahem) lovely. It’s weird enough that it might actually do well.

Six. Netherlands, Og3ne, ‘Lights and Shadows’

Girl trio. They can sing, they’ve got nice matching outfits, and their song is boring as hell. Moving on…

The Ukrainian hosts are attempting a meet-the-audience moment between songs. You may want to hide behind a cushion. Or self-immolate. “Let’s meet somebody!”, says Mr. Plastic #1. No, let’s not.

Seven. Moldova, Sunstroke Project, “Hey Mamma”

They also represented Moldova in 2010. I have completely blanked them.

Oh, bloody hell. One of them has a saxophone, another has a violin, and there is no hope. The chorus sounds like they’re singing “mamma mamma don’t piss too hard” over and over again. It’s an extraordinarily irritating song, and they’re giving an extraordinarily irritating performance – but I watch to the end, because unlike Og3ne, at least they aren’t boring as shit.

Eight. Hungary, Joci Papai, “Origo”

Mr. Papai has a man-bun. Why is there never a trapdoor when you need one? He beats out a rhythm on a milk churn as he sings the opening verse, and he’s costumed as the Kralahome in a low-budget touring production of ‘The King and I’. In the middle of the song, he starts to rap, and an overwrought dancer imitates a whirling dervish next to him. Whoever conceived this act was doing a lot of drugs.

Nine. Italy, Francesco Gabbani, ‘Occidentali’s Karma’

Catchy slab of Europop. Mr. Gabbani looks a bit like he’s arrived via a direct portal from 1985, and the hands-in-the-air dance with a man in a gorilla suit on the chorus is endearingly crazy. It’s completely batshit insane, tremendous fun, and ends to wild applause from the audience.

Ten. Denmark, Anja, ‘Where I Am’

Anja is apparently Australian, and according to Mr. Norton she moved to Denmark “suspiciously recently”. Lucky Denmark. Anja’s generic midtempo power ballad is just about as dismal as these things get, and her mannerisms make me long for the subtlety of a Jane McDonald. She’ll have a lovely career singing on cruise ships.

Sorry, no. A cascading waterfall of sparks behind the singer doesn’t make the song any more exciting. Try harder next time.

Eleven. Portugal. Salvador Sobral, ‘Amor Pelos Dois’

The evening’s second man-bun. We’re back in La-La-Land territory, but far more convincingly this time. It’s rather sweet, though I wish he’d stop hunching his shoulders. The song is determinedly old-fashioned, and it’s sung simply and sincerely, with no big special effects in the staging. It’s apparently the favourite to win; it’s absolutely charming, he ends to huge applause, and it’s completely unlike the kind of performance that usually does well at Eurovision – which is no bad thing.

One of the plastic presenters tells us that there is SO MUCH LOVE IN THIS ROOM. The suggestion might be more convincing if we were sure he had the equipment to deliver.

Twelve. Azerbaijan, Dihaj, ‘Skeletons’.

Woman in a black lipstick and a studded collar in front of a blackboard with random s&m safe words scribbled on it, next to a guy in a plastic horse head standing on top of a stepladder. In terms of attitude, they remind me a little of Propaganda – except the music is a bit crap. On the second chorus, dancers in black trenchcoats pull the blackboards down and she scribbles an X in chalk on each of their backs. I’m sure it’s all terribly meaningful.

Thirteen. Croatia, Jacques Houdek, ‘My Friend’

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
And dreams are made of emotion?

Great big cheesy-listening ballad, sung by a guy who looks a bit like Meatloaf, if Meatloaf spent a lot of time getting his hair blow-dried. Mr. Houdek’s voice is weirdly double-jointed – a legitimate baritone and a shreiking pop falsetto, with nothing in between. The overall effect is a lit like Il Divo on LSD. It’s completely riveting and utterly bonkers.

Fourteen. Australia*, Isiah, ‘Don’t Come Easy’

Nice ballad. Nice voice. Big hair. Weirdly, when his face moves his eyebrows stay still. Imagine a cross between a random member of Hanson and Josh Groban and you’re on the right track. It’s neither good nor bad enough to win, but he doesn’t disgrace himself.

*Yeah, yeah. Israel isn’t in Europe either.

The plastic hosts are back. Has someone got a flamethrower? No? Damn.

“Guys, give yourselves a cheer!”
[crickets]

“Here everyone is free to cut loose and express themselves however they wish!”
[but, oops, let’s not mention Ukraine’s less-than-completely-stellar record re: LGBT rights.]

Fifteen. Greece, Demy, ‘This Is Love’.

She’s very pretty, she has a decent voice, and the song is another slab of written-by-numbers Eurodisco. She manages not to giggle while two nearly-naked male dancers writhe in a paddling pool at her feet as she sings, which probably deserves a prize in itself; the song, however, is not going to win anything, but you’ll hear it over and over again in every disco in Mykonos this summer.

Sixteen. Spain, Manel Navarro, ‘Do It For Your Lover’

I assume he doesn’t mean DIY. Subtly, the backdrop has a projected graphic of a VW camper rocking from side to side. It’s breezy, summery, acoustic guitar-driven pop – but for a song about sex, it’s a remarkably unsexy performance. There are also many, many bum notes.

Seventeen. Norway, Jowst, ‘Grab the Moment’.

Jowst is the guy in the mask. The singer is someone else – himself apparently a late replacement for someone else. The mask is the only interesting thing on the stage; as a group, they come across as a kind of cash-and-carry A-ha. They keep telling us they’re going to grab the moment, and I’m hoping one of them – any of them – will grab a live cable and MAKE THIS END.

Brief interlude in which the lesser of last year’s hosts, Mans Zelmerlow, tries to train this year’s plastic pod people to host the show. Mostly it reminds us how terribly unfunny this year’s hosts are… and also that Mr. Zelmerlow is only about half as funny as Petra Mede.

(Have I mentioned that I miss Petra Mede?)

Eighteen. UK, Lucie Jones, ‘Never Give Up On You’

Don’t mention Brexit. Don’t mention Brexit. DON’T MENTION BREXIT.

She’s not bad. The song’s not bad. I mean, most of our last several entries have been terrible, and it’s not like this is a brand-new pop classic, but she can sing and the song isn’t a disgrace. We might not finish in the bottom ten. Not quite sure about the staging, though; from a couple of camera angles, it looks like projected flames are shooting from her bottom, and that’s not anyone’s best look.

Nineteen. Cyprus, Hovig, ‘Gravity’.

He wants to be your gravity, apparently. God help us all, the song reminded me of Bros. I lasted one verse and one chorus, and I hope you’re grateful.

Twenty. Romania, Ilinca featuring Alex Florea, ‘Yodel It!’

NO. White hipster rapper and improbably slim yodelling woman in a red minidress, mindlessly catchy chorus, and for some reason there’s a cannon on each side of the stage pointing at the singers. I suppose it’s too much to hope that the canons will fire at some point in the next thirty seconds. Swiz. On the last beat of the song, hipster rapper guy plants a smacker on minidress-lady’s face. She looks slightly horrified, and I think we can all sympathise.

Twenty-one. Germany, Levena, ‘Perfect Life’

Levena is very nice and very clean-cut and so very happy to be here, and she’s used every can of styling mousse in Kyiv to reinforce her strangely rigid hairdo. Her song is very bland, and so is her voice. It’s sort of the musical equivalent of the Frankfurt U-Bahn; it’s very clean and it won’t break down, but there’s not much to remember after you’ve finished.

…and we’ve a brief promo film for July’s Eurovision Choir of the Year competition, which I sadly won’t be able to watch because I’m away that day. As you can imagine, I’m completely gutted.

Twenty-two. Ukraine, O.Torvald, ‘Time’

Are you ready to RAWK? No of course you aren’t, this is Eurovision. This is the please-don’t-make-us-have-to-pay-to-host-the-show-again-next-year entry. They’ve paid more attention to their sleeve tattoos than to their song, and it shows: the giant disembodied plastic head in the middle of the stage is more interesting than they are, and it isn’t very interesting.

Twenty-three. Belgium, Blanche, ‘City Lights’

She’s very young and very pretty, and the song has apparently been a big hit on the radio across Europe. Blanche has a touch of the Lana Del Rey about her, and not in a good way. It’s moody and angsty and she mumbles the lyrics; the crowd loves it, but God only knows why.

Twenty-four. Sweden, Robin Bengtsson, ‘I Can’t Go On’.

Smooth smile, lilac suit, retro electropop with a great big catchy hook, slickly sung by a lounge lizard with an efficient but undistinctive voice. It’s very… competent, the choreography is impeccable, and you’ll forget it as soon as it’s over.

Twenty-five. Bulgaria, Kristian Kostov, ‘Beautiful Mess’

Maudlin pop ballad, young singer channeling his inner Morten Harket, lots of flashing lights. The sort of deep and meaningless song that sometimes does very well; I suspect it isn’t quite overwrought enough to go all the way to the top. Given how young he is, though – barely 17 – it’s a very impressive performance.

Twenty-six. The last song. France, Alma, ‘Requiem’.

Alma is lovely. The CGI cityscapes projected behind her are dazzling. The song itself is less dazzling, and she’s not the best singer we’ve heard this evening, although she has a certain charm. It’s the sort of thing you might expect to hear over the PA in Nando’s; the crowd loves it, but it isn’t going to win.

So that’s it. We’ve heard all 26 acts, and I haven’t reached for the paracetamol (yet). I’ve eaten all the Maltesers, though.

Now we have a very special guest: Verka Serduchka, a previous Ukrainian Eurovision competitor, who once taught us what would happen if Rosa Klebb collided with an exploding glitterball. If you need a bathroom break, now would be a very good time. Voting is open now all songs have been performed – or rather was open, I’m not watching this live. Waiting until all the songs have been performed before opening the voting is a recent-ish innovation. We can skip the recap of all 26 performances, because life’s too short.

Now the interval act – a mashup of traditional Ukrainian instruments and thumping Europop. It’s not unpleasant, but I miss the self-mocking sense of fun we saw in the Swedish interval act last year. The singer sounds a bit like Kate Bush, if Kate Bush played the pan flute.

(I think we’re all grateful she doesn’t.)

Time to meet more fans. An Australian tells us it has been awesome. This is his fifth Eurovision. I’m wasting my life here, aren’t I? He thinks the UK will win. Nope.

And now another clip – this time, of the kid who won Young Eurovision. She’s charming when she speaks, and terrifying when she sings. Imagine a cross between Andrea McArdle in ‘Annie’ and Céline Dion, only screechier.

Aaaand another recap.

Jamala’s back. Last year’s winner, huge star in Ukraine, premiering her new single. Security escorts someone from the stage as she starts singing. Her new single is a lot more upbeat than the song she won with last year. That shouldn’t necessarily be taken to mean it’s good.

In voiceover while Jamala’s singing, Mr. Norton informs us that we may have witnessed a bare bottom earlier on during the performance. No, missed it. Bummer.

The voting closes in 10 seconds. 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, finito. Jury votes announced first, before audience votes. Cut to Jon Ola Sand, Eurovision’s charisma-free executive supervisor, who… no, I couldn’t be bothered to listen either.

I’ll be fast-forwarding a lot while the jury votes are announced, because really, who has time to sit through an hour of this?

(Anyone who actually watched it live, presumably, which is one reason I didn’t.)

The UK’s jury points are announced by Katrina Leskanich, whose facelift looks as if it’s about to pop a rivet. She reminds us that she won 20 years ago, like we didn’t know. Some of us were watching. We give Portugal 12 points, and they’re comfortably in the lead.

At the end of the jury votes, Portugal is in the lead and the UK is two-thirds of the way up the board – very respectable compared to our last several efforts. Spain, thus far, have nul points. Not surprising. Audience voting – complicated explanation of how it works, and I couldn’t really give a shit. Just get on with it.

Spain get five audience points. Nobody gets nul points this year. Spain deserved it. Germany second-to-bottom, which is also not surprising. You don’t win this thing by being bland. You win it by being different, by standing out, by being memorable – and this year’s German entry just wasn’t. The audience votes are pushing some countries from near the bottom of the board into the top 10, and this does, at least, make it seem like a bit more of a race.

Bulgaria second, Portugal wins – for the first time ever, and it’s also the first time in years that the best song won.

Overall: not a banner year, though the winning song is charming. Too much bland Europop, not enough OMGWTF – but the right act won, and how often does that happen? So… Lisbon next year, presumably. Better get started building the wind machines.

 

 

 

 

Hello, Dillie!

dk quays

Was I sitting close enough, do you think?

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

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

 

Double your fun…

duke of yorks glass menagerieaudra leicester square

Or, two (almost) perfect theatrical experiences in a single day.

I can’t say that The Glass Menagerie has ever been my favourite play, and it’s difficult for me to read it without thinking of For Whom The Southern Belle Tolls, Christopher Durang‘s brutal parody, and dissolving into giggles. Sometimes, though, it’s the actors who pull you into the theatre rather than the play they’re appearing in, and so it is here: I’d never seen Cherry Jones in a play, I had a (very rare) free afternoon in London, and Today Tix had a whopper of a special offer (stalls seats for £15). So I booked.

It didn’t completely change my mind about the play, but the production is more or less perfect. There’s no escaping that this is a memory play: Bob Crowley’s stylised set, which suspends the Wingfields’ apartment above a reflecting pool into which characters onstage occasionally peer, combines with stylised entrances (Laura makes her first entrance and her last exit through the back of a sofa) and Steven Hoggett’s falling-through-space movement in the transitions between Tom’s narration and the flashback scenes to make it very clear that we’re watching a recollection rather than a naturalistic scene set in the characters’ present. John Tiffany’s staging is flawless, Nico Muhly’s music is shimmeringly lovely, and everyone involved gets the tone exactly right. This is material that can teeter on the edge of self-parody; make the performances half a shade too big, or make Laura half a shade too childlike, or push Amanda half a shade too far towards the stereotype of the flightly Southern Belle, and it can easily become (inappropriately) hilarious, which is the reason that Durang parody is so devastating. This is an acknowledged classic, but it’s also a very easy play to ruin.

Here, fortunately, all four performances are exceptional. Michael Esper conveys Tom’s anger and restlessness, but also the odd codependency in his relationship with his mother. Kate O’Flynn’s Laura is childlike at times, but never childish; she’s horribly vulnerable, but it’s always clear that if the right doors opened, she could find a way to live in the adult world, and Amanda’s hopes for her do not, here, seem entirely delusional. Her scene with Brian J. Smith’s gentleman caller is truly lovely – a far more hopeful take on the conversation than is often the case, and again there is the sense that if things were different, if he wasn’t already going steady with the unseen Betty, there would be a real possibility of a future for them. And Cherry Jones’s Amanda is sublime – a straight-backed, dignified, practical woman who has engineered her family’s (financial) survival through the Depression despite her husband’s absence, and who clings tenaciously to the past but does not live there. I went mostly to see Jones, but I’m glad I saw all four; these are very, very fine performances indeed, and they’re surrounded by an exceptionally strong production.

And then, in the evening, something completely different: an informal concert by the (deservedly) much-lauded American actress and singer Audra McDonald, accompanied by Seth Rudetsky on the piano, with a guest appearance from Will Swenson, Ms. McDonald’s husband, who came out and sang two songs while she went backstage to tend to their six-month-old baby. To say the performance was a joy from beginning to end would be a serious understatement: Ms. McDonald is one of the greats, and very few people can put a song across as well as she can, but she’s also a warm, funny, thoroughly down-to-earth presence, and she doesn’t carry even the slightest hint of the diva (take note, Ms. LuPone).

She also – I’m starting to gush and I don’t care – knows her way around the repertoire, and her choice of material extends far beyond the parade of gold-plated standards we’ve all heard every single musical theatre actor who ever lived sing a thousand times. So yes, we got I Could Have Danced All Night – but she encouraged the audience to sing along, including the big substitute high notes at the end, and we also got Go Back Home from The Scottsboro Boys, Adam Gwon’s wrenching I’ll Be Here from his musical Ordinary Days, Jason Robert Brown’s Stars and the Moon (which Ms. McDonald was rather too young to sing when she recorded it way back in 1998), and Bock and Harnick’s glorious When Did I Fall In Love? (from Fiorello!). Ms. McDonald is a Juilliard-trained soprano, and her voice is exquisite, but she’s also a superb actress and a formidably skilled interpreter of song lyrics (three things that by no means always go together), and to hear her sing from a distance of about twenty feet is about as pure a theatrical high as you’ll ever find.

The evening’s informality helped: Mr. Rudetsky proved a genial host, the chatter between songs was spontaneous, genuinely illuminating, and sometimes very funny, and if you haven’t heard a Juilliard-trained classical lyric soprano impersonating Billie Holiday singing I Dreamed a Dream and A New Argentina then trust me, you haven’t lived (and I’ll certainly be back in London later this year to see Ms. McDonald play Billie Holiday at Wyndham’s). Mr. Swenson’s two songs were great fun – I’d have said I don’t really need to hear Stars from Les Misérables out of context, but few people can have sung it better, and his Pirate King was hilarious. It was, as I said, simply an absolute joy to be there.

So, two perfect productions, plus one wonderful catch-up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in the best part of two decades between them. A perfect day? Not quite. It wouldn’t be me if there wasn’t some kind of wrinkle. The show was sold as a 90-minute performance with a start time of 8.45pm; from Leicester Square, that leaves plenty of time to make the 11pm train home from Euston, right? The tickets, furthermore, were unequivocal about punctuality:

LST

You can guess what happened. We got to the theatre about twenty minutes before the published start time to find a long queue of people snaking up the street into Chinatown. The theatre’s front-of-house staff didn’t start letting us in until a couple of minutes before showtime, and the performance started around fifteen minutes late, which isn’t good news when you’ve got a train to catch, particularly when you’ve got to travel about two hundred miles and there isn’t a later one. An usher, when I asked, told me it was a ninety-minute performance and it would definitely be over by ten-thirty. It wasn’t, and I had to dash out of there during the bows and skip the encore. Much as I hate to be that person who rushes up the aisle towards the exit during the curtain-call, this time I had no choice. I made my train, but just barely. In a city where theatres draw from as wide a catchment area as they do in London, it’s not really good enough for a house management to delay a show without explanation, particularly later on in the evening, and doing so may well force people into making a run for it before the show is completely finished. Don’t get me wrong, the show was a wonderful experience and I wouldn’t have missed it – but thanks to the late start, I also got slightly less than I paid for, in that I didn’t get to hear Ms. McDonald’s whole performance.

So – not quite a perfect day, but close. A great play, a collection of great songs, a handful of great actors, one of the great musical theatre voices of our time… and a mad dash up the Northern Line at the end. You can’t win ’em all.

How not to cancel a show

Or, Saturday afternoon at The Other Palace.

Stuff happens. I saw The Wild Party last month, loved it, booked to go back for a repeat visit at the last matinée of the run – but when I arrived at the theatre yesterday, about half-an-hour before the performance was due to begin, I was handed this at the door:

other palace cancellation

Disappointing, obviously, but this is live theatre: it’s made by people, not machines, and people sometimes get sick, and in an off-West End venue budgets don’t stretch to hiring understudies. You book a ticket taking a calculated risk that the performance will go ahead; yesterday, someone in the cast was ill, so it couldn’t.

The evening performance did go ahead, and I can understand cancelling a matinee to enable a performer to get through the show’s closing performance – particularly having seen this show, whose very, very physical staging must have demanded an enormous amount of energy from every member of the cast.

From a customer service perspective, though, the experience left a great deal to be desired. First, let’s look at that letter: at the bottom, admittedly partly cut off by my inept photography, it informs me that a cheque for the full amount (of the refund for my ticket) will be forwarded to me within 14 days. They’ve backpeddalled from that since, and will be processing card refunds (and doing so far more quickly), and with good reason: if I pay you for a service, and you are unable for whatever reason to provide that service, telling me you’ll sit on my money and refund it at your leisure isn’t acceptable. It’s also – bizarrely – more work than simply processing credit/debit card refunds, so why suggest it in the first place?

More problematic is the timing of the cancellation. It can’t have come as a total surprise, given that Thursday night’s performance was apparently also cancelled. I understand not wanting to let a paying audience down, but there’s more than one way of letting people down: I don’t exactly live around the corner from the theatre, I’d travelled about 200 miles to see the show and the train fare was significantly more expensive than the theatre ticket, and (notwithstanding the fact that I was there last week too), I am generally in London infrequently enough that there are a lot of things I don’t get the opportunity to see. At 2pm, when I learned the performance had been cancelled, the only other option close by for an afternoon at the theatre was Wicked, and I’m not a masochist. The Other Palace is just far enough from the heart of the West End that getting to another theatre, buying a ticket, and getting seated for another 2.30pm performance wasn’t going to happen. Theatres in London draw from a very, very wide catchment area; unfortunately performances do sometimes have to be cancelled, but customers who have travelled – and I mean even from zone 2, never mind from up north – deserve the opportunity to try to arrange to see something else instead. Because the cancellation was announced so late yesterday, I didn’t get that opportunity – the other things I would have liked to see all started at the same time – and without the theatre ticket, I wouldn’t have spent the money on the train fare.

The theatre did – eventually – tweet and email about the cancellation, but note the time stamps:

other palace tweet

other palace time stamp

 

This is information that should have reached customers as soon as possible before the performance was scheduled to begin; again, tweeting ten minutes after showtime and not emailing until forty minutes after that suggests customer service is hardly the venue’s first priority. I do understand, as I said, that people get sick. I understand delaying the decision to cancel as long as possible, in the hope that you won’t have to disappoint customers – but what happened yesterday afternoon ended up being the worst of all possible worlds. Tweets are easy to miss, but that email announcing the cancellation should have reached my inbox (and therefore my phone) an hour before curtain time, not fifty minutes afterwards; theatres have a responsibility to their customers as well as to the performers, and yesterday afternoon The Other Palace let their customers down.