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

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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.

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Seeing Stars

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There’s a moment late in the second act of Jeremy Herrin‘s star-driven revival of All My Sons, which just opened at the Old Vic, when Sally Field‘s Kate Keller appears to age twenty years and lose six inches of height in the space of about fifteen seconds. Field is the biggest, though by no means the only, star featured in this production, and this is in no way an example of cringeworthy stunt-casting: she’s magnificent, she’s delivering an exceptionally moving performance in this rather creaky play’s juiciest role, and she’s the reason this revival is a must-see even if you think you’re All Millered Out for the year (full disclosure: I do not have a ticket to see Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic, mostly because I’d already bought tickets for this and The American Clock by the time it was announced). This is a grand old-fashioned Star Performance, but it’s also a thoroughly nuanced, very intelligent, sharply restrained portrayal of a grieving, haunted woman, and Field shows herself to be an accomplished stage actor who is more than capable of holding her own against, well, pretty much anyone.

She certainly makes mincemeat of her co-star. As Joe Keller, the industrialist whose decision to supply an aircraft manufacturer with cracked cylinder heads cost twenty-one airmen their lives and indirectly led to his own son Larry’s probable suicide, Bill Pullman is perfectly OK. He brings an easy all-American charm to the role, and he has plenty of presence – but that’s all he has. There’s nothing wrong with his performance, but there’s also nothing particularly surprising about it, and other actors have found more colours in the character than he does. Next to Field’s blazing star turn, Pullman sometimes seems to fade into the background.

There’s a similar imbalance among this production’s younger players. As fiancée Ann Deever – the one who has The Letter That Explains Everything tucked away in her purse – Jenna Coleman is almost as remarkable as Field. It’s a marvellous, utterly truthful performance, and it’s made all the more remarkable by the fact that she has to negotiate the play’s creakiest plot twist – the revelation of that letter – and she gets away with it, and makes it absolutely plausible that Ann has, for reasons nobody ever explains, chosen to wait three years to reveal the contents of the letter to the Kellers. Opposite her, Colin Morgan – the production’s fourth Big Star, playing surviving son Chris Keller – is, like Pullman, perfectly OK – that is, until the play’s denoument. There’s a fine line between ‘anguished’ and ‘shouty’, and Morgan crosses it several times. A little less, in places, would have been far more.

The production surrounding them is surprisingly by-the-numbers given that it’s directed by Jeremy Herrin. Save for two directorial flourishes – one right at the beginning of the performance, the other right at the very end – this is more or less exactly what you’d expect a star-driven West End revival of this kind of play to look like. That opening coup-de-théâtre, in which the Keller house slowly emerges (on tracks) from a projected collage of images of postwar American suburbia, is dazzlingly theatrical, and the production that follows it, while impeccably paced and consummately tasteful, could do – Ms. Field and Ms. Coleman aside – with a little more grit and a lot more electricity. The play, as I said, creaks around the edges – there’s a reason it has never left the repertoire (just as there’s a reason almost nobody ever revives The American Clock), and it has an undeniable power, but it isn’t Miller’s best piece of writing by any means, and the denoument relies somewhat implausibly on a letter-from-beyond-the-grave that has been kept secret for three years. At the same time, it undeniably still has a great deal of resonance – just look at the horrifying news stories about the design and certification of the Boeing 737 Max, or the ongoing scandal about tainted ground beef that has left more than 170 people across 10 states infected with E.coli – and Herrin is the kind of director who might be expected to underscore the parallels between this play’s plot and present-day news stories about the perils of deregulation. It’s quite surprising, actually, that he doesn’t go there – but he doesn’t, and aside from those opening and closing (at the end, the house slowly disappears back upstage into darkness) moments this is simply a straightforward star vehicle.

It’s not, to be fair, as if there’s anything wrong with reviving a classic drama as a vehicle for a quartet of big stars. It’s just that the combination of these actors and this director could and should have produced something a little less safe than this production. Max Jones’s backyard set, complete with broken tree felled by force-nine symbolism, is expensively naturalistic and full of rich detail – it looks like a house a family has lived in for a long time – and it’s beautifully lit by Richard Howell. There’s no faulting the actors cast as the neighbours either, with particularly charming work from Gunnar Cauthery and Bessie Carter as Frank and Lydia Lubey. Everything is carefully, tastefully put together – but Field and Coleman provide fireworks, and the production surrounding them doesn’t.

Sympathy for the Devil

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Mad props, or something, to the very intense woman seated three seats down the front row from me at Wednesday afternoon’s performance of Bruce Norris‘s Downstate, a play so relentlessly bleak that it makes Sweat look like something by Feydeau. Ms. Intensity arrived about twelve minutes before the lights went down, spent most of those twelve minutes trying to engage the attention of anyone who would listen with a breathless monologue about how dated the decor was in the living-room set onstage in front of us – “I mean, it’s like something out of the nineties” – and then sat through the first half, occasionally emitting a gasp audible three seats away, and fled as soon as the lights went up for the interval. Lesson learned: nobody goes to a group home for sex offenders for the interior decor.

Todd Rosenthal’s set, like just about everything else in Pam MacKinnon‘s extraordinary production, is studiedly, carefully, absolutely naturalistic. There’s no candy-wrapping, no sugar-coating, no sweetening the pill here: this is a grim play about unpleasant people, and it’s hard work to sit through. It’s also absolutely gripping, though you may leave thinking the playwright has stacked the decks in ways that are rather too cynically manipulative. The play takes place in the communal living-room of a group home for sex offenders somewhere in downstate Illinois (the exact location is never named, but it’s emphatically not Chicago, it’s a city large enough to have major chain stores and a bus service, and it’s located along I-55), and is primarily concerned with two confrontations, both involving residents in the home – the first concerning a meeting between an elderly (and paraplegic) sex offender and one of the children he abused, thirty years after the abuse took place, and the second a probation officer’s interrogation of a resident who has violated the terms of his release.

Norris raises a lot of valid questions about the way society treats offenders whose offences are considered beyond the pale, and he’s written a set of plausible, initially-sympathetic characters, not all of whom deserve our sympathy (the most outwardly unsympathetic characters, on first acquaintance, are grown-up abuse victim Andy’s brittle wife Em and convicted abuser Gio’s work colleague Effie, and they’re the only characters we see who are not an abuser or a victim or a police officer). There’s undoubtedly a worthwhile point to be made about how monsters don’t always look or sound like monsters, and while the technique of letting these characters charm us before confronting us with the full horrors of what they did is obvious, it’s also undeniably effective. The play, as I said, is absolutely gripping.

It is, though, also fair to say that there is something cynically mathematical about the way Norris sets up his debate in the play, as if he’s balancing an equation. It’s a little bit too perfectly symmetrical that Dee, who at first seems like he’s been cast as the play’s moral compass, turns out to be the most vehemently unrepentant about what he did (these are not spoilers, you’ll see most of the second act coming twenty minutes before it happens), or that Andy’s abuser Fred has himself, as a result of publicity surrounding his trial for abusing Andy and other children, been the victim of an act of violence that has left him permanently disabled, or that when Andy tries to make Fred read through the reconciliation contract he’s brought for Fred to sign we’re asked to question whether he remembers a significant detail about Fred’s anatomy. The play’s discussions of recidivism, of the different kinds of victimhood, about how how society treats criminals whose crimes it considers unspeakable, about whether whether forcing registered offenders to adhere to sometimes remarkably petty rules and restrictions serves to protect society from predators, are often provocative and always engaging, and the play may very well lead you to question some of your own assumptions; there are times, though, when it feels like you’re watching the playwright deliver a lecture, rather than characters interacting within a scene, and the climactic event of Act Two is telegraphed so obviously that when it happens it’s no particular surprise.

The performances, direction, and design, on the other hand, are flawless. This is a co-production between the National and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the cast is a mixture of British and American actors, the acting is remarkable, and you can’t see the join. First among equals, perhaps, is Cecilia Noble as wearily pragmatic probation officer Ivy, but every beat, every line, every gesture from every single member of the company is right on target. There’s no false theatricality, no sense of anybody pushing too hard or going over the top, just an absolute commitment to finding the emotional truth in every word and every action. This is as fine an ensemble performance as you could hope to see, and there’s no faulting MacKinnon’s direction either. There aren’t many surprises in this play, in terms of the way the plot (slowly) unfolds, but MacKinnon and her cast orchestrate a carefully rising, squirm-inducing line of tension even though you’ll probably have figured out what the play’s big explosion will be half an hour before it arrives.

This kind of collaboration is precisely the sort of work the National ought to be doing – as opposed to something like Hadestown, in which an American commercial producer got to use the National’s taxpayer-funded facilities to get a price-break on a pre-Broadway tryout, and in which the British performers were all relegated to the chorus – and it’s fascinating to get to watch a production staged according to Steppenwolf’s (very recogniseable) aesthetic four thousand miles from Chicago. Yes, Downstate is hard work, and sometimes makes very uncomfortable viewing, and there are some legitimate holes you can pick in Norris’s script – but it’s unusual and very brave for a piece of theatre to confront the ground this play covers head-on, and the actors are astonishing.

And yes, the furniture and decor in that living-room set is dated and shabby. You can’t win ’em all.

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Going Home

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In the closing moments of the first act of Local Hero, the new musical based on Bill Forsyth‘s 1983 film, Texan oil executive Mac steps outside a pub in the run-down Scottish village of Ferness, looks up, and sees the Aurora Borealis for the first time. If you know the film, as I suspect most of the audience did, you’ll have been expecting this moment. What you might not have been expecting – I wasn’t – is to feel a tear running down your cheek as Mac telephones his boss in Houston (yes, via a red phone box) and breathlessly describes the changing colours in the sky above him. Local Hero is one of those films that seems to be universally beloved, and with good reason, because it’s just about perfect. It’s a charming, quirky, intelligent fish-out-of-water comedy with a terrific screenplay, fine direction and cinematography, and flawless performances, but it has never moved me to tears, and I don’t think it’s designed to draw that kind of response from an audience. It never struck me, either, as a film that cried out to be adapted as a musical. It’s lovely, but Forsyth’s screenplay is notably lacking in obvious song cues, and you don’t – at least, I don’t – get the sense that the characters in it need to sing.

And yet somehow, miraculously, this musical adaptation is an absolute joy. In adapting the screenplay, Forsyth and playwright David Greig have made a series of very smart choices, preserving (most of) the film’s basic plot but carefully refocusing it so that the musical isn’t simply a step-by-step retread of the screenplay with songs – by Mark Knopfler, who supplied the film’s score – shoehorned in at regular intervals. The story still revolves around Mac, an oil executive sent to a remote coastal village in Scotland to buy the land it sits on so that the corporation he works for can build an oil refinery there, and who finds himself slowly falling in love with a place he initially finds utterly alien, but some of the surrounding characters and stories are significantly changed. The plot strand involving (in the film) Peter Capaldi as the oil corporation’s local operative and Jenny Seagrove as a marine research scientist is completely gone, and not much missed, although their scenes in the film are absolutely charming. The role of hotelier/accountant/jack-of-all-trades Gordon’s common-law wife Stella, tiny in the film, has been significantly expanded, to the point where she drives a great deal of the plot in the show’s second act. The musical does a better job than the film, too, in showing the hardships involved in carving out a living somewhere so remote, and much more weight is given to the environmental impact of building an oil refinery in such a relatively unspoiled place. Throughout, the musical is a little less whimsical than the film, but only a little, and Greig and Knopfler tread a careful line, keeping the tone relatively light through most of the first act so that Mac’s epiphany when he sees the Northern Lights feels like a surprise even if you’ve known for the last hour that it’s coming. The musical locates a well of deep yearning that the film only hints at; most musicals would hit you over the head with it, but Greig, Forsyth and Knopfler let it creep up on you instead, and the show is all the better for it.

It’s a gorgeous production, too. Director John Crowley lets the piece’s momentum build slowly, and makes the brave choice not to allow applause after each musical number – applause releases tension, and that emotional moment at the end of the first act happens partly because nothing has been allowed to, well, break the spell. This is in some respects the anti-Brigadoon – Ferness may be fictional, but it’s drawn from and firmly located in the real world and isn’t going to disappear into the mist (and Local Hero is very obviously written by people who know and love Scotland, while Brigadoon’s book and lyrics, equally obviously, are written by a man who had clearly never been within five hundred miles of the part of the world he was writing about in that particular show), but this is still a show about an American outsider who finds himself in a remote Scottish village and slowly falls under the place’s spell, although in Local Hero the village is believably real and there’s none of the hyper-romanticised, cloyingly ersatz bagpipes-and-tartan Visit Scotland bollocks that makes Brigadoon so insufferably twee onstage. Scott Pask’s jetty-and-model-village set is picturesque without being kitsch, and is surrounded by corrugated metal walls of the kind you’d find in an industrial estate – of course, because this is a blue-collar working village, not a place out of a made-up fairytale. The recreation of northern Scotland’s expansive sky – and the Northern Lights – is accomplished via a flown cyclorama, Luke Halls’s projected video, and Paule Constable’s lighting; it could easily have looked ridiculous, but it’s stunning. This isn’t an overblown spectacle – a helicopter features in the plot, but nobody (thank God) drops a helicopter onstage – but the show’s physical production is beautifully evocative, and it’s wonderful for once – hi, Kinky Boots! – to see a musical adaptation of a film in which the creative team didn’t simply set out to dumb down the screenplay and throw a heap of glitter at the stage.

There’s also a set of gorgeous performances, with lovely work from the central trio – Damian Humbley as Mac, Matthew Pidgeon as Gordon, and Katrina Bryan as Stella – and sharply individual character turns from the rest of the company. The musical introduces us to a few more villagers than the film, which tends to use the villagers as a kind of human backdrop, and Mark Knopfler’s score includes a couple of very strong ensemble numbers – notably ‘Filthy Dirty Rich’, in which the villagers give in to unbridled glee at the prospect of a lucrative deal with Knox Oil, and ‘Never Felt Better’, a morning-after-the-night-before number in which they all try to hide their terrible hangovers from each other. Knopfler has supplied a mostly terrific debut musical score; his lyrics are conversational rather than showy, and none the worse for it, and there are some terrific melodies here: yes, of course ‘Going Home’, the principal musical theme from his score for the film, but there’s also a lovely folk song called ‘I Wonder If I Can Go Home Again’, a memorably sly Johnny Cash pastiche, and a moving opening ballad for Mac called ‘Houston, We Have a Problem’. You’ll hear ‘Going Home’ more than once before it finally shows up in full at the end of the show – that’s not a spoiler, it’s inconceivable that a musical adaptation of this property with a score by Mark Knopfler wouldn’t end with ‘Going Home’ – but the rest of the score is at the same level. Sooner or later – pretty please, sooner if possible – it’s going to make a thoroughly enjoyable cast album.

While the musical in places departs significantly from the film, it keeps – again, not really a spoiler, because how could it not? – the film’s iconic final shot of the phone box on the quayside in Ferness. Again, it’s a measure of how well this works that a moment that registers as sweetly touching in the film gains a great deal more depth in the theatre. I didn’t expect – and I knew how the piece was likely to end – to be so moved by the sight/sound of a ringing telephone in a red phone box on a deserted stage, but that’s the last in this musical’s series of small, delightful surprises. This is something very special; fingers crossed the elements that make this show so special won’t be diluted in the move south to the Old Vic next year (yes of course I’ll see it again), and also keep your fingers crossed that they keep Damian Humbley, Matthew Pidgeon and Katrina Bryan, because it’s impossible to overstate how perfect they are.

And in the meantime… did I mention that I want a cast album? I mean, yesterday?

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Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out

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(Yes, I’m playing catch-up. The production closed two weeks ago. Deal with it.)

Meet the Baum family: Moe and Rose, comfortably-off Manhattanites who lose almost everything in the 1929 stock market crash, and their son Lee. Now meet them again. And again. Arthur Miller‘s 1980 play The American Clock, subtitled ‘A Vaudeville’, was a fast flop in its original Broadway production. That subtitle holds the key to making sense of this sprawling, messy journey through the Great Depression: the Baum family might be at the centre of the play, but they are not its sole focus, and what you’re seeing here is more of a revue-like collection of sketches, some of which feature singing and dancing, than a straightforward linear narrative. That effect is magnified rather than diminished by director Rachel Chavkin‘s decision to cast not one but three sets of actors as the Baum family, so that we see a white Jewish family, an Asian family, and an African-American family experiencing the same bumpy ride through their post-Crash reduced circumstances.

It works – or at least, it worked for me – but the effect of this choice is to further fragment a narrative that is already fragmented. The play moves back and forth between the Baum family and scenes set elsewhere, from Manhattan boardrooms to a dive bar in Mississippi to a farm in the dustbowl; there’s a four-piece band at the side of the stage, dance sequences, a selection of period standards from the Great American Songbook, and even a dazzling solo tap dance from Ewan Wardrop as the CEO of General Electric. Chavkin does an admirable job of keeping the action moving fluidly from scene to song to dance and back again, and there’s no faulting any of the individual performances, but you have to work to keep up.  Amber Aga, Clare Burt, and Golda Rosheuvel all give lovely performances as Rose Baum, and Golda Rosheuvel’s unblinking, unsentimental rendition of Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out is the most memorable thing in the entire production, but there’s a lot to keep track of here even without the triple-casting, and having the play’s three central characters played by three interchangeable actors doesn’t give the audience an easier ride. This production polarised its audiences, and there are people who wholeheartedly loathed it; anybody who walked into the Old Vic expecting a searing drama along the lines of Death of a Salesman or A View from the Bridge would have been courting disappointment, because that’s not what this play offers.

And while there’s plenty to enjoy in this production, it’s also obvious why the play received the reception it did in its original Broadway production, and why it’s rarely revived. The most vivid scenes – a dustbowl farming family attempting to keep their farm from being repossessed, a conversation between a (black) Mississippi barman and a (white) itinerant journalist, a banker, right before the 1929 crash, telling his doctor to get out of the stock market because the current boom is unsustainable – are only tangentially related to the family at the centre of the piece. It just about all holds together, and it’s a more satisfying piece of theatre than Chavkin’s production of Hadestown at the National earlier this year – that’s not a high bar, Hadestown was musically thrilling and theatrically inert, and the two leads had the stage presence of stale sliced bread – but I doubt anybody walked away from the Old Vic thinking they’d seen a rediscovered masterpiece.

That said, though, this was a rare opportunity to see a fascinating but very flawed minor Miller play get a top-class production on a big stage. There was excellent work from every single member of the large ensemble cast, with standout turns from Sule Rimi and Francesca Mills, and Chloe Lamford’s set – the trading floor of a stock exchange – was an inspired choice. There was no single moment of the production that was not enjoyable; whether everything added up to a coherent whole, though, is another question. And in terms of evoking what living through the depression might have felt like, there was more power in three minutes of Golda Rosheuvel channeling Bessie Smith and two minutes of Clare Burt singing Gershwin’s S’Wonderful than in any of Miller’s scenes, and it’s a rather odd sensation to find yourself watching a production of an Arthur Miller play in which the two things that stick out most clearly in your memory afterwards were not written by Arthur Miller. I’m glad I saw it, it was worth the trip, I can cross The American Clock off my list – and it’s those two songs that made it worth the journey to London. Sorry, Arthur.

 

 

 

(Lower) East Side Story

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The original Broadway production of Rags in 1986 was a notorious flop, running for just four performances. Despite the short run, it received five Tony nominations, including a nod for Best Original Score, and cast member Judy Kuhn gave a memorably fiery performance of the title song on the Tony Awards telecast the following year; a recording was released in 1991 featuring most of the original Broadway cast, with Julia Migenes standing in for original star Teresa Stratas, and that recording is the reason people keep going back to the show to try and make it work. Rags has book problems – even now, after umpteen rewrites, Rags has book problems – but the score as represented on that recording includes the best music Charles Strouse has written for the theatre (‘Blame It On the Summer Night’ might very well be the single best song he has ever written for anything, and it’s certainly among the best individual songs written for Broadway in the past fifty years), and some of Stephen Schwartz‘s most moving lyrics. This show’s music is a potent blend of Broadway, jazz, klezmer and opera, and it’s often magnificent; the structure surrounding it, unfortunately, has never quite lived up to the power of that score.

The show is essentially a kind of sequel to Fiddler on the Roof, which also has a book by Joseph Stein. The plot follows immigrants as they arrive in New York in 1910(ish) and try to establish themselves as new Americans living in tenements on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In all versions of the show – and there are many different versions of this show – the central figure is Rebecca Hershkowitz, a woman fleeing Russia with her young son David. Reading the Broadway production’s reviews, it’s clear there were too many subplots surrounding her; this rewrite, with a new book by David Thompson (Joseph Stein having died in 2010), premiered at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut in 2017, and it does a reasonably good job of paring back the show’s various plot strands into a reasonably coherent narrative that is driven by Rebecca’s struggle to build a life in New York for herself and her son. Alongside this new book, though, Strouse and Schwartz have taken scissors to their score, and unfortunately the result is not an improvement. A certain amount of this music’s grandeur has been lost – and that’s allowing for the fact that in a chamber production like this one you’re never going to get Michael Starobin‘s magnificent original orchestrations – and some songs have been cut up/split/re-sequenced in ways that don’t completely make musical sense. Granted, this may be less of a problem if you’re less familiar with that 1991 recording than I am; even so, it seems a strange choice to make when the score has always been the piece’s biggest asset.

This production, at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, makes a very strong case for the material, though, and director Bronagh Lagan redeems herself here for her abysmal revival of Promises, Promises at the Southwark Playhouse a couple of years ago, which was so bad that her name on the credits almost stopped me from buying a ticket for this. There’s a real sense of community among the cast, Gregor Donnelly’s set somehow makes stacks of suitcases resemble the Lower East Side tenement blocks around which most of the plot takes place, the band (four musicians backstage augmented by four actor-musicians among the ensemble) sounds terrific, and Rebecca Trehearn is giving an absolutely luminous performance as Rebecca. No, she doesn’t have the kind of huge operatic voice you hear in Julia Migenes’s performance on the recording (and that audiences at the original Broadway production must have heard from Theresa Stratas), but she’s a glorious singer and an honest actor, and her rendition of Rebecca’s big anthem ‘Children of the Wind’ at the climax of the second act is very moving indeed.

There’s an excellent ensemble surrounding her, with particularly memorable work from Lydia White as Bella, the young woman Rebecca befriends on the boat to America, from Valda Aviks as a shrewd but charming widow with her eyes on Bella’s father, and from Robert Tripolino as Sal, an Italian union organiser. The choral singing is terrific, particularly in the complex, syncopated ‘Greenhorns’ near the top of the show and the reprise of ‘Children of the Wind’ in the finale. Everybody does their best with the dialogue, and the book – yes, even in this newly-revised version – lets everybody down. Inevitably given the way the show has been chopped and changed so much over the years, we don’t have a cast of characters here so much as a parade of stereotypes. It’s been refashioned from an ensemble piece into what more or less amounts to a vehicle for the actor playing Rebecca, but Thompson doesn’t give her enough to play with. We know she escaped a pogrom, that her husband is dead (that’s a rewrite, and a smart one; her husband was a significant – and obnoxious – character in the original version of the show, and her backstory works better if she’s a widow), that she’s a decent woman and a good mother,  that she can sew, and that arriving in America gives her a push towards a far more independent lifestyle than she’d imagined for herself in Russia… and that’s more or less it, and it’s a story that’s been told many times before, usually more compellingly than it is in Thompson’s book.

Some significant musical material has been cut, too, including a late-in-act-two aria called ‘Dancing With the Fools’; that cut in particular robs Rebecca of a certain amount of depth, although Trehearn somewhat manages to paper over the cracks. Songs are cut up and split apart in ways that are baffling if you know the score from the recording; we hear, for example, the verse of ‘Children of the Wind’ a full act and a half before we hear the (beautiful) refrain. Characters have been cut, new characters have been introduced, and some musical material has been switched between characters, not always to good effect; it makes theatrical sense to turn the title song into the Act One finale, but since this version of the show is Rebecca’s story rather than Bella’s, the song is made into a duet between Rebecca and Bella rather than a solo for Bella. That might not be a problem if the lyrics had been completely rewritten, but they haven’t been, and the song – a howl of rage at having travelled across an ocean to live in poverty in a slum – does not entirely fit the character Trehearn has established by that point in the show, although there’s absolutely nothing wrong with her performance of it. The main portion of the song sounds like the kind of outburst that would come from a much younger woman, probably one who isn’t a mother – which of course fits the character it was originally written for. In the original version of the song, Bella’s father tries to talk her down; here, those lines are given to Bella, and arguments written from the perspective of a middle-aged father just sound plain unconvincing coming from a late-teenage girl. The (re)writing in that section of the show significantly undercuts both the performers and the song; it’s still a powerful moment, but – like a lot of the show – it would be so much more powerful if the lyrics consistently sounded as if they were written for the character(s) singing them.

Having said that, it’s worth seeing. This is not a show that’s going to be done often in the UK, and even though this production messes with the score in ways that don’t improve it, the best moments are certainly memorable, and while Bronagh Lagan doesn’t completely solve every problem in the writing, this is a strong production of difficult material, and it’s wonderful to see a regional fringe theatre take this material on and do such a loving job with it.

There are, however, a couple of things Hope Mill could (still) learn about the audience experience. Now, yes, I booked for the first preview, and first previews happen after a rush of activity that is sometimes difficult to complete within the allotted time. The show I saw was in excellent shape and you’d never have guessed it was the first public performance. HOWEVER, the performance ended up beginning thirty minutes late, and I’m afraid that demonstrates a certain disdain for the audience. This is Greater Manchester, not London; the transport system here shuts down earlier than you might expect (and certainly earlier than it should), and that’s even more the case the further you go from the city centre. For me, that thirty-minute delay was the difference between being able to get all the way home by tram/bus and having to use a taxi for the last part of the journey. The cost of the taxi won’t break me, but it’s money that needn’t have been wasted; there was an apology from the director at the top of the show, but it was sufficiently vague that it did nothing to dispel the suspicion that this production’s creative team consider themselves more important than their audience, which is exactly the wrong way around. Stay later the night before, show up earlier on the day, but fix your problems on YOUR time, not mine, and don’t waste my money because you failed to meet a deadline.

And when you advertise that your lobby/cafe/bar will be open from ninety minutes before showtime for drinks/coffee/light meals/whatever, it is unacceptably rude to keep customers who show up at the opening time you’ve advertised on your website and on the tickets waiting outside the door for twenty minutes because the director and her creative team haven’t got their shit together. That, again, suggests an attitude towards customers that is somewhere between disdain and contempt, particularly since at this theatre’s location there is nowhere else to go. Hope Mill, don’t get me wrong, is a wonderful facility, and a real asset to Manchester’s cultural scene – but the arrogance with which they treated patrons last Saturday night isn’t a good look for them. The work they present is fascinating; their manners, unfortunately, seem to leave a great deal to be desired.

 

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The Right Girl

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It’s back, and it’s (even) better. The first time around, Dominic Cooke’s revival of Follies at the National Theatre was simultaneously thrilling, breathtaking, and slightly flawed. Cooke put together a text that is far closer to the 1971 original than the more recent, less-corrosive revised edition that formed the basis for the last three major US revivals, and his cast did a generally excellent job of capturing the odd, febrile tone of James Goldman‘s stylised dialogue. On the minus side, Bill Deamer’s choreography for the show’s biggest production number didn’t quite deliver, and while Imelda Staunton delivered a stunning acting performance, her singing voice was not an entirely happy match for her character’s music.

For this return engagement, Mr. Deamer’s choreography has been tweaked, Ms. Staunton’s role is one of several that have been recast, and Mr. Cooke has made a number of mostly small adjustments to his staging. This isn’t simply a by-the-numbers retread of the 2017 production; it’s a thorough overhaul, and the changes are (almost) all improvements. First time around, this was a splendid revival with a lot of caveats. This time, while there are still elements that Sondheim devotees will be arguing over for years, for my money it’s more or less a complete triumph.

The show is what it always was: a masterpiece, part showbiz extravaganza and part Pirandellean identity play, in which the middle-aged guests at a reunion party for former performers in a Ziegfeld Follies-esque Broadway revue are (literally) confronted by the ghosts of their former selves. It’s a strange cocktail of glitter and rage and regret in which the former showgirls, and particularly the two unhappily-married couples at the centre of the plot, become a lens through which we’re asked to examine the ways in which people deal – or don’t – with the gulf between their youthful aspirations and middle-aged reality, and (because that’s not bleak enough already) the whole thing is an extended theatrical metaphor for America’s postwar decline. And on top of all that, Stephen Sondheim‘s extraordinary score may very well turn out to be the crowning achievement of his extraordinary career. It’s a dazzling blend of 1970-contemporary Broadway and spot-on pastiche, and the show’s climactic sequence of musical numbers, which finds the four protagonists trapped inside a metaphorical Ziegfeld Follies production in which they each examine their individual failures via a period-pastiche musical performance, is as brilliant a piece of writing as anything in the American musical theatre canon.

It’s matched, finally, by a revival whose brilliance in this incarnation seems as effortless as it was laboured first time around. Cooke’s first masterstroke – last time too – was to stage the piece to make it clear that the ghosts haven’t arrived at the party – we have entered their space. The show takes place in the rubble of the derelict Weismann Theatre, which is about to be torn down; a ghostly showgirl gives the signal that sets the performance in motion, we see the past before we see the (1971) present, and the ghosts recognise their present-day selves before their present-day selves see them. The ghosts are in James Goldman’s book for the show, of course, but Cooke’s staging always deployed them (even) more than Goldman does, and Cooke deploys them even more here. We’re always aware, even watching minor supporting characters, of the simmering tension between the past and the present, and a (new) tableau in which some of the ghosts watch their present-day selves leaving the party is both moving and visually beautiful.

There’s still a remarkable set of performances in the supporting roles, too. As the aging Viennese soprano Heidi Schiller, Felicity Lott perhaps doesn’t quite have Josephine Barstow’s devastating intensity (Barstow will return to the production later in the run, and played the press night when Lott fell ill), but I doubt One More Kiss has ever been sung more gloriously than it is here, and Alison Langer’s Young Heidi is (still) sublime. Dawn Hope’s ‘Who’s That Woman?’ raises goosebumps, and Deamer has rechoreographed the number so that it’s now the showstopper it should have been first time around. No, it’s not the original Michael Bennett choreography, which was used in the original London production in 1987, and yes, I’d still prefer it if it was, but the version they’re doing now is a huge improvement over Deamer’s first pass at it. Tracie Bennett has found even more colours in her take on I’m Still Here, and – best of all – Claire Moore slams the last sixteen bars of Broadway Baby into the back of the house with the kind of force that could easily level the entire building.

The biggest difference, though, comes in the recasting of two of the four leads – that is, one-half of the two married couples at the centre of the plot (in case you’ve forgotten – and why have you? – Sally Durant and Phyllis Rogers danced together in the final season of the Weismann Follies in 1941, and were roommates. At the end of the season, Sally married Buddy Plummer and Phyllis married Ben Stone – but Sally had had a fling with Ben before he got engaged to Phyllis, and when her own marriage proved less than idyllic she spent the next thirty years pining for him, and has arrived at the reunion in the hope of winning him back). Peter Forbes is still a heartbreaking Buddy, a travelling salesman who loves Sally too much to leave her and knows he’d be happier if he did. Janie Dee’s Phyllis has – seemingly impossibly, because she was perfect the first time – grown in stature; she’s an arresting combination of heart and hauteur, ice and fire, sharp edges and raw nerves. Alexander Hanson replaces Philip Quast, and he doesn’t have Quast’s gravitas. Hanson’s Ben is a shallow charmer who has coasted to success on the back of a combination of bravado and a boyish smile, and knows it. This Ben’s descent into self-loathing is more sudden than it was with Quast in the role, and more shocking; there’s a desperation to Ben’s climactic breakdown that was slightly lacking in this production’s first incarnation, and the chaos sequence that takes us out of Ben’s Follies number and back into the final (spoken) scene works better – much better – with Hanson at the centre of it than it did in 2017. Hanson isn’t quite as wonderful a singer as Quast, but he’s more than good enough, and he’s giving a very fine performance.

The biggest difference, though, is Joanna Riding’s Sally. Imelda Staunton is an extraordinary actor whose singing voice was never quite right for this role. Riding, whose casting, I admit, did not particularly excite me, has all the voice she needs for this music, and she sings the role as beautifully as you’d expect (and – thank God – without taking any of the higher notes in her big duet with Hanson’s Ben down an octave). Her acting choices, though, are fascinating, and quite different from Staunton’s. Staunton offered an unhappy woman slowly descending into insanity. Riding’s Sally is a self-absorbed romantic who operates (far) more through her emotions than her intellect, and who seems to see herself as a character in one of the trashy romance novels she says she reads to pass the time – and when her illusions are abruptly shattered, her (quick) emotional collapse is ugly, and mesmerising to watch. Riding’s rendition of Losing My Mind, Sally’s pastiche number in the show’s climactic Follies sequence, is quite breathtaking, although (following Staunton’s lead), it’s a startlingly angry interpretation, and it’s staged as a scene in a period romantic drama rather than simply as a torch song. Like every song in the Loveland sequence, Losing My Mind was conceived as a song in which the singer performs a metaphorical representation of her folly, rather than as a scene in which the actor acts the character’s emotional disintegration. In the 1987 London production, Julia McKenzie gave us the former, and I think I stopped breathing during the four minutes or so it took for her to sing the song. In 2017, Imelda Staunton gave us the latter, and the first time I saw it it didn’t quite work for me, although I warmed to her choices a little more on subsequent viewings. Riding somehow manages both, although not quite in the manner suggested by the script: she sings it powerfully, easily encompassing the big notes in the final verse (those notes severely tested her predecessor in this production), and begins playing it as a scene in a romantic melodrama, sitting at a dressing-table in a glamorous art deco boudoir. As the song continues, Riding’s Sally appears to struggle to maintain the artifice of the performance, gradually sinking into a combination of fury, grief and despair; she pops pills in the final verse, stands trembling as she holds the final note, and on the last beat of the song she removes her wig – a gesture which seems to leave her pitifully naked (albeit fully-clothed). If you know the show, if you know how previous interpretations of this moment have worked, this staging sounds ham-fisted, overdone, and completely wrong-headed – but in Riding’s hands (and voice), it’s absolutely riveting and somehow absolutely right.

As for the rest – there are fine performances from the new quartet of actors playing the younger incarnations of the four principal characters (Harry Hepple, Ian McIntosh, Christine Tucker, and Gemma Sutton as, respectively, Young Buddy, Young Ben, Young Phyllis, and Young Sally). Vicki Mortimer’s derelict theatre set is still stunning, and one still wishes a little more money could have been thrown at the Loveland sets for the climactic recreation of a Follies show, because those sets really need to be a little more opulent than they are here – although it’s clear the National have pushed the boat out as far as they can on this production, and the costumes are (still) magnificent. For Joanna Riding, Sally’s hair and party dress have been tweaked, and the new design is a significant improvement over the costume Imelda Staunton wore. The band is still conducted by Nigel Lilley, and they’re still wonderful, and Paule Constable’s appropriately crepuscular lighting is still pretty much perfect.

There’s still no intermission, which for this show is as it should be, and Cooke directs his new cast to give, if anything, an even more electrifying account of Goldman’s archly theatrical dialogue than their predecessors did. Once again, Vicki Mortimer’s turntable set moves us seamlessly through the various different levels of the derelict Weismann Theatre, and once again – in fact, even more than last time – it’s obvious everybody involved understands this show’s rather unusual tone and rhythm (imagine a mid-century American Restoration drama with script revisions by Edward Albee and songs drawn from every corner of musical theatre’s golden age). There were always many, many good things in this production – but last time, there was a great deal to argue against as well. This time, Cooke and his creative team have given us as good a revival of Follies as I ever expect to see. It’s an intelligent, precise, thrilling presentation of rich, multi-layered material, possibly as good a musical production as the National has ever done and certainly as good as anything I’ve ever seen there. If you saw it last time, you need to see it again. In almost every way, this incarnation of the production is stronger, smarter, sharper, and deeper than the first. In terms of Sondheim revivals, this is just about as good as it gets.

And yes, that means it’s rather a pity that the first cast, rather than this one, got to preserve their performances via an NT Live presentation and a cast recording. That, I’m afraid, is showbiz.