Catching Up…

Again, here’s many reviews in a single post. Normal service will be resumed as soon as I get a better definition of normal.

A VERY EXPENSIVE POISON

A very big miss. There’s a terrific play somewere in the horrifying story of the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, but this isn’t it. Lucy Prebble seems, as she was with Enron, to be more preoccupied with theatrical tricks than with telling a story or advancing a thesis. There are puppets, there are songs, and there’s sometimes the germ of an idea, most successfully in the final section in which Prebble steps back and lets MyAnna Buren’s Marina Litvinenko speak the real Marina Litvinenko’s own words. Elsewhere, terrific as he is, the device of having Reece Shearsmith’s reptilian Vladimir Putin supply commentary via a microphone from one of the boxes is very much subject to the law of diminishing returns, and it wouldn’t be if the writing was sharper. The drama is ineffective, the satire is ineffectual, the play as a whole is an incoherent mess, and a fine cast can’t save it.

MAME – Hope Mill, Manchester

Tracie Bennett plays Tracie Bennett. If you like Tracie Bennett, and I often do, then you’ll love this (it’s closed in Manchester but it’s touring next year). If you don’t, you’ll be in for a long evening. Harriet Thorpe is fabulous as Mame’s best frenemy Vera, Tim Flavin is underused as a love interest who appears towards the end of the first act and disappears for good two scenes into the second, and while the Jerry Herman songs are peerless, the big takeaway ballad – If He Walked Into My Life – feels like it’s burst in from an entirely different show. It’s an achievement, certainly, that director/choreographer Nick Winston manages to cram so much into such a tiny space, but it’s all a bit relentless. They don’t make star vehicles like this anymore… and I’m afraid there’s a good reason: it needs an Angela Lansbury, and while Tracie Bennett has many admirable qualities, she just isn’t that kind of star.

& JULIET – Opera House, Manchester and Shaftesbury Theatre, London

Maybe the year’s most delightful surprise. I bought the ticket, I admit, mostly for Miriam-Teak Lee and Cassidy Janson – the idea of a jukebox musical built around the Max Martin oeuvre didn’t immediately appeal – but it’s cleverly written, VERY funny, and the singing is spectacular. It’s a play-within-a-play in which Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway argue over the ending of Romeo and Juliet – she doesn’t like it – and the plot defies description, but you have to love a show in which Juliet’s non-binary best friend May belts out I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman, Romeo descends from the flies singing It’s My Life, Juliet tears a strip off her back-from-the-dead lover with a stinging rendition of Since U Been Gone, and the Nurse gets to sing Pink’s Fuckin’ Perfect to Juliet. I’ll admit to wholeheartedly loathing Céline Dion’s That’s The Way It Is… or rather, I did until I heard what Cassidy Janson does with it, because it’s the sort of performance that makes your mouth drop open. Ms. Teak-Lee is sensational (she was sensational in On The Town, too) – fabulous voice, fabulous timing, and anyone who can get bring-down-the-house laughs out of Britney’s Oops, I Did It Again deserves to be a major, major star. How much did I like it? I went back for a return visit.

CURTAINS – Palace Theatre, Manchester

Second-tier Kander and Ebb elevated by inventive direction from Paul Foster, a terrific comic performance from Rebecca Lock as a take-no-prisoners Broadway producer, and a surprisingly charming turn from the (very) resistable Jason Manford as a detective who is obsessed with musical theatre. It’s not earth-shattering, but it’s a good night out.

MASTER HAROLD… AND THE BOYS – National Theatre

One of those productions in which everything works apart from one of the performances, which is a problem in a three-hander. It’s a stunning play, it’s directed with loving care by Roy Alexander Weise, there’s a terrific period tearoom set from Rajha Shakiry, complete with real rain, and Lucian Msamati gives a towering performance as Sam, one of the ‘boys’ (that is, middle-aged black men in 1950s South Africa) employed by Master Harold’s (unseen) mother. The only thing wrong with the production is Anson Boon’s performance as Harold, which is a flailing, overacted, inconsistently-accented mess.

THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT

It’s a very, very long time since I walked out of a show at the interval. Moving on…

GYPSY – Royal Exchange

Not the best musical the Exchange has ever done, and certainly not the best revival this show has ever received. The material is peerless, but it’s not the easiest show to do in the round, and director Jo Davies makes at least one misstep for every element she gets right. The strip sequence, which here makes spectacular use of a revolving gantry/proscenium, is sensationally good; elsewhere, too often the production feels laboured, and at over three hours it’s certainly overlong (and that’s mostly down to pacing, the script is long but not THAT long). A big part of the problem is Ria Jones’s Rose – Jones is terrific in the right role, but this isn’t the right role for her, and she doesn’t supply the galvanising drive in Rose that’s necessary to make the show take off. It’s obvious everybody involved loves the material, but that isn’t always enough.


GHOST QUARTET – Boulevard Theatre

Song cycle by Dave Malloy, which makes me sorry I missed Preludes at the Southwark Playhouse.  The music here is stunning, and performed magnificently by four actor-musicians – Carly Bawden, Niccoló Curradi, Maimuna Memon, and Zubin Varla – and the finale, in which the performers more or less literally hand the show over to the audience, is a lovely, lovely moment (I won’t spoil the surprise… but I found myself onstage playing a glockenspiel, so if audience participation bothers you don’t sit in the front row). Yes, the text, which moves from modern New York into all manner of myths and fairytakes and back again, is sometimes a bit too pretentious for its own good, but this is a fascinating piece of music theatre, and those four singers are more than worth an hour and a half of your time.

NOISES OFF – the Garrick

So good it more or less banished the stench of the appalling BITTER WHEAT, which graced the same venue earlier this year. Masterful revival of a masterful play, with a perfect ensemble cast led by a magnificent comic turn from the wonderful Meera Syal. Yes, the play seems to come around every ten minutes, and it’s always good – but it isn’t always THIS good.

FASCINATING AIDA – Southbank Centre

I’m a fan, they’re wonderful, their new show is (predictably) splendid, and the opening number has a line about Priti Patel that produced the kind of laugh that measures on the Richter scale.

THE BOYFRIEND – Menier

Utterly charming, utterly silly, and Janie Dee’s Mme. Dubonnet is sublime. Whether the show will be AS charming in a theatre ten times the size in Toronto next year is another question, but at the Menier it’s pure pleasure; director Matthew White gets everyone to hit exactly the right wide-eyed-but-not-too-arch tone, Bill Deamer’s choreography pushes all the right period buttons, and the performances are lovely.

MY BRILLIANT FRIEND – National Theatre

A two-part adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s four Naples novels. It’s one of those frustrating combinations of things that are brilliant and things that don’t quite work. Melly Still’s direction gives us a terrific, sweeping epic story of a complicated friendship conducted over several decades, and her work is often best when she makes a decisive departure from kitchen-sink naturalism, but the use of puppets to represent children seems jarringly out-of-place. As Lila and Lenù, the two friends who drive the plot, Catherine McCormack and Niamh Cusack are magnificent, but far too many of the supporting performances veer too close to caricature, which is an obvious trap in a piece in which nearly everyone in the ensemble plays multiple roles. It’s often splendid to look at – Soutra Gilmour’s set, Tal Yarden’s video projections, and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting give us some eye-popping visuals, and do a superb job of taking us inside Lila’s fracturing mind – but April De Angelis’s script feels rushed, as if she’s giving us the Cliff’s Notes version of the story. It’s a long day at the theatre, but each act could easily use another fifteen minutes. This is a show that wants to be a much richer theatrical experience than it is at the moment, and it’s the script that lets the side down. It’s sometimes thrilling, sometimes frustrating, and always entertaining – but it’s this close to being a theatrical masterpiece, and a miss is as good as a mile.

So that was 2019. First ticket booked for 2020: Cynthia Erivo in concert… in Tokyo.


No, I will not be travelling to Tokyo specifically to see Cynthia Erivo. She and I just happen to be there at the same time, that’s all.

Small ones are more juicy!

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

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

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

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

Blues In The Night

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

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

Musik

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

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

Sweet sorrow

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

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

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


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.

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.

downstate 2

Going Home

local hero phone box

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?

local hero lyceum