The zoo is up, Madame Tussauds is down

on the town programme

If you live in the UK, it takes a certain optimism to book months in advance for a show in an open-air theatre, even if the performance date is just a couple of days after the longest day of the year. “Summer” here is sometimes more of an abstract concept; if you don’t live in London and can’t book at the last minute, you roll the dice then spend the week before the show nervously looking at the weather forecast.

I caught the tail-end of our “heatwave”, actually – people who live in places where there are genuinely hot summers, stop giggling – so I didn’t get the full Open Air Theatre experience. You know, sitting hunched up in a cheap plastic rain poncho for twenty minutes waiting for a downpour to pass so the show can resume. There was some light drizzle, which began, with impeccable timing, right on the second line of “I Feel Like I’m Not Out Of Bed Yet” – yes, “the sun is warm…” – but that’s all. Rain ponchos (£3 at the bar, or bring your own) were not necessary. Some people put umbrellas up, but they were quickly admonished by the front-of-house staff (absolutely right, they block the view for people sitting behind). And we had an unscheduled several-minute pause halfway through Act One so that stagehands could mop the deck dry:

on the town mop

It was worth the drizzle (and the hay fever, because our damp parody of a summer doesn’t do anything to ameliorate my allergies). Years ago – so many years ago that it’ll make me feel very old if I do the subtraction – I saw the Barbican concert production that begat the Tyne Daly recording (everybody else in the cast was a better singer than Ms. Daly, and she blew them all off the stage), but I’d never seen a production that had an actual set and costumes. It might be my favourite of Bernstein’s theatre scores – or my favourite might be Wonderful Town!, depending on the day – and seeing a full production has been one of my theatrical holy grails for… well, since I saw that concert at the Barbican. I missed the ENO’s revival a few years ago, and have been kicking myself for it ever since; I wasn’t going to miss this.

The weather, actually, might have been just about the only thing wrong with Drew McOnie’s sensational revival. This is a difficult piece to direct: the slender story about three sailors exploring New York during a 24-hour shore leave requires a very light touch, and it’s difficult to find the correct balance between the book scenes, which are more or less simply a series of linked comic sketches, and the achingly bittersweet ballets. Underpinning the whole thing is the fact that the characters onstage know, as do we, that the lighthearted, what-larks plot isn’t as lighthearted as it seems: it’s 1944, these three sailors are shipping out to war tomorrow morning, and there’s a very good chance some or all of them won’t be coming back. We know, too, about the horrors they’re about to face even if they do make it through the rest of the war (physically) uninjured; if you can get through the second act’s farewell song, “Some Other Time”, without a lump forming in your throat, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am.

Fortunately, McOnie gets it pretty much exactly right. His production never stops moving, the ballets are truly lovely – a reinterpretation of the Act One pas de deux to show a sailor’s brief, secretive dalliance with another man is particularly poignant – and he and his terrific cast find all the jokes without ever pushing the comedy too hard. Danny Mac makes a tremendous Gabey – great dancer, charm to spare, good timing, and just enough voice to land “Lonely Town”, the score’s most beautiful song. He, Jacob Maynard (Chip) and Samuel Edwards (Ozzie) form an appealing trio; they’re effortlessly funny, and in this material that’s not as easy as it seems  – witness the cast recording of the recent Broadway revival, on which every single member of the cast mugs to the point where you wonder if they’re all hooked up to a caffeine drip. As the maneating cab driver Hildy – yes, the role I saw Tyne Daly sing all those years ago- Lizzy Connolly offers a dazzling, showstopping, wonderfully dirty rendition of the innuendo-laden “I Can Cook Too”, a song which – spoiler alert – is not really about cooking. She even – unlike Alysha Umphress, the lady who assaults the role on that most recent recording – sings the song’s melody as written, without jazzing it up or inserting self-indulgent scatting that isn’t in the score (I’d love to know what Ms. Umphress believes qualifies her to rewrite Bernstein; her “improvements” really aren’t). Siena Kelly is a charming Miss Turnstiles (if you don’t know the plot, just go with it – it’s one of those comedies that only really makes sense if you see it), Maggie Steed offers a smashing turn as dipsomaniac music teacher Madam Dilly, who is the closest thing the show has to a villain, and Naoko Mori’s Lucy Schmeeler gets more laughs out of a sneeze than you’d ever think possible. Best of all, there’s Miriam-Teak Lee’s Claire de Loon, the anthropologist who gets “Carried Away” when she spots Chip in the Museum of Natural History. This, unbelievably, is her professional debut; she has a glorious soprano and sensational timing, and her work here is absolutely flawless. And she’s gorgeous too, which doesn’t hurt.

There’s a good-looking, less-simple-than-it-seems scaffolding set from Peter McKintosh – it can unfold to show apartments, nightclubs, a diner, and even a subway train, and it manages the difficult job of evoking 1940s Manhattan amid the trees of Regent’s Park. Economic realities dictate that there’s only a 15-piece band, and this music really needs more than that; we get (most of) the brass, but some strings would have been nice. The playing is impeccable, and finding space to pay for more players in a presumably (very) finite budget was probably not possible, but this music deserves better; it’s easy enough for producers looking to rein in finances to trim the orchestra, on the grounds that audiences can’t tell the difference, but some of us can. A clever orchestrator can make 15 musicians sound like more than 15 musicians, but you can’t pull an entire string section out of thin air when there isn’t the money to pay for one.

That’s a minor complaint, though – or rather, if not a minor complaint, inevitable these days, because seeing golden-age musicals with the original complement of musicians in the pit has become the (rare) exception, rather than the rule. In every other respect, this revival is just about ideal. I’ve been waiting, as I said, for decades to see a fully-staged production of this show; this one, for once, was well worth the wait.

 

 

Weather 1, UK 0

It snowed a bit here today. And I do mean just a bit – three or four inches on high ground, maybe half that lower down. That’s a light snowfall, as far as I’m concerned. Judging by the news here, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s Armageddon. More fool me, I went out in it… and it took me pushing three hours to travel about ten miles to get home.

I probably shouldn’t be surprised. This was the scene in Manchester city centre at about 6pm:

That’s a light dusting of snow, nothing more (to be fair, there is more here, ten miles to the north-east). Note the complete absence of salt or grit on either the road or the pavement. This was far from the most treacherous place in the city centre – the pavements in front of Debenhams in Market Street were slick with ice and very slippery (and no, neither Debenhams nor Manchester City Council had put any salt down). The Market Street Metrolink platform was just as bad – there had been no attempt to clear the lying snow, which had been compacted to ice under passengers’ feet, and nobody had put grit down.

Where I live is fairly high up, a few hundred feet higher than the city centre, and it’s not all that unusual for the public transport system here to experience some disruption when snow falls. I grew up here, I know what the weather can do, and I have the bus and train company websites bookmarked on my BlackBerry so that I can check for service updates if I go out when there’s snow on the ground (it slightly irritates me to do this, given that I’ve spent a big chunk of my adult life living in Toronto, a city that deals with far larger snowfalls every winter, usually without anything like the level of disruption snow causes here). I checked First Manchester‘s service updates page regularly; for most of the day (until some point after I got home, in fact) it showed only a bland message saying that there may be some weather-related delays. In the past, when there have been problems, this page has carried a fairly extensive list of specific services that are cancelled or diverted due to the weather. Since no such list was displayed, I assumed I was OK, and didn’t rush to come home.

The fun started when I went to catch a bus out of Manchester. There were no departing buses to be seen at my stop. Inbound buses (it’s the terminus) were dropping off passengers then going out of service, which isn’t a good sign (there’s supposed to be a bus between Manchester and Oldham town centre every ten minutes at that time of day). Rather than wait, I went to catch a train. The train departed exactly on time, and arrived at my station exactly on time. The station, however, was a mess:

That’s the platform, stairs and footbridge at Greenfield station. Nobody had made any attempt to clear the snow. No salt had been put down anywhere, even on the stairs. The station is staffed on Saturdays until 3.30pm, and sees one train an hour in each direction, timetabled to leave at more or less the same time. Aside from a window of about 15 minutes before both trains depart, it’s never that busy, so the lack of any salt anywhere on the platforms, staircases and footbridge basically comes down to laziness. It’s not as if this snowfall was unexpected. It was forecast 72 hours in advance, and arrived more or less exactly on schedule – and yet, obviously, the station’s staff (and their managers) didn’t bother to take even the simplest steps to mitigate the effect of the snowfall. I don’t know why this surprised me – I use Northern Rail regularly, and they’re committed to excellence in customer service in roughly the same way as the Communist Party of China is committed to promoting democracy – but it did. They usually make at least some effort, but they didn’t today.

The fun, for me, was only just beginning. The road outside Greenfield station is on a steep hill; it’s treacherous in ice, buses are often diverted away from there when there’s snow or ice on the ground, so I walked up to the main road (by now it was about 9pm, and the snow had long since stopped falling in any quantity). There was perhaps three inches of snow on the ground; usually, OMBC does a reasonably efficient job of clearing snow from the main roads, and you’d expect one of the borough’s major routes to be reasonably clear nine hours after the beginning of a snowfall that left an accumulation of only three or four inches. Not tonight:

It had probably been gritted, but not for several hours, and it hadn’t been ploughed. First Manchester’s mobile website still – again, nine hours after snow had begun to fall – showed only a bland message about possible snow-related delays, so I waited. Half an hour after my bus was due to arrive, I caught another service into the next village (easier place to pick up a taxi, and the bus shelter there has a seat). I asked the driver whether the service I was waiting for was running or not, and he didn’t know; he couldn’t be bothered to use his radio to try and find out. It wasn’t that cold, and the road was clearly open, so I waited… for three quarters of an hour, at which point a bus came along that would deposit me within a mile or so of home. Rather than ring a taxi, I caught it and walked. This bus ran more or less exactly on time; there was no sign at all of the service I’d been waiting for. The driver of the bus I caught thought it probably wasn’t running, but didn’t know for sure (and, again, couldn’t be bothered to get on the radio and find out); First finally got around to updating their website with a list of services that weren’t running at some point after 11pm, and the service I waited for for over an hour and a half is not listed there.

The walk home – mostly uphill through uncleared streets – was lovely.

And all of this for three or four inches of snow! It’s pathetic. More than that, it shows the management of a mostly privatised transport system on which the bottom line is corporate profit holding their paying customers in absolute, unyielding contempt. This was a minor snowfall, forecast days in advance – but the snow was forecast to fall at the weekend, which means that deploying additional personnel to clear platforms and bus stops of snow, put grit down, and keep passenger information systems properly updated with details of service disruptions would have meant paying overtime, which would eat into profits (never mind that we’ve had above-inflation fare increases on both the buses and the trains within the last month, in both cases without even the hint of a promise of any improvement in services in return). The snow falling at the weekend probably accounts for the state of the main roads as well – to be fair to the council here, on weekdays, with this amount of snow, they usually do a better job than they did today. Presumably they too wanted to avoid paying out too much overtime.

Beyond that, the prevailing mentality here does seem to be that clearing snow is somebody else’s problem. Toronto has a fairly strict bylaw outlining when and how snow must be removed from sidewalks, pathways etc following a snowfall, and this level of snow clearance is the responsibility of the owner or occupant of each building. We don’t have any such law here, so nobody bothers – including city centre businesses (and, really, it’s not as if putting salt down on the pavement in front of, say, Debenhams would have eaten up more than about 20 minutes of someone’s time – I repeat, we did not have a major snowfall today, and there was far less snow in the city centre than there is here). The snow on the pavements either piles up to the point where it gets into your shoes, or it compacts into ice, because nobody takes responsibility for clearing the pavement in front of their own property. Indeed, there’s an obnoxious perception that clearing snow and gritting in front of your home or business can get you sued if someone slips and falls on the section you cleared. And no, don’t worry, I’m not going to list every single revolting thing this says about British society.

And then there’s the private cars. When snow falls here, it’s as if parking regulations suddenly no longer apply. People bring their cars down from side roads (which, admittedly, are often steep, quickly become impassable, and are never the first to be cleared) and park them on the main road – anywhere on the main road, including on double yellow lines, around blind bends, and in front of bus stops, reducing two-lane roads to a single car-width of carriageway. Since that’s too narrow for two buses to pass, the result is severe disruption – like I experienced this evening – for anyone trying to get around by bus, even after a relatively minor snowfall. These cars, of course, are never ticketed or towed, despite being parked illegally. If we put in place a system of designated snow routes that became absolute no-parking zones after a snowfall in order to facilitate snow clearance and enable traffic to move freely in both directions, and enforced it, an awful lot of this disruption would be avoided.

Unfortunately, that would require planning, and common sense, and when snow falls in this country both of those things magically disappear. We had three or four inches of snow, and it was forecast days in advance. Some delays are understandable; letting chaos result from such a minor snowfall is not.

And the Northern Rail and Metrolink managing directors – I’m looking at YOU, Ian Bevan and Chris Coleman  – who failed to put protocols in place to ensure that station platforms would be gritted ahead of a snowfall should be fired. Even given the generally pathetic way we deal with snowfalls in the UK, that takes a special kind of incompetence.