(Re)fried Rice

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I saw it the first time around too, but I didn’t want to miss it again. Emma Rice‘s adaptation of Brief Encounter – or rather, or Brief Encounter and Still Life, the short play Brief Encounter is based on – may be (a lot) more Emma Rice than Noël Coward, but it’s (still) a thrilling, sometimes breathtaking, thoroughly memorable theatrical experience, and there (still) isn’t anything else quite like it in the West End.

It (still) isn’t precisely a straightforward adaptation of the film, though the film’s plot points are all present and correct (surely for THIS of all things you don’t need a synopsis, do you?). Rice’s calling-card is a larger-than-life theatricality that is less concerned with simply telling a story than in evoking what the characters in her productions are feeling. Rice doesn’t simply stage the screenplay, and she also doesn’t attempt a precise recreation of the film’s look and feel. Instead, she uses a combination of dialogue, song, stylised movement, and projected film to evoke the intensity of Laura and Alec’s feelings as they fall in love, and as they are forced to part. The action spills off the stage into the stalls, characters walk through a screen into and out of scenes being shown on projected film, at one point Alec swings from a chandelier, and a selection of Coward’s songs are performed in counterpoint as a kind of live underscoring. It shouldn’t work, but it does, mostly triumphantly.

Whether it’s as startling now as it was ten years ago, though, is another question. If, like me, this was your introduction to Rice’s distinctive directorial aesthetic, you may well, in 2007, have never seen anything quite like it. It’s not that the production doesn’t stand up to repeat viewing – it’s still thoroughly entertaining – but inevitably on a second viewing the element of surprise is somewhat diminished. It’s still an utterly charming, delightful evening (well, matinée in this case), but it didn’t blow me away this time the way it did the first time I saw it.

That’s no reflection on the performers; there’s perfectly-judged work from Isabel Pollen and Jim Sturgeon as the thwarted lovers, and behind them a terrific ensemble cast, some of whom also play musical instruments, switch roles and personas at the drop of a hat. It’s (still) sometimes surprisingly funny, although without ever diminishing the emotional core of the piece, and in particular this time around Rice and her cast find tremendous humour and warmth in the relationships between the various people working in the station tea room. The singing, right across the cast, is wonderful, with Jos Slovick’s Go Slow, Johnny a particular highlight.

What’s less wonderful this time around are the ticket prices, which top out at £65, which is more than double the show’s £29.50 top price at the same venue ten years ago (in terms of inflation, £29.50 in 2008 would be worth a few pence under £39 today). It’s no secret that ticket prices across the West End have been on a sharply upward trajectory over the past few years; wonderful as the show is, £65 is a lot of money, and while London has always been a very expensive city it stretches credulity beyond breaking-point to suggest the cost of producing theatre there has risen so much faster than inflation over the past decade when wages, to say the least, have not. What’s going on here is a crude form of dynamic pricing: I sat in a seat that is on sale for next week’s Wednesday matinée for £65, and I paid significantly less than that (I paid less, though not much less, than the 2008 top price of £29.50). Discounts are available if you shop around – but only if you shop around, and not for every performance. The top price, presumably, is set where it is in order to allow more room for the possibility of discounts. This show is well worth seeing, particularly if you missed it first time around – but do your homework before you book, because the best price isn’t necessarily going to come from the theatre box office. Go and see it, by all means – it’s (still) wonderful – but purchase carefully.

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Nobody’s on nobody’s side

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There are sixty-seven musicians in the orchestra, and twenty members of the ENO Chorus padding out an already large company. That’s the most important thing about Laurence Connor’s simultaneously gargantuan and undernourished revival of Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice‘s cold-war pop opera Chess, now playing a limited run at the Coliseum. If you love this score – and I really love this score – then you should do whatever you can to see this production at some point over the next three weeks. Chess has always had a dazzling score; despite the many imperfections elsewhere in this particular iteration of the show, that score, under the baton of Murray Hipkin (at the performance I saw; the regular conductor is John Rigby), is served spectacularly well, and to hear this music performed by such a superb orchestra and chorus is genuinely thrilling. As long as you go for the music, you’ll have a wonderful time.

If you’re looking for a piece of musical theatre, on the other hand, better manage your expectations. Chess first appeared as a concept album in 1984, and the biggest hit single from it – I Know Him So Well, in which two women spend four minutes lamenting that neither of them can fulfil their (same) man’s needs, because fuck the Bechdel Test – spent four weeks at number one in the UK pop charts. Since then, the show has gone through a dizzying number of incarnations onstage; the original London production was a moderate hit, but was too expensive to replicate elsewhere, the subsequent heavily-rewritten Broadway production was an eight-week flop, and since then it’s become one of those shows that, like Bernstein’s Candide, seems to get revised for each new production. This production – guess what? – represents yet another attempt to rewrite the show, and the result, as theatre, is – I’ll be kind – not successful.

This version of the show goes back to the concept album, and presents the songs on the album in album order, which is not (at all) the order in which they appeared in the original London production. It’s fair to say that the show’s biggest fault has always been that in constructing the plot, Tim Rice’s reach exceeded his grasp – to make the show’s combination of cold-war politics and international chess work completely probably requires a playwright of the calibre of Christopher Hampton and a lyricist with the skill and range of Stephen Sondheim, and while Rice has his moments he is neither of those things – but there is a viable show somewhere in this material. The basic story – an international chess championship in which the Russian contestant beats the American reigning champion and then defects to the west after falling in love with the American’s (female) second/coach – has potential, and the love story at the centre of the show can be quite touching if it’s played well. While some versions of the show have become bogged down in the layers of political intrigue in the second act, this version of the show goes too far in the opposite direction. For this production, somebody has taken the decision to reduce the show, more or less, to a series of Big Numbers with as little distance between them as possible. A great deal of the material that linked the big numbers in the original London production has been cut, to the point where one major supporting character – Walter, a CIA agent – is missing (and missed, particularly in the second act). Instead, the musical numbers are linked by brief snatches of atrociously simplistic dialogue that sounds like it was written on flashcards (at one point, one character actually announces “My heart is breaking!”).  The result is a script that sucks almost all the depth out of a piece that never had quite as much depth as it thought it did to begin with.

There might have been a good reason for that choice if things had worked out the way I suspect the producers – it’s a coproduction between the ENO and a commercial management – had planned. Similar ENO coproductions have had casting lined up before tickets went on sale – Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson in Sweeney Todd, Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard, Alfie Boe and Katherine Jenkins in Carousel. Chess didn’t, although it did have the same eye-watering ticket prices (peaking at £150, with a transaction charge on top if you book online) as those three earlier shows. Tickets had been on sale for more than three months before the casting for the leads was announced; Michael Ball, playing the Russian chess champion at the centre of the plot, told the Daily Express in an interview that he approached the producers about the role in January, after tickets had already been on sale for a couple of months. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the producers were pursuing some kind of megastar for one or more of the leads, and that the people they were hoping to sign turned it down. That, in turn, probably explains this version of the script: if the aim was to cast pop stars, which is an understandable aim given that the ENO’s previous three musical coproductions have all relied to some extent on superstar casting, then it makes sense to strip out everything that might expose their limitations as stage actors. If you also strip out most of the (already limited) character development, maybe it doesn’t matter if the leading roles are going to be played by the kind of million-megawatt STARS whose personal charisma can fill in the blanks.

That approach, though, falls apart when your star casting falls through and you have to find a set of leads at the last minute. As Florence, the woman who ping-pongs between the American and Russian champions, Cassidy Janson is perfectly OK. She has a really good voice, she sings the hell out of Nobody’s Side – my favourite song in the score – and she’s a decent actress and she manages to deliver some really, really atrocious dialogue with a straight face. She is not the kind of star who can use sheer force of personality to paper over the cracks in the script, particularly in a space the size of the Coliseum, and it shows. She’s very good, but she’d be far better in a version of the show that gave her more to act, which would be literally every single other version of the show that has ever been staged, rather than one designed to accommodate (and protect) stars with limited stage experience. As the Russian wife, Alexandra Burke – who is a pop star – has the opposite problem: she has a stunning voice, but she’s not quite the right kind of singer for most of her music here. Again, she doesn’t have the kind of superstar presence that might compensate for the (huge) gaps in her (very) underwritten role, but she also doesn’t have the kind of nuanced approach to interpreting song lyrics that would get the most mileage out of the interpolated He is a Man, He is a Child. That song, more than anything else in the score, is an extended dramatic monologue, albeit one with a couple of huge musical peaks; Ms. Burke, unfortunately, can’t act. At all. She makes lovely sounds, but they usually seem unconnected to the words she’s singing.

The men fare better. As the Arbiter, Cedric Neal blows the roof off the Coliseum in his one big number. Tim Howar‘s John McEnroe-esque Freddie, the bratty American champion, is so brilliantly sung that it’s easy to forgive his relative lack of charisma in the (brief) scenes. His biggest number, Pity the Child, is a formidably difficult rock howler, and he pulls it off effortlessly (I could have done without the gratuitous “NOOOOOOOOOOOOO” at the end of the song, though – perhaps it snuck in uninvited from Laurence Connor’s mediocre production of Miss Saigon, in which more than one actor does more or less the same thing, but it should have been shown the door the moment it appeared in rehearsals). And as Anatoly, the Russian challenger in the chess championship, Michael Ball is the only one of the production’s leads who has the combination of voice, acting skill, and charisma necessary to make this streamlined version of the show completely work for him. Somehow, despite a script that provides almost no connective tissue between his big numbers, he manages to create a believable character. It’s very easy to make fun of his cheesy vocal mannerisms – he put at least half the cheese into cheesy listening – but he’s on his best behaviour here and his singing is mostly superb, and the cheese, thank God, is mostly left offstage. His Anthem, the defiantly patriotic/internationalist hymn Anatoly sings at the climax of the first act, is the production’s most thrilling musical moment, and also one of the few moments in the production that works as drama.

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As for the production itself, I’m starting to think ‘directed by Laurence Connor’ should be taken as some kind of warning. There’s a spectacular set by Matt Kinley – remarkably spectacular for a five-week run – consisting of grids of square screens which show video projections (designed by Terry Scruby) – sometimes of the actors emoting their way through their big numbers, sometimes of cold-war newsreel footage, and sometimes wince-inducingly naff computerised animation, like the sequence early in the first act when we see Freddie’s private jet descend over Merano then turn (at an improbable angle) and land at the airport. Stephen Mear’s choreography gets the most out of the two big scene-setting dance numbers, and his parade of merchandisers in the opening ceremony sequence is terrific (it’s also the only place where Scruby’s video footage – which in that sequence shows Howar mugging his way through a series of gloriously spot-on ads for chess-themed souvenir merchandise ranging from coffee mugs to toothpaste – manages to be genuinely witty). There’s a lot going on – a lot of people on the stage, a lot of other visual information via the screens, and Connor does manage to marshall it all so nothing collides with anything else, and so that it’s always clear where you should be looking. He’s very good at the big picture, just as he was in Miss Saigon – but again, just like in his production of Miss Saigon, there’s not a great deal of subtlety to any of the performances, his attention to character work seems to stop at big, bland, generic emotions, and he’s prone to letting actors over-emote in places where less would be more. In the Swedish production in which it premiered, the late Josefin Nilsson‘s performance of He is a Man, He is a Child is a masterpiece of restraint – she has big notes, but she deploys them very carefully, and it’s all the more moving for it. Burke, on the other hand, has two volume settings and a tendency to sob, and the result isn’t nearly as moving because there is absolutely no feeling behind it. And Cassidy Janson sings much of the (gorgeous) final duet with tears (and mascara) running down her cheeks; it’s not a good choice, the moment would be more moving if we saw her holding back emotion rather than giving in to it.

But then, this version of the show, as I said at the beginning, probably wasn’t intended to be about acting. In purely musical terms, much of what you’ll hear is superb, and if you go for the music you’ll love it. Several individual numbers received thunderous applause, the show as a whole received a huge standing ovation, and – as a musical experience, as opposed to as a piece of musical theatre – it absolutely deserved it. As a concert with over-the-top visuals, it’s a stunning success. As a piece of theatre, it is lacking. The show might never completely work in any version, but as theatre even Richard Nelson‘s turd of a book from the Broadway production would be an improvement over what’s on offer at the Coliseum. It’ll be a long time before you get to hear these songs played by this kind of orchestra and chorus again, though – at least unless you go to Sweden, where the show is sometimes produced by major opera companies – so if you love the music this is certainly a must-see. Just – as I said – manage your expectations.

Finally, for the Chess geeks among us, the song list:

Act One

Overture (the first half of the overture used on Broadway)
The Story of Chess
Merano
Where I Want to Be (includes the preceding scene from the concept album)
Opening Ceremony/US vs. USSR/Merchandisers
The Arbiter/Chess Hymn
Chess
Quartet (A Model of Decorum and Tranquility)
Nobody’s Side (includes the preceding scene from the concept album)
Der Kleine Franz
Mountain Duet
Chess
Florence Quits
Someone Else’s Story (with Svetlana’s lyrics from the Australian production)
Embassy Lament
Anthem

Act Two:

He is a Man, He is a Child
Golden Bangkok
One Night in Bangkok
Heaven Help My Heart
The Soviet Machine
The Interview
Argument
I Know Him So Well
The Deal (mostly as on the concept album but with Svetlana’s reprise of Where I Want to Be at the beginning)
Pity the Child
Endgame
You And I (musically as on the concept album, incorporating a short reprise of The Story of Chess rather than all of it, but using the Broadway lyrics for the main body of the song rather than the [better] ones from the concept album)

Bows – an instrumental mostly based on Nobody’s Side.

Fingers on the buzzers, please!

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Remember the coughing Major, Charles Ingram, who was tried for and convicted of cheating on the TV game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? by getting signals from plants in the studio audience via the sound of their coughs? You do? I don’t. I was living abroad at the time, and the whole thing passed me by. Whether it’s a good thing to come to Quiz, James Graham‘s new manipulative theatrical stunt play, with no preconceived notions about the central character, is questionable; the show is clearly very carefully designed to take the audience’s preconceptions and toy with them, and it may be a more compelling experience if you actually have some preconceptions going in. If you know next to nothing about the case and you’re hoping for more depth than you’d find in, say, a Wikipedia article, revise your expectations downwards. Sharply downwards.

Having said that, it’s fun. Graham’s conceit is to take the prosecution and defence cases and present them, one per act, in the style of a high-stakes gameshow, allowing the audience to vote (via digital remote controls attached to each seat) at the end of each act on whether the Ingrams – his wife was also implicated, which I might have known if I’d paid any attention to news stories about the trial, but which had also passed me by – are guilty. Graham’s writing is fast-paced, often very funny, and glib; the form dictates the content here, so information is delivered mostly in carefully-packaged bite-size chunks that slot in neatly between Keir Charles’s Teflon-smooth impersonations of a cheesy TV warm-up comedian and various gameshow hosts. The production, which is designed to the hilt by Robert Jones to look as if it’s taking place on the set of a gameshow in a TV studio, is a tremendously entertaining theatrical experience, but there’s a more probing play to be written about the people at the heart of this scandal – the Ingrams, yes, but also the behaviour of the TV executives and lawyers behind the show, which appears to have been far from beyond reproach, particularly in terms of how they presented their evidence against the Ingrams and their alleged co-conspirators – and this is not it. This, instead, is a clever exercise in manipulation: we see the prosecution case in the first act, and are invited to vote on the Ingrams’ guilt after the summation, and the result is inevitable – and then in the second half, we see the defence case, are invited to vote again, and the result is clearly expected to be somewhat different (it wasn’t as different at the performance I saw – the matinee on April 12th – as it apparently usually is at most performances). There are points to be made about the perils of trial by public opinion and – in particular – the vast, yawning chasm between whether someone actually committed a crime versus whether the prosecution proved the case against them beyond reasonable doubt, and Graham mostly glosses over them – but again, to give the benefit of the doubt, perhaps Graham’s point of view, if it extends beyond simply showing how people can be manipulated, comes across more clearly if you know more about the case going in than I did, which wouldn’t be difficult.

The play, then, might not be a masterpiece, but Daniel Evans‘s production of it, which has now transferred to the West End after a successful run last year at Chichester, is pretty much perfect. It is difficult to imagine the play working at all without all the bells and whistles – the devices allowing the audience to vote (a show of hands wouldn’t generate the same tension, because you would be able to see the result all around you as you voted), the video screens, the garish Saturday-night-on-ITV light show, the music and all the rest of it, and Evans manages the difficult trick of orchestrating all of these very, very LOUD elements in a way that doesn’t overshadow the cast. More than that, he draws a very fine, very dignified performance from Gavin Spokes as Ingram, and a carefully calculated did-she-didn’t-she turn from Stephanie Street as Diana Ingram, the Major’s possibly-duplicitous wife. The supporting roles are more caricatures than characters, but the show has a terrific ensemble cast and everyone gets a couple of moments in the sun. There’s some mild audience participation – if you want to avoid being called out, DON’T sit in the front row of the onstage seating areas – but it’s all slick, carefully-managed, good-natured fun, which is also a good-enough description of the show as a whole. It isn’t earth-shattering, and you may emerge longing for an analysis of this story that has a bit more depth to it, but you’ll have a good time.

Oh yes, one more thing – a big shout-out to the usher covering the house-right door into the Royal Circle at the matinee on April 12th. It was just fabulous for those of us sitting near the door to hear you talking into your headset all the way through both acts. I’m sure James Graham designed his play very carefully so that it would be enhanced by the sound of a boorish usher holding a non-work conversation with colleagues over her headset while sitting at the back of the house while the lights were down. It really added to the experience. Well done to the house manager at the Noel Coward Theatre – you’ve clearly trained your staff beautifully.

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Blow Us All Away

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Yes, it really is THAT good. Yes, the tidal-wave of hype is absolutely justified. Yes, this very American story plays perfectly well to a British audience. And yes, it seems like nearly every single review of the London production of Hamilton has begun by saying exactly the same thing, but the last musical to arrive here from Broadway trailing this level of advance expectation was probably The Lion King, 19 years ago.

As just about everybody knows by now, Hamilton – book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda – tells the story of the rise and fall of Alexander Hamilton, one of the US’s founding fathers and the man whose face appears on the $10 bill. Miranda’s twist is to tell the story of America’s very, very white founding fathers using a cast and a musical palette that reflects America today: a diverse, multicultural tossed salad of ethnicities and influences in which everybody who isn’t wholly descended from Indigenous Americans can trace their ancestry back to somewhere outside the country, and where the white hegemony in popular culture has long since dissolved into a smorgasbord of genres and influences whose roots stretch far beyond the US’s borders. The show has a notably diverse cast – white performers are a distinct minority – and Manuel’s score travels all over the musical map from rap to hip-hop to contemporary musical theatre, somehow managing to blend influences and musical/lyrical allusions that range from Eminem, Beyoncé and Tupac Shakur to the Beatles to Gilbert and Sullivan and Sondheim into a coherent, compelling, thoroughly theatrical whole. It’s a dense, dazzling, genuinely exciting piece of writing, and it appears to have captured the public’s imagination in a way very few new musicals have managed in recent years; the Broadway production was nominated for 16 Tony awards and won 11, along with the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and the (flawlessly-produced) cast recording made it to Number One in the Billboard 200, has gone triple platinum in the US, topped the soundtracks (I know, I know) chart in the UK six months before the London production even began taking bookings, and won a Grammy. Tickets went on sale for the London production about eleven months before previews were scheduled to begin, and sold very quickly; bar a few returns, the initial booking period is sold out. This is, in short, an event. It’s become far more than just a musical that opened at New York’s Public Theater and did well enough there to warrant a transfer: it’s become a cultural touchstone, an instantly-recognisable entertainment product whose title seems to inspire an almost ludicrous degree of reverence. Michelle Obama – Michelle! Obama! – is said to have proclaimed it “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.”

I wouldn’t quite go that far, and I’m not sure that kind of hyperbolically extravagant praise is helpful: it creates the kind of expectations that are almost impossible for mere mortals to live up to. Hamilton is very, very good indeed. It’s a thrilling, original, daring piece of writing, it tells a complex story admirably clearly, and it is brilliantly staged and performed. It is not perfect, and it’s far too soon to tell whether it’s going to prove to be the game-changer some have labelled it. That said, Miranda succeeds remarkably well in delivering a potentially rather dry slab of history in a way that is consistently engaging and entertaining; his music is terrific, but the meat of this score is in the lyrics, which are clever, dense, sometimes tongue-twisting, and so packed with allusions that you’ll never get everything on first listen. And you will have to listen – in sharp contrast to the vapid green oz-fest playing across the street, you’ll have to pay close attention to these lyrics. To his very great credit, Miranda’s lyrics are a world away from the blandly generic greetings-card sentiments that characterise so much contemporary writing for musical theatre; the flow of information is almost dizzying, and you have to work to keep up.

That’s the piece’s biggest strength, but also its biggest failing: you could strip away Thomas Kail’s kinetic staging, Andy Blankenbuehler’s restlessly energetic choreography, the sets, the costumes, the lighting and everything else, and present the score with the band onstage and the actors behind mike stands, and the plot would still come across loudly and clearly, because Miranda’s score tells the story of Alexander Hamilton rather than dramatising it. What Miranda has written, essentially, is a dazzling contemporary oratorio; the piece was first conceived as a concept album, and it shows. The performance unfolds as a series of tableaux in which much of the plot is announced, which probably goes with the territory when rap is a primary storytelling tool. This should be a serious flaw, and in just about any other kind of musical it would be, but Miranda gets away with it because his text is so rich and so fast-paced that you never get the sense, the way you do in something like Miss Saigon, that the plot is being delivered via flashcards.

And certainly, when he slows down to allow the show to take an emotional beat, the show is far more moving than you’d expect from the premise. Burn, Eliza Hamilton’s condemnation of her husband following the public revelation of his affair with Maria Reynolds, isn’t a generically tear-stained you-broke-my-heart Big Ballad, and it’s all the better for it (Burn is as good a traditional theatre song as anybody has written in the past twenty years). Instead, Miranda shows Eliza methodically burning her husband’s letters to her; she knows she is part of a significant moment in history, and Miranda shows her protecting her dignity and privacy by burning the letters so that historians will have no insight into her reaction to such public humiliation.

The finale, too, is surprising, more powerful than you’d expect, and conceived very cleverly: in a show in which there are relatively few big moments for the women in the cast (somewhat – although only somewhat – inevitable given the subject-matter), Miranda gives the last word to Eliza, in a song about her efforts to secure her husband’s legacy after his death. Almost the last thing we learn in the show is that Eliza founded an orphanage in New York City, and that she sees her husband’s face in the faces of the children she sees growing up there. It’s as close as Miranda comes to an explicit statement about the motivation for the production’s carefully colour-conscious (emphatically not “colour-blind”) casting: it’s something that should go without saying, but given the ugly history of race relations in the USA over the past 200 years, and the demonstrable fact that fifty years after the Voting Rights Act the USA is still a society in which your rights are defined by your skin tone, putting those lines in the mouth of an actress who is not white, who is playing a historical figure who was (more or less) white, surrounded by a (fabulous) multicultural cast of performers who are (also) almost all playing white historical figures makes a very definite statement. So, come to that, does the curtain call: company bows only, and no exit music. Again, although the show doesn’t quite say it explicitly, the message we’re clearly meant to take away is that Hamilton-the-show is not just the story of Alexander Hamilton. The title of that finale – Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story – drops a big hint: the show is nothing less than a breathtakingly audacious attempt to (re)define the USA’s origin myth in a way that (correctly) encompasses all of the people who came together to build America, and the brilliance of Miranda’s writing – and, to be fair, of Thomas Kail’s production – is that while it’s certainly a very wordy show, it succeeds in making the point crystal clear without delivering a lecture. In lesser hands – actually, in almost any other hands – delivering that lesson would probably have turned the finale into a thuddingly didactic company anthem full of the kind of shut-up-and-eat-your-broccoli sloganeering that makes the audience squirm in their seats. Miranda and Kail manage to deliver the lesson without delivering the lesson, and it’s an interesting paradox that in a show where, much of the time, the biggest fault in the writing is that too much is told instead of shown, the biggest lesson of all is delivered via the cast, or rather via the casting.

And for London, it has to be said, they’ve assembled a hell of a cast, and they’ve done it – are you listening, Book of Mormon? – by casting out of the local talent pool instead of parachuting a set of leads in from New York. Jamael Westman, in the title role, lists only two professional credits in his bio; he graduated from RADA about ten minutes ago, and you’d never guess he was just out of drama school. He’s absolutely at home with Miranda’s tongue-twisting way with language, and his Hamilton carefully grows from diffident student to intellectual heavyweight, somehow – and this is a very difficult trick indeed – gaining both stature and star power along the way. As Aaron Burr (Sir), Hamilton’s nemesis, Giles Terera offers more grit than we got from Leslie Odom, Jr.’s Teflon-smooth performance on the Broadway cast recording, and that’s no bad thing. Terera grabs hold of The Room Where It Happens, the score’s showiest showstopper, and slams it across the footlights to a wall of applause. Jason Pennycooke’s George Washington is located somewhere between Little Richard and Purple Rain-era Prince, and yet he manages to offer something far more complex and interesting than the one-joke punchline that description suggests. As Eliza’s sister Angelica, Rachel John makes the breathless, breathtaking Satisfied – Angelica’s lifelong battle between intellect and unrequited love, condensed into five minutes – into the show’s musical highlight. Rachelle Ann Go, who is quite dreadful in a relatively small role (Gigi) on the DVD of the recent revival of Miss Saigon, is guilty of a few LuPone-esque modified vowel sounds here (and she is the only member of this cast to suffer from that particular disease); I was all ready to dislike her, but her big moments – Burn and the finale – are both beautifully understated and very moving indeed. And Michael Jibson, luxury-cast in the three-verses-and-off comic-relief role as the British King George, rescues his one song from the clutches of Jonathan Groff’s excruciatingly unfunny performance on the original Broadway cast recording, finds every scrap of humour in lyrics which reimagine the Declaration of Independence as a bitter break-up between two very mismatched lovers, and somehow manages to bring the house down just by slightly raising one eyebrow. The ensemble performances are flawless, and – unusually – while I’m sure each performance is as carefully, mechanically timed and tracked as any other major musical production, there’s a much greater sense than you usually get at a big musical of the ensemble as a collection of distinct personalities rather than as a single mass. The dehumanising effect described in the finale of A Chorus Line – which, like Hamilton, began at the Public – is missing here, and I don’t remember the last time I saw a big musical whose production offered such a strong sense of each individual contributing something unique to the whole. The singing throughout is superb (granted, Westman isn’t really a singer, but Miranda wrote the title role for himself, and neither is he); I’m sure a London cast recording is unlikely, but these performances certainly deserve to be preserved.

It remains to be seen, though, whether the London production maintains the kind of impossible-ticket momentum the show has in the USA, and the fact that ticket prices moved sharply upwards for the just-opened second booking period (August to December this year) may slow sales down a little. My £57.50 seat – dress circle, way off to the side – would now cost £100, and it simply is not worth the same price as a seat further towards the centre of the house; worse, a fair number of seats that were £89.50 in the first booking period have been reclassified as “premium” seats, and now go for £250 each. Whether these prices are healthy for theatre as an art-form is a whole other discussion (spoiler: they are not); presumably the production was going to be profitable at the original prices, so the price hikes look unpleasantly like gouging. There are ways to see the show more affordably, and it is certainly worth the effort, but there’s also a distinctly nasty-tasting contrast between the studied all-in-this-together egalitarianism of Miranda’s writing and Kail’s staging and price hikes that make two seats in the centre stalls as expensive as a weekend in Italy. If you’re going to blow a wad of cash on a single theatrical event, this is certainly the one to pick – particularly since Network is only around until the end of March – but relegating the plebs, by which I mean those of us who can’t cough up £100 and up for a ticket, to the upper circle smacks of the worst kind of 1%-ism. Yes, it’s live theatre, and live theatre costs money – but it doesn’t cost that much money.

The show itself, though – as I said at the beginning – really is THAT good, and it lives up to the hype. The most remarkable thing about it, actually, was possibly the audience at the performance I attended. I wanted to come to the material relatively fresh when I saw it; of course I’d bought the cast album and a copy of the great big hardcover book containing the script and the story of the show’s genesis, but when I booked the ticket(s) a year ago (I’m seeing it again in June; I assumed they’d bump the priced up after the first booking period, and I wasn’t about to throw away my shot at a second visit) I stopped listening to the album and put the book back on the shelf. Apparently that puts me in a very small minority; it was clear from the way they responded to the show that a good chunk of the 1600 or so other people in the Victoria Palace knew the material word for word. More than that, they knew it off by heart and they were listening (I’ve been a front-of-house manager; believe me, you can tell when the audience aren’t listening). At a big musical these days that’s a less common experience than you’d think; there wasn’t, for example, any particularly egregious bad behaviour on display the night I saw 42nd Street back in October, but this audience engaged with the show in a way that that one just didn’t (granted, the current revival of 42nd Street is the musical theatre equivalent of a steamroller; you don’t have to concentrate on it because it more or less beats you into submission). That, again, is an achievement worth noting. As I’ve already said, it’s at least a decade and a half too soon to tell whether Hamilton turns out to be the kind of game-changer too many tedious articles smugly tell us it is, but for it to inspire that response in London, where the history it depicts is mostly not familiar and mostly not ours, is very impressive indeed. This is a brilliantly-conceived, thrillingly-executed piece of entertainment… so now that the prices have gone up, assuming you’d like to see it from a seat where you can see the actors without binoculars, you’d better start saving. It may take a while, but it’s worth it.

She’s got it! Yeah, baby, she’s got it!

venus in fur

As Vanda, the young woman who dominates (sorry) this limp two-hander, Natalie Dormer offers a ninety-minute masterclass in how to rise above your material. Nothing – and I mean nothing – else is anywhere near as good as she is, and she’s more or less the only reason to buy a ticket.

David Ives‘s undercooked play, a riff on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch‘s 1870 novel Venus in Furs, offers a few very funny lines but is never as clever or as edgy as it thinks it is. The setup is simple: Thomas, the writer/director of an upcoming (we assume way off-Broadway) adaptation of the novel, has spent the day auditioning bad actresses to play the central character. Just as he’s about to leave, a brash, apparently inexperienced young actress named Vanda Jordan appears (accompanied by thunder and lightning) and persuades him to let her audition – and when she starts to read she assumes the character she’s playing eerily quickly,  and it soon becomes obvious that she knows far more than she initially lets on about the novel, Thomas’s unpublished adaptation of it, and Thomas’s relationship with his (unseen) fiancée. What follows is supposed to be a nail-biting battle of the sexes in which Vanda and Thomas, following the pattern set by the characters in the source novel, each try to establish dominance over the other. There’s no interval, so basically the only nail-biting element here is how badly you’ll need to pee by the time the curtain comes down. There are twists and turns, certainly, but you’ll see them all coming a mile off, and the final big reveal – who Vanda really is – is unfortunately kind of spoiled by the tagline on the banner on the front of the theatre. This, I’m afraid, is a Bad Play, and it appears to have been written with little intent other than to objectify the actress playing Vanda, who gets to spend a big chunk of the performance wearing bondage gear and flirting with her leading man. There’s little insight and less tension, the writing tends towards the repetitive, and the script, overall, exudes all the sexual heat of a used teabag. No, not that kind of teabag.

Bad Plays, however, can sometimes be fun, and that’s true here – at least, up to a point. You’ll laugh – intermittently – but Ives’s script will probably mostly leave you rolling your eyes. Patrick Marber‘s staging is efficiently unshowy, and he probably gets as much out of the material as anyone could. And there’s nothing at all wrong with David Oakes‘s Thomas, except he fades into the background whenever Natalie Dormer’s Vanda is onstage, which unfortunately for Mr. Oakes encompasses all but the play’s first two-and-a-half minutes. Ms. Dormer, switching back and forth with dizzying ease between pungent Noo Yawk and a cultured, actressy RP, has dazzling comic timing and the sort of presence no drama school can teach, and her spectacular star turn eclipses pretty much everything else, from her costar and director to the set and the lighting. She can’t quite manage to turn a lousy play into a good one, but she keeps you entertained (lucky, because nothing else will), and she even manages to sell Ives’s howlingly camp ending.

Actually, the script as a whole could do with rather a lot more of the kind of camp you see in the last three minutes.  Dormer is sensational, and this isn’t selling well so there are discounts around; it’s well worth the £15 you’ll pay on Today Tix. Nearly all the way through, it’s simply far too safe. It may – MAY – work better when there’s an actor with more presence (or any presence) playing Thomas, but that still wouldn’t disguise the biggest problem here: Ives’s script is decaf Nescafé when it should be a triple espresso.

 

Wind ’em up and watch ’em go!

42ndst2

You will have a good time watching the revival of 42nd Street at Drury Lane.

Is that clear? You WILL have a good time watching the revival of 42nd Street at Drury Lane.

Sorry, I don’t think you’ve quite got it yet. YOU WILL HAVE A GOOD TIME WATCHING THE REVIVAL OF 42ND STREET AT DRURY LANE.

YOU WILL BE ASSIMILATED.

ALL DISSENT IS TREASON.

Actually, snark aside, you’ll be entertained, and often a lot more than that. It’s just that by the curtain call you may also be exhausted. This is a great big brightly-coloured juggernaut of a show. It’s slick, fast-paced, a bit too loud, and absolutely relentless; it’s often great fun, but it might be more fun if the production occasionally paused for breath. There’s a huge ensemble of tap-dancers, drilled to within an inch of their lives by choreographer Randy Skinner. There are gaudy, spectacular sets by Douglas W. Schmidt, who seems to have had a great time taking every single Busby Berkeley cliché and hurling the whole lot of them at Drury Lane’s vast stage. Roger Kirk’s sequins-and-spangles costumes for the chorus are noisier than Gareth Owen’s ear-splitting sound design. It’s an eye-popping, jaw-dropping two-and-a-half-hours of sensory overload, and sometimes it’s glorious.

It’s so relentlessly BIG, though, that the puny little human beings at the centre of it sometimes seem curiously irrelevant. There’s no need to discuss the plot because everybody knows about the film, even if these days not everybody has seen it: it’s not simply that the film is the ultimate go-out-a-nobody-and-come-back-a-star fantasy writ large – the film created most of the go-out-a-nobody-and-come-back-a-star clichés, and that scene where the director tells the chorus girl to (getting the point yet?) go out there a nobody and come back a star is a widely-referenced, universally-recognisable touchstone in American popular culture. That the film has become a CULTURAL MONOLITH, though, isn’t only down to the plot or the musical numbers. The film gained the currency it did because, on top of spectacle and an irresistible story, the cast list is a roll call of irresistible, memorable movie stars: Ruby Keeler, Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell. Here, in their place, we have a lot of very efficient performances. Everybody hits their notes and their marks, but Mark Bramble appears to have directed most of his cast to act in semaphore. With very few exceptions, there’s little subtlety and less charm. The sheer energy emanating from the stage will be enough to carry you along – don’t have a coffee or shoot amphetamines before the show, artificial stimulants might push you over the edge – and the LAUGHS are telegraphed LOUDLY enough that you won’t be able to help laughing too, but the film traded in personalities as well as plot, and this production mostly doesn’t. And I mean it mostly really doesn’t.

There are a few exceptions, fortunately, and they’re wonderful. As Maggie Jones, a co-author of the show chorus-girl Peggy Sawyer is supposed to Go Out And Become The Star Of, Jasna Ivir is warm, funny, and an absolute delight. It’s unfortunate that her ability to project a charming, human performance despite the steamroller of a production surrounding her makes a few of the show’s supporting players seem even more like robots, but you can’t have everything. Clare Halse’s Peggy, too, is the real deal: a good singer, a terrific dancer, presence to spare, and she, like Ivir, pulls off the neat trick of demonstrating an actual personality instead of being dwarfed by the garish costumes and gargantuan dance routines. I’ve no idea what top-billed Sheena Easton is like as fading star Dorothy Brock because she was out on Tuesday night; she probably sings the hell out of her songs (in this production, she gets an extra one – ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ – because if your biggest star is a star singer and her character is onstage for only four-and-a-half minutes of the second act, you really need to throw her a bone), but her understudy, CJ Johnson, gave a fine, flawless account of the role, and Ms. Easton was not missed. As Julian Marsh, the tough-talking director of the show-within-the-show, Tom Lister seems, until late in the second act, to be perfecting a very good Jerry Orbach impersonation – but then right at the end of the second act, after the final big production number, the show finally slows down and takes a breath, finishing with a sweetly touching scene between director and chorus-girl-turned-star and Marsh’s solo rendition of the title song. At that point – but only at that point – Lister makes the role his own. Those last few minutes, in fact, despite not including forty-odd tap-dancers, mirrors, dance props, moving scenery, or any notably gaudy costumes, are by far the best thing in the show.

The bottom line: you WILL have a good time, though you may also leave the theatre feeling like you’ve been bludgeoned into submission. The choreography is often dazzling, Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s songs are classics of their genre, there’s a superb band under the direction of Jae Alexander (and a nifty little lift under the conductor’s podium in the pit which propels him upwards into a spotlight so that the audience can see him conduct the overture and entr’acte), and the show as a whole, wearyingly relentless at it sometimes seems, is bright, shiny, colourful fun. If it sometimes – OK, often – feels like a theme-park recreation of a Thirties musical comedy, that’s because it IS: this material was never conceived for the stage, even though it’s about the creation of a stage musical, and the production’s relentlessly overcaffeinated imitation of the various performance tropes associated with Thirties backstage movie musicals is so shamelessly overhyped that the extravaganza now on display at Drury Lane inevitably seems (more than) a little ersatz. It is great fun – genuinely – but you may very well end up with the odd suspicion that you’re being forced to have fun at gunpoint. That the show doesn’t feel like it’s being performed entirely by animatronics or replicants is largely down to Clare Halse and Jasna Ivir – really, whatever they’re being paid, it isn’t enough. When they’re onstage – and in Halse and Lister’s final scene, too – this 42nd Street can charm as well as overwhelm. The rest of the time? As I said, YOU WILL HAVE FUN.

 

Let us worship

AMLD

It’s unusual – strikingly unusual – for a West End production not to hire understudies, but there are no understudies here: Audra McDonald is the main event, and her uncanny, goosebump-inducing, devastating embodiment of Billie Holiday is more than worth whatever you pay for your ticket. This is less a play than a performance; McDonald is astonishing, and that’s just as well, because the writing underneath is rather on the thin side.

That’s partly dictated by the format. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill recreates one of Billie Holiday’s late-career performances in a bar in Philadelphia (we’re told in a programme note that the playwright’s partner saw one such performance in 1959, a few months before Holiday’s death). A visibly intoxicated Holiday staggers on, stumbles through a few songs, and in her between-song patter delivers the story of her life. As written by Lanie Robertson, it’s more than a little contrived, although Robertson mercifully steers well away from the luridly purple invented scenes that characterise Peter Quilter’s awful End of the Rainbow, which takes a not-dissimilar look at Judy Garland’s demise. Robertson’s Lady Day is drunk and rambling and visibly impaired, and – for better or worse – presented without editorialising. There’s no other point of view on the stage, save the occasional interjection from Sheldon Becton as Holiday’s musical director, and that’s possibly no bad thing, given the way invented dialogue in celebrity biographies so often descends into melodramatic sludge. There’s just Billie Holiday, performing her life for patrons in a bar.

And that, unfortunately, is where the artful artifice of Lonny Price‘s production starts to fray around the edges. Despite a terrific barroom set by Christopher Oram, with patrons seated onstage and nightclub tables filling the (more) expensive half of the stalls, the show simply doesn’t sit very well in an elegant late-Victorian jewel-box like Wyndham’s. The venue is too pretty and (although it’s hardly one of the West End’s biggest houses) too large, and despite the best efforts of the director, the designer, and McDonald herself, it’s difficult to recreate the intimacy necessary for this piece in a theatre that seats 750 people on four levels (if you see this – and you should – you really need to sit downstairs). The proscenium arch doesn’t help; Robertson’s text works strenuously to maintain the illusion that we’re watching a performance in a nightclub; even from the back of the stalls, you simply aren’t close enough. The production cries out for a smaller, less ostentatiously pretty, more flexible venue, but such places are in relatively short supply in London. The Young Vic would have been ideal, but it possibly doesn’t quite fit their mission – and for a limited season the numbers may well not have added up in a venue with half the number of seats.

And in any case, McDonald’s performance is so jaw-dropping that it almost feels like bad manners to quibble at any element of the production surrounding her, even though some elements of it are undoubtedly problematic. Her mastery of Billie Holiday’s very individual vocal mannerisms is astonishing – all the more so when you consider the basic nature of McDonald’s voice, because Billie Holiday really wasn’t a Juilliard-trained soprano. It’s not simply a vocal impersonation, though – McDonald gets under Holiday’s skin and delivers a haunting, haunted portrayal of a star on the verge of self-destruction. There’s a smattering of Holiday’s best-known songs here, of course, and McDonald’s delivery of them is beyond reproach; what you’ll remember, though, isn’t the voice, so much as the intensity. Strange Fruit, in particular, is a riveting, chilling performance, but you’ll learn as much about Holiday from the moment at the song’s conclusion where McDonald shoots a disgusted glare at her music director for having just forced her to sing it. McDonald’s Billie Holiday is a walking open wound, and singing this song wounds her further.

If this makes it sound as though the performance is all darkness, it shouldn’t. Certainly, Billie Holiday’s life story is bleak, and neither Robertson nor McDonald shy away from that, but McDonald makes Holiday’s interactions with her audience in her more lucid moments thoroughly charming, and finds – almost unbelievably – considerable bawdy humour in a story about a southern restaurant hostess’s horrific racism. Even in a space that isn’t quite appropriate for the production, this works – Price’s unobtrusive direction makes the best of both the piece and the difficult venue, the three musicians are terrific, and McDonald herself is giving a performance for the ages. It’s a shame the production surrounding her isn’t quite as perfect as she is, but it doesn’t matter: you’re here for the star, and the star more than delivers.