America singing

working southwark programme

This could so easily have been the dreariest show imaginable. Working is a plotless musical with a piecemeal score supplied by a handful of different songwriters, based on Studs Terkel‘s seminal 1974 book of oral histories about life in the American workplace. It’s not a book that seems to cry out to be adapted as a musical, particularly given that it doesn’t follow anything you’d recognise as a traditional narrative and it doesn’t focus in on any single leading character. As adapted from Terkel’s book by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, it’s essentially a series of vignettes: a selection of songs and monologues, each delivered by a different character, with a kind of dramatic through-line but no “story”, based on real-life interviews in which people talk about their work, how they feel about it, and how (or whether) it defines them.

And it’s wonderful. Having a multitude of composers supply two or three songs each is an approach that really shouldn’t work, but it does here: these are terrific character monologues set to music by composers ranging from the late Mary Rodgers to Lin-Manuel Miranda, with simple, direct lyrics drawn directly from Terkel’s interviews. This isn’t quite verbatim theatre along the lines of London Road or Committee; the songwriters here (who also include, aside from Schwartz, Susan Birkenhead, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, and James Taylor) craft lyrics from the text in the interviews instead of setting reported speech directly to music. The result is a startling, moving, warmly real collection of characters – ordinary people, portrayed without cliché, looking for meaning in ordinary lives. So often, musical theatre trades in the larger-than-life – big characters painted in broad strokes. There’s none of that here, and no tap-dancing either,* and the show is all the better for it.

working southwark song list

The six leading actors all play several characters, and they’re all superb. The brilliant Gillian Bevan is sensational as, among other things, a public school teacher reflecting on how teaching has changed since her career began four decades previously and a waitress who finds tremendous pride and dignity in her work. Krysten Cummings finds huge emotional depth in the affecting “Just a Housewife”. Dean Chisnall throws himself into “Brother Trucker” with unrestrained glee, then later delivers a devastating monologue – which takes on a new immediacy in the wake of the horror of Grenfell Tower – as a firefighter considering the reasons he chose such a dangerous career. Siubhan Harrison delivers as good a performance of James Taylor’s “Millwork” as you’re ever likely to hear, and Liam Tamne finds all the comedy in his collection of young/callow characters, and especially in a monologue as a spoiled brat who gets fired from his first job for gross insubordination. Towering above them all is Peter Polycarpou, offering a masterclass in character acting as he shifts personas at the drop of a hat (or rather, at the punch of a time-card).

The show’s ensemble is made up of half-a-dozen straight-out-of-drama-school performers making their professional debuts, and they’re wonderful, but they aren’t given enough to do. A couple of weeks ago, I saw Miriam-Teak Lee give a flawlessly hilarious debut production in On The Town in Regent’s Park. The six young actors here – Patrick Coulter, Nicola Espallardo, Izuka Hoyle, Luke Latchman, Huon Mackley, and Kerri Norville – are clearly all immensely talented, and their movement, via Fabian Aloise’s character-derived choreography, gives the show much of its energy. In too many scenes, though, they are more or less relegated to singing backing vocals, and that’s a pity. Luke Sheppard’s direction keeps them (and everyone else) moving at a good clip, but you’re left with the impression that they could have been allowed to contribute more. Sheppard does a great job of making the show’s lightning-fast transitions between characters and stories admirably clear, Jean Chan’s blue-collar industrial set provides a fitting backdrop, and the show looks great under Nic Farman’s understated lighting, particularly considering the tiny budget. It might be nice to have more than six musicians – but at this size of venue, at these prices, six is a luxury, and the band sounds great under Isaac McCullough’s sensitive musical direction.

If there’s anything to fault, it’s in the material itself, or rather in how this version of the show was constructed. Terkel’s original book appeared in 1974, and the musical, based on the interviews in Terkel’s book, began development in 1975 and opened in 1977 (there’s a helpful timeline in the programme). Lin-Manuel Miranda, the youngest of the show’s various songwriters, was born in 1980; a revised version of the show was developed between 2009 and 2011, based on new interviews conducted by Stephen Schwartz in 2006-7. Miranda’s two songs are excellent, and sound perfectly in keeping with the rest of the score, and “A Very Good Day”, sung by two underpaid caregivers, is one of the show’s great highlights – but the world of work changed a great deal between 1974 and 2006, and the show doesn’t quite manage to negotiate the transition between then and now. As the (intermissionless) performance moves towards its climax with Craig Carnelia’s closing “Something To Point To”, you may well feel a couple of chapters have been missed along the way.

That’s a minor quibble, though, because in most respects the production is an absolute triumph. Whether it will get one is anyone’s guess, but it certainly deserves a longer life; there’s a rumour that a cast recording may be in the offing (or at least, Peter Polycarpou apparently mentioned in a radio interview that a live album was being made), and if the show’s producers are listening, I will buy a copy the second it comes out. Luke Sheppard’s production makes a strong case for this show as a neglected classic, and the performances are simply flawless. Once again, the Southwark Playhouse comes up trumps: they work on a shoestring, but this is probably as good a musical production as you’ll see all year.

*I don’t hate tap-dancing. Really. I’ve a ticket to see 42nd Street later in the year. I even paid for it myself.

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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.

 

 

Dreamgirls will never leave you…

DGP

First, a confession: I never liked Glee. I didn’t dislike Amber Riley in it (and I loathed a couple of her co-stars), but when she was announced to star in a (long-overdue) London production of Dreamgirls, I was far more interested in seeing the show than in seeing her in it. I’d have been perfectly happy to go on a Monday night, when Ms. Riley is not scheduled to perform. I wouldn’t have been at all bothered if one of the alternates had been on. Seeing the clip of her singing on the Olivier Awards did not change my mind, and neither did reviewing the production’s cast album. In both cases, I thought her singing was terrific, but there wasn’t anything that convinced me this was one of those drop-everything-and-book-a-ticket must-see performances.

As it turns out, though, I didn’t see the show on a Monday. Ms. Riley was on, and I was completely wrong about her. Two-thirds of the way through And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going, I found myself doing something I don’t remember doing in a very long time: applauding a performance in the middle of a song. I knew she had a great voice, but the blazing intensity she brought to that moment is not something I expected from her – and she was even more remarkable in the second act. I found myself applauding in the middle of I Am Changing and Listen as well, and she deserved it. I’m sure her alternates are great, but Ms. Riley is delivering a genuine star performance, and I’m (to my surprise) very glad I got to see it.

I’m glad I finally got to see the show itself, too. Dreamgirls was a reasonably substantial hit on Broadway in 1981, but for some reason it’s taken 35 years for it to be produced in London. The composer’s hilariously awful Siamese twin musical Side Show, which has flopped on Broadway twice (I saw the first version) and which, in a song called I Will Never Leave You, contains possibly the stupidest lyrics ever performed on the musical stage, arrived in London (slightly) before Dreamgirls, albeit in a fringe production rather than in the West End. A London production of Dreamgirls has been an occasional feature of the theatrical rumour mill for as long as I’ve been paying attention, to the point where it’s actually slightly surprising to see that the show is up and running.

And not only is it up and running, it’s up and running in a very strong production indeed. Casey Nicholaw‘s direction and choreography pays careful homage to Michael Bennett‘s original Broadway staging  – no I didn’t see it, but there’s enough footage out there and enough has been written about it that we all know how it worked – without ever directly reproducing it. It’s slick, fast-paced, and (occasionally literally) dazzling; as in Bennett’s staging, the main element of the set consists of four sliding, revolving columns of spotlights, and the show’s action unfolds in constant, fluid motion. There are no blackouts between scenes, and relatively few pauses for applause (which is one reason we all found ourselves applauding Amber Riley two-thirds of the way through her first big number). A couple of big performance set-pieces aside, Tim Hatley’s set includes relatively little scenery – no walls, no rooms, just minimal furniture, with changes in location suggested by those constantly-moving light towers, Gregg Barnes’s spectacular costumes, Hugh Vanstone’s endlessly inventive lighting, and a lot of wigs. Dreamgirls evokes (and is set during) a period in which pop music aspired to glamour rather than grunge; there may be less to the physical production than meets the eye, in terms of the number of elements that make up the set, but the show looks gorgeous.

It sounds gorgeous too, but then it has to. Dreamgirls is the story of a black girl-group called the Dreamettes (later just the Dreams) from Chicago, their ascent to national fame, and the rift that opens up when the group’s original lead singer is fired just as they’re on the cusp of stardom. The parallels with The Supremes are obvious – Effie White, the lead singer who gets fired and has to learn to strike out on her own, is basically Florence Ballard, if Florence Ballard didn’t die halfway through the story’s second act. Deena Jones, the prettier, lighter-voiced, thinner backing singer who is promoted to lead in order to project a more glamorous image, is pretty much Diana Ross, right down to wanting (in the second act) to disband the group so that she can go and star in a film. So far, so obvious, but what makes the show so fascinating is the way Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen‘s brilliant score takes you on a guided tour of black American popular music of the 60s and 70s, along the way carefully showing how musical styles that were originally dismissed as “race music” had to be gradually adjusted/sanded-down/whitened in order to receive mainstream acceptance. On one level, this is simply another gotta-make-it-in-showbiz backstage musical, but there’s considerable subtext in the music, in terms of the way in which it shows how black performers (and by extension black people in general) had (and still have) to conform to the expectations of their white peers in order to “fit in”. It’s a very, very clever piece of writing, and the fact that Krieger and Eyen accomplish this via a parade of electrifying individual songs makes their achievement here all the more remarkable. There’s almost an embarrassment of riches here: Move (You’re Stepping On My Heart), Cadillac Car, Steppin’ to the Bad Side, Heavy, And I Am Telling You…, I Am Changing, Ain’t No Party, One Night Only, Listen, and the title song are all thrilling, distinguished, distinctive musical numbers of a kind that certain more recent “hit musicals” – including some that have played at the Savoy – would kill to match even once. This is one of the great Broadway scores of the late Twentieth century, and the band and cast here more than do it justice.

Amber Riley’s Effie White is, as I already said, a sensational star performance; she manages to nail every one of her bg moments without ever calling to mind Jennifers Holliday and Hudson, the originators of the role on (respectively) stage and film, and she’s more than worth whatever they’re paying her. Don’t dwell too much on the moment in the first act when Liisi LaFontaine’s just-about-perfect Deena Jones says she can’t sing like Effie – she certainly can, and when she and Ms. Riley finally face off in a belt-your-tonsils-out duet late in the second act – Listen, dragged in from the film with new lyrics by Willie Reale – they practically blow the roof off the theatre. As third member of the group Lorrell Robinson (the Supremes’ Mary Wilson, more or less) Asmeret Ghebremichael offers a blazing Ain’t No Party. These women all have incredible, powerhouse voices, but they blend beautifully when they sing as a group as well, and that’s not always as easy to achieve as you’d think. The men, perhaps, are less individually distinctive, but their performances are all impeccable, as is Nick Finlow’s musical direction. It’s hard to imagine a production of the show that sounds better than this one.

Criticisms… really, not many. I’d held off booking a ticket because prices in the West End seem to be on a sharply upward trajectory, to the point where the seat that cost me £49 for Gypsy in the same theatre two years ago is on sale at £72.50 for this, which (to put it nicely) is not a price rise that can be attributed to inflation – but actually, as it turns out, there are some bargains elsewhere in the theatre if you do a bit of research and know where to look, and they aren’t all in the upper circle. The programme is another matter: yes, it’s glossy, contains some nice production photos and three pages of costume sketches, and the articles in it, for once, are not written by a moron, but it costs £8.00, and that’s a blatant cash-grab. Now, granted, I fell for it – I bought one, and I don’t particularly regret it – but £8.00 is just too much money. And while this production is glorious, the cast recording is disappointing for reasons that have nothing to do with the material or the performers. The poster art is a little bit naff, but that’s par for the course in the West End these days.

The show itself, though, really is as good as its reputation, and this production does it proud. From the insistent cowbell at the top of the show to the final note of the reprise of the title song at the very end, this Dreamgirls grabs your attention and never lets go. It’s a real theatrical thrill-ride – and the thrills, for once, come via voices rather than hydraulics. It’s brash and loud, sure, but it’s packed with sensational songs and wonderful performances, and – don’t faint – the show’s book and lyrics never once insult your intelligence, which unfortunately is becoming an increasingly unusual quality in big commercial musicals. If you haven’t seen it yet, you need to; this is just about as good as the West End gets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fun and games

pvwp

It’s every bit as good as you thought it would be. Go and see it now… oh, wait, you can’t, it closed yesterday. Keep an eye out of the NT Live encore screening, because if you admire the play at all this is something you need to see.

Beyond that, actually, I don’t have a huge amount to say about it. I’ve said before that this is a play I admire rather than love, and that’s true this time as well, but this revival – directed beautifully by James Macdonald – is a bit more of a roller-coaster ride than the last one I saw. Usually, productions of this play are a bit like ordering off a set menu where you can have one item from each column – so you can have the laughs and the viciousness, or the deep hurt and the vulnerability, or the rage and the regret, but you can’t have them all together. Not this time. This time, thanks to a stunning quartet of actors, you get the lot. Imelda Staunton, as you’d expect, is a perfect Martha, and she does a staggering job of capturing all of the character’s oppositions (fierce/pathetic, funny/vicious, loving/hateful, wounded/wounding and all the rest), but in this production it’s really George’s play, which is by no means always the case. Conleth Hill is extraordinary – very, very funny, he somehow manages the odd trick of dominating while (or possibly by) being downtrodden, and he’s exceptionally moving when he allows George’s sardonic mask to slip.

As the younger couple, Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots are also spectacularly good. Treadaway’s Nick is slick, ambitious, and somewhat lacking a moral compass – he can barely be bothered to disguise how much he dislikes his wife, and he doesn’t appear to have any qualms at all about making out with Martha while George is in the room. And Imogen Poots’s Honey is a riot until she sobers up and starts to dimly grasp the truth about her own marriage; this is Poots’s professional stage debut, and it’s a very fine performance indeed.

There’s fine, unobtrusive direction from James Macdonald and a handsome/worn-around-the-edges Craftsman living-room set from Tom Pye, but you don’t go to this play for the set design or for directorial tricks. You go to hear four great actors dish out Albee’s spectacularly brittle dialogue, and this production delivers all the fireworks you could want. There’s music in this play’s dialogue, and these actors find all of it.

Do I have any complaints? Only one: it’s great that this was filmed for NT Live, but I wish that, like Staunton’s Gypsy, it had been taped for television.

Better to be dead

whisper house other palace

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

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

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

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

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

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

evh

 

Don’t mention the… everything.

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

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

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

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

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

So… the songs.

One. Israel. Imri, ‘I Feel Alive’.

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

Two. Poland. Kasia Mos, ‘Flashlight’.

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

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

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

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

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

Five. Armenia, Artsvik, ‘Fly With Me’

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

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

Six. Netherlands, Og3ne, ‘Lights and Shadows’

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

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

Seven. Moldova, Sunstroke Project, “Hey Mamma”

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

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

Eight. Hungary, Joci Papai, “Origo”

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

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

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

Ten. Denmark, Anja, ‘Where I Am’

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

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

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

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

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

Twelve. Azerbaijan, Dihaj, ‘Skeletons’.

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

Thirteen. Croatia, Jacques Houdek, ‘My Friend’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Have I mentioned that I miss Petra Mede?)

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

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

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

Nineteen. Cyprus, Hovig, ‘Gravity’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaaand another recap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Hello, Dillie!

dk quays

Was I sitting close enough, do you think?

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

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