Nobody’s on nobody’s side

chess coliseum 3

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.

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Sunshine on Leeds

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What do you do on the sunniest May bank holiday weekend in years? If you’re me, you go to the theatre. Granted, I booked the ticket months before I saw the weather forecast, and I don’t much like sitting in the sun – but as it turns out, the West Yorkshire Playhouse‘s revival of Sunshine on Leith, the jukebox musical based on the songs of the Proclaimers, is even more uplifting than a concentrated dose of sunshine, and you won’t get sunburned.

If you’ve seen the film – and if you haven’t, you should – you’ll know what you’re getting: a slightly soap-opera-ish romantic-comedy-slash-family-drama centred on two soldiers returning home to Leith from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, and carefully woven around a stack of Proclaimers songs. The film is a gorgeous, glorious joy from beginning to end; in James Brining’s new production, the stage version is a little grittier, a little more carefully working-class, and it doesn’t have the film’s pull-out-all-the-stops flash-mob finale outside the Scottish National Gallery, but it’s utterly charming, and Stephen Greenhorn‘s book tells a sweetly touching story of ordinary people muddling through their ordinary lives.

There are lovely performances, too, from everyone in the ensemble cast (some of whom also play instruments – guitar, sax, trumpet – to supplement the production’s fine seven-piece band). You don’t get the film’s string section, but David Shrubsole’s folk-pop arrangements suit the stage production’s more down-to-earth tone very well, and remind us, as the film did, that this is a superb set of songs. They’re beautifully sung here, too – yes, by everyone, although Hilary Maclean’s movingly restrained take on the title song might be first among equals. Brining’s production keeps the pace moving but never feels rushed, Colin Richmond’s cleverly simple set takes us from a patrol in Helmand to a pub on Leith Walk to a Leith tenement via a hospital, a supermarket, and even Waverley Station, and the finale – yes, ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)‘, and get ready to sing along – is a jolt of pure theatrical ecstasy. The cast and band are clearly having the most wonderful time doing this show, the audience – me too – had a wonderful time watching it, the standing ovation at the curtain call was absolutely spontaneous and very well-deserved, and the Proclaimers, via video screen, got the final bow.

That’s as it should be; Greenhorn’s book is a tremendously skilful piece of writing (he’s given it a light update this time around; at one point, a Brexit reference gets a huge laugh), but there’s a clear-eyed, unsentimental realness to these songs, and they’re the element that gives the show its emotional depth. This is that rarest of things: a genuinely moving jukebox musical that elevates rather than diminishes the songbook it draws from, and that charms the audience instead of trying to beat them into submission (well, more or less – I got a balloon in my face in the finale, but I’ll live). I didn’t have to walk 500 miles to see it, but it would have been worth it.

The heat is off in Saigon

miss saigon palace manchester

I’m old. I saw the original London production of Miss Saigon way, way back in 1989 – September 23rd, 1989, in fact – on the first Saturday matinee after it opened. Yes, I saw Jonathan Pryce, and yes, I saw (and slightly winced at) the eye makeup (not to mention at the yellowface elsewhere in the cast, because Pryce wasn’t the only white actor cast as a Vietnamese character) – and yes, I loved it. Even at not-quite-seventeen I could pick all kinds of holes in it, but it blew me away. I loved the music, I loved Nicholas Hytner‘s production, and Lea Salonga gave what is still just about as good a performance as I’ve ever seen.

From there to here is quite a distance, and in more ways than one. I’m older, the show is older, I haven’t seen it “live” since a return visit a few years into the original London run, and the world in general – most of it, anyway – is at least a little bit more woke when it comes to issues of postcolonialism and representation and all the rest of it than it was three decades ago. It still offers a rather uneasy Western view of south-east Asia – far more uneasy, in some ways, than something like The King and I, which is so far removed from reality that it’s probably best taken as a fairytale – and while the show’s point of view is undoubtedly that America’s involvement in Vietnam was disastrous and damaging for everybody involved, the show’s writers begin to develop a thesis about how American complacency contributed to an ongoing tragedy after the war was over and they don’t take it nearly far enough, particularly in the last third of the second act when the melodrama at the centre of the plot kicks into gear.

That plot, though, is the same as it always was: a smarter-than-it-looks rehash of Madam Butterfly in which an American GI meets and very quickly falls for a Vietnamese bar girl in the last days before the fall of Saigon; he fails to get her out with him when he’s forced to evacuate, and when, years later, he finds out she’s survived and has a child, he and his new American wife offer to support the child but refuse to give him a home in America, with tragic consequences. Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr., the show’s original librettists, find more light and shade than you’d expect within this scenario (this production credits “additional lyrics”, none of which are an improvement over the originals, to Michael Mahler), although they possibly still don’t find quite enough, and while some of Claude-Michel Schönberg‘s music is bombastic and thuddingly banal, some of it is very lovely indeed. It’s always been to the show’s great credit that despite some gratuitously Hallmark-card lyrics, the Vietnamese heroine, Kim, is portrayed as a woman of immense strength and courage rather than as a lovelorn sap. It’s equally to the show’s credit that Chris, the Pinkerton figure, isn’t simply a colonial shit or a stereotypical Ugly American, and that Ellen, his American wife, is never portrayed as a villain either – Chris suffers as a result of leaving Kim in Vietnam, and Ellen is perfectly willing to help support a child she didn’t know about. That their support – or rather, their western complacency – imposes boundaries may be the engine that drives the melodrama towards the climax of the second act, but the writing isn’t as one-dimensional as it could have been. There are shades of grey here, and an understanding that well-meaning people sometimes do not behave well when confronted with complex moral decisions. In this kind of steamroller of a blockbuster musical, those shades of grey are relatively rare.

Those shades of grey, though, don’t entirely survive intact in the production currently playing in Manchester, which is the touring iteration of the revival that was recently seen in the West End and on Broadway (and on DVD). As directed – mostly in the sense of directing traffic – by Laurence Connor, this is a very efficient reading of the show: the big moments are all present and correct, including the (admittedly still dazzling) helicopter effect in the Fall of Saigon scene, and the actors all emote the hell out of their big numbers, and there is absolutely no depth or complexity in almost all of the performances. It’s loud and crass and sometimes even slightly distasteful in a way the original production never was (yes, even despite the original production’s yellowface): Nicholas Hytner’s original production, even years into the run with the umpteenth replacement cast, told a story about the tragic aftermath of the Vietnam war, whereas this production, despite being smaller in scale and budget, takes the tragic aftermath of the Vietnam war and makes a spectacle out of it. There’s a giant statue of Ho Chi Minh, a Saigon bar, various interiors, a dragon dance, twirling ribbons, projected film of orphaned American-Vietnamese children, a Cadillac, a shiny chrome representation of the head of the Statue of Liberty, and a more-or-less life-size (model) helicopter that lands on the stage – but there’s no emotional content at all, just a careful facsimile of it. It’s not that any of the performances are bad, exactly – indeed, this production is, by and large, very, very well-sung. It’s that every last scrap of subtlety appears to have been ironed out of a piece that, while more subtle than it could have been, was never that subtle to begin with. How unsubtle is it? There’s more than one instance in which a character stands/kneels centre stage, face contorted in a careful imitation of anguish, and screams “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!”. That did not happen – and I mean did not happen, not once – in the original production.

As for individual performances, they’re mostly, well… accurate. Everybody hits their notes and their marks, and nearly everybody seems completely devoid of inner life. There are two honourable exceptions: Vinny Coyle’s Chris, who sings the role very well indeed and works strenuously to put back some of the shades of subtlety that have largely been bleached – and I chose that word very carefully – out of this production, and Red Concepción as the Engineer, the Pandarus-like pimp whose bar/whorehouse is the venue for Kim and Chris’s first meeting, and whose machinations get Kim and her child out of Vietnam at the end of the first act. Concepción’s Engineer is gleefully, bracingly nasty, sung with show-stopping fervour, and somehow believably real in a way that eludes nearly everyone else.  Coyle, incidentally, is an understudy, though you’d never have guessed, and his appearance in the role was not announced in the theatre before the performance, which is inexcusable. As Kim, Sooha Kim has a lovely voice, but doesn’t manage to transcend the production’s essential hollowness. And it’s a tiny role, but Acielle Santos’s Gigi – the prostitute who sings The Movie in my Mind, which used to be my favourite song in the score before it was disembowelled by this production’s lyric rewrites – exemplifies the problem with most of the performances here: she has a great voice, and she sings the song very well indeed, but the emotions are all on the surface. She sobs through it, ends the number in tears, and the moment is far more powerful (as, in the theatre, many moments are more powerful) if the performer doesn’t emote the song to death. In the original cast – you can even hear this on the original London cast recording – Isay Alvarez brought a devastating, absolutely haunting dignity to the song; it was very moving indeed, but it was moving because it was performed with restraint. In this production, the actress weeps all the way through the song’s climax – and because she weeps, we don’t.

Elsewhere, Connor repeats Hytner’s one big misstep, and shows a slide-show of real Vietnamese orphans during the act two opener, a (terrible) song called Bui-doi, which is basically a (God help us) raise-the-roof showstopper about mixed-race orphans trapped in a society where they’re largely shunned. In Hytner’s production this was crass, but there was at least a genuine emotional impulse behind the song (and Peter Polycarpou gave a very, very good performance indeed as the ex-solder who sings it); here there isn’t, which means the plight of these poor children merely becomes set-dressing in an expensive western theatrical spectacle, and it’s spectacularly tasteless.

The show itself, though, is solid enough – even given that the writing is far from unimpeachable – that it works on some level even in less than ideal circumstances. In many ways, this touring production is impressive: as I said, it’s sung very well indeed. The orchestrations are reduced, but reduced carefully; fifteen musicians are never going to sound like the original production’s twenty-four, and the lack of a larger string section contributes significantly to the near-complete absence in this production of the fine emotional shading that made the original so powerful. The band never sounds bad, but they never sound as good either; this is a show that really needs a big, lush sound, so it’s inevitably diminished by the smaller orchestra. The special effects are terrific, particularly in a touring production – the helicopter effect is superb (technology can do things now that just were not possible in 1989) – but when this story, the most nakedly human and intimate of all the big 1980s megamusicals, becomes a show dominated by special effects, it’s a problem. The effects were immense in 1989 too, but you walked out of the theatre remembering Lea Salonga and Simon Bowman, not the helicopter and the Ho Chi Minh statue. Now, because the performances are mostly painted with such a broad emotional brush, you barely remember the people at all, and the result is a show that’s impressive to look at but emotionally empty. Everybody works hard, but this Miss Saigon, in the end, is the equivalent of watching a hurriedly-made Saturday morning cartoon version of something that was originally written for grown-ups.

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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Only Connect

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One may as well begin with the reviews – or rather, with the drool-covered mash-notes several London critics have written to Matthew Lopez, the American playwright whose two-part adaptation of a very English novel appears to be turning into The Theatrical Event of the Year. In the Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish tells us it’s “perhaps the most important American play of the century so far”. Even the least effusive reviews are mostly very, very good indeed. Lopez is all but unknown in this country, and this is quite a debut: the rest of the run is sold out bar a (very) few rush tickets, the production is certain to have a life beyond this initial run at the Young Vic, and word-of-mouth is generally very strong indeed. The Inheritance deserves the avalanche of superlatives, as far as I’m concerned – it’s a dazzling, audacious, breathtakingly clever piece of writing, expertly performed by an astonishing cast under the flawless direction of Stephen Daldry – but it also demands closer scrutiny than that avalanche of superlatives might suggest. There’s no question that this is a work of unusual brilliance, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely without faults.

For a start, I don’t know how well it works if you aren’t at least a little bit familiar with E.M. Forster‘s Howards End, and with a few biographical details about Forster’s life and literary output. I’m sure the play can stand on its own, but I’m one of those people who always does their homework and I reread the novel the week before I saw it, which means I didn’t come to it clean. In terms of plot, Lopez’s play is more an extended riff on top of Forster’s novel than a direct translation of it; Eric and Toby, his surrogates for Margaret and Helen Schlegel, are lovers rather than siblings (there is no Tibby in the play). Eric works for a liberal/progressive NGO run by a friend, Toby is a one-hit-wonder YA novelist in the process of adapting his book for the stage. Lopez, it’s fair to say, takes the characteristics of Forster’s characters and amplifies them, so that Eric is thoroughly kind and decent and Toby is equally thoroughly self-absorbed; the play opens with a raucously funny story about Toby’s ignominious exit from a party hosted by wealthy friends Walter and Henry Wilcox (it involves Meryl Streep and the inevitable consequence of far too many Martinis), quickly follows it with Eric and Toby’s engagement, and then takes off on an epic journey through the post-AIDS landscape inhabited by New York’s gay community, with pit-stops at most (though not quite all) of the major plot points in Forster’s novel. There’s a misplaced umbrella, a thwarted inheritance, a meal at an only-for-carnivores restaurant at which the host orders for his guest of honour, a marriage, a country house, a meadow, a tree with teeth in the bark, and lots and lots of debate about art and politics and privilege, and a good number (though by no means all) of the piece’s laughs come from references to Forster’s novel. At the same time, Lopez puts E.M. Forster onstage as a character – “Morgan” – and keeps him front and centre in part one as a kind of writing coach, prompting the young men in Eric and Toby’s group of friends to revise their individual narratives and clarify the meaning behind their stories.

Despite the running time – the two parts together clock in at over six hours of stage time, over seven and a half hours including intermissions – the pace rarely flags, and you’ll need to work to keep up, because this is a piece that operates on several levels. It’s a gay Howards End AND an ongoing left-vs.-right political debate, a treatise on the tragic losses sustained by the gay community during the 1980s and 1990s, a moving eulogy for those lost, a lecture about the history of AIDS, a metatheatrical examination of the ways in which we construct our lives into narratives, a play about what each generation gives to and takes from the next, a meditation on the intersection(s) between love and politics and sex, and a comedy of (sometimes very bad) manners. Usually it’s several of those things in the same scene. It’s a thrilling rollercoaster ride, superbly sustained through the full length of the piece, and it’s well worth the effort, but there’s a lot going on and a lot to take in, and the sheer breadth (and, let’s face it, length) of the piece, the constant shifts in focus between complex, intertwined plot strands mean The Inheritance is inevitably a somewhat dizzying theatrical experience. For some, I suspect, it will gain an extra dimension if you see both parts back-to-back on the same day (which is what I did); others, certainly, will be glad of an extended break between the two halves.

And the writing, certainly, is not unimpeachable, although that shouldn’t be taken as a suggestion that Lopez’s achievement here is anything less than remarkable. The biggest fault, probably, is also a fault of the source novel: Lopez’s characters, like Forster’s, exist in an insular, seemingly self-contained (and self-absorbed) world in which interlopers are not always treated kindly. This is an (almost) entirely affluent, privileged (notwithstanding the profound sense of loss underpinning the play), white strata of society. There are two actors from visible minorities – out of a cast of fourteen – on the stage in a play set in Manhattan whose first scene takes place somewhere around mid-2015, and we don’t encounter a woman until midway through the final act of part two. This is a play inhabited very nearly exclusively by  a clique of gay men who all have similar backgrounds, and who (almost) all trade in the same cultural and political references. Lopez’s writing is undeniably virtuosic, and he’s created an engaging, funny, sometimes very deeply moving collection of characters, but this is still, for better or worse, a play about people who mostly only ever talk to people like themselves. Over more than six hours of stage time, given the scope of the social history Lopez is trying to navigate, that is an issue. AIDS was never simply an upper-middle-class disease, and New York’s gay community always encompassed every point on the social spectrum – but here, the two black actors in the cast play relatively minor roles, and the one character who isn’t middle-class or wealthier is a more-or-less homeless prostitute.

It’s also fair to point out that Lopez, all the way through, relies on third-person narration in the manner of a third-person novel’s omniscient voice, with characters stepping outside of scenes to tell us the story. It’s not as if this has never been done before, and it’s not as if you can’t build a successful piece of theatre around this technique (step forward, Lin-Manuel Miranda), but this is a very, very long two-part play. It contains a lot of plot, and a surprising amount of that plot is narrated rather than dramatised, told rather than shown. That isn’t going to be a problem for everyone – but if you don’t like that technique, or even if you’re ambivalent about it, sitting through six hours of it might prove to be a slog.

It’s bold of Lopez to stop the action in its tracks, more than once, to allow characters to let rip with a full-blown political debate, and it’s also bold of him to make the most unpleasantly self-righteous character in the biggest, most significant debate scene an angry, passionate left/liberal/progressive-leaning Clinton supporter, and to strenuously avoid making his billionaire Republican opponent – yes, Henry Wilcox, the only character in The Inheritance to take their name directly from his analogue character in Forster’s novel – into either a stereotypical Log Cabin Republican or a Mitt Romney clone. There’s a plot-related reason why Jason – the liberal character – is so rude in his reaction to the revelation that Henry Wilcox has donated to the (then-current) Republican Presidential candidate, but the debate – as a debate – would be less predictable if Jason attempted to refute Henry’s arguments rather than simply condemning them out of hand. It’s a fine, fiery scene, and it plays like gangbusters in the hands of Michael Marcus and John Benjamin Hickey, but Lopez’s handling of the politics behind the characters is noticeably less smart here than it is through most of the rest of the play.

And then there’s the E.M. Forster conundrum. Lopez’s play is tied very closely to its source material, even though it sometimes departs from it very significantly, and there’s an immensely touching essay in the programme in which Lopez talks about his love of a novel set in a world that is quite sharply different from the small Florida Panhandle town where he grew up. Putting Forster himself onstage proves to be a triumph; it therefore seems not only churlish but actually disrespectful to allow, in one of the play’s debates, Lopez’s young, comfortably middle-class, privileged characters, (almost) all of whom exist in the kind of monied/western/bourgeois-bohemian/liberal bubble in which LGBTQ rights have largely been embraced by the mainstream, to turn on Morgan for not publishing Maurice during his lifetime. Or rather, the accusation is perhaps fair enough, and so is the thinking behind it – it’s not impossible that the publication of an unabashedly homosexual love story from as major a figure as Forster might have helped pave the way for wider, earlier acceptance of LGBTQ rights by the public at large – but it seems churlish and disrespectful for Lopez not to permit Morgan to defend his decision. It also arguably is an indication of the potential pitfalls of an American writer putting words into the mouth of a real English literary figure, because I doubt a British writer would have failed to make the point that to publish the novel in 1914 with the ending Forster intended would quite possibly have put Forster in prison. At that time, it would have been publishable in Britain only if it had ended in the imprisonment or suicide of one or other (or both) of the two central characters; for a mainstream fiction press to publish a homosexual love story with a happy ending would have been more or less unthinkable, and for Forster to pursue publication of the novel would have required reserves of strength and bravery and self-sacrifice that, frankly, are not evident among most of Lopez’s characters in The Inheritance. It’s probably the least sure-footed passage in the whole of the play.

The ending of part two, as well, could stand a little sharpening. Partly that’s because the ending of part one – an equivalent of the scene in the novel where Margaret first sees the meadow at Howards End – is so beautifully written and so exquisitely moving that it’s very difficult for the ending of part two not to suffer at least a little in comparison, but partly it’s because we’ve all seen the final episode of Six Feet Under and some of us have seen (or at least read) Terrence McNally‘s Love! Valour! Compassion!, and the specific narrative gimmick Lopez pulls out in his final sequence has been done before, and done better.

Questions of milieu and the (nearly) all-male cast (I mean, really – do none of these people ever speak to a woman?) aside, though, those few hiccups amount to no more than a couple of scenes out of a mostly splendid piece of writing… although having said that, there is very little in theatre (and film) that isn’t improved by editing, and that’s certainly the case here. I don’t mean a hacksaw, but each of the play’s six acts could comfortably stand to lose a few minutes (by the time I saw it last week, part two had already lost ten minutes or so of running time from the timings reported while it was in previews), and in the second part the audience really needs more than a five-minute breather between the second and third acts.

Not that your attention will wander, because while the writing is not entirely unimpeachable, Stephen Daldry’s production is just about perfect. Elegantly staged on Bob Crowley’s rectangular white platform set – a blank page, if you like – against a black backdrop which occasionally parts to reveal another room, or a tree, or a model of the upstate house at the centre of the plot, Daldry’s staging is strikingly minimalist and, as lit by Jon Clark, often quite beautiful. He’s done, too, a superb job of rendering Lopez’s complicated, sprawling, multilayered plot with absolute clarity. More than anything else, he’s drawn wonderful performances from his cast. Kyle Soller’s Eric is an astonishing six-hour tour-de-force – Eric is our way in to the play, the most wholly sympathetic character onstage, and Soller’s work is simply stunning. Without grandstanding, and without ever chewing the scenery (not that there’s much scenery to chew), Soller provides a quietly moving portrayal of a genuinely good, kind man who slowly comes to understand that he must use his privilege to help others. Andrew Burnap is equally good as the self-absorbed/charmingly obnoxious writer Toby, and when we’re (finally) shown Toby’s inner demons (after being told about them for five whole acts) Burnap doesn’t overplay the moment. Samuel H. Levine is mesmerising as the play’s stand-ins for Leonard and Jacky Bast – Adam, an overprivileged, culturally-undereducated would-be actor, and Leo, a rent boy who (we are told) looks remarkably similar to Adam. Paul Hilton is simply lovely as Morgan, and as Walter, the play’s equivalent of Ruth Wilcox. John Benjamin Hickey’s Henry Wilcox, a billionaire gay Republican who finds himself becoming closer to Eric after Walter’s death, is a far more compelling figure than the Henry Wilcox in Forster’s novel; Hickey is very moving indeed as a character whose losses during the early years of the AIDS epidemic were so profound that he’s been left emotionally crippled by what amounts to a form of PTSD, but he also makes Henry’s growing relationship with Eric absolutely believable, and he and Lopez, to their enormous credit, avoid more or less all the obvious Republican! Billionaire! clichés (which, to return to an earlier point, is why it’s startling that the writing for Jason #1, the Committed Progressive among Lopez’s cast of characters here, is so jarringly one-note). The supporting performances – all of them – are excellent; everyone apart from Hickey, Soller, Burnap, and Vanessa Redgrave plays more than one role; this is an ensemble performance, and the performances right across the ensemble are flawless.

That leaves Vanessa Redgrave, whose appearance is held back until almost halfway through the show’s final act. She’s frail and fragile and heartbreaking, and very quiet as a kind of Ruth Coker Burks figure – a woman who rejected her gay son while he was healthy, and then devoted her life to providing palliative care for AIDS patients as a kind of penance after his death. Given her connection to the Merchant-Ivory film of the source novel, Redgrave’s appearance more or less amounts to stunt-casting, but she has remarkable presence; you may occasionally wonder whether the character is overcome with grief or the actress is struggling to remember the next line, but she supplies a great deal of the final act’s emotional force. Lopez gives her character what amounts to an extended monologue about the sickness and death of her son, and in Redgrave’s hands it becomes a masterclass in the value of stillness onstage. It’s a phenomenal performance, and a late highlight in a phenomenal piece of theatre.

So, yes, those reviews – where we began – were absolutely justified…but. The thing about reviews like that is that they create impossible expectations, and also, sometimes, a sense that the work is somehow above criticism by regular mortals. To be absolutely clear, The Inheritance is a staggeringly talented piece of writing. This is an extraordinary, dazzling, wonderful play given a flawless production. Several reviews have compared it directly to Tony Kushner‘s Angels in America; it withstands the comparison, and that is very, very high praise indeed. It is going to have a life, probably a very significant life, beyond this production (although sorry, Dominic Cavendish, it is simply too soon to say whether it’s the most significant new American play of the century so far). Kyle Soller deserves every award out there for his performance, and Lopez deserves every award out there for a script whose highs are spectacularly high. Of course it’s a must-see, and probably a must-read too – but while you’ll be thrilled, moved, and thoroughly dazzled by The Inheritance, you’ll also find yourself picking holes in it for days afterwards.

 

 

 

SEIZE THE MEANS OF PRODUCTION: THE MUSICAL!

the last ship northern stage 1

It’s a homecoming of sorts. After a conspicuously unsuccessful Broadway run, a heavily-rebuilt version of Sting‘s shipbuilders-go-Cervantes musical The Last Ship has docked at Northern Stage in Newcastle upon Tyne, the composer’s hometown, which is where it should have been produced in the first place. The names of the Broadway production’s bookwriters have disappeared from the poster, and the book is by Lorne Campbell, Northern Stage’s artistic director, who also directs the show. The poster image is an actual stained-glass window from Newcastle’s Catholic cathedral. There’s an entirely new cast, including – thank God – no Jimmy Nail, who withdrew from the production at the beginning of the year, a suitably gritty shipyard set and stunning projections from 59 Productions, an impeccable but small (five musicians plus the musical director) folk-rock band tucked behind a corner of the stage, and – inevitably, given the composer – a slightly smug air of shut-up-this-is-good-for-you worthiness hovering over every word.

If Sting sets your teeth on edge – and you’d have good reason – take a deep breath: the impetus behind this project does appear to be thoroughly heartfelt (“sincere” is not an easy word to apply to someone whose public pronouncements are so often so sanctimonious). You may quite justifiably find it (a lot) less than admirable that he, already a millionaire many times over, accepted a seven-digit cheque from a dictator in return for playing a private concert, particularly given that his defence for having done so was singularly unconvincing. You may, also quite justifiably, find the cognitive dissonance inherent in a multimillionaire holding a social-consciousness summit at his Tuscan estate hilarious, at least in a just-threw-up-in-my-mouth-a-little sort of way. You may find it staggering, after the unpleasantness about the whole Uzbekistan thing, that he still chooses to give private audiences to such delightful people, albeit only (again) in exchange for very large amounts of money. I have a (very) short list of people in the arts whose public behaviour is so appalling/unpleasant/hypocritical that I’m reluctant to spend money on their work, and Sting is certainly on it; on the other hand, word from friends in New York who saw the brief Broadway run was quite positive, the reviews were intriguing, and some of the score, on the evidence of the Broadway cast recording, is very strong indeed. And, God help me, as a longstanding, fully-paid-up musical theatre geek, I was curious, so I gritted my teeth and paid up, and made the trek up north to Newcastle with an open mind.

And a lot of it, to be fair, is very, very good indeed. Set in the mid-1980s and pitched by the (very, very sparingly-used) narrator as something between wish-fulfillment and what-might-have-been, the show’s story is an odd but (mostly) effective blend of Karl Marx and Don Quixote set in a declining shipyard which finds itself on the verge of bankruptcy when the multimillion-pound contract of sale for the one order on their books falls through just before the ship is due for completion. Faced with the imminent loss of their jobs, and having been told no help will be forthcoming from the (Thatcher) government, the yard’s workers embark on a quixotic socialist Grand Gesture: they Seize The Means of Production – that is, the shipyard – and erect a barricade, and aim to complete the ship and launch it into the Tyne, partly as a last monument to their dying way of life and partly simply to épate la bourgeoisie by ending the shipyard’s life, and their own careers, in a final blaze of glory.

Yes, in case you were wondering, someone does shout “rage against the dying of the light”; there are also on-the-nose allusions (sometimes slightly too on-the-nose) to Cervantes and Marx and Engels in Campbell’s book, and this is very definitely a show that wears its politics on its sleeve. The decline-of-industrial-Wallsend side of the show’s storyline is more or less a predictable dockyard melodrama, right down to the untimely-death-from-an-industry-related-terminal-disease scene and the subsequent grieving-widow-transcends-her-grief-to-save-the-workers plot twist. Those are spoilers, but you’ll be three steps ahead of the plot all the way through, and while the writing succumbs to nearly every working-class cliché in the book, the actors carry it all off with tremendous conviction. Sting’s score exists largely in a kind of musical hinterland between Kurt Weill and Lindisfarne; that’s a richer seam than you might think, but it’s also absolutely the sound you’d probably expect from an 80s-set determinedly left-wing working-class musical whose book more than nods towards Brecht and agitprop. You won’t be surprised, apart from by the astonishing set-design, but you will probably be moved.

Just as predictable, but also rather less effective, is the love story that – of course – is set against the closing of the shipyard. This concerns Gideon, because of course this show lays the symbolism on with a trowel, who ran away from Wallsend seventeen years ago in search of adventure/new horizons/a better life/a better selection of Docs and knit caps than he could find in any shop in Eldon Square/an escape from his abusive alcoholic father, and who comes back to clear out his (now-)late father’s house to discover that Meg, the girlfriend he left in Wallsend when he skipped town on a merchant ship, now has a sixteen-year-old daughter (Ellen, named after a local political heroine, again presumably because this show lays the symbolism on with a trowel). Gideon wants Meg back, Meg isn’t having any, Ellen wants to run away to London with her socialist rock band to make a record, and you can probably guess right now how this half of the plot is resolved.

The love-story side of the show is never exactly bad; actually, the mother-daughter scenes between Frances McNamee‘s Meg and Katie Moore’s Ellen are among the best things in the show (Moore also doubles, very effectively, as the narrator). Gideon’s big love-song, “What Say You, Meg?”, is meltingly lovely. That the romance never quite catches fire is simply down to the unfortunate fact that Gideon is by far the least interesting character on the stage. Meg, a single parent who clawed her way up from a teen pregancy to build a secure life for herself and her daughter, is simply a far more compelling figure than a man who ran away from home at seventeen, never looked back, and never really articulates why he stayed away for so long when he promised Meg he’d return. As Gideon, Richard Fleeshman – who, thank God, has learned to act since Ghost – is a pleasant enough presence, and he sings very well, although perhaps it isn’t wise to allow him to spend so much of his music imitating the composer’s vaguely transatlantic drawl. The trouble is, he more or less fades into the background next to Frances McNamee’s fiery Meg. That’s largely the fault of the writing – Gideon’s music mostly tends towards lovelorn/wistful ballads of regret, while Meg’s entrance number, a razor-sharp put-down called “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor”, is a furious, rum-fuelled answer to Kurt Weill’s Tango-Ballade, which McNamee slams into the back wall of the theatre with the force of an Atlantic hurricane. Of course Meg is a more compelling presence than Gideon; she’s drawn in a far more colourful musical vocabulary. Despite his very large role in the show’s plot, Gideon’s stature is further diminished in comparison with Joe McGann‘s salt-of-the-earth foreman Jackie White, who – at least until midway through the second act – carries the shipyard side of the plot and who is musicalised via a series of stirring protest anthems. When Fleeshman is given something a bit more dramatic to get his teeth into, he delivers – “The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance”, in which he tells his newfound daughter how he learned to dance to woo her mother, is his best moment by far – but he can only do so much with a character who is mostly written in flat greys.

Thankfully, while the romantic half of the plot sometimes threatens to bring the show to a juddering halt, it’s never too long before we’re back in the shipyard. The shipbuilders’ gradual move from anger to stunned acceptance to defiant resistance is movingly drawn, Joe McGann gives a very fine performance indeed as their foreman, and Charlie Hardwick is even better as Jackie’s wife Peggy, whose own act of defiance buys the shipbuilders the time they need to finish and launch the ship. Yes, that’s also a spoiler – but again, you’ll have worked out within ninety seconds of the lights going down where the plot is going to end up. A late-in-Act Two speech from Katie Moore’s narrator which attempts to put the shipbuilders’ quest into a wider social context is certainly didactic and arguably preachy and (yes) a little smug, but it’s also undeniably effective: by name-checking protests ranging from the Jarrow march to the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, Campbell effectively suggests that sometimes Grand Futile Gestures can ultimately carry considerable weight, and this does add an extra dimension to the final scene. There’s a lot of good in this show, but – as I said – few surprises; having said that, those protest songs, Campbell’s staging, the superb performances, and the sometimes breathtaking visual effects are more than enough to hold your attention. The show could easily stand to lose twenty minutes, but that’s a big club these days; there may be (more than) a few moments when your attention will wander, but the finale, when it finally rolls around, is genuinely extremely moving, and includes a visual effect (accomplished via projections) so stunning that my mouth dropped open.

It’s worth, then, swallowing your opinion of the composer and shelling out for a ticket (the run in Newcastle is now over, but the production is touring until July). Not everything in the show works, even after what seems to have been a very thorough overhaul following the Broadway production, but the good far outweighs the bad, the performances are almost all excellent, the set and projections are beautifully evocative, and the last five minutes or so are genuinely thrilling (and yes, what the hell, if someone chooses to record this version of the show I’ll certainly buy it). Frances McNamee, Joe McGann and Charlie Hardwick are worth the cost of the ticket, and so are (most of) the songs and that set; the composer, unfortunately, is still – let’s be kind – a bit of a wanker, but this is showbusiness. You can’t have everything.

 

the last ship northern stage 2

Pocket change

cchp

 

For me, this was another Show That Got Away. I didn’t manage to see the original production of Caroline, or Change at the Public Theater in New York, or on Broadway. I was still living overseas when the Broadway production transferred to London for a run at the National. The morning the first iteration of this production – at the Chichester Festival Theatre‘s Minerva last year – went on sale, I was stuck on a train, and by the time I got somewhere with a data signal that didn’t keep dropping out there were no tickets left for any performance I could have attended. I booked for the Hampstead run about ten minutes after tickets went on sale; I’ve regretted missing the original production ever since, and I wasn’t going to miss this.

And having said all that, high expectations aren’t always the best thing to bring with you to the theatre… but this production surpassed them. Set in Lake Charles, Louisiana in late 1963, in the weeks between the Kennedy assassination and Chanukah, Tony Kushner‘s book and lyrics quietly set up a perfect storm: a confrontation between Caroline Thibodeaux, a dour, downtrodden, rigidly proud black maid, and her (Jewish) employer’s lonely, grieving eight-year-old son Noah, whose mother died of cancer the previous year, over money Noah carelessly left in his pockets in the laundry. The clash, when it finally comes two-thirds of the way through the second act, is vicious and wounding on both sides; the show offers a slow-burning, subtle examination of the ways people resist or embrace change, and while it doesn’t offer the kind of easy catharsis you get out of a blatant tearjerker like Miss Saigon, it’s a haunting, engrossing, thoroughly moving piece of writing, and Jeanine Tesori‘s music is often thrilling.

Essentially, the show is an opera (Kushner and Tesori both describe it as such in this production’s programme notes). It’s more or less through-sung with very little spoken dialogue, it’s through-composed with relatively few standalone songs, and while Tesori’s musical palette incorporates influences as diverse as klezmer and Motown, she blends her various ingredients into something distinctively her own, rather than supplying a series of pastiche numbers. Kushner’s libretto is remarkably self-effacing; he’s perfectly capable of using language to dazzle, but here the fireworks are mostly supplied by Tesori’s music, because this is a piece in which several of the central characters are, for various reasons, verbally inarticulate. Caroline, the maid at the heart of the show, doesn’t have the energy or the education to put the sense of deep longing that is all but tearing her apart into words. Instead, Tesori charts Caroline’s emotional state via music – the music she hears as well as the music she sings. Kushner and Tesori take the clever, whimsical step of anthropomorphising various inanimate objects as a means of giving us windows into their closed-up, tightly-wound central character’s emotional landscape. When Caroline does the laundry, the washer and dryer sing to her. She turns on the radio, and a girl-group appears. When she looks at the moon, the moon sings her deepest yearnings back to her. In lesser hands, this could easily seem ridiculous; here, it works beautifully, and adds significant richness to a piece that could easily have been two hours of unhappy people sniping at each other.

Michael Longhurst’s spare, lean production gets the (difficult) tone exactly right, and navigates the material’s difficult emotional landscape with exceptional clarity. There’s a single unit set, of course – this is a 325-seat theatre, not Broadway – but Fly Davis’s geometric-print 60s interior works well enough, and there’s a great deal of wit to her costumes for the appliances and the moon. There’s also a conductor and eleven musicians delivering the original orchestrations, which is not what you expect to see in a such a small theatre at ticket prices pitched significantly below what you’d pay in the West End. Those orchestrations, incidentally, are by Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert, and Buryl Red; inexcusably; they are not credited in the programme.

And in the title role, Sharon D. Clarke may well be giving the performance of her career. So, come to that, might Lauren Ward as Rose Stopnick Gellman, Noah’s fish-out-of-water new stepmother from New York. Clarke doesn’t quite burn through Tesori’s music the way Tonya Pinkins does on the Broadway cast recording, but when she does pull out all the stops, in the astonishing Lot’s Wife at the climax of the second act, she’s electrifying. Ward sings as beautifully as you’d expect, and makes Rose’s isolation almost as moving as Caroline’s. There’s a fine, assured performance from Aaron Gelkoff as the eight-year-old Noah, and the supporting performances are beyond criticism, with especially good work from Alastair Brookshaw as Noah’s still-grieving father, Teddy Kempner as Rose’s Marxist New Yorker father, who wishes the South’s black communities would rise up and reject the notion of nonviolent resistance,  and from Angela Caesar as a gloriously-sung Moon. Abiona Omonua brings real fire to the role of Caroline’s ambitious, proto-activist daughter Emmie, who hates the bus, wants a car of her own, and knows (we discover in the final scene) a lot more than she’s let on about the disappearance of a statue of a Confederate soldier in downtown Lake Charles. This is a show that creeps up on you – it takes a while to get going, but I – ahem – must have had something in my eye for most of the second half of the second act.

The bottom line: the show is a masterpiece. That banner across the poster saying ‘sensational’ doesn’t quite do Michael Longhurst’s production or Sharon D. Clarke’s extraordinary performance justice. It’s transferring into the West End in November following sold-out runs at Chichester and Hampstead. Go and see it. Go and see it more than once. If you’ve already seen it, go and see it again (I will). It’s not the easiest musical, and if you’re expecting a song-and-dance show along the lines of Dreamgirls you’ll be disappointed. It’s worth the effort, though; if you like the kind of musical theatre where you don’t have to switch your brain off when the lights go down, this is about as good as it gets.