Drugs are bad, OK?

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Nina is an actress. Nina takes drugs. Nina drinks a lot. Nina believes there is no objective truth. Nina’s life story rather strongly resembles the plot of ‘Hedda Gabler’. Nina is afraid she doesn’t have a personality of her own. Nina is called Emma. Emma is called Sarah. Emma’s therapist looks like Sarah’s mother. Nina’s doctor looks like Emma’s mother. Emma tells lies. Emma needs help. I need an aspirin.

Jeremy Herrin, who directed People, Places and Things – now beginning a short tour at Manchester’s Home (yes, that’s a stupid name for a performing arts complex) after successful runs at the National and in the West End – is a genius. The outstanding moments here, and there are a few, occur when his staging (recreated for the tour in collaboration with Holly Race Roughan) finds a visual translation for the physiological horrors Emma/Sarah undergoes on her path towards recovery. When Emma’s perception of reality blurs as she goes through withdrawal, we see a stageful of Emmas, all experiencing the same symptoms. Subtle shifts in music and lighting (respectively, by Matthew Herbert and James Farncombe) suggest when Emma’s perceptions are altered by “substances”. Andrzej Goulding’s projections on the walls of Bunny Christie’s crisply clinical white box of a set, again sometimes together with Herbert’s electronic music, take us inside Emma’s highs – and the crashes that follow. It’s an extraordinary production, and for that – and sometimes for that alone – it deserves to be seen.

Whether it’s an extraordinary play is more open to question. Duncan Macmillan’s script is packed with ideas, and the central one – that there’s a strong parallel between the theatrical rehearsal process and a twelve-step programme, and (related, and more obvious) that Emma/Sarah’s drive to become an actress and her attraction/susceptibility to narcotics both stem from a need to escape the constraints of her own rather nondescript personality – is certainly compelling enough. When the action calms down, though – when the directorial flourishes and the lightning-fast references to Foucault and Derrida and Barthes recede and we’re left simply watching Emma/Sarah submit to treatment – the result, unfortunately, is a bit too movie-of-the-week. There’s a lot of dazzling stagecraft here, but few new insights into the nature of addiction.

That may partly be down to the casting. At the National and in the West End, the (exhausting) central role was played by Denise Gough, in what was apparently an astonishing performance. Here, Emma is played by Lisa Dwyer Hogg, and she’s very good. She makes Emma’s breakdown and recovery absolutely believable, she finds all of the considerable black humour in the writing, and on one level it’s difficult to fault her performance. What she can’t quite do, unfortunately, is pull the play’s scattershot flow of ideas and split-second shifts between reality and an altered state together into a completely coherent whole. The role needs – and in this production’s original incarnation, apparently got – the kind of thousand-watt star turn that can paper over the cracks in the script. This isn’t that kind of performance; when Macmillan’s writing becomes repetitive, when the insights about the nature of addiction and the recovery process veer a little too close to trite sloganeering, when the writing fails to live up to the dazzling physical production, Hogg doesn’t inject the kind of charismatic spark that might make you look past the shortcomings of the play itself. She’s perfectly fine, but that isn’t enough.

That’s also true of the impeccable supporting performances. They’re faultless, with particularly strong work from Andrew Sheridan as a fellow addict and Matilda Ziegler as Emma/Sarah’s doctor, therapist and mother, but the supporting characters are all – yes, every last one of them – badly underwritten. I suppose the point, which is reinforced in the climactic confrontation/meeting between Sarah and her parents, is that addiction creates narcissists: the play creates Emma/Sarah’s world, and other people simply enter and leave it, but unfortunately that lumbers the other nine actors in the cast with roles that mostly could have been written on flashcards. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of the performances, but the writing doesn’t give the actors much to play with.

The bottom line: it’s worth seeing. The production, as I said, is sensational – but if you go in, having read the reviews from the Dorfman and the West End, expecting it to be a can’t-miss theatrical event, you may be in for a disappointment. This is a dazzling production of an interesting but flawed play – worth seeing, but not the earthquake you might have anticipated.

 

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Anyone for waffles?

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Yes, it really is that good. J.T. Rogers‘s new(est) play, Oslo, arrives at the National Theatre trailing stellar reviews and a truckload of awards from its two runs at Lincoln Center in New York, accompanied by advance publicity that draws extravagant comparisons with Shakespeare, Coward, Stoppard. No, Rogers isn’t Shakespeare or Coward, but this is, for once, a great big stonking hit that more or less completely lives up to the hype.

It’s also, in terms of subject-matter, rather an unlikely great big stonking hit. Oslo follows the process via which Terje Rød-Larsen and Mona Juul, two (married) Norwegian diplomats, facilitated the secret, unofficial negotiations between the PLO and the government of Israel that eventually led to the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accord, a tentative first step towards a peace process between Israel and Palestine. The play could easily have ended up as a rather dry theatrical history lesson – or, worse, considering that it premiered in New York, where even the mildest criticism of the (frequently appalling) actions of the Israeli government can make otherwise sane observers completely lose all sense of reason, become a one-sided diatribe presenting Israel simply as the misunderstood target of a terrorist organisation. Mercifully, it’s neither. Using the studied neutrality of the Norwegian central characters as a way into the story that allows a balanced view of both sides of the negotiating table, Rogers has (miraculously) managed to fashion a play that sits somewhere between a political thriller and a culture-clash comedy of manners, with a recipe for (apparently) the world’s best waffles thrown in for good measure halfway through the first act. Rogers’s offers an intricate examination of the process that brought the Oslo Accord into being, and it’s anything but dull; it’s fast-paced, admirably clear, often surprisingly funny, and utterly absorbing. Big political plays don’t get much better than this.

Bartlett Sher’s direction – on Michael Yeargan’s elegant unit set, aided enormously by projections by 59 Productions which transport us in a blink from Oslo to the play’s various other locations (the West Bank, Tel Aviv, Cairo, the White House, Stockholm) and into various relevant news stories (mostly but not entirely related to the West Bank and Gaza) – keeps the action moving at quite a clip, and delivers the play’s rapid jumps between locations with remarkable clarity. Sher understands how to play the audience without seeming like that’s what he’s doing; his fine ensemble cast deliver all the humour in Rogers’s text, tread a very careful balance so that we never favour one side over the other (no mean feat, given that the PLO was founded with the aim of delivering the liberation of Palestine through armed struggle), and in their hands the handshake between Palestinian finance minister Ahmed Qurei and Israeli diplomat Uri Savir that marks the start of formal (secret) talks is genuinely moving, as is the final moment of agreement between the two sides. Sher draws fine performances from all his actors, some of whom play multiple roles; in the leads, there’s very strong work from Philip Arditti as the swaggering, whip-smart Savir, from Toby Stephens as Rød-Larsen, and particularly from Lydia Leonard as the self-effacing, cooly intelligent Mona Juul. Towering above all of them, there’s a tremendous performance from Peter Polycarpou, whose Qurei is a (justifiably) angry man whose intransigence begins to melt when he sees a real possibility of achieving some kind of peace. The writing will move you, but Mr. Polycarpou might move you more; if there’s any justice, and in theatre there often isn’t, next year there should be a shelf full of awards with his name on them.

In the final scenes, Rogers (unusually) takes pains to remind us that this is a period piece; the negotiated peace turned out to be too fragile to hold. Part of what makes Oslo so gripping and so moving is that Rogers shows us the way tensions between individuals on both sides of a conflict can slowly come to find a common humanity if they’re forced to sit in a room together and talk; in the final section of the play, we’re reminded how tenuous and fragile the balance between inflamed political passions and that understanding of a common humanity can be. It’s three hours long, but the time flies by; yes, Oslo is a history lesson, but it’s also – more importantly – a masterclass in the art of grabbing an audience’s attention as the lights go down and not letting go of it until the curtain call.

Tainted Love

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Short, sharply funny, and (if you’re sitting in the front row) right in your face, the Octagon‘s more-or-less flawless revival of Andrea Dunbar‘s Rita, Sue, and Bob Too – a coproduction with Out of Joint – offers a bracing, fiercely unsentimental snapshot of the underside of Thatcher’s Britain. Rita and Sue are still at school; they babysit Bob’s children, and are also – together – having an affair with Bob, conducted mostly in his car as he drives them home. Bob’s wife suspects, and so does Sue’s mum; for Rita and Sue, it’s a way to escape, at least briefly, the tedious hardships of life on a sink estate.

We’re squarely in Ken Loach territory, then, and the play’s frank, unvarnished depiction of underage sex has become (even) more uncomfortable since the 1980s; we’ve all seen the news stories about Jimmy Savile, grooming rings and all the rest of it, and inevitably that colours our reception of the play. Dunbar never presents Rita and Sue as victims, and does carefully make the point that the affair could put Bob in prison, but while she writes Bob as a walking groin with a one-track mind, she stops short of condemning him as well; the defining feature of her writing, aside from her wonderful ear for dialogue, is the remarkable lack of artifice in her work. This is fiction (albeit with more than a little autobiographical content), but it has the feel of reportage. Dunbar was from the place she wrote about, and she believed that “you write the truth, you don’t lie“; you won’t find a more authentic portrait of life at the sharp end of 80s Britain than this.

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And in Max Stafford-Clark and Kate Wasserberg’s production, Dunbar’s dialogue slams across the (metaphorical) footlights with all the force of a filthily comic hurricane. From the opening scene, in which Bob gives Rita and Sue an athletic sex education lesson (they’ve told him they’re virgins; they aren’t) in the reclining seats of his car to the explosive confrontation when their secret is inevitably revealed, the actors tread a very careful line, finding all the laughs without overplaying the drama or (crucially) commenting on their characters (the fatal flaw whenever Mike Leigh has placed characters in this kind of setting). Stafford-Clark and Wasserberg keep the action moving quickly and fluidly, with Bob’s (brown velour, of course) car seats almost the only furniture; in Tim Shortall’s set, the open moorland where Bob drives the girls to conduct his trysts is framed by council flats on Rita and Sue’s estate. The dialogue is fast and very funny, the performances are absolutely ideal, and the production makes a strong case that this is just as important a picture of the Thatcher era as, say, The Secret Rapture or A Small Family Business or Top Girls. The film had indelible performances from Michelle Holmes, Siobhan Finneran, and George Costigan as Rita, Sue and Bob; Gemma Dobson, Taj Atwal, and Jason Atherton find their own distinctive take on the material, and their opening seduction scene in the car is a tour-de-force. There’s very strong support from Samantha Robinson as Bob’s wife Michelle, a sharp-tongued vision in teased hair and C&A frocks, and from David Walker and the wonderful Sally Bankes as Sue’s dysfunctional parents.

How good is it? I’m picky, and there’s more or less nothing to fault here. If you’re expecting the film’s ending you may be disappointed – the film ends on a note of slightly contrived wish-fulfillment and the play does not, and there are some significant differences between the screenplay and the stage script  – and the music choices in the dancing-to-80s-hits scene changes are a little bit too on-the-nose (I could happily go the rest of my life without ever hearing In the Air Tonight again), but this is, overall, just about as ideal a revival as you can imagine. Dunbar wrote the play when she was just 19, and died young, at 29; she was an original, distinctive voice, and this play holds up remarkably well thirty years after it first premiered. It ran a scant 80 minutes at yesterday afternoon’s performance, but that’s more than enough: it’s a cliché to describe a show as a roller-coaster ride, but this one really is. It’s touring into next year, and it shouldn’t be missed.

 

The mirror’s getting blurred

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Sally should have died the first time. Phyllis tells a drinks waiter he’s getting her all wet. Weismann hits on a waitress. There’s no interval, so slamming down a venti Americano before you take your seat probably isn’t a good idea unless you’re wearing Depends. We are, thank God, back in 1971 in more ways than one: for this production, the cut-down-and-smoothed-out revised version of James Goldman‘s book for Follies has been well and truly buried. May it never return.

Follies, more than most, is a show with a bumpy production history. The original Broadway production ran for more than 500 performances but lost a then-unheard-of $800,000. A 1987 London production had a completely rewritten book; it had a longer run but also lost money. There have been two Broadway revivals since 2000; they each used the watered-down rewrite of the book that has become the standard version, and neither was a hit. This is a show fans obsess over – yes, me too, I even wrote about it for part of my MA thesis. The score, underappreciated by critics in 1971, is an embarrassment of riches; Goldman’s original book, though, is probably too bleak ever to be a long-running commercial success. Set at a reunion of former showgirls in a now-defunct Ziegfeld Follies-style extravaganza, the show ostensibly focuses on the unhappy marriages of two ex-chorines, Sally and Phyllis, and their less-than-completely-faithful husbands, (respectively) oil rig salesman Buddy and politician/businessman Ben. On one level, the slender plot is simple: Sally and Phyllis danced together in the final season of the Weismann Follies in 1941, and were roommates. Sally married Buddy, Phyllis married Ben – but Sally and Ben had a fling before their engagements, and Sally arrives at the reunion having spent the past thirty years pining for what might have been. Actually, it’s about far more than that: during the reunion, the show’s characters are confronted by their younger selves, dredging up questions of memory and identity that locate the book in a surreal no-man’s-land between Pinter and Pirandello, with a hefty dollop of Fellini thrown in and a sprinkling of Albee on top. And on top of THAT, the whole thing is a metaphor for America’s postwar decline. It’s wonderful (if you don’t get one of the various watered-down rewrites), and I love it, but if you just want tap-dancing chorus girls you’re better off at 42nd Street.

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God knows what the National had to do in order to persuade James Goldman’s widow to allow them to use the not-watered-down bleak-but-brilliant original book, but we can all be very glad they did: Dominic Cooke’s production more than does it justice, although it isn’t without flaws. This isn’t quite precisely the unadulterated original text; there have been a few interesting tweaks here and there, and they’re all intelligent choices – although none of them amount to life-or-death changes. In the dumbed-down rewrite that has become the standard published text, there are a couple of crossovers in the final scene – minor characters leaving the party, given a couple of lines each. Those are inserted earlier in the show, before the surreal Follies-as-metaphor Loveland sequence, and it’s perhaps useful, by that point in the show, to emphasise the lateness of the hour as the four central characters succumb to a combination of alcohol, obsession, and spectacular self-loathing. Cooke keeps the “ghosts” onstage far more than the stage directions suggest; they’re almost always present somewhere, and all the party guests are mirrored/stalked/haunted by their own pasts. Accordingly, in the long opening sequence, the first fragment of song (as opposed to underscoring) comes from two of the ghosts: Young Ben and Young Buddy get a “hey up there/way up there/whaddya say up there?” (the opening phrase of ‘Waiting for the Girls Upstairs’, a song that arrives twenty minutes or so later) before anyone else has sung a word. ‘Bolero d’Amour’, on the other hand, has been cut, although it was apparently in the show during early previews (I saw the last-but-one preview before press night). And – purists will seethe, but this is London not New York and this choice makes sense – in ‘I’m Still Here’ Carlotta sings that she got through Shirley Temple rather than Brenda Frazier. I suppose they could have explained Brenda Frazier in a programme note, but who reads those?

(I do, actually, and in this case you should too: the programme includes fine, informative, well-written essays by David Benedict, Russell Jackson, and Gary Yershon, and a snippet of Ted Chapin’s wonderful book about the making of the original production. It’s well worth the £5.)

A big part of Cooke’s achievement here is that he understands the rhythm of the piece, and with Follies that is by no means always the case. Until the ‘Loveland’ show-within-a-show at the evening’s climax, Follies is structured as a continuous tapestry rather than as a succession of individual scenes, using a theatrical equivalent of cinematic crossfades – as one piece of the action ends, another begins somewhere else on the stage and your eye is drawn to it. Harold Prince’s original Broadway production achieved this effect using several moving platforms (there is some archival footage available); here, Cooke makes judicious use of the Olivier’s revolve (though not the drum) and Paule Constable’s perfectly-eerie lighting to keep the action spinning, and to shift focus between different areas of Vicki Mortimer’s desolate-but-beautiful derelict-backstage set.

He understands the rhythm of the dialogue as well, and that’s something that also appears to have eluded some directors. Goldman’s script starts out looking naturalistic, at least if you look past the ghosts, but it really isn’t. These are emblems rather than fully fleshed-out characters – remember, the whole show is a metaphor – and that’s a deliberate choice. The characters are simultaneously slightly larger-than-life and slightly less than three-dimensional, and there’s a surreal, arch theatricality to the dialogue that can feel painfully stilted if the actors don’t catch the correct rhythm. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Restoration comedy, only with a darker edge, and it requires the same kind of discipline and pace. Cooke makes it make perfect sense; in this production, the dialogue crackles with electricity and the pace never lets up. Dark as the material becomes, though, the delivery in this production stays just the right side of being too arch; there are laughs too – though not in the last ten to fifteen minutes – and they’re all present and correct, and again that isn’t an easy thing to achieve in material as ostensibly bleak as this.

And those ghosts are everywhere. There’s a ghostly entrance parade (way) upstage behind the older women during ‘Beautiful Girls’, the Whitmans dance with their younger selves in ‘Rain on the Roof’, Carlotta’s ghost looks down on her as she sings ‘I’m Still Here’. It sounds like embellishment, but it’s a choice that consistently pays off; everyone in this Follies is haunted by the past, but some are much better than others at facing it down.

Cooke also draws fine performances from his actors, right down to the smallest roles. Billy Boyle and Norma Atallah are absolutely charming as the Whitmans, and their ‘Rain on the Roof’ is a delight. Geraldine Fitzgerald is a drily funny Solange. Di Botcher cannily underplays ‘Broadway Baby’, so that a song that these days can seem like a cliché feels absolutely fresh. They get to do the trio ending combining their three numbers, and it’s a showstopper. Bruce Graham is a golden-voiced Roscoe, and Gary Raymond is a fascinatingly haunted/haunting Dmitri Weismann. As Stella Deems, Dawn Hope sings the hell out of ‘Who’s That Woman?’, the memorable tap number in which the ex-chorus girls literally dance with their younger selves.

The score is an embarrassment of riches, but so is this cast. As fading soprano Heidi Schiller, Josephine Barstow is simply beautiful. ‘One More Kiss’, a mock-Viennese waltz with a sting in the lyric, is the score’s loveliest song; as sung by Barstow and Alison Langer’s Young Heidi, it has possibly never been lovelier. Tracie Bennett’s Carlotta Campion – the show’s great survivor, a former Follies girl who became a film and television star – seems to be channeling (pre-breakdown) Judy Garland, but that’s a choice that works for the role, and that impression is probably reinforced by having seen Bennett’s powerhouse performance as Garland in Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow. Bennett’s Carlotta is strong, unsentimental, almost flinty – but at a certain point Bennett lets you see vulnerability too, and her I’m Still Here isn’t quite like any other performance of the song I’ve encountered. It starts as a reminiscence to friends, but then once she’s left alone onstage, halfway through the number, it becomes something darker and more complex: simultaneously a triumphant shout of survival and a more introspective acknowledgment of the emotional toll that comes with enduring adversity. It’s surprisingly moving, and an original, subtle take on a song that too often just gets steamrollered into the ground.

As for the central quartet and their younger counterparts, it’s mostly good news there too. Peter Forbes is an ideal Buddy – affable, ingratiating, sad around the edges. He isn’t a tap-dancer, but ‘The Right Girl’ is reconceived as an almost-adversarial dance duet with Fred Haig’s equally ideal Young Buddy, and it works very well indeed. Philip Quast brings tremendous gravitas to his portrayal of Ben, and in his hands ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ – Sondheim’s baldest statement of the show’s overriding theme – is as affecting as it has ever been. And you’ll probably want to go home and erect some kind of shrine to Janie Dee’s Phyllis, because she’s perfect.

That leaves Imelda Staunton’s Sally, which is an impeccable performance in every way except one. Staunton does not fall into the trap of making Sally manic or bipolar from the top of the show. She very carefully charts a slow descent into madness, and it’s a very, very fine acting performance. Sondheim’s music, on the other hand, is not a good fit for her voice. She doesn’t commit the kind of crimes against the human eardrum perpetrated by Bernadette Peters on the most recent Broadway cast album, but Sally’s songs demand a soprano and she just isn’t one. That said, she more or less gets away with it: her ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’ is absolutely transfixing (and yes, she does hit all the notes, though I think it’s been taken down a step for her), because the acting performance is compelling enough to carry the music with it – and to be fair, she floats a lovely pianissimo whatever-it-is on the last note of the song. She takes the middle of ‘Too Many Mornings’ down an octave, but does hit the high notes at the end of the song. Her Loveland number, ‘Losing My Mind’, is less successful, but that’s partly because the staging is too busy: she sings a good part of the song in profile to the audience, sitting at a dressing table, and it would help if she was allowed to face the audience from the beginning.

Part of the problem, though, is undeniably the mismatch between the song and the performer. Staunton is a brilliant actor with a versatile voice that can encompass a wider range of musical roles than you might imagine – but she does not have the kind of glorious one-of-a-kind singing voice that could stand in the same league as some of her predecessors in the role. When Dorothy Collins, Barbara Cook or Julia McKenzie sang the song – and all three are/were superb actors too – their voices could do some of the heavy lifting. McKenzie literally just stood completely still then raised both arms on the penultimate line of the final verse; as careful as her acting choices in that moment were, she also has the kind of voice that makes an entire theatre stop breathing until she’s finished the number, and her physical stillness was a powerful statement in itself given that the song essentially spends four minutes describing a state of emotional paralysis. Staunton doesn’t have that kind of voice, so the song is given more elaborate blocking (in profile, face forward, pick up a glass and take a drink, stand for the final verse, yada yada) as if to compensate. The acting choices make perfect sense, and she (correctly) plays the performance pastiche rather than the nervous breakdown underpinning the song – but the song benefits enormously from a thrilling voice, and it doesn’t get one.

And having said all that, Staunton’s performance in the final scene is so heartbreaking that you’ll probably forgive her more or less anything for her delivery of the line “Oh dear God, it IS tomorrow.”. Her presence in the role brings gains and losses; she’s wonderful, but she’s also imperfect – and perhaps all the more so next to the marvellous Alex Young’s Young Sally, because Young has the acting chops and the voice.

The Loveland sequence as a whole, in fact, is somewhat problematic. Cooke’s direction, so perfect in the preceding scenes, goes off the rails a little with the onset of the climactic show-within-a-show. Loveland is basically a metaphorical Ziegfeld Follies performance in which the four principal characters each perform their own individual folly; the transition into Loveland is handled well enough, although the Loveland set could usefully look a little more opulent, and the scene-setting numbers for the Young quartet are perfectly charming. Forbes’s “Margie” and “Sally” in ‘Buddy’s Blues’ are chorus boys in drag; it’s not a damaging choice, and there’s nothing wrong with the performance, but it is a definite choice, and there’s no discernible reason for it.

[Edit – I’m informed by friends who would know – and I should have known too because I’ve read the same books – that using two chorus boys here was the way the number was originally conceived and staged, although that version of it didn’t make it as far as the Broadway opening. Oops.]

The staging of ‘Losing My Mind’ pulls your focus away from what Staunton’s Sally is feeling, and places it instead on what she’s doing. Phyllis’s ‘Story of Lucy and Jessie’, in which she tries to reconcile the chasm between her present and younger selves, is the most completely successful of the four numbers; Dee’s Phyllis, in a black dress that redefines va-va-voom, dances with Zizi Strallen’s Young Phyllis as well as a gaggle of chorus boys. Again, a definite choice, and not quite what the stage directions suggest, but it works, Bill Deamer’s choreography is terrific, and it’s crystal clear in this staging that Phyllis’s “folly” is her inability to reconcile the persona she assumed after marrying Ben with the (relatively) carefree but unschooled young woman she used to be (I think it’s crystal clear in the lyrics as well, but it’s a point that seems to have come as a surprise to at least one of London’s theatre critics). Quast’s ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ is great until the onset of the breakdown that takes us out of Loveland and back into the derelict theatre. His collapse simply isn’t big enough – and the issue is with the direction rather than the actor, because the scripted chaos/cacophony that accompanies the moment is also more subdued than it needs to be.

And again, having said all that, the final scene – with every line from the orignal version restored – is superb, and well worth whatever missteps the production might have taken during the preceding twenty minutes.

Other reservations? Purists might prefer Michael Bennett’s original choreography for ‘Who’s That Woman?’ to Deamer’s account of the number, in which the ‘ghosts’, in the tap section, take the stage alone before dancing with their older counterparts. It’s different, it works, and the number stops the show – and having the ghosts briefly supplant their older counterparts is entirely in keeping with the way this production uses the ghosts from the beginning as living memories who inhabit the theatre and refuse to be put to rest – but the original choreography is justifiably celebrated (and has occasionally been used in subsequent productions), and it’s momentarily jarring to see such a decisively different take on the song. And when just about everything else in Cooke’s production is executed with commendable subtlety and restraint, it’s (to say the least) a step too far to have the large electric WEISSMAN FOLLIES sign hanging over the stage sputter and fade so it just says LIES during the chaos sequence that takes us from Loveland back to the bare stage of the Weissman Theatre. We already got the point; it doesn’t need illuminating, particularly not with a several-feet-high sign made of lightbulbs.

And – not that this has anything to do with anything on the stage – exercise caution in the National Theatre bookshop after the show. If you care about such things, the new edition of the published script with this production’s artwork on the cover unfortunately does not reflect the version of the text used in this production:

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No, I didn’t buy it. There’s a long-out-of-print Random House edition of the original 1971 book; I once owned a copy but it went AWOL a few years ago; another is on the way. Secondhand copies cost more than the new published edition, but can be found within my pain threshold (and for less than I paid for the theatre ticket). Caveat emptor – and while I certainly understand the impulse to have a copy of the published script on sale to tie in with this revival, the differences between the two scripts mean this leaves a slightly sour taste. The revised script essentially reads as if Goldman went through his original book with a razor and carefully cut out everything that made it interesting. It’s a pale imitation; this production, despite a couple of flaws, offers the real deal.

Goodness, this went on for a long time, didn’t it? Overall, while this production makes a few missteps, a lot of it is thrilling. Cooke’s great achievement is to demonstrate loudly and clearly that despite the show’s “failure” back in 1971, the original book plays beautifully and is vastly superior to every subsequent rewrite. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent, sometimes dazzling production of difficult material, and – mostly – an impeccable presentation of Sondheim’s glorious score. You even get Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations, courtesy of a twenty-piece band tucked away at the back of the Olivier’s vast stage (the flawless musical direction is by Nigel Lilley). It isn’t quite the idealised revival of the show I’ve been carrying around in my head for the last twenty-plus years, but it probably couldn’t be; parts of it don’t match up, and parts of it are better than anything I’d imagined. Given the National’s budgetary constraints – the transition into Loveland really needs to look as if the designers threw a lot of money at the stage, and here it just doesn’t – and the fact that the show has never turned a profit in a commercial production, this is probably as good a revival as anyone could ever have expected. Cooke and Deamer’s choices, though, mean that devotees of the show – there are people, God help us, who are more obsessive than I am – are going to be arguing about this staging, and about at least a couple of the performances (Staunton and Bennett, and maybe Quast in the breakdown/chaos sequence) for years. Me? I’m just glad I get to see it again before it closes in January.

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Like a rolling stone

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Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a Bob Dylan jukebox musical or a play with Bob Dylan songs? Well… no, no, and take your pick. The programme lists twenty Dylan songs, drawn from every corner of his career, but this isn’t a greatest hits show, and you won’t hear Blowin’ in the Wind. The songs don’t function the ways the numbers would in a conventional musical; instead, they serve more or less as a live soundtrack to Conor McPherson‘s grab-bag of stories about Duluth (of course, Dylan’s birthplace) during the depression.

On paper, it probably shouldn’t work. McPherson’s script throws together a disparate collection of People With Problems in a rooming-house that is basically the Minnesota equivalent of the Last Chance Saloon. Nick, the owner (Ciaran Hinds) is mortgaged up to his eyeballs and the bank is about to foreclose. His wife Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson) has dementia, and her lucid moments are few and far between. Their son Gene (Sam Reid) is an unemployed drunk, and their daughter Marianne (Sheila Atim), a black foundling they adopted, is mysteriously pregnant. Throw in a sexy widow, a boxer, a malevolent, blackmailing Bible salesman, an on-the-lam apparently middle-class family with a really dark secret, a shoe salesman, and the widowed family doctor, and you’ve got basically the full deck of depression-era clichés crammed together under a single roof for two acts. It could easily be deadly.

That it isn’t is partly down to the performances and musical arrangements, and partly due to the clever way McPherson uses the songs to amplify or comment on the content of the surrounding scenes. The result is a show where the point is less the story itself and more the unlocking of the delicate poetry inside Dylan’s songs – poetry which is only sometimes (there are people who’d throttle me for saying this) apparent in his own performances. It’s hardly a spoiler, given the nature of McPherson’s plot, to say that by the climax of the second act, pretty much everyone’s chickens have come home to roost, and there isn’t much incident in the show that you won’t see coming ten minutes ahead – but what you won’t necessarily expect is the sheer beauty that McPherson, his fine cast, and orchestrator/arranger Simon Hale find in the characters, the songs, and the setting. There are four musicians – keys, violin/mandolin, guitar, and upright bass – onstage, and a couple of members of the cast take turns playing drums when needed, and it’s as if a play and a concert are sharing the same physical space. The music is almost all presented diegetically, with the actors not singing the lead in a given song providing backup vocals; the play and the songs are carefully woven around each other so that while each could stand alone, they’re immeasurably stronger together. At the close of the first act, when the remarkable Shirley Henderson grabs the microphone and tears into Like a Rolling Stone, it’s as if she’s giving voice not simply to every character on the stage, but to an entire era. McPherson’s play offers a collection of characters on a collision course with life, and the song amplifies their frustration in a way that dialogue simply couldn’t match. It’s a mesmerising performance – simultaneously chilling and intensely moving.

There are fine performances, too, from Arinzé Kene as the boxer, Debbie Kurup as an impecunious widow waiting for her ship to come in – her Went To See The Gypsy is another musical standout – and especially from Sheila Atim as the pregnant Marianne. Atim gives the character an extraordinary, quiet dignity; you can’t take your eyes off her, and her gorgeously understated performance of Tight Connection to My Heart may well be as felicitous a meeting of singer and song as you’ll hear in a theatre this year. Ciaran Hinds is very good indeed in a role that doesn’t stretch him. Rae Smith’s spare, suspended-in-space set, with moody projections of Minnesota landscapes on flown-in flats, is tremendously evocative, and McPherson’s detailed but unshowy direction somehow manages to make a piece that probably shouldn’t work at all make perfect sense.

If you walk into the theatre expecting a performance that works along the lines of a traditional musical, then, you’ll probably be disappointed. The best way to approach Girl from the North Country is probably as a kind of two-act theatrical tone poem. Taken alone, the stories McPherson tells about these characters are too thin to sustain two full acts. Paired with the Dylan songs – and with Hale’s hauntingly lovely musical arrangements – the whole is much, much greater than the sum of the parts. You’ll pick all kinds of holes in the script afterwards, but as an experience this show is – surprisingly – moving, memorable, and genuinely beautiful, none of which are words you’d usually expect to apply to a jukebox musical.

Just keep your fingers crossed for a cast album. Once you’ve heard them once, these are performances you’ll want to keep.

 

 

Welcome to Portcullis House

 

 

 

Yes, that’s the title: The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence on Whitehall’s Relationship with Kids Company. Yes, it’s a musical, albeit a very unusual one. Drawn largely from the edited transcript of the October 15th 2015 oral evidence session at Portcullis House, with additional material drawn from other evidence sessions in the committee’s inquiry into Whitehall’s relationship with the failed charity Kids Company, this is probably as unusual a new musical as you’ll encounter this year. It might be the most unusual new musical you’ll encounter this decade. How unusual is it? In maybe thirty-five years of regular theatregoing, this is the first new musical I’ve ever seen whose programme includes what amounts to a bibliography:

dcb

The result, perhaps surprisingly, is an enthralling piece of theatre, though it would possibly – despite a careful introduction in which a parliamentary clerk explains the difference between these proceedings and a trial – make rather less sense if you weren’t British or hadn’t been following this particular story (or politics in general) in the news over the last several years. This is a story that cuts right to the heart of the political schisms in contemporary Britain, the people involved are flawed, colourful (very colourful), and fascinating, and the collapse of Kids Company ended up being about far more than the mismanagement of a charity. As the government’s austerity programme forced deep cuts to social services, charities and volunteers were left to pick up the slack; Kids Company, under the direction of its charismatic founder, Camila Batmanghelidjh, expanded very quickly, and was undeniably extremely effective in the way it was able to provide immediate assistance, via drop-in centres, to vulnerable/at-risk children. The charity’s chaotic management structure and record-keeping, hand-to-mouth financial management, and unorthodox distribution practices put Kids Company on a collision course with the government, particularly after Kids Company began to receive significant funding from government grants; Batmanghelidjh, as the charity’s public face and most visible figurehead, became an increasingly contentious public figure as negative stories related to the charity began to appear with some regularity in the less scrupulous tabloids. In August 2015, the charity abruptly folded; in the aftermath, there was a lot of talk about financial mismanagement, misuse or misappropriation of government grants and all the rest of it, but there was (depressingly) far less discussion of how or whether the essential services Kids Company provided – support for which had been hugely cut back and in some cases even withdrawn by local authorities as a result of the coalition government’s austerity-based funding cuts – might continue.

The October 15th transcript runs to 69 pages, and a lot of it boils down to a discussion of the charity’s processes – essential, probably, in the context of the way the charity collapsed, but it makes rather dry reading. The show runs around 80 minutes; writers Hadley Fraser and Josie Rourke have, thank God, edited significantly, and brought in third-party testimony from other hearings, and they’ve essentially boiled the hearing down into a confrontation between two opposing philosophies. On the one hand, there’s the government, as represented by the panel of MPs who are (justifiably) determined to establish that public funds have not been used carelessly or indiscriminately. On the other, there’s the charity’s chief of trustees, Alan Yentob, and Ms. Batmanghelidjh, the founder and chief executive, and Ms. Batmanghelidjh’s primary concern is simply to do what she can to help suffering/vulnerable/at-risk children. This is not, though, precisely a simple contest between good and bad/practicality vs. idealism/efficiency vs. compassion, and that’s largely due to the complexities of the characters involved, and particularly to the way Mr. Yentob and Ms. Batmanghelidjh presented themselves during the hearing. From what we hear of their testimonies – and while what we hear during the performance is edited, the impression is backed up by reading the full transcript – neither has much grasp on the processes necessary to keep a charity the size of Kids Company afloat financially, even though we hear Ms. Batmanghelidjh was a tireless fundraiser. Mr. Yentob – and again, this impression is backed up by the full transcript – sometimes appears more concerned with maintaining the access to cabinet ministers conferred by his position as one of the charity’s figureheads than with the charity’s actual mission. Both come across as egocentric, both evade questions, and both are occasionally petulant in the face of the panel’s more persistent questions.

And this – finally – is where Tom Deering‘s music comes in. This is not exactly Hello, Dolly!; there are no big memorable take-home tunes. The show moves seamlessly from speech to singing and back again, and the score exists in a twilight zone between Adam Cork’s music for London Road and contemporary chamber opera. The music’s function here is largely to provide subtext; when the panel intone ‘We want to learn…” in the manner of a church choir singing a psalm, you sense a certain sanctimoniousness. Mr. Yentob, on the other hand, is made to sing with operatic pomposity; there’s a clear subtext of disdain for the proceedings running through his testimony (in the full transcript as well), and the carefully formal music and use of an operatic voice (the other roles are all cast with performers who work primarily in musical theatre, where the prevailing sound is more relaxed) suggest what he never explicitly says: that his inquisitors, and the hearing itself, are far below his pay grade. As for Ms. Batmanghelidjh, she’s given, in her closing statement to the hearing (which is not quite where her testimony ended in the actual transcript, but Fraser and Rourke are allowed some theatrical licence), the closest thing to a full-out aria, an impassioned indictment of society for letting vulnerable children fall through the cracks, and the media and government for paying more attention to procedural problems at Kids Company than to the plight of the children it served. Her music captures her deep commitment to her cause, but also – via underlying dissonance in the accompaniment, and via abrupt shifts between relatively lyrical melodic lines and something rather more jagged – her essential slipperiness. Deering’s score is a compelling musical achievement; a committee hearing is essentially static, and Deering’s music provides a great deal of the piece’s dramatic tension.

As for the production, it’s more or less flawless. Josie Rourke’s direction finds more variety and more movement in the essentially motionless situation than you’d imagine possible; clever use of moving desks in Robert Jones’s carefully-accurate committee-room set allows the actors playing the MPs and clerks to step “outside” their roles in the hearing to become individuals giving third-party testimony, some of which is very moving (for example, an ex-headteacher and former Kids Company employee testifying to the remarkable speed with which the Kids Company machine could move to provide protection to a child whose home situation placed him in significant danger). It’s a joy these days to see a musical where the music is all provided by proper instruments, in this case a grand piano (on a platform above the stage) and a string quartet. The pacing is spot-on, and that’s not an easy thing to achieve in a piece whose setup basically has all the actors sitting at desks for most of the show’s running time.

donmar committee set

The performances, too, are impossible to fault. Alexander Hanson sings superbly and captures Bernard Jenkin‘s slight smugness without caricaturing it. As chair of the session, Jenkin is perhaps most responsible for the panel’s inability/reluctance/failure to engage with the extent of the social issues Kids Company had to deal with, and with the question – tellingly, acknowledged in the transcript by Ms. Batmanghelidjh, but not by any of the MPs, Tory or Labour, on the panel – of why a charity, rather than government, became responsible for helping some of society’s most vulnerable children. Omar Ebrahim is a perfectly slippery Alan Yentob, Rosemary Ashe skirts just this side of caricature as the appalling Kate Hoey – but then, so does Ms. Hoey (one of the details we learn about Ms. Hoey from the introductions at the top of the show is that her constituency website hilariously refers to her office phone number as the “Hoey Hotline”). And Sandra Marvin’s Camila Batmanghelidjh is a minor miracle, from her turban right down to her pink Crocs: beautifully sung, of course, and she doesn’t sidestep Ms. Batmanghelidjh’s infuriating evasiveness and tendency towards almost-childlike self-justification, but Marvin presents a woman of great complexity – refreshing, since a good number of the news reports into the collapse of Kids Company simply offered Ms. Batmanghelidjh up as a kind of sacrificial buffoon.

It’s not exactly a fun evening (or afternoon, in my case) at the theatre, of course, but it’s also probably not quite like any other musical you’ve ever seen. It’s unusual for a new musical to dive into a ripped-from-the-headlines ongoing story, and doubly so for it to do so via official transcripts of recorded events. The question of government’s responsibility towards society’s most vulnerable has become even more resonant since the horror experienced by the inhabitants of Grenfell Tower in June; this show doesn’t necessarily provide any answers, although it’s a telling authorial choice that the final significant statement in the show, unlike in the transcript of the hearing, is given to Ms. Batmanghelidjh. It does, though, raise all kinds of questions about government and accountability. Given the show’s premise, the fact that it manages to take those questions and turn them into 80 minutes of thoroughly absorbing theatre is little short of astonishing.

hoey hotline

 

Let us worship

AMLD

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

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

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

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

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