Sympathy for the Devil

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Mad props, or something, to the very intense woman seated three seats down the front row from me at Wednesday afternoon’s performance of Bruce Norris‘s Downstate, a play so relentlessly bleak that it makes Sweat look like something by Feydeau. Ms. Intensity arrived about twelve minutes before the lights went down, spent most of those twelve minutes trying to engage the attention of anyone who would listen with a breathless monologue about how dated the decor was in the living-room set onstage in front of us – “I mean, it’s like something out of the nineties” – and then sat through the first half, occasionally emitting a gasp audible three seats away, and fled as soon as the lights went up for the interval. Lesson learned: nobody goes to a group home for sex offenders for the interior decor.

Todd Rosenthal’s set, like just about everything else in Pam MacKinnon‘s extraordinary production, is studiedly, carefully, absolutely naturalistic. There’s no candy-wrapping, no sugar-coating, no sweetening the pill here: this is a grim play about unpleasant people, and it’s hard work to sit through. It’s also absolutely gripping, though you may leave thinking the playwright has stacked the decks in ways that are rather too cynically manipulative. The play takes place in the communal living-room of a group home for sex offenders somewhere in downstate Illinois (the exact location is never named, but it’s emphatically not Chicago, it’s a city large enough to have major chain stores and a bus service, and it’s located along I-55), and is primarily concerned with two confrontations, both involving residents in the home – the first concerning a meeting between an elderly (and paraplegic) sex offender and one of the children he abused, thirty years after the abuse took place, and the second a probation officer’s interrogation of a resident who has violated the terms of his release.

Norris raises a lot of valid questions about the way society treats offenders whose offences are considered beyond the pale, and he’s written a set of plausible, initially-sympathetic characters, not all of whom deserve our sympathy (the most outwardly unsympathetic characters, on first acquaintance, are grown-up abuse victim Andy’s brittle wife Em and convicted abuser Gio’s work colleague Effie, and they’re the only characters we see who are not an abuser or a victim or a police officer). There’s undoubtedly a worthwhile point to be made about how monsters don’t always look or sound like monsters, and while the technique of letting these characters charm us before confronting us with the full horrors of what they did is obvious, it’s also undeniably effective. The play, as I said, is absolutely gripping.

It is, though, also fair to say that there is something cynically mathematical about the way Norris sets up his debate in the play, as if he’s balancing an equation. It’s a little bit too perfectly symmetrical that Dee, who at first seems like he’s been cast as the play’s moral compass, turns out to be the most vehemently unrepentant about what he did (these are not spoilers, you’ll see most of the second act coming twenty minutes before it happens), or that Andy’s abuser Fred has himself, as a result of publicity surrounding his trial for abusing Andy and other children, been the victim of an act of violence that has left him permanently disabled, or that when Andy tries to make Fred read through the reconciliation contract he’s brought for Fred to sign we’re asked to question whether he remembers a significant detail about Fred’s anatomy. The play’s discussions of recidivism, of the different kinds of victimhood, about how how society treats criminals whose crimes it considers unspeakable, about whether whether forcing registered offenders to adhere to sometimes remarkably petty rules and restrictions serves to protect society from predators, are often provocative and always engaging, and the play may very well lead you to question some of your own assumptions; there are times, though, when it feels like you’re watching the playwright deliver a lecture, rather than characters interacting within a scene, and the climactic event of Act Two is telegraphed so obviously that when it happens it’s no particular surprise.

The performances, direction, and design, on the other hand, are flawless. This is a co-production between the National and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the cast is a mixture of British and American actors, the acting is remarkable, and you can’t see the join. First among equals, perhaps, is Cecilia Noble as wearily pragmatic probation officer Ivy, but every beat, every line, every gesture from every single member of the company is right on target. There’s no false theatricality, no sense of anybody pushing too hard or going over the top, just an absolute commitment to finding the emotional truth in every word and every action. This is as fine an ensemble performance as you could hope to see, and there’s no faulting MacKinnon’s direction either. There aren’t many surprises in this play, in terms of the way the plot (slowly) unfolds, but MacKinnon and her cast orchestrate a carefully rising, squirm-inducing line of tension even though you’ll probably have figured out what the play’s big explosion will be half an hour before it arrives.

This kind of collaboration is precisely the sort of work the National ought to be doing – as opposed to something like Hadestown, in which an American commercial producer got to use the National’s taxpayer-funded facilities to get a price-break on a pre-Broadway tryout, and in which the British performers were all relegated to the chorus – and it’s fascinating to get to watch a production staged according to Steppenwolf’s (very recogniseable) aesthetic four thousand miles from Chicago. Yes, Downstate is hard work, and sometimes makes very uncomfortable viewing, and there are some legitimate holes you can pick in Norris’s script – but it’s unusual and very brave for a piece of theatre to confront the ground this play covers head-on, and the actors are astonishing.

And yes, the furniture and decor in that living-room set is dated and shabby. You can’t win ’em all.

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The Right Girl

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It’s back, and it’s (even) better. The first time around, Dominic Cooke’s revival of Follies at the National Theatre was simultaneously thrilling, breathtaking, and slightly flawed. Cooke put together a text that is far closer to the 1971 original than the more recent, less-corrosive revised edition that formed the basis for the last three major US revivals, and his cast did a generally excellent job of capturing the odd, febrile tone of James Goldman‘s stylised dialogue. On the minus side, Bill Deamer’s choreography for the show’s biggest production number didn’t quite deliver, and while Imelda Staunton delivered a stunning acting performance, her singing voice was not an entirely happy match for her character’s music.

For this return engagement, Mr. Deamer’s choreography has been tweaked, Ms. Staunton’s role is one of several that have been recast, and Mr. Cooke has made a number of mostly small adjustments to his staging. This isn’t simply a by-the-numbers retread of the 2017 production; it’s a thorough overhaul, and the changes are (almost) all improvements. First time around, this was a splendid revival with a lot of caveats. This time, while there are still elements that Sondheim devotees will be arguing over for years, for my money it’s more or less a complete triumph.

The show is what it always was: a masterpiece, part showbiz extravaganza and part Pirandellean identity play, in which the middle-aged guests at a reunion party for former performers in a Ziegfeld Follies-esque Broadway revue are (literally) confronted by the ghosts of their former selves. It’s a strange cocktail of glitter and rage and regret in which the former showgirls, and particularly the two unhappily-married couples at the centre of the plot, become a lens through which we’re asked to examine the ways in which people deal – or don’t – with the gulf between their youthful aspirations and middle-aged reality, and (because that’s not bleak enough already) the whole thing is an extended theatrical metaphor for America’s postwar decline. And on top of all that, Stephen Sondheim‘s extraordinary score may very well turn out to be the crowning achievement of his extraordinary career. It’s a dazzling blend of 1970-contemporary Broadway and spot-on pastiche, and the show’s climactic sequence of musical numbers, which finds the four protagonists trapped inside a metaphorical Ziegfeld Follies production in which they each examine their individual failures via a period-pastiche musical performance, is as brilliant a piece of writing as anything in the American musical theatre canon.

It’s matched, finally, by a revival whose brilliance in this incarnation seems as effortless as it was laboured first time around. Cooke’s first masterstroke – last time too – was to stage the piece to make it clear that the ghosts haven’t arrived at the party – we have entered their space. The show takes place in the rubble of the derelict Weismann Theatre, which is about to be torn down; a ghostly showgirl gives the signal that sets the performance in motion, we see the past before we see the (1971) present, and the ghosts recognise their present-day selves before their present-day selves see them. The ghosts are in James Goldman’s book for the show, of course, but Cooke’s staging always deployed them (even) more than Goldman does, and Cooke deploys them even more here. We’re always aware, even watching minor supporting characters, of the simmering tension between the past and the present, and a (new) tableau in which some of the ghosts watch their present-day selves leaving the party is both moving and visually beautiful.

There’s still a remarkable set of performances in the supporting roles, too. As the aging Viennese soprano Heidi Schiller, Felicity Lott perhaps doesn’t quite have Josephine Barstow’s devastating intensity (Barstow will return to the production later in the run, and played the press night when Lott fell ill), but I doubt One More Kiss has ever been sung more gloriously than it is here, and Alison Langer’s Young Heidi is (still) sublime. Dawn Hope’s ‘Who’s That Woman?’ raises goosebumps, and Deamer has rechoreographed the number so that it’s now the showstopper it should have been first time around. No, it’s not the original Michael Bennett choreography, which was used in the original London production in 1987, and yes, I’d still prefer it if it was, but the version they’re doing now is a huge improvement over Deamer’s first pass at it. Tracie Bennett has found even more colours in her take on I’m Still Here, and – best of all – Claire Moore slams the last sixteen bars of Broadway Baby into the back of the house with the kind of force that could easily level the entire building.

The biggest difference, though, comes in the recasting of two of the four leads – that is, one-half of the two married couples at the centre of the plot (in case you’ve forgotten – and why have you? – Sally Durant and Phyllis Rogers danced together in the final season of the Weismann Follies in 1941, and were roommates. At the end of the season, Sally married Buddy Plummer and Phyllis married Ben Stone – but Sally had had a fling with Ben before he got engaged to Phyllis, and when her own marriage proved less than idyllic she spent the next thirty years pining for him, and has arrived at the reunion in the hope of winning him back). Peter Forbes is still a heartbreaking Buddy, a travelling salesman who loves Sally too much to leave her and knows he’d be happier if he did. Janie Dee’s Phyllis has – seemingly impossibly, because she was perfect the first time – grown in stature; she’s an arresting combination of heart and hauteur, ice and fire, sharp edges and raw nerves. Alexander Hanson replaces Philip Quast, and he doesn’t have Quast’s gravitas. Hanson’s Ben is a shallow charmer who has coasted to success on the back of a combination of bravado and a boyish smile, and knows it. This Ben’s descent into self-loathing is more sudden than it was with Quast in the role, and more shocking; there’s a desperation to Ben’s climactic breakdown that was slightly lacking in this production’s first incarnation, and the chaos sequence that takes us out of Ben’s Follies number and back into the final (spoken) scene works better – much better – with Hanson at the centre of it than it did in 2017. Hanson isn’t quite as wonderful a singer as Quast, but he’s more than good enough, and he’s giving a very fine performance.

The biggest difference, though, is Joanna Riding’s Sally. Imelda Staunton is an extraordinary actor whose singing voice was never quite right for this role. Riding, whose casting, I admit, did not particularly excite me, has all the voice she needs for this music, and she sings the role as beautifully as you’d expect (and – thank God – without taking any of the higher notes in her big duet with Hanson’s Ben down an octave). Her acting choices, though, are fascinating, and quite different from Staunton’s. Staunton offered an unhappy woman slowly descending into insanity. Riding’s Sally is a self-absorbed romantic who operates (far) more through her emotions than her intellect, and who seems to see herself as a character in one of the trashy romance novels she says she reads to pass the time – and when her illusions are abruptly shattered, her (quick) emotional collapse is ugly, and mesmerising to watch. Riding’s rendition of Losing My Mind, Sally’s pastiche number in the show’s climactic Follies sequence, is quite breathtaking, although (following Staunton’s lead), it’s a startlingly angry interpretation, and it’s staged as a scene in a period romantic drama rather than simply as a torch song. Like every song in the Loveland sequence, Losing My Mind was conceived as a song in which the singer performs a metaphorical representation of her folly, rather than as a scene in which the actor acts the character’s emotional disintegration. In the 1987 London production, Julia McKenzie gave us the former, and I think I stopped breathing during the four minutes or so it took for her to sing the song. In 2017, Imelda Staunton gave us the latter, and the first time I saw it it didn’t quite work for me, although I warmed to her choices a little more on subsequent viewings. Riding somehow manages both, although not quite in the manner suggested by the script: she sings it powerfully, easily encompassing the big notes in the final verse (those notes severely tested her predecessor in this production), and begins playing it as a scene in a romantic melodrama, sitting at a dressing-table in a glamorous art deco boudoir. As the song continues, Riding’s Sally appears to struggle to maintain the artifice of the performance, gradually sinking into a combination of fury, grief and despair; she pops pills in the final verse, stands trembling as she holds the final note, and on the last beat of the song she removes her wig – a gesture which seems to leave her pitifully naked (albeit fully-clothed). If you know the show, if you know how previous interpretations of this moment have worked, this staging sounds ham-fisted, overdone, and completely wrong-headed – but in Riding’s hands (and voice), it’s absolutely riveting and somehow absolutely right.

As for the rest – there are fine performances from the new quartet of actors playing the younger incarnations of the four principal characters (Harry Hepple, Ian McIntosh, Christine Tucker, and Gemma Sutton as, respectively, Young Buddy, Young Ben, Young Phyllis, and Young Sally). Vicki Mortimer’s derelict theatre set is still stunning, and one still wishes a little more money could have been thrown at the Loveland sets for the climactic recreation of a Follies show, because those sets really need to be a little more opulent than they are here – although it’s clear the National have pushed the boat out as far as they can on this production, and the costumes are (still) magnificent. For Joanna Riding, Sally’s hair and party dress have been tweaked, and the new design is a significant improvement over the costume Imelda Staunton wore. The band is still conducted by Nigel Lilley, and they’re still wonderful, and Paule Constable’s appropriately crepuscular lighting is still pretty much perfect.

There’s still no intermission, which for this show is as it should be, and Cooke directs his new cast to give, if anything, an even more electrifying account of Goldman’s archly theatrical dialogue than their predecessors did. Once again, Vicki Mortimer’s turntable set moves us seamlessly through the various different levels of the derelict Weismann Theatre, and once again – in fact, even more than last time – it’s obvious everybody involved understands this show’s rather unusual tone and rhythm (imagine a mid-century American Restoration drama with script revisions by Edward Albee and songs drawn from every corner of musical theatre’s golden age). There were always many, many good things in this production – but last time, there was a great deal to argue against as well. This time, Cooke and his creative team have given us as good a revival of Follies as I ever expect to see. It’s an intelligent, precise, thrilling presentation of rich, multi-layered material, possibly as good a musical production as the National has ever done and certainly as good as anything I’ve ever seen there. If you saw it last time, you need to see it again. In almost every way, this incarnation of the production is stronger, smarter, sharper, and deeper than the first. In terms of Sondheim revivals, this is just about as good as it gets.

And yes, that means it’s rather a pity that the first cast, rather than this one, got to preserve their performances via an NT Live presentation and a cast recording. That, I’m afraid, is showbiz.

 

Welcome to the Rock

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On paper, Come From Away looks wince-inducing. A musical set against the backdrop of 9/11 following the story of people stranded in a small town in Newfoundland when their flights were forced to land there after US airspace was closed following the attacks looks like a terrible idea. I thought it was a terrible idea, and I was living in Canada on 9/11 and the story the show tells is part of the narrative I watched unfold as I (like everyone else) spent day after day glued to the news. Given the magnitude of the events behind the events the show portrays, it’s easy to assume a musical covering this territory would have to be essentially reductive, that a tidal wave of sentimentality about Canadian niceness, eh? would somehow wash away the horror everybody felt during that week.

Then I heard the Broadway cast recording, which – while it isn’t complete – includes enough material to challenge that original perception. Based on the album, I bought a ticket to the show’s London production – and, yes, I admit I was absolutely wrong. There are holes you can legitimately pick in Come From Away, but it works. It doesn’t trivialise the horror behind the events it portrays, the writers and director do a very careful job of keeping any sentimentality firmly in check, and the show, to my complete surprise, is a powerful snapshot of a moment in which the ground shook under everybody’s feet. We have some distance from those events now, and we’ve become used to seeing images from the surrounding events that at the time seemed to stretch our understanding of the word ‘unimaginable’. What Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the show’s writers (they both wrote all of it, collaborating on book, music and lyrics) achieve is something quite difficult: without showing any imagery at all from any of the attacks, without wallowing in the nightmarish scenes the whole world saw on the news, they manage to evoke how it felt to wake up in a world that had been suddenly and irrevocably changed by a series of grotesque acts of violence. Even more remarkably, they manage to show people finding strength and humanity in the face of that horror without bathing the audience in a vat of treacle – or rather, given that it takes place in Canada, maple syrup.

The show’s great strength is the illusion of simplicity with which Sankoff and Hein (and director Christopher Ashley) tell their stories, all of which are real stories drawn from interviews with residents of Gander, Newfoundland and the passengers and flight crews who found themselves stranded there. There’s a relatively bare stage with furniture brought on and off as required by the cast, and the actors slip seamlessly between characters (and accents, and between narration and dialogue) at the drop of a hat or a jacket or a prop. Everybody in the cast plays several characters; the show’s structure is quite intricate, but the storytelling is absolutely clear all the way through. Among a fine ensemble cast there are standout turns from Clive Carter as (among other things) Gander’s mayor, from Cat Simmons as a New Yorker trying to trace her firefighter son, from Robert Hands and Helen Hobson as two middle-aged people who find a mutual attraction after they are stranded together, and above all from Rachel Tucker as Beverley Bass, a pilot (in fact, the first female captain employed by American Airlines) whose flight is diverted to Gander. It’s to Tucker’s advantage that Me And the Sky, Beverley Bass’s song in the show, is by far the best thing in the score, and in her hands it’s a tour-de-force.

The rest of the score is… well, the kind word is ‘functional’. It works in context, the musical palette (largely rooted in folk-rock) is appropriate to the setting but not as varied as it could be, and some of the lyrics clunk a bit, and rely slightly too much on predictable rhymes. This is, though, one of those shows where any criticism of the technical aspects of the writing is more or less irrelevant, because the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts: look too closely at the score and you’ll start to pick holes, but – as I said – as a theatrical experience this show just works.

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Fasten your seatbelt…

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Actually, this time the ride could be bumpier. In describing Ivo van Hove‘s fascinating stage adaptation of the classic 1950 backstage drama All About Eve, it’s possibly helpful to start by defining what it isn’t: while it sticks very close to Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s (peerless) screenplay, it’s not precisely a straightforward translation of the film to the stage. That screenplay is packed with endlessly quotable zingers and the film starred Bette Davis, who could deliver a zinger like nobody else, but if you arrive at the Noel Coward Theatre expecting a camp bitch-fest you’ll be disappointed. You’ll be disappointed, too, if you’re expecting a comedy, because van Hove directs his cast to play down the laughs. And the source material should probably make this a given, but if you’re looking for emotional catharsis this isn’t the show for you. It’s utterly gripping, but you won’t be moved.

What you’ll get, in fact, is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from an adaptation of this particular film by this particular director, and if there’s any criticism it’s that the evening could use a few more surprises. There’s a blank, stylised set and cooly stylish lighting by Jan Versweyveld, the action isn’t located precisely in period, there’s anachronistic electronic music between (and sometimes during) the scenes (the composer is PJ Harvey), and van Hove elicits very fine but impeccably restrained performances from his leading actors. It’s a smart, elegant, ice-cold presentation of the material, a surgically-precise theatrical meditation on the nature of celebrity and the space between the private and public spheres. There’s plenty to think about, and plenty to admire, and for some people that’ll be enough. It was for me. Some, though, will undoubtedly wish there’d been more fireworks, more heat, less to think about and more to feel.

That’s true, too, of the two above-the-title star performances. Yes, this is a star vehicle, and yes, there’s stellar work here from Gillian Anderson as established star Margo Channing and Lily James as the scheming Eve Harrington, who insinuates her way into Margo’s household and then uses her newfound position as a base-camp as she sets out to claw her way to stardom. Anderson is a formidable stage presence, absolutely convincing as an old-fashioned STAR, and manages to offer a completely fresh, consistently fascinating take on the role, which is a more difficult task than you’d think when at least two-thirds of the audience can probably imitate most of Bette Davis’s most famous line-readings from the film on command. She’s simultaneously regal and vulnerable, and a sequence in which she looks in her dressing-room mirror and, via the miracle of Alex Uragallo’s video animation, her face (projected on a screen above the stage) appears to age before our eyes is one of the production’s few genuinely moving moments. James, for her part, knows how to deploy her essential sweetness to lethal effect; her wide-eyed enthusiasm is totally plausible until the mask drops and we see the ruthlessness behind Eve’s ingenue act.

There’s strong work, too, from Monica Dolan as Karen, the playwright’s wife who finds herself caught up in Eve’s schemes against Margo, and from Stanley Townsend as sharp-tongued critic Addison DeWitt. Too many of the supporting cast, unfortunately, fade into a kind of blur against the technical cleverness of van Hove’s staging: as your attention moves between screens and the stage, between the apron and some corner at the back of the set, between public space and private space which we’re shown from an angle via live video, there’s not much room to appreciate whatever nuances there may be in the individual performances. Nobody is bad, but even such reliable presences as Julian Ovenden (as director Bill Sampson) don’t get room to make much of an impression.

What’s left, once you cut through the cleverness of the staging, is the cat-and-mouse between Anderson’s Margo, James’s pretender-to-the-throne, and Monica Dolan as the woman caught between them. They’re worth the cost of the ticket and two hours of your time – but if you know the film, you’d be forgiven for expecting a roller-coaster ride, and that’s not what this is. It’s a fascinating piece of theatre, and you’ll be talking about it for hours afterwards – but if you want a white-knuckle experience, look elsewhere.

 

 

Let It Sing

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Another one crossed off the list. I’ve loved Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley‘s score for Violet since the first recording of it was released in 1999, but somehow I’ve never managed to see a production of the show, which is very rarely produced on this side of the Atlantic (the advance publicity material for this production claimed it was the UK premiere, which it isn’t). When you love a score as much as I love this one, it creates a set of expectations that aren’t always helpful when you finally, after years of listening to the music, walk into the theatre to see it being performed in its proper context.

Fortunately, Shuntaro Fujito’s new staging of Violet at the Charing Cross Theatre – a coproduction with the Umeda Arts Theatre in Osaka, where it will transfer after the London run – mostly lives up to those (consderable) expectations. Based on a short story by Doris Betts called The Ugliest Pilgrim, Violet follows a young woman who was hideously disfigured in a childhood accident (the blade of her father’s axe came free from the handle and struck her in the face) as she journeys across the American south in 1964 to find a televangelist who she believes can remove her scar. It’s a tricky story to adapt for the stage – Violet is from rural Tennessee, relatively uneducated, damaged and defensive, and her belief that a televangelist has the power to restore her looks could very easily come across as laughably credulous. Actually, this is an intelligent, perceptive, often very moving examination of an unhappy, awkward young woman slowly learning to come to terms with herself, and that’s thanks mostly to Tesori and Crawley’s extraordinary score. There’s an unusual emotional intelligence to Tesori’s music here, and to Crawley’s carefully unshowy, conversational lyrics; this is music that grabs you by the heartstrings almost from the very top of the show and doesn’t let go until the last note of the finale. This is a book musical, not an opera-in-everything-but-name like Tesori’s Caroline, or Change (which is coincidentally currently playing right around the corner), so Violet’s score is a collection of standalone songs rather than wall-to-wall music, and several of the songs are extraordinary. Even if you don’t know them going in, you might well come out humming On My Way, the big chorus number that marks the beginning of Violet’s bus journey, and Let It Sing, the inspirational anthem sung by a (black) soldier she meets on her journey, but there are so many memorable songs here that you may be spoiled for choice.

There’s a marvellous cast too, headed by Kaisa Hammarlund, unrecognisable from her turn as the oldest Alison in Tesori’s Fun Home across the river at the Young Vic last year. Hammarlund’s heartbreaking Violet is a study in contradictions: brave and terrified, dignified and ungainly, warm and abrasive. It’s a magnificent performance, and she gives full value to Tesori’s music. She’s surrounded by a fine ensemble cast, with particularly memorable contributions from Jay Marsh (Flick, the black soldier who forms one corner of the love triangle that develops in the second half of the show), from Kieron Crook as Violet’s guilt-ridden father, and  Angelica Allen as a singer in a Memphis music hall. Allen’s scorching performance of the Tina Turner-esque Lonely Stranger is worth the trip on its own.

For this production, the Charing Cross Theatre has (thankfully) been reconfigured, with a bank of seats on what used to be the stage and a traverse stage built over what used to be the front stalls. It might have been helpful for sightlines to raise the stage a couple of feet up from the entrance level – the rake of the seats was designed with a raised stage in mind – but it’s still an improvement over a space where it could often feel as if you were peering down a tunnel at a show taking place in the distance. On Morgan Large’s good-looking but simple set (bare wooden walls below the balconies on either side of the stage, a turntable, a few chairs and trunks, an oversized, all-seeing eye peering down from above), Shuntaro Fujito delivers an exceptionally clear account of Violet’s emotional journey; his direction is unshowy and unobtrusive, which is just what the material needs. It’s fair to say the show sometimes sags momentarily when the actors stop singing and start to speak; it’s not so much that there’s anything wrong with Brian Crawley’s book as that the score is so good that the connecting tissue inevitably pales a little in comparison.

The bottom line: this is GOOD, and it’s worth seeing. It’s also, unfortunately, selling very badly at the moment, and it deserves better: it’s a very strong production of a show with a good book and a stunning score, Kaisa Hammarlund’s performance deserves a much wider audience, and it runs an hour and forty minutes without an interval so you’ll be in plenty of time to make the last train home afterwards. Discounts are available if you know where to look, and this might well turn out to be as good a piece of musical theatre as you’ll see all year.

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A Very Very Very Big Miss

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By the time the lights fade on the final scene of the Bridge Theatre‘s production of what one must assume is the unrevised first draft of Martin McDonagh‘s very very very uneven new play A Very Very Very Dark Matter, you’ll have long since figured out that the tagline on the poster is absolutely accurate: this is no fairytale, despite the fact that Hans Christian Andersen is the central character. We may first see Jim Broadbent’s preening, vainglorious Hans concluding a reading of The Little Mermaid, but McDonagh – as you’d expect – very quickly moves into less familiar territory. What follows is a breathless, bumpy ride through a plot that struggles to spin Andersen’s infamous five-week visit to Charles Dickens into a fable which attempts to connect a dissection of colonial atrocities in Victorian Africa with a meditation on the way fairytales spring from the darker side of our subconscious, via a recurring discussion of the dominance of the white male, both in the history of published fiction, and in history itself. There’s also a bit of time travel thrown in, and a scene with Charles Dickens’s very sweary children, and grizzled prerecorded narration by Tom Waits.

At the centre of McDonagh’s studiedly-outrageous plot is Marjory, the “Congolese pygmy woman” Andersen supposedly keeps locked up in a three-foot-high mahogany box in his Copenhagen attic, and who we’re told writes Andersen’s stories in return for sausages he pokes through a hole in the box’s front window (no, actual sausages, you have a filthy mind). Andersen takes Marjory’s characters and whitewashes them, removing any details that identify them as black, and then passes them off as his own; it’s a passable enough metaphor for the way European countries treated their colonies, although you’ll get a more nuanced discussion of the way the white cultural hegemony bleaches the black out of black culture across London at Dreamgirls at the Savoy, but here it’s buried in the middle of a narrative that seems to keep throwing things at the stage in the hope that a few of them will eventually stick. That might be OK if McDonagh managed to bring everything together into a coherent whole, but he doesn’t. The overall impression is of watching a stack of ideas circling a point but never quite landing on it.

It does manage to hold your attention, though, and there are some genuine laughs, although the play’s comedic voice is sometimes problematic. Broadbent brings just the right amount of twinkle to his nastily self-absorbed Hans, and wrings all the laughs he can out of the script. Phil Daniels’s Sweary Charles Dickens is a joy, and so is Elizabeth Berrington’s even swearier Mrs. Dickens. As Marjory, Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles gives a tremendously dignified performance in a role that should be a bigger gift to an actor than it is here. Too often, McDonagh falls back on having Andersen make (frankly racist) jokes at Marjory’s expense; there’s a fine line between exposing stereotypes and simply parroting them, and McDonagh comes perilously close to finding himself on the wrong side of it. There’s a cosiness, too, to his discussion of white dominance – yes, there are still statues of King Leopold all over Belgium despite the atrocities his soldiers committed in the Congo, but that fact floats by in the middle of a stream of one-liners and comic business and other ideas, and it doesn’t land the way it was probably meant to.

Worse, there are several moments where we’re clearly supposed to laugh at some aspect of Andersen’s treatment of Marjory, and watching a tall, relatively strong, relatively well-off white man mistreat a short, physically-handicapped black woman (Marjory has only one foot, Andersen having apparently – we’re told – amputated the other one in return for once letting her out of her box) simply isn’t funny, although that didn’t stop some people laughing. It’s OK for comedy to get dark, and to take on complicated moral territory – it’s more than OK, black comedy and gallows humour can be tremendously effective weapons when deployed effectively – but to pull it off successfully you need to make the audience start to question why they laughed, and there needs to be a reason for the laugh that extends beyond the comedy of cruelty. I don’t know whether the problem here is McDonagh’s messy script or Matthew Dunster’s  production, which feels slack-paced even though the play is only about 80 minutes long, but the play’s overall tone is comfortable, in a way that sits very uneasily against the subject matter, which makes the laughs that come at Marjory’s expense wince-inducing for those among the audience who aren’t joining in.

There’s far more edge in Anna Fleischle’s fabulously macabre set design – an attic with dozens of creepy-looking puppets hanging from the rafters – than in the writing, which is never as clever or as dangerous as it thinks it is, or as it needs to be. Broadbent is always good value, and he’s worth the cost of the ticket (so are Daniels and Berrington), but the character McDonagh gives him doesn’t stretch him; in the haunted look in his eyes as the lights fade at the end of the final scene there’s a glimpse of the much more interesting play this could have been if McDonagh hadn’t (uncharacteristically) consistently privileged easy laughs over intellectual depth. There’s enough in the performances, and enough humour that works, that it’s difficult to have a very very very bad time watching A Very Very Very Dark Matter, but this is, unfortunately, a very very VERY bad play, and it needn’t have been. McDonagh seems to be coasting on his reputation here: somebody should have sent him back to take another pass at his script, or preferably about twenty other passes at his script, but I suppose it’s difficult to make someone whose awards and nominations have their own Wikipedia page go back and revise substandard work if they aren’t inclined to do it off their own bat. The result, unfortunately, is a play that never once hits hard enough: watching it is rather like being promised Tramadol and then getting an aspirin.

All the clichés in a row…

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The title number – an ode to the pleasures of the roller-skating rink delivered by a chorus of six men who somehow manage to tap-dance on the stoppers on their rollerskates – is five minutes of pure joy. As choreographed by Fabian Aloise, it might well turn out to be the year’s most spectacular showstopper, never mind that it’s being staged in a 250-seat converted industrial space on Newington Causeway rather than in the West End. The gleefully exuberant performances are an absolute delight,  and the icing on the cake is the holy-shit-we-got-through-it-without-breaking-anything look on the actors’ faces as they hold their poses during the applause. It’s sensational, thrilling, and delivers ten times more sheer fun than any of the overblown tap sequences in the Duracell ad currently playing at Drury Lane. If you love musical theatre, you need to see those five minutes, and you’ll probably want to see them more than once (I would, if I didn’t live so far from London). It’s that good.

Unfortunately, that production number arrives halfway through the second act of a show with more than its share of problems, most of them attributable to the writing. Or rather, mostly attributable to Terrence McNally‘s turd of a book, because about two-thirds of the show’s score is top-tier Kander and Ebb, and the few (relatively) duff songs in it are still better than anything you’ll find in some shows that were much bigger hits. The Rink is set in the late 1970s in a dilapidated roller rink somewhere on the US’s eastern seaboard, and McNally’s book consists of two hours of bickering between the rink’s (co-) owner, Anna Antonelli, who has just sold up and is planning to retire, and her estranged adult daughter Angel(a), who left home in her late teens (i.e. in the mid-60s) to join the protest movement. Between the rounds of bickering, we see (many) flashbacks in which the gradual disintegration of Anna and Angel’s relationship is set against the gradual decline of the boardwalk. Occasionally, seemingly almost at random, McNally throws in a couple of zingers, some of which – to be fair – are genuinely funny (Anna: “If you ever see anybody parked in a brown Toyota with his seatbelt on, that’s Lenny.”). It’s clear from the show’s (feeble) attempt to examine the various social changes seen in the US over the roughly thirty-year span covered by the show’s flashbacks that McNally is aiming for something along the lines of a slightly more intimate Follies; what we get, unfortunately, is an uneven hybrid which plays like a warmed-over mother-daughter movie-of-the-week punctuated by lines from an insipid, long-cancelled sitcom, served up with a generous topping of Italian-American clichés. The book, in short, is bad. Really bad. It’s so bad that you’d never guess it was by the same writer who gave us Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Love! Valour! Compassion! (you might, on the other hand, guess it’s by the same writer who gave us Master Class and Deuce). It’s so bad, it includes a scene in which a father melodramatically announces “I have no son!”. It’s so bad that there is not a single moment anywhere in the show where you won’t a) be three steps ahead of what Mr. McNally must have fondly imagined was the plot, and b) be counting the seconds until everybody stops speaking and starts singing again. If you started to count the clichés in McNally’s dialogue you’d either slash your wrists or run out of numbers. There are a lot of 1980s musicals with really bad books. This is one of the worst, and it’s the reason the show has never been a hit.

The score, fortunately, is better – much better – and if you knew the show at all before this production was announced, chances are the score is what made you buy a ticket. The milieu is perfect for Kander and Ebb, and they deliver in spades: Chief Cook and Bottle Washer, an exultant shout of independence from a woman who has spent decades of her life attending to everybody’s needs except her own; Don’t Ah, Ma Me!, a furiously combative mother-daughter duet; Colored Lights, Angel’s gradual realisation that years on the protest trail have left her unsatisfied and unfulfilled; that glorious title song; the always-darkest-just-before-the-dawn ballad We Can Make It; Marry Me, the most self-effacing marriage proposal number ever written (delivered with exquisite restraint on the original Broadway cast recording by a pre-Seinfeld Jason Alexander); and Wallflower, a sensational dance number for Anna and Angel in a flashback sequence at Angel’s spring prom. It’s unfortunate that All The Children in a Row, Angel’s climactic recollection of her journey through the counterculture movement, includes the worst lyric quatrain Fred Ebb ever wrote (“Why’d you have to take that stuff?/Come on, Danny, that’s enough/We can make it, we’ll survive/Danny, you’re too stoned to drive!”), but that’s four lines out of a mostly stellar whole. The original Broadway cast recording, on which Anna and Angel are played by, respectively, Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli, is spectacular; both stars are at their peak, and the material is perfect for them (Rivera’s role was written specifically for her) There aren’t many opportunities to hear this music performed live; for some, it’ll be worth gritting your teeth through the awful dialogue for the opportunity to hear this cast tear into these songs.

That’s because the good news is that director Adam Lenson has assembled one hell of a cast for this production. It should probably go without saying that Caroline O’Connor can do no wrong – I mean, the last time I saw her in a show I very nearly founded a religion based on worship of her – but she’s every bit as good an Anna as you’d expect. She dances up a storm, of course, and belts the hell out of Anna’s numbers, but she also miraculously, through sheer force of personality, somehow manages to transcend the dazzling hideousness of McNally’s writing. As Angel, Gemma Sutton doesn’t, but it isn’t her fault: her character is badly short-changed by this version of the script, which is significantly revised from the version seen on Broadway in 1984 (and in Manchester in 1987 and London in 1988). In the original script, the show opens with Angel alone onstage singing Colored Lights, a wistful song about her longing for her childhood home. In this version, the show opens with what was originally the next scene – Anna greeting the wreckers who have come to demolish the rink, announcing her retirement and departure, and singing Chief Cook and Bottle Washer – and Colored Lights doesn’t appear until the end of the first act, where there was originally a short reprise of it. The result, unfortunately, is that Angel enters at the end of what is now the first scene and immediately starts arguing with Anna, and that inevitably means the audience sides against her: this version of the script introduces her as a barrier between Anna and her retirement rather than as a woman looking to rediscover her roots, and that change (which is in the current version of the published script as well) damages the first act quite badly. Ms. Sutton is abundantly talented – she’s a beautifully honest actress and a wonderful singer (she does not, however, deserve the dead polecat masquerading as a wig that she is forced to wear in this production), but this revised version of the script – which incidentally solves almost none of the original script’s problems beyond cutting the cringe-inducing flashback scene between a teenage Angel and her lecherous Uncle Fausto – doesn’t do her any favours. When she finally sings Colored Lights, it’s a gorgeous performance.

The rest of the roles – yes, all of them – are played by the six wreckers Anna hires to demolish the rink: Stewart Clarke, Ross Dawes, Michael Lin, Elander Moore, Ben Redfern, and Jason Winter. They’re all flawless, and their two musical numbers – that fabulous title song in Act Two, and the witheringly sarcastic After All These Years in Act One – are among the production’s great highlights. There’s equally flawless musical direction from Joe Bunker, whose seven-piece band sounds terrific, and Bec Chippendale does as much as anybody could to recreate the faded grandeur of a roller rink on the Jersey shore within the confines of the Southwark Playhouse’s auditorium and budget. There’s even a glitterball, and it looks magical under Matt Daw’s lighting. The production, overall, is just about as good as it could possibly be – but it’s a good production of very, very problematic material. You’ll want to see it for O’Connor and the rest of the cast, for that sensational title song, and for the chance to hear this score performed live. It is more than worth the Southwark Playhouse’s standard £25 ticket price. While the musical numbers, though, are genuinely thrilling, don’t be surprised if the show as a whole leaves you unmoved, even given the fiercely committed performances from the two leading actors. Don’t be surprised, either, if you find yourself taking an inner journey during the dialogue scenes. A lot of what you’ll see is very entertaining – but this is, in the end, a superlative production of a show that just doesn’t work.

 

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