"why don't you go fuck a play" Boy George, by Twitter 18.7.2012

Friday, 18 May 2007

Phantom Menace

I went to Phantom of the Opera on Monday. I'd never seen it before.

Has this thing really been running for 21 years? Why?

Unlike many Phantom audience members who plan and save and look forward to their visits like a state occasion, I was still mooching around the new Primark in Oxford Street at 7.25 thinking the curtain was at 8, so despite a swift cab to the Haymarket I missed the opening moments.

This did give me an opportunity to stand at the back of the Circle for a couple of minutes and survey the two to three full rows of empty seats, giving the lie to the claim on Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group website that "In London there has never been a seat unsold" ... well there were at least a hundred empty on Monday 14 May 2007, Andrew.

Watching the drama unfold, and seeing the stilted performances, you start wondering why it just isn't the hottest ticket in the West End any more.

I looked up the original cast - Michael Crawford and the queenly Sarah Brightman (who I can't stand anyway) of course, but also the almost as queenly Michael Ball, superb David Firth and pre-Fred Elliott John Savident heading an impressively well-experienced ensemble.

Contrast this with the current collection of just-out-of-drama-school hopefuls and regional-theatre-veteran-understudies and you begin to see the flaws.

The creaking you can hear isn't just the 21-year-old stage machinery (although that's noticeable enough) it's the cramping of budgets to the point at which the production is as undercast as it is underlit.

Some of the performances are so two-dimensional that in their bejewelled costumes and powdered wigs, you're reminded of a pack of playing cards: especially Wendy Ferguson, subtle as a heifer in her role as fading diva Carlotta Guidicelli, and Heather Jackson who plays Madame Giry the ballet mistress more stiffly than if she were an exceptionally arthritic Mrs Danvers in Rebecca during an unseasonably wet Cornish winter. You'd just want to burn the house down with her inside, the wood in her performance could only add to the blaze.

Not that the leading men are outstanding: Earl Carpenter has been playing the Phantom for nearly 1,000 performances. If his mannerisms were any more arch, he'd need scaffolding. Michael Xavier is a tuneful but unwashed Raoul, more Che in Evita than a suave French Vicomte, and his darting stage moves in odd directions unrelated to the motives of his character made me wonder if he had Attention Deficit Disorder.

I certainly did in the second half when most of the tunes are re-hashes of the stuff you heard before the interval, and the plot descends firstly into the bowels of the opera house and then into ... well, bowels really covers it.

This was the first night of the “new Christine”, although I couldn’t tell you which one I saw except to say she was shrewish and dark. The role is now being shared equally four performances a week between Leila Benn Harris and Robyn North. This is ostensibly to make audiences feel they are not getting the “alternate Christine” on any given night or matinee.

Since both performers are modestly experienced for West End headliners – Ms Benn Harris having understudied the one-number Mistress in Evita, Ms North most recently 'touring with Shane Richie', you could say it’s Alternate Christine EVERY night.

Who thought I’d ever pine for Sarah Brightman.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Monopoly Money

I'm standing outside B&Q in the Old Kent Road where two school-age chav truants are trying to light a spliff, a dishevelled amputee is waving his arm stump in my face and a black crack whore is begging for small change. The crack whore is wholly unsuccessful in her mission, the sizeable clump of South London's walking wounded at the bus stop clearly has its own problems and shrugs her off - she wails genuine tears of anguish which merge with some lip-corner spittle and a light drizzle to bathe her face in a sheer patina of despair.

I almost want to hug her.

Most of the walking wounded have come from the adjacent Asda, and overflowing from their flimsy carriers I see the stark red and black labelling of its "Smart Price" range which might as well be branded "Poor People's Food" featuring as it does the 8p strawberry "flavour" yoghurt and the 38p jar of coffee-flavour granules. This de-specifying of nutrition and value from food destined for people on low incomes upsets me almost more than the crack whore, because it's so commercially institutionalised.

I feel invisible. Not belonging, not even suspiciously regarded by the other people waiting for different buses, and yet also in a way as if I have the third eye and can see what's "wrong" with the big picture. I get this a lot, I hope it's not arrogance.

I also feel grotesquely rich, even though I am waiting for an off-peak bus in the Old Kent Road and the driver will probably wave me through thinking I'm a pensioner. I'm on the bus because I have the decorators in at my flat by Tower Bridge, barely a mile away and currently for sale (see below) at an amount of money which could set up this entire bus queue in comfort for its collective retirement, and I've been despatched to get some more paint. I don't have the car because the decorator needed my parking space.

I don't feel too smug about it either, as if my relative affluence has somehow been achieved at their expense, which it hasn't except in the Newton's Law sense that all actions have an equal and opposite reaction therefore if I am comparatively well off, someone must have suffered financially as a consequence.

I am concerned that this massive population of disadvantaged and disenfranchised people lives literally on my doorstep, and feel helpless to do anything political or practical to effect any improvement. In the harsh fluorescent of the bus, they look so defenceless and defeated, until two black women start a vicious, screaming, gynaecologically-expletive cat-fight over the last remaining seat, and everyone perks up and looks suddenly cheerful.

The irony that this scene is being played out in Old Kent Road is not lost on me. I guess I first learned about property trading as a 12-year old playing ferocious tournaments with my Monopoly-mad next-door neighbours in another Kent Road, in Harrogate. Even then, I always wanted to own Bond Street.