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

Friday, 5 December 2008

She IS big. It's the production that got small ...

There's something about Craig Revel Horwood I just don't like. It may be the introduction of confectionery into a surname that insults my diabetic sensibilities. Perhaps other theatre directors could consider the benefits of an injection of chocolate? Would Nicholas Malteser Hytner, or Trevor Minstrel Nunn be any more successful?

It may be the botoxed expressionless sneer he adopts for most of Strictly Come Dancing, or just an aversion to vertical hair, but I had to try hard not to let this prejudice colour my judgement of his production of Sunset Boulevard which has suddenly made the journey from Newbury to the Comedy Theatre in London's glittering West End with most of its cast intact.

What is has manifestly not done is tarted itself up for the trip to town. In fact, like a purposeful Berkshire housewife up for the Sales in sensible shoes, it looks like it's bought an Awayday ticket and is thinking of heading home on the late train.

This is a soundly competent regional production, from the Watermill - one of the most inventive and successful small producing theatres in Britain. Unlike anything you might see in Ipswich or Woking or Watford, it is not reliant on resting cast members of The Bill to attract audiences, nor is it a slave to Bill Kenwright and the Theatre of the Hasbeen.

The structure of the show is the brainchild not of C Revel H, but of the Watermill's resident artistic director John Doyle who pioneered, about ten years ago, the idea that actors in a musical could also play the instruments and dispense with a pit band thanks to the inventive musical arrangements of his creative partner Sarah Travis.

It's a formula which has worked brilliantly on productions from The Gondoliers, cunningly set in a Chicago pizza restaurant, to the outstanding Sweeney Todd which played first at the Trafalgar Studios before transferring to Broadway, giving Patti LuPone her second crack at Mrs Lovett, this time with a euphonium, and winning two Tonys.

At its best, the technique makes musicals more intimate, allowing emotional insight and subtleties of character to emerge from under the cellular blanket of lush orchestrations. I'm not sure if the formula's getting old, or there's some reason for it not to work on this particular oeuvre, but it doesn't.

Perhaps taking the immortal line about the pictures getting small, we should consider that the epic scale of Sunset demands grandiose staging and extravagant production values to match the melodramatic plot and the Churrigueresque characters? Certainly it needs more instruments to emulate that string-rich cinematic sound.

In the 60's, Stephen Sondheim had the idea of making a musical of Sunset Boulevard and collaborated briefly with lyricist Burt Shevelove to put it together, but then he met Billy Wilder at a cocktail party and floated the idea past him. "You can't write a musical about Sunset Boulevard," Wilder responded, "it has to be an opera. After all, it's about a dethroned queen." Sondheim ditched the project immediately.

Clearly, Andrew Lloyd-Webber didn't suffer the same agony of self-doubt.

I love the score. Apart from the fact that it's ironing music - a double CD to see you through the most demanding pile of shirts - and it dawned on me recently that there really only are four distinct tunes in the whole thing, I have loyally seen first Betty Buckley, then Patti, Petula and Glenn Close give their Normas. Shunned Paige, obviously. But this time, it's not working for me. Don't worry, Andrew, it happens to every composer your age at least once ...

Not that you can really fault the performances - Kathryn Evans gives her all in pursuit of the fractured heart and tortured soul of Norma Desmond and in some moments - notably her delusional return to Paramount with 'It's As If We Never Said Goodbye' she nails it absolutely.

It's Lloyd-Webber's fault that "With One Look" comes too early in the show to be effective. When she's in her light, and on her notes, this is thrilling stuff. But in this production she's too often clambering up or down a cranked metallic spiral staircase in heels and a succession of rhinestone peignoirs. Clearly she got the rump of the costume budget because everyone else seems to be in grey and white separates which might have been picked from Debenhams, since they owe little to period or place.

As Joe Gillis, relative newcomer Ben Goddard has to follow great performances like John Barrowman and Hugh Jackman, and whilst marginally less attractive, he has the ordinary guy 'aw shucks' likeability and the floppy haircut, but his range of expressions is perhaps equally floppy.

He does very well in some of the numbers, jolting the production out of its misty unreality with genuine fire in the duet "Too Much in Love to Care" played angrily against flame-haired Laura Pitt-Pulford as Betty Schaefer. In fact so convincing was the tempestuous love-hate argument between the angry young man and the redhead, it threatened to lapse in to Will and Grace: the Musical, highlighting the possibility that Kathryn Evans and Karen Walker could be cousins.

At least he affects an American accent. I have no idea why Evans elected to play Norma quite so cut-glass home counties.

Dave Willetts adds to the grand guignol mood of the drama with a dark characterisation for the servant/husband Max, and effortlessly excellent singing you'd expect from a veteran Jean Valjean and Phantom. The ensemble keep up their instrumental playing relentlessly, and play the entire score from memory, but it does cause some detraction from the diction and the impact of some of the punchier numbers like the rousing 'This Time Next Year' is lost.

I was expecting more from the choreography since that's Revel-Horwood's forte, allegedly. Apart from some nifty traffic-direction with the performers and their instruments moving rapidly without collision, there's little actual dancing - except when Joe and Norma perform the tango in a version so obviously more indebted to Strictly Come Dancing than thirties Hollywood, that you could feel the entire audience clenching to avoid shouting "bring back John Sergeant!"


Kathryn Evans is Mrs Peter Purves (of Blue Peter fame). They met in pantomime in 1978 when she was Dandini and he was Baron Hardup.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Night fever, night fever. We know how to do it.

With the Whingers to a Sunday matinee of 'A Little Night Music' in its Trevor Nunn reincarnation at the Menier Chocolate Factory theatre, auditorium neatly reoriented from the womblike velvet tunnel structure for Cage aux Folles to something resembling a miniaturised hexagon, pre-theatre lunch nicely presented, seats now numbered and reserved, toilets clean, doors to automatic, all boxes ticked for an enjoyable afternoon ...

In this extraordinarily classy production, with money spent in ways to which the Menier is unaccustomed - set, costumes, cast, lighting (needs a few more shillings in the meter, Trevor) and backstage, this production looks destined for a West End transfer before it opens. Except I hope it doesn't, because the intimacy of the production generates an involvement in the family lives of the lawyer Fredrik and the actress Desiree that I just don't remember from the Judi Dench version in the Olivier in 1995.

In fact, all I can recall of the Olivier production was the cast, including an increasingly breathless Dench, running the huge distances on and off stage between every scene. It could have been directed by Sebastian Coe.

With compactness comes brevity. For Trevor Nunn to bring in a show at under three hours is something of a rarity, but this one keeps a good pace despite the languorous nature of the Swedish summer night, and its underlying themes of despair.

What drove it for me was the energetic and realistic performances of Alexander Hanson (every time I see him deliver another cracker of a male lead I wonder how he failed so badly as Captain von Trapp?) and even more cracking Hannah Waddingham as Desiree, making her a living, breathing, funny, fallible, sexually urgent and credible beauty in ways I can't recall other actresses achieving in the same role.

It's Waddingham's wholly believable central performance that reminds us this is a comedy. Too many directors have treated ALNM as if it were some Ibsenesque holy writ, overshadowed by the Guardian-reader movie and its self-styled auteur Ingmar Bergman. For once, Nunn accentuates the base comedy, and it could do with even more to reposition this as an ENJOYABLE piece of Sondheim, rather than a museum piece out of his 'stultifying' box like Sunday in the Park.

What this production could NOT do with is the unbalancing presence of that old Golders Green department store Maureen and Lipman whose contents have yet again been spilled on the London stage. Teetering between a dessicated Thatcher and Miss Havisham, Lipman plays Madame Armfeldt as a powdered corpse, picking up every vowel with sugar tongs and flicking them at the audience with her trademark sideways glance in stark contrast to the naturalism all around her.

Trevor Nunn sat on the aisle across from me and scribbled notes almost continuously through the show with a green-illuminated pen-light. After Lipman stretched her number 'Liaisons' into a caramel-jawed dirge, I swear I saw him write "phone Sheila Hancock".

Lipman aside, the singing in the show is excellent. Hanson's rich baritone pins Fredrik perfectly, and even the 'more actress than singer' members of the cast give excellent musical performances. Ingenue Jessie Buckley (apparently a runner-up Nancy in the TV search for a star programme) features strongly as Fredrik's young wife Anne and assails Sondheim's dressy tessitura with bravado.

The Liebeslieder or chorus of smaller characters deserve special mention. I always enjoy comparing the shapes and sizes of the bit-part players to the leads, and try to match the more obvious understudies. Here it also works where an older lady, a tall woman, a pert girl and two heroic male-leads-in-waiting are assembled, but this time they are surprisingly fine singers and actors, and if the curse of the Menier were to call any of them into a lead role, it would not diminish the production at all.

Destined for a three month run, I'm unsure how the economics work. Even though it will sell out, 13 weeks of full houses will only generate about £600k, and I can't see how that will pay this large cast of experienced actors, and Mr Nunn, what they deserve.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

The Norman Failures

As newspaper reviewers have said, comparisons are odious but I'm going for it anyway. In 1974, The Norman Conquests trilogy was a landmark in theatre comedy, Ayckbourn's coming of age and coming to town in the first of the interlinked/alternate ending series of plays. It was also cast with actors who WOULD BECOME household names in TV sitcoms, not those who had already achieved the dubious honour and thereby lies the failure of the Old Vic production.

Tom Courtenay and Michael Gambon already had impressive stage credentials, and it's not fair to set their reputations against Stephen Mangan and Ben Miles respectively. Mangan is an excellent TV actor, deservedly rated for Green Wing as much as his Barclaycard adverts, but he's miscast as the wild and woolly Norman, failing to emulate Courtenay's touching pathos and vulnerability, and whilst magnetic on the small screen, unkempt and undressed for the stage he seems to have lost his allure.



Ben Miles does much better in the role of Tom the vet, but his tragic flaw is simply that he is not Michael Gambon.

Ayckbourn writes best for women and two of the three female characters became archetypes for possibly two of the most popular TV characterisations ever. 'The Good Life' writers John Esmonde and Bob Larbey chose Felicity Kendal and Penelope Keith after seeing them perform on stage together and the characters of Margo and Barbara represent a tangible debt to The Norman Conquests.

Amanda Root doesn't have the stature to be as commanding as Keith, and seems all the more peevish by comparison: her transcendence into passionate woman is far less believable without the physical hauteur to set up the situation. Jessica Hynes (Stephenson) is another solidly talented TV writer and actor, but can't achieve the girlish vulnerability of Kendal's Annie and has been dressed appallingly by a costume designer whom I would guess didn't live through it and has therefore treated the period as a joky freak show, instead of researching more accurately suburban fashion of the mid-70s.

Pitching the play in the round lends it a fresh initimacy, taking it back to the original Scarborough production of 1973 - although these are not necessarily characters with whom one would wish to be intimate since all of them have an unpleasant side - and this encouraged some of last night's audience to make audible contributions. Perhaps Ayckbourn should develop an interactive script.;

Saw Andrew Lloyd Webber in the audience, I hope he's not considering turning it into a musical.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Nothing Like a Dame

Roll up! Roll up! Hear a Dame of the British Empire say "fuck" repeatedly (and it's not Judi Dench for once)! Appreciate how Colin Farrell could find 74-year old Eileen Atkins shaggable!! Laugh at the spoof of Germaine Greer !!!

Despite having portrayed the dourest and sourest spinsters in a stream of poke bonnet-dramas from Gosford to Cranford, Eileen Atkins emerges into the french windowed daylight as a svelte sassy and sexy septuagenarian with adroit comic timing in Joanna Murray-Smith's play The Female of the Species about a sometime-academic sometime-televisual endlessly-published feminist held hostage in her own home by a psychotic fan. The hommage (or should that be femmage?) to Dr Greer is palpable but not unkindly so.

The great thing about this play is it makes you laugh, then it makes you think, then it makes you laugh about what you have been thinking. By holding the entire 20th century discourse on feminism up to the distorted mirror, it put air round every issue which has confronted men and women in their relationships - and exposes the contradictions in values and priorities which seem to have occurred about every twenty years through the century.

This is pictured through the tribulations of the second lead, Anna Maxwell Martin delivering a neurotic but deeply comic "devoted fan" who takes Atkins hostage in the early minutes of a tight 1 hour 40 plot. Maxwell Martin's character was abandoned by her mother for adoption in following the Atkins/Greer character's advice to "reject dependency" and died under a suburban train holding a copy of her seminal feminist book The Cerebral Vagina which is where the piece comes closest to reality in its parody of Greer's deservedly legendary The Female Eunuch. That it also comes glancingly close to Anna Karenina is just jam on it.

There are some stunning moments in these two performances, with control occasionally passing from one to the other in a way which is only achievable through impeccable acting and mutual respect of the actors. Just when you think it can't get any better, enter Sophie Thompson as Atkins' exhausted child-rearing daughter who is just possibly more keen than the hostage-taker to see her mother shot at point blank range.

People often say that plays "descend into farce" but it's at this point that The Female of the Species ascends into it, as both the comic potential and the central feminist debate become heightened by the arrival of the new character and her different and deviated perspective. Thomson's performance is every bit as taut as Maxwell Martin's and she has some of the best lines.

If anything, the play loses a little power in the final scenes where the plot is resolved, the gun is fired, and two male characters arrive - Thompson's doting but dull husband and an irrationally cast Con O'Neill (a man who I always think seems to have his arms on backwards, and who still seems to be doing Blood Brothers twenty years after he won the Olivier for it) as a taxi driver with a reactionary dialectical deconstruction of the feminist argument.

Whist willing to speak the profanities, Atkins apparently rejected a scene in which her character masturbates on the edge of a table to which she is handcuffed. We spent a happy half hour trying to decide which American actress should do it on Broadway if Atkins declines. My money's on Lily Tomlin. And she would.