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

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Too Trite To Remember

A lot of people think there’s a pleasure in writing a scathing review. Once yes, once is delicious but twice would be vicious, or just repetitious but when faced with the third theatrical turkey in four days (Carmen at the O2, Paradise Found and now The Fantasticks) you can tire of prodding entrails with a skewer.

These entrails were strewn around the appropriately coffin-shaped stage of the Duchess theatre as liberallly as Jack the Ripper distributed those of his victim Mary Kelly by hanging them from the picture-rails of her sordid bedsit like paper chains.

We had a particularly good view of the post-mortem, having opted for on-stage seating at half the price of the Stalls, although this may not be such a bargain in the future, given that no-one will pay full price for this cadaver once it officially opens.

This is a chamber production - bearing in mind that a ‘chamber’ is a pisspot – and presided over by an all-seeing impresario figure called ‘El Gallo’ – bearing in mind that El Gallo is Spanish for cock – played by the otherwise delightful Hadley Fraser with too much facial hair and a floor-length frock coat in what could have been an audition for the David Tennant incarnation of The Doctor.

He also gives away in the opening moments the show’s only memorable song ‘Try To Remember’.

‘Try to Remember’’ is one of those songs, and 'Send in the Clowns' is another for me, in which every interpreter points each ruddy syllable with a head-tilt and knowing stare at the audience to invest the lyrics with meaning the song simply doesn't own.

Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a tender and callow fellow.
Try to remember
and if you remember
then follow

Follow what? Certainly not the plot, because despite its simplicity it gets bogged down in a counter-argument about the wisdom of planting fruit and vegetables that might be momentarily appropriate (previews began the same day as Chelsea Flower Show) but when ramped up into a jocular point number for Clive Rowe and David Burt as the fathers, singing brightly 'I like a man who knows his way around a carrot' it served merely to cause physical collapse among certain smutty-minded members of the onstage audience, and thereby get the best laugh of the night. Rowe actually turned round to see what was making the auditorium giggle, because it certainly wasn't him.

'Try to remember' is an exhortation to the audience to cast its mind and its suspension of disbelief back to an earlier, simpler age, and to try to engage with the pure 'message' of The Fantasticks which is that love overcomes all, and there's beauty in the simple pleasures.

That's what a cheap date tells you when you got dressed for Gordon Ramsay but finished up on a 2-for-1 deal in Pizza Express.

What you might also 'try to remember' is that this self-indulgent nonsense was conceived in the 60's when there was a lot of hippy philosophy around, as well as a ready supply of inexpensive hallucinogenics.

Even if you gave out Ecstasy tablets with the programmes, this Fantasticks still wouldn't beguile contemporary playgoers, despite an attempt at modernisation in the costumes - 'The Girl' as played by Lorna Want in a ballooning sundress and fashionista unlaced boots looks rather like Peaches Geldof staggering out of Chinawhite at three in the morning, and 'The Boy' wears Gap. They're clearly not suited.

Much of the action is presented with exaggerated acro-balletic gestures and the scattering of generous handfuls of glitter by 'The Mute', a capering pierrot played by Carl Au in a pair of glazed Firetrap jeans so tight they could have their own fan club.

The only thing that saves this piece from self-embalming is the introduction of a pair of strolling players, an incapable elderly actor played by the brilliantly capable Edward Petherbridge and his base comedic sidekick Paul Hunter whose contortions and bantering double-act brought the only genuine laughs of the evening. They should have their own show - probably The Dresser.

The show simply doesn't have the ingredients of modern musicals, for £46 London audiences expect a far richer, saturated experience. Part of the reason The Fantasticks survived so long in New York is it was a substantially cheaper ticket than anything on Broadway. Stripped to its bones by Pacific Overtures director Amon Miyamoto, it should have the beautiful simplicity of a Japanese woodcut, but feels instead shallow and devoid of any entertaining content.

Miyamoto says he drew on the Japanese Noh theatrical tradition of highly codified gestures, collective choral tempo and the Japanese ethic of transience.

So, to paraphrase Walter Winchell's assistant cabling him her review of a new musical from its provincial tryout:

Noh legs, Noh jokes, Noh chance.


  1. On Facebook I said 'it may have run 42 years in New York but it won't last 42 days in the West End'

    It closes June 26. That's 33 days since first preview.

  2. The next show about to come into the Duchess will hopefully run a bit longer, Dominic West, Paul McGann, Amanda Drew, Penny Downie, all directed by Lindsay Posner in Simon Gray's Butley - I'm going to see it in Brighton tomorrow ahead of it coming to the Duchess and really looking forward to it. www.butleylondon.com