All right; I was wrong. Now can it stop, please? The succession of rapid West End closures claimed Rattle Of A Simple Man just after the last issue of Theatre Record went to press. This issue it’s Fuddy Meers which has bowed out, just under three weeks after its press night. Even Thoroughly Modern Millie is to bring down its final curtain towards the end of June. For once it looks as if the annual early-silly-season stories of Theatreland crisis are more than just crying wolf. Or are they? Leaving aside Millie (which has enjoyed a respectable eight-month run), then as I’ve already remarked, none of these blink-and-you-miss-them productions are crippling losses to the cultural life of the capital. Some only arrived when they did, or at all, due to misplaced opportunism when a theatre became suddenly dark after an earlier unexpected closure. We need not grieve overly about any of them.
Except Fuddy Meers. I’m astounded by the critical mauling given to David Lindsay-Abaire’s deceptively thoughtful play. Only Sheridan Morley in the Express and Victoria Segal in the Sunday Times seemed to have a good word for it, and neither of them quite put their finger on what for me was its strength. For the rest of the pack, it was a matter of cruddy sneers. They saw it as an unsuccessful comedy. (And by the way, if the gag of “fuddy meers” being aphasic stroke-speak for “funny mirrors” is so limp, why do at least half a dozen reviews recycle it with a comment about the play not being fuddy? It doesn’t become any fuddier just because it’s one of us saying it.) On the contrary, I’d argue that in some ways it was too successful for its own good.
Lindsay-Abaire seems to me to have used a classic bait-and-switch strategy: set up a particular tone and emotional register in the first act, then subvert it radically in the second. The keynote of his second act is not the encroaching sentiment (which there’s nothing wrong with, in any case, if deployed properly). Nor is he simply saying, ah, we’re all of us a bit odd, aren’t we? Go back to that title. The funny mirrors in a carnival sideshow aren’t just funny ha-ha: the images they reflect can alternate between, and sometimes be simultaneously, amusing and sinister, even frightening. Every secret revealed in the play’s second act is a dark one; rather than fuelling sympathy and driving the play towards sentimentality, they remove compassion even as they force us to identify with the characters by showing us that everyone, the audience as well as the figures onstage, harbours unpleasantnesses... and that everyone, not just the stroke-stricken mother in the play, sometimes speaks skew-whiff to reality and/or hard for others to understand.
Look in the reviews for any of this, and you’ll look in vain. It’s possible, I suppose, that everyone noticed but no-one thought it worth mentioning (apart from Victoria, obliquely). But it doesn’t feel that way; it feels as if everyone had suddenly become Toby Young and left at the interval. Fair enough, the humour in the first act was patchy and often laboured, and that might discourage one from paying attention through the second half. But damn it, it’s our job. I remember years ago getting an iffy review of a book I’d written from someone who had evidently read the first 60 or so pages and extrapolated from there. What rankled wasn’t that it was slighting to me or lazy of the reviewer, but that it was just unprofessional.
I know that sounds unbelievably priggish, and I’m sorry to come on so sanctimonious. God knows, it’s impossible to stay engaged through every moment of every show, and in that respect I’m no better than the next man (unless the next man is the aforementioned Mr Young). And, in its way, wandering attention is a valid critical response. But there’s always that risk of being wrong-footed, and I think the case of Fuddy Meers shows an entire critical chorus-line caught on the hop. Which is a pity, because if a few people had remarked upon what was only half-hidden in there, it might just have run for a few more weeks and thus prevented the headline-hungry hacks in the front pages from playing the old set-’em-up, knock-’em-down game with Sam Mendes and his new production outfit Scamp.
Simulacrum of culture
Of course, the problems with castigating reviewers for not doing their job in this respect, i.e. spotting what plays are about and telling people, are manifold. Quite apart from fashioning a rod for my own back, there’s the fact that, increasingly, editors don’t see that as part of our brief… or don’t care about it… or consider it a downright distraction from the business of providing an entertaining simulacrum of culture. The notion of offering a paper’s readers consistent, reliable, informed and informative writing on theatre is going out of fashion, and not just at the red-top end of the press. Having ousted the estimable Michael Coveney, the Daily Mail now seems to be partly holding live auditions for possible replacements, partly seeing how much or how little serious theatre coverage it can get away with. One week of the able and of late underused Patrick Marmion; a week of classical and opera reviewer David Gillard getting to grips with crossing the tracks; a week of actor Nichola McAuliffe being articulate and inquisitive but essentially looking through the wrong end of the telescope; another week of Patrick, though a week that consisted of little more than the Friday round-up rather than daily coverage... and so on. The honeymoon between Sheridan Morley and the Express seems to be over, too, as his First Night review spot loses prominence in favour of a Backstage news-and-gossip column, and even that now appears squeezed. You can almost see the middle-manager sitting there, calculating how little coverage a title can get away with before it hurts either circulation or reputation seriously, or how much effect a “name” reviewer such as Sheridan or Ms McAuliffe has. (Although, as Sherry himself notes, the big-name successors on two of his former gigs lasted scarcely any time at all: Toby Young’s off after barely a year at the Spectator – and what a joy it is to see an actual theatre reviewer, Rachel Halliburton, engaged to (half?) replace him – and Michael Portillo toughed it out for only a few months at the New Statesman, not even long enough for Theatre Record to secure consent to reprint his reviews.) [NOTE: In the event, Toby Young returned after his scheduled three months away, and the claim about Michael Portillo was just plain wrong. Oops.]
Accident of chronology
All of which self-regarding pomposity on my part leaves little space for a whistle-stop tour of shows seen in this fortnight and not already reviewed by me in the body of the issue. The Black Rider, to begin with. It was a show that I felt I should be downright loving rather than merely liking a great deal, and it didn’t quite succeed in that. I wonder how much of this is an accident of chronology. The Black Rider came to the Barbican a year after a similar revival of the Robert Wilson/Tom Waits collaboration on Woyzeck, with the risk that it might appear to be coming hard on the heels of that earlier work and ploughing substantially the same furrow: 19th-century German oddity given a sumptuously Expressionist look by Wilson and a Weill-esque sound by Waits. In fact, however, in terms of composition and première, Woyzeck is the later show by fully a decade: 1990/2000.
In any case, the production had its delights: not just the mere appearance of Marianne Faithfull, playing the infernal Pegleg as a portly Cabaret Emcee, but also soi-disant punk/New Romantic cult figure Richard Strange looming in a crazily-angled frame and Mary Margaret O’Hara singing her wonderful Act Two solo like a nightingale with the non-expletive form of Tourette’s, all sudden growls, yelps and whoops. The second act itself, though, is largely shapeless, consisting of a great central set-piece scene with several preludes and several codas. Much of the energy and excitement in this phase came from the all-star band, The Magic Bullets, assembled by musical director Bent Clausen. Important enough in their own right for the Guardian to have sent its rock critic Alexis Petridis to review the show as well as Michael Billington, Clausen and his combo brewed up several storms, cutting loose and playing around the score rather than being a well-behaved pit band and following the dots on the paper in front of them. They blew... in the jazz sense rather than that of Bart Simpson.
Altogether some achievement
Measure For Measure is a comparable feat by Simon McBurney. He grasps the problematic nature of the play and embraces it; he sees and acknowledges the potential for up-to-the-minute relevance without seeming to plonk such allusions down coarsely on top of the piece; he uses multimedia elements to rich visual and significatory effect rather than for modish purposes; and, despite all the shadows, still shows that it was actually written as a comedy, getting laughs out of hitherto tired pieces of Shakespearean zany even as he also turns them to his sombre purpose. All this on the less-than-opulent budget of a production in the Olivier’s Travelex £10 season. That’s altogether some achievement.
Compare the slight pointlessness of the all-female casting of the Globe’s Much Ado About Nothing and the downright tiresome circus whoop-de-do of Gale Edwards’ Chichester Midsummer Night’s Dream. Yolanda Vazquez is a first-rate Beatrice at the Globe, the more so for not allowing the character to seem too unevenly matched with Josie Lawrence’s effortful, largely undistinguished Benedick. Penelope Beaumont is far and away the finest of the “breeches” actors as Leonato. Otherwise, Tamara Harvey’s production mimbles along jovially enough, but without either the historical basis of the Globe’s all-male offerings in previous years or any palpable insights of its own. As for the Chichester Dream, well, I’d hoped never to see another production of this play with the fairies clad in blue hair and mismatched Dayglo tights even from a student company, never mind in a major producing house. If you want to make your Athenian wood out of a clutch of large metal hoops suitable for gymnastics and aerialism, fine, but please don’t give it that self-conscious alt.circus veneer which keeps us too busy being irritated by your attitude to follow your reading of the story.
Out Of This World is much more agreeable fare. Not only
does it have a perfectly serviceable clutch of songs by Cole Porter’s standards
(and thus enviable by almost everyone else’s), but the book which let the
show down on its 1950 opening has been thoroughly overhauled, taking elements
from its pre-production drafts, from a 1979 rewrite and from Jeremy Sams’
contemporary playfulness. Not to mince words, it’s downright filthy,
and delightfully so; moreover, it’s given the kind of energetically wacky
treatment that director Martin Duncan is so adroit at, and which works
a treat when, as here, it’s justified.
A quick mention, too, for Liberace’s Suit: it’s hard to go wrong with a courtroom drama, even one in which the judge and counsel sing “I’ll Be Seeing You (In All The Old Familiar Places)”. And while it’s a pleasant surprise to see that pianist Bobby Crush can act passably well, it’s frankly disturbing to find that he can simper every bit as relentlessly as his erstwhile role model...
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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