Telstar: The Joe Meek Story / The President Of An Empty Room / As You Like It / East Lynne / The Government Inspector / Tierno Bokar
Various venues
June, 2005

Life goes on, albeit with a certain keynote of morbidity that sounds in harmony with events in London subsequent to the period covered by this issue.  Voodoo, murder, suicide and obituaries all within a week in my own theatregoing schedule, and that’s to say nothing (because I didn’t see it) of what has generally been reported as the desecration of Ray Charles’ grave by the apparently perfunctory, money-grabbing compilation now at the Haymarket.

Speaking of compilation musicals: a decade or so ago, when Bill Kenwright brought the Roy Orbison compo Only The Lonely into the West End, I remember being convinced that here was a show that would run, since in addition to the Big O’s songs it had a genuinely biographical story that was almost Wagnerian in its intensity.  That was how I learned that substantial bio-narrative content is in fact a hefty strike against a compilation musical; no-one has really been able to reproduce the formula that Bettinson and Janes hit with BuddyOnly The Lonely quickly became one more tombstone in the Piccadilly Theatre’s graveyard phase at the time; it was over, over, o-verrr.


Nick Moran and James Hicks are also aware that weighty story and nostalgic music don’t mix, and it’s to their immense credit that in Telstar they go with the story.  Joe Meek’s tale is part-Phil Spector, part-Joe Orton, partly the stereotype of the eccentric genius beavering away in an attic, and all true.  The man really did fashion Britain’s biggest-ever-selling single (until The Beatles came along), the Telstars number which gives the show its title, in his flat above a handbag shop on London’s Holloway Road.  What generations of home-recording teenagers have since discovered – that you get really good reverb if you record the vocals in the bathroom – was an integral part of Meek’s set-up, along with various humming boxes of his own design and construction.  As for the music, Moran and Hicks limit themselves to a handful of Meek’s headline successes, all of which are familiar even though you might not have been able to name them or associate them with him, and rather than attempt to reproduce the finished sound, they show it being painstakingly assembled, with only a snatch of the final result at the end of the scene in question.  It’s a pop musical that doesn’t so much distrust pop as simply take it as read.

It’s a clunkily constructed piece of theatre, relying on snatches of “radio broadcasts” between scenes to get over much of its hard information, but by and large it overcomes such clumsiness.  Again, I don’t think this is particularly a matter of personal of generational generosity simply because the show happens to reference music that I ingested along with mother’s milk, original-pressing seven-inch singles I inherited from my late sister.  I think the contradictions and complexities of Meek’s character and history give the evening a solid foundation, on which Con O’Neill builds one of the most brilliant performances currently in the West End.  None of the supporting players can fully meet O’Neill’s challenge, not even the accomplished Linda Robson, who plays Meek’s landlady as if she’d wandered in from EastEnders.  And all the knowing little pop jokes – “Rolling Stones? No, they’re just a little warm-up act” – can be forgiven for the moment when the ex-military manager type remarks brusquely, “We could all do without your vulgar music-hall comments, Hodges”; the play never explains this point, but pop geeks in the audience know that the Hodges in question went on to become the front half of Cockney musical patter-merchants Chas & Dave.


Moran and Hicks knew what they wanted to do with their play, and they succeed in doing it, albeit not always with great finesse.  Steven Knight seems to have thought he knew likewise, but the trouble with his first stage play The President Of An Empty Room seems to be that his desired ingredients were only accidentals.  He wanted to write a play about Cuba, and he wanted it to include elements of the supernatural, but there’s no sign that he ever had any real idea what he wanted to say.

I have a little more time for President than many reviewers.  Knight has a fine ear for well-turned phrases, but these would probably just sound too contrived outside the atmosphere of magic realism in this Cuban tale.  He shows some instinct for what works and flows onstage, although it's hard to tell at this point how much is due to the National Theatre's dramaturgical process, or indeed how interested Knight might be in knuckling down and applying himself to do better.  And after all, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with plays in which little if anything really happens… but Knight is no Chekhov.  Bunny Christie’s design is remarkable, remaking the Cottesloe space more completely than I can ever recall, and Howard Davies orchestrates the pointless bustle of the cigar-rolling room in a manner that almost begins to suggest it may have a point (although it’s noticeable that the actual business of rolling – possibly on the very same tables? – isn’t achieved with anything like the skill of the cast of Nilo Cruz’s Anna In The Tropics at Hampstead last autumn; they had been specifically trained in rolling technique).  One also expects Davies also to know better than to get the cast to try out an erratic bunch of faux-Cuban accents; after all, does he have the cast of The House Of Bernarda Alba next door in the Lyttelton attempt Andalusian?  Perhaps there’s a sense that, as I suggested earlier, some of Knight’s lines would not be gettable-away-with absent a Latin lilt, although the veterans Stephen Moore and Jim Carter rightly decide to have nothing to do with such efforts; they don’ need no steenkeeng accent-badgezz, so to speak.  As several critics said, it’s admirable of the NT to give a production to a first-time stage writer, though it’s questionable how prepared they would have been to do so had the writer not been someone with an Oscar-nominated screenplay and a mould-breaking TV game-show format under his belt.


Similar speculation can be made about certain instances of current West End casting.  Clearly, it would be an insult to all concerned to say or imply that there was nothing but politicking behind David Lan’s casting of Sienna Miller in As You Like It; but, given her relationship with Jude Law, and Law’s support of the Young Vic of which Lan is artistic director, a brief flicker of suspicion is surely understandable.  Especially given some of the reviews of her performance.

I said in last issue’s Prompt Corner that a conspicuous example was looming to bear out my assertion that “When the same comparison strikes a number of reviewers independently, it could be worth taking notice.”  This is it.  Entirely independent of each other, Paul Taylor, Charles Spencer and Georgina Brown (and, indeed, I) all compared Miller’s performance to school-play acting.  Not the awkward, wooden, drafted-into-the-cast kind, but the kind that believes that acting skill is solely a matter of energy and that just giving a good belt to every line, gesture and mug will see things through.  One’s certainly in no doubt at any given moment what Celia is thinking; however, the reason that her characterisation is clear as an unmuddied pool is because that pool is barely an inch or two deep.  Her attempts to sound a note of reproof at Rosalind’s wooing “game” are crass and unsubtle echoes of the line taken by Tom Hollander (also present on the show’s opening night) when he played Celia opposite Adrian Lester in the now-legendary all-male Cheek By Jowl production in the early 1990s.  Helen McCrory’s marvellously fluid, organic Rosalind is hobbled by being yoked to such a Celia.  (That said, though, see also Bill Hagerty’s Sun review, from a subsequent evening’s performance when Miller substituted without rehearsal and on her own initiative for a suddenly-ill McCrory.)

Lan’s production is a muddle.  My suspicion is that, having hit upon the idea of 1940s Paris as a setting, he sketched a broad-brush vision of the show as a whole, then mapped in a number of discrete individual details but without checking back to see how these fitted into the big picture.  Why pronounce names like “Jaques” as if they were French (thus mucking about with the scansion), but not do the same for “Arden” when in this case the parallel with the Ardennes is being made explicit?  Why have the rustics speak in ’Allo ’Allo accents so thick you could cut them with a baguette, but leave the nobles in Received Pronunciation – are the nobles somehow less French?  I think the single most obvious example of this approach is Reece Shearsmith’s existentially melancholy Jaques.  Shearsmith is an accomplished actor, whether in The League Of Gentlemen or elsewhere, who knows how to find and play a through line for his character.  Yet his portrayal of Jaques felt to me as if he had been given a list of particular moments to play in particular ways and then left simply to join the dots without regard to the elegance or otherwise of the result.


The same could be said in some respects of Lisa Evans’ approach to adapting minor Victorian classic East Lynne.  None of the nationals made it to the Potteries to see the New Vic’s revival of this 1992 adaptation, which is a pity as it’s an interesting bit of work.  Put simply, Evans’ stage version is a polemic against the upright moralising of Mrs Henry Wood’s original novel.  Where the book implicitly reproves protagonist Isabel, piously declaring that her sufferings are all due to her own moral lapse and thus entirely deserved no matter how contrite she may subsequently be, Evans structures her play as an indictment of a woman’s independence suffocated by a rigidly, unthinkingly prohibitory culture.  This is taken to the extent that the second act begins with Isabel reading aloud one of Mrs Wood’s more sanctimonious paragraphs, then apostrophising her bitterly, as the character takes issue with her own creatrix.  It’s fascinating, but in its way the adaptation is as dated as the original, seeming to emerge from one of the final moments of orthodox feminist doctrine, before it and indeed most strains of intellectual discourse sank into a morass of coyly relativistic post-[insert name here]-isms.

No danger of that with Alistair Beaton’s new version of The Government Inspector, which is concerned mostly with finding fresh linguistic idioms for Gogol’s play without tinkering with any major components.  (I’d also argue, contrary to many others, that seeing such a version in close proximity to David Farr’s update The U.N. Inspector at the National – reviewed last issue – in fact highlights how few liberties Farr has taken with the original.)  Unfortunately, Martin Duncan lets his directorial exuberance get the better of him with a series of moments of unreal slo-mo action, irruptive cacophonic sound effects and the like, which break the narrative frame to no particular discernible end.

Jeremy Kingston and Dominic Cavendish dare tentatively to question the power of Peter Brook’s theatrical approach as evidenced in Tierno Bokar.  I have to agree with them.  One’s impressed by the apparently instinctive connection with the human dimension of thoughts, emotions and actions, even when the characters depicted may be gods. One admires the style which combines a sense of the ritual of storytelling with, again, a fundamental humanity forming a direct communal bond between performers and audience. But the strength of feeling the pieces elicit always seems well within the limits of decorum.  This is especially apparent when, as here, the subject contains a dimension of the numinous.  This story of a Malian Sufi sage is performed with unobtrusive delicacy, beautifully accompanied on a number of traditional musical instruments, and all deeply significant.  But surely this is a message that needs to be borne in with a visceral conviction to match its intellectual persuasiveness and aesthetic elegance, and this is what Brook's style seems to me mistaken in eschewing so utterly.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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