Wicked / The Seafarer / Metamorphosis
Various venues
September / October, 2006

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a diversity of opinion about a show as there has been about Wicked.  As I keep saying, Theatre Record does not reprint star ratings on reviews, but consider this: on the same day, the Sunday Telegraph gave Stephen Schwartz’s Oz musical five stars, the Mail on Sunday none at all.  That’s an even greater disagreement than I got in the reviews for my own 1998 Edinburgh Fringe show (when “You can’t survive the Festival without seeing this show” contrasted starkly with “Like a dog returning to its own vomit”).

I must admit I loathed the event of Wicked’s opening night: the artificial generation of a jostling crowd by the possibly downright illegal means of locking several of the theatre’s doors, the whooping, glitzy audience (and not just because I naturally tend towards the slovenly myself).  The woman sitting next to me was so heavily perfumed that my mild, occasional allergy reactivated with some strength: I had to turn my head away at the end of each number, knowing that her fervent applause would send another cloud of pongy allergens wafting over me.


And yet, the more I’ve considered the show itself, the more favourably I have found myself thinking of it. It may be true, as Nicholas de Jongh and Alastair Macaulay remark, that the music is the least vital part of this musical.  But I felt decently refreshed by Schwartz’s unashamed tendency towards the idioms of pop rather than those of the contemporary stage musical.  (I find that the imitators and successors of Sondheim and Lloyd Webber, unlike the men themselves, seldom have much of a way with a tune.)

To those who find the script’s message of tolerance and liberal niceness too obvious to need repeating, I can only ask: if not now, when?  Britain has all but followed the United States into a climate of political discourse in which “liberal” is a smear-word, and the recent “debate” about the Muslim veil shows that we, too, are in the process of accepting a manufactured “Them” to contrast with “Us”.  And surely the character of the Wizard himself – a well-meaning man, but so convinced of his own rightness that he can never even hear other points of view properly as he smilingly imposes far too extreme measures – resonates more deeply in the UK right now than anywhere else.


My ambivalence about The Seafarer leans in the opposite direction.  With every new play he writes, Conor McPherson grows more confident in having his characters interact dialogically… as he should, because his dialogue is as perfectly pitched as his trademark set-piece story speeches.  As a director, he brilliantly captures the boozy, down-at-heel nothing-in-particular-ness of the kind of holiday gathering he has written, and his cast is, as Mr Macaulay notes, to die for.

And yet (take 2) I can’t shake the suspicion that perhaps this time McPherson’s story is the merest old tripe.  I think that perhaps in part this is due to a contemporary shift in contemplating (for want of a better word) the supernatural: that, New Agey and all as we have been getting, we can cope with the idea of ghosts, spirits, whatever, without any problems (so McPherson’s The Weir and Shining City are fine), but an overt religious dimension is a dose too big to swallow now – with Jesus in Kate Betts’ On The Third Day as with the infernal Mr Lockhart here in The Seafarer.  Possibly.


This is also an opportunity to acknowledge that, when I took over editing this magazine, I used to read Toby Young’s reviews with only half an eye on the page, and the rest of my attention on my blood pressure monitoring apparatus, but more and more now I find myself saying an out-loud, emphatic “Yes!” (albeit through gritted teeth) to points he makes.  In considering Lockhart’s magnificent speech about Hell, Toby is the only reviewer to compare it explicitly with the other great modern description of that realm, in Joyce’s A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man.  But then, as he admitted in a piece written when he thought the new editor of the Spectator was going to drop him as its theatre critic, Toby has rather “gone native” during his time in the job.  Perhaps he began to realise what plays had to offer once he started staying for the second half…

Slight surprise that David Farr and Gísli Örn Garđarsson’s adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis not only dispenses with that classic opening sentence, but never in fact explicitly states what has happened to its protagonist.  Mind you, I remember several years ago seeing an instance of brain-short-circuit when a reviewer meant to name the story’s most famous stage adaptor, Steven Berkoff, but his fingers typed another B-name and the play accidentally became “Beckett’s Metamorphosis”.  Imagine it: “One morning Gregor Samsa awoke from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed in his bed into an enormous insect.  Nothing had changed.”  And if you think that’s a fearsome prospect, try to picture a version by Howard Barker…

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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