Dirty Dancing / pool (no water) / How Long Is Never?
Various venues
October / November, 2006

Paul Taylor recently wrote a space-filling feature in the Independent to the effect that “The West End is alive with the sound of musicals… [this is] a golden period”.  Yes, even Dirty Dancing: his review contains a number of wicked parodies, but that’s an indicator that Paul is enjoying himself.  And I was frankly surprised how many reviewers bought into the feelgood of the show and gave it the thumbs-up.  For as Mark Shenton points out in his What’s On review, this is a combination of two arguably pernicious recent genres: the jukebox musical and the hit movie adapted for stage.  But its principal innovation (for want of a more pejorative word) takes it further down the road still.

Paul and Quentin Letts each notice half of it.  Around one-third of the show’s songs are original 1960s recordings simply played over the PA, and the rest are sung by peripheral characters standing on the periphery of the stage.  Now, the birth of the modern musical, with narrative-related and character-driven songs, is usually dated to Show Boat in 1927. It could be argued, then, that Dirty Dancing is turning the clock back 80 years or so.  But no, for even the previous era made a production out of the singing of numbers, whatever their integrity to the show’s book.  That’s entirely missing here.  In jukebox musicals we’ve grown used to the convention of the pretend-concert. Dirty Dancing invents an entirely new phenomenon: the pretend-incidental score, in the sense of “pretend the singers aren’t there at all”.  And I think that would be frightening, if I were through being just plain puzzled by it.

Meat puppets

Not that it bothered the audience one bit, since they were there to see the movie, enacted by (in the great phrase of author William Gibson) “meat puppets”.  No point worrying about the ways in which a show is deficient in theatricality when theatre isn’t what you actually want.  People around me were such devotees of the picture that they were singing along with the communal anthem of the holiday resort. Those behind me debated in detail and at length what they might do about suddenly having restricted-view seats, without it occurring to them for an instant that they might say anything to me, ask me to slouch down in my seat or whatever; the live element of the show, even of the folk next to them in the auditorium, didn’t seem to register in the slightest.

Nor did the ambitions of writer Eleanor Bergstein, who explained in a briefing note to the show’s original creative team (a remarkably purple communiqué reproduced in the London programme) that it was her intention to give the audience more than just the movie: different angles, interpolated scenes... at times it read as if she thought theatre was basically a DVD’s Extras menu.  Of her most grandiose statement of intent – “we plan to light the whole theatre.  The audience will sit under starry summer skies, amid the smells and sensations of summer storms, breezes, rainbows…” – there was mercifully no sign in the actual production.  Not that it would have been a bad thing, if it had worked, but it would have been if it hadn’t worked, and it wouldn’t have worked.  If you see what I mean.  And all indications were that the audience wouldn’t have wanted it anyway.

And, as a number of reviews have pointed out, this fundamentally untheatrical affair has generated the largest advance box-office in West End history.  Still loving it, Paul?
I’m aware that my remarks above probably look like sneering at audience tastes.  Not at all: people have a perfect right to like whatever they like to like, so to speak.  But if what they like isn’t theatre, what should be done?  Time was when the answer would have been to bombard them with good real theatre until they “discovered” their “proper” tastes.  This might even have been couched in terms of “educating” the audience.  But that kind of approach strikes us as disagreeably de haut en bas now, and paternalism isn’t really a vote-winner any more.  So instead we redefine what they do want to see as theatre. And sometimes, as with Dirty Dancing, this gets damn close to outright lying (remember, I’m not saying it’s bad, just that it isn’t theatre as we know it.)


This is in contrast to bringing in multimedia, multi-disciplinary elements without losing the core theatrical experience, even sometimes reaffirming and strengthening it.  In the mid- to late ’90s, Frantic Assembly were seen by many as the future (or one of the futures) of theatre, combining  conventional performance core with heightened visuals, music and in particular physicality.  But the Frantics’ moment seems to have passed.  When they choreograph sequences for insertion into a play like Black Watch, the results look obtrusive and almost parodic.

And now, with pool (no water), the backlash seems in full spate.  In fact, most of the backlash is directed at writer Mark Ravenhill.  (Quentin Letts even finds space to decry the absence of initial capitals from the title, after only a century or so of modernism from e e cummings to debbie tucker green.)  I didn’t find it as thin as some; my view was basically that of Moon in Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound – “Derivative, of course.  But quite sound.”  (And no, since you ask, in my school production in 1982 I played Birdboot.)  Ravenhill may not be saying anything new about jealousy, but he is saying something about it, and doing so with both emotional and dramatic cogency. 


However, the review I found most telling was Alastair Macaulay’s.  Alastair came to theatre reviewing from dance, and somehow managed not to see Frantic Assembly during their first decade and more.  I would describe the staging of pool (no water) as bog-standard Frantics, but I, like most of us, lack the precise vocabulary to describe it as Alastair does.  (I’m still not sure what he means by “tepid use of the spine”: is it about lack of precision/vigour/rigour, or the fact that they’re given to flopping about a lot?)  But he pins it. 

I found it disappointing for other reasons, that such an unadventurous, by-humbers staging should be the occasion of the return to the Frantics fold of Cait Davis, who had always been the most interesting of the original quartet of performers, and also the company debut of Mark Rice-Oxley, towards whom I’ve felt slightly proprietorial since his student days but who sadly could find little on this occasion to bring to a shallowly written character.  With a tepid spine, probably.  I must admit, as Quentin said about Dirty Dancing, that the highlight of the evening for me was the end... no, because I suddenly got a mental image of the entire audience applauding Frantically, as if choreographed by the company: clap, clap clap, arm shoots off around head, flop into lap of person on your right...

It’s been a fortnight of... if not failure, then underachievement.  Few shows even achieved the feat of attracting significant numbers of reviewers: this issue contains reviews of five more shows than last (and that’s counting a multiple bill such as Terror 2006 as a single show, of course), but in 12 fewer pages.  Apart from Dirty Dancing and pool (no water), the only other show to bring in a sizeable proportion of the corps was A Number in Sheffield.

Pity porn

I am, though, in a distinct minority as regards the lack of success of one production.  I think the Financial Times arts page sub-editors must have been feeling particularly puckish when they put my five-star review of Faustus at Hampstead – which ended “it told me more about our individual response to the enormity of war than the entire evening of plays and discussion about Darfur that I had seen 24 hours earlier” – right next to Alastair Macaulay’s five-star review of How Long Is Never? itself.  Kieron Quirke dares to criticise the plays as plays rather than exercises in conscience – “pity porn” is a terrific phrase, which I fully intend to steal from him – but even he ends by remarking that “The discussion afterwards […] fills in the details the plays skirt over.”  I felt progressively more disheartened throughout the discussion on the night I attended.  It seemed to me to consist principally of people defending their own particular approaches to the situation in Darfur, all of which in one way or another had led to the almighty mess the region is in today.  No-one seemed ready to acknowledge that whatever has been done has been too little, too late, or that galvanising the international will to act decisively will be all but impossible.

One contribution from the audience was from a man praising his Amnesty International group’s letter campaigns.  I’m a member of Amnesty myself, and have worked at its International Secretariat, but I’m afraid that on this occasion I was reminded of nothing so much as the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore exchange: “World War Two… terrible business.  I was dead against it, you know” – “Well, I believe we all were” – “Yes, but I wrote a letter!” Unlike Alastair, I was grumbling a lot on my way home.  It seemed to me that the function of the evening had been not to focus our minds on how we need, individually and collectively, to act in this instance.  Rather, I thought it had served to enable us to live, within generally accepted liberal-guilt limits, with the knowledge that we in that audience have done and can do nothing of significance.  I don’t think this was the conscious purpose of the evening, by any means, but it was the least energising Tricycle political evening I can recall attending.  It was so dispiriting, in fact, as to make me wonder whether I was having one of those conversion experiences that suddenly flip people in middle-age some way over to the political right.  But reading some of my, er, favourite reviewers on various productions reassured me on that score…

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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