Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) at the Lyric Hammersmith review ***

Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs)

Lyric Hammersmith, 22nd May 2019

Never seen John Gay’s ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera, though have seen Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, on which it is based, a couple of times. Have been waiting patiently for a production of Britten’s 1948 adaptation to pop up again having missed a couple of past opportunities. So it seemed a good idea in the meantime to take in this version, co-produced by Kneehigh and the Liverpool Everyman/Playhouse in which writer Carl Grose, composer Charles Hazlewood and director Mike Shepherd have reimagined the story for a contemporary audience using an eclectic mix of musical genres.

And, by and large, it was a good idea, even if it was a little overstuffed with Kneehiggh’s usual bag of tricks. The John Gay original was written as an antidote to the ever more preposterous gods, monsters and love story Baroque Italian style operas filling London theatres. Often cobbled together from other works with divas insisting on their own favourite arias regardless of context, rambling on for hours and with daft plots, they were ripe for satire. Remember too that the early C18 was a golden age for political satire led by Hogarth, Swift and Pope in print. (In fact it was the latter two who first suggested the idea of TBO to Gay). C18 toff Britain was busy racking up debt, sticking it too Johnny Foreigner and getting rich on the proceeds of slavery, whilst all around absolute poverty was rife. Sound familiar?

Gay and the other writers of so called Augustan drama were also pushing back against the Restoration comedies and nasty she-tragedies of the previous decades, creating middle and lower class characters mired in a world of corruption. The aim was not necessarily to highlight the social and economic injustice meted out to the poor, there was still a strong Christian and moral tone of instruction to the works, but to vent the frustration of the mercantile “libertarian” class at the “conservative” aristocracy and its political sycophants. Gay’s particular target in The Beggar’s Opera was actually the divisive Whig prime minister Robert Walpole and specifically his involvement in bailing out the original investors in the South Sea Bubble.

The 69 songs, across 45 short scenes, originally were to be sung without musical accompaniment but Johann Christoph Pepusch was brought in at the last minute to create a score for the mix of largely Scottish and French folk melodies, chucking in popular broadsheet ballads, opera arias lifted straight from the like of Handel, church hymns and even an overture. The punters lapped it up and it spawned multiple imitations, (though this is the only ballad opera which is still performed), and influenced much of the comic opera and musical theatre which followed in the C19 and C20. I see that it enjoyed a lengthy revival at this very theatre in the 1920s.

Carl Grose has kept most of the main characters, the Peachums (Martin Hyder and Rina Fatania), daughter Polly (Angela Hardie), Lockit (Giles King) and daughter Lucy (Beverly Rudd), Filch (Georgia Frost) and, of course Macheath (Dominic Marsh), and the bones of the plot including a repurposed, and instructive, parody ending, though here Macheath is a contract killer tasked with bumping off the virtuous Mayor, (and his innocent mutt), to make way for Peachum. Charles Hazlewood has thrown in electro, grime, dubstep, noire, trip hop rhythms as well as some punk and ska, alongside snatches of Purcell, Handel and even Greensleeves (from the original), to foot-tapping effect. By and large it all hangs together and I can’t fault the cast for effort. The dance routines (courtesy of Etta Murfitt) are entertaining and there are some effective visual treats, not least of which is the titular dead dog in the suitcase. The on stage musicians, who also take on key parts, notably violinist Patrycja Kujawska as Widow Goodman, cannot be faulted.

But Michael Vale’s set, complete with scaffolding and slide, whilst initially impressive, at times becomes an obstacle course for the cast to negotiate and multiple costume changes only add to the complications. Adding in a Punch and Judy routine, assorted puppetry (marshalled by Sarah Wright)and other creative trickery ends up slowing down proceedings and interrupting the momentum in what is intended to be a high energy entertainment. Sometimes less is more, especially if the intention is to make some points about the iniquity of the contemporary political class. I know this kitchen sink, amateur circus look is a keynote of some of Kneehigh’s work but it does rather blunt the satirical intent.

Still I can’t pretend I didn’t laugh, or jig about a bit, and the whole thing is done in just over a couple of hours. There’s a few days left at the Lyric and then the production moves on to complete the tour in Exeter, Cheltenham, Bristol and Galway.

The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre review ****

The Book of Mormon

Prince of Wales Theatre, 20th April 2019

Better late than never. Six years after it opens the Tourist finally gets to see The Book of Mormon. As all Tourists should. Thanks to LS and LGN.

Now the previous musical theatre adventures with the two of them have not been unalloyed successes. The Lion King visit predates this blog. Just as well as there would be no review for the simple reason that I don’t do reviews of stuff which is awful. Seems unfair. But it was. Sorry. Les Miserables was better, though not as good as I remember first time around, reflecting increasing age and pretentiousness on my part. Though I also think my misgivings may actually in part reflect the source material. Victor Hugo’s story is just too melodramatic and too chock full of coincidence for me to swallow. This was clear in Andrew Davies’s recent TV adaptation despite it being crammed with cracking acting talent. Mr Davies has penned many of the best things I have seen on the telly. House of Cards (UK not US), Middlemarch, Vanity Fair, Daniel Deronda, Tipping the Velvet, Bleak House. His War and Peace also put in a strong showing, though maybe didn’t quite encompass the full scope of the novel. For that you probably need the full weight of the Soviet authorities behind you. On that note I see that the mid 196os four part adaptation by Sergei Bondarchuk has been recently restored and is about to be released on DVD. Can’t wait. Anyway the idiosyncracies of Mr Davies’s approach, focusing on key episodes and key character traits, which has worked so well in the past, didn’t quite cut it for me in Les Mis. But I was also painfully aware of just how contrived the story is. Which probably is the major reason for my resistance to the musical.

The other problem I have with popular musicals is that they are, er, popular. If anyone says “ooh you like theatre, they you must see this” and proceeds to recommend a West End musical, then the snob in me is guaranteed to dismiss their opinion. This is not because they are likely wrong. It is because I am a w*nker. But, in my defence, as with The Book of Mormon, where numerous people, whose opinion on all other matters I value very highly, have implored me to see it, I will eventually back down. As with TBOM.

(So on that basis, and having made a rash promise to LS, if you are prepared to wait a few years, eventually I will gush forth on Hamilton, most likely with a grudging admission that it is very good, though still not in the same league as Ben Jonson, Brecht, Edward Albee, Caryl Churchill, David Harrower, Ella Hickson or whichever “serious” playwright I am obsessed with at the time and wish to show off about).

Now the first thing I would say about TBOM is … what a very nice theatre the Prince of Wales is. The Tourist detests most West End theatres. I hate most late Victorian/Edwardian neo-classical architecture, (though I can get my head around Frank Matcham’s buildings), facilities are usually dreadful, seats cramped, sight-lines awful and sound poor. The Prince of Wales’s jaunty Art Deco vibe, dating from 1937, and expertly tarted up in 2004, is a delight. We were up in the Circle, the Tourist being a cheapskate, though to be fair even the best seats in the house here are not outrageously priced given the entertainment. Whilst the Circle may be pitched at an unnervingly steep angle, and the seats are ram-rod upright, this does mean the view is perfect, and, with the cast miked up to the eyeballs, even the hard of hearing Tourist could hear every word. Just a shame I’ll probably never go back as this will probably run for many more years until replaced by whatever the musical magpie Andrew Lloyd Webber can cobble together for his parting swan song musical.

So the Tourist, pleased with the accommodation, was open to persuasion on the entertainment. For the first ten/fifteen minutes or so however he was anything but. For that is how long it took him to adjust to the tone of the satire and depth of musical parody. Oh no, was it just going to be a bunch of crude, scattergun jokes that mocked the US and religion (permissible for us liberal, metropolitan elite smart-arses), but in doing so was needlessly and uncomfortably offensive about Africa (most definitely not permissible)? And was this childish music all there was? It didn’t take long though to realise that is much cleverer, and, despite surface appearances, much subtler than that. TBOM makes some telling points about the idiocy of Mormonism, and by implication, all religious dogma, but not in a snarky way. The irony in the portrayal of Uganda and its people is rapidly revealed; this is taking the p*ss out of the way we, Lion King I am looking at you, see Africa.

Every trope of musical theatre is trotted out but in an utterly disarming way. The songs are not so bad that they are good. They are so accurate in the styles that they are undercutting that they are good. And, on occasion, actually just good in themselves. The whole thing is suffused with a sense of knowing fun such that, by the end, it doesn’t actually feel like satire anymore, in fact the story and characters take over.

I hated South Park, (another reason for trepidation going into The Book of Mormon), but loved Team America and now loved this. So I guess I have to hand it to the Trey Parker and Matt Stone combo. They are far smarter than I thought. Mind you, based on the brilliance of the musical pastiche, (the whole history of comic opera and theatre seems to be be lovingly teasing somebody else), Robert Lopez might be the main man to thank. Maybe I need to see his other hit, Avenue Q. An extraordinary admission for a man whose idea of theatrical heaven would be Brecht in German in a car park.

There are about a billion people involved in creating The Book of Mormon named in the programme, (in fact, for once, I wish I hadn’t bothered to buy one since a list is about all it is), so I will just single out the cheesy choreography, (and original direction with Trey Parker), of Casey Nicholaw and the performances of Tom Xander as the hapless hero Elder Cunningham, Leanne Robinson as (correctly named) Nabulughi and, especially, Steven Webb, who has got stage sparkle and knows it, as Elder McKinley.

So there you have it. A show that mocks its subject, its characters, its genre, its audience and itself. But also loves all of them. And is very, very funny, (unless you are a blue rinse conservative or grim class/identity warrior), very entertaining, musically diverse and even, surprisingly, uplifting. Though maybe not in Spooky Mormon Hell Dream, my particular song highlight. I see from the original 2013 reviews that all the papers bar, predictably, the Daily Heil, loved it. That should have been the only recommendation I needed.

Don’t be a dick like me and make sure, if you haven’t seen it, that you add it to the bucket list.

The American Clock at the Old Vic review ***

The American Clock

Old Vic Theatre, 11th February 2019

All the reviews will tell you the same thing. This was not one of Arthur Miller’s finest moments. Mind you his finest moments are amongst the greatest in theatrical history so the bar is set pretty high. A series of vignettes, with musical accompaniment, inspired by the oral histories of Studs Terkel, notably Hard Times, which intend to knit together to offer a dramatic critique, if you will, of the Wall Street Crash and The Great Depression. Almost bound by its form perhaps to fall short dramatically but could still fly as theatre.

It might have flopped on Broadway when it first appeared in 1980 but apparently the NT production from the mid 1980’s, (albeit under the guidance of master director Peter Wood, the man who breathed life into Stoppard’s comedies), was a great success. So I can see why Matthew Warchus entertained the idea of American musical director Rachel Chavkin having a crack at it on the Old Vic stage. Especially after the success of Conor McPherson’s Girl From the North Country, which to me, albeit with the powerful addition of the music of one B. Dylan, it somewhat resembles.

Miller himself termed it a vaudeville, a variety entertainment popular in the US before the Depression, and similar to music hall in good old Blighty. A long way from the original French precursor, (which I have just learned about – thanks teach), from the late C18 which was the lightest of comedies interspersed with songs and ballets. Comic opera with no intention of lecturing its audience. Unlike Mr Miller who leaves you in no doubt about what he is trying to say. It probably “helped”, at least artistically, that Miller’s own family like so many other well-to-do types were ruined by the Crash.

The American Clock is centred on the Baum family, an initially well to do Manhattan Jewish family, Moe, Rose and son Lee, who lose it all in the Crash and are forced to move in with family in Brooklyn, (Rose’s sister Fanny, her son Sidney and his wife Doris, and Grandpa). A narrator of sorts appears in the guise of sagacious money man, Theodore K. Quinn, who sells out ahead of the crash, in contrast to a bunch of his peers, who we meet, along with a whole host of other characters incidental to the Baum’s journey. In total there are some 26 named characters. Thus the whole of American society is represented. And, just to emphasise the timeless relevance, and thereby add more bodies to the stage, Rachel Chavkin has chosen to cast the Baum family with three different sets of actors, White Jewish, African American and Asian American. Actually it turns out this is less of an annoying conceit that in sounds.

Now I can see why uber critic Frank Rich archly observed that, “It is Mr. Miller’s notion, potentially a great one, that the Baums’ story can help tell the story of America itself during the traumatic era that gave birth to our own. As it happens, neither tale is told well in The American Clock: indeed, the Baums and history fight each other to a standoff.” That about sums it up though it is a little harsh. Each episode in the “story”, and there are many, sheds light on a slice of American life across those fateful few years, whilst still giving primacy to the journey of the Baums. But we never get to see enough of these characters to make any emotional connection to them and the narrative arc is too fragmentary to generate any real direction.

Having said that some of the scenes, individually are powerful, the dispossessed Mid-West farmers taking control of an auction on behalf of one of their number, the call to action from an oratorically gifted Communist agitator in the office for poor relief, the dance marathons, for example. And the play looks at sound fantastic. Chloe Lamford’s in-the-round set starts out as a commodities trading floor and, then, through constant evolution (and revolution,) becomes speakeasy, club, family home, diner, auction house and much much more. Rose Elnile’s costumes are similarly evocative. The combined talents of composer Justin Ellington, sound designer Darron L West, musical director Jim Henson and his on stage band made up of Shaney Forbes, James Mainwaring and Laurence Ungless create a rich, jazz based, aural tapestry. Top of the class though is surely choreographer Ann Yee, (and not for the first time in my experience, Caroline, or Change, the War Requiem at the ENO, and the Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy are all recent examples of her work), who oversees some smashing dance routines..

There are also many committed performances notably from Clarke Peters, Clare Burt, Francesca Mills, Golda Rosheuvel, Ewan Wandrop and Abdul Salis.

So, if you are tempted, and there are plenty of reasonably priced tickets left, I wouldn’t stop you. Just don’t go expecting to get the emotional punch in the gut that classic Miller delivers. I have certainly endured worse history lessons.

Company at the Gielgud theatre review ****

Company

Gielgud Theatre, 29th November 2018

Regular readers will know that the Tourist doesn’t like musicals. However, with Company now ranking alongside Follies, Caroline, Or Change, Groundhog Day, Gypsy, Girl From the North Country, Junkyard and White Teeth, the list of exceptions to the rule is growing alarmingly long. Looks like I may need to revise my opinion. Maybe I just don’t like crap musicals. Or, in a witlessly circular way, just musicals I don’t like.

Company, as you can read at great length elsewhere, is very far from being crap. It’s Sondheim for a start. With a twist as the, artistically and commercially, gifted Marianne Elliott (Angels in America, Curious Incident, War Horse) has inverted the story casting Bobbie (Rosalie Craig, there she is) as a single, female thirty-something mulling the “attractions’ of a life of domestic, married bliss. All done with the blessing and assistance of Lord Sir Stephen S, (well he would be if he were British), who is notoriously, and rightly, possessive about his work. And a trademark, stunning multi-neon, multi-light box design a la Curious Incident from Bunny Christie that could even accommodate a bigger stage.

Now there were still one or two moments when the Tourist’s anti-musical radar started twitching. A fair few of the c(C)ompany dance routines were a little too slick, with choreographed “leaning in” and the suspicion of jazz hands. The camp quotient meter lurched close to the red on occasions. Some of the dialogue seemed a little workaday in places. I am probably alone in failing to understand why Patti LuPone, playing Joanne, is a legend, or maybe the cliche of hard-bitten Broadway broad is just not my bag.

But the music, here played by a bad-ass band under musical supervisor and conductor Joel Fram, with its motifs, repetitions, parodies, consistent surprises, and the lyrics, intelligent, arch, acerbic, funny, thoughtful, wistful, put it into a different league from the fluffy, zero to hero, musical norm. It’s not Chekhov, but unlike what I think of as most musicals, it does ring true to life. It doesn’t have a plot or chronology to speak of, rehearsing Bobbie’s central dilemma over and over again, with different partners and different couples, it doesn’t resolve and it certainly isn’t any sort of “genre”. In fact I can see why, in its garish expressionism, why some punters think this production is all actually going on inside Bobbie’s head.

SS, together with book-writer George Furth, set their musical in the New York of 1970, and built it around nine linked scenes that Furth had previously created for a play. “The increasing difficulty of making emotional connections in an increasingly dehumanised society”. That was how SS described the theme at that time. Marianne Elliot has stuck with the setting, but by inverting the gender of the protagonist, (and many of the gender roles in the couples who come together to give her a surprise 35th birthday party), she brings it bang up to date. Mind you, given extended single-dom, Tinder and the quest for on-line perfection, maybe the world has moved closer to the theme. Don’t ask me, this sort of caper is miles outside of my comfort zone, but Company still struck chords, and not just musically, ta-dah. Anyway throwing the so-called “biological clock” into the mix is a master-stroke. The personal is still political.

There are some absolutely stunning set pieces, in part due to illusionist Chris Fisher, lighting design of Neil Austin and choreography and dance routines of Liam Steel and Sam Davies. Bobbie’s Tardis of an apartment, the street and subway scenes, Another Hundred People, the party games, Company and What Would I Do Without You, the daily routine of living together and the imagined future, (this is where the babies come in), in instrumental Tick Tock with the procession of Bobby body doubles, Jamie’s (Jonathan Bailey, brilliant, again) altar-jilting of Paul (Alex Gaumond), Getting Married Today, the barbershop trio of You Could Drive A Person Crazy (the three boyfriends now being PJ, Andy and Theo),

That’s All I Can Remember. Oh hang that’s not a song that’s just a remark. Whatever. Not knowing the songs or the story, such as it is, means I am not a particularly reliable correspondent but I can assure you that you can believe the positive reviews.

Now Rosalie Craig can sing. And she can dance. But best of all she can act, as the Tourist knows from her turns as Rosalind in the Polly Findlay NT As You Like It alongside Patsy Ferran, and as Polly in the NT Threepenny Opera. Here she plays Bobbie as a wry, detached, almost observer, of her own life, (is it a dream?), occasionally breaking out into a more impassioned soliloquy, firstly in Marry Me A Little and then, most vehemently, in the finale Being Alive. She humours her friends, accepting their foibles, justifications and disappointments and accepting with good humour their attempts to couple her up. but you always sense her reticence in embracing an unknown future when compared to her spirited past and predictable present. Her red dress, and forgive me for the crass and cliched observation, her flame-red hair, make her the focus of attention even when the action is flowing around her. Bobbie’s ambivalence towards coupledom is always present.

Whilst I may not have been entirely convinced by Joanne as performed I see exactly why the character is necessary. With Bobby now as Bobbie, the forceful and intelligent, if somewhat embittered, older woman serves as both guardian and warning. Gavin Spokes, (I wondered where I has seen him last – as the unfortunate Major Ingram in James Graham’s Quiz), as Harry gives Mel Giedroyc, as wife Sarah, a run for her money in the hamming it up stakes. Both are very funny. I was also struck by Jennifer Saayeng’s uneasy Jenny, Ashley Campbell’s conflicted Peter and Daisy Maywood’s haughty Susan but this really is a fine ensemble.

From what I read Company always wows audiences and critics when it is performed, from its first run through many major revivals. It’s easy to see why. If it wasn’t for that Hamilton caper this Elliott/Harper production would sweep up all the musical awards for 2018. I wonder, when it gets its next major UK or US outing (for it is off, of course, to Broadway next year), whether anyone would dare return to Bobby.

Plenty of seats left for the remainder of the now extended run to end March. The prices they are charging for the best seats are in the category of “you’re sh*tting me” but for once it might be worth it and, if you want to, or have to, go cheaper, the Gielgud is not the worst of the West End theatres for sight-lines and legroom. Whatever you do through, don’t miss it. Even if, like me, you hate musicals!!!

White Teeth at the Kiln Theatre review ****

White Teeth

Kiln Theatre, 21st November 2018

I have never read Zadie Smith’s 2000 debut novel White Teeth. So I have no benchmark against which to set the adaptation by Stephen Sharkey, directed by Indhu Rubasingham, which is still showing at the Kiln. I gather it is something of a sprawling, hyperbolic tale of multi-cultural Britain across three generations beginning at the end of WWII, (though largely set on the doorstep of the Kiln), through the eyes of two, connected families. It is stuffed with plot, event, location, character and is both comic and tragic. 

Well if that is the case then I would say that the creative team here has done it proud. Not quite a musical, yet not entirely a play, there are times when the surreality of the story telling threatens to break the spell, but if you leave your critical eye, and ear, at home, don’t take it too seriously (as it doesn’t itself …),  and just go with with the exuberant flow you should have a great time. This feels and looks like community theatre, about the community in which it is performed, but, as is usually the case when Indhu Rubasingham is pulling the strings, making it look this spontaneous has, I would surmise, require a great deal of thinking, planning and rehearsing over its 5 years gestation. 

It doesn’t sound like the adaptation has been completely faithful to the book, chopping out strands and characters, and recasting the stream of events (as I gather did the 2002 TV adaptation). The story is told through a series of flashbacks from the perspective of millenial Rosie Jones (a droll Amanda Wilkin), the daughter of Irie (the superb, again, Ayesha Antoine), trying to find out about her “complicated” heritage, probably pregnant, in the present day. We still get the ornate intertwining of the Jones family, the bashful Archie (Richard Lumsden), and headstrong Clara (Nenda Neurer) with the Iqbal’s, peppery Samad (Tony Jayawardena) and forthright Alsana (Ayesha Dharker) and their two very different sons, volatile Millat (Assad Zaman) and studious Magid (Sid Sagar). And the posh Jewish-Catholic family up the hill, Marcus Chalfen (Philip Bird), Joyce (Naomi Frederick) and son Josh (Karl Queensborough) but we have assorted friends and colleagues along the way, notably local “character”, doomsayer and sometime deus ex machina, Mad Mary (the wonderful Michele Austin, who dives in with both feet). 

Unlikely suicide attempts, coin flips, parties, age differences, O’Connell’s, the improbable tank crew, a Nazi eugenicist, an inability to pull a trigger, the development of twins, religion, non-observance, affairs, fundamentalism, the worse named ever terror organisation, experiments on mice, the menage a trois, the unlikely denouement, dentistry. All this remains, but, and why not, now amplified with on stage band (Matthew Churcher on drums, Zoe Guest on guitar and Nanda Neurer, yes that’s right she is also playing Clara, on bass), 13 songs from composer Paul Englishby and multiple dance routines. 

Tom Piper’s set is a faithful line drawing, in exaggerated perspective, of the High Road, across which Oliver Fenwick’s lighting, and Lizzie Pocock’s projections, ring the changes. I  marvelled at the intricacy of Polly Bennett’s movement, which plays up the story’s slapstick strengths. With music director Chris Traves, and sound designer Carolyn Downing, this is, make no mistake, an A list creative team.

Is it easy to follow the story? Amazingly, given the activity, yes it is, in part thanks to some light-touch commentary and exposition when needed. Will it make you smile? Yes, unless you are some crotchety Daily Heil reader in which case I would politely us you to p*ss off out of our City. Are the songs a bit too pastiche, musical theatre, by pop culture numbers? Yes but their sly humour means you will forgive. Do some of the myriad of thoughts and ideas that Zadie Smith apparently threw out in her novel, notably the darker sides of the immigrant experience, get a little bit lost, or smothered? Yes I am guessing they do. Are the characters fully realised? No. But then this comes in at under two and a half hours so what do you expect. If you want Chekhov go elsewhere. 

But if you want theatrical story telling at its very best, homegrown magic realism, made by a team that really cares about what it has doing, brimful of energy, and you are proud of the cultural melting pot which is London, then look no further.

I don’t read much but White Teeth has now reserved a place in the summer holiday luggage. 

Porgy and Bess at the ENO review ****

5415298151_f79aac8ec5_o

Porgy and Bess

English National Opera, 31st October 2018

It has been a long time coming. This co-production, together with the Met and the Dutch National Opera, is the first time it has appeared on the Coliseum stage. The re-written version, with book by Suzanne Lori-Parks, (which attracted the ire of Stephen Sondheim no less), popped up at the Open Air Theatre a few years ago and I gather that Welsh National Opera staged the Cape Town Opera production transcribed to South Africa in 2009. Prior to that I believe you have to go back to Trevor Nunn’s various tilts, at Glyndebourne in 1986, the Royal Opera House in 1992 and the less than successful musical theatre version, with speech replacing recitative, from 2006 at the Savoy. (Which, I have surmised, was what my special guests for this evening BUD and KCK, must have seen).

You’d think with all those tunes it would be a far more regular feature. On the other hand, one look at the set, and the massed cast at the opening of this production, perhaps reminds you why it is such an infrequent visitor. This must have cost a few bob. And assembling this many fine black singers from around the world, for this amount of time, will have required a patient, and skilled, logistical hand. The ENO has come under the cosh in the last few years, often unfairly in my view, so it is terrific to see that this has been a resounding critical and commercial success with standing room only across the run.

That is not so say it is perfect, at least from where the Tourist was sitting. (Nothing wrong with the view mind, though the old back was playing up a bit). The First Act does go on a bit: a fair few punters took the steamboat whistle as their cue to head to the bar. The chopping and changing of the time signatures in the jazzier parts of the score gets a bit wearing and I wouldn’t have minded if debutante conductor John Wilson has taken some passages at a greater lick. Not to say that he dawdled, just that I am all for brevity and clarity when it comes to orchestral music.

The plot and characterisation is very much of its time, Charleston in South Carolina in the 1920s. Not woke for sure. Even in the 1930s casts and creatives wrestled with the stereotypes that the opera presents. By the 1960s the opera had been pretty much consigned to the dustbin: no-one would perform it. It wasn’t just the characterisation, plot and language that vexed but also the appropriation of musical styles. In the last few decades performers have reclaimed the piece however, notably in South Africa. Ira Gershwin refused permission for the opera to be performed with white casts under apartheid as he and George had from the outset. Their stipulation for black only casts hasn’t always been maintained however, most notably by the Hungarian State Opera in their last season with a predominantly white cast, which looked, on the face of it, like a political provocation.

Having said all that I can absolutely see why the creative team, led by James Robinson AD of the Opera Theatre of St Louis, on his ENO debut, have played this absolutely straight, (and I suspect they always had one eye on the reception from the punters at the Met). Putting the condescension to one side, the characters in Porgy and Bess, even if there are probably too many, are more emotionally rounded than in most opera, and the drama, with its mythic underpinning, more engaging. This in large part reflects the work of Dorothy and DuBose Heyward from whose play and book the story is taken. That doesn’t mean it is without flaw however. Porgy’s seeming accommodation of his poverty and disability, Bess’s total lack of agency and final descent: these require a great deal more exploration than the few lines that opera can offer, especially one where so many other voices are heard. And Gershwin’s music as it slips from folk to jazz to blues to gospel to spiritual to, very obviously in the melodies of some big songs, his own Jewish heritage, doesn’t always match up to the psychology of the character. Say what you like about Mozart and Da Ponte’s plots, when words fall short and music needed to take over, Wolfgang was your man.

George Gershwin’s ability to mix popular, musical theatre with high art classical composition is there from the very beginning of the piece. The jazzy theme for full orchestra that emerges from the frenetic opening, with the entire cast on stage, drops down to a simple piano roll. Then Clara emerges and launches into you know what. If there has ever been a tune that more defines time and place in musical theatre, the bluesy Summertime is it. It’s hot, we are on Catfish Row and, for a lullaby about protecting the child, there is something infinitely sad about it. Which of course there is when it subsequently re-appears later on before the murder of Robbins by Crown and after the fatal storm.

Up to now George and lyricist brother Ira had delivered Broadway musical but George was determined to filter this through European classical modernism to create a unique American opera style, just as Bernstein would in the following decades. They must have got something right in this their operatic debut. The programme mentions an estimate of 25,000 version of Summertime. Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and The Fun Boy Three in my library. From there on, for all the twist and turns of the music when it stands alone or supports the recitative (and kind of arioso), for all of the musical call-forwards, call-backs and motifs it is the songs and arias that the audience came to hear. Gone, Gone Gone, spirituals My Man’s Gone Now and It Take A Long Pull To Get There, It Ain’t Necessarily So, love duet Bess You Is My Woman Now,, Oh Doctor Jesus, Oh Lawd I’m On My Way., even banjo song I Got Plenty of Nuttin’.  Hard not to be carried away by that lot.

I have said before that I am not up to the task of commenting on the technical skill of the performers and, for me, acting in opera is as important as singing. If I had to pick out individuals then I would plump for Eric Greene’s rich, powerful baritone voice, which builds through the evening, and the poignancy he brings to Porgy. Nadine Benjamin’s sweet, sensitive Clara and Frederick Ballentine’s oily Sportin’ Life also stood out and I was taken with, at our performance, Gweneth-Ann Rand’s noble Serena and Tichina Vaughn’s gritty (acting not voice!) Maria. Soprano Nicole Cabell’s Bess was a little too reticent at times and Nmon Ford’s Crown, complete with rippling torso, a little too brisk, but what do I know. It is though when the chorus and orchestra come together in the big set-pieces, the fights, the murder, the funeral, the prayer-meetings, when the opera really takes off, and this chorus drawn from as far apart as the US, South Africa and New Zealand, was as good as I have heard anywhere. This was when I got the “opera buzz”. I am looking forward to the War Requiem that will follow at the ENO from this chorus.

For all the story-telling, playing, singing and dancing (courtesy of Dianne McIntyre) though, it was the look of the production that was perhaps the best thing about it. The set from legendary American designer Michael Yeargan, gives us the the bare bones of the Catfish Row tenements. The flesh then comes from another legend, lighting designer Donald Holder and the video design of our own Luke Halls, who is about the best in the business. No innovative representation or symbolism here. Sun, rain, water, daybreak, twilight, moonlight, quick time, slow time, public space, private space. All were vividly imagined. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are equally effective. Wheeling out the best of Broadway and pooling the budgets of the three producing houses has paid dividends handsomely. Even the SO to whom plot is everything was bowled over by the look as were keen companions BUD and KCK. We definitely got our money’s worth.

I see that I have a recording of Porgy and Bess, the LPO under Simon Rattle. I don’t listen to it though. I do listen to Miles Davis’ instrumental versions though, which are all over the shop. Not sure what that means. Essence of trumpet maybe.

 

Caroline, or Change at the Hampstead Theatre review *****

20170511_095326

Caroline, or Change

Hampstead Theatre, 18th April 2018

How many exceptions does it take before the rule is unproven?

I don’t, as a rule, like musicals, as I have oft repeated on these very pages. I absolutely adored this though. That might be because it isn’t your classic show tunes, jazz hands, fake emotion overload. It might be because Jeanine Tesori’s eclectic score ranges across the history of African-American music, (with help from Jewish American music, and plenty more besides), and reminds us how lost contemporary human culture would be without it. it might be because CoC is operatic in intent and form. It might be because it is through-composed with no awkward recitative exposition. It might be because it is formally inventive, what with its singing appliances, swinging moon (!), split level and revolving stage, courtesy of Fly Davies, and repeated metaphors. It might be because Tony Kushner is a playwright, and here book and lyric writer, of fierce intelligence, politically engaged, unafraid of tackling big issues, or incorporating his own, real, experiences into his work. It might be because Sharon D. Clarke is just about the most powerful actor to be seen anywhere on the British stage. There are moments in this where her entire body quivers under the weight of Black American history. And when she sings. OMG as the young’uns would have it. And she’s not the only one knocking it out the park. Abiona Omanua as Emmie runs her a pretty close second in her own way.

This production was praised to the skies on its original outing at Chichester. I believed the hype, but ummed and ahhed about booking for the Hampstead transfer, trying to rope in some chums. No takers, the SO didn’t bite, her aversion to musicals being ideologically sounder than mine, so I ended up taking the plunge on my tod. In the end it was probably more the urge to collect productions of Mr Kushner’s work that swung it rather than these reviews. At times I was engrossed by both Angels in America at the NT and IHO here at Hampstead even if, ten minutes later, I baulked at his indulgence. His translation of Mother Courage was also used in the so-so recent production of Mother Courage at Southwark Playhouse. I can see why he likes Brecht.

Well I only need to have paid attention to the 5* reviews, and so should you now that this is transferring to the Playhouse Theatre, from late November through to early February next year. I strongly recommend you get tickets. And don’t skimp. It is rubbish upstairs in the Playhouse and you need to take in all the set. I also see that the prices for decent seats, whilst not cheap, are not eye-gougingly expensive.

Music first. Jeanine Tesori’s score is magnificent. I assume it was composed for the orchestral forces on show in this production, 11 strong, with Nigel Lilley conducting. They are certainly put through their paces with Haydnesque chamber passages, a Jewish klezmer dance, hymns and folk tunes wedded to gospel, blues, soul, jazz and spirituals. And still room for a couple of show-tunes. If this all sounds a bit rich, it isn’t. The rhythms are simple and infectious and the melodies and motifs clear and recognisable even to this untrained ear. Ms Tesori doesn’t waste a note. What is most extraordinary is how she renders Tony Kushner’s text so immediately musical, as, presumably, he doesn’t write that way. There is a good interview in the programme, as there always is, from Will Mortimer of the Hampstead Theatre, with TK and JT where they describe their creative process. They seem to like working together. There is also an article written by TK setting out the genesis of CoC and a helpful essay on domestic workers in the US from slavery through the civil rights movement to the present day The HT programmes are always excellent in this regard, with material directly relevant to the production and not too removed or abstract as can sometimes be the case.

Whilst all of the orchestra sounded terrific to me I would highlight the brass and woodwind contributions of Alice Lee and John Graham. Their instruments were always likely to get the lion’s share of the expressive lines, given Mr Kushner is unafraid of emotion, but they sure know how to deliver them. In total I counted 53 songs. Like I say there is no filler, but you can work out for yourselves that, across the couple of hours of performances this means nothing outstays its welcome, so we have dynamism to match the musical invention.

So what’s it about? It is the 1960s in Lake Charles, Louisiana. It is hot and humid.. Caroline Thibodeaux is an African American mother of four kids, Emmie, whose consciousness is being raised by the Civil Rights protests, Jackie and Joe (I am really sorry I don’t know which young actors where in the hotseat on the day of the performance I attended), and an elder son in the army. Caroline’s drunk, abusive husband is long gone. She works as maid to the Gellman family, Stuart Gellman, his second wife Rose Stopnick Gellman, and young Noah (based on Tony Kushner himself). We also get to meet Caroline’s friend Dotty Moffett, trying to “better herself” through night school, and the Gellman grandparents and Grandpa Stopnick, in various imagined scenes, and when they visit Louisiana from New York.

Oh and we are introduced to a singing washing machine, a dryer, a Supremes style trio representing the radio, a moon on a swing and a bus. As you do. These fantasy elements make perfect sense in the context of the story Kushner and Tesori are telling, and provide further contrasts to the already rich mix created by Ms Tesori’s music and by Mr Kushner’s sharp, poetic, lyrical, emotional, analytical, metaphysical and often very funny lyrics. One detail in particular, the illuminated red ring around Ako Mitchell’s neck, to simulate the dryer, but suggesting something way more horrific from America’s past, shows just how many ideas are at work here.

In 1963 self-absorbed Noah is 8, (sorry, as with the boys, I can’t be sure who played Noah), and prone to bothering Caroline, and lighting her cigarettes, as she launders in the Gellman house basement. Noah’s mum recently died of cancer and the relationship with step-mum is delicate. Stuart, still grieving, and Rose’s relationship isn’t perfect either. Caroline gets paid $30 a week. Rose offers her food rather than a raise, and later, condescendingly suggests she take the small change the family leave in their pockets, especially Noah. This idea of change, (both personal for Caroline, and politically for her family and community), and of the unequal economic relationship between the Gellmans and Caroline, of which they are all acutely conscious, is central to the drama, and presents an extraordinarily powerful metaphor.

The assassination of JFK, and his legacy, and the destruction of a statue of a Confederate soldier at the local Lake Charles courthouse, provide wider social and political context and, in the case of the latter, acute contemporary resonance, given, for example, the ugly events last year in Charlottesville. The politics ramps up before, during and after the Chanukah party in the first half of Act 2, which, for me, served up half an hour of the most vital theatre I have seen ever seen anywhere. The aftermath of the party, and an elusive $20 bill, prompts a bust up between Caroline and Noah and then some sort of spiritual epiphany for Caroline, culminating in the passionate song Lot’s Wife, which made me, and half the audience, quietly blu. Emmie though has the last, defiant, word.

Caroline is angry, sullen and resentful at the hand that life has dealt her, but her faith, her dignity, her conditioning and the stark fact that she needs to feed her family, means she cannot fight back. Emmie, from the next generation, can though. Mr Kushner points out in the programme how damaging the failure to resolve issues of race and poverty has been to the American politic, but he also offers a message than change is still possible.

The Hampstead stage is just about big enough to contain the set, though I gather it was more expansive at Chichester, but small enough to let us savour every line and note. I don’t think I missed a word and Michael Longhurst’s direction was exemplary (if you’ve see Amadeus at the National you’ll know what he’s about), ably assisted by Ann Yee’s intricate choreography.

In my own little fantasy world of reviews on this blog site I dole out stars like candy, largely because I get so excited with how much marvellous culture London offers that I really do feel like I am in the proverbial sweet shop. This though is a brook no argument 5* masterpiece.

The best thing I have seen this year. And I was perched up in the gods wishing I was much closer and had booked sooner.

You must see it.