Whodunnit (Unrehearsed) at the Park Theatre review ****

Whodunnit (Unrehearsed)

Park Theatre, 25th July 2019

I am ashamed to say this but myself and LD were just a teensy teensy bit disappointed when we discovered that the guest at our performance of Whodunnit (Unrehearsed) at the Park Theatre was Clarke Peters. To recap. Park AD Jez Bond and writing/directing collaborator Mark Cameron created their parody Whoduunit (is there any other kind?) to raise a few quid to help fund the Park’s ongoing whirlwind of good, (and occasionally not so good it must be said), entertainments. To get the good people of North London, or in our case SW London, to dip their hands in their pockets, a volunteer was promised from luvvieworld who would play the role of the “Inspector” with the vital caveat that they wouldn’t see a script, and we wouldn’t know who they were, until the performance began.

Comedy luminaries such as Sandi Toksvig and Tim Vine (LD’s faves) had signed up alongside top drawer actors such as Adrian Dunbar, Jim Broadbent and Joanna Lumley (the Tourist’s). It was probably fair to say that, of all the candidates, Clarke Peters had, for us two, the lowest name recognition. Which I think reveals a shocking level of ignorance on our part. For you culture vultures will know that Mr Peters was a lynchpin of The Wire, has had a successful musical stage career in London and on Broadway, wrote Five Guys Named Moe and has an extensive UK TV bio. Pretty much none of which we had seen. And the worst thing of all. The Tourist had actually seen Mr Peters on stage just a few months ago. In the Old Vic production of Miller’s The American Clock. Which frankly is unforgivable.

All of which, as it turned out mattered not a jot. As Mr Peters was wonderful. Of course once we had seen and heard him it was clear we sort of did know who he was. Even so we were still blown away by how funny he was. Messrs Bond and Cameron have created a witty script ticking off every possible creaky murder mystery trope, and the rest of the cast, Candida Gubbins as housekeeper Anne Watt, Lewis Bruniges as her son and the handyman Jack Watt, Patrick Ryecart as the aristo owner of the house, Rigby Dangle and Omar Ibrahim as the suspicious stranger, Oscar Weissenberginelli, were all terrific. Though I would reserve special praise for Natasha Cottriall as Rigby’s daughter Felicity Dangle.

However the show can only be as amusing as the “star” allows given that they were fed their lines, and directions, via an earpiece, from Robert Blackwood. And this is where Mr Peters was so impressive. Not only did he enter into the spirit of the thing, with ad libs, inventions and playing off the rest of the cast, but actually he managed to create a character and sustain a plot over the couple of hours of the story. Of course it was all nonsense. But I suspect it wouldn’t have been half as funny if the “star” was uneasy with the technology and/or timing and therefore defaulted to too much mugging and derailing the proceedings. Mr Peters, once he was in the swing of things, certainly did not whilst still finding and milking a few repeated gags. The best of which involved an imaginary door, French chanson and a very alert team on the sound desk.

I gather this venture was a success for the Park, so, if they are tempted to roll it out again, you might want to give it a whirl.

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.