Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear oh dear……..
Its as hard writing a balanced review of a show that you’ve felt bitterly disappointed with as it is to write one about one you’ve thoroughly enjoyed. In fact, its harder, because I just don’t know where to start.
Lloyd Webber’s much-hyped production is neither fish nor fowl. He states in the programme that he wasn’t interested in staging a copy of the film, but wanted to resurrect the original stage production – and then proceeds to put elements of the film into it. Numbers are moved around, added in from the film, taken out, nods to the film are made where they are not needed, where nods from the film are needed they are missed out……
I really don’t know where all the money thrown at this production went. It certainly wasn’t in the scenery. The show opens with Maria apparently being seen from above as she lays on her mountainside – unfortunately in the same “window” of the stage cloth which for a couple of minutes has held a figure of the Madonna and Child in Glory as the stage slowly fills with singing nuns. Fade out Madonna, fade in Maria. Unfortunately, this juxtaposition achieves nothing but making Maria look like she is spreadeagled on the cross. Up goes the cloth, to reveal that she is actually lying on a huge green and grey flying saucer which revolves in the air and tilts forward and turns into a mountain to run up and down. Is Maria a friendly alien in the mould of ET, we wonder? Cut to the Abbey, where Mother Abbess’s chair and desk seem to be standing in the corridor – well, perhaps she had the decorators in. Maria’s cell then makes a brief and pointless appearance – space is obviously tight at Nonberg Abbey because she appears to be sharing it with two other nuns. Well, why else are there three beds? Then to the Villa Von Trapp, which flies in piecemeal and assembles itself in front of Maria’s eyes – but not the exterior, as one would expect, but the interior. And what a cheap and nasty interior it is – an ice blue semicircular ballroom, devoid of furniture, with a flimsy, one-person-wide gantry staircase running up one wall. This set is used far too much, even though it lacks visual impact to start with and doesn’t gain any with repetition. For the garden set, the house splits into two quarter circles and heads off to huddle in the two upstage corners – why??? And two extremely naff, viridian green topiary hedges do not a garden make. These aren’t even those plastic hedges which try to pass themselves off as the real thing – these look like they are foam rubber over a wooden frame. A drinks trolley (never used), two large rattan loungers (never used) and three rather tired looking garden chairs “complete” the set, which just sits there and PLEADS for the much-loved Seahorse Gates which appear in the film. As a backdrop for most of this we get magenta skies and candy-floss pink mountains looking like piles of whipped cream. Another bit of the Abbey appears briefly, followed by the ballroom, followed by the garden, followed by the ballroom….a brief visit to the concert hall (rather more effective, but I swear that those swastikas were round the wrong way) and then the flying saucer lands again (this time vaguely disguised as the Abbey cemetery) giving Maria, the Captain and the kids something to cower under briefly until they all climb up on it and it takes off to carry them over the mountains to freedom, Maria appearing at the highest edge of the disc in a burst of light just as the chorus swells into “….’til you find……..YOUR…… DREAM!” If this isn’t a nod to the TV show “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” I don’t know what it is.
Neither was the money spent on choreography – or, more precisely, the Production team completely failed to get value for whatever amount they paid. Arlene Phillips should be bullwhipped for such (frankly) piss poor work. How the woman has the nerve to bollock off contestants on “Strictly Come Dancing” and then offer such a crock of shit herself is beyond me. The dance break in “Sixteen, Going on Seventeen” was completely and utterly wasted – the entire audience was gagging for the show’s first big dance number and never got it. Instead, Arlene went for “natural” – and “natural” just don’t work, girl, when there are 20 people in the orchestra pit working their nuts off pumping out high octane dance music. Mind you, Rolf spent the entire number obviously far too concerned with the broomstick shoved up his arse to bother about doing any dancing. The Viennese Waltz was just PITIFUL. You need sweep, you need elegance, you need the stage filled with lovely costumes – and you need more than 8 bloody bars of it! Another great opportunity for spectacle just flushed down the pan.
When faced with dire scenery and choreography, you look to the book to provide some interest. And this was lacking in all respects. Much of the dialogue is gruel-thin – surely some of the great bantering and verbal swordfighting which is in the film could have been flown in to help? Much of what there was in the way of lines was simply thrown away – either through lack of skill or, more probably (or so it appeared) complete lack of interest or conviction.
So, expensive performances then? Maybe, but again Lloyd Webber and his team got little value for their money in most counts. Lesley Garrett – well, how do you solve a problem like Lesley Garrett? True, the role shows off her vocal chords very well, but they’re in the wrong body and the wrong mind. The Mother Abbess should be a woman who has maturity, experience and the courage to face down the crap which life throws our way. Instead, this Mother Abbess is a jolly, apple cheeked Yorkshire Lass who doesn’t seem to have faced any problems more troubling than a few burnt Barm Cakes and the odd badly-pulled pint of John Smith’s. “I was born up in those mountains”, she says at one point. Where? Ilkley? Its amazing that for a trained classical opera singer who produces such glorious tones when singing hasn’t managed to iron out the flat Yorkshire vowels in her speaking voice. Dialogue coach for Ms. Garrett please! During the performance, while taking something from the top of a cabinet, something fell to the floor. Anyone with any sense of the dignity of this role would have left it there and gestured for Maria to pick it up for her – it wouldn’t have taken much. Instead, this Mother Abbess got down on her haunches and started scrabbling for it. Totally out of character.
Alexander Hanson wrestles manfully with the difficult role of Captain von Trapp, but just ends up looking like Action Man – all stiff and plastic. This man should be solid ice, until Maria shatters the covering round his heart so that the warmth can come flooding out – but Hanson just goes for the lukewarm puddle. Baroness Shraeder should also be an Ice Maiden – but Lauren Ward just goes for “Musical Comedy Ingenue”. Nicola Sloane manages to make something out of nothing as Frau Schmidt but Paul Kemble lays on the “creepy Nazi” with a trowel as Franz. Neil McDermott was useless as Rolf, the telegram delivery boy. He plays the role with little conviction, has no stage presence and really doesn’t know what to do with his hands. And come on, we were all expecting a Nazi blond boy – so why isn’t he one? It’s an expected stereotype that someone who joins the Hitler Youth is going to be an Aryan. Work with us, Lloyd Webber, not against us. Sophie Bould has just that bit too much of Anne Frank about her to pull Liesl off convincingly – there is no feisty little madam here, and she fails miserably to bring the dancing off either.
And Maria? The propelled-to-fame Miss Fisher? What of her? Well, she wasn’t all bad – but she wasn’t all good either. The role of Maria is a huge, important one – and Connie just hasn’t got the stage experience to pull it off. You can see her inexperience in her gawky, slightly hunched body shape as she tries to bring herself down to the level of the von Trapp children. You can see it in her slightly panicky hand movements, almost as if she is trying just that little bit too hard and cannot fully relax into her dialogue or movements but is finding her mind running over what is to come rather than what she is doing now. You can hear it in her slightly gabbled delivery sometimes – she may be whipping up a storm but there is no calm centre to this storm. She has a slight reminiscence of Joyce Grenfell in the “St. Trinians” films – bouncy, jolly and absolutely DESPERATE to please – and this desperation shows through. There should be a point in the show when the Ugly Duckling sheds its feathers and turns into the Swan Princess – but this never happens and the Ugly Duckling simply dons a wedding dress and carries on, hoping that nobody will notice she is not really a swan (Lord – that wedding dress! SO wrong! Completely and utterly in the wrong style – it should be simple, elegant and of the period, yet this one looks like a Disney Princess cast-off). Connie may become a Swan Princess with a couple of years stage experience behind her, but at the moment her raw edges are still all too apparent. Yes, she is on her way to becoming a star, but being pushed into the limelight in such a way is going to be a hindrance to her, rather than a help.
I have been accused of being overly critical in this blog when I am disappointed with what I have seen, and no doubt I have been overly critical in this particular review. But seeing this show was like being given a wonderfully wrapped box of chocolates, opening it up and finding that all your favourites are already gone and that someone else has started on the second layer. What made this show even worse was the fact that everybody else in the theatre seemed to be eating from a completely different box of chocolates. I just wanted to stand up and shout “Can’t you see? Have you all been completely blinded by the hype?” But nobody would have heard. Everyone was so desperate for the show to be a belter and for Connie to succeed (both as Connie and as Maria) that they had stuffed the chocolates in their eyes and ears and were happily standing in the road as the Sound of Music juggernaut rolled towards them with Connie Fisher at the helm, seemingly oblivious to the fact that their critical faculties were going to be crushed under its wheels. Where’s Julie Andrews when you really need her?