14 July 2008

Moonlight and Magnolias -Tricycle Theatre Kilburn, Monday 14th July 2008


Three weeks into the filming of Gone With the Wind, producer David O. Selznick has halted production, dissatisfied with an inferior screenplay and a director whose style and pace are not in harmony with his own. Recognizing that his professional reputation, financial stability, societal status and even the fate of his family rest on the success of this enormous and risky project, Selznick summons the proven “script doctor” Ben Hecht and larger-than-life director Victor Fleming to his studio offices, determined to engage their services.

But obstacles soon arise - Hecht has not read the novel and is convinced that a Civil War picture will never make money. Fleming is in the middle of filming The Wizard of Oz and questions whether anyone — especially Hecht who is unfamiliar with the characters and the plot — is up to the monumental task of reducing a 1,030-page book into a 130-page screenplay. Enticed by the promise of a sizeable fee, Hecht reluctantly agrees to devote five days to the project; contracted under the studio system, Fleming has no other choice but to agree. With nothing but a stockpile of peanuts and bananas, Selznick locks the three men into his office and they begin the marathon creative session....

Oh the irony! I bet Trevor Nunn is spitting feathers. His multi-million pound production of Gone With The Wind closes after only 79 performances, while this tiny four-hander about the writing of the film is back at the Tricycle Theatre "by popular demand" and is playing to capacity audiences. It matters not one whit that the audience seems to be largely composed of Jewish matrons with lacquered coiffures backcombed to buggery and men wearing M&S summer jackets and toops so unconvincing that I had to be physically restrained at one point from pointing and shouting out "Wi.....ggyy, wi.....ggy!".

Given the subject matter, the popularity of the show and its source and the fact that it counterpointed the Nunn production to perfection, I thought I would love this. And I tried really hard, I really did. The evening got off to a really bad start thanks to the Tricycles policy of having all seats unreserved, making for an unholy scramble for seats, lots of saving of same with handbags, coats and programmes for latecomers and quite a lot of "Is that seat taken?" gesticulating by several mad old bags directed at people on the other side of the auditorium who weren't wearing their glasses and couldn't see that they were being gesticulated at. Him Indoors said that "People enjoy the fun of having unreserved seats - its so un-English". Well, I remain to be convinced of the "fun" of said scramble and demand the owners of the theatre damned well print numbers on their tickets. Its not as if the Tricycle is the Albert Hall, for chrissakes - it seats about 15. Or that's what it feels like. There's a small balcony (constructed of scaffolding) over which people flop like they're part of a Punch and Judy show, leading one of the more vocal idiots behind me to start a loud conversation with her friends about "ooooh, its just like being at the Globe! Have you ever been to the Globe? We have. Oh, what fun!" No, madam, its not like being at the Globe. The Globe performs Shakespeare, its not just off Kilburn High Road and its clientele dont perch their oversized bottoms on the backrest of your seat while they witter on to Judith and Manny from the Bridge Club, so sit down and belt up before I stick your umbrella where the sun dont' shine.

*Takes deep breath* OK, having got that off my chest...As I said, I really tried to like this. I was actually looking forward to it. But after 10 minutes or so, I was sitting there losing the will to live. Around me, the entire audience were practically screaming with laughter like hyaenas on LSD, fanning themselves with the programmes and gasping for breath, while I sat there increasingly bewildered, cross and completely unable to see what was so funny. OK, the script is quite amusing, that I will concede - but it was played so broad that, for me, it came perilously close to farce. There was more mugging on stage than you'd get on a Saturday night in a pub full of hoodies. Eyebrows were raised constantly (usually at the end of a line and with the dialogue given an upward inflexion) to such an extent that I thought they might fall off. The only thing that was missing was a sign saying "Funny line!" This show has a well written, intelligent and interesting script and, given the calibre of some of the performances, could be far better, wittier, cleverer and much more interesting if the performances were "pulled back" by about 75%. When you have a good script, entertaining worth listening to, dealing with a subject you know a bit about and enjoy and full of ideas, you don't need a custard pie in the face accompanied by "Wah waaah waaaaah waaaaaaaaah" from the orchestra pit (not that there was an orchestra pit, you understand - fortunately, for Him Indoors insisted on sitting in the middle of the front row so that I had to crane my neck up to see the stage and saw lots of the actors' nasal hair and not much else).

And then, of course, the three writers decide to lock themselves in the office for five days, with only huge piles of bananas and peanuts to sustain themselves. Cue dozens of rubber "banana skins" being hurled over the set during the blackout, with several bags of monkey nuts strewed about. At this point, the audience went into such paroxysms of hysteria ("Oh, Rachael, look! They're throwing banana skins about!") that I thought someone was going to do permanent damage to their colostomy bag. Thankfully, the performances became slightly more subdued and natural half way through Act 2, and the dialogue began to show itself for what it was - interesting, well written and with a lot to say about the film industry and the writing process. But, by then, I had more or less given up the will to live.

The best person on stage was Andy Nyman, playing David Selznick - but only during the moments when he wasn't gurning, flailing about, screeching or generally over-acting. I just wanted to slap Duncan Bell, guilty of all the above in spades. All that he was missing was a Whoopee Cushion and his performance would have been complete.

The title "Moonlight and Magnolias" is a quotation from the film (it doesnt appear in the book, giving the lie to the play's assertion that only Mitchell's original dialogue was used) - Rhett, having realised that Scarlett is trying to pull a fast one on him to get his money while he's in jail, says "You can drop the moonlight and magnolias, Scarlett, because it isn't working". And Moonlight and Magnolias didn't work for me either.

What the critics said:

All the critics were universally adoring (god only knows why) about this production - so much so that I really didn't see the point of putting any links. If you're that interested, go Google.

12 July 2008

Marguerite – Theatre Royal, Haymarket, Friday 11th July 2008


Marguerite is the beautiful and notorious mistress of a high ranking German officer. Armand is a young musician half her age who falls obsessively in love with her. Their dangerous love story is played out against the background ofOccupied Paris.

First there was La Dame aux Camellias (a novel). Then came La Traviata (an opera), followed by Camille (a film), followed by Marguerite and Armand (a ballet), then Moulin Rouge (a stage musical, later turned into a film). Now we have Marguerite, (billed as an “adult musical”) – the latest incarnation of a story that has been doing the rounds ever since God was a boy. Do we really need it? Do we really need another doomed romance set against the backdrop of Occupied France with a chorus of French Collaborators, Nasty Nazis and members of the Resistance? Do we really need one more version of the tragically misunderstood tart with a heart coughing her guts up in a red frock? From the sound of the rather lukewarm applause this production received, I would say that the answer is probably no. The whole exercise just seemed rather… pointless, really. There’s nothing new to be said, the story’s been told. Making Marguerite the mistress of a high-ranking Nazi and Armand the piano player in a cabaret band which consists of him, his little sister (in the Resistance) and her Jewish boyfriend is frankly trying to pad out the story with extra layers of “Who’s going to get hurt?” and playing on our Secret Army/Schindler’s List/Sophie’s Choice fetish. Not to ruin the plot, Marguerite sets up the Nasty Nazi so that the Resistance can murder him, but of course, nobody realises that she's behind it until its too late..... Its just Romeo and Juliet all over again, with a bit of Cinderella thrown in for good measure (you know, unrecognised virtue and all that). Add some wildly atonal music, pitched way too high for the leading lady and that makes everybody else sound like they are having major note-pitching problems, and you're in trouble of losing your audience.

There were some high spots – Julian Ovenden made a stunning Armand, easily hitting notes so high and sustained that several bats fell out of the roof. The producer got the whole package here – shoulders to die for, boyish good looks, a fantastic voice and acting skills too. The only problem was that I found him just a little bit too anodyne to be truly convincing – a little more fire in the belly was needed, I think – because he mainly came across more as being Michael Ball than a passionate, artistic, tortured soul. And a costume note for the Director – men with shoulders and abs like that don’t keep their vest on while shagging. Alexander Hanson was smoothly and believably evil as Otto, the Nasty Nazi, making one wonder why he couldn’t have brought more to the role of Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music a couple of years back. The rest of the cast struggled to overcome the sheer cardboardness of their roles – Plucky Bicycle Riding Jews With Pigtails, Arrogant Profiteer etc – to really make an impact, although Annalene Beechey did sing really well as Annette (the plucky bicycle riding Jew with pigtails).

And Ruthie – what of Ruthie? Well, I run into difficulty here. For me, Ruthie is usually one of the residents of the They Who Can Do No Wrong hall of fame, and it feels slightly disloyal to run her performance down. But she sounded strained, as if the role was too high for her, and seemed to be relying on gawky, slightly faded charm rather than the glamour which the role demands. I dunno – maybe this is the wrong vehicle for her, or maybe I was just so generally disenchanted with the “seen it/heard it/bought the T shirt” aspect of the evening that she failed to ignite the usual sparks of adoration.

At the end, the audience reaction was slightly too OTT to be quite credible this far into the show’s run, leading me to think that the house had been slightly “papered” (filled out with people on complementary tickets), and the game of “Boo The Nazi Baddie When He Takes His Bow At The End” a bit naff. I won’t be rushing to see this again.

What the critics thought:


SIX POUNDS? Now come on, I know that the last time I went to the Haymarket they were charging £4.00, which was bad enough (see my review for The Lady from Dubuque as I believe I may have commented there on the price of the programme) – but SIX?? I even saw an American reel back white-faced from a programme seller; he finally managed to croak “Don’t you have any cheaper ones?” As he’d paid nearly $100 for his seat, even I felt a slight sympathy for the bloke – but not that much; if you're a broke but canny theatre-goer, there are ways and means....
Honestly, without wanting to rant on about this (oh, alright then, you persuaded me), its an economic downturn, for chrissakes. If you want to pack your theatre out with punters, then its no good making a night out financially beyond Mr. and Mrs. Joe Public. Add on a couple of interval drinks and maybe an ice-cream, plus your travel costs there and back and you’re not looking at much (if any) change from £150 – and that’s before you’ve had anything to eat (mind you, this is probably why The Stockpot in Panton Street was heaving with punters; it may not be Gordon Ramsey and the waitress looked like she had just clambered out of the big wicker hamper marked “Muppet Show Rejects”, but money’s money). I remember the days when you could get a programme and an orange squash for 3d and still have change for a fish supper on the way home. Catherine Tate has recently said much the same thing – about ticket prices, not about fish suppers – and although the cynical part of me thinks that it was merely a plugging device (“Catherine Tate, star of Doctor Who, who is shortly appearing in whatever it is at the Doobry Theatre, lashed out at high ticket prices today….”), what she says is very true, and never truer when we’re all having to give up the third foreign holiday, pull the sprog out of drama school and get him a job on the Pick’n’Mix Counter at Woolworths and drink tap water in restaurants just in order to pay the friggin’ gas bill.

Oh yes, it’s a very nice programme – big, glossy, 12 pages of colour photographs, three pretentious background articles of the kind that one normally finds in programmes at the National Theatre, just the sort of souvenir that I’d be happy to have of something like The Sound of Music or Wicked – but I baulk at paying £6.00 for a “souvenir programme” of yet another rehash of La Dame aux bloody Camellias. Even the Royal Opera House doesn’t charge that much.
OK, I know putting on a show isn’t cheap, especially if there’s an orchestra in the pit to pay for as well, but come on, producers, why not pile it high and sell it cheap? Otherwise, you run the risk of half empty houses, a “papered” auditorium or a much shorter run than you would like. None of which are good for the business. Even though its recently been reported that sales of tickets for big musicals are booming (mainly thanks to I’d Do Anything to Solve a Problem Like Joseph Lloyd-Webber and all its wretched progeny), I don’t see why we punters should be bled dry just because we want something to read in the interval. Mind you, there’s an opening there for some savvy east end would-be entrepreneur – setting up shop outside renting out programmes, two pahnd a shot guvner, twenny percent discahnt if you bring it back at ‘arf time, extra fifty pee reduction if it ain’t all covered in greasy fingermarks, one for the missus as well? There’s an episode of “The Apprentice” there somewhere.