24 October 2009

Beauty and the Beast – Churchill Theatre Bromley, Thursday 22nd October 2009

Synopsis: I'm sure you know, and if you don't you should be ashamed of yourself!

Beast – Shaun Dalton
Belle – Ashley Oliver
Gaston – Ben Harlow
LeFou – Eddie Dredge
Maurice – Richard Colson
Mrs. Potts – Sarah Louise Day (understudy)
Cogsworth – Ashley Knight
Lumiere – Phil Barley
Wardrobe – Laura Barrie
Feather Duster – Sophia Thierens
Rug – Chris Cage
Monsieur D’Arque – Daniel Page

Creative Team:
Director/Choreographer – Alison Pollard
Set – Gareth Williams
Costumes – Elizabeth Dennis
Lighting – David Howe

From Broadway to Bromley – how are the mighty fallen! The No. 1 Disney production of this tale “as old as time” (an epithet which could be used about the “girl” playing Belle yesterday), having toured the provinces to the delight of little girls in yellow polyester ballgowns for what seems like an eternity is now being farmed out to touring companies who usually produce “all-star” pantomimes at venues such as the Anvil Theatre Basingstoke and the Grand Pavilion, Rhyl. “UK Productions” is run by two slightly dodgy-looking blokes who look like distant relatives of the Kray Brothers in their programme photos. There’s nothing “all-star” about this Beauty and the Beast – Belle’s biography reveals that “in 2006 [she] featured in a commercial stills photoshoot for Bishop’s Finger Beer” – so not quite Elaine Paige then.

Still, this was a reasonably good, if slightly work-a-day production of something I still wish I had seen when it was on in the West End. If it hadn’t been played quite so cartoony though, it would have been heaps better. Beauty and the Beast is actually quite a dark story (most fairytales are), and this was very firmly aimed towards the very young members of the audience who have spent hours plonked in front of the DVD while their mothers are busy painting the scuffmarks on their white stilettos with tippex. Most of them spent much of the performance screaming (the children, not their mothers). The show veered dangerously towards panto during the first half – scenery and direction for the opening chorus seemed lifted direct from something like Mother Goose, and Gaston and LeFou were played as classic panto villain and sidekick, complete with “comedy” sound effects while trading not-very-convincing blows. I was left thinking that it could have been played a lot more “down the middle”, which would have appealed to a broader range of audiences. Mind you, this didn’t seem to bother the gaggle of Bromley-ettes sitting next to us who spent the entire show with their shoes off and bare feet firmly plonked on the edge of the balcony rail. One of the major criticisms of Disney is that it always goes for the sugary goo in stories and downplays any darker nuances, and the sugary goo is applied with a bucket here to the entire production’s detriment. Its basically a cheesy version of the already-cheesy film version.
There was only one point when the creepy, slightly gothic nature of the story rose though the gloop (and interestingly its an aspect that never appeared in the film) – at several points, the staff of the castle comment on and worry about how they are gradually changing from people into inanimate objects as the spell progresses, nicely reflected in the script and in minor costume alterations – at one point, Cogsworth acquires a key sticking out of his back and the chambermaid’s hands start turning into feather dusters. Its commented on that one of the minor flunkeys is so obsequious that he’s turning into a doormat. It would have been good if this idea had been developed further, along the lines of the Birmingham Royal Ballet production I saw and reviewed in October 2008. However, the idea of giving the wardrobe a back story and making her into a faded opera singer makes little sense – what is an opera singer doing hanging around a royal castle? Still, it gives Cogsworth someone to pair off with at the end, I suppose, and of course everyone must have someone to hold hands with at the curtain call in Pantoland.

For some reason, the second act was played considerably “straighter” than the first, and this improved the production no end. Belle’s feeling of being “different” – she’s described in the programme as being thought odd by the villagers as she prefers books to boys – could have been pointed up and made more of, and would have chimed in nicely with the Beast’s problem of being perceived as something “different” because of the way he looks. Instead, we got the usual wide-eyed Disney heroine whose worries about being thought different are no more than a slight wisp of cloud in an otherwise clear and untroubled sky. Still, its easier to go for saccharine than psychology, isn’t it?

Set changes were impressively slick throughout, although there were a troubling number of front-and back-projections, which achieve nothing but blur the dividing line between live theatre and film, meaning trouble ahead for the next generation of theatre set designers who will find it increasingly difficult to find work, and easy times ahead for directors who will use projections as a lazy option. Some of the special effects were impressive – petals falling off the enchanted rose, the transformation of the Beast back into a human (although it was painfully obvious that there were two people wearing Beast costumes at one point, one keeping his face very obviously hidden and having his dialogue miked over the sound system).

Of the performances, I have to say that Ben Harlow was dreadful as Gaston. Yes, he had the biceps required, but where Gaston should be burly, boneheaded, baritone and butch, Harlow was stringy, soprano and sissy, milking the role for camp comedy value rather than having that “you lookin’ at me, mate?” arrogance that physically beefy but dunderheaded men have when they feel that their brawn is being outclassed by brain. He was obviously cast for his strange but unique ability of being able to grin exactly like a Cheshire cat and show off acres of teeth. He didn’t come across as being any kind of villain and consequently his demise at the end of the show didn’t really register. Ashley Oliver was OK as Belle – if rather too long in the tooth and she has an irritatingly squeaky speaking voice, pitched just below the range at which dogs start to whine. Sarah Louise Day did OK as Mrs. Potts considering that she’s the show’s “Swing” – theatrespeak for someone who understudies any part that needs understudying, whether principal, chorus member or dancer, but played it too young to be the kind of wrinkled motherly influence that Angela Lansbury achieved in the film. She also *gasp* CUT the second verse of Tale as Old as Time at which point I almost demanded my money back. Ashley Knight seemed a bit tired as Cogsworth; very slow to pick up on cues. The banter between Cogsworth and Lumiere should snap back and forth as the two friends try and top each other intellectually, and I felt that this wasn’t happening. Even Phil Barley as Lumiere didn’t seem quite on top form, although he was far and away the best person on the stage; I thought that many of the lines were just thrown away. If the production hadn’t been pitched at the very low intellectual level, perhaps he might have put in a bit more effort. But then Thursday afternoon in Bromley, a week before half-term (bad timing, UK Productions!) isn’t exactly going to be a cerebral fantasmagoria.

02 October 2009

Annie, Get Your Gun! - Young Vic, Saturday 3rd October 2009


When the traveling Buffalo Bill's Wild West show visits Cincinnati, Ohio, Frank Butler, the show's handsome, womanizing star challenges anyone in town to a shooting match. Foster Wilson, a local hotel owner, doesn't appreciate the Wild West Show taking over his hotel, so Frank gives him a side bet of one hundred dollars on the match. Annie Oakley enters and shoots a bird off Dolly Tate's hat, and then explains her simple backwoods ways. When Wilson learns she's a brilliant shot, he enters her in the shooting match against Frank Butler.

While Annie waits for the match to start, she meets Frank Butler and falls instantly in love with him, not knowing he will be her opponent. When she asks Frank if he likes her, Frank explains that the girl he wants will "wear satin and smell of cologne",. The rough and naive Annie comically laments that "You Can't Get a Man with a Gun". At the shooting match, Annie finds out that Frank is the "big swollen-headed stiff" from the Wild West Show. She wins the contest, and Buffalo Bill and Charlie Davenport, the show's manager, invite Annie to join the Wild West Show. Annie agrees because she loves Frank even though she has no idea what "show business" is. Frank, Charlie, Buffalo Bill, and everyone explain that "There's No Business Like Show Business."

Over the course of working together, Frank becomes enamoured of the plain-spoken, honest and tomboyish Annie and, as they travel to Minneapolis, Minnesota on a train, he explains to her what "love" is. Buffalo Bill and Charlie find out that the rival show, Pawnee Bill's Far East Show, will be playing in Saint Paul, Minnesota while the Wild West Show plays in nearby Minneapolis. They ask Annie to do a special shooting trick on a motorcycle in Minneapolis to draw Pawnee Bill's business away. Annie agrees, since the trick will surprise Frank.

As Annie and Frank prepare for the show, Frank plans to propose to Annie after the show. When Annie performs her trick and becomes a star, Chief Sitting Bull adopts her into the Sioux tribe. Frank is hurt and angry, and he walks out on Annie and the show, joining the competing Pawnee Bill's show.

The Buffalo Bill show tours Europe with Annie as the star, but the show goes broke, as does Pawnee Bill's show with Frank. Annie, now well-dressed and more refined and worldly, still longs for Frank. Frank and Pawnee Bill plot a merger of the two companies, each assuming the other has the money necessary for the merger. They all meet at a grand reception, where they soon discover both shows are broke. Annie, however, has received sharpshooting medals from all the rulers of Europe worth one hundred thousand dollars, and she decides to sell the medals to finance the merger, rejoicing in the simple things.

When Frank appears, he and Annie confess their love and decide to marry, although with comically different ideas: Frank wants "some little chapel," while Annie wants "a big church with bridesmaids and flower girls". When Annie shows Frank her medals, Frank again has his pride hurt, and they call off the merger and the wedding. They agree to one last shooting duel. Annie deliberately loses to Frank to soothe his ego, and they finally reconcile, deciding to marry and merge the shows.

Creative Team:
Director: Richard Jones
Choreography: Phillip Gireaudeau
Costumes: Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting: Mimi Jordan Sherin
Musical Arrangements: Jason Carr
Sitting Bull - Niall Ashdown
Annie Oakley - Jane Horrocks
Pawnee Bill - Eric MacLennan
Charlie - John Marquez
Frank - Julian Ovenden
Dolly - Lisa Sadovy
Buffalo Bill - Chucky Venn
The evening didn’t get off to a great start. Thanks to the Young Vic’s unreserved seating policy (booooo!), the queue was through the bar, up the stairs, round the corner, through the ticket hall and into the street, doubling back on itself several times, and threatening to merge with the queue for returns for Inherit the Wind up the road at the Old Vic. Anyone wanting to get a drink or go to the toilet would probably have needed an Indian scout to guide them through the crush. Getting to the cloakroom was like being at Custer’s Last (Hat) Stand. And anyone trying to track the footprints of the Programme Seller through the underbrush would have been severely disappointed as, although this show has been previewing for a week or so, they still hadnt arrived from the printers, which I think is disgraceful. There’s a strange sign right outside the auditorium saying “Annie Get Your Gun Downstairs” – a new fringe production, perhaps? Or an instruction? Whatever it means, its nonsensical as there are no stairs, unless it refers to the stairs up to the balcony, in which case the sign is in the wrong place. The chaos continued inside, where there were a lot of Excuse me, is anyone sitting here? conversations going on and lots of staff saying to people Can you move up?. At one point, cramming everyone in got so complicated that the staff were sending smoke signals across the auditorium to each other while trying to clear enough space for a party of six that had arrived slightly late. And then, two minutes after the curtain (vile mustard-yellow polyester and too long) was supposed to go up, one of the staff arrived carrying a big pile of photocopied sheets with the cast list and production team credits on, stood right at the front to hand them out and several small children, a pensioner and two gay men in plaid shirts were trampled to death in the crush. In fact, not so much Annie Get Your Gun as Annie Get Your Act Together.

The first major shock of the evening was that there was no orchestra, just four upright pianos ranged across the front of the stage where the orchestra pit wasn’t. . This, I suppose, gave the whole evening a folksy, Wild West (or “cheap”, depending on your point of view) feeling, reflecting the period in which the show is usually set. It was a novelty to begin with, but means that you miss out on all of Irving Berlin’s fantastic orchestrations, as well as making all the music seem rather thin and shoddy. Annie Get Your Gun was written in 1946, at the height of the American love affair with the Musical, and having only four pianos pounding away at what should be a lush, razzamatazz score (this is a show about “Show Business” remember) just feels so wrong.

The lights went down (in fact, the lights went up – they were chandeliers made of wagon wheels on ropes which were heaved on by members of the theatre staff – talk about “no frills”). The cheap mustard polyester curtains opened (as they were too long, this meant they swept across the fronts of the pianos – at least one of the pianists had to make a grab for their sheet music as the curtain went past) and the big shock of the night was revealed – this production isnt set in the fabled Wild West of vaguely 1890, but in a vague amalgam of the 1940s and 50s – the time the show was written, rather than the one its set in. This contrasted strangely with the “four pianos and wagon wheel chandeliers” set-up of the auditorium, and makes complete nonsense of a story featuring historical characters such as Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill and Chief Sitting Bull. In fact, the confusion permeates the entre show – the entre’act, depicting Annie’s triumphal tour of Europe, is a projected film incorporating Annie into historic filmreels featuring Winston Churchill (Prime Minister of the UK 1940 – 45 and 1951 – 55), Ghandi (died early 1948), Hitler (dead by 1945) and Chairman Mao and his Little Red Book (published 1964). Part of Act 2, to go by the costumes, is set sometime in the 50s. Was this the director telling us that the story is timeless, or are there shocking great holes in his “concept”?

Another shock is that the stage is only about eight feet deep, presumably because the auditorium has been designed in a way as to get as many rows of seats in as possible. This means that everything is very linear, lots of straight lines and absolutely no room to dance. The director had a cunning plan to get round this last problem – not having a single dance routine in the entire show. Sorry, but when you’ve got no dancing in numbers like No Business Like Show Business you really do start to feel terribly cheated. As I’ve said before, the entire show is about show business, and this production has practically no show-biz in it whatsoever. The set is almost without exception dreary, there's a see-through swing door plonked right in the middle which is very annoying and terribly over-used, and there's a strange upper level to the set giving a small room "upstairs"; thankfully this isnt used very much because practically nobody sitting left of centre out front can see into it. Horribly, the very final scene between Frank and Annie takes place in this and half the audience couldn't see what they were doing.

The lack of pazzaz and sparkle even extends to the cast. Yes, Jane Horrocks is charmingly kooky, and her interpretation entertains for a while, but she’s not a big enough personality to bring the thing off. I have sympathy for her - doing this part must be like playing Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Every actress who plays this part has to wrestle with the ghost of Edith Evans, and every actress who plays Annie Oakley has to wrestle with the ghost of Ethel Merman, and also the recent memory of Bernadette Peters in the Broadway production. Horrocks just can’t cut it – there isnt enough theatrical weight behind her and Merman wins by at least three falls and a submission, if not a total Knock-Out. There’s also far too much reliance on Horrocks’s established stage persona – slightly Northern vowel sounds, crossed eyes and pursed up lips, which gets tiring after a while - and she doesn’t scrub up well enough to make the transition to glamorous leading lady in Act 2 (although there is a huge, unintentional laugh during Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better when she sings about how well she fills her girdle – Horrocks’s chest is like two peas on an ironing board). Lots of the second act looked horribly under-rehearsed.

Chucky Vennis a complete failure as Buffalo Bill. Not only can he not sing a note, he can’t act, is the wrong ethnicity (yes, I know its called “Integrated Casting” but Buffalo Bill was NOT black), is far too young for the part and is even the wrong body type. We all know what Buffalo Bill should like like – Howard Keel. Big and burly with long white hair and a big droopy moustache. Big Chief Sitting Bull is played here by Niall Ashdown, a tall, pasty-faced caucasian wearing a dreadful “Injun” wig that makes him look like Fenella Fielding in Carry On Screaming (and while I’m on the subject of bad wigs, the ladies in the chorus wear the worst-dressed wigs I’ve ever seen on stage – hideous!).

Still on the subject of hair, the book has also been scalped. There’s an entire romantic sub-plot gone missing somewhere as two major supporting characters have been cut out. A lot of their lines and one of their songs (which has been moved to the second act and, frankly, should have been cut completely) have been given to John Marquez as Charlie and Lisa Sadovy as Dolly. Now, here I change gear slightly and praise something. Marquez is completely wonderful, and is a joy to watch (as he was in The Good Woman of Schechuan at this venue last year. He plays his part with a great Noo Yoick accent, has total mastery of comic timing and could easily play one of the gangsters in Kiss Me Kate, so perfect is his characterisation. Sadvoy however, is far too old for her role, is deeply annoying and looks hideous in her red fright wig. I rather wish that Jane Horrocks had missed the bird on her hat and blown her head off instead.
Julian Ovenden, though looking eerily like a very young John Barrowman, was a brilliant, if not definitive Frank - very sexy in a veritable parade of increasingly OTT cowboy shirts and, finally, a pair of trousers so tight that you could almost read the cleaning instructions. However, it seemed that some of the songs hadnt been transposed for his tenor voice (Frank is usually a baritone, or even a bass-baritone) and there were a couple of occasions when he had to jump up from the register he was singing into one in which he was more comfortable. Ironically, this was most obvious in the song that Jane Horrocks was also having trouble pitching - in this case though it was written too high and she had to keep swooping down. He has great stage presence, great hair, a great voice and a great bod - its only a shame that he hasn't got a great Annie Oakley.
All in all, it was a spectacularly disappointing evening, and I came away feeling really cheated of what should have been a night full of escapism, great show choonz and outrageous costumes. The production was mildly entertaining, but completely ran out of steam very early on in the second act. I was forced to do my Ethel Merman impression on the train on the way home to compensate for such a dreary evening. And if you've never heard They Say That Falling in Love is Wonderful sung by a 6'4" bloke on the 2325 Waterloo East to Mottimgham then honey, you ain't lived.

What the critics said: