CFT production goes to the heart of Kane’s scream of despair
Four actors are standing on four travelators which are in reverse so their characters are constantly having to move forward. While in constant motion, they face front and speak, usually in a staccato sound, often in short single sentences or phrases, some of them repeated. It sounds like a spray of bullets from a machine gun.
They seem to be talking to you but they may also be talking to each other or to no-one. The travelators keep them separate, even if they are communicating, so the effect is of isolation.
Is it all the stream of consciousness of one person? Are they all dead or on their deathbeds facing a form of judgement day? There is no plot, no clear relationships, not even clearly defined characters. As someone says at one point: ‘If this makes no sense, then you understood it perfectly’. So I think I must have understood it perfectly. No matter. I certainly found it engrossing.
Chichester Festival Theatre’s artistic director Daniel Evans talked in his interview with me about seeing Crave in a new light because of the isolation we are all feeling at the moment. I’m sure this is true, but the director Tinuke Craig seems to have got beyond the lockdown resonance to the very heart of this play, because it’s not only about the loneliness but also the darkness of human existence.
When she wrote the play Sarah Kane offered no help in how to stage her text. It has been done in many ways, for example with the characters together in a room, but Tinuke Craig’s decision to stage Crave in this way, both in concept and the realisation in Alex Lowde’s set is genius, even if it may have triggered by the requirements of social distancing. These anonymous traumatised characters are truly isolated and stuck on their own relentless path – “Here I am in the darkness again,’ says one. ‘On the edge of nothing’ comes the liturgical response.
You wouldn’t be surprised if this was a play by Samuel Beckett except there is none of the hope and courage that his characters show in the face of their futile situations. Here there seems to be only despair at the human condition.
I found myself deeply disturbed by this bleak view of life but could perhaps have been more moved if Kane had made her characters more like real people that I could connect with. However, I hesitate to call this a failure on her part as I assume it was a deliberate decision to disconnect them emotionally from those watching, just as they have no names, only letters A, B, C and M .
So much of what they say you might generously call aphorisms , like ‘no-one
survives life’, and there are echoes of other works. That’s not a criticism. The borrowing reminded me of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land. I think the poetry of this piece- and it is a poem- is not only in what is said but how it’s said. During the play someone describes poetry as ‘language for its own sake’ but the language of this poem has a kind of jagged beauty because, within its cadence, words about need and rejection constantly jab at you. And every so often a line really brings you up short, like: ‘What I sometimes mistake for ecstasy is the absence of grief.’
The actors were impressive. Neediness and desperation pervaded all that they did. Some of what they talked about was very upsetting. Erin Doherty‘s character referred in a sometimes strangulated voice to the rape and abuse she had received and talked about her poor self image. Jonathan Slinger’s character first announced he was a paedophile which then coloured a subsequent long and touching monologue about love which itself was later contradicted by his nasty cynicism. Alfred Enoch and Wendy Kweh as well, it was a bravura performance by all concerned.
‘A horror so deep only ritual can contain it’
The sound, composed by Anna Clock, comprised sawing, disjointed, low notes played on, I think, a cello. It was discomfiting but in just the right way. And Ravi Deepres’ back-projected film of images of the characters, sometimes negative or blurred, added rather than distracted. I was particularly struck by a close up of Erin Doherty’s face and the words ‘What have they done to me’ gradually appearing in writing on her skin.
When one character talked of ‘a horror so deep only ritual can contain it’, I thought of the horrors that were being contained on this occasion because they were being presented within the ritual of a play. And when I say contained, I mean only just. At the end, in quite biblical language, the characters embrace the freedom of death, and the play ends with a blackout. I was left totally wrung out.
About the transmission. The process of logging in to view the event was straightforward and I was pleased that I was able to sit back and watch it on my telly with good picture quality rather than on blurry Zoom or the small screen of my laptop. The live broadcast went without a hitch when I saw it. We had front views, side views and close ups but in a way that enhanced the performance. The way the production was done had the advantage that, although it was a theatre show, but it didn’t look like a film of a stage play because it could also be a movie about four people trapped in any empty space. Congratulations all round.
Performances of Crave are being live streamed until the 7th of November. Tickets from £10 at cft.org.uk
First things first, Brian Friel’s 1979 play Faith Healer is a masterpiece. The question is, did this production streamed live from the Old Vic via Zoom do it justice? Sadly, the answer is, no.
Not because the acting wasn’t good, it was great. Michael Sheen was charismatic as the touring faith healer Frank Hardy describing unreliably events from his hit-and-miss performances in village halls. Indira Varma as Grace his brittle depressed partner gave us a different and hugely poignant version of events including a lost baby. His agent Teddy, so much a showbiz cliché when described by Frank, seen in David Threlfall’s amusing portrayal as a sensitive, caring man beneath his convivial and somewhat seedy exterior. Both have given up a lot to support Frank and it is through them as much as by seeing Frank himself that we appreciate he has an inspiring gift despite his apparent cruelty.
At first glance, Faith Healer would seem ideal for our social distanced times comprising as it does of four monologues, bookended by Frank. However watching a small screen for nearly two-and-a-half hours without a break is too much. The Health and Safety Executive advises a break from a computer screen every hour.
In the theatre, out of the comfort zone of home, and with the actors physically in front of you, it’s much easier to concentrate. Zoom works wonderfully for shorter monologues such as the previous Three Kings with Andrew Scott that came in in under an hour.
Michael Sheen, Indira Varma and David Threlfall are a dream cast
Sometimes the filming worked as when Michael Sheen emerged in silhouette from the darkness all shabby and funereal or when David Threlfall sat in his comfy chair in the middle of emptiness, but against that there was a use of close-ups which were so close up that they took away the sense of theatrical performance, and made it more like a TV drama.
The play is all about the words. And it’s a dream cast delivering them. Also, how great to see a play that doesn’t need a massive set or special effects to make its point. The poetic words prove to be as glittery and slippery as a live fish. They are whatever the speaker wants to believe or wants to make us believe. All teh characters are telling us stories but what is fact and what is fiction? The more we hear, the less we know. Did healings take place or didn’t they? Is Grace Frank’s wife or mistress, from Yorkshire or Ireland? Who chose the music to play at the performances? Where did Frank’s mother die? Are they all ghosts?
Faith healing is itself a performance and we can see that it relates very much to art. Just as Frank is tortured by not knowing know where his gift comes from and whether it will manifest itself any particular evening, so the artist, be it a playwright, an actor or some other creative person, is uncertain about why sometimes they get it right and sometimes they don’t. And when we go the theatre, we all have to have faith or to put a more familiar way, suspend disbelief.
So, a great play, great acting… just not the medium for it.
Faith Healer was performed at the Old Vic and streamed on Zoom from 17 – 20 September 2020
If you’re worried that a musical couldn’t do justice to the classic film Sleepless In Seattle, don’t be. Sleepless does pretty much all you would hope from it and more.
Okay, Jay McGuiness and Kimberley Walsh are not Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. However what makes Hollywood stars great is their ability to convey their thoughts and feelings through their faces in close up. The composer Alan Menken said songs in a musical substitute for close ups when it comes to revealing character. And the songs by Robert Scott and Brendon Cull are both charming and do the job.
Jay McGuinness and Kimberley Walsh perform well, especially the latter as Annie who is the full package of acting, singing and dancing. Jay McGuinness as Sam is also impressive and very likeable but I felt his inexperience as an actor showed a little bit in the more emotional moments.
Now, you’ll remember the plot but just in case… A widower in Seattle can’t sleep and his son gets him on a late night radio show to talk about his situation. He’s heard by a journalist in Baltimore and she is one of many thousands who are moved by what he said. He receives a letter from her. She invites him to meet her at the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. If you haven’t seen the film, I won’t give away the ending (and best not look at the production photo).
That subtitle A Musical Romance is interesting because this is not only a romantic musical, it’s a romance about musicals. Nora Ephron’s movie, although set in 1993, harks back to the films of the 1950s and in particular An Affair To Remember starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr (or it Carr, as the characters keep saying). So does this show. It is a tribute to the musicals of that time. Just as the film has a soundtrack of songs from the swing jazz era, the songs here are a homage to the hits of that time- you can almost hear Frank Sinatra singing some of them. The costumes by Sue Simmerling are technicolored. There is a joy in language in Michael Burdette’s book.
You may be aware that I’ve been doing a podcast History of Stage Musicals for Box Office Radio so I’ve been steeped in the very best of the so-called Golden Age Of Musicals. While it may not plumb the depths of South Pacific or hit the heights of Gypsy, Sleepless is an uplifting musical and the creators’ love of that period really comes across.
Where Sleepless falls down is that it sticks too closely to the plot of the film. The first half is all about setting up for the second half. While that’s quite normal, Sam probably wouldn’t have had his problem with sleeplessness if he’d watched this first act late at night. It really needed an additional subplot or at least some dancing to spice up the proceedings. I was probably naïve to expect the show to be sprinkled with dance numbers but it does star two Strictly Come Dancing alumni. Also, it’s a long time since I went to a musical that didn’t feature lots of dancing.
There’s plenty of smooth jazz style walking from the chorus and the odd moment of where emotion is expressed through movement. That includes a comedy duet between Sam’s son and his friend. The only ‘proper’ dance is during the curtain call when our two stars show that they still remember their Strictly moves.
There is good support from Daniel Casey as Annie’s dull fiancé Walter and the splendid Harriet Thorpe as her domineering mother. Tania Mathurin as her extrovert friend Becky and Cory English as Sam’s friend Rob (a new character) inject a healthy dose of comedy.
The set designed by Morgan Large evokes Sam’s job as an architect by using back projections of architectural drawings. In the same vein, the skeleton of a multi-purpose structure dominates centre stage with lots of vertical and horizontal lines. Morgan Young directed this most enjoyable show.
Finally a word about the producers Michael Rose and Damien Sanders. I can’t praise them highly enough or indeed thank them enough for giving audiences starved of live theatre the chance to see this lovely musical, even though at 30% capacity because of social distancing they can’t possibly be making any money out of it. And well done to the Troubadour for their exemplary Covid-19 safety precautions.
Andrew Scott rules in monologue live streamed from Old Vic
So it’s back on the sofa to watch Three Kings with Andrew Scott streaming live on Zoom from the Old Vic stage. It wasn’t the same as being there but there was something exciting about knowing you’re watching Mr Scott perform right at that moment and, as in a visit to the theatre, especially for you.
The play was written by Stephen Beresford especially for Andrew Scott and it did bring out all his best qualities as an actor. Monologues really are nearly the best kind of theatre to show on TV, with that concentration on the face- and what a face. What that man can do with a raised eyebrow, a stifled giggle or an intense stare.
Andrew Scott is Patrick the narrator who tells the story of his relationship with his absentee father. He also plays many other characters and switches between them with dazzling virtuosity, in fact with the deftness of a bar trick known as the three kings.
This involves moving around three coins and we are introduced to it at the beginning and see the puzzle resolved at the end. Patrick is challenged to solve the riddle in exchange for seeing his absent father again. This unfeeling parent has no intention of returning and at the end, when Patrick shows how the trick is done, like all tricks revealed the magic has gone along with any illusions he had about his father. There only remains a question of whether the parent deserves forgiveness. (A question any self-aware parent might ask of themselves, no matter how kind and loving they’ve been.)
The three kings trick also represents three generations who inherit the unpleasant characteristics of the father much as the title of king passes from father to son, because the secret of the trick is that the force of one coin passes on the next and from that to the third.
On a set empty apart from a box that acts as a table and a chair, we meet Patrick as an 8 year old child seeing his absent father for the first time. He conjures up the child’s hope and anxiety beautifully. There is a moment when he betrays his mother to ingratiate himself with this charismatic figure and you see the sheepish look of a child’s face. You also experience the insouciance of this man who cannot love. We meet many other characters: sometimes it’s only a glimpse but all perfectly summed up in a turn of phrase or a gesture.
Patrick becomes a man, talking to his father’s oldest friend. The screen- and you’ve been wondering why it was presented in letterbox style- now splits in two, representing, I think, that Patrick has matured into the next generation, already taking on characteristics of his father, drinking too much, being unemotional, but perhaps more aware of his failings.
There is a further encounter between Patrick and his father. This time he discovers not only has the man remarried but has another son. His ‘longed-for son and heir’, as he puts it. It’s such a blow. Andrew Scott shows us both the casual cruelty of the father’s action and almost simultaneously Patrick’s reaction, as if all the life has gone out of his face .
Patrick meets his half brother, another Patrick, again bringing life to both characters, now across three screens, because we’re learning that this brother is now himself an absentee father to a third generation.
As a director, Matthew Warchus clearly gets the best out of Andrew Scott but I didn’t feel the split screen worked. Admittedly it gave the chance to see him from different angles and created the sense of a conversation, but I found it distracted from that wonderfully expressive face. The thing is, Andrew Scott isn’t separate people when he’s acting these characters, they all exist at once within him and he moves between them with quantum motion, often employing no more than a slow blink or a tightening smile.
If I’ve made it sound like this actor simply has a box of tools or tricks that he draws upon, then all I can say is it’s a very big box indeed and the tool he pulls out is always just right for the job.
Three Kings is a quietly effective look at the way a child attaches themself to a parent or parent figure and how their life can be devastated when they are let down by that person. With no disrespect to the richness of Stephen Beresford’s writing, it was all on one note, lacking lack any highs and lows or unexpected turns. It seemed to me Andrew Scott was lifting a good play into the realms of greatness by the quality of his acting.
Patrick meets his father for a final time when this self-centred man is dying, and hoping for God’s forgiveness. The camera focuses on Andrew Scott’s tearful face as the metaphorical curtain falls.
The five performance run is over but I hope The Old Vic decides to offer the recording to a wider audience and raise some more much-needed income. Keep an eye out for future so-called In Camera productions from the Old Vic– the streaming quality is excellent and the price very reasonable. And if you want to see another monologue by Andrew Scott which is just as emotional and more tense than Three Kings, rent Sea Wall on Vimeo. (Here’s my review of Sea Wall)
Ralph Fiennes mouths David Hare’s righteous anger at Boris Johnson
After five months of being deprived of live theatre, I say all hail the Bridge Theatre for being, as far I’m aware, the first to put on an indoor show. How wonderful I thought not only to see Ralph Fiennes in the flesh but also to get away from the pandemic. Except David Hare’s new play Beat The Devil is about the pandemic.
Sir David caught the virus just before the lockdown and was seriously ill with it and, in this monologue through the medium of Ralph Fiennes, he talks about the progress of his illness and in parallel the actions of the government. As the virus went mad so did the government, he says, or words to that effect.
We’re all too familiar with the failings of our leaders in this crisis but it didn’t harm to be reminded of them. And he does tell both stories with righteous anger and a pleasing wit. On the personal level, there’s his puzzled response to finding that his signature dish tastes so much like sewage that he feels he must have made a mistake in the cooking. Describing the government as ‘mediocre’, he sys, ‘does violence to the word’. Of course, if you feel the government has handled this crisis well or at least no worse than any other government would have done, I realise the polemic may lose some of its impact but it’s still fun.
It greatly helps that the lines trip off Ralph Fiennes‘ tongue so naturally, just as if he is having a conversation with us, albeit a conversation fueled by anger and bemusement. Bunny Christie’s set is admirably simple but effective, being appropriately a desk placed centre stage, which gives Mr Fiennes as the writer something to move round or sit at, under the direction of the incomparable Nicholas Hyntner.
David Hare has been writing plays for fifty years and by comparison with his best- Plenty, Skylight, Pravda, the Absence Of War– this 50 minute memoir may seem slight. It is fair to say that many elements of the public story of the pandemic will be familiar to anyone who follows the news but Sir David’s ability as a writer is undiminished. He can still coin a phrase: ‘it’s a sort of dirty bomb thrown into the body’, or be wryly detached in his descriptions of his illness thereby enabling us to see for ourselves the horror. For that reasons, it’s all the more startling when he lets out his pent up anger. ‘I don’t have survivor’s guilt, I have survivor’s rage,’ he says.
His concludes that what we need is ‘truth’. It seems incredibly potent in its simplicity.
Naturally because he was isolated during his illness, there’s no room for the renewed sense of community that many of us found during lockdown but there is a touching moment of love when he describes how his wife selflessly lay on him to keep him warm.
If anyone doubted the need for the Bridge’s precautions, the vivid description of the disease would surely change their mind. Talking of which, I understand that you might still be hesitant to go to an indoor performance but let me tell you, the safety measures taken by the Bridge Theatre were exemplary- from the controlled entrance to the thermal imaging to the one way system, to having to wear a face mask throughout the visit, to the spaced out seats. I felt totally safe. What was interesting was the way the spacing had been managed. The less than one third capacity audience still produced the atmosphere of a much fuller house.
I hope that, in giving this show four stars, I’m not just intoxicated by finally seeing a live performance. I think not. The proof is, I would happily see it again.
Victoria Hamilton blooms in Mike Bartlett’s play about loss
Sometimes you watch the first act of a play and it’s just the setup and you really want to get it over with so you can move on to how it’s all going to work out. Not so with Mike Bartlett’s Albion, directed by Rupert Goold at the Almeida Theatre, which is currently available as a live recording on BBC iPlayer. The first act is captivating and what follows, while good, never lives up to the promise.
Audrey has bought a house she knew as a child. It had a historic garden and she plans to renovate it. No matter that this involves uprooting her daughter, neglecting her business, upsetting the local community who have become used to using the huge outdoor space for their annual events.
It’s a good script but what you’re riveted by is Victoria Hamilton’s performance. From the start, she grabs you by the lapels, then she puts you down and walks away, then she picks you again. She is mesmerising as she paces back and forth and spits out her staccato sentences, like a neurotic sergeant major. For example, when she is pouring tea and says: ‘Let me be mother…since I am…’ followed by a false, stuttering laugh.
This is the sort of intimate theatre that works really well in a live recording. The Almeida is a small theatre and the cast occupy a three-sided stage. It’s like an oval island surrounded by the audience. Actually, although an island might symbolise its isolation from the rest of the world, it is in fact a garden with a solid tree at one end, giving a sense of history. The actors don’t have to shout and the cameras close in on a face much as you would if you were lucky enough to be sitting in one of the seats.
For me, nothing lived up to that first act. There’s plenty going on with many developments involving the other characters but they felt tacked on, no matter how good the acting was. Not so much multi-layered, as laid on thick. And the ending was way too melodramatic.
What I loved throughout the whole play was the dominating character of Audrey and the way Victoria Hamilton blooms as the wishful gardener. Grief has consumed her and the only way she can cope is to reject everyone and everything in favour of a retreat into an imagined golden age.
She has lost her soldier son in what she sees as defending his country but what is referred to a one point as a ‘folly’. As a way of honouring him, she is determined to recreate the original garden, even though it is now anachronistic. It’s pointed out that the climate has changed- and that ‘climate’ may refer to more than growing conditions, because there is an allegory here for the state of England and how we as a nation are coping with the loss of mythical past glories and with the need to move on.
Audrey wants to return to a bygone age but only within the boundaries of her world. So, she doesn’t care that she is trampling on the traditions of the local people; and she hires the more efficient Polish cleaner (and sacks the local woman who has done the job for years. It is fascinating, shocking even to see the insensitivity that can come from single-mindedness, and her gradual but inevitable disintegration.
It’s also fascinating to see the garden change as flowers grow through the four acts, each of which is a different season, culminating with the ‘fall’. It’s a great design by Miriam Buether.
I glossed over the other characters earlier but that doesn’t mean I don’t think they were acted well. Audrey’s daughter Zara is played by Daisy Edgar-Jones, who recently made a breakthrough to stardom with her role in TV’s Normal People. She is perfect as a troubled twenty something. Helen Schlesinger makes you feel the pain as Katherine, a successful but shy novelist, forced to make a hard choice between a thirty year friendship and a rare opportunity for love.
In a play that is more amusing than funny, Nicholas Rowe as Audrey’s devoted husband Paul got the most laughs as a man so proudly laid back that he was almost horizontal.
It’s hard not to compare Albion with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Unfortrunately, on every count, this play comes out worse. Chekhov’s second half doesn’t peter out, his ending feels real and even his minor characters have depth. So best not go there, better to simply enjoy Albion as a good if not great play with a mother of a leading role that, in future productions, actors will queue up to play.
For me, one of the tests of watching theatre at home is whether I wish I’d seen it in the theatre. In Albion’s case, despite some flaws, I would have loved to have been there. Especially to see that outstanding performance by Victoria Hamilton.
The live recording of Mike Bartlett’s Albion is currently available on BBC i-Player.
Hamilton was filmed during the initial Broadway run. The recording of the live show was meant to saved for later but with theatres dark, the creator Lin-Manuel Miranda decided to make it available now. After some intense bidding, it was Disney+ who secured the rights.
So, these are the questions: If you’ve already seen Hamilton, is this film of the Broadway show worth watching? If you haven’t seen Hamilton, does the film do justice to the stage production? Finally, if you’re not interested in Frozen II and Star Wars, is it worth subscribing to the Disney+ streaming service just to see Hamilton?
The answers, in my opinion, are ‘yes’, ‘yes’ and ‘oh yes’. I’ve been quite critical of live recordings of large scale stage shows as removing the excitement of theatre while being too theatrical for film but, if anything, this is better than the stage show. Of course, you can’t being ‘in the room’ with live actors but here you’re able to appreciate every aspect of this great musical. You can watch a dance sequence from the best seat in the circle, then see the faces of the performers as if you’re in the front row of the stalls.
It doesn’t harm that you get to see the first and quite possibly the best cast, including the writer Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton. His character is driven to make a difference in the world at all cost to his personal life (“I’m not going to waste my shot”). He helps lead the American revolution, which is over before the end of act one, then is one of the founding fathers of the American republic. His single-mindedness makes him enemies leading to political fights that drive the second half. His flaws, as in any great tragedy, lead to his downfall. Thanks to the music, his story is told with excitement, passion, and humour.
There are two other characters who develop through the course of the show. Aaron Burr, beautifully sung and played by Leslie Odom Jr, is the narrator and ‘damn fool who shot him’ as he says of the end of his difficult friendship with Hamilton. He starts off uncommitted but, in a moment of tremendous excitement, realises that the important decisions are being made behind closed doors and he needs to be ‘in the room where it happens’.
Hamilton’s wife Eliza, played with poignancy and the sweetest voice by Phillipa Soo, changes from a love-struck girl through pain to a powerful woman.
There is an excellent supporting cast including Renee Elise Goldberry as Angelica, Eliza’s intelligent, sensual sister who is Hamilton’s love, if not lover. Daveed Diggs is the Marquis de Lafayette and later Thomas Jefferson, both larger than life and played to great comic effect.
The background is the birth of the United States and the midwives are immigrants or the offspring of immigrants. Hamilton himself is an immigrant from a poor background. To underline the point, a mainly non-white cast play the rebels and their musical numbers are Hip-hop, the music of the disadvantaged.
We’re always aware that we are looking back from today. This is emphasised by the use of a narrator and by other asides to the audience. ‘Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?’ is a question asked by the musical, because our view of history changes with each generation. Miranda has said that this is ‘the story of America then told by America now’. We notice the parallels with today. One song says: ‘Immigrants- we get the job done’ to a cheer from the audience.
Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s music is clever, subtle and catchy. It’s no wonder millions have bought the soundtrack who haven’t even seen the show. Hip-Hop dominates but he plunders other genres as needed. For example, when Jefferson returns from France, he sings a jazz song, thus showing that he not only missed the War Of Independenceshows but also a change in musical taste. The love songs exude the pain of love.
Hip-Hop is a terrific dance music and, in the poetic language of rap, Miranda has found the perfect form to tell a story and communicate the thoughts and feelings of his characters.
The original director of the Broadway production Thomas Kail directs the film which means he knows exactly what he wants to put across. Every change of shot, whether a close-up or the whole stage, seems to come at exactly the right moment. I never felt I wanted to be looking somewhere else.
The show looks great too, thanks to set designer David Korins and Paul Tazewell‘s costumes. What a clever idea to remove the female dancers’ voluminous dresses and show off their moves in 18th century underwear.
Well worth a month’s subscription to Disney+ and you get to see Frozen II as well.
Hamilton is streaming on Disney+. When theatres re-open, the British production can be seen at Victoria Palace Theatre, London.
How musicals came to dominate theatre for 90 years
Musical theatre has dominated Broadway and West End stages for nearly a hundred years but there are five musicals that shaped the modern musical. In choosing these five musicals what I’ve tried to look at is not their quality or success at the box office but the way each one brought something innovatory to the musical.
The modern musical followed the footsteps of the European tradition of opera and Gilbert & Sullivan style operetta but it was born in America.
Song-and-dance shows in one guise or another had been produced in New York since the 19th century. These included the racist Minstrel Shows, popular variety shows in which white entertainers ‘blacked up’.
By the late 19th and the early part of the 20th century, Broadway was awash with revues. Many of these spectacular song and dance entertainments were produced by Florenz Ziegfeld under the recurring title of The Ziegfeld Follies. It was an era immortalised by films like 42nd Street and revisited by Stephen Sondheim in his musical Follies.
There were also Musical Comedies. Successors to and to some extent popular rivals to the more middle class operetta, this genre originated in late Victorian London but soon became a staple of the New York stage. They offered lightweight, often banal plots punctuated by brilliant singing and dancing. Think Fred & Ginger movies. It’s a format that’s never completely gone away.
In the Twenties The Jazz Age took hold, inspiring a range of talented composers. Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter and, perhaps the greatest of all, George Gershwin were all part of the Broadway scene, penning songs for revues and comedies. It was probably the most prolific period in Broadways’s history. In 1927 alone, fifty musicals were launched.
One of them launched what we know as the modern musical, or musical theatre. It was the first major musical show to feature a proper drama- and incidentally it was Florenz Ziegfeld who brought it to Broadway.
1. Show Boat
From 1912 onwards, Jerome Kern had written many musical comedies into which he brought more complex believable plots, but what he needed was a lyricist to match his vision. Then he met Oscar Hammerstein II. In 1927 they wrote Show Boat and set the template for the next 90 years of so-called ‘book musicals’, that is to say, musicals with a believable narrative and realistic dialogue. And this certainly was a serious story: it encompassed alcoholism, racism and marital conflict.
Thus the musical became a vehicle to support and enhance drama, just as opera does. As Leonard Bernstein said: ‘Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.’ As well as covering racial themes, Show Boat was the first musical show in which both black and white performers appeared and sang on stage together. And the first to feature an inter-racial marriage.
Songs drove the drama and included Ol’ Man River and Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.
Other weighty musicals followed. Of Thee I Sing, a political satire from 1931 by George and Ira Gershwin, won the Pulitzer Prize. Four years later, the Gershwins along with librettist Dubose Hayward created Porgy And Bess. George Gershwin decided it would be appropriate to use African-American folk music- spirituals and folk songs with a jazz-like feel. The use of popular music and the way the music ran continuously through the work meant, although it was technically an opera, Porgy And Bess had a significant influence on musicals. And, unusually for Broadway, it featured an all African-American cast.
Oscar Hammerstein had some fallow years after Show Boat but when Jerome Kern turned down an idea he had to make a musical from a play called Green Grow The Lilacs, he got together with Richard Rodgers. Rodgers had been looking for a new lyricist to replace the unreliable Lorenz Hart and, coincidentally, had also been interested in Green grow The Lilacs. Together they produced a revolutionary musical, possibly the greatest of all time: and the first to fully integrate music, drama and dance.
It was 1943 and, in the midst of war, Americans were ready for a celebration of American values. They found it in Oklahoma! When Alfred Drake sang those opening lines Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’ unaccompanied off stage, musical theatre changed forever.
First, there was the music. Nothing said ‘the music element matters’ more than by giving the parts to singers who could act rather the common practice of actors who could sing.
Then, there was the drama. Oklahoma! was the first musical in which every element served the characters and furthered the story. And, for the first time, that included the dance sequences. Agnes de Mille choreographed expressive dances so challenging that professional dancers were required for some of them. Songs included People Will Say We’re in Love, Surrey With A Fringe On Top and the rousing title song.
Rodgers and Hammerstein were the perfect partnership: contrary to the usual pattern, both liked to get the lyrics first and set them to music. There followed a succession of great musicals: Carousel, The Sound Of Music, The King and I, South Pacific and doznes more. Other composers took inspiration from them and created a Golden Age of the Musical with Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, Lerner & Lowe’s My Fair Lady, Frank Loesser’s Guys And Dolls…. the list goes on and on. And all these shows made the journey from stage to the big screen to create the so-called ‘Golden Age of the Hollywood Musical’.
Dance played a part in enhancing the drama of Oklahoma! and many subsequent musicals but the final building block of the modern musical came in 1957 when dance came into its own.
3. West Side Story
The musical’s credentials were great: the book was adapted by Arthur Laurents, the music was by Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, but it was the role of Jerome Robbins as the director that was crucial. He was the preeminent stage choreographer of his time, which meant West Side Story not only incorporated dance into the narrative but let it take the lead. The famous finger snaps say it all.
A writer in Time magazine found the dance and gang warfare more compelling than the love story and noted that the show’s ‘putting choreography foremost, may prove a milestone in musical-drama history.’ He was right. That the show ended tragically was also groundbreaking. Memorable songs included Maria and Tonight.
Many more musicals followed as the Golden Age rolled on, not least another contender for greatest musical of all time, Julie Styne, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurent’s Gypsy. The longest running musical ever, The Fantasticks by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (not the singer) opened in New York in 1960 and closed 42 years later.
Tastes in music changed: rock rather than jazz now dominated the charts and perhaps audiences were getting bored with the formula of the book musical. Whatever the reason, by the mid-1960s the first Golden Age of the Musical came to an end. Musicals continued to be written and performed but not so frequently or spectacularly as before.
The time was ripe for the arrival of the concept musical, in other words, a musical where the idea or theme takes precedence over the narrative.
Stephen Sondheim’s Company in 1970 wasn’t the first concept musical. As early as 1947, Rodgers and Hammerstein created Allegro. Interestingly, a very young Stephen Sondheim worked as a production assistant on this musical. A year later, Alan Lerner of Lerner and Lowe fame teamed up with Kurt Weill who wrote The Threepenny Opera and they created Love Life. Both shows had linear plots but these were disrupted by songs that commented on a theme.
However Company was the first significant concept musical where the narrative was virtually abandoned in favour of a theme, in this case, an exploration of relationships in songs like The Ladies who Lunch and Being Alive. Other concept musicalss followed including Chicago, A Chorus Line and Cats, as well as many more by Sondheim such as Follies and Sunday in The Park With George.
Hair was another concept musical of sorts but it’s more memorable for bringing rock music into the previously jazz-based world of musicals. It’s arguable that rock is a genre better suited to the individual song than to carrying a whole narrative or theme but there’s no arguing with the success of Hair, Godspell and the early Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice collaborations like Jesus Christ Superstar.
One trend of the last few years has been the jukebox musical which recycles existing popular songs around a story: it’s not exactly new- the film musical Singin’ In The Rain uses an existing songbook but the genre has been unstoppable in the last few decades- the most successful is Mamma Mia! featuring the music of ABBA. Early examples were Return To The Forbidden Planet and Buddy- The story of Buddy Holly. Others include We Will Rock You featuring the music of Queen, Jersey Boys which tells the story of the Four Seasons and, last year, the wonderful & Juliet showcasing the songs of Max Martin.
And, having made films out of so many stage musicals, Hollywood has repaid the compliment in recent years by providing the inspiration for Little Shop Of Horrors, Disney’s The Lion King, The Producers, Spamalot, Billy Elliott and many more.
Talented writers have created musicals that continue the tradition of exploring serious themes: Rent, Blood Brothers and The Book Of Mormon to name but a few.
The mid 1980s saw the arrival of the mega musicals where the sets became as or more important than the content- and Britain led the way, revitalising this great American genre, just as The Beatles had revitalised American rock’n’roll in the sixties. In what could be described as a second Golden Age, there are two landmarks – Andrew Lloyd Webber’s almost operatic Phantom Of The Opera and Cameron Macintosh’s production of Les Misérables.
Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s musical may be, as The Observer put it when it opened, “a witless and synthetic entertainment” but its popular appeal is undeniable. With its rousing story of doomed revolutionaries and its uplifting tale of a man who pays back a debt with heroic charity, Les Misérables is now the second longest running musical ever. It’s certainly a musical I could see again and again. However, although this musical is about revolutionaries, it’s not actually revolutionary.
We had to wait 45 years after Company before we got another genuinely revolutionary musical. In fact, in 2015, you could argue we got two in one year.
Fun Home was the first show on Broadway to have a lesbian protagonist- some 30 years after La Cage Aux Folles focussed on male homosexuality. It showed that musicals can tell complex stories about women and indeed lesbian women, who are not often represented in the mainstream, and that musicals written by women can be successful on Broadway.
Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori were the first all-female writing team to win the Tony Award for Best Score, as well as Best Musical. But is it revolutionary simply because women take centre stage? I would argue, in the male dominated world of musical theatre, that it is, but I have to admit there is no new musical form here.
However there was another musical that also started off-Broadway in 2015 that has found a new form.
Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda (streaming on Disney+ channel from 3 July 2020) does everything the best musicals do in terms of taking an engaging subject and combining it with music and dance. Miranda plundered a number of musical genres but what makes Hamilton look like the future of the musical is its use of hip hop or rap music in songs like Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down) or Right Hand Man. Rap is the music of revolution, because it expresses the angry feeling of the underprivileged. But more than that, just as the jazz sound was used by Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers Oscar Hammerstein and the other greats of the first Golden Age of the musical to create dance tunes and complex lyrics, hip hop rhythm is great for dance and rap’s poetic use of language make it the perfect music for lyrics.
Stephen Sondheim put it this way: “Of all the forms of contemporary music, rap is the closest to traditional musical theater… both in its vamp-heavy rhythmic drive and in its verbal playfulness.”
Ninety years previously Show Boat was the first musical to put black and white performers on stage together. In 2015, there has been deliberate casting of non-white actors in Hamilton as the mainly white Founding Fathers and other historical figures. It is, as Miranda put it, ‘the story of America then told by America now’. Hamilton has found a way of making what we’ve been calling the ‘modern’ musical for nearly a hundred years actually work for a modern audience.
It remains to be seen whether more rap-based musicals with such wide appeal will emerge but the signs are good. One of the best new British musicals I’ve seen in the last couple of years is Poet In Da Corner by Debris Stevenson which features grime music.
What Stephen Sondheim said about Hamilton could apply to any of the five musicals I’ve chosen: “What it does is empower people to think differently. There’s always got to be an innovator, somebody who experiments first with new forms.”
An important play about the lasting damage of child abuse
‘The adult tries so hard to forget, but the child always remembers,’ says the protagonist in Groomed, written and acted by Patrick Sandford. I am sure you will be as sad and angry as I was by the end of this 50-minute monologue about the abuse suffered by a 10-year-old child and the reverberating effect on the rest of his life. Its exceptional impact is a tribute to the former Artistic Director of the Nuffield Southampton.
Although written for the stage, this is a filmed version directed by Nancy Meckler. As with Andrew Scott in Sea Wall, having one person talking directly to you through the camera seems to me to come closest to the experience of theatre. The film also takes the opportunity to place our protagonist in a primary school classroom, the scene of the crime if you like.
Patrick Sandford takes us on a giddying ride. He tells us stories- stories from the ancient classics, a history of the saxophone, the story of the Japanese soldier who carried on fighting for 29 years after World War 2 ended, all providing metaphors for this protagonist’s experience and how it can be faced. He plays parts, even taking us a little way inside the mind of the abuser.
Most heartbreaking is the gradual revelation of the damage that the experience has inflicted on the adult. The fear, the shame, the guilt: ‘the bad done to me becomes the bad in me becomes the bad is me.’
It made me want to hug him
Like a tide that goes out and comes in again, we keep returning to the child and his awful experience at the hands of his teacher. There are no details- he is very clear that this isn’t fodder for sensational tabloids. The shock is not in what happened but how it happened, and how the grooming was allowed to happen, and how there were apparently no consequences for the teacher.
It’s so upsetting that this should happen to a fellow human being that you almost want to block it out, just as you now might want to avoid seeing this play, but Patrick Sandford stares at you, defying you, both in his words and in his piercing eyes, to look away.
And there is hope in talking about it: ‘Rage that is heard transforms to mighty trees’ he says and talks of ‘the alchemy of anger into trust’.
I understand now much more now than I did about the way in which the experience of abuse is never something historical, but rather something ever present in the life of someone who was abused. So it is educational. However Groomed is so successful as a drama because Patrick understands the power of theatre as a cathartic experience and the way it can elicit empathy as well as sympathy. ‘Open my heart for me,’ he implores. Even in these times of social distancing, it made me want to hug him.
I’ve watched quite a few recordings of theatre shows since the Lockdown and the more I see the less sure I am that that they’re a good advertisement for theatre. By which I mean, what works on stage often doesn’t work on film.
At the heart of live performance, there’s a conspiracy between audience and actor. We all know we’re watching someone acting out a story. So we accept the artificiality, the theatricality if you like. That unnaturalness is exposed when we are forced to stand back from it and view it through the medium of film. So when the actors in This House race up and down the stage, it looks exciting in the flesh but on screen it just looks a bit silly. When actors speak loudly on stage, it’s riveting, on screen it’s a bit shouty.
Films and television dramas are more artificial than theatre but they do everything they can to make it seem like it’s real- the photographically detailed set, the convincing makeup and so on.
What we want in theatre is simply to watch those actors telling us that story with their words and actions. Film wants to show us flashbacks and dreams. It has to provide something to keep the eye interested: you can’t have a detective go question somebody without that person carrying on with their gardening or car repair.
We theatregoers want to use our imagination, just as we did when our parents or teacher told us a story as a child. We conjure up images of, as Shakespeare said, ‘the cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces’- not to mention pitched battles and shipwrecks. We don’t need imagination for film and TV drama because they do it for us. In This House, as the Labour Whips desperately try to get MPs back to give them the votes they need, a silhouette of a helicopter appears at the back of the stage, to great comic effect. That’s all we need. In a film, we would expect a real chopper.
Theatre is on a human scale (with the odd exception where the director insists that the production will be better for using video screens). We may like the odd spectacle but only because we can really appreciate a barricade built on a stage in front of our eyes. Generally, we like engaging with people who are not small and removed from us on a TV screen or larger than life in the cinema but people who are the same size as us, alive in front of us. For that reason, recorded theatre works best when following one character close up, like Fleabag or Sea Wall, or a small scale play dominated by one person like Cyprus Avenue.
Thrilling production from Jeremy Herrin and Rae Smith
When watching a live performance, our brains and eyes are remarkably good at seeing detail, even from a distance. On TV, we either view the whole set and miss the detail or the camera hones in on our behalf and creates its notion of what we should see. In theatre, we may be nudged by the script or the direction but we still make the choice to look at the person talking or the one listening or a detail of the set. Rae Smith’s set for This House is brilliant. She uses a traverse stage with green seats on either side creating both the sense of gladiatorial combat and the close intimacy of parliamentary politics. Not so great when you’re not one of the people sitting on one side looking at the other side.
So, no, I didn’t think the NTLive recording conveyed the quality of This House. It’s a superb piece of theatre deserving four or even five stars, reduced to maybe three at the most. What saves it is the wonderful script by James Graham and the great way it’s acted.
This House tells the story of the time in the 1970s when the Labour government was hanging on with small or nonexistent majorities. The play may be about politics which you might think boring but it is actually thrilling as the Labour whips tried to find the MPs’ votes to keep the government going and the Conservative whips tried to bring it down. And it’s funny, as when they drag in a dying member to vote.
It’s also a very good explanation of how parliament works- and sometimes doesn’t work- and an advertisement for respect and compromise at a time when extreme positions are in danger of bringing down democracy.
Among many fine performances in Jeremy Herrin’s production at the National Theatre, I would pick out Charles Edwards and Reece Dinsdale as the ruthless but mutually respectful deputy whips, Phil Daniels as the conspiratorial cockney Chief Whip and Lauren O’Neill as the newcomer who grows in confidence and stature as the years go by.
I would definitely advise you to give it a watch, despite all my caveats, but I am glad I originally saw This House live on stage.