We so nearly didn’t bother to go. It was that close. Virtually every review had panned this as being so dead a duck, so stuffed a turkey that it really didn’t seem worth the train fare. As it happened, planned engineering works meant that we drove into London instead, and I’m glad we made the effort. However, it was nothing like the effort that this star-studded Broadway cast gave in an attempt to inject life into this piece. And possibly the most invigorating thing to come out of the show is the subsequent attempts to work out where it goes wrong, why, how, and can it be rescued in any way.
For, make no mistake, 99% of reviewers can’t be wrong. And largely they’re not. This is a very unsuccessful show. Somehow some way it really DOES NOT WORK. And yet – we were not bored; I didn’t hate it; I found it constantly intriguing.
I think much is to do with expectation. It’s at the Menier (tick); it has the aforementioned star-studded Broadway cast (tick); it’s produced directed and choreographed by Prince & Stroman (tick tick). The poster/programme design suggest a rather elegant show, where sex is a major element but done with refinement and class – more Sondheim than Raymond Revuebar. It feels like it should be erudite, witty, sophisticated. But in reality it is none of these. At best it is an utterly preposterous tale, full of completely unbelievable events and coincidences. The Shah hasn’t been able to pleasure a wife for over 100 days. He sees the Empress and Bingo. Yet when the Empress is replaced with a stand-in, he also gets a bingo. How likely is that? 15 years later all four people sat at a café are surprised that they know one another. Yet the waiter has never heard of the “Bat” club, which united their pasts. Ridiculous.
Therefore my advice for what it’s worth is to scrap the false veneer of sophistication and instead recognise it as a piece of the total unadulterated Camp (with the most Capital of C’s). Replace the Pinter with Panto. It’s full of what ought to be hilarious moments – they should be completely indulged rather than embarrassingly touched on. The Shah (John McMartin), at first incapable of getting it up, and then more than capable, should be played with vulgar grotesqueness. The Soap Manufacturer’s wife’s lover and husband being sent into the closet to hide from yet another lover should have had the breathless pace of a 60s Brian Rix farce, rather than what was a remarkably flat scene. Laughter in the audience was sparse at the best of times. Often just one person would find something funny and laugh alone. When the Madame summoned the whore impersonating the Empress, she used the whistle which she customarily used to summon all the whores for a potential client. I laughed. I was the only one.
And then there is the difficulty of the Chief Eunuch. The character grimaces around the stage like a miserable good fairy, mealy-mouthed and bland. When he comes back after fifteen years he is a businessman with an unfortunate hairstyle reminiscent of Radovan Karadzic. Having been a softly spoken peacemaker in the first half, his loud shouting at Frau Matzner in the second is completely unbelievable. Four times, I think, he shouted, each time a bit louder to show that he was more serious about his shouting; however, with a complete lack of conviction. He slows down the action and does not contribute sufficiently to the comedy that is both on and beneath the surface. This is the first time I have seen Mandy Patinkin live on stage. He has great charisma and a fine stage presence. Whether or not it is to underline the fact that he is playing a eunuch, much of his singing is in a strange strangulated falsetto which I’m afraid is actually embarrassing to witness. Regrettably, I think this would be a much more successful production if the character of the Eunuch was entirely removed from the plot.
The story does have some interesting points to make, like what happens when you love a whore and are jealous of the apparent pleasure she gets from a different customer; and the meteoric rise of wealth and station in some individuals at the expense of the decline and fall of others. But the production labours to tell these tales and loses sight of the essential flippancy of the material. Shuler Hensley as the Baron, when drunk and violent, is far too convincing in his portrayal of life at its lowest ebb to fit in with silliness of the rest of the show. When the story is wrapped up with (and I’m paraphrasing here) “all they needed was a shot in the arm to get their romance going again”, which finally provoked a true audience reaction, a huge groan, surely this shows that the material needs a totally different, much less respectful approach. This is not Chekhov.
A few other notes:
Some have said the music, which is a series of Strauss waltzes and marches, is too relentless and unvaried so that it becomes a headache. I didn’t find that. In fact I thought the juxtaposition of the socially acceptable and decent music with ribald lyrics worked very well.
The stage though is too cramped, it should have been extended wider. With lots of people in a tiny area, no wonder the choreography was minimalist. Unbelievably they didn’t seem to observe Lesson One in the Ladybird book of Directing and block it properly. There were many key moments where I couldn’t see what was going on because a member of the cast was in the way. Did the Shah get an erection? What did the Baron do with that gun?
We’re now a good halfway into the run, yet the cast still seemed quite clumsy with props and scenery. The Shah knocked his head on the chandelier on the way up to scoring with the pretend Empress; the Soap Manufacturer’s wife’s soldier lover’s helmet bounced noisily all over the stage when she knocked it off the sofa (I’m presuming this was a mistake – don’t tell me it was a deliberate piece of comic business, please…) ; she also thumped her hand on the ornate dressing table mirror whilst applying her lotions; and in the finale the singing Eunuch walked backwards without watching where he was going and trampled over another cast member seated on the floor.
I am wondering though, whether they have been tweaking it to improve it since it opened, because my overall impression is that it was not as bad as I expected. Interval applause was barely existent, but at curtain call it was quite generous. It could have been from a number of American tourists loyally supporting their away team. But I contributed to it too, because despite all these criticisms, I did actually enjoy it. How bizarre is that? From my front row vantage point I could clearly see some surprised delight as a reaction to the applause exchanged in the glances between George Lee Andrews (Grand Vizier) and Pamela Winslow Kashani (Maid/Whore) (no sentimentality in the characters names there) and I think I lip-read something like “well that didn’t go too badly at all!”
I honestly think with a complete re-approach, some re-writing and other tweaking, this could, just, be rescued.
Oh, and we liked it much, much more than Talent.