Review – Happy Days The Musical, Milton Keynes Theatre, 16th June 2014

Happy DaysThe Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle always used to say to me, “If you can’t say something good about someone or something, say nothing”. Shame that she didn’t always practise what she preached, but nevertheless I get her drift. Taking her at her word, my review of Happy Days The Musical is hereby over. Thank you for your attention, and goodbye.

Heidi RangeStill here? Well then. Happy Days The Musical is being promoted “as seen on Channel 4’s The Sound of Musicals”, and that was one of the reasons why I wanted to see it, as it was a fascinating programme showing all the backstage/producer/director/choreographer problems that beset the project of mounting a full scale musical in today’s theatreland. It was kind of heart-warming to see producer Amy Anzel constantly bouncing back from disappointment after disappointment, and I was surprised, but delighted, to see that her dream of producing this musical actually came to fruition. A testament to determination.

Ben FreemanI also remember discovering that choreographer Craig Revel Horwood left the show after a few weeks, and that really should have set alarm bells ringing. Still – it had Cheryl Baker, from Bucks Fizz, something of a National Treasure; and being the big Eurovision fan I am, anything that has Cheryl Baker in has got to be good, hasn’t it?

Cheryl BakerWere you a fan of the TV show? I remember it being on when I came home from school, and enjoying the goofy characters, although 50s music has always been one of my bugbears – I really don’t like it. Richie Cunningham was a straight-laced good guy and it was kind of reassuring to the 14 year old me that a straight-laced good guy could still have fun with more rebellious pals – and get to know girls too – as well as be accepted by someone like The Fonz, an aspirationally roguish character with a heart of gold. And of course, who couldn’t love Laverne and Shirley?

James PatersonI’m not sure I realised in advance quite how much the characters – even after all these years have passed – are very much associated with the actors who originally played them. I never thought I’d like to see the stage show of Dad’s Army, because any actor playing it today is simply not the right person. You can’t replace Arthur Lowe or John le Mesurier. I thought Paul Merton taking on Tony Hancock was a mistake because only Hancock is Hancock. So why on earth didn’t I think that seeing a stage version of Happy Days that didn’t have Henry Winkler, Ron Howard, and the rest of the original team, would be a mistake?

Scott WaughStill, even if it’s hard to believe that new actors are playing those much loved old roles, I’m sure it would be entertaining, so long as it has some good songs, good choreography and a funny book? Maybe; we will never know, as they are all noticeably lacking on the stage of the Milton Keynes Theatre this week. I regret to announce that the only real laugh in Happy Days The Musical was when a moth almost landed on Richie Cunningham’s nose. I’d been following that moth for a while, actually, as it was much more interesting than the show, being eye-catchingly white and easily captured by spotlights. I wondered how closely it would muscle in on the action. Quite a lot as it turns out, during a “sensitive” scene between Richie and the Fonz,Emma Harrold where it fluttered peskily between the two actors much to the entertainment of the audience. I was sad to see it not reappear at curtain call. Yes of course, there were some moments in the show where you were meant to laugh, and some people did; like when Ralph Malph continually laughs at the name Farthing, because it sounds like Farting; when Arnold shies away from Chachi’s breath after a chilli dog; when someone says the Fonz didn’t like it when someone kissed his Pinky (that’s the name of his ex-girlfriend, you’ll be relieved to know); when someone refuses to go into the toilet for ten minutes after Arnold’s been in there. I could go on with examples of its glittering wit, but I’m sure you’ve got the picture. The book is by Garry Marshall. Yes THE Garry Marshall. Creator of all the Happy Days programmes and their spin-offs. Writer for Dick Van Dyke, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball; the TV series of The Odd Couple, and more. Just goes to show that no one gets it right all the time.

Ray GardnerBut it’s not only decent humour that’s missing – the plot is so wafer thin Mr Creosote could consume it without exploding. The guys have to raise money so that Arnold’s can continue to exist as an independent diner, and not get swallowed up by Ronald McDonald. There’s a plan that Fonzie should wrestle arch-enemies the Malachi brothers as a weird kind of fundraiser, but he knows he can’t do it because of his hurty knee; therefore he runs away so that he can still look cool. Richie and Ralph offer to wrestle instead; the Fonz returns, money is raised, happiness reigns ever after. There was one particular scene that I found excruciatingly embarrassing to watch – at the fair, where, as a prelude to the wrestling match, pie-obsessed Mrs Cunningham provides an exhibition of baking. Jason WinterI don’t know if the dancing went wrong or if the choreography was especially lame for that scene, but for a few minutes people were just waving pies around and looking self-conscious, and I just couldn’t watch. This led into the wrestling scene, with Ralph dressed in an unnecessarily tight Victorian wrestler’s costume, and once again I had to hide my eyes. But it didn’t matter – after about the first five minutes, I had already realised that this show was just not going to connect with me. There wasn’t any place where it and I had common ground. We were like two separate circles in a Venn Diagram, destined never to overlap.

Andrew WaldronThe songs, whilst being credible pastiches of 50s music, which as I have already admitted isn’t my thing, are nevertheless instantly forgettable and enunciated dreadfully. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were both convinced we heard some bad language in a couple of the songs – she definitely heard an F-word and I caught hold of a C-word and I’m sure they wouldn’t have been in the original lyrics. It’s one of those shows where, when the chorus start singing, if you can catch just one word in four you’re doing well. The music and lyrics are by Paul Williams. Yes, THE Paul Williams. “Phantom of the Paradise” and “Bugsy Malone”. “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Rainy Days and Mondays”. Also goes to show that no one gets it right all the time. There’s a dancing song that sounds like it’s been gathered from the cutting room floor at Blood Brothers, and a dance scene with flapping gowns that’s been lifted out of Sister Act. You do get the feeling that it’s all very derivative.

Eddie MylesThe choreography? Unadventurous, half-hearted and lazy, I’m afraid. Yes, there are a few acceptable set pieces but much of it seems to start up and then just dwindle away. This is not a criticism of the dancing, which is probably the best thing about the show – in fact I felt really sorry to see someone as talented as Lucy Jane Adcock giving her utmost as Pinkette Tina, brightening up the stage every time she appeared. Maybe if Craig Revel Horwood would have stayed – but then I’m sure it would have been a very different show if he had.

Perhaps there are some other good performances to save it? To be honest, there are, but the battle is already lost with the raw material they have to work with. Heidi Range plays Fonzie’s love interest Pinky Tuscadero. Reading the programme before the show, we knew that we recognised the name but weren’t sure from where. “Ah, she’s a Sugababe”, I discovered. “Great”, said Mrs C, “at least she’ll be able to sing”. And indeed she can; she delivered those dull numbers as well as anyone could be expected to. However, from a casting point of view, may I venture to suggest that I might expect Pinky to look a little… younger? Mrs C was more direct: “she looks like Joan Rivers’ granddaughter”.Henry Davis Could have been worse. Ben Freeman plays the Fonz, and I just didn’t warm to him at all. Maybe the role is too dated, but I just couldn’t take his “aaaayy”s seriously. It didn’t sound like the Fonz – it sounded like someone impersonating him. The character should be irresistibly charismatic; I’m afraid he wasn’t. Cheryl Baker is Marion Cunningham; again she has a voice you can depend on, and a delightful tendency not to shout, unlike so many of her colleagues. She looks the part, and nicely conveyed Mrs Cunningham’s maternal kindness to everyone in her orbit. But I was embarrassed at the constant alluding to Ms Baker’s Eurovision heritage. Which cocktail would she like to try? “Oh, I’m Making my Mind Up.” “There’s one I like – Bucks Fizz”. In a subsequent dance sequence, she rips the bottom part of her dress off, à la Dublin 1981. Talk about laying it on with a trowel. I started looking out for the “Record Breaker” references (thankfully there were none I noted). The audience loved the Bucks Fizz bits though – I’m sure we’d all have preferred them to ditch the show and just do some of the group’s back catalogue.

Sam RobinsonScott Waugh presents Richie Cunningham as a very earnest and wet-behind-the-ears chap; and whilst Jason Winter and Andrew Waldron give good support as Potsie and Ralph, and Eddie Myles as Chachi comes perhaps as close as any to giving a performance that would remind you of its TV original, when they come together as the Dial-Tones I felt they lacked energy and presence. James Paterson’s Howard Cunningham also puts you in mind of Tom Bosley’s original characterisation, and he has a fine stage presence; a lot of talent but nowhere for it really to go in this script. Ray Gardner, too, is good as Arnold; he was perhaps the only performer in the show that I felt confident would deliver the part 100%, everyone else made me occasionally nervous. Apparently, he’s the man in the world-famous Blackcurrant Tango advert that I’d never seen until I just Googled it. Filed under “I’m sure it’s not their fault but it’s what they were told to do”, Emma Harrold took Joanie’s youthful exuberance and turned it into something unexpectedly shrill and strident and I found Henry Davis and Sam Robinson cringingly embarrassing as the Malachi brothers, marching onto the stage to the musical accompaniment of something akin to Carmen, looking like Dastardly and Muttley about to do the Paso Doble.

Lucy Jane AdcockThe show got a semi standing ovation; about a third of the people in the stalls stood, but only because we’d been very politely asked to from the stage; the area where we sat on the right side of the stalls in particular stayed firmly in our seats. I’d already had to bribe Mrs C with a very expensive large Merlot which she said she needed if she was to endure the second half of the show; and she couldn’t actually bring herself to applaud once, at all, throughout the entire evening. And as we were leaving the auditorium and the band finished its last few bars, she said, as if a final verdict on the entire show, “waste of a good orchestra”.

I think it’s fair to say we hated it! It’s on the rest of the week at Milton Keynes, then Salford and Nottingham to wrap up the tour. Go if you dare!

Review – Happy Days, Crucible Studio, Sheffield, 4th June 2011

Samuel BeckettI nearly met Samuel Beckett once. He was a friend of my university tutor and he came to see some of us for sherry and debate. “It was a shame you didn’t meet him” said my tutor. “It was a shame you didn’t invite me” was my riposte, but only in thought, not words. I chose not to meet Yevgeny Yevtushenko when he also visited for sherry and debate, and I’m pleased I didn’t as the whole set-up was intimately recorded by a visiting TV documentary team who “just happened to be around”, and I would have found that a great invasion of my privacy. I did however meet Kathleen Raine who came round for sherry (no debate I think). It was on the stairs outside his rooms and I had no idea who she was. I didn’t ask her about poetry, scholarship, neoplatinism or even Ring of Bright Water. “Is it still raining?” was all I said.

Happy DaysI digress. About four years ago I thought it was about time Mrs Chrisparkle was exposed to the works of Samuel Beckett so we went to see a production of Waiting for Godot at the Oxford Playhouse. It was a very good production. It went on a bit perhaps. But I thought it had a lot of merit. All Mrs C said afterwards was “Never take me to another production of Waiting for Godot. Please.” My look must have been one of astonishment as she added: “Don’t make me beg.” So it was with some trepidation that I awaited her response to this new production of Happy Days at Sheffield, with Pauline McLynn as Winnie. It was definitely her name that decided me to book, as I felt it would be perfect casting. What could be more Beckettian than Mrs Doyle? And so it turned out. Her performance is a splendid tour de force and keeps you locked in with interest despite the difficulties that Beckett chucks in your path.

They cleverly constructed a mini proscenium arch stage in the middle of the otherwise free acting space that is the Studio, slightly reminiscent of the kind of thing you might see at a village memorial hall; or actually my old Pelham Puppet Theatre. So you get a very traditional feel but in a modern space. When the curtains open, what you see is completely enclosed on all four sides by a black border frame, which reminded me of those modern digital photo frames, which you can set to play a sequence of snapshots. However, there’s no series of different images here. It’s just a pile of rubble, from which Winnie emerges at the top, visible down to her waist, but with her arms free to gesticulate, a little like one of those awful doll toilet-roll holder things. The rest is arid desert. It’s a very striking image.

Central to the whole play is the character of Winnie. Much has been said about her by countless scholars much more insightful than me. All I can say is that she is irrepressibly optimistic about the minutiae of life, despite living in a hostile environment, buried in a mound of rocks, responding without free choice to external signals, and having limited movement. She is kind, considerate and supportive, and whilst she has her Willie hovering in and out of sight, and her tools for existence in her black bag, she is happy. In the second act, when she is even more buried and with less movement, her outlook is still broadly similar but her eloquence, and maybe her faith, begins to fail.

Pauline McLynnPauline McLynn makes Beckett’s language come alive. If you read the play text it’s extremely difficult to imagine how it can become three dimensional on the stage. But she transforms it. It’s a sparkling, lively performance, with great vocal dexterity, endearingly conveying all aspects of Winnie’s personality. She very much looks the part, and her warmth easily takes us into her confidence. She makes you laugh – a lot. Her timing, which is all important in this play, is impeccable. When Willie finally speaks out loud she says “Oh you are going to talk to me today, this is going to be a happy day!” Mrs C laughed a little too knowingly at this line, making me think I must sometimes be unwittingly taciturn. Oops.

Peter GowenLurking in the background, sometimes out of sight, sometimes seemingly undressed, is Willie, who ostensibly has more freedom that Winnie in that he is not enclosed by a mound and he can also read the newspaper, even though it’s probably the same headlines everyday. As of course, in real life, it is. Peter Gowen gives good support and can be a menacing as well as supportive presence. When he is scrambling through the rocks at the end of the play, you feel very disconcerted by what he is doing. Is he trying to get the gun? What for? To kill her? To kill himself? It’s a literally painful sequence – the scraping of those rocks and stones looked and sounded very real to me. I’m sure Mr Gowen’s knees, hands and arms must be red raw by the end of the play

The play’s reputation and its place in the modern repertoire are I think fully deserved. But there is a danger that it could become – maybe it already is – a museum piece, as the stage directions are so set in stone (much like Winnie) that there is limited opportunity for future productions to convey anything new about the play – really the only change possible is the new voice of a new actress. Even Winnie’s facial expressions are dictated by Beckett. It may well be that it is a timeless piece and that Beckett got it so right that changes are not necessary. But I do feel, having seen it once, that there is no need ever to see it again.

Jonathan HumphreysNonetheless it is an excellent production, and a great choice for the Crucible’s young resident director Jonathan Humphreys to cut his Sheffield teeth. As for Mrs Chrisparkle, she found it a much more rewarding experience than Waiting for Godot, I’m pleased to say, and has not ruled out furthering her Beckett-like experiences. I think, however, we might have to wait a little longer before she’s ready for “Not I”.

As a postscript, I’m sure that in later life Beckett could have written an eight-minute drama about an old man failing to come to terms with modern technology and its effect on the wider community, based on my effort to use the ticket machine in the car park.