Review – Chicago, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 23rd May 2016

ChicagoSpeaking as the ultimate A Chorus Line fan, I’m not entirely certain why I keep going to see Chicago. Whilst, on the face of it, you might think the two have a lot in common, being 1970s American musicals featuring the expertise of the top two choreographers of the age, well… yes, but that’s about it. A Chorus Line wears its heart on its sleeve as it exposes the reality of the dancers’ lives and cuts away the crap from people to reveal their true souls; Chicago, on the other hand, aggrandises sham. It relishes the glitzy, show-offy facades of its characters in the quest for ultimate celebrity. A Chorus Line strives to present you good, decent, real people in real time auditioning in the same theatre where you are sitting; Chicago celebrates law-breakers who attempt to get off scot-free by fluttering their manipulative, sexually provocative eyelashes at the court and (more importantly) the media. A Chorus Line asserts that everyone is special; Chicago pokes fun at failures.

Lindsey TierneyYou’ve also got that massive difference in choreographic and costume style. Michael Bennett gave his dancers subtlety and style; exhilaration for sure, but happy, tasteful exhilaration; and, above all, artistry. Bob Fosse gave his Chicagoans open legs and bending over backwards to satisfy. Bennett’s dancers wore audition gear and then silver and gold spangles for their finale; Fosse’s wear black chiffon and fishnets, somewhere in the Cabaret/Rocky Horror spectrum. Chicago seems to represent almost everything that A Chorus Line isn’t. It kind of therefore follows that, as a huge lover of Chorus Line, I really don’t like Chicago – the show – at all. Its saving grace is its songs – particularly the tunes – which are punchy and fun and memorable.

Sophie Carmen-JonesNevertheless, I went to the Royal and Derngate full of enthusiasm and expectation because I was hoping for a top quality production that would emphasise all the good things about the show. I know I’m a Bennett boy and not a Fosse follower but, at the end of the day, you have to admit it, Bob Fosse was a creative genius. Sadly, I thought the show overall was – as the young people of today might say – a bit meh. IMHO there’s a big problem with the orchestra pod jutting too far out into the stage to provide a satisfactory dance space. With no depth to the stage, everything has to be wide and shallow; and when this causes actors and dancers with this level of talent to bump into each other – something’s not right.

Sam BaileySecondly there is – dare I say it – the choreography. There were two elements to my disappointment. The first problem stares at you from the programme: “Original Choreography by Ann Reinking in the style of Bob Fosse; Re-creation of Original Choreography by Gary Chryst”. It’s as though Fosse’s vision has been passed down the line in a series of Chinese Whispers – I felt what I saw was a very watered down version of how good it could have been; Fosse-lite. Secondly, we’ve now been spoilt by that splendid young dancemaster Drew McOnie having seen his Leicester Curve Chicago in 2013. You don’t need to have a contest between the two about who’s the best choreographer – but what you did get from the Leicester production was the first-hand vision of what the presentation should be like, not third- or fourth-hand. And it shows.

John PartridgeAs for the performances – let’s start high and recognise that, in the show we saw, Roxie was played by the understudy Lindsey Tierney and she was absolutely magnificent. Cool as a cucumber, choreographically spot on, a great vocal performance, and completely looking the part. We both thought she was terrific. I also really enjoyed Sophie Carmen-Jones as Velma, full of attitude and spirit, a great singer and dancer, nice comic delivery and, what’s the point of denying it, she’s pretty cute too. Much has been made of X-Factor winner Sam Bailey appearing as Mama Morton. I’m afraid we don’t watch that so I hadn’t a clue who she was. She has a strong stage presence and can certainly belt out a song, but I don’t think she conveyed enough of the character’s deviousness or financial greed. In the past I have felt that Mama Morton might have a certain sexual curiosity about her girls too, which gives the character a bit of extra depth; but there was no suggestion of that here.

Neil DittI’m a great admirer of John Partridge, who plays the lawyer Billy Flynn, but I had heard conflicting reports about his performance. Billy Flynn is one of those characters that you can interpret in many ways. When I saw Chicago in 1979 the role was taken by Ben Cross and he played it (if I remember rightly) fairly serious and arrogant on stage. In the Leicester version David Leonard played Flynn as a completely lascivious sleazebag. Here, Mr Partridge portrays him absolutely true to the spirit of this production – the height of façade, of celebrity pretence; of total amorality. He plays up to the crowd, he adopts a smarmy grin, he calls out for applause for his long sustained note, he milks the showbizziness of the role for all it’s worth. It’s all show-off and look-at-me. But when you get right to the heart of the character – which, if he has one, is money – if you come between him and his $5000, he’ll cut you dead and no sympathy. When Roxie clearly becomes a more lucrative client than Velma, this Flynn delights in squishing the latter’s courtroom appeal chances. If you were going to try to tap into this Flynn’s generous nature – you’d spend a long time tapping. Of course, Mr Partridge is a song and dance man par excellence, and his vocals and stage presence are great as always. It’s a shame he doesn’t have any remotely challenging or artistic dancing to do until the second act – but Razzle Dazzle is definitely worth waiting for.

A D RichardsonNeil Ditt makes a good Amos, although (and I know comparisons are odious) he’s much more a figure of fun than in previous productions I’ve seen, where the pathos of Mr Cellophane could bring a tear to your eye. A D Richardson sang the Mary Sunshine role absolutely splendidly and in many respects this was the most realistic performance of this role I’ve ever seen; but I was surprised how flat and undramatic her “reveal” scene turned out to be. Maybe a little rushed? Ben Atkinson’s orchestra throw themselves into John Kander’s fantastic tunes with immense gusto and appropriate irreverence – I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed supine conducting before.

So despite some very good aspects, I still left feeling slightly deflated. I think it’s the amorality that depresses me. What can I say? If amorality is your spice of life, you’ll love it! The tour continues throughout the country right through to December.

P. S. Theatre etiquette observation #341a. The gentleman behind me decided that Miss Carmen-Jones’ voice was not sufficient for the task so sang along – without inhibition – to the song All That Jazz. Every so often he forgot the words and allowed the professional to take charge, but then he would remember them again and join in. I did three of my glares – each getting steadily more aggressive – but to no avail. I decided that if he also chose to sing along to the next song I would turn around and tell him to shut up (and suffer the consequences, if he then chose to harangue me for the rest of the evening.) Fortunately he wasn’t that well rehearsed with the rest of the show. Moral: if you’re in a show and one of your favourite songs comes on, remember that miming to it retains the mystery of your voice and we’ll never know quite how good you are at singing. Otherwise, shut the **** up.

Review – The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ The Musical, Curve Theatre Leicester, 21st March 2015

Adrian Mole the MusicalI don’t think there can be many lives who haven’t been affected by the character of Adrian Mole in one way or another. I can remember when the original book came out, and the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle bought it for me as part of my Christmas Present Package. I thought it was brilliant, and over the subsequent years bought and read all of young Mr Mole’s diarised works. The TV series with Julie Walters and Stephen Moore was great too. Moley was one of the author Sue Townsend’s greatest creations, and definitely her most successful. Sue Townsend herself was from Leicester, as is Adrian Mole, and she based his school environment and council estate home on the places where she was educated and lived. So it’s entirely appropriate that The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ The Musical should start life at the Curve in Leicester. Young Adrian would have been so impressed by the artistic and cultural hub that is the Curve.

The original book runs from New Year’s Day 1981 to April 1982 (Mole’s 15th birthday), but the show just takes the full year from New Year’s Eve to New Year’s Eve. In that time Adrian charts a painful course as an adolescent falling in love with the blessed Pandora, watching his parents’ marriage fall apart and coping with their new loves, visiting and being used as a slave by old Bert Baxter, getting on with some schoolmates and being bullied by others, habitually writing to the BBC and generally being a typical, angst-ridden teenager. But this isn’t a simple dramatization of the novel – it’s a musical, with book and lyrics by Jake Brunger and music and lyrics by Pippa Cleary, two Bristol University graduates who are starting to carve out a career in the genre. Director Luke Sheppard has brought together a talented team to tell the story of Moley’s early adolescence, and the result is a bright and breezy show with many enjoyable aspects, plenty of drama and some extremely humorous scenes.

Sebastian CroftTom Rogers has designed a wonderful set, full of quirky corners and jagged angles, with pencils that pierce the sky like chimneys and with ink blots all over the floor. Tantalising glimpses of Adrian’s diary pages frame the stage and everything appears bright in satisfyingly child-like primary colours. Congratulations, by the way, to the props department for sourcing all those old Skol cans and the Woolworth’s carrier bag. It’s effectively staged with the Moles’ kitchen at the front and their living area/bedroom to the side – that area also doubles up as Bert’s Stalinist living room and the school room is towards the back of the stage. There’s plenty of useful space for acting as well as singing and dancing. A small thing, but I really enjoyed the way the child actors opened the side doors for the rest of the cast to come out on stage for their curtain calls. It looked very stylish and showed that the kids were in charge.

Kirsty HoilesI’d been looking forward to this show for ages, as I was really curious to see whether this story would actually work as a musical. The answer is Almost. The songs do fit very neatly into the plot and they’re tuneful and entertaining if not over-memorable. In the schoolroom scenes, I liked the way the adult actors joined forces with the child actors to create a whole classroom of the little blighters, which gave rise to some very amusing moments where age was juxtaposed with behaviour. The climax scene – so to speak – when Adrian and the other kids stage an alternative School Nativity play, was full of bravado, delightfully outrageous and very funny.

But there was something about the whole show that just didn’t quite click for me. It didn’t really engage me. I didn’t feel much sympathy for many of the characters, which never helps when you’re trying to identify with a show. It hadn’t properly occurred to me before just how unpleasant a character Adrian’s mum Pauline is. I thought Kirsty Hoiles showed just the right amount of sentimental detachment and lack of empathy to make the character of Pauline very credible. As Adrian’s dad George, Neil Ditt turned in a nicely downtrodden and “victim” performance, and I thought his scenes with Adrian, the two guys home alone, were often quite moving. I really enjoyed Cameron Blakely’s creepy seduction techniques as the slimy Mr Lucas from next door, and his scenes where he’s wooing Pauline with his Latin moves were hilarious. You just don’t expect that kind of thing in Leicester.

Neil DittSo it wasn’t the performances (for the most part) that caused (for me) the show not to soar. I think the main problem is that in order to condense the book into a two and a half hour show – with songs – they had to omit so much that you only have the barebones of the story to work with and not a lot of depth of character. Doubling up roles also caused its own problems. Amy Booth-Steel is excellent as Miss Elf and Mrs Lucas, but as Doreen Slater she presents a completely different character from that in the book. Miss Booth-Steel is a fine comely woman, but Adrian always referred to Doreen as “stick-insect” in his diaries, and, with the best will in the world, Miss Booth-Steel is never going to achieve that epithet. There’s also no Queenie for Bert to settle down with, no Singh family, no parents for Pandora, and the story stops before Argentina invades the Falklands.

Amy Booth-SteelAdrian himself, in the book, as far as I can remember, wavers between nervous enfant terrible and neurotic sidekick. He’s hypochondriac, hyper-sensitive, self-deludingly confident about his own intellect; he’s patronising, he’s hideously class-oriented; basically, he’s an insufferable little prig. But we recognise our own adolescence in him, so forgive him and laugh along at his mistakes, his foibles and anxieties, as we know that life will iron them all out in the fullness of time. The Brunger and Cleary version of Adrian struck me as being simply far too nice. That’s no criticism of Sebastian Croft, who played Adrian in our performance, who’s an amazing little song and dance man, has wonderful stage presence for someone so young, who enunciated beautifully (it’s a skill, and one to be appreciated), fitted in to the rest of the cast like a dream, and absolutely deserved his very enthusiastic curtain call.

His Pandora was played by Lulu-Mae Pears, splendidly mature compared to Adrian, delicately fluttering into his world and very credibly being the target of the Optimum Girlfriend Award. I’d say Adrian was boxing way above his weight here. The rest of the cast all give very good support; although, unfortunately, there was one actor who, for whatever reason, was considerably below par for our performance. Maybe they weren’t feeling well or maybe they were under-rehearsed; but it’s probably not very fair to make further comment.

Cameron BlakelySo, for some reason, for me this all added up to something less than the sum of its parts. However, the audience enjoyed it and gave it a very good reception, and there was certainly something for everyone to enjoy. Maybe not for purist aficionados of the book, but if you want to see teenage angst set to music, this is a good place to start!

Rosemary AsheP.S. There’s been a creeping trend (and I don’t mind it) that the programme on sale to accompany the show of your choice is basically the printed text of the play but with some biographical details of the cast. Now I like reading plays, and giving you the text to take home with you can only add to your knowledge and appreciation of what you have seen; plus it works as an excellent memory aid should you wish to revisit it in sometime in the future. However, I did think it was a bit cheeky that the programme for this show is an adapted version – not of the book/libretto of the show as such, but of Sue Townsend’s original novel. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least half the households whose families come to see this show already have a copy. I know that at £5 it’s not an unreasonable price, but I think if you’re going to combine the programme and text into one book, it should at least contain the words of the show you’re seeing!