Review – Man of La Mancha, London Coliseum, 4th May 2019

Man of La ManchaI remember reading about Man of La Mancha when I was a teenager. It sounded very grand and I made my mind up that I must see it at some time when I was grown up. How has it taken all these years for me to see it?! The answer, obviously, is that this is its first professional production in the UK since the original London show at the Piccadilly Theatre in 1968. So, when I saw that Michael Grade and the ENO were bringing it to the Coliseum, I knew I had no choice but to book. All I knew about the show was that it was based on Don Quixote (which I’ve never read); there was a film starring Peter O’Toole (which I’ve never seen); and that, for many years after it closed on Broadway, it boasted the fourth longest run of any Broadway show (after Fiddler on the Roof, Hello Dolly and My Fair Lady) with a fantastic 2,328 performances. One can only imagine how that original production must have captured the imagination of the 1960s New York audience. Today, it’s Broadway’s 29th longest running show, but that’s still a pretty good achievement.

Kelsey GrammerThis was only my fifth visit to the London Coliseum, and each production I’ve seen there has sparked a little controversy. In 1975 the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle took me to see their production of La Bohème – my first exposure to live opera. The critics said it was boring. Then, in 1987, I took the young Mrs C (Miss Duncansby as she was) to see the ENO’s Carmen, starring Sally Burgess, which purists hated because of the updating. Fast forward to 2007, for their Kismet, one of my favourite musicals but a disaster of a production for numerous reasons. Even last year, their (in my view) outstanding Chess attracted huge criticism for the staging and the performances. And now, the much-awaited Man of La Mancha has opened to a swathe of two-star reviews almost across the board. Are they doing something wrong, do you think?

Kelsey Grammer and ensembleCervantes and his faithful manservant have been sent to prison awaiting the displeasure of the Spanish Inquisition. The other prisoners threaten to burn his manuscript so, to distract them, and to ask for their leniency, Cervantes asks them to play along with a charade – acting out the story of Don Quixote, and some of his adventures. Whilst he takes the role of Don Quixote, his manservant becomes Sancho Panza, “the Governor” – who’s the most dominant and senior of the group of prisoners – becomes the drunken innkeeper, another prisoner “the Duke” becomes Dr Carrasco, and soon all the inmates are playing a role in telling the story. Thus you get two concurrent plots; Cervantes surviving in prison, and will he be released, and the re-enactment of some of Don Quixote’s tales.

Danielle de Niese and ensembleJust to get the record straight, I’ll say this here and now – I regret not discovering this totally magnificent score many years ago. Crossing some classic showtunes with a Spanish, flamenco vibe, Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion created an absolute musical masterpiece. What particularly impressed me about it was the way it incorporates both major and minor keys within the same piece of music. Take, for instance, the opening number Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote). Its glorious chorus starts in major with its proud, certain, and proclamatory “I am I, Don Quixote, the Lord of La Mancha, my destiny calls and I go” to be followed instantly by the minor, more uncertain, “and the wild winds of fortune will carry me onward oh, whithersoever they blow”. Similar instances can be found throughout the score, and I, for one, am truly delighting in getting properly acquainted with it. If you haven’t heard it before, please find the original London cast recording on YouTube, starring Keith Michell and Joan Diener. It is sensational. And that’s not to take anything away from the new Coliseum cast either, because I think they’re pretty sensational too! And the orchestra under the baton of David White – good grief! Among the finest performances of a musical score I’ve ever heard. My toes curled with pleasure and I couldn’t take the smile off my face throughout the whole show.

Kelsey Grammer 2In addition to the score, I found Don Quixote’s adherence to the goals of courage, honour and nobility incredibly moving in these sad current times, where lying, cheating and ignominy seem to be celebrated and rewarded. We all accept that Don Quixote is a deluded soul but, boy, is his heart in the right place! In a bitter, selfish, criminal world, who wouldn’t prefer to maintain that hopeful air of grace? And it’s that heart-stirring emotion that carries us through the entire show, so that you come out of the theatre feeling like a better person than the one who went in. And that is the absolute magic of musical theatre. So, having said that, why has it disappointed so many critics?

dancersMrs C was much less forgiving about the staging and the whole production than me. I thought it was fine. James Noone has created a dark and comfortless prison environment created from a bombed museum, where cutpurses and vagabonds lurk behind antiquities. But when Cervantes, in his role as Alonso Quijana, as his identity as Don Quixote (keep up,) magically recreates the gallant and/or ignoble moments of our hero and his adventures, the stage setting takes on a noticeable brightness and vigour. The huge, portentous staircase descends occasionally from the gods, stopping the action with its significance – that it’s the only way in or out of the prison. Other moments where you have to use your imagination to see past the stagecraft include Don Quixote and Sancho Panza bestride two horses (two actors with horse masks – very Equus) galloping their way over the plains by means of stepping on wooden crates that have been placed in front of them.

Nicholas Lyndhurst, Peter Polycarpou and Kelsey GrammerMrs C really disliked both the staircase and the wooden crates. The staircase, she thought, simply held up the action for too long, and the crates just look amateur. In fact, and she has a point, she would have preferred to see a truly pared-down production, one on a blank stage with just the minimum of props, somewhere intimate like the Menier. And, indeed, you can just imagine how brilliant that imaginary production could be. However, and here’s the rub, you can’t really stage Man of La Mancha without a socking great staircase. And, by making it retract, so that most of the time it is hidden and unascendable, it increases the sense of isolation and powerlessness of the prisoners below. So, I’ve come to the conclusion that I like the staircase. But those crates… well, you can’t have real horses on stage, that’s obvious. And you do have to create the illusion of movement. And the amateurishness does go hand in hand with the fact that this is a bunch of prisoners enacting the story with whatever they can lay their hands on. I believe they used a similar device in the original London production. So I’m going to be generous about the crates too.

Man-of-La-Mancha-London-ColiseumOne of the criticisms levelled against this production is that Kelsey Grammer is miscast. I think that’s total nonsense. Mr Grammer is a stage performer of enormous experience and great presence, and with a surprisingly fine voice too. Yes, he may sometimes adopt something of an uncomfortable air about him; a slight distancing, or even awkwardness as he occupies the stage. But I think that’s a perfect characterisation of Cervantes/Quixote. Cervantes is a nobleman, unexpectedly laid low by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, now required to huddle with lowlifes. Quixote sets himself as a man apart, by virtue of his honour and his purity of thought. Neither character is at ease with his surroundings, and I think that’s exactly what Mr Grammer’s performance conveys.

Danielle de NieseAnd yes, in this day and age, where we like to avoid giving offence if possible, and standards of what is acceptable today are very different from what was acceptable over fifty years ago, the production has kept the Abduction scene. It’s a very unpleasant watch, where the men in the inn/prison round on Aldonza in a cruel, taunting, teasing ritual designed to humiliate and terrify, which culminates in her being head-butted and rendered unconscious, in order for Pedro to rape her. There’s no other way of saying it. But musicals are not all raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. Although it is horrifying to witness, it would be wrong to sanitise it. This, sadly, is the reality of the lives these people lead. A major significance of this scene is that it’s highly critical of Don Quixote, who remains completely oblivious to her plight, his head still stuck up in the clouds in lofty pursuits.

Man of La Mancha Press ImageHowever, it’s Quixote’s striving for perfection, his crusade for the ultimate decency, which is the essence of The Impossible Dream. That song, that has been covered by hundreds of artists, has suffered from having its meaning weakened through overuse and familiarity. Audition wannabes will sing it on the X-Factor, etc, as an expression of “realising your dream”. But it’s not. The clue is in the title; it’s the impossible dream. It’s Don Quixote recognising his own delusion; that he’s channelling all his efforts into something that he will never achieve. The impossible dream, the unbeatable foe, the unrightable wrong, the unreachable star; none of them can be turned into reality. But that courage to be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause is something we can adopt as a personal target, and if we do, the world will be better for this.

Peter Polycarpou and Kelsey GrammerI could go on, but I don’t want to outstay my welcome, gentle reader! In addition to Kelsey Grammer’s fantastic performance, there is a barnstorming portrayal by Danielle de Niese of Aldonza/Dulcinea, whose incredible voice soars and delights throughout the whole evening. There’s no more reliable pair of hands than those of Peter Polycarpou, who takes the role of Sancho Panza, with all its sentimentality and unsophisticated humour, and makes it believable and touching. Nicholas Lyndhurst is coolly menacing as The Governor, a colourless man who would snap your neck dead with one flick; and as the tipsy innkeeper humouring his deluded guest into thinking it’s a castle. There’s fantastic support from Eugene McCoy as the Legolas-like Duke, Minal Patel as the Padre, Emanuel Alba as the bright-as-a-button Barber, and Julie Jupp as the somewhat intimidating housekeeper. But everyone gives a fantastic performance in this truly ensemble show.

Nicholas LyndhurstIn a nutshell, Man of La Mancha touched that hard to define nerve in me that meant that I unexpectedly but unconditionally loved it. I know that’s not a good response from someone dispassionately trying to review it, but it’s the truth. Desperately now trying to sort out a date when we can go again. I think I can understand why some people might feel the production let it down – but it didn’t for me. Simply a fantastic night at the theatre.

P. S. Cast recording album please!!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Oslo, Harold Pinter Theatre, 27th December 2017

OsloHere’s another production that’s now closed, so there’s nothing I can say to influence your buying or not buying a ticket. Having booked for the obviously crowd-pleasing Everybody’s Talking About Jamie for the Wednesday matinee, I faced a different challenge for the evening. “What are we going to see?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle. “A play called Oslo,” I replied. “And what’s it about?” “It’s about a treaty between Israel and the PLO”. Silence. “How long is it?” “Err…just under…three hours.” Another silence. “It’s a National Theatre production”, I added hopefully. A third silence. “It’s had good reviews” I added. A fourth silence, finally broken by the plaintive question, “are you sure about this?”

Oslo - complex phone callsThe fact is, I wasn’t sure at all. The prospect of three hours of negotiations between representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Israeli government hosted by Norwegian diplomats in a remote house outside Oslo bears all the signs of early grounds for divorce. Let’s face it, there aren’t going to be many laughs are there?

Oslo - a meeting of mindsBut that’s where you’re wrong, gentle reader, as indeed both of us were. There are loads of laughs. You wouldn’t describe it as a comedy, mind you; it’s a genuinely serious docudrama that takes us through the painstaking procedure of getting the two sides together under one roof to start talking about… well about anything really. That was the initial position that the diplomats took; if they could get individuals who take opposing views on matters of politics and nationalism just to talk about their families, or their fondness for waffles or a glass of Johnnie Walker Black Label, that’s got to be a start.

Oslo - Peter Polycarpou in an awkward moment of negotiationsAnd they were right. From such little acorns, as the saying goes… Terje Rød-Larsen, Director of the social research Fafo Institute, and Mona Juul, official at the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, go out on a limb and achieve the impossible. The audience follows, spellbound, as we see well-known political figures from both camps inexorably become involved with the talking; the arguments, the postulating, the climbdowns, the idiosyncrasies, the teasing, the jokes… Yes, jokes. Even with such high stakes, it’s fascinating to see how humour can diffuse an awkward situation, and reposition the brain into a more accepting and generous place. Get it wrong, however, and it can have the reverse effect; early in the negotiations Israeli historian and journalist Ron Pundak makes a joke at the expense of Yasser Arafat, and the Palestinian Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie is infuriated. Fortunately for the peace process, Qurie is quite easily distracted by a raspberry waffle.

Oslo - Holst's not going to like itWriter J T Rogers stipulates in his text that the set design should be as uncluttered as possible and should work on our imaginations, so that the gaps between the scenes should be seamless. Designer Michael Yeargen took him at his word and created a very simple set, dominated by a grand pair of doors which can conceal – or reveal – negotiations on the other side. Endless wall panelling continued stage right to suggest the empty expanse of the outside world where various important figures might come and go, but we the audience never look in that direction, only focussing on the centre stage where all the important events occur. Characters also emerged from the auditorium, giving us a slightly unsettling impression of being at the heart of the negotiations. J T Rogers has his two Norwegian diplomats occasionally addressing the audience directly, emphasising that sense of us all being in it together.

Oslo - Mona and Terje together whilst Qurie looks onBecause this play very much relies on the power of the spoken word, it’s vital to have a strong, confident and eloquent cast – and this production had that completely nailed. Central to the action were Lydia Leonard as Mona and Toby Stephens as Larsen and they created a superb double act together. Mr Stephens adopted a convincing Scandinavian accent that didn’t sound too ridiculous and gave a brilliant portrayal of a man who’s comfortable with his own vanity but flexible enough to put things right when they go wrong, such as when the well-meaning housekeeper has prepared roast pork for dinner. Ms Leonard had a wonderful knowing look and a gently calculating air that suggested that she fully knew that deep down she was in charge. Two immaculate performances.

Oslo - Shimon PeresThere was also a very impressive performance by Howard Ward as Johan Jorgen Holst, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, a man who’s not unfamiliar with the best cuts of meat served with the finest of wines, delightfully patronising and complacent until he discovers something he doesn’t like. That’s when he tends to release an uncontrollable string of four-letter words – actually the same four-letter word spoken several times, each time more frenzied than the last. Mr Ward managed to be both intimidatingly dramatic and absolutely hilarious at the same time.

Oslo - Savir has had a fewThe roles of the various negotiators were all immaculately performed and given full characterisation by a very talented team but there were two really stand-out performances. Philip Arditti, as Uri Savir, the Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who is brought in to take the negotiations to a higher level, was both eerily scary and uproariously funny with his snappy delivery of Rogers’ elegant text. I’m still not quite sure how he, and/or the character, got away with that simple but effective impersonation of Arafat. Even more stunning was Peter Polycarpou’s performance as Ahmed Qurie; sinister, serious, intimidating, aggressive, yet a family man who lets down his guard and lets some light in where other angels fear to tread. And loves a waffle.

Oslo - Qurie and SavirEven though the play is set on a fixed date in the past – 1993 – the issues it raises are timeless and whilst there is tension in the Middle East, Oslo will always be relevant. Shortly before we saw the production, Donald Trump’s administration had declared it would regard Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move its embassy there. Without taking any sides in the matter, watching the play my toes curled at the insensitivity of this decision, as you witness how significant and how symbolic such actions can be. If ever you needed confirmation on how diplomacy needs a light touch, this play brings it into sharp focus.

Oslo - Hassan AsfourIf Oslo hadn’t really worked as a play, because it was too wordy, or too serious, or too undramatic, I’d have classified it as a brave failure, which is something I usually prize way higher than a lazy success anyway. But there’s absolutely no element of failure to it all. It’s ground-breaking in the way it takes what sounds like dull as ditchwater source material and creates such an exciting, suspenseful, revealing and funny play. Huge congratulations all round. You can’t go and see it in London at the moment, but I can’t imagine it will be long before this play finds another life somewhere else. Keep your eyes peeled!

Production photos by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Review – Guys and Dolls, Festival Theatre Chichester, 20th September 2014

Guys and Dolls 2014Wasn’t it Stephen Sondheim who said (and I think it was) that the best musical ever written is Carmen? Or maybe it was me. No, it wouldn’t have been me because my favourite musical of all time is A Chorus Line, and nothing is ever going to change me from that – inflexible though that sounds. But of all the other musicals ever written, a big contender for the title of Best Ever is without doubt Guys and Dolls, which fills your heart with happiness and pathos non-stop for two and a half hours and is jam-packed with a score that soars.

Guys and Dolls 1982It’s based on the Broadway-based short stories of Damon Runyon and tells the tales of two ladies. Miss Adelaide is the star at the Hot Box revue and has been engaged to Nathan for fourteen years. Unsurprisingly, she’s getting a bit fed up of her status, which has brought on psychosomatic sniffles. Nathan’s a bit of a lazy so-and-so and just makes his money from organising floating crap games – and although he’s promised Miss Adelaide that he’s stopped this reckless and illegal way of making a living, he hasn’t. Sister Sarah Brown is a prim but kind-hearted Salvationist at the Save A Soul Mission. If she doesn’t get more sinners to attend her meetings, the mission is going to get closed down. Enter inveterate gambler (and charmer) Sky Masterson, who wins a bet and the lady’s heart even though he’s not at all the kind of guy she’d imagined she’d want. Do Miss Adelaide and Nathan eventually get married? Does Sky arrange for all the local gamblers to attend the prayer meeting and convince Sarah that he’s the right guy for her? Of course they do!

The Oldest EstablishedAlthough it is undoubtedly a top-notch show, it’s not perfect – it breaks the Chrisparkle Cardinal Rule for a great musical, which is that every song must move the story or character development forward. There’s nothing worse than a musical where you have plot development then stop for a song, then more plot development, then stop for a song, and so on ad nauseam, mentioning no names (42nd Street). Guys and Dolls has two songs that are simply excuses for Miss Adelaide and the Hot Box girls to show us what they’re made of – the rather silly Bushel and a Peck, and the utterly brilliant Take Back Your Mink. They’re nothing more than dramatic interludes, but I break my Cardinal Rule and forgive them for that, due to the sheer entertainment value. There are also two sequences that seem rather dated today but fit perfectly to the “standard musical formula” of the time – this was written in 1950 – the ubiquitous musical ballet sequences. Think Oklahoma’s Dream Ballet or Carousel’s Billy Makes a Journey. However, they do have a purpose. The Havana sequence allows us to see Sarah Brown let her hair down, and the Crap Shooters’ Ballet serves as a lively aperitif to – indeed almost an extension of – Luck Be A Lady.

Take Back Your MinkChichester’s production of Guys and Dolls is a spectacular success. Beautiful to look at, thrilling to hear, and with some sensational performances that really take your breath away. Every department – lighting, sound, costume, choreography – excels. This was only the second time in all my years of theatregoing that I’ve seen this show – and it was Mrs Chrisparkle’s first. I remember with huge affection the National Theatre’s amazing production that I saw at a preview performance on 4th March 1982, starring a most glorious cast. I know it’s rude to compare, but it’s my blog and I’ll compare if I want to. Sadly, I may have to use the phrase “the late great” a few times in this paragraph. Miss Adelaide was played by Julia McKenzie, absolutely at the top of her musical skills and she was fantastic. Big Jule and NathanFor Nathan Detroit we had none other than the late great Bob Hoskins, and you can just imagine how much characterisation he gave it. Sarah Brown was the wonderful Julie Covington, who put such sincere expression into every scene, and Sky Masterson was the late great Ian Charleson – if only he had lived he would have undoubtedly been one of the greatest ever actors. Even dropping down the cast list there were some incredible names – Nicely-Nicely Johnson was the late great David Healy, beaming with happiness and brilliant throughout. Benny Southstreet was Northern Broadsides’ very own Barrie Rutter; Arvide Abernathy the late great John Normington; Harry the Horse was the amazing Bill Paterson; Brannigan was the late great Harry Towb; and Mimi in the chorus was played by someone called Imelda Staunton. With the help of a superb cast album, so much of that production is alive in my mind as if it were yesterday. So this Chichester revival had a lot to live up to – but without question it achieves it.

Sky and the gangSophie Thompson plays Miss Adelaide like she’s been waiting all her life to do it. I’ve only seen her once before, in Clybourne Park, where she gave a fantastic performance. But her Miss Adelaide is just wonderful. Delivering all the sadness as well as the humour in the brilliant Adelaide’s Lament, timing it to perfection with some daringly long pauses as you see the truth of her situation slowly occurring to her. There is an element of caricature to her performance, but then there’s more than an element of caricature about the whole character of Miss Adelaide, and it’s a perfect fit. She’s vivacious in the Hot Box songs, moving and funny in her arguments with Nathan, and just sublime with Sarah in Marry The Man Today. Quite simply a star performance.

Sit DownPeter Polycarpou plays Nathan Detroit with a downtrodden, can’t-ever-win attitude, which really emphasises the humour of his situation and character. He’s got natural stage authority and is a superb singer. His is a very different Nathan from Bob Hoskins’, who was more cheeky and chancy; Mr Polycarpou’s Nathan is quieter and wiser – less caricature, more real. As Sarah Brown, Clare Foster is a revelation, with an incredible vocal range and she switches from the prim and proper Sarah to the letting-her-hair-down Sarah really convincingly. I’d forgotten that we’d also seen her in Merrily We Roll Along, where she was extremely good, but here in Guys and Dolls, her performance is an absolute stunner. I was also very impressed with the way she kept up with the other sensational dancers in the Havana scene – choreographer Carlos Acosta couldn’t be a more appropriate choice. And Sky Masterson is played by the excellent Jamie Parker, who’s always rewarding to watch, and is perfect casting for this charismatic and enigmatic character.

Sarah and SkyThe biggest number of course comes from Nicely-Nicely Johnson leading the sinners in the rousing Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat. Harry Morrison gives it great attack and comic vitality, and sends it as way over the top as it can be, which is perfect for this tongue-in-cheek homage to being good without being godly. It went down a storm, as it always does. However, I was reminded of the 1982 version, which David Healy and the whole ensemble delivered so magnificently, that it literally stopped the show. Harry Towb came on as Brannigan to deliver his next line that moves us on from the song, and he waited, and he waited, but the audience wouldn’t let up with its noisy delighted applause, and in the end he threw up his hands and went off again while they all did a full encore. That was a theatrical magic moment. But comparisons are indeed odious, and that takes nothing away from Mr Morrison’s tremendous performance. He also does a fantastic job, with Ian Hughes as Benny, with the song Guys and Dolls, a really lively, funny, and engaging rendition of that number.

Marry the Man todayI loved Neil McCaul’s robust delivery of More I Cannot Wish You, very different from John Normington’s more sentimental delivery – I think I preferred Mr McCaul’s interpretation. And he gets a round of applause for his killer exit line. Very pleased to see him on stage again, I’ve not seen him since “Privates on Parade” in 1978. Nick Wilton (hilarious in the Menier’s Two into One earlier this year) is a wonderfully gruff gangster of a Harry The Horse, Nic Greenshields an amusingly imposing Big Jule, and the chorus ensemble are all just superb. As for the band, we had absolutely no choice but to stay behind to hear them finish their outro at the end of the show. Fantastic!

It’s a bit of a cliché to say that it would be a travesty if this doesn’t transfer, but, there, I’ve said it. If you were lucky enough to get to see it – wasn’t it great? If you didn’t see it – I bet you’re kicking yourself now.