Review – Curtains, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 25th February 2020

87361732_614958972684057_4884451827958939648_nUnlike most Brits, Mrs Chrisparkle and I had the pleasure (we’ll come back to that word) of seeing Curtains before its current UK tour, when we caught it at the Al Hirschfield Theater in New York in 2008 – I know, so cosmopolitan. I remember it reasonably fondly; Mrs C less so, and she took some convincing to see this first major British production. I recall I was perplexed at the time that the Broadway production didn’t transfer to the West End. With the benefit of hindsight, I think I understand why.

Jason ManfordCurtains comes with a massive pedigree: primarily its composer and lyricist, Kander and Ebb, whose back-catalogue shines with highlights such as Cabaret and Chicago, as well as The Scottsboro Boys, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and the movie Funny Lady. Fred Ebb died whilst writing Curtains, as did book writer Peter Stone, so Rupert Holmes (he of The Pina Colada Song, Him, and The Mystery of Edwin Drooooood) stepped in to complete the task. Nevertheless, all of us can have our off days, and, musically, you can’t deny that Curtains is a severe disappointment. No memorable songs, no songs that have taken a life of their own outside the show, no great tunes. We all know people who say, that whilst they like “the theatre”, they can’t stand musicals. To my mind, musicals are an incredibly versatile art form, capable of creating sheer magic on a stage, exploring characters, revealing truths, deconstructing dilemmas in their own unique way. However, Curtains is the kind of musical that people who hate musicals think all musicals are like. If this was the first musical I’d ever seen, I’d dismiss the genre as kinda woeful.

The CompanyThe trouble with Curtains is (and I’m talking about the bare bones of the show here, not this production) that it’s trying to be a number of things but fails at them all. It wants to be taken as a serious musical in its own right, but the songs simply aren’t up to it – in fact this is far and away the worst score by Kander and Ebb that I have come across. It wants to be a comedy whodunit, but it completely lacks suspense. In its attempt to parody/pastiche landmark musicals like Oklahoma! or Finian’s Rainbow, it concentrates on their trademark scenes, such as big hoedown stomps or dream ballet sequences, but, taken out of the context of their original shows, they just slow down the natural development of this show. It also makes the show feel immensely dated. Whereas in Cabaret and Chicago the music and the style instantly gives you a time-setting without having to spell it out, you forget that Curtains is meant to be set in 1950s Boston, primarily because there’s no obvious reason for it. Musicals and murder are timeless, so why isn’t this?

The CompanyChrisparkle’s first law of musical theatre is that each song should progress either the plot or our understanding of the characters, or at least the general setting of the show. There’s nothing more frustrating than a stop-start musical where the story takes a break each time an ensemble assembles to sing something. Unfortunately, so many of the numbers in Curtains consist of the audience passively viewing the performance (or rehearsal) from another show (in this case the fictional Robbin’ Hood) which have no meaning or significance for us the audience. Take, for example, the lengthy Thataway that closes the first Act; it’s all bluster and no content, a very repetitive tune that never soars even when you think it might. It’s just an excuse for some swirling skirts and cowboy high-kickin’ (which, to be fair, the cast perform extremely well). But there’s no drama to it, no character development, nothing with which to lead you into the interval with a greater understanding of what’s going on.

Jason Manford & Leah Barbara WestTalking of intervals, it didn’t help that, technically, the performance was a bit of a disaster. The interval climax big effect, where murder victim #2 is found suspended noose-first from the curtains, simply didn’t happen. The characters told us all to “look up there” (or words to that effect) but there was nothing happening “up there”. Then, after Jason Manford’s Cioffi yelled “blackout!” to signify the end of the Act, the curtain fell, only to part rise again to reveal what looked like a degree of backstage consternation at the fact that the effect hadn’t worked. First night in a new theatre, yes, sometimes things go wrong. It happens.

Jason Manford & the boysSurely there were some good things? Yes indeed. Let’s start at the top with Mr Manford. I’ve not seen him in a musical before, and I thought he was excellent. The characterisation of musical-loving Detective Cioffi, hankering romantically after the ingénue Niki Harris, fanboying the writers and the director, worked extremely well. The Broadway production we saw starred David Hyde Pierce in the same role and he camped it up rotten. Jason Manford’s performance, however, was much more nuanced, more considered and more believable. And of course he has excellent comic timing, which he used to great effect.

The CompanyRebecca Lock also gives a fine, beefy performance as the no-nonsense, hard-nosed producer Carmen Bernstein, chucking out savage one-liners whilst belting out her numbers; think Ethel Merman meets Joan Rivers. It’s just a shame that her one-liners weren’t a little funnier and less predictable, but that’s not her fault. Carley Stenson looks and sounds great as Georgia Hendricks, parachuted in to play the lead role when the actress who was going to play Madame Marian suffers a terminal first-night curtain call. Ore Oduba was good, if a little clinical, as Aaron Fox, the composer, and his voice was a little under-amplified in the singing department.

Samuel HolmesThere’s great support from the rest of the cast, especially Emma Caffrey as the show-off Bambi, and understudy Robin Kent who débuted the busy and important role of Bobby Pepper and did a terrific job. Capping it all, there’s a prize performance from Samuel Holmes as the flouncy director Christopher Belling, bitching his way around the stage, side-stepping blame and trouble like a slalom expert. I last saw Mr Holmes as Lord Farquaad in Shrek, where he stole the show; he really does this kind of spoilt brat incredibly well.

Rebecca Lock The other person who drags this show up by its bootstrings and does his best to redeem it, is choreographer Alistair David. An alumnus of so many brilliant lavish shows in Sheffield and Chichester, his dance routines for Curtains throughout are exciting, cheeky, and simply enjoyable. And it’s a testament to the great boys and girls of the dance team that they’re more than up to the task and make those otherwise bland set numbers watchable.

It's loveMrs C started to nod off during Ms Stenson’s performance of Thinking of Him – nothing against Ms Stenson at all, just the fact that the plot had stopped in order for her to sing an irrelevant song, and it’s a cue to the audience to take their mind off the story and let their minds wander. I tried to pull her back to consciousness a few times during the first Act but she’d already lost interest, and was only vaguely sentient at odd moments. She experienced more of the Second Act and even laughed at Mr Holmes’ retort to Bambi: “the only thing you could arouse is suspicion” (winner of Best Line in Show). I stayed awake, but, have to admit, felt pretty bored for much of the time.

The CompanyAlas, the most glittering of casts would have difficulty jump-starting this old banger of a show. After this week, the tour valiantly continues to Blackpool, Glasgow, Leicester, High Wycombe, Wolverhampton and Southampton. Go for the performances and the dancing; look away for the rest.

Production photos by Richard Davenport

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – Shrek the Musical, Derngate, Northampton, 14th March 2018

ShrekI remember when Shrek the Musical hit the Theatre Royal Drury Lane back in 2011; I was so jealous of all the kids going in to see it. I loved the film (well, the first one, at any rate) and thought a musical version would be a perfect spin-off. It ran for two good years, so it must have been doing something right. This new touring production was an excellent opportunity for me to fill my Shrek-shaped knowledge gap.

Shrek-005Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire are not the first names that trip off the tongue when you think of Broadway musical writers; but Ms Tesori is responsible for the highly regarded Caroline, or Change, and Mr Lindsay-Abaire wrote the delicious Fuddy Meers amongst other works, so I reckon they should know how to put a musical together. They’ve taken the simple plot of the original film, which, if you don’t know it (gasp!) is basically: evil Lord evicts fairy-tale characters, so they end up having to live in an ogre’s swamp. Said ogre (Shrek) isn’t happy about this, so goes off to complain to the Lord, en route collecting a donkey as companion.Shrek-065 Said Lord is looking for a Princess to marry, so that he can become King. But he’s far too weak and conceited to do his own dirty work, so when Shrek arrives at his castle, he sends him off to rescue the Princess (Fiona) from her tower. But one thing leads to another and Shrek and Fiona fall in love, even though they both think the other doesn’t fancy them. Does Fiona have to marry the evil Lord Farquaad, or can Shrek put everything right just in time? Well, it is a modern day fairy-tale, so what do you think?

Shrek-168There’s no expense spared on bringing this extravagant production to life; enormous sets, great costumes, a ravishing-sounding seven-piece band in the pit, some clever special effects, very groovy puppetry – the dragon is a true tour de force – and an awful lot of green make-up. The cast work together as an ensemble extremely well and there are some great individual performances; and the audience gave it a warm reception at the end.

Shrek-083But I couldn’t help conclude that it was, overall, a very peculiar show. It’s clearly targeting the children/pantomime audience, but it’s also more sophisticated than that; deconstructing fairy-tale characters a la Into the Woods, with a cross-dressing wolf and a Pinocchio with an identity crisis. It’s the kind of musical that has lots of big, showbizzy, jazz hands numbers; so much so that it seemed to me more like a modern-day parody of a, say, 1930s Busby Berkeley affair than actually having an identity of its own. When the Pied Piper has difficulty catching his rats, it’s a cue for Princess Fiona to marshal them into a rat tap-dancing act, Shrek-208all dressed up in their tuxedos and tails. I thought I was witnessing Fiona understudying Carol Channing and her 10 Stout-Hearted Men (50 points to you if you remember that). It’s as though Shrek had been handed over to Mel Brooks to create an ogre-based version of Springtime for Hitler, with all its inherent, ludicrous inappropriateness. For a modern show it just feels very anachronistic; if this is the way children get an early introduction to modern musical theatre, I feel they might being led up a very odd garden path.

Shrek-057It also feels like a rather unbalanced show, in that there’s a dream of a role in Lord Farquaad, who lights up the stage with every appearance; the performance by Samuel Holmes is so cleverly realised and beautifully undertaken, with the writers giving him all the best lines and the funniest songs. As a result, you spend the rest of the time looking forward to him coming on again, somewhat at the expense of everything else.

Shrek-287The jolly green giant (except he’s not jolly) Shrek the ogre is played by Steffan Harri; he adopts a big, gruff, Scottish accent in the style of Mike Myers’ original, and, given the fact that his make-up and prosthetics totally mask his real face, he gives a surprisingly expressive performance, revealing Shrek’s emotions and motivations much more clearly than you would expect. When he thinks that Fiona and the Donkey have been laughing at him behind his back, and that he has no chance with her romantically, his lovelorn disappointment is genuinely moving. Laura Main’s Princess Fiona combines both the youthful beauty of the classic Princess locked in a tower, with the world-weary frustration of someone who’s waited 8,423 days to meet her true love; assuming she was, say, 16-ish when she was locked up, that would make her around 40 years old today.Shrek-112 Presenting her as not quite in her first flush of youth (no slight intended) is actually more realistic than simply being yet another Rapunzel. It’s a lively, energetic performance, with a big sense of fun; and the two characters work extremely well together, for example in “I Think I Got You Beat” (“Anything you can do I can do better” for ogres), when they compete to out-fart each other. The kids loved it.

Shrek-016My favourite character in the film (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) is the Donkey, and anyone trying to emulate Eddie Murphy’s characterisation on stage is in for a tough time. Fortunately, Marcus Ayton doesn’t attempt this, and his Donkey is less cartoony but more camp than the original. With his front legs up and hoofs pointing down, you could imagine this donkey sashaying around shouting you go, gurl! But Mr Ayton has a great range of vocal nuances and facial expressions that create an excitable but genuine character and it’s a very funny performance. But unquestionably my favourite was Samuel Holmes as Lord Farquaad, not only for the physical feat of spending two and a half hours on his knees, but for his terrifically funny characterisation – the quirky asides, the barely suppressed contempt for anything that doesn’t make him look good; the perfect epitome of little man syndrome. He’s a total delight throughout.

Shrek-170It’s a very slick, professional and ebullient show, but for some reason it never hit me in the heart. Too old and cynical for this kind of thing? I hope not. Shrek is on a major tour; after Northampton it travels to Sheffield, Cardiff, Stoke, Blackpool, Woking, Liverpool, Norwich, Canterbury, Milton Keynes, Bristol, Llandudno, Nottingham, Glasgow, Belfast, Dublin, Plymouth, Southampton and winding up in Leeds for Christmas and New Year.

Production photos by Helen Maybanks