I read in the programme that it was Maureen Lipman who had suggested to David Babani when she was appearing in the splendid “A Little Night Music” that it would be a great idea for the Menier to revive her late husband Jack Rosenthal’s 1981 comedy Smash, inspired by his experience of rewriting his TV play “Bar Mitzvah Boy” as a stage musical. Rosenthal’s play turned the character of the writer into a woman and it was Maureen Lipman herself who played the role originally when it did a provincial tour but didn’t reach the West End.
Maureen Lipman was of course a major contribution to the success of “Little Night Music” which transferred to the West End and Broadway and has done a lot of good for the Menier Brand. No doubt Mr Babani was feeling very warm and fuzzy towards Ms Lipman. However, sometimes when one is closely involved in a project, emotionally attached to its creator, or simply grateful for a job well done, you just can’t see the wood for the trees. I can think of no other explanation for mounting a production of this – regrettably – very unfunny and boring play. If I tell you that I preferred “Paradise Found”, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.
Now, if you’ve read any of my other play comments, you’ll know I’m not naturally vitriolic. I can always find something – SOMETHING – that I love in a stage production. But I think this one has darn near beaten me. Our seating position didn’t help. As a loyal supporter of the Menier (we try to go whenever we can), I always book a Sunday matinee online on the first day that the tickets become available. It’s normally seats in Row A. But you can’t always tell with the Menier as they often – very inventively – adapt the space and change the seating layouts (for example as they did last year with “A Number”). So when you expect their website to sell you the best available tickets and they are row CC, you trust them.
Well I have to tell you our seats CC12 – 13 were totally useless. Back row on the side, close to the end wall which meant that the back third of the stage was totally invisible. I felt very sorry for the two guys to my left who had even more of an obstructed view (although I understand their seats were sold as such, and were cheaper). Our seats were full price and thoroughly inadequate. On more than one occasion I heard an invisible voice on stage taking part in a scene and I had no idea the person was even there. It might as well have been a radio play.
The director Tamara Harvey seems to have only blocked the play from the view of the front of the stage so as a result there were long passages where characters were sat with their back to us. They may have been making facial expressions – we will never know. I estimate about 35% of all the seats in the auditorium were on the side, so it wouldn’t only be us who were ignored this way.
I’m not going to go on about our bad seats, but from our vantage point a) we had a good view of the rest of the audience and saw that a number of them slept through the first act and b) as a stickler for verisimilitude I saw an advert for Google on the inner pages of one of the apparently “1981” newspapers the cast were reading in the final scene. Not good enough attention to detail, I’m afraid.
The alienation I felt from the play was enhanced by having thoroughly unpleasant characters populate it, to the extent that I found it impossible to care about what happened to them. The opening scene has the star composer Bebe (based on Jule Styne) blanking the writer Liz in such an offensive sort of way that I hated his character thenceforward. Additionally, there seemed to be no personal progression for any of the characters throughout the play, despite the fact that the events cover over a year’s timescale. The writer started insecure and ended insecure. The composer started unreasonably bombastic and ended bombastic. Same for the director. The lyricist started – well I don’t know how he started really, I can’t think of any words that sum up such a vacant character – and he ended the same. If everyone’s character ends up in the same place that they started, what’s the point of that?
What appears to be an excellent cast on paper didn’t really translate to the stage either. They didn’t seem to gel as a team. I never got the feeling that any of the characters was actually listening to what any of the others was saying. Now I appreciate that the characters largely had their own agenda and wanted to get their own way within the story but even so I didn’t feel that many of the reactions of the actors to their colleagues’ speeches were really genuine.
As an actor you can always rely on to provide a star turn, Tom Conti is the best thing about this production. He gives us his New York Jewish act more or less exactly as I remember him playing Vernon in “They’re Playing our Song” over thirty years ago, only older. It’s enjoyable, if safe. His best lines are when he can’t think of what to say, and his words peter out into a befuddled murmur. He does it well – but I think that says a lot (not) for the wit element of the script.
The writer Liz is played by Natalie Walter who does the “inexperienced writer abroad” aspect of the role fine enough, but she gave me no sense of despair, anger, frustration, tiredness, or any of another hundred possible emotions when she is found on the floor of her hotel room surrounded by rewrites. It’s meant to be late at night and with urgent work to do for heaven’s sake! She had all the urgency of composing her Waitrose shopping list. The effect on me of her plight was just like A Chorus Line’s Diana hearing the news of Mr Karp’s death, “because I felt Nothing”.
Richard Schiff took over the role of Bebe the composer pretty late in the day before the show opened, and I think it showed. His prop handling wasn’t great – he gives Liz a boxed bracelet as a gift on opening night, except that he mishandled it and gave it to her with the box half open and the bracelet swinging all over the place, whilst trying to stifle a giggle at his ineptitude. On another occasion, having been seated on an upturned suitcase, he knocked it over when he stood up – that kind of thing. I think he corpsed again in the final scene because of something Tom Conti said to him at the back of the stage – but I can’t be sure as this was in the hidden “dark area” you’re not permitted to see from seats CC12 & 13.
The role of Mike the lyricist, modelled on Don Black, was so feebly written a part that Josh Cohen playing him seemed to “feeble down” to occupy it. The character keeps on coming up with statements like “I had to turn down 16 black lesbians” or similar nonsense, and I couldn’t work out why he was saying these things. Were they his own private fantasies? Were the stories he shared with his wife? Were they fantasies he wanted to share with Liz? I couldn’t understand their relevance in the play, but anyway they weren’t funny and I was past caring. Sorry, but Josh Cohen had little charisma or stage presence and was frequently not noticeable. It’s the kind of performance I’ve described in the past as being “phoned in”. I’m afraid this was so bland that really it was texted in.
Cameron Blakely as the director Stacey was fine to the extent that he had to play an unpleasant man irascibly and noisily. But I didn’t care about the character and when he alluded to a possible affair with Liz it came as a bolt from the blue. Where did that come from? There was no discernable romantic interest earlier in the play. Also in the script were totally anti-British, anti-English comments from Stacey and Bebe. Now this may very well be a true reflection of Jack Rosenthal’s experience, but I felt quite bludgeoned by their constant criticisms of how useless the British are in every job, in every creative sphere, in every attitude. It was really quite racist. Oh yes, and there was a fight scene between all the main characters. Seen from the side, it was one of the most embarrassingly ham-fisted theatre sequences I’ve seen for a long time.
Just before the final scene the sound track failed. The Sound Supervisor came on stage and said due to a technical problem there would be a short break before the production could resume. The audience buzzed with engaged excitement – at last. Given they had no flying cars or descending chandeliers I thought they should just get on with it in silence. Mrs Chrisparkle prayed that if they couldn’t finish the show and offered us tickets for another performance that there would be no convenient dates. But the show did start up again, and there was a clever line spoken by Natalie Walter about a technical fault – if it was quickly ad-libbed that very moment it was very well done. If it was already in the script then it was a sign from the Gods.
So, in brief: a script bereft of wit played by actors portraying tedious characters who didn’t seem to engage with each other very much and who had their backs to me for much of the time. “Smash” for me used to mean dried convenience mashed potato pieces. It would have been funnier to watch one of their old adverts.