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 The Theatreguide.London Reviews

For the Archive, we have filed our reviews of several fringe and off-West End productions from 2001 on this page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.

Marat/Sade - Murder - My Husband is a Spaceman - Platonov - Rags - See How Beautiful I Am - Sholom Aleichem - Silent Treatment - Song of Singapore - Voyagers - Wexford Trilogy - Where's Charley?

 
Marat/Sade Arcola Theatre Spring 2001

The full title of Peter Weiss' rambling masterpiece - 'The Persecution and Assassination of Marat, as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton, under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade' - neatly sums up the plot of this compelling Herald Theatre/Arcola co-production where traces of Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Hate are combined with effortless, methodical characterisation. One is plunged into a world where the insane ape sane players in de Sade's polemic on a particularly mad slice of the French Revolution.

The play in this form was first put on in 1964 by Peter Brook at the National Theatre. Both highly acclaimed and controversial, the production was also notable for featuring a young Glenda Jackson in the role of Charlotte and much spitting at the audience. It was intended, and was accepted, as a virulent exposť of modern society, hammering home the message with choruses of "Revolution! Revolution!" in the closing minutes. Almost 40 years on, although the politics have moved on, it has lost none of its impact.

Twenty-six actors onstage here means 26 concurrent performances, and it is to the credit of each member of the cast that the constant flurry of madness adds to the natural background of an asylum, serving as a potent focus on whoever happens to take centrestage. Nowhere is this so pronounced as in the epic, surreal show trial where each inmate is given the chance to denounce Marat.

David Bradshawe's de Sade is always on the ball as he guides his fellow inmates through his play from the sidelines. As the beleaguered Marat, Alexander Arkell gives a stentorian portrayal of the revolutionary genius trapped Dennis Potter-like in the bath that is both a relief from his skin condition as well as his dock. Nicola Cunningham's Charlotte Corday and Kevin Drury's Duperret provide unnnervingly leftfield mouthpieces to harangue the politician, poked about by Jonathan Waite's pernickety Herald.

Translated by Geoffrey Skelton and versified by Adrian Mitchell, the play's German origins are betrayed by a surfeit of philosophical bombast in Act I, but these usefully contrast in the second half with another German influence - Brecht's. And whenever things threaten to disappear up their own fundament, director Michael Cabot skilfully nudges humour into the fore. With casting worthy of Pasolini, this is as truly a mesmerising, challenging piece of theatre you will find.

Nick Awde

Murder Gate Theatre Autumn 2001

Israeli author Hanoch Levin's play, here produced in a translation by Barbara Harshav, is on one very topical level about the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian strife, and the way nothing seems able to keep people from killing their neighbours. In that way, it could just as easily have been written by someone in Bosnia or Northern Ireland or any of too many other places in the world.

But on a deeper level, it is about the inescapable sordidness of killing, whether done by soldiers, terrorists or private individuals. And that reminder - that neither political causes nor grand passions can dignify the act of killing - makes the one-hour play very powerful despite flaws in its writing and dramaturgy.

Three episodes are presented and implicitly equated: In a war, ironically moments before a cease-fire, three soldiers brutally kill a civilian boy. Years later, that boy's father murders a bride and groom on their wedding night because he thinks the groom might be one of the soldiers. And at some other time, a terrorist bomb blast drives a crowd into an insane frenzy in which they kill and mutilate an innocent man.

In each case, the killers travel beyond any justification they could rationally offer into a madness that even they are frightened by, and in each the victims are unable to comprehend the seemingly random purposelessness of what is happening to them.

This is a powerful antiwar and anti-prejudice statement, so effective in its conception that the play works despite its disjointed episodic structure and sharp clashes in style and tone. Naturalistic dialogue keeps getting interrupted by self-contained arias of philosophising or preaching; and the author resorts to the clumsy device of having the dead rise to speak his message. In what is evidently meant to create a greater shock contrast, the newlyweds and the lynching victim are given extended scenes celebrating life before they are killed, but it may be a mistake (just because of the clash in tones) for the couple to rhapsodise on the pleasures of oral sex and the man to celebrate being a peeping tom.

Director Ruth Levin is unable to disguise these flaws, but pushes the play through them to its overall success. In a large cast, Ranu Setna as the grieving father and Annemarie Lawless as the doomed bride stand out.

Gerald Berkowitz

My Husband Is A Spaceman
Battersea Arts Centre 2001

Here's an opportunity for the more adventurous, and those willing to go further afield than the West End, to encounter a quite accessible piece that falls somewhere on the border between theatre and performance art.

Those with a taste for music trivia might recognize Kazuko Hohki's name from the 1980s Japanese pop duo Frank Chickens. Always more of a performance artist than a pop singer, Kazuko has been doing solo shows in recent years (though Frank Chickens has reformed for free post-show concerts after some performances of the current piece), and her new show is worth the trip south of the river.

The title is a metaphor of culture clash, with the twist that the alien is a conventional Englishman as seen by his Japanese wife. Kazuko begins by retelling a traditional Japanese folk tale that is a variant on the Frog Prince, with a man befriending a crane who becomes his wife and then departs as a bird again. Kazuko has had a similar adventure, she announces, taking us back to her days as a Tokyo OL (office lady - "I make tea and photocopies").

She befriends a duck in a Tokyo park, and is convinced that he reappears as the British anthropologist who interviews, woos and weds her, bringing her back to an England she only knew from old movies. Now she's beginning to feel like an alien herself, and fears he is transforming her into his species with all those cups of English tea, but if she exposes his secret, he may disappear like the crane in the story.

It's a lovely tale, half folk myth and half high comedy, and Kazuko simply stands onstage and tells it, in a heavily-accented English that is occasionally indecipherable. She has a few props, notably a series of things - book, teacup, pillow - with large pink noses attached to represent her husband. But the most inventive elements come in a projected video behind her, where she has concocted animated origami puppets to add flavour to the play's folk tale elements, and collages that inventively place her, Zelig-like, in a variety of English scenes.

Scenes are punctuated by karioke-style singing in both Japanese and English (and, to be honest, she may be halfway through the song before you can tell which), and the piece gives the sense more of a work in progress than of a polished text, with the ending particularly abrupt and unresolved. The whole thing lasts about an hour and is alternatingly poetically evocative, very funny, and totally opaque - just about all you could ask from a performance piece.

Gerald Berkowitz

Platonov Almeida Theatre (at King's Cross) Autumn 2001

Unlikely as it may seem, theatre people actually get bored doing Chekhov's great plays every few years, and so, about once a decade, they dip into his juvenalia and unfinished first drafts to find new material, notably Ivanov and Platonov. The latter exists in a sprawling, unedited six-hour text, from which Michael Frayn mined out a Ray Cooney-style sex farce for the National Theatre in 1984. Now David Hare has gone back to the source and, editing and selecting slightly differently, has found a more complex work that shuttles uneasily between black comedy and melodrama for a very uneven three and a half hours.

The play centres on Mikhail Platonov, a provincial schoolmaster whose compulsive criticism and ridicule of others is too obviously a projection of self-hatred at his own third-ratedness. Despite - or perhaps because of - his constant rudeness, he has the curious ability to reduce every woman around him to gibbering, love-struck idiocy, and the play follows the complex course of his amours. This is the aspect Frayn was able to turn into farce, but Hare treats it more seriously as, after toying with one woman, considering but rejecting a grand passion with another, and carrying on a tawdry affair with a third - all the time seeing himself as victim of their demands - Platonov meets a melodramatic end.

Complicating this tale is Chekhov's and Hare's attempt concurrently to depict the decadent society in which Platonov lives. We are in familiar Chekhov territory - a country district where the idle and generally useless privileged classes fill their time in chatter and flirtation while ignoring their financial plight. What is unfamiliar, though (and may well be Hare's effect), is a general lack of charity toward these social butterflies, as one after another their pettiness and unpleasantness is exposed. Not just Platonov, but everyone takes turns backbiting, backstabbing or bullying others, as a recurring trope has someone say something unspeakably hurtful and then laugh it off as a joke. This is dramatically counterproductive, because it becomes increasingly difficult to sympathise with or care about any of these people.

At the centre of this little world is the lovely and intelligent young widow Anna, who works at being a charming and safely seductive hostess because she owes money to everyone and must divert them from that thought. But Chekhov/Hare also want us to see her as representative of the plight of the too-intelligent woman in a world to small for her, and also as one capable of tragically overpowering emotions (she's the grand passion Platonov backs away from, evidently fearing her intensity). That would be a lot for the main character of a play to carry; as an important secondary figure, she just doesn't get enough of the play's attention to develop all these strands.

And that's emblematic of the play as a whole. One aspect of Chekhov's genius was his ability to fill a stage with characters all of whom could be the heroes of their own play, but Hare doesn't share that ability, and whenever he turns his focus away from Platonov, he creates an insufficiently developed distraction - we never really understand or care about, say, Platonov's saintly wife, or the lovesick woman he has the affair with, or her heartbroken husband.

Under Jonathan Kent's direction, Aiden Gillen works hard at giving Platonov a boyish charm to counterbalance the growing unpleasantness of his self-absorption, while Helen McCrory is more successful at presenting Anna's glittering exterior than the revelations of deep passions beneath. The rest of the cast must do their best with either one-dimensional roles - Frances Grey as Platonov's wife, Jodhi May as his victimized mistress - or with characters who change inexplicably with the demands of the plot, such as Adrian Scarborough's first comic and then avenging-angel doctor.

Gerald Berkowitz


Rags Bridewell Theatre Autumn 2001

Charles Strouse and Stephen Schwartz's musical (book by Joseph Stein) had a brief New York run a while back, and has developed something of a cult following since. Unfortunately, this disappointing production gives too little indication of why.

The show follows two immigrant Jewish women from their arrival in New York a century ago. One is torn between her assimilated and ambitious husband and a charismatic union organiser, the other between her strict father and the lures of independence and romance. One is killed in a sweatshop fire and the other is radicalised.

Rags suffers from being caught in a middle, partly derivative - there are musical and structural echoes of Oliver!, Cabaret and (inevitably) Fiddler on the Roof - and partly trumped by the later Ragtime, which covers some of the same musical and thematic terrain far more impressively. Strouse's music tries for a blend of ragtime, jazz and kletzmer, though without any real commitment to any of them - there is, for example, a violin solo in one number that desperately wants to go over the top in schmaltz but is disappointingly held back.

About a decade ago, there was an ill-conceived London revival of the rock musical Hair, with chorus boys and girls who hadn't even been born in the 1960s pretending unconvincingly to be hippies. I couldn't help thinking of it as the cast of Rags, striving earnestly to maintain their Yiddish accents and characterisations, were almost totally unsuccessful in creating a stage reality. As a colleague suggested, you might not have to be Jewish to do this show, but it would certainly help to be a New Yorker, immersed in a cultural atmosphere flavoured by the world depicted here.

Sally Ann Triplett as the wife sings nicely but without a convincing characterisation behind the sounds. "Easy For You," a duet with the radical (Davor Golub) that combines a fervent clash of values with an underlying sexual tension, should be an electric scene (Though they don't otherwise resemble each other, think of the energy of the "A Boy Like That" duet in West Side Story), but only teasingly hints at its potential here.

Alicia Davies has a bit more vitality as the younger woman, though she has an ongoing problem with a wavering accent, and she does the surprisingly bitter title song well. Sue Kelvin and John Levitt have fun with "Three Sunny Rooms," a comic song in which the older couple find the availability of an apartment sufficient excuse for marriage. The rest of the cast, as directed by Matthew White, are generally wooden, though inventive use is made of the Bridewell's flexible playing spaces, and one very inventive scene - a hilarious parody of a Yiddish theatre Hamlet - almost justifies the whole evening.

Whatever it is that makes some people consider Rags an under-appreciated masterpiece either isn't there, or just isn't here in this production.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

See How Beautiful I Am Bush Theatre Autumn 2001

Jacqueline Susann earned her slice of immortality by writing Valley of the Dolls, the mega-blockbuster that even outsold the bible for a while. Her own life mirrored the excesses of her heroines and while the literati debated her literary style, Susann became high on the fame she had always yearned for.

Debora Weston creates a laugh a second and she sashays through a manic string of recollections and verbal slapstick in this one-woman show, scripted by Paul Minx. Courtesy of Tambar Productions, this raucous, glorious romp through the author's life - and death, since Susann addresses the audience from the hospital bedside of her own death bed. From failed actress to successful author - who invented the publicity road show - Weston lays bare a rollercoaster of a life that began with dysfunctional parents (what else?), progressed through sex with bad Jewish comics, recreating scenes from VD and fantasies of winning the Pulitzer Prize.

She hides her pain with glee at the drugs one is legitimately able to take for the breast cancer that brought premature death. Despite the obvious humour, the string of one-liners threatens to become pure stand-up that veers unerringly into Joan Rivers material, highlighted by the comic's presence in the front row of the audience.

The Bush's space is way too intimate for such a larger than life personality, and very little character shines through in any case - for all director Sarah Esdaile's laudable efforts - and Weston coasts a little too easily on the one-liners. Unlike Susann, she never goes all the way.

Nick Awde


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Sholom Aleichem: Now You're Talking! King's Head Theatre Winter 2001-02

Today's memory of Jewish life in the shtetl is inevitably, happily tinged with the work of 19th century Yiddish writer Sholom (or Shalom) Aleichem. Adapted and performed by Saul Reichlin, it is clear these frequently bitter-sweet tales are no nostalgia trip but as incisive and revealing as any modern documentary. With little more than a change of headgear, Reichlin brings to life the denizens of the village of Kasrilevkeh. Sometimes there is a punchline to the stories, more often there is not, but it is the getting there that counts.

And Reichlin has his work cut out: not only does he have to keep track of a flurry of characters but also, on occasion, stories within stories within stories, such as the rabbi worming out a crook from a group before him for judgement. All proceedings are leavened with humour, even when the subject is serious, such as the brothers shamed for squabbling over their father's prized seat in the synagogue.

No subject is too great to be filtered through the village perspective for the understanding of all - world figures such as Dreyfus and Rothschild jostle with the intimate domesticity of matchmakers and children's Hanukah money. The real magic kicks in during the second half when Tevye the Milkman launches into a shaggy-dog story of how he stumbled into ownership his first cow. It is so easy to see how this and other stories inspired Fiddler on the Roof.

Reichlin gives a fluid performance that is more drama than storytelling, which - not to make comparison between the genres - opens it up to a wider audience.

Nick Awde


The Silent Treatment Finborough Theatre Spring 2001

Theatre 28 is a company with an admirable record of doing gay-oriented plays with courage and sensitivity. Their newest project, written and directed by company actor Chris Pickles, is notable for almost casually including a sympathetic gay character on the one hand, and for facing the deeply unsettling subject of homosexual child abuse on the other. It is all the more disappointing, therefore, that its medium is to a great extent a somewhat predictable and melodramatic soap opera.

The play's subject is the tragic effect on a family of domestic secrets and lies, and its passion lies in an inditement of the policy (repeatedly voiced in the play) of "Least said, soonest mended." With father dead - we will learn how and why near the play's end - and mother (Illona Linthwaite) withdrawn into a silent walking catatonia, older son John (Derek Carlyle) is buckling under the strain of keeping the family functioning, while younger son Andy (Euan Morton) rebels against his efforts. Andy's girlfriend (Polly Findlay) is clearly out of her depth, but openly gay family friend Frank (Dave Sim) attempts to offer good counsel, not realizing how little he understands of the situation.

As we watch the family members begin to crumble, it comes as no surprise that there are yet darker secrets to be revealed. Unfortunately, the shocking revelations are telegraphed long in advance and, when they come, are presented melodramatically, making the first act a somewhat unsatisfying soap opera.

The second act is more interesting, replaying the already-seen action, to a great extent in mime, while the hitherto-silent mother speaks her thoughts, filling in those details of the back-story not fully explained in the first act, and explaining the source of her schizophrenic withdrawal. While this device allows Linthwaite a passionate and alternately funny and moving monologue, it ultimately disappoints, adding little of significance to either the information or the emotional depth of the first act.

We are left with a story that, for all its darkness, has been told before; and the author's courage and sincerity cannot overcome the limitations of his somewhat formulaic mode. There could be a powerful one-act play combining the external and internal perspectives on the situation rather than presenting them sequentially. As it stands, despite strong performances all around, the play delivers too little at too great length.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

Song Of Singapore Mayfair Theatre Summer 2001

This small but irresistibly cheery little show is a campy salute to 1940s musicals and spy movies and, if it isn't quite as wonderful as it wants to be, it's still a very enjoyable evening out.

The setting is a rundown Singapore bar in 1941, where the house band is a rag-tag mix. There's the obligatory kid from Brooklyn (James Lailey) on guitar, the suave continental (Richard Brightiff) on trombone, the crusty-but-loveable bandleader (Elio Pace), and so on. And at the centre, of course, is the girl singer, played by Issy van Randwyck as a blonde so dumb she keeps forgetting she has amnesia.

(That's about the level of the jokes, so if you can't take it, you might as well stop right here. Or if you want another sample, when someone shouts in horror "Do you know there's a dead man at the bar?", the band says "Sure" and goes into a chorus of a song called "There's a Dead Man at the Bar.")

There's a minimal plot involving some stolen jewels and a corrupt (of course) police chief, and a Chinese woman of mystery, and the threat of the advancing Japanese, and the blonde gets her memory back - and, in short, no cliche is left unturned in this gentle spoof. But the plot is really irrelevant, barely interrupting the string of musical numbers.

Every style of 1940s pop music is lovingly recreated, with only the hint of parody, and the songs are good, from the big band swing numbers, through the bluesy torch songs to the tango and the conga line that lures some audience members onstage. The music is so infectious you can't help thinking they might just as well have jettisoned any pretense to a story and just had a concert.

For all practical purposes, that's what they've done. Writing, characterisations, and acting are all kept to the absolute minimum necessary - Issy van Randwick, for example, walks through the whole show with exactly the same dumb-blonde expression on her face, even when singing divinely. Which is not to denigrate the talent up there - everyone plays at least two instruments as well as singing, and the joint really rocks when they get going.

Song of Singapore is generically similar to the new production of Gondoliers that opened the same week - both are half-spoof, half-tribute, both involve casts who play several instruments as well as singing, both are very entertaining without quite breaking through that invisible line into true wonderfulness. Of the two, I'd give Gondoliers the win on cleverness and style, though Song of Singapore might just edge it out musically.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

Voyagers Croydon Warehouse Theatre, Spring 2001

This is almost the model of British Fringe theatre: a small touring company of young artists doing interesting work on a modest scale. If their current play isn't quite what they think it is, its strengths and their inventiveness are still worth applauding.

This new play from Jet Theatre was devised by Kenneth Rea with the company and directed by Rea. Michael Moylan plays an astronaut on the way to Mars, who is either hallucinating or is actually haunted by the spirits of past explorers, leading him to question his mission.

A guilt-ridden Christopher Columbus (Michael Burgess) begs him to turn back, since exploration always involves exploitation and destruction of the hitherto virginal. But the others all argue that searching the unknown is central to the human character and destiny. A wide-eyed Marco Polo, played by Neil Sheppeck, reports with undiminished wonder on the beauty he found in his travels; Matthew Burgess's stalwart Captain Cook relives his doughty adventures with the conviction that they were worth it, and the cheerfully garrulous Sindbad played by Eliot Giuralarocca delights himself and the others with his tall tales.

As each ghost tells his stories, the cast acts them out, employing an impressive combination of mime and eastern-flavoured movement (credit is given to both Maori and Chinese advisors), using little more than masks and bamboo poles as props. These interludes are so evocative that they frequently invite the audience to lose interest in the supposedly central plot of the astronaut's dilemma.

Despite references to cannibalism and explorer atrocities, the historical picture is somewhat simplified and sanitised. The play ignores the facts, for example, that Columbus wasn't the first to discover the Americas, and that he never reached what is now the USA. And mixing the historical Cook, the somewhat mythologized Columbus and Polo, and the fairy tale Sindbad together is a clue to the play's real essence.

The combination of an inventive stage and performance style, a science-fiction frame, an unsophisticated historical vision, and a simple, uplifting moral makes Voyagers closer in spirit to a children's pageant than a play for adults, and one might suggest that the company rethink the work in that direction, to make the most effective use of its strengths.

Gerald Berkowitz


The Wexford Trilogy: A Handful Of Stars, Poor Beast In The Rain, Belfry Tricycle Theatre - Winter 2000-01

Billy Roche's three plays of life in a small Irish village were produced in London about a decade ago, making him the first of the recent new wave of Irish playwrights (Conor McPherson, etc.) to make their mark on the English theatre. Now a co-production of the Oxford Stage Company, the Tricycle, Chester's Gateway Theatre and the Lowry brings all three plays together for their first major revival. They're being performed in rotating repertory, with marathon three-in-a-day weekends, so check listings or phone ahead for the schedule.

The first of the plays to be written, A Handful of Stars, proves, at least in this revival, to be the weakest. The story of an energetic young man driven by the emptiness of small town life into a spiral of self-destructive wildness lacks either the resonance or the reality of the other two plays in the cycle.

Under Wilson Milam's direction, Peter McDonald as Jimmy gives no indication in the essentially plotless first act that he is on the edge of, or even capable of the out-of-control behaviour that his character will lapse into later. Indeed, he doesn't come across as the central figure in the long scene-setting and atmosphere-establishing interplay among the denizens of the village pool hall, and it is a surprise to return from the interval to find them thrust into the background for the story of Jimmy's sudden and unprepared-for disintegration.

The two acts of the play each have their strengths. The easy byplay among the men in Act One has warm charm and humour, while the final vision of Jimmy cowering in anticipation of a suicidal encounter with the police is a powerful one. But they don't seem part of the same play.

The second play, Poor Beast in the Rain, is also built on a familiar plot premise, but reanimates it in a fresh way. Set in a village betting shop, it introduces a group of characters who all have some connection to Danger Doyle, a now almost mythic rogue who ran off with another man's wife some years ago. His old mate (Eamon Maguire) lives on tales of their youthful wildness, which his old girlfriend (Rebecca Egan) tacitly accepts even in her ironic dismissals. The cuckolded husband (Michael O'Hagan) and his daughter (Elaine Symons) have struggled to build a life in the absence of wife and mother.

When Doyle (Michael McElhatton) returns, as he must, he proves milder, more mature and more conciliatory than his myth, but his presence still affects everyone he left behind. While he threatens the friend's inflated memories and reawakens the girlfriend's bitterness, he also offers the abandoned daughter an opportunity to reestablish ties to her mother.

Under Wilson Milam's direction, the sensitively balanced ensemble playing of the cast evocatively captures the small town world in which the brief visit of an old resident could be traumatic, and allows each of the personal stories to resonate without dominating.

But it is the third play, Belfry, which is the strongest, an evocative capturing of the small events of which small lives are built that justifies comparisons to Chekhov. Like the others, it begins with an over-familiar plot premise, but Belfry takes us to unexpected places. A mousy little man, sacristan of the village church, tells of the one transcendent event in his lonely life, a brief affair with a married woman. But, instead of being elevated into sentimental myth or descending into the pathetic tale of opportunity lost. his adventure is presented with a hard-edged but ultimately optimistic realism.

The man (played sensitively by Gary Lydon) turns out not to be the milksop he appeared at first. His romance, in small but believable ways, opened him up to life, so that he is now leading a considerably richer existence than the archetypal situation might suggest. The woman is presented as neither temptress nor pathetic victim, but as someone more complex, and Rebecca Egan skilfully hints at her psychological and emotional darkness with Pinteresque ambiguity.

Meanwhile, what would in any other play be subsidiary characters - an insecure and potentially alcoholic young priest, an altar boy with learning and emotional difficulties, and the cuckolded husband - are shown to be living dramas of their own. While these subplots are not always fully integrated into the main action, Wilson Milam's sensitive direction produces an ensemble playing that enhances the Chekhovian picture of intertwined little lives moving forward by little steps.

For those with only one night to spare, Belfry would be my choice for a single dip into Billy Roche's world.

Gerald Berkowitz


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 Where's Charley? Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, Summer 2001

As a babe in arms, I saw Ray Bolger on Broadway in Frank Loesser's hit musical, and I know I haven't heard the score for more than 40 years. But I walked into the theatre humming half the songs, and recognized most of the rest immediately. That's what Broadway of the 1940s and 1950s routinely offered - the best of American pop music.

Where's Charley? isn't the greatest musical ever. Even in 1948 it was a bit old-fashioned, with an operetta quality mixed with its rambunctious farce. But it was certainly enjoyable, with lovely songs and the opportunity for a bravura star performance at its centre.

It is, of course, based on Brandon Thomas's old chestnut Charley's Aunt, in which two Victorian Oxford students get a friend to dress up as a dowager because they need a chaperone for their trysts with their girlfriends. Adaptor George Abbott dropped the friend and made one of the lovers play his own aunt, thus increasing the frantic racing about and quick costume changes. And Frank Loesser anchored the silliness with some of his loveliest ballads, including 'My Darling, My Darling', 'Make a Miracle' and the show-stopping 'Once In Love With Amy'.

The current production in Regent's Park's lovely outdoor theatre, alas, captures only brief, occasional hints of the show's charms. At its centre, Cameron Blakely is no Ray Bolger. He lacks star quality, and only by working very hard does he manage to generate some comic energy. Most of the rest of the cast is barely serviceable. The other three young lovers are essentially faceless, and I'll charitably not name them. Philip York and Mary Lincoln show some style as an older pair of lovers, and Christopher Godwin (sporting the silliest fake moustache the makeup department could find) has fun as the dirty old man enamoured of the supposed dowager.

The musical numbers are indifferently staged and performed, except for 'Pernambuco', the totally insane production number that ends the first act brilliantly. 'My Darling' barely registers, while 'Make a Miracle' is rushed through in a way that disguises all its melodic and lyrical charm.

And then comes a piece of theatrical blasphemy that is suicidal in its insanity.

Where's Charley?'s real claim to fame is that it holds one of the American musical theatre's truly iconic moments. Flushed with the joy of love, Charley announces that he is so happy he must burst into song - no, that's not good enough: he's so happy that the audience must burst into song! And he leads us in a chorus of 'Once In Love With Amy'.

At least that's what Ray Bolger did, and I remember the magic more than 50 years later. And director Ian Talbot has given way to the mad impulse to cut it! Oh, the song is still there, with a pleasant little dance, but not the singalong.

This isn't just a simple directorial choice. It's as if Tony and Maria had no fire escape, Tevye never spoke to God, Dolly Levy never entered the Harmonia Gardens, Hamlet never talked to himself. It is the moment that lifts the show out of the ordinary into true, memorable-50-years-later magic. And it isn't there! 

That bizarre omission is in a way emblematic of this production, which goes through the motions with only very intermittent hints of the show's spirit and charm. At its best it is a moderately pleasant way to spent a balmy summer night in a lovely setting. But it should have been so much more.

(Later note: I've since read his daughter's biography of Frank Loesser, in which she says the singalong wasn't in the original script, but was ad libbed by Ray Bolger and kept in. Is it possible they were using a script that didn't include it, and nobody involved in this production knew about one of the most famous bits of business in Broadway musical history?)

Gerald Berkowitz



Return to Theatreguide.London home page.

Review - Marat/Sade - Arcola 2001 Review - Murder - Gate 2001 Review - My Husband is a Spaceman - BAC 2001 Review - Platonov -Almeida 2001 Review - Rags - Bridewell 2001 Review - See How Beautiful I Am - Bush 2001 Review - Sholom Aleichem - King's Head 2001 Review - The Silent Treatment - Finborough 2001 Review - Song of Singapore - Mayfair 2001 Review - Voyagers - Warehouse 2001 Review - Wexford Trilogy - Tricycle 2001 Review - Where's Charley - Open Air 2001  

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