Menier Chocolate Factory Spring 2011
Jack Rosenthal's play is an amiable, weak and ultimately harmless little sitcom, written very much in the by-the-numbers TV sitcom style and with about as many laughs as you might get in an evening too lazy to reach for the remote.
At its best moments it might have the potential to rise to Neil Simon level, but an oddly dispirited production too rarely even tries to carry it that high.
This is a backstage story based on Rosenthal's own experience of having a TV play of his adapted into a flop musical.
In Richard Bissell's similar 1958 play Say Darling, Robert Morse's portrayal of the character based on Hal Prince was so wicked that the two didn't speak for decades.
But although programme notes here tell us what real-life person each character is based on, there isn't much gossip value, since they've all been homogenised into stereotypes - the out-of-her-depth author (Rosenthal turning himself into a woman just to get one into the cast), the ineffectual nice guy lyricist, the egotistical veteran composer, and so on.
We follow them from first meeting through rehearsals and out-of-town tryout to opening night and the next morning's reviews, as they write and rewrite, insert and remove songs, and take turns enthusing and despairing, blaming each other and supporting each other, quitting and coming right back.
It's all very mechanical and predictable in the sitcom mode - you can sense the playwright thinking 'X hasn't insulted Y for ten minutes. I'd better write in a zinger here.' - and therefore it does generate some mechanical laughs.
A running gag of the mild-mannered lyricist inventing a bizarre sex life for himself - 'When I got home there were ten black lesbians lying naked on the kitchen floor' - is fun the first couple of times, as is the composer's deflecting his anger at the director into outrage at his clothes. But, again in sitcom mode, they are milked far beyond their point of diminishing returns.
Natalie Walter is all but invisible as the writer, Josh Cohen is invisible as the lyricist, and Cameron Blakely (director) and Richard Schiff (composer) are on autopilot throughout.
Tom Conti as the producer is on autopilot as well, but he does it with the infallible Conti charm and a funny accent, and so he provides most of the pleasures of the evening.
Tamara Harvey directs with no apparent love or feel for the material.
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Smash! - Menier Chocolate Factory 2011