You can’t blame the critics…

It’s easy to see why Fiona Allan, chief executive of Leicester’s Curve Theatre, is concerned about the role of the press in determining the fate of a new production. In May the new musical Water Babies, opening at the venue, was pretty comprehensively dismissed by the critics – and a new musical based on Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 is set to open there next year.

Allan was quoted in The Stage as saying “I think it’s important for the media to give new musicals a chance… I think there has to be a responsibility, if we want there to be new British musicals, for people to understand that risks are being taken and shows need to be developed and to give things a chance”.

While I’m the first to encourage new writing and original musicals – nobody wants a West End filled solely with jukebox musicals and Lloyd Webber revivals – critics are surely not the people with the responsibility to establish the success of upcoming musicals. Writers and composers need to be nurtured, and given the resources to develop their talents. New work must find financial backing. But at some point a fledgling production must be tested.

It’s essential that creative teams are allowed to take risks if the British musical scene is to thrive, but being given the space to take risks also means being given the space to fail. Having not seen Water Babies I can’t personally comment on its quality, but whatever audience reactions were in the Theatre, the fact remains that theatre critics almost universally found the new work to have failed in its ambitions – unless it was aiming for “musical blandness and emotional mawkishness”.

In a line which now seems prescient, Dominic Cavendish specifically credits “the efforts gone into creating this new musical” when reviewing Water Babies. Yet if he found the music “colourless” and felt that the lyrics “plumb shallows of drippy sentimentality” he had no choice but to say so.

To maintain their integrity critics need to give an honest opinion – if every show gets a rave review then they lose their value. While it must be soul-destroying to have your hard work panned, when you’re asking the public to hand over their hard-earned cash they deserve to read an honest opinion. That’s not to give reviewers carte blanche – negative reviews should aim to be constructive, or at the least civil. It is noticeable that even those reviewers giving Water Babies one star go out of their way to give credit where it’s due – from individual voices to the use of video-screens. I find it hard to believe that any critic goes into the profession with the intention of sabotaging new work – if only because it would eventually put them out of a job.

To censure critics for having an opinion is essentially to deny them their raison d’être. If you don’t want them to judge your work then you probably shouldn’t invite them to. In any case, bad reviews do not necessarily consign your show to failure, just as positive reviews don’t guarantee longevity. The most famous example of audiences flocking to a show in the face of a critical disaster is Les Misérables – having been slated by critics on its opening in 1985, it continues to run in the West End some 29 years later and is the longest-running West End musical in history. While this is obviously not typical it does demonstrate that a production which connects with the audience can overcome poor reviews.

Conversely, several recent high-profile show closures have demonstrated that mixed or even positive reviews can’t keep a show open if it doesn’t capture a paying audience. I Can’t Sing! and Stephen Ward both received three and four star reviews and enjoyed the backing of Simon Cowell and Andrew Lloyd Webber respectively. Despite the promotional nous of their producers, Stephen Ward lasted just four months and I Can’t Sing! closed after only six weeks.

Reviewing is not an objective science – while some shows are universally acclaimed or slammed the majority divide opinion, to a greater or lesser degree. But critical debate is vital to the health and vitality of the theatre industry.

Advertisements

Urinetown the Musical

Urinetown isn’t the catchiest title for a musical – but then urination isn’t the most appealing subject for a theatre production. Nevertheless, Urinetown does indeed follow the trials and tribulations of a community in its quest to go to the bathroom.

In a Malthusian dystopia where environmental catastrophe has led to prolonged drought, the population is overwhelming the world’s resources. The severe water shortage has created a unique business opportunity for Caldwell B. Cladwell; with private toilets now unthinkable, citizens must pay him for the privilege to pee – or be dispatched to the eponymous Urinetown.

As Cladwell presides over his lavatorial empire, the scene is set by Officer Lockstock. His self-knowing asides could have been grating in lesser hands than those of Jonathan Slinger, who keeps the narration fresh and the action flowing. They do also allow the musical’s dialogue to remain relatively free from unnecessary exposition.

While throwing out some thought-provoking themes and questions – the corrupting influence of power, is history doomed to repeat itself? – Urinetown sometimes lacks emotional punch. This isn’t to fault the cast, who are fantastic. Jenna Russell relishes her role as Penelope Pennywise, giving her an air of Mrs Lovett – interspersed throughout the musical are parodies, pastiches and tributes to musical tropes and there are several Sondheim-esque moments. Richard Fleeshman has leading man charisma as Bobby Strong, leader of the revolution against Cladwell, and the whole cast perform with such gusto that you can’t help but be swept away with them. Run, Freedom, Run – a catchy gospel number – received the longest mid-performance ovation I’ve ever seen.

Urinetown’s slightly facetious tone may sometimes have failed to tug at my heartstrings but its unexpected plot twists certainly kept me guessing. Urinetown is keen to point out that it’s not a “happy” musical. But neither is it a self-indulgent tragedy. Despite its seemingly far-fetched setting and slightly cartoony style, Urinetown is actually quite a pragmatic look at politics and society.

When storytelling, the most glorious revolutions are often the unsuccessful ones. Take Les Mis – there’s a reason it’s set during the 1832 Paris Uprising rather than the more famous eighteenth-century Revolution. Marius and the Friends of the ABC capture our hearts as the underdogs fighting for a doomed cause against the establishment. The rebels of Les Mis die idealistic (if naive) martyrs. If instead of dying on the barricades the revolutionaries had succeeded, who’s to say that there wouldn’t have been a repeat of the violence, war, in-fighting and Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution of 1787. And that would have made for a very different story. Without giving too much away, Urinetown is no Les Mis, and offers a much less romantic take on revolution.

While it seems ironic that Urinetown opened to a country beset by widespread flooding, it brings home the immediate impact of environmental issues. And the fact that difficult questions – environmental or political – don’t have simple answers.

 

 

On a more practical note, it was my first time at the St. James Theatre and I found myself on the front row, not having bargained for quite how close to the action I’d be. If you like inspecting actors’ fillings and don’t mind the odd spray of saliva my seat comes highly recommended, but if you like your personal space I’d think about sitting a few rows back.

The problem with audience awards…

On The Culture Show this week Mark Kermode tried to redress the glaring omissions in the Oscar nominations by presenting his own personal awards, the Kermodes, which demonstrated the array of outstanding films that the Academy fails to recognise each year. The Academy Awards may favour certain films, but at least with awards like the Oscars or the Baftas you can hope that not only are the voters fairly knowledgeable about films, they’ve also seen quite a few – and hopefully the ones that they are judging.

Audience awards such as the National Television Awards, and last week’s WhatsOnStage.com Awards, throw up a whole new array of problems. I accept that I can’t complain if these forays into viewer democracy come up with the wrong result. Although I think it’s a travesty that Downton Abbey beat both Sherlock and Doctor Who to Most Popular Drama, or that Colin Morgan (who I do think is a good actor) beat Benedict Cumberbatch and Matt Smith to Most Popular Drama Performance, evidently they are the most popular – at least amongst the demographic that votes for the NTAs. The fact that there are a plethora of awards for programmes that I don’t watch – from daytime TV to soaps – leads me to think that I’m not typical of the average voter. We do need a balance when it comes to awarding recognition; awards voted for by experts are hardly representative of the country’s taste as a whole.

As a regular theatre-goer, I take more of an interest in the WhatsOnStage.com Awards, although again I often disagree with the results – I appreciate that there must be something about Wicked that audiences love, as it’s (to me inexplicably) nearly always ahead of the pack when it comes to audience awards for best musical or West End show. But what annoys me the most about audience awards for theatre is the fact that most voters won’t have seen most of the productions nominated. I go to the theatre more regularly than most, but I’ve seen less than half of the productions nominated. Productions from smaller venues suffer as they struggle to muster enough votes to beat productions that are playing to thousand-strong audiences every night.

Aside from the fact that people haven’t seen most of the productions, the obvious domination of the awards by famous nominees suggests that people really do just vote for what they know. Stephen Fry was excellent in Twelfth Night, and a worthy winner of Best Supporting Actor in a Play, but he didn’t stand so far ahead of his peers that he deserved half of the vote (49.3%) in a strong field. The rest of the nominees’ votes can be marked pretty much according to their fame; from Mark Gatiss (19.7%) to Kyle Soller (5.3%). I can’t judge, because I haven’t seen Long Day’s Journey into Night, but I’m sure Soller would have been an equally worthy winner – and had people known who he was he might have been.

The tendency for audiences to vote for what they know must surely have played a role in deciding the recipient of Best New Musical – how else would Loserville have secured nearly a quarter of the vote, only slightly behind Top Hat and The Bodyguard. And again, I’m sure Sweet Smell of Success and Soho Cinders were hampered by their small venues.

Having said all this, I do think audience awards should have a place alongside traditional awards – and I don’t have any answers on how to solve their problems. They’re inherent to democracy, and replicated in all its forms, right up to Parliamentary elections. This year there was one benefit to the susceptibility of audience to be led by external forces. Presumably thanks to its celluloid reincarnation, Les Mis beat Wicked to win Best West End Show with over a quarter of the vote. But maybe Wicked’s star is just on the wane – it was beaten down into third place by the excellent Matilda the Musical.

Les Mis

Les-Mis-Wallpaper

As a massive fan of the musical, the much-hyped film adaptation of Les Mis had a lot to live up to, so it was with slight trepidation that I went to see it. But I needn’t have worried; Tom Hooper’s version captured the spirit of the show while adding a visual scale impossible to capture on stage. The only scene that I felt didn’t live up to this was the barricade scene, with the revolutionaries’ paltry construction looking a bit pathetic on screen.

When I heard that Anne Hathaway had been cast as Fantine I was a bit dissapointed; I’m not a massive fan since she single-handedly ruined One Day for me, but I was pleasantly surprised. She may not have been able to master the Yorkshire accent but she can certainly sing, and she pitched her performance perfectly for the extreme close up.

In general the casting is spot on, with Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen giving notably understated, yet still grotesque, performances that bring some comic relief amidst the gloom. They are indicative of the altered tone of the movie – more nuanced and less ‘theatrical’ than the stage musical. The big name performances all deliver, particularly Hugh Jackman and Eddie Redmayne, but the entire cast is strong: Samantha Barks (Éponine), Aaron Tveit (Enjolras) and Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche) all give excellent performances.

Some of the voices aren’t the strongest – I think I’ll still be listening to the original cast recording – but full-out musical-style belting might have felt out of place, and the live singing brings life and feeling to the lyrics that would have been lacking had the songs been dubbed.

The film couldn’t achieve the connection with the audience that appears uniquely with live performance; it felt wrong for One Day More to end in silence, rather than to rapturous applause, and in some ways this reduced its emotional impact. Yet the film managed to retain the emotion and atmosphere, the essence of the stage production – while the screen removes you from the action, the ability to choose shots and use close ups means that every viewer has the best seat in the house and ensures that the emotional connection with the characters and their stories isn’t lost.

Stage v. Screen

A while ago I got into a heated debate with a film buff about the respective merits of stage and screen. He claimed that there was nothing you could produce on stage that wouldn’t be better in a film. As an avid theatre fan, I couldn’t let that go… Don’t get me wrong, I think that TV and film are great and offer opportunities to portray things differently than in the theatre. But theatre, although not better than television or film, is a unique and relevant medium.

There are obvious constraints generated when locating a performance on stage, live and without the benefit of editing, but writing for the stage need not restrict what you can portray. Ghost the Musical demonstrates the amazing possibilities for stage effects, with ghost Sam walking through a wall on stage. Similarly, Danton’s Death at the National Theatre had a breathtakingly realistic guillotine scene which was so effective that it was almost distracting as I struggled to spot how it was done.

While there is plenty of inventive television and film, the unique conditions of the stage often require more imagination, from both audience and creators. I find it amazing how easy it is when watching a great production to suspend my disbelief and immerse myself in the narrative, often with minimal set or props. The ingenuity of theatre-makers is nowhere better exemplified than by the National Theatre production of War Horse. Although the Spielberg film had real horses, trenches, and spectacular views of the English countryside, it wasn’t able to capture the emotion or atmosphere of the play. The horse puppets are extraordinary and are operated so skilfully that you believe they are real, and the beautiful backdrop of illustrations creates an amazing atmosphere.

The Woman in Black is another film which I enjoyed, with Daniel Radcliffe giving an engaging performance which retained my interest despite the horror narrative being little more than a series of things that make you jump. But again, I feel that the stage production (as well as being more true to the book) has an atmosphere that can only be achieved in the theatre. It is a masterpiece of storytelling, as two actors narrate and act out the entire plot through a clever conceit involving Kipps enlisting a young actor to help him to recount his story.  Despite the lack of props and cast members, the play is scary in a way that the film wasn’t, with the proximity of the performance adding to the tension. The idea of a haunted theatre is much scarier when you’re sitting in the auditorium…

Aside from the practical considerations, theatrical performances create a unique shared experience between audience and performers. One of the joys of theatre is that a show is different each time, as actors play with their performance and react to the audience response.

Bearing all this is mind, I’m still looking forward to seeing the new film adaptation of Les Mis. I didn’t hold particularly high hopes for the film when they announced the array of famous actors (less famous for their singing) in the cast, although many of them have had experience in musical theatre. But it seems to have held its own with the critics – and certainly done rather better critically than the musical did when it first opened. As a fan of the stage version, and a big fan of composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, I’ll be interested to see how the story and score transfer to the screen.