The Holy Terror / Cyrano de Bergerac / Democracy /
Jailhouse Rock / I Am Thicker Than Water
Various venues
April, 2004

The night I set to writing this column, I found myself distracted by an old film on television: Theatre Of Blood.  If you’ve never seen it, allow me to recommend it.  One of the last great flowerings of that brief moment in the early 1970s when Britain led the world in clever comedy-horror movies, it concerns a Shakespearean actor believed to have killed himself (Vincent Price), who returns in order to murder one by one, each in the manner of one of the plays in his final season, the members of the Critics’ Circle who denied him their Best Actor award.  (The character played by Robert Morley, father of Sheridan, chokes on a pie made from his pet poodles – “I call them my babies, you know” – à la Titus Andronicus... that sort of thing.)
It’s a salutary viewing experience for any reviewer, but it perpetuates a couple of widespread misconceptions about us.  The first is that we’re essentially in the same business as theatre practitioners, and consequently obliged to take that solidarity into account in our writings.  But we’re not; whatever our views about the broader and more enduring functions of criticism, what we are in the immediate instance is journalists, and our duty to theatre is a matter of individual moral impulse rather than formal obligation.  Price’s character also seems to blame the critics for his commercial failure.  In reality, however, even by the time of the film, this power too was a myth.  Not for decades has a British theatre critic had make-or-break influence remotely comparable to that of Frank Rich in the New York Times until just a few years ago.  Even when the whole herd of us stampede in the same direction, you might briefly feel the drumming of our hooves, but it won’t shake buildings to the ground.

Blue-moon rare

At least, that’s the line I regularly trotted out until last autumn, when, lo and behold, twice within a month a show in the West End failed to see out its opening week.  Fair enough, Michael Barrymore’s was rather an extraordinary case: he wilted not simply under the steely gaze of critics, but in the glare of the country’s mass media as a whole.  And Daniel Abineri’s dire musical Money To Burn wasn’t really a West End show, just a show in the West End: the Venue, the converted crypt of a French chapel (with frescos by Jean Cocteau!) just off Leicester Square, simply isn’t in the same league as the Shaftesbury Avenue houses only two minutes away.  Nevertheless, the absence from reviews of a single crumb of comfort that could be used to bring the punters in was undoubtedly a major factor in closing the show between its first and second Saturday evening houses.

First-week closures are blue-moon rare among “proper” West End shows, which hardly ever fold before Theatre Record can collate and reprint their reviews.  But it’s happened in this issue.  By the time you read this The Holy Terror, Simon Gray’s rewrite of his own Melon, will have closed, having lasted all of three and a half weeks after its opening night on April 14.  (The previous show in the Duke Of York’s, Michael Hastings’ lacklustre Calico, itself managed only a month, excluding previews.)  And, well, it’s hard to argue that this case constitutes a cruelty or an injustice.  Gray’s a fine journal-keeper, to be sure, but his last couple of West End outings (the other being Japes in 2001) are rooted in a bygone age when adultery in NW3 was enough to fuel either a comedy or a drama.  For a man of his advancing years, Gray writes about sex with the prurience of a schoolboy and rather less understanding of how things go on between two people; his social consciousness likewise seems stuck in the era of Butskellism at best, even when – as here – he’s ostensibly addressing a more recent era, one of predation rather than paternalism.  He also demonstrates that smirking smut can be more distasteful and somehow more vulgar than the full-throated bellow of blatant filth.

No panache

Vulgarity and even filth seem to have been the views of a number of critics regarding Derek Mahon’s new translation of Cyrano de Bergerac.  It has its moments, granted, but the hanging jury are citing a few headline examples and then portraying the entirety of the text in the same light, which simply isn’t accurate.  Things get ridiculous with the accusation of defective or lazy rhymes, when all Mahon’s doing is deploying half-rhyme for the greater part of the script – surely a thoroughly familiar and legitimate device in poetry, and particularly in contemporary Irish verse.  And this is a palpably Irish Cyrano... although the wisdom is debatable of trying to dragoon most of the Gascony Cadets into Irish, and predominantly Northern Irish, accents even while Stephen Rea in the title role passes them in the opposite direction, modifying his native tones into a mid-Irish Sea roll.

Rea, like the late Donal McCann, is a magnificent actor even – especially? – when doing almost nothing.  (Compare the two of them in Neil Jordan’s now-neglected first film Angel.)  However, certain areas are simply outside his range, and the swashbuckling of a conventional Cyrano is such an area.  Director Howard Davies knows this, and so takes a different tack with the play, which it was presumably hoped would enable Rea to reconcile the high romance of the character with the existential fatigue which is the actor’s especial long suit.  You can see the synthesis almost come together in the balcony scene, but in the end, alas, it can’t be done.

Davies’ argument that Cyrano is essentially an unshutuppable truth-teller might hold water, but not the way it’s realised here.  I shan’t repeat what other critics have said about the period setting and presentational style; I’ll merely give a single example which I think is emblematic of the extent of the misconception.  It concerns an emblem in itself: Cyrano’s panache.  Rostand’s text (and Mahon’s too) makes numerous references to it, both in the figurative sense which is the only one we generally understand any more, and referring literally to the plume in de Bergerac’s hat.  Panache in this play is not simply a metaphorical keynote, it’s a physically present symbol.  Guess what (pace John Gross) is nowhere to be seen about this Cyrano’s person or clothing at any point?  Yup.  And William Dudley’s set, like the skeleton of a supertanker’s bridge, puts me in mind of the occasion a dozen or so years ago at City Limits magazine when it was only a last-minute bout of cowardice that stopped me from running an enraged listings entry reading, “Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Howard Davies, designed to buggery by William Dudley...”

Grand narratives

Peter J Davison’s set for Democracy, in contrast, is largely unobtrusive until the final minutes of Michael Frayn’s play.  When the coda recounts the fall of the Berlin Wall, the shelves on Davison’s back wall also collapse, sending dozens of files cascading to the floor.  It’s not just an echo of the physical dismantlement, but a visible indication that thus also collapsed the Ostpolitik that Willy Brandt had successfully instituted twenty years earlier; a post-Communist, reunified Germany calls for a whole new collection of files.

Not having seen either of the play’s runs at the National, I was eager to catch up with it on its transfer to Wyndham’s. Once again, I have to report that the rest of the world is entirely right.  Following Frayn’s Copenhagen, it confirms that the writer has an astounding, almost mysterious gift for breathing life into the grand narratives of intellectual history, be they concerned with two-state German politics or multi-eigenstate quantum theory.  So thoroughly has Frayn captured the spirit of his subject that at moments, Democracy sounds like an extremely sensitive and nuanced translation from the German, and I mean this as a compliment.

It’s also nice to see Conleth Hill getting the wider recognition he deserves (albeit in a role that renders him quite unrecognisable from his offstage appearance, which is slightly reminiscent of comedian Ardal O’Hanlon).  Five years ago he made an excellent Gogo to Sean Campion’s Didi in Gabor Tompa’s Belfast production of Waiting For Godot, before the pair reprised their double act in the first London cast of Marie Jones’ Stones In His Pockets.  Campion, equally worthy of attention and praise, can currently be seen in Kathy Burke’s excellent revival of Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow at the Tricycle, another instance where I shan’t repeat myself from my review in the body of this issue.

Mess of wattage

But ah, if only we critics had the power we’re so often alleged to have!  Then, oh, then... well, for a kick-off, Jailhouse Rock – The Musical would probably also have closed by the time you’d received this issue.  Hopes were high when Rob Bettinson and Alan Janes – the writing team behind Buddy, arguably the best of the compilation rock musicals of the last decade or so –  turned their attention to Elvis Presley and his, well, least worst movie.  But perhaps Elvis is just too big for any one show. At any rate, Jailhouse Rock’s problem is that it tries ever harder to be everything to everyone, and just ends up falling with a clatter between several stools.

Truth to tell, I went along expecting – half-intending, even – to dislike it.  About midway through the first half, though, I realised that it was giving me no real reason to do so, and on the contrary several to appreciate it.  As with Buddy, Bettinson and Janes don’t use a pit band, but bring some musos onstage whenever justified.  In the first act here, with smouldering young hero Vince Everett banged up in the big house, that’s seldom.  Instead, they engage in phenomenal a capella arrangements, sometimes beefed up with bass lines played percussively on resonating lengths of supposed duct piping.  The chain-gang rendition of "Pretty Little Angel Eyes" mentioned in several reviews, and led by the unstoppable Gilz Terera, is only the foremost of several such high-octane workouts.  By the interval, then, I was firmly on side.

In the second half, not to put too fine a point on it, they flung all that goodwill away and then some.  With Vince back on the outside, he can be followed around by his backing band.  And dear Lord, but they’re unsubtle (and I say this as a child of glam and punk!) and increasingly loud (and this as someone who once fell asleep six feet from the speaker stack at a Glenn Branca symphony for massed overdriven electric guitars).  They sell out my generation’s rock birthright for a mess of wattage.  Not only does the show cop out of deciding whether it’s still a stage version of the movie, or an Elvis tribute musical, or just a concert by a young Elvis impersonator... it shows no signs of even realising that such a decision is required.  By the end, the fans in the stalls are bopping along to Mario Kombou’s so-so denim-era Elvis anachronistically belting out the Vegas-era power ballads as if there’d never been a whiff of narrative or characterisation all night.  Well, in the words of James Thurber, I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it.

Creeps up on you

Only the briefest of mentions for another theatrical hybrid, albeit more modest and more successful.  Simon Farnaby’s solo piece I Am Thicker Than Water at BAC begins as the kind of narrative stand-up monologue which has gained in popularity among comedians over the last ten to fifteen years.  Little by little, it transforms into a series of interconnected character monologues recounting three generations’ worth of a family’s predilection for betting on the gee-gees.  It creeps up on you in the middle stretch... entirely unlike the nag on which Farnaby tells us his father bet his career.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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