Oh, how quickly power corrupts! Only a few months ago on these pages I was acknowledging that perhaps this year the perennial “West End in crisis” stories might actually have some substance to them, as a succession of shows closed after only three or four weeks. This issue, we might almost be accused of gloating over the swift demise of the shows on our front and back covers.
Well, partly the choice of cover was a matter of available images: finding a shot that was decent, in the right format, for an important enough show, with space for overwritten text, from the selection on offer for the relevant fortnight. And then, having realised that Murderous Instincts was a front-runner, hell, why not go the whole hog with Oscar Wilde instead?
Partly, though, it’s a genuine matter of record. Theatre Record, as you know, is a niche publication: mostly, we sell to people involved in theatre, or to libraries and academic institutions. We’re never likely to challenge the readership figures of Hello! magazine. Yet the claim on the cover ("More people will see this issue than saw the msucial") is, I believe, literally true, at least of the run in question. The Shaw Theatre seats over 450 people; Oscar Wilde was cancelled when its second-night ticket sales totalled five. I can’t recall a production of comparable size going under that quickly in the fifteen years I’ve been reviewing.
Did it deserve such an early death? Was it really that bad? Ye gods, it was, and worse. John Gross is entirely accurate in invoking the name of William McGonagall as regards the rhyming book: it rhymed, doggerel-fashion, but I couldn’t discern anything more than the most hobbling metre to it, so that one couldn’t help imagining McGonagallesque lines such as “’Twas in the year of our Lord two thousand and four/That Mike Read’s musical play about the life of poet and dramatist Oscar Wilde was rapidly shown the door”. The lyrics themselves were scarcely any better; I’m afraid that Ian Herbert and I started playing “guess the rhyme”, and the only occasions on which we failed where those when the rhyme was wildly defective.
The production carried the unmistakable whiff of vanity. There are two kinds of vanity in such circumstances: the kind that goes for all-out opulence in a spirit of “never mind the quality, feel the width”, and the kind that imagines that what has already been done is more than sufficient to carry matters. This was the latter. A set design consisting of a couple of potted palms; a shoddily designed programme (with, interestingly, no producer credits); above all, the decision to soldier on with the press-night performance rather than call a temporary halt, even when it was glaringly apparent that the radio microphones were seriously and chronically malfunctioning (at one point, the mikes onstage weren’t working, but those of the performers whispering in the wings were). This was one of those occasions when the only reason the show had to go on was stubborn pride.
Read was quoted afterwards as saying, “The reaction of the audience on press night was terrific.” There was certainly warm applause, such as one might expect from a largely papered house. There were also sniggers, and I clearly heard the remark, “Oh, how ghastly!” at one juncture.
Almost exactly a year ago, Peter Blake had the lead role in Daniel Abineri’s awful musical Money To Burn, which opened on a Thursday and closed between first and second performances on the Saturday. This year, he played Oscar Wilde for Mike Read. Blake is an accomplished musical actor, but he must be feeling right now that he’ll never work in this town again. That honour more fittingly belongs to Read.
And, well, it’s been a good season for theatrical stinkers. The very night before Oscar Wilde, I caught up with the show which I have now convinced myself was actually entitled “the bloody awful Pride And Prejudice”. After the performance at Greenwich, Quentin Letts and I agreed that it had been quite inoffensive. I was lying. See the reviews in Issue 19 from the beginning of its mini-tour; I have nothing to add to the comments of Charles Spencer and Lyn Gardner in particular, except some steam coming out of my own ears and the observation that I was moved to keep a tally of the number of times actors moved furniture around between one scene and another: 28. That’s twenty-eight. Around once every five minutes of playing time. Not to mention the 19 onstage musical interludes (in addition to the tinnily recorded ones) and the 13 dances. On hearing of the arrival of Mr Bingley in the neighbourhood, one of the Bennet girls gasps, “Oh, what fun we shall have! What balls!” As Geoffrey Willans once put it, “molesworth by a grate act of heroism choked back the quip which rose to his lips.”
I did see some good theatre during these two weeks, honest; it’s just that my reviews of those shows are contained in the body of this issue, leaving me the mere lees to brag of here. And so from one adaptation of a classic novel to another. Little Women is not a bad production, just a dull one badly positioned. One can see how Andrew Loudon’s production very probably worked on its previous outings in intimate spaces such as the Gatehouse, the New End or even a larger studio like the Lilian Baylis. But put it in a West End theatre – even a small one like the Duchess, seating fewer than 500 people – and it seems horribly out of proportion. Nor are matters helped by a design which keeps putting characters behind gauzes, thus reinstituting the fourth wall precisely when what’s needed is a greater sense of immediacy. There’s a school of thought that the West End needs to become leaner and fitter by shedding up to half a dozen playhouse venues; in this scenario, the Duchess is one of the prime candidates. It’s surely important that the range of venues available should include such comparatively compact spaces; yet it becomes harder to make a case for retaining the Duchess when what one sees there are instances of ill-advised “trading-up” such as this and Coyote On A Fence (which transferred six months ago from the studio space of Manchester’s Royal Exchange).
Now, a few words of consolation at last: Murderous Instincts was not one of the classic West End musical disasters. (But only a few words...) It was not an appalling show; just a very, very poor one. Once again, my esteemed colleague and predecessor takes a contrary tack; I think his central point is valid, but as regards detailed defence, he’s on to a loser here. Lots of little touches suggested that priorities were not perhaps entirely right. Things such as a band arranged in two visually very impressive tiered banks on stage, but such that only the percussionists could actually see the musical director. Things such as an interminable first-act scene (or series of scenes) where everyone met everyone else secretly in the garden at night: again, I promise I’m telling the truth that I kept myself amused during this sequence by mentally updating my will (which I needed to do, as the old version was several years old – my solicitors can indirectly thank the show’s writer Cinda Fox for providing them with the resulting business). Things such as a musical number at the zenith of dramatic tension whose refrain went “Corpse! Corpse! Where have you hidden the corpse?” When Nichola McAuliffe (the alleged corpse in question) reappeared at the end of the show, to be told that her loving family had thought her remains had been packed into a kit-bag, she took the opportunity to trumpet in best Edith Evans style, “A kiiit-baaag?!” No way did la Fox write that line.
These are all fairly abominable features. Yet despite them all, as the other Ian says, it’s not necessarily a Bad Musical, with capital letters. What really did for the show was its pre-publicity. The stories about fired directors, and the director who, having been forbidden a UK work permit, tried to phone in his instructions from Paris (as the turn-’em-off tape of ringing mobile phones was played just before curtain up, I thought for a moment that Michael Rooney was still trying to get in some last-minute notes), made for highly entertaining reading – so much so that even we ran one account as Quote of the Fortnight in Issue 18. Producer Manny Fox (husband of Cinda) must have realised eventually that there is, after all, such a thing as bad publicity. He certainly seemed to learn some aspects of news management: according to one news report, he informed those involved in the production of his return to Puerto Rico only by phone from the airport and subsequently closed the show by e-mail at only a day’s notice.
McAuliffe may also have cause to ruminate on how to handle a story, having at various points started the whole ball rolling by writing an article in which she described the show (then in rehearsal) as “like a motorway pile-up”, then another taking the credit for saving it by persuading veteran actor Murray Melvin to come on board as “artistic advisor”, and finally, when news of the closure broke, portraying herself and the cast as having been shown “total contempt and lack of respect” by the Foxes. A late career change into the Diplomatic Service does not, I think, beckon.
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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