Imagine This / Treasure Island / Wig Out!
Various venues
November, 2008

One of the skills advantageous in being a critic is spotting a coming trend.  But let’s not claim credit where none is due.  When I lambasted Lisa Forrell’s husband for trotting out the “Our show was misunderstood… how dare they rush to moral judgement” defence in respect of Rue Magique, little did I suspect that exactly the same line would be taken shortly afterwards on the early closure of Imagine This.  Producer Beth Trachtenberg declared, ““Night after night we have seen audiences stirred to the depths of their emotions by this show.  Fundamentally I do not think the critics should be making a moral judgment over the subject matter and moreover that they are generally not prepared to embrace musicals.  I’ve witnessed the public’s response to the show that is directly opposed to a narrow-minded critical belief that musicals are limited in their emotional impact and ability to deal with meaningful subject matter in a powerful and sensitive manner.”

Without going over too much of the same ground again – as you can see in the reviews printed in this issue, virtually no-one said that a subject as sensitive as the Warsaw Ghetto should not be dealt with in a musical; what they said was that it needed to be handled skilfully, and wasn’t – it’s worth noting the phenomenal amount of spin being served by Trachtenberg.  Yes, of course she saw audiences stirred by the material; it was very stirring… fulsomely so, in fact.  The show was downright manipulative, having no room for any emotional response other than the specifics desired from moment to moment.  In general, we may expect a fairly specific intellectual and emotional response to the Holocaust (i.e. we’re against it), but to find that response transmuted into well-shepherded sentimentality is unpalatable.  Quentin Letts, provocative as ever, puts his finger on it: the show, he says, contains “sugar in industrial quantities”.


In fact, the problem was that the writers and producers found a richness and complexity of response which they hadn’t expected and weren’t equipped for.  They come from a particular branch of American televisual culture… now, this isn’t snobbery, just a recognition that the values of a nice, warm TV series such as Touched By An Angel (which writer Glenn Berenbeim produced) are not those of a West End theatre audience.  They were in an unfamiliar medium, in an unfamiliar country (the old epigram about “two nations divided by a common language” seems apt here), and simply did not know what they were letting themselves in for.  Rashly, they attempted to remake the values of this sector in an image they were more accustomed to.

But it didn’t work.  Trachtenberg may well have witnessed a heartening public response to the show, but how much of a public?  During the run of the show she appeared on the BBC’s Today radio news programme to confront Norman Lebrecht of the Evening Standard, whose response to the show (of which he had seen only a part, and in rehearsal only) was indeed everything that her subsequent statement deplores.  (Perhaps she found herself, later, mixing Lebrecht up with reviewers who had actually seen the thing…)  Trachtenberg scored a wonderful publicity coup by offering, live on air, 800 free tickets to that evening’s performance so that listeners could make up their own minds.  It was a brilliant move, but also indicative of how poorly the production must have been selling: even on the assumption that only a fraction of those 800 tickets would be claimed, that’s quite a lot of empty seating.  I saw the show the night after its press opening, and there were already swathes of the New London Theatre empty then.  In this light, Trachtenberg’s offer comes more to resemble the desperate guarantee offered by the producers of now-legendary musical disaster The Fields Of Ambrosia: money back at interval if not completely satisfied.  (I have fond memories of Jeremy Paxman interviewing that show’s producer on BBC-TV’s Newsnight, and cutting straight to the heart of the matter with, “Let’s face it, it’s crap, isn’t it?”)  Look, it didn’t work; live with it.


And the early closures continue.  The production details for Treasure Island overleaf record its planned closing date of 28 February; this issue’s Contents page opposite, which went to press a day later, records its premature curtain on 10 January.  If Imagine This was too much of one thing and not enough of others, Treasure Island is far too much of neither one thing nor the other.  It is not an entry in the factitious genre of “posh panto” (which was in any case entirely a press-manufactured label in the face of pantomime productions at the Barbican and the Old Vic, neither of which is panto-ing this year), nor a piece of dextrously staged storytelling, nor a thrilling rendition of an adventure yarn, nor… well, anything you care to suggest, Treasure Island isn’t it.  It would, however, have been greatly enlivened if John Nathan’s slip of the keyboard had been true, and the protagonist, rather than young Jim Hawkins, had been gravelly-voiced character actor the late Jack Hawkins.

Arguably, the nearest thing to “posh panto” currently playing in London is Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Wig Out!  Well, it has a simple moral story, light v. darkness, lots of room for audience exuberance and several men in frocks.  In some ways it may be more productive to view the play in this way, as a kind of celebratory aside from McCraney’s work hitherto, since otherwise it is in danger of looking as if the promise so recently noted by the judging panel of the Evening Standard Awards had, if not vanished, then taken a vacation.  In fact I have fewer problems with Wig Out! than most of my colleagues.  My companion on press night worked herself up into something of a lather during the interval about the presence of the chorus of three women: she began by querying that surely such figures would or should be transvestites or transgendered, and ended by declaring herself offended that such roles had been patronisingly written in for cisgendered females simply in order that the cast might contain some women.  I see no such improbability or marginalisation: if there’s one thing my years of fellow-travelling have taught me it’s that there is no vector of gender, sex or sexuality which is inherently off-limits to the aesthetic of Queer.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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