Monday, 11 July 2016


      One of the hottest tickets in London this season has been the revival of the 1964 Barbra Streisand vehicle FUNNY GIRL. The production, directed by Michael Mayer, began its life at the intimate Menier Chocolate Factory where the run sold out in advance. The revival earned raves from the critics. A few weeks ago its star, Sheridan Smith, collapsed, claimed total exhaustion, and temporarily left the show. She was replaced by understudy Natasha J. Barnes who got the old "understudy to star" treatment in the press. Jule Styne's score for FUNNY GIRL is pleasant enough, but not on the level of his work on GYPSY or even BELLS ARE RINGING. Bob Merrill's lyrics aren't Sondheim, but are clever. Harvey Fierstein has revised Isobel Lennart's book. I don't remember the original well enough to assess what he has done, but it seems to be a conflation of the book of the musical and the screenplay for the hit film.
     Like GYPSY and BELLS ARE RINGING, FUNNY GIRL is an old-fashioned star vehicle. The original production succeeded for years after Streisand left because Mimi Hines, a well known television and nightclub comic (half of the Phil Ford and Mimi Hines comedy team), found a way to make the show work on her own terms. Plans for Broadway revivals have floundered because the right star wasn't found. FUNNY GIRL demands star quality. In this production, Natasha J. Barnes provided lots of energy and perkiness, but it wasn't Fanny Brice or anything resembling a star. She's not a particularly good singer and she doesn't have the unique stage personality that makes one taken notice -- star quality. She works hard, in fact watching her is exhausting.
     Michael Mayer's staging is routine. Like many transfers from the Menier, it looked low budget for West End prices. I came away feeling cheated.
     Thom Sutherland's revival of TITANIC at the Charing Cross Theatre is a small-scale revival of a megamusical that totally justifies itself. Maury Yeston's score is a gem, one of the best since Sondheim's heyday. In this production two dozen excellent singing actors did the work of the forty-some performers in the original cast. Instead of the giant, four level set of the original production, we had a simple, two-level unit set plus moveable ladders and ropes.  This production was more character-oriented than spectacle, and Peter Stone's book made much more sense than it did in the original production. TITANIC became a show about social aspiration, particularly about women who would not settle for the social roles assigned to them. Here was a revival that justified itself, one that is an improvement over the original production. Bravo to the director and his amazingly gifted cast.
     Daniel Evans' production of SHOW BOAT, which has moved into the New London Theatre from the Crucible Theatres in Sheffield is an excellent production despite the offensively loud amplification, a source of complaint for everyone seated around me. The Black performers steal the show from a pretty bland bunch of white performers. Malcolm Sinclair, excellent at playing befuddled English toffs, doesn't do anything with Captain Andy, the central character of the show.  For all Evan's flair at staging, there's something a bit impersonal about the production. The theatre was only about 1'3 full, which may have led to a sense of routine.
     There is nothing routine about Rufus Norris's production of the Brecht-Weill classic, THREEPENNY OPERA at the National Theatre. Simon Stephens has updated the script and made it more about sex than capitalism. This Mack the Knife is what we would now call a sex addict. Everyone seems to be more motivated by sex than greed. The Peachums, models of respectability and hypocrisy in the original are now cartoons of lasciviousness. Mrs. Peachum slinks around in a red dress like an aging madam and Peachum is a grotesque queen. This changes the work considerably and not always for the better, but the performance is so lively and inventive that you forgive it its excesses. It's the first production of THREEPENNY OPERA I have seen that didn't seem endless.
     The less said about the revival of Terrence Rattigan's THE DEEP BLUE SEA in the cavernous Lyttleton Theatre the better. When a production is lit to be so dimly that one cannot see faces, an alienation effect sets in. When the set of that is supposed to be a tiny, sleazy apartment in a boarding house is the size of a football field, any sense of intimacy is lost. I can't say much about the acting because I could barely see the characters through the murky blue lighting. I have considerable admiration for Rattigan and for this play, but could barely keep awake through this revival.

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