Quite apart from garnering some pretty damning reviews, Trevor Nunn’s production of Gone With the Wind, at the New London Theatre, has also provided a springboard for several showbiz writers to bounce off memories of some of the most disastrous musicals in the West End has ever seen.
This ignominious roll call of unmitigated ineptitude includes the likes of Bernadette, Kings and Clowns, Blondel, Twang, Carrie, Leonardo and The Hunting of the Snark.
So, is Gone With the Wind bad enough to add to that list? The answer is emphatically no. It’s far too boring and bland for that. The Bernadettes and Twangs of the world were so irredeemably terrible that they were actually a lot of fun and I wouldn’t have missed them for the world. Not so Gone With the Wind which, at its best, is borderline competent.
What really does the show in, and no mistake about it, is its length. I know the screen version is even longer, but that had Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, stunning Technicolor photography, spectacularly cinematic set-pieces and a score by the great Max Steiner that, frankly, my dear, is a lot better than Margaret Martin’s.
And given this wan stage incarnation’s inordinate length, was it really necessary for adapter/director Trevor Nunn to add to the running time by having actors on stage narrate what is plainly visible for all to see? For example, when Scarlett O’Hara joins her family for dinner at Tara, do we need to be told so when we can see it for ourselves? In the film version Scarlett has only one child, yet in the book she has three, as, indeed, she does in the stage show, even though the first two are barely glimpsed and hardly referred to.
At the same time, memorable scenes such as Scarlett’s shooting of the Yankee deserter (which here gets an unwanted laugh) and the famous moment in which Scarlett vows she’ll never be hungry again, go for nought.
As for that wonderfully dramatic sequence in which Rhett Butler forces a humiliated Scarlett to attend Melanie’s party after she has been caught in a compromising situation with Ashley, it’s gone completely. Go figure. If length is the show’s main liability, the situation isn’t helped by John Napier’s really unattractive all-purpose set in which Tara, the glittering symbol of ante-bellum grandeur, looks little more than a wooden hovel in some Southern shanty town. As for the burning of Atlanta, a few loud bangs, flashes of orange lighting, a bit of smoke and a collapsing façade or two is all you get.
Though I found Jill Paice’s Scarlett a tad shrill and common, she looked the part, as did Darius Danesh as Rhett. Trouble is, there’s not an iota of chemistry between them. Or a decent song. If Olivia de Havilland in the film was too good to be true as Melanie, Madeleine Worrall made this most colourless of roles even more so; while Edward Baker-Duly, as Ashley Wilkes, though better looking than the movie’s Leslie Howard, made little impression because his dialogue never allowed him to. Natasha Yvette Williams and Jina Burrows as Mammy and Prissy, two of author Margaret Mitchell’s more memorable characters, made the most of the few opportunities they were given to shine.
There have been worse musicals than Gone With the Wind but none quite as pointless.
CLIVE HIRSCHHORN. Courtesy of This Is London.
This show proved a totally unexpected pleasure. Having read some of the reviews I braced myself for a cheese-fest extraordinaire; well, I got that, but not in a bad way.
The musical’s book hurtles along at break-neck speed; Take That’s songs are shoe-horned into every conceivable gap in the action. But a witty script that never takes itself too seriously, and knockout performances from a young and Über talented cast, more than make up for any shortcomings.
The set pieces are done riotously well, no more so than the act one close of Back For Good and Never Forget sung in the pouring rain. The production values of the show never disappoint and fully deserve their glamorous setting within the Savoy Theatre.
Dean Chisnall and Sophia Ragavelas deserve a special mention as lead lovers Ash and Chloe – but the rest of the supporting cast, particularly the Take That wannabee boys, are outstanding. You suspect that their abilities in being about to act, sing and dance far outweigh any abilities of the real thing.
Go see to check out how these things can be done well.
TAKE THAT – SAVOY THEATRE
I’m not quite sure what Yasmina Reza makes of Christopher Hampton’s sparkling adaptation of her latest play God of Carnage. She has gone on record as saying her bleak and futile view of humanity and profound insights into life and relationships are often lost in translation.
She has also said that she wants her audiences to suffer. Well, if the reaction on the night I attended the play is any indication – Hampton has let her down badly, leaving Ms Reza to sob all the way to the bank. The audience, myself included, laughed hysterically and enjoyed themselves enormously at what, in effect, is an uproarious comedy of bad manners involving two bourgeois French married couples who meet for the first time when their respective schoolboy sons become involved in a playground skirmish resulting in one of them having two front teeth knocked out.
What begins as a civilised confrontation between the two sets of parents slowly develops into a gloves off row ending in a Pyrrhic victory. In the process, both couples reveal their frailties and strengths, their dormant fears and anxieties and their emotional shortcomings and insecurities.
Hampton excavates more laughs from this all-too-recognisable situation than Ms Reza ever intended and by so doing has created a crowd-pleaser, which, like the same team’s ‘ART’, will run for years and survive several cast changes.
The present cast Janet Mcteer and Ken Stott, in whose home the play takes place, and Ralph Fiennes and Tamsin Greig as the couple whose son inflicted the damage – are absolutely superb. Mark Thompson’s blood-red living room set strikingly compliments the fiery passions aroused, and the incisive direction, alive to every nuance in the text, is by Matthew Warchus.
The West End has a towering hit on its hands. Sorry about that, Yasmina.
CLIVE HIRSCHHORN. Courtesy of This Is London.
One of our most respected and long-standing theatre critics – and also the most politically minded – ended his generally favourable review of Howard Brenton’s play about Harold Macmillan, ‘Never So Good’, by expressing his disappointment that the playwright’s sympathetic take on Supermac wasn’t more ‘radically revisionist’.
Given that Brenton, famously antiestablishment, ultra left-wing and hitherto an enemy of all things conservative, has written a warm and affectionate tribute to his subject, how on earth could he be more ‘radically revisionist’ than he has been? From the play’s opening sentence – ’I always had trouble with my teeth’, Brenton’s portrait of the Tory Prime Minister is never less than admiring.
Adopting a very conservative, linear approach, he begins by showing us an academically bright teenager at Eton, dabbling in religion and homosexuality, and living in the claustrophobic shadow of a domineering American mother whose ambitions for her son will haunt him well into manhood – and beyond.
We next see young Harold as a soldier in the first Word War where he is wounded no fewer than five times. Having survived the Somme, he enters politics, marries the daughter of the 9th Duke of Devonshire, is cuckolded by her with the bisexual Bob Boothby, survives a plane crash in World War 2’s North African campaign, allies himself with Winston Churchill against Neville Chamberlain and becomes Churchill’s Minister of Housing and Defence.
After the Suez crisis, his political ambitions are finally realised when he becomes Prime Minister in 1957, a position he holds until the Profumo affair in 1963 and the scandal that ensued eventually brought down the the government. He died an elder statesman in 1986.
But, Never So Good, in which Jeremy Irons gives the finest performance of his career as Macmillan, is much more than the history lesson its narrative would suggest. Apart from being a deeply compassionate study of a brave, formidably intelligent man whose stuffy outward image gave little indication of the complexities within, the play, epic in size and scale, creates a graphic picture of Britain, some of its most colourful politicians as well as its values and its mores from 1909 to 1963.
Using the full resources of the National Theatre, director Howard Davies, with immeasurable assistance from set designer Vicki Mortimer, lighting designer Mark Henderson and sound designer Paul Arditti, evoke the sight and sounds of 54 turbulent years.
To help flesh out Macmillan the man as opposed to the politician, Brenton employs a device in which the young Macmillan, well played by Pip Carter – is a perpetual on-stage presence, serving, in a sense, as the conscience of his older self. It works effectively at first but by the end of the evening, is a bit like a sixth finger.
I found Ian McNeice a tad too blustery and caricatural as Churchill, but have no qualms whatsoever about Anna Carteret as Macmillan’s domineering mother, Anna Chancellor as his unfaithful wife Dorothy, Robert Glennister as Bob Boothby, Anthony Calf as the self-dramatising Anthony Eden, Terrence Hardiman as Chamberlain and Clive Francis as the plain-speaking Eisenhower.
Brenton has never been so good, nor had it so good.
CLIVE HIRSCHHORN, courtesy of This Is London.
Noel Coward’s far from perfect breakthrough play was The Vortex (1924), and the effect it had on complacent theatre audiences of the day must have been similiar to the impact experienced by theatregoers in 1956 at John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.
Unlike Osborne though, Coward wasn’t an angry young man; just a prodigiously talented one who, even at so young an age, was a master at surfing the celebrity wave. Being controversial, he knew, was the shortest route towards attracting media attention, and what better way was there to be talked about than to write a play about drug addiction, adultery, promiscuity and latent homosexuality?
There would, of course, be problems with the squeamish Lord Chamberlain, protector of the West End’s values and morals. But that was all part of a piquant concoction in which he would also star as Nicky Lancaster, one of the play’s two central characters.
Having somehow managed to charm the Lord Chamberlain into believing that The Vortex was a highly moral warning against the hazards of drug addiction and the misery wraught by unbridled hedonism, the play, after a short but triumphant run at the Everyman in Hampstead, transferred to the Royalty in the West End.
Nicky Lancaster’s addiction to cocaine wasn’t, it turned out, the most shocking departure in the play. More unsettling for contemporary audiences was the picture it painted of a totally frivolous, selfish, superficial and pleasure-seeking society as epitomised by the play’s central character, Florence Lancaster (Felicity Kendal).
A woman of a certain age but still extremely attractive, she relegates her staid, but thoroughly decent husband (Paul Ridley) to the backrooms of their Mayfair flat while she pursues a goodlooking guardsman half her age (Daniel Pirrie).
Her son Nicky (Dan Stevens), meanwhile, has been living a bohemian existence in Paris where he meets and becomes engaged to an English rose called Bunty (Cressida Trew) to whom he is not in the least bit physically attracted, the implication being that he is latently homosexual.
Coward pads out the first two acts by introducing us to Florence’s social set – who with the exception of her best friend Helen (Phoebe Nicholls, excellent) are as useless and as unappealing a bunch of nobodies you could hope to see. The chit-chat isn’t particularly witty, the minor characters are underwritten, and the entertainment value negligible.
It would be another year, with the appearance of Hay Fever, before Coward’s ability to gather under one roof so diverse a group of personalities, would pay artistic dividends and prove him to be a magician in the art of small talk.
In The Vortex, though, it isn’t until Act Three when a despairing Nicky and his equally despairing mother confront each other in Florence’s bedroom, a la Hamlet and Gertrude, that the play’s power to shock and touch the emotions, kick in. Nicky accuses her of selfishness and committing adultery with young men – a situation that has clearly contributed to his drug addiction.
Though Dan Stevens is basically miscast as the ‘effeminate’ debauched Nicky, he manages to tap a vein of genuine sympathy in the play’s concluding moments. But without Felicity Kendal’s power-driven performance as Florence Lancaster to inspire him, it’s hard to imagine him making much impression at all. Watching Kendal develop her range and become one of the best actresses we have, is an on-going theatrical pleasure.
Otherwise, there are not many delights on offer in director Peter Hall’s revival (certainly not Alison Chitty’s relentlessly drab and minimalist sets, not the awkward supporting performances, and certainly not the embarrassing staginess of the opening of Act Two).
Kendal is the production’s saving grace and the only reason to reacquaint yourself with Coward’s historically important, but flawed early play.
BY CLIVE HIRSCHHORN, courtesy of This Is London