Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Union Man...

Back in the 1990s and into the 2000s I used to frequent the Bridewell Theatre off Fleet Street.  It was a converted theatre space as it used to be a swimming pool and laundry yet!  To be honest no one ever went to the Bridewell to see great performances - I certainly saw some good ones but they were always a delightful surprise.  No, what one went to the Bridewell to see were productions of musicals that were too expensive and/or risky to ever appear in the West End.  The Bridewell closed to these productions in 2005.

I thought of the Bridewell last night on my way home from the Union Theatre as it seems to have taken it's place.  In almost as many weeks I have now seen two productions there and again both shows were ones that you would have to wait a long time to see in the West End.

The first show we saw there this year was the "Song By Song By Kander & Ebb" show THE WORLD GOES 'ROUND, the perfect show for a Sunday afternoon.
The show originated in 1991 when director Scott Ellis, choreographer Susan Stroman and librettist David Thompson (who would all later collaborate on the Kander & Ebb show STEEL PIER) put together the show to run off-Broadway where it won several awards but it never moved either to Broadway or London as by the next year the duo had their new show KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN staged.  The bizarre thing is that what we saw in 2014 was the 1991 show despite the fact they have since written STEEL PIER, THE VISIT, CURTAINS and THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS.  I think it would have been wiser to do a new show that could take in songs from these later productions.
So, once more into the CABARET and CHICAGO songbooks, dear friends, once more... The Union's set-up makes for a convoluted journey to your seat.  It is another 'reclaimed' space - once a paper warehouse - so after walking through it's narrow café (they call it a café, it's more like a passage with shelves on either side) you go into the bar at the back where you are given your numbered laminated tickets. They call numbers out in batches of ten so you can take your seats and give them back their laminated tickets!  I wonder - as I always do - why they can't just number their seats?  There was nearly a Queeny fight the afternoon we went to see the Kander & Ebb show over a disputed seat.  Oh and a handy tip... pee before you go otherwise you have to use the barnacled urinal.
But despite that Mrs. Lincoln, what did you think of the show?  Hey what's not to love?  They are lovely songs and they were sung by a good cast - Susan Fay, Simon Green, Gareth Snook, Lisa Stokke and Emma Francis.  There was also a supporting company of five dancers (aka possible understudies) who clumped around the concrete floor charmingly.  The leads all had their moments to shine and were clapped enthusiastically by us, the small but happy audience.
Kirk Jameson directed and designed the show (it couldn't have taken long as it was only 5 chairs and some mirrors) and Sam Spencer Lane was responsible for the moves.  Enjoyable but it wasn't a patch on HOW LUCKY CAN YOU GET! which was a Kander & Ebb compilation which played at the Donmar (before it became "The Donmar") in 1988 with the astonishing cast of Diane Langton, Josephine Blake, Angela Richards and the late Martin Smith.  The set list was roughly the same but damn it was one to remember.
Which brings me to the problem I have with most shows these days, where are the real musical comedy performers who can elevate a show from adequate to memorable?  Most shows these days usually feel like you are watching an understudy call - and yes, I'm talking West End too.
Show after show seems to be cast from an endless pool of tour choruses, understudies and cruise ship dancers.  Not a bad thing if these can then be built on but the level stays the same - acres of anonymous performers who can smile and nod but who are incapable of throwing shade on a characterisation.  So, on to FINIAN'S RAINBOW...
All though it's a well-known name I suspect that's due to the lame film version, it's certainly not down to production history, the Union Theatre's production is it's first in London since 1947 - and that one only lasted 22 performances!!
The original book has been rewritten by Charlotte Moore who is the artistic director of the USA's Irish Repertory Theatre who revived it ten years ago.  The whimsy-fuelled story centred on Finian, an Irish immigrant, and his daughter Sharon arriving in the imagined state of Missitucky - although a major part of the plot is about living near Kentucky's Fort Knox.  Finian wants to bury a crock of gold near Fort Knox so it will grow (I know, I know) but is unaware that Og, the leprechaun he stole it from, is on his trail.  Sharon falls in love with a local lad but the community is being threatened by a racist senator who wants to buy up their land.
Plenty there to rewrite I agree but what is the actual reason?  Because Sharon makes a wish that the senator would understand what it's like to be hated while accidently holding the magic crock which grants wishes and the Senator turns black.  The original - and well-meaning - book-writers meant for this to show the Senator exactly what it's like to be poor and black - but no, it is now taken to mean that to be black is to be 'wrong'. 
So political correctness decrees the character now disappears only to turn up as a poor white man!  So no, don't rewrite the Leprechaun character, don't rewrite the idea that burying gold will make it grow out of the ground - don't even rewrite the profoundly irritating character of the ingénue who can't speak but dances her answers!
So as has happened so often before, we have an under-par book supporting a delightful score.  In an odd turn of events, the three break-out numbers from the score - "How Are Things In Glocca Morra?", "Look To The Rainbow", "Old Devil Moon" - follow one another at the start of the show and are of such a high quality that it's hard for the score to keep up that standard but it constantly surprises and enchants.  It's no wonder that Sondheim is a fan of E.Y. 'Yip' Harburg, his lyrics are always on the money and genuinely inspired - the second act opener "When The Idle Poor Become The Idle Rich" is great fun.
There are nice performances from James Horne as 'Finian', Christina Bennington as 'Sharon', Raymond Walsh as 'Og' and Joseph Peters as 'Woody' but the playing area is too cramped to fully contain the cast of 23 so it gives an uneven feeling when they all cram in together and start bellowing at the three rows of humble punters.  Believe me, there is nowhere to hide - apropos my earlier point, although the chorus all gave energetic and 'up' performances there wasn't much variation to their playing and in such a confined space their "teeth, tits and tonsils" approach was quite claustrophobic.
I guess if it's the fault of director Phil Willmott it's because he's such a fan of the show. So, despite all my ruminations, the bottom line is you are not going to see FINIAN'S RAINBOW on any West End stage anytime soon and for the score alone - and the named performers above - I suggest you get along to the Union Theatre where it is playing until 15th March.
I guess - to paraphrase Og's second act number - when I'm not near the show I love, I love the show I'm near.

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