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Posts Tagged ‘Spend Spend Spend’

Harry Hill & Steve Bown’s first musical I Can’t Sing, an X-Factor parody, went straight into the West End in 2014, to the London Palladium no less. It got a critical mauling and didn’t survive long, but based on a late preview I thought it was great fun, in an anarchic, shambolic sort of way, probably helped by having Simon Cowell in the audience that night, adding a palpable frisson. It was also an early career showcase for Cynthia Erivo and we all know what that led to. Seven years later I went to a workshop of this, their second show (Brown had written the superb Spend Spend Spend before, without Hill), also anarchic & shambolic, but also great fun. Seven months on and we have its world premiere production at the same venue, the Park Theatre.

It takes us from Blair’s birth to his demise in a series of sketches with songs in which you can hear musical theatre styles, references and tropes, Sondheim featuring heavily. In Oxford University he meets Gordon Brown and they agree he gets the top bunk first. When he’s a new MP, Neil Kinnock endorses him, and Brown, as future leaders. John Smith comes and goes quickly, as he did, so their time comes earlier than expected, and they’re left to agree who goes first again, as they did in uni, and as the real Blair and Brown did at Granita, here played out as a wrestling match. The death of Diana brings a more cynical tone and in no time we’re at the interval anticipating a second half mired in the Middle East. So far so good.

This is where it begins to lose it’s sense of fun and balance as the satire gets even more biting and cynical and the laughs fade. The cast of Labour characters includes John Prescott, Robin Cook, Clare Short and of course Peter Mandleson, but no Alistair Campbell (surely a lost opportunity for an expletive-laden song a la Jerry Springer The Opera?). International characters include George Bush, Dick Cheney, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. They’re all played for laughs, with gusto, by a cast of ten led by Charlie Baker’s smily Blair and Howard Samuels oily Mandelson.

It picks up again to end by tarring all leaders with the same brush, taking us right up to date, but it did lose its way in this second half. The production values improve on the workshop of course, but they retain the dodgy wigs and beards that keep the shambolic element, which is one of its charms. It needs to lose the branding of rock opera or musical though, because it isn’t really either. It’s a panto, a satire composed of sketches and songs, an irreverent comedic entertainment. Musical theatre purists and critics will turn against it because of this branding, which is a shame because it’s great fun, despite the imbalance of the second half.

The shit show we’ve lived through since its workshop somehow makes you look more affectionately at Blair. They could get away with the satirical bite and cynicism more if this were Bozza! The Boris Johnson Rock Opera. I’m glad I went back and would recommend you go, but don’t go expecting a rock opera or a musical as we know it.

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When his partnership with Andrew Lloyd-Webber ended, Tim Rice collaborated with the boys from ABBA to create this show about chess champions with a cold war political backdrop and plenty of love interest. I saw it, but somehow it has been erased from the memory – I can’t even remember whether I liked it or not! So off to Woking we go to find out……

I’ve loved most of Craig Revel Horwood’s actor-musician productions since he picked up the mantle at The Watermill Newbury from John Doyle. The best of them was 2009’s Spend Spend Spend and I even liked 2010’s Copacobana! They can breathe new life into weak shows like Sunset Boulevard. Here they scale up considerably with an onstage team of 29 and I’m afraid it doesn’t work. Here’s why:

1. The design is very clever, using light panels and projections. The costumes are good, but there are next to no props. With 21 scenes in 16 different locations, you’re given few references to help you follow the story. Apparently, at one point we were in the Temple of the Reclining Buddah in Bangkok; you’d never know it. It feels more like a staged concert than a show.

2. The sound design buries a lot of Tim Rice’s lyrics and given that it’s virtually sung through, that means burying some of the story too. The onstage musicians sound as if they are miming to a backstage band, so distant is the sound. The lead vocals are over-amplified above this, compounding the problem – it seems like they are on The X-Factor singing to a backing track.

3. With the actors doubling up as musicians, the stage is very crowded for most of the show. This is fine in a ‘big’ scene or chorus number, but completely distracting in a more intimate scene.

4. The show is clever, but maybe too clever for its own good. The slickness means you don’t really engage with the characters or their stories. Frankly, I didn’t give a shit about any of them and was completely unengaged and uninvolved – I found myself watching the stagecraft as if I was its producer taking a look at how my show was shaping up, preparing to give notes to the team.

5. For people who wrote some of the most iconic pop songs ever, the score has nothing remotely as good. It’s mostly sub-operatic mush, with I Know Him So Well the only showstopper. Tim Rice’s lyrical trademark is his wit, but there’s little of that too – though some may have got buried in the sound design.

6. The Theatre Royal, Woking isn’t The Watermill Theatre, Newbury!

The seven leads are fine – particularly Shona White as Florence, who sounds uncannily like Elaine Paige (the original Florence). Unfortunately, the production forces them to act and sing with little subtly. The chorus of clearly talented actor-musicians work very hard.

More is less I’m afraid – lots of talent and energy leading to little entertainment.

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The show must go on spirit was alive at the Rose Theatre in Kingston last night when the actress playing Milady – a rather significant role – was taken ill at short notice. Their novel solution was for director Francis Matthews to read the part, script in hand, whilst composer George Stiles sang the part from the side of the stage.  The only braver stand-in I’ve ever seen was when writer / director Terry Johnson stood in for David Haig during the original run of Dead Funny at Hampstead Theatre – a part the writer / director had decided needed full-frontal nudity!

It was only the second preview, but the show is in good shape. The book by Peter Raby & the director and the lyrics of Paul Leigh tell the story well, with a good balance between serious story-telling and tongue-in-cheek humour. I’ve never understood why a composer as talented as George Stiles hasn’t had the success Just So and Honk suggested he would; his score for this is very good indeed. Simon Higlett has erected a multi-layered set with lots of entrances and exits which facilitates a pacy staging with plenty of swash and buckle. It’s choreographed by someone more experienced in plays than musicals and most of the time this helps, but the actors aren’t yet comfortable with the movement required of them. I think the best way to describe it is Les Mis Light – and that’s not a criticism!

I really liked Michael Pickering’s D’Artagnan, a combination of fearlessness and naivety. Hal Folwer, Paul Thornly and Matt Rawle are all excellent as the musketeers (the latter is clearly specialising in swash-buckling roles having given us Zorro fairly recently). Kaisa Hammarlund, with four Menier musicals under her belt, is perfect as the love interest, and Iain Fletcher and Kirsty Hoiles (straight out of Spend Spend Spend) make a fine King & Queen. In fact, it’s a great company with a great seven piece band.

This show will clearly grow; based on this showing I think the Rose have a hit on their hands and I hope the proposed West End transfer comes off. More than great seasonal fare, but great seasonal fare nonetheless.

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