When? Tuesday 5th February 2013
Who? Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway et al – full list here.
In my life, I’ve made no secret of my love – some could even argue obsession – with Les Misérables. If I had to, I’m sure I could recite the entire libretto (and, even more worryingly, many of the stage directions and technical cues) by heart. I’m certainly not alone in being a young(ish!) person whose affinity with theatre of all flavours began with “The Glums”. As a child, I found musicals somewhat unappealing; all that dancing around, bursting into song – it’s just not cricket. Or, in my case, football. Sure, The Sound of Music, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and even Mary Poppins are fun, carefree ways to spend a rainy afternoon for many, including my older self, but to me they aren’t the musical theatre that I fell in love with. Les Misérables doesn’t trifle with flying cars, magic handbags or
singing nuns in convents (Ed. have you seen the movie?). Les Miz is a dark, dramatic and hugely emotional three hour journey into a world of war, death and famine, with a cast of characters it is impossible to view as anything other than tragic heroes. Les Misérables transcends the ‘musical’ bit of musical theatre; I view it as a majestically scored, entirely sung through play. The original, finest and unquestioned masterpiece of the last three decades of British theatre.
This is why I can’t keep away. I have seen the West End production in excess of thirty times – on occasion simply to see a friend or highly rated cast give their take(s) on a character already performed by hundreds of other actors around the world. Every cast change I am there, every new production. I am incredibly blinkered and defensive about a show – sorry, a franchise – a multi-million pound brand to which I owe and am owed no affinity – simply because it stirs such strong emotions. But last year, the love affair ended, or so I thought:
In August 2012 I made a simply horrendous visit to the West End production, a little over a month into the run of the new (present, as of February 2013) cast and was left feeling angry and bemused. Practically the only show in town charging full price, understandably given that the Friday night I attended was a sell-out, was looking tired and frankly in the worst shape I’d seen it since the dark, dying days at the Palace. The cast were too young; only a few experienced heads dotted inbetween the drama school leavers and talent show runner ups. The direction was loose and erratic, the wide-eyed Duracell Bunny youngsters, full of beans and trying very hard atop the barricade simply looked lost. Unforgivably, some key lines were even lost due to the incidental over-acting of the keen-to-impress young turns, randomly crying out ‘in character’ with such gems as “Yeah, kill him!” (after capturing the undercover Javert), and, best of all, a truly Braveheartesque “FREEEEEDOOOOOMMMMMMM” during the ‘Final Battle’ from one over-zealous student). Ken Caswell wouldn’t have stood for such hijinx. The cast themselves were just okay (not helped by the fact that star turn Sierra Boggess was off sick, despite spending most of the same day tweeting about yoga classes, yoghurt and Yogi Bear – ed. careful of libel).
I felt disheartened. The cuts were one thing, the thin, stretched orchestra were another. These are sacrifices one has taken on the chin over the years since Les Mis Lite opened at the Queens Theatre way back in 2003. But it felt like the candle had gone out, the love affair had ended. Les Misérables was no longer the vast, beautiful, soaring masterpiece I remembered. It had become a watered-down love story about a group of attractive, similar looking twenty-somethings fresh from Arts Ed and Mountview, with triple-threat abilities and great physiques who couldn’t look anything less like a group of malnourished, down-on-their-luck revolutionaries. From memory, the only cast member who looked older than thirty was Jean Valjean, Argentine Geró Rauch, who unfortunately had an accent so thick it deemed his performance unintelligible to most.
And then, in December, I was sent a demo copy of the Les Misérables movie musical soundtrack, and I declined to review it, such was my negative reaction.
How wrong I was.
Coming tomorrow… Part 2: The Movie Review
- Harry Zing
When? Tuesday 20th March 2012
Where? Grand Theatre, Leeds, dress circle
Who? Mark Extance, Colin Haigh, Paul Jesson, Sue Kelvin, Nell McCann, Abigail McKern, Damien Molony, Lauren O’Neil, Tom Peters, Alexander Semple, Antony Sher, Kate Webster, Jonathan Woolf and Alexis Zegerman
The National Theatre remains arguably the most prolific – at least, in terms of volume – producer of new stage plays in Britain, and this new effort by accomplished playwright and National Theatre regular Nicholas Wright is certainly one of the stronger efforts from the National in recent years. Indeed, it is the National’s determination – or, rather ‘obligation’ as the largest Arts Council funded straight theatre company – to portray as wide a variety of theatre to the masses across the country as possible, hence this large-scale big budget tour featuring no less than two knights of the realm, in director Sir. Nicholas Hytner and veteran stage actor Sir. Antony Sher. Indeed, many in attendance at the Leeds Grand Theatre last night had already seen the play – albeit through a live video stream beamed direct from the National Theatre earlier this year.
It is easy to see why they would return for a second helping; Travelling Light is a perfectly enjoyable evening at the theatre with plenty of laughs. The story is told retrospectively from the viewpoint of the elderly Maurice Montgomery (Paul Jesson) in 1930′s Hollywood. Montgomery is portrayed as the classic Hollywood producer; he is wealthy, he is dominant – and he is most definitely Jewish. Montgomery has a story to tell, and within moments we are transported back to the ‘old country’ to meet his younger self, then Motl Mendl (Damien Molony), a slightly arrogant young burgeoning genius of motion pictures. In fact, according to the (entirely fictional*) book, he seemingly invented them. He quickly meets and falls in love with his beautiful assistant Anna (Lauren O’Neil) and a romance soon blossoms as they invent the concepts of modern cinema before our eyes. Aided by the money local patriarchal bully and Tevye-sound/lookalike Jacob (Antony Sher) can provide - at a cost – the story is set up for a dramatically tense second act.
Travelling Light is a smart play with plenty of good ideas; even the title’s dual-meaning is well thought through. Whilst the piece isn’t social commentary, nor is it biographical for such a history-driven piece, it simply washes over you as gentle fiction with an easy charm. As do the performances; the slightly hysterical young Mendl is the perfect foil for the older, wiser Montgomery – whose experiences in the shtetl (“small town” in Yiddish, says the programme) have shaped the man he was to become. Although the role of Jacob was seemingly written as a vehicle for Sir. Antony, his performance is solid if nothing else. The faux-Eastern European accent he affects is noticeable rather than distracting; the usual brand of larger-than-life acting he adopts is present and correct. In fact, there are a bewildering array of accents on show ranging from Sir. Antony’s ‘oy!’ theatrics, to Nate’s very cod-Brooklyn whine with a lot inbetween – and none of them prove terribly convincing. It is Lauren O’Neil who gives the standout turn as Anna, I must be careful explaining why, except to say that the relationship she has with Mendl is the dramatic narrative drive of the whole piece. Her appearances on the mock ‘silver screen’ are impressive to say the least.
Designer Bob Crowley’s work is first class, truly bringing to life the shtetl with aplomb. Credit must also be given to the tour production team for the very successful use of the Leeds Grand Theatre’s accommodating existing setup, with the projected images beamed on to the main ‘back wall’ of the set also being replicated on the large LCD screens normally used for opera productions. The lighting design from Bruno Poet is equally as impressive, managing the tricky task of balancing the use of projections, numerous small interior lights and, in the second act, Hollywood Studio lighting rigs.
But, for all its charm and high production values, there is just one problem with the book and unfortunately it’s a big one – the last fifteen minutes of the play. The finale is a disappointment, being both cliché and cheesy enough to annoy even the hardiest theatregoer. Simply, the play ended fifteen minutes later than it should have done. That is not to say it is too long, it is well-paced and feels about right at 2hrs 30mins with interval; the first, or ‘fake’ ending feels like the perfect conclusion. Instead, I am helpless but to watch as the narrative tension is sucked out of the piece with the cosy, yukked-up finale which is a borderline sleight to not only the audience’s emotional investment in the piece, but also Wright himself, undermining the slow and clever build up that had preceded it. If, like me, you always used to press ‘stop’ when watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ten minutes before the end, you may well share my frustration.
This latter frustration aside, Travelling Light is an entertaining, nicely executed piece which is well worth a visit. A fine example of nice, harmless fiction.
- Harry Zing
*Whilst the play is technically a work of fiction, the programme does allude to many of the inspirations which inspired this look at the Jewish involvement in the early days of film, indirectly comparing the fictional Mendl’s route to success to that of Samuel Goldwyn. It does beg the question, however, why so many concessions were made to the story to allow for more ‘reality’, when, as a work of fiction with no pretence of biographical accuracy, Wright could just as easily have spun a much headier yarn.