As an avid theatregoer, and a person who believes in the strength and power of good theatre, these last weeks in London have been profoundly disappointing. Broadway is ablaze with possibilities, new works and astonishing revivals of classic hits. It is not the same here. Yes, critics give their stars with tiresome impunity, but that does not mean anything particularly good is happening on London stages. Critical standards seem curiously opaque, profoundly populist. Adequacy or Mediocrity seems to be the new Outstanding – and that is wrong, quite wrong. Woyzeck, Life of Galileo and On The Town are all worthy of their audience’s time, but none are outstanding.
The chief draw card for the Old Vic’s Woyzeck is John Boyega of Star Wars fame. Happily, and quite unusually, he is a film star who delivers the goods. Boyega certainly shows great gravtias in the title role here and the best scenes come between he and Sarah Greene, who is sprightly and profounding affecting as his wife, Marie. They are very believable as a struggling working class couple and the attraction between them is as strongly portrayed as the gaudy tragedy which unfolds around them and engulfs them.
Boyega is less convincing in the second act, when he is required to animate a script which becomes increasing bizarre and confused. Part of the power of Georg Büchner’s original work lies in watching the destruction of the title character without being entirely sure of what exactly causes that downfall. Successful playwright, and adapter of other’s writings for the stage, Jack Thorne, has taken the basic notions of Büchner’s unfinished masterpiece (Büchner died before he finished the play) and transported the action to the divided Berlin of 1981.
This has the advantage of tapping into a recent period of time probably within the shared experience and understanding of audiences but it adds layers of confusion to the plot. Woyzeck is not disintegrating in his homeland; he is disintegrating in a foreign land in difficult circumstances. The factors here that lead to his dysfunction, therefore, are not as straightforward as Büchner intended.
Where Büchner’s Woyzeck focused more clearly on the way the professions of medicine and the military dehumanised and dissolved Woyzeck’s spirit, here Thorne provides many reasons for Woyzeck’s downfall. His childhood of abuse; the homo-erotic expectations of the superior officer who monopolises his time with massage and barber duties; his enforced role as a kind of Baxter character from The Apartment, permitting his small apartment above a Muslim butcher shop (one that exudes unpleasant odours continually) to be used as a knocking shop by a randy military man and his haughty mistress (who is married to the massage loving superior officer); the disquieting medical trial conducted by a Doctor who looks like he might have escaped from a Bond film; haunting nightmares from a tour of duty in war-ravaged Ireland.
The various horrors piled up against Woyzeck’s spirit reduce, rather than increase, empathy for his situation. The effects of the drug trial alone would be enough to cripple the strongest of men; so too would be the degrading experiences forced upon him by the husband and wife who entangle him with sexual escapes he wants no part of but must submit to participating in, however reluctantly. But the whirlpool of traumatic and crushing experiences numb everything and not even Boyega’s admirable spirit is enough to overcome the drowning effect. In the end it is dull, when it should be electrifying.
Director Joe Murphy certainly ensures that the production is visually attractive. Scenes which delve into the recesses of Woyzeck’s mind and explore his gruesome memories are extremely filmic, haunting and powerful. Neil Austin’s lighting is especially remarkable in these sections of the play. Tom Scutt’s set is an expressionist exemplar, and it manages to convey the dreariness of conformist military ritual and discipline as well as the closing walls of Woyzeck’s mind and world. Some of the music composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge seeks to convey Woyzeck’s emotions in ways the text does not attempt, or so it seems, but it jars rather than underscores the performances.
The result is rather like a military obstacle course. The production and Thorne’s adaptation overwhelms you and drains you, but you don’t really see what the point of it all was. Yes, its modern and explosive and there is full frontal nudity and a simulated sex scene – it feels very now, but doesn’t leave a trace upon your psyche. Unlike, say, the Andrew Scott Hamlet, which truly was adapted for 2017, and which you find yourself thinking about weeks, months after seeing it. Murphy and Thorne have placed their Woyzeck in a style and language for 2017 but without ensuring it has even the impact of the original version.
None of the supporting cast really deliver. The reliable Nancy Carroll is suitably awful as the adulterous Maggie but the gratuitous sex scene at the top of Act Two is what leaves the impression. Her other work in the dreamscape scenes is good enough, but Boyega is the focal point of those scenes.
Steffan Rhodri is stilted and gruff as Maggie’s military husband, the dubious and creepy Captain Thompson, and Ben Batt, most at ease when stark naked, gives some life to the one-dimensional sex mad Andrews. Darrell D’Silva is vaguely menacing as Doctor Martens but not menacing enough.
Boyega and Greene do the best they can in all the circumstances and, really, Greene is assiduously and determinedly splendid throughout. It was difficult not to care for her Marie even though it was difficult to care for Boyega’s Woyzeck.
This Woyzeck adaptation should really have been called something else as it has little to do with the original, and its sensibilities and touchpoints are quite different. Rather than being about the disintegration of one man, it seems like a look at the disintegration of a whole society; it looks at the schism in one man’s life against the background of a schism in Germany. This Woyzeck is too overburdened with its new plot, concepts and style.
Life of Galileo
Joe Wright’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s Life Of Galileo (translation by John Willett) is the kind of production of a classic that will have a profoundly positive impact on young adults making their first venture into theatre more challenging than Harry Potter And The Cursed Child. Visually it is enticing and arresting, and some of the audience are placed firmly in the centre of the action while the actors revolve around them, rather like the planets moving around the Sun in Copernicus’ theory of the Universe with which Galileo runs much to the consternation of the religious rulers of his day.
Projections, videos, puppets and wild and wonderful costumes are all in play in this vivid rendering of one of Brecht’s finest, most accessible works. They divert, amuse and sometimes enchant – the manner in which Galileo here explains the Copernicus theory with an apple, a pencil and a chair emphasises the almost circus-like atmosphere Wright summons up. There is relentless movement, a lot of shouting and vigorous movement, even some bawdy and garish moments likely to cause titters and nudging. When there is stillness, it is potent and welcome.
This is great for youngsters and people fresh to the the idea of theatre being about exploring ideas through drama. But Brecht’s masterful analysis of the obligation of scientists to challenge assumptions made by governments, bureaucracies or societies is somewhat lost in translation; the intellectual core of the play is replaced by a pop-star sensibility, a muscular physicality, which certainly fizzes brightly but leaves no lasting impression. It’s as if Wright does not trust the timeless and timely text to resonate today even though he clearly has trust in its possibilities.
Brendan Cowell gives his all within the confines of Wright’s vision. His Galileo is certainly passionate and it is easy to get caught up in his love of science and its potential for change and revelation. He uses his voice well, but the demands of the role and the way of playing takes its toll and towards the middle of the play hoarseness seeps into his careful enunciation. Overall, though, he is very impressive.
There is quite lovely work from Billy Howle who plays Andrea, a kind of apprentice to Cowell’s sorcerer-like Galileo. He manages the difficult balance between foolishness and a thirst for knowledge well, and it is almost impossible not to like his character and root for his progression.
Anjana Vasan plays Galileo’s daughter, neglected but singular, with spirit and grace; Joshua James has never been better than he is here, playing her suitor, a likeable toff willing to marry beneath his station. Other cast members have varying degrees of success in multiple roles, but no one can be said to be unequal to the tasks given them.
Lizzie Clachan’s inventive and expressionistic set and costumes, Tom Chemical Brothers Rowlands’ funky and infectious incidental score, Jon Clark’s magical lighting, Javier de Frutos’ sexy, intriguing movement, Sarah Wright’s allegorical and inventive puppetry, Tom Gibbons’ persuasively involving sound and 59 Productions’ quite overwhelming projections (at times at least) all combine to be the stars of the Galileo universe Wright presides over here. These technical and physical elements could scarcely be better given the kind of production Wright wants this to be.
But the relentless need for the production to be cool and naughty, as if science and intellectual discourse can not be thrilling on its own terms, undermines some of the serious purpose of Brecht’s work. Life of Galileo is, in this production, a triumph of form over substance, of visual impact over the power of the articulated thought, of exuberance over intellect. Like a comet, it has a passing, ephemeral brilliance.
On The Town
The star of Drew McOnie’s colourful and energetic production of On The Town is McOnie himself, or at least his vibrant, surprising and often thrilling choreography. This is, of course, fitting for a show that grew from an idea by Jerome Robbins and was put together by those stalwarts of Broadway, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with a score from the extraordinary Leonard Bernstein. But, like almost every Broadway show, dance is not all that On The Town needs to hit the heights.
The ensemble assembled here by McOnie is exceptional and they all dance with an energised precision, leaping and frolicking around and across the stage in exuberant routines and, mostly, vibrantly colourful costumes (Peter McKintosh). Whether in nightclub settings, on the streets of Manhattan, by the docks where sailors start and finish their day leave, on subway carriages or even inside a venerable Museum, the ensemble do terrific and vastly enjoyable work.
There is standout work from Rodney Earl-Clarke, Matthew Caputo, Rachel Muldoon, Lisa Ritchie, Sam Salter and Edward Chitticks in particular. Small characters are whole and rounded and each is given life, and interest, by the gifted ensemble. There are occasional glitches – there is a Bernadette Peters accent which was irritatingly distracting, some caveman outfits which stretch credulity beyond acceptable limits, and some kitsch touches which pay homage to 20th Century film musicals – but, on the whole, the ensemble is terrifically effective, impressively hard-working.
Amongst the minor principals there is less success. Maggie Steed seems to be channelling Beatrice Arthur as the alcoholic Madame Dilly but to little effect. Few laughs are unearthed. Mark Heenehan plays the endlessly duped Judge with a relentless, twinkling earnestness but again the laughs are sparse. Naoko Mori overdoes the infected housemate role, Lucy Schmeeler, and also scores few laughter bullseyes. These are roles that require gifted performers who can create cartoonish characters that appeal and surprise; the jokes and situations are corny and only stylish, inspired work will ever get these characters flying in new revivals. One suspects that this might be more done to directorial conceit than performer ability, but, either way, the result is not what On The Town needs.
The bulk of On The Town centres on a trio of sailors who are having a day’s shore leave in Manhattan. These roles call for true triple threats. This is even more so when the ensemble is pulsing with gifted performers all of whom are triple threats themselves. Each of the three leads has a distinct character, but together they represent the gamut of straight, randy, romantic, healthy, and inquisitive American shipmates. Their opening number, the well known New York, New York, is a celebratory, manly, and determined roll of the dice – it sets up their energy, enthusiasm and pure joy.
The central trio in this production – Danny Mac, Jacob Maynard and Samuel Edwards – work well together despite the fact that Maynard was a very late substitute for Fred Haig who, but for a Judi Dench like Cats injury, would have played Chip. Each is affable, attractive and alive – more than can often be said of leading men in musicals in London – and each can sing, dance and, to a more limited extent, act. Truly, in this show, acting is of secondary importance in these roles, although, obviously good acting will always improve any on stage scenario.
But On The Town is more demanding when it comes to the dancing and the singing. Each role requires superb dancing and superb singing. Bernstein’s music is complex and demanding and the dances all have real significance, for character, for situation, or for both. Maynard and Edwards are both amiable singers, with good voices full of vocal interest. Both dance well enough, especially with the ladies who entrance their characters. Some Other Time was the impressive vocal highlight of the evening and Ya Got Me burst with characterful energy and marvellous singing.
Danny Mac more than gets by as the lead character, Gabey, but he does not reach the heights that can be reached by the right performer in this role. His version of Lonely Town was sweet, but a true singer could make that song the most memorable moment of the evening. Perhaps more importantly, Gabey needs to be the best male dancer on stage, for when Gabey can dance an electrifying storm at every turn, On The Town becomes impossible to resist. Mac is good, but ensemble members can dance more ebulliently, more precisely, more beguilingly.
Mac is somewhat hamstrung by Siena Kelly’s Ivy. Kelly is sweet and easy to watch, but she never grabs attention as a Helen of Troy character, as she must. She is good but that is insufficient for Ivy. To be fair to her, she did not seem to receive much on stage energy from Mac, and this affects her overall performance. Still, it is easy enough to enjoy their performances even though they don’t quite hit the marks they should.
There is better joy from Lizzy Connolly’s wonderfully surprising, and deftly hilarious Hildy and Miriam-Teak Lee’s superb professional debut as the statuesque and slightly mysterious Claire. Neither actor is an obvious choice for their role but each proved to be a brilliant choice, bringing fresh energy and clever choices to the characters. Connolly’s I Can Cook Too was sheer delight, and together with Maynard she creates the best duo of the evening. Lee is constantly a treat and her lovely tone when singing adds glory to Bernstein’s tunes.
Perhaps the very best thing about McOnie’s vision for On The Town was the Lonely Town Pas de Deux which, for the first time as far as I am aware, saw two men dance a tale of doomed love. As the piece unfolded, it was almost possible to hear the entire audience hold its breath. The dancing was exquisite, the emotion raw and unerring, and the sense of a spotlight on a part of life often unexamined in musicals quite palpable. It was absolutely terrific.
Equally, though, it was problematic for the production, because at no point did the stories of the three leading men ever reach the same emotional highpoint, the same sense of raw realism, that Myles Brown and Sam Salter achieved in their Lonely Town Pas de Deux. The moment in the second Act which ought to surpass it, the Dream Coney Island Pas de Deux, with Gabey and Ivy, paled by comparison. Sadly.
Peter McKintosh’s set evoked a kind of West Side Story feel which seemed inapt. Still, Howard Hudson’s quite magical lighting improved the look and feel of every scene and helped integrate the parklands as a part of the backdrop, as if Central Park was just there. Lyrics were harder to hear than they should be in such a space, so Nick Lister’s sound design needs improvement.
Bernstein would have been more than happy with Tom Deering’s command of the score and the fruity, jazzy and sexy way the gifted band played and pounded the melodies and harmonies. The orchestral colour, the jazz colour, was sublimely joyful; the tempi and beats sound and true. The energy which drove this On The Town came from McOnie’s choreography and Deering’s spirited musicianship.
These three productions are all solid productions, all interesting revivals which are, although in different ways, surprising. Each are entertaining – absolutely.
But none of these productions come close to gold standard; none exhilarate, none revive the work in an astonishing re-imagination which will endure or outlast the original versions (or revivals of them). They are all perfectly good productions which should enjoy enthusiastic audiences.
But none of them approach the kind of standard, talent and conceit that would deserve a five star rating. None of them are outstanding. And it is important that excellence in imagination, execution or inspiration should be able to be readily recognised. Continually exalting good as great eradicates the notion of greatness.
That needs to be avoided. Mediocrity or Adequacy cannot be permitted to become the new Outstanding. That way lies darkness.