It isn’t quite Dirty Dancing, in which the stage ‘adaptation’ (inverted commas deliberate) is so faithful to the motion picture that one can’t help thinking, although the musical version is very enjoyable, that it would have been less geographically and financially inconvenient to have watched the film again at home instead. But there still seems to be, at least to me, a slight missed opportunity to adapt Young Frankenstein further from its previous big screen incarnation.
There is almost an unwillingness to even want to stray too far away from the 1974 movie. The script is even replete with references to how the storyline is typical of comedy horror movies. So many lines from the film reappear on stage that I couldn’t help but think of watching it again. By ‘it’ I mean the movie, not the stage show, which is probably not what the show’s producers intended.
It’s not like there wasn’t any thought whatsoever put into the musical: far from it. There are 19 musical numbers, for instance, far fewer than in the film, though it is with a tinge of regret that in a world of modern musical theatre where the actor as musician is so prevalent, more convincing and more prominent actor-musicianship does not appear here.
There isn’t much between Gene Wilder’s Dr Frederick Frankenstein on the screen and Hadley Fraser’s portrayal of the same character on the London stage – and I mean that in a good way. Fraser’s stage presence is, as ever, quite extraordinary, here stamping his own authority on the role, and Shuler Hensley is perfectly cast as Frankenstein’s ‘Monster’, utterly convincing in whatever state of mind his creator has programmed for him to be in. It’s Ross Noble as Igor that has the best comic timing and hilarious facial expressions – pictures that paint many words.
The emphasis is more on comedy than horror, which is just as well, as horror is difficult to portray on stage (even if The Woman in Black continues to spook audiences). It is one of those shows that is very, very shallow and silly, and knows it is. Some of the punchlines are rather like Christmas cracker jokes, that unite people in agreeing how bad they are instead of trying too hard to actually be funny.
Elsewhere, however, the feminists who have criticised the show have a point, and the silliness does indeed spill over into something less palatable. An example: in ‘He Vas My Boyfriend’ (and it is ‘Vas’ not ‘Was’, for Frau Blücher (Lesley Joseph) speaks in such a ‘vay’) there are lyrics such as, “He stabbed me with a kitchen knife” and “I vas the first thing that he’d hit”. Oh dear.
This musical finally comes into its own in an extended version of ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’, which serves, in effect, as the eleven o’clock number, though the way in which the narrative is played out significantly mutes the audience applause at the song’s end. The choreography (Susan Stroman) is lively and energetic. The set is, unfortunately, more than a tad disappointing. It’s largely cheap and tacky, and I would have expected a higher standard for a West End show. Still, all things considered, there were some proper laugh-out-loud moments to savour in an unsubtle but nonetheless cheeky production.
Photo credit: Matt Crockett
The last time I went up to Sheffield, to see The Wedding Singer, I reported I’d be going up next time on the National Express service. Well, the fare is £6 each way for a reason, and let’s just say I ended up forking out an additional £19.50 for the return leg in the cattle class on East Midlands Trains as the outbound journey was so horrific I couldn’t face doing it in reverse. Our coach from London Victoria had broken down, so a rather uncomfortable replacement coach was commandeered into service, but would only take us as far as Milton Keynes Coachway, where another replacement coach was supposed to collect us. Except the driver didn’t know where Milton Keynes Coachway is, and as an older lady wouldn’t stop telling friend after friend in phone call after phone call, laden with colourful language that would make members of the Armed Forces blush, he turned off the M1 at junction 13 instead of junction 14.
At Milton Keynes, the other coach still hadn’t materialised, despite the further said delay on the first coach we were on. It later transpired that it was on the way, but was still some distance from Milton Keynes, so arrangements were made for that coach to wait at Trowell Services, in Nuthall, Nottinghamshire, north of junction 25 at the M1. A largely empty coach bound for Edinburgh that had stopped at Milton Keynes Coachway was therefore packed to the rafters with all of us headed for Yorkshire. So not only was there to be another change of coaches, but another set of customers on a different route had been majorly inconvenienced. I don’t know what everyone else at Trowell Services at the time must have thought about part of the car park being turned into a very temporary National Express coach stop. One trip, three coaches. Honestly. Thoroughly delayed (though I did have, deliberately, a 140-minute leeway between scheduled arrival time and show start time) and pissed off, we finally trundled into Sheffield Interchange, and I went in search of some distinctly unhealthy comfort food. I found a branch of KFC.
More to the point, I found an even cheesier and more ridiculous touring production than The Wedding Singer to see in Sheffield: The Band. There isn’t anything that fits the description of ‘the band’ in The Band. A five piece group of musicians (‘musicians’ being the word used in the show’s programme) is led by Mark Aspinall, and what the programme calls ‘The Band’ is really a vocal harmony group, the winners of the BBC Television reality show Let It Shine. Collectively, I am led to believe they call themselves ‘Five To Five’, though this name does not appear in the cast list, just their individual names (AJ Bentley, Nick Carsberg, Curtis T Johns, Yazdan Qafouri, Sario Solomon). I do not know the etymology of the name ‘Five To Five’ – do they get up ridiculously late (apart from matinee days) and work through the night, not retiring until 5am?
Much has been made of Five To Five being reduced to mere backing singers in this production. That is not true, as they are given plenty of centre stage time. But aside from saying general remarks of encouragement to the audience, during scenes set in a gig, they expressing themselves largely through lyrics from the songs of Take That. There is not, rightly or wrongly, sufficient emphasis placed on equating who out of Five To Five would be the equivalents of the members of Take That, back in the days when they were a quintet. They work very well as a group, though if someone were, hypothetically, to hold a gun to my head and demand I name a favourite, I was most impressed by Nick Carsberg.
To underline the point about what the world was like in the early Nineties, a series of screens from Ceefax, the BBC’s teletext information service (1974-2012), were displayed before the show, apparently dated 9 September 1993. Not all of the news items displayed, as far as I could work out, would have been reported on Ceefax, or anywhere else, on that date. The Maastricht Treaty was signed on 7 February 1992 and was not effective until 1 November 1993. The inauguration of Bill Clinton as 42nd President of the United States took place on 20 January 1993. The most salient news story, as far as this show goes, is Take That being number one. ‘Mr. Vain’, a song by Culture Beat, is reported as the number one chart single for four weeks from 28 August 1993. ‘Relight My Fire’, a Take That song featuring Lulu, was not number one until 9 October, and then again on 16 October.
More legitimate artistic licence is expressed in the show proper, whose central character, Rachel (Rachel Lumberg) goes through a longitudinal ordeal of triumph over adversity. Her younger self (Faye Christall) has a comparatively dysfunctional family, relative to Young Heather (Katy Clayton), Debbie (Rachelle Diedericks), Young Claire (Sarah Kate Howarth), and Young Zoe (Lauren Jacobs). Why is Debbie not ‘young’? Because, in the words of the annual Act of Remembrance, “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.” The story starts in 1992 and later jumps to 2017 – and, thankfully, does not flit back and forth, though there’s no attempt to make Five To Five look even a day older a quarter of a century later.
The group of five girls are given substantial character development, the only but all-important aspect of their lives that undisputedly holds them together is their deep affection and enthusiasm for The Band. A lot of the songs are enjoyable, and the pop vocals of Five To Five are well suited to the musical numbers. A production announcement about not singing along to the songs was only partially heeded, and as the storyline became more engrossing, the better linked the songs were to the narrative, and the harder it became for this receptive audience, who knew every line to every song anyway (the lyrics are unaltered), to retain their silence. Still, it wasn’t a patch on the audience response to Bat Out of Hell The Musical. Or indeed, to Never Forget, which seemed to do better in creating a soundscape that really did feel like an arena concert. The lighting (Patrick Woodroffe) was superb in this regard (that is, of making an arena concert feel like one), even if from my vantage point, it was a little too dazzling on occasion.
Jeff (Martin Miller), partner to Rachel, has nothing spectacular about his character, but provoked the strongest negative reaction and then, later, the strongest positive reaction. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone lose an audience so fast and so completely, and then not only regain it but win it over by much more than what was lost. And (spoiler alert) all he had to do was quote Take That lyrics. Oh yes, this show is that cheesy. The staging is inventive, and, as a fellow theatregoer wanted it noted, rather like the elaborate sets Take That themselves use in their stadium performances (I wouldn’t know for myself, obvs).
There’s plenty of scope for laughter, and the musical is largely feelgood in its spoken dialogue as well as in the songs. Its target audience is clearly those who have followed Take That as schoolgirls back in the day, and the grief that overwhelms the girls in the show following its critical incident had a noticeable impact as sobs began to fill the auditorium from the stalls as well as from the stage. That the story is about a small group of fans, rather than about Take That, makes the show less pretentious and more relatable, and therefore more memorable. “It was your show all along,” Five To Five announce at the curtain call. Cue megamix.
As for yours truly, it wasn’t exactly the greatest day of my life. But I had a good laugh, and while I still don’t intend to make a habit of listening to the music of Take That, I left with a ‘smile, smile, smile’. A strong storyline and convincing performances combined make for a witty and observant production that deserved the standing ovation received.
REMAINING TOUR DATES
Alhambra Theatre, Bradford – 17 to 28 October 2017
Mayflower Theatre, Southampton – 31 October to 11 November 2017
Venue Cymru, Llandudno – 14 to 25 November 2017
Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent – 28 November to 9 December 2017
Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff – 9 to 20 January 2018
Liverpool Empire Theatre – 23 January to 3 February 2018
Norwich Theatre Royal – 6 to 17 February 2018
The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury – 20 February to 3 March 2018
Hull New Theatre – 6 to 17 March 2018
Leeds Grant Theatre – 20 to 31 March 2018
Newcastle Theatre Royal – 3 to 14 April 2018
The Bristol Hippodrome- 17 to 28 April 2018
Birmingham Hippodrome – 1 to 12 May 2018
Theatre Royal Plymouth – 15 to 26 May 2018
Royal & Derngate, Northampton – 29 May to 9 June 2018
Theatre Royal Nottingham – 12 to 23 June 2018
King’s Theatre Glasgow – 26 June to 7 July 2018
Edinburgh Playhouse – 10 to 14 July 2018
It’s not the first time I’ve attended a theatre performance that started well before noon – during the 25th anniversary weekend of Les Miserables, both the Queen’s Theatre resident production and a touring production at the Barbican started their Saturday matinee performances at 10:30am. The Saturday evening shows were brought forward to 2:30pm, to allow for a dress rehearsal on Saturday night at The O2 Arena, where high-profile 25th anniversary concerts took place on Sunday, one at 1:30pm and the other at 7:00pm.
The Norman Conquests, to give this trilogy of Alan Ayckbourn plays their collective title, is, in some respects, like an epic version of Noises Off, with lots of laugh-out-loud moments but essentially the same story over and over again. By the time we got to ‘Round and Round The Garden’ in the evening such was the audience’s familiarity with the same six characters, each with their quirks and personal characteristics, that there was a sense of going through the motions. Nonetheless, there was still a lot of laughter to keep us entertained, and with none of the three plays lasting longer than 2 hours 15 minutes (with a 20 minute interval), I may well have arrived at Chichester Festival Theatre just after 9am for breakfast, and not left until 9.40pm, but the day had ample time for rest and relaxation between performances.
Norman (Trystan Gravelle) is married to Ruth (Hattie Ledbury), whilst Reg (Jonathan Broadbent) is married to Sarah (Sarah Hadland). Sarah is sister to Annie (Jemima Rooper), and Tom (John Hollingworth) is Annie’s next door neighbour. Annie looks after an off-stage elderly mother, but has called Sarah and Reg over to her place for the weekend, as she is going away for a couple of days to get some much needed respite. This basic structure thus established, there’s room for all sorts of antics, not least because Norman can’t help but seek satisfaction from other ladies as Ruth simply isn’t enough.
To prevent myself from going on almost as long as the trilogy day does, I limit myself to one highlight per play. ‘Living Together’ sees Reg’s board game invention demonstrate some interesting traits in characters. Quite how nice-but-dim Tom is comes across vividly. ‘Table Manners’ sees snappy Sarah attempt to dictate where people can sit (she fails, hurrah!). Norman makes much fun of Tom sat on a low upholstered chair at the dinner table (there is a shortage of dinner table chairs, apparently due to rot). And in ‘Round and Round the Garden’, it’s all go as the lawn becomes a passionate bed for more than one couple to, well, express their true feelings.
The audience is able to recognise a scene previously seen from another room, for instance: it’s all remarkably clever. This is a glorious and fantastic cast, and while some may take away some deeper thoughts about how the stresses and strains of everyday life can constrain people from fulfilling their ambitions, it is essentially good, clean, light entertainment.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.