I recently saw a YouTube video of the final night of The Poor School, in which its founder and director Paul Caister – not liked in some quarters because of his forthright approach - spoke. In a closing night speech, bringing The Poor School to an end after 32 years, he lamented the popularity of the modern adaptation of classical works, particularly in British theatre. I agree with him on that point, and have found myself watching an ‘adaptation’ of something or other, wondering why on earth didn’t the writer(s) just come up with a new show?
Now Hadestown is, albeit an American import to the National Theatre, an adaptation, but even I have to admit, this was rather good. I am led to believe it has secured a transfer to Broadway already. Here, on a drizzly Monday night in November, at a ‘regular’ performance (that is, not the press night filled with investors plus friends and families of cast and creatives), a significant proportion of the audience rose to their feet at the curtain call, without any encouragement or overly celebratory encore. There was an encore, and it was quite reflective, and so unexpected that some people had left the theatre without having had the chance to hear it. Their loss.
It is not entirely sung-through, but it very nearly is, and a seven-strong on-stage band are utterly delightful. This is, in effect, a retelling of the ancient Greek legend of Orpheus (Reeve Carney) and Eurydice (Eva Noblezada). Boy meets girl, but that’s probably about as conventional this show gets in terms of musical theatre. Unlike John Gay’s 1728 ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera, there are no calls for a ‘reprieve’ at the final hurdle; at the performance I attended, an audible ‘No!’ could be heard from the audience. Those familiar with the old story will know that Eurydice dies and ends up in the underworld, after which Orpheus descends to the underworld (whilst still alive, don’t ask) to see his other half. Such was his ability to play music and sing that the miscellaneous obstacles that would ordinarily stand in the way of someone getting through to the underworld before actually dying are overcome: free passage was given to him for his talents.
Here, Hades (Patrick Page) speaks with a particularly low voice (think the high priest, Caiaphas, in Jesus Christ Superstar). Hermes (André De Shields), acts as the show’s rather classy and assured narrator, who enjoyed a fully justified excellent rapport with the audience from the start. For me, though, although the show is an ensemble piece of theatre – it’s worth naming ‘The Fates’, Carly Mercedes Dyer, Rosie Fletcher and Gloria Onitiri, and the ‘Workers’, Sharif Afifi, Beth Hinton-Lever, Seyi Omooba, Aiesha Pease, Joseph Prouse, Jordan Shaw and Shaq Taylor – the evening belongs to Carney’s Orpheus. The devil doesn’t always have the best tunes, y’know. Some will find the material he warbles through a bit jarring, or otherwise underwhelming: some high-pitched ‘la, la, la’s just didn’t do it for one couple in the row behind, who took to taking the piss in the second half when it was reprised yet again.
There are some glorious moments, though. The jaunty ‘Livin’ It Up On Top’ showcased energetic choreography (David Neumann), and the final musical number in the first half, ‘Why We Build The Wall’ was, for its dark content, a throwback to the call and response songs of old, and a powerful if harrowing example of group singing. It’s topical, because of the Trump Administration, but the song makes little sense in the context of this production (with the benefit of hindsight, and some time for me to reflect on it thanks to yet more post-theatre transport delays – thank you, South Western Railway and Network Rail). What is the point of Hades building a wall around the perimeters of the underworld? By custom in ancient Greece, one went there at the end of one’s life on Earth whether one wanted to or not, so the undesirables (whoever they may be) would end up there in any event.
It is best not to ponder on such matters too much in a show best enjoyed by sitting back and letting the music, wonderfully diverse in style and tempo, wash over you. I think the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre would be a good place to put a production of Hadestown in one summer. Persephone (Amber Gray) turns the musical into a concert in the Act Two opening number, ‘Our Lady of the Underground’, going as far as to name the musicians individually to audience applause. Breath-taking in places, this was a very satisfying evening.
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks
Music, lyrics and book by Anaïs Mitchell
Developed with Rachel Chavkin
In rep until 26 January 2019
In the warmth of summertime, songwriter Orpheus and his muse Eurydice are living it up and falling in love. But as winter approaches, reality sets in: these young dreamers can’t survive on songs alone. Tempted by the promise of plenty, Eurydice is lured to the depths of industrial Hadestown. On a quest to save her, Orpheus journeys to the underworld where their trust in each other is put to a final test.
Celebrated singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin have transformed Mitchell’s acclaimed concept album into a genre-defying new musical that mixes modern American folk music with vintage New Orleans jazz to reimagine a sweeping ancient tale.
Reeve Carney, André De Shields, Amber Gray, Eva Noblezada and Patrick Page are appearing with the support of UK Equity, incorporating the Variety Artistes’ Federation, pursuant to an exchange programme between American Equity and UK Equity.
It’s the NHS, but not as I’ve known it for the past few years. A general hospital in the north of England, with ‘general’ being very much the operative word, is the setting for Allelujah! The focus is on a geriatric ward: different wards of the building have been named after various people. The one the characters are in happens to be called ‘Dusty Springfield’, whilst others, judging by a sign on a wall giving directions, include ‘Len Hutton’, ‘Barbara Hepworth’ and ‘J.B. Priestley’.
It’s taken this long for me to get around to seeing this Bridge Theatre production due to, well, lots of other productions to see, and it was only possible at all thanks to the power of National Theatre Live, or in this case, National Theatre Not So Live (what show in London starts at 6:10pm?), seeing as the run at the Bridge Theatre is now over. One of the patients at the geriatric ward, Joe (Jeff Rawle) simply doesn’t want to get well enough to be discharged, as that would mean returning to a care home, or to be more precise a non-care home, where the living conditions are considerably worse than they are at the hospital.
The play strongly suggests that there’s a lot of ‘bed blocking’ going on, such that in this instance, the geriatric ward even has a choir, such is the sense of community and camaraderie amongst the patients and staff. But there is one method of moving people on, deployed by Sister Gilchrist (Deborah Findlay), who at the interval is slated to receive a long service award just prior to retirement, but by the curtain call is told she can expect life imprisonment.
The choir does, at least, provide some healthy entertainment as the characters find common ground in the movement and choreography (Arlene Phillips). This isn’t a play that shows the sort of bad behaviour uncovered by investigative journalism in this country, where people are at best benignly neglected and at worst shouted at, spat at and kicked where the sun doesn’t shine. A fair amount goes on in this play, which does at least justify its two hours and 45 minutes running time.
One of the doctors, Valentine (Sacha Dhawan), who isn’t really called Valentine, but he asserts speakers of British English can’t easily pronounce his actual name, finds himself rejected by a most bizarre citizenship test in which he fails to sing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ all the way through. The narcissism of the chairman of the hospital, Salter (Peter Forbes) shines through whenever a documentary director, Alex (Sam Bond) and a camera operator, Cliff (Nadine Higgin) are around, all part of a bid to ‘Save the Beth’, an ongoing campaign to prevent the powers that be from closing down the Bethlehem Hospital.
Joe’s son, Colin (Samuel Barnett), a management consultant, is on a private visit, but try telling that to Salter, who continues to push for answers as to the future status of the hospital. That is resolved, happily or not, by the end of the show, but of note is Colin’s ‘move with the times, get with the programme’ outlook. But as I started by saying, it’s not the NHS I know: here, there’s some evidence of frantic activity – as soon as a bed becomes available, a patient is rushed over to it, as though a seat had suddenly become available on a Tube train in rush hour. But otherwise, everyone is more or less cared for, fed on time, and medicated on time. Perhaps a greater sense of how stretched staff and resources are would have made this production more credible. Still, I did maintain interest throughout.
Like Love Story, and to some extent, the musical adaptation of Bend It Like Beckham, this Howard Goodall musical, Girlfriends, has too many songs in a similar style, which made me tune out somewhat. The narrative is not always driven forward by the songs, and more often it is the spoken-word narrator (Group Captain Victoria Gosling OBE: a real scoop for the London Musical Theatre Orchestra in having an actual senior figurehead within the Royal Air Force telling the story about the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) during the Second World War) who explains a lot in a short space of time, before a single point is seized on and sung about in a musical number or two. Or even three.
I cannot fault the orchestra, led (as usual) by the effervescent Freddie Tapner, who was musical director for a production of Girlfriends at the Union Theatre in 2014, and much of the singing itself is pleasant to listen to. That is actually a problem in this case: the work of the WAAF is portrayed as difficult and unrelenting, and yet the songs are lush and beautiful. Perhaps the concert staging didn’t quite work for me either, and the production as a whole felt as static as the performers rooted to their designated spots on the stage.
I mean, there was some movement (and I don’t just mean standing and sitting dependent on whether a character was even in a scene or not) but not much – because the musical doesn’t really call for it. Fair enough, in a show about the struggles and challenges faced by members of the WAAF, but there is not much to distinguish between some of the women characters. This might have been intentional, inasmuch as they were all in it together and all that, but it meant the narrative as a whole became rather distant – and, dare I say it, cold.
The ‘girlfriends’ who I could recall as being distinct characters are Jasmine (Vikki Stone) who came close to deserting the WAAF because she was not given ‘compassionate leave’ following the death of her brother, and Woods (Lizzie Wofford), who presumably had a first name but because of her seniority within the WAAF was portrayed as an insensitive and heartless leader (and then as a snowflake when she changed her mind with regards to Jasmine). I warmed to Jasmine, even if I didn’t really warm to anyone else: she asks the sort of questions that ought to be asked in wartime and didn’t blindly swallow up the propaganda of the day.
Guy (Rob Houchen) didn’t come across as unlikeable as the character’s words suggest. The lyrics were saying that it’s a tough war and everyone is having a hard time, but somehow this wasn’t really conveyed in the pretty and neat costumes and the melodious tunes that are a pleasure to listen to, but do little, if anything, to portray the struggles of the characters, or of the era. As Groucho Marx put it, “I’ve have had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it."
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.