Thursday, 22 October 2009

Annie, Get Your Coat


‘The best thing for YOU ...’ sings Annie Oakley in the rootin' shootin' tuner Annie Get Your Gun ‘... would be ME.’ The best thing for YOU, dear reader, would be to stay away from this terrible production.

Written in 1946 by the great Irving Berlin and specifically for its star Ethel Merman, it chronicles the 1880’s rivalry-then-love-affair between Ohio amateur sharpshooter Annie Oakley and champion Frank Butler.

In the Young Vic’s bizarre production, by opera director Richard Jones, it’s somehow transposed to a formica-and-vinyl Midwest diner like a leftover set from ‘Happy Days’, although in a hallucinogenic second-act opener Annie is shown in jerky 8mm footage on a kind of Evita-esque Rainbow Tour meeting Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and de Gaulle.

Featuring showtune standards like ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’, ‘Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better’ and ‘The Girl That I Marry’ the lush, broad, inventive Berlin score is - literally - hammered into submission by the substitution of an orchestra with four upright saloon-bar pianos built into the front of the stage.

The plot carries us across the sweeping Ohio prairies and on a tour of most of the Wild West. The Young Vic is a large and flexible space, but ludicriously-monickered designer Ultz (real name: David Fisher) reduces this to an extraordinary horizontal slit in what looks like Portakabin siding, with the movement cramped into about ten feet depth of stage. The sight lines are so appalling that the final clinch between Annie and Frank, in an upstairs room the size of a broom cupboard, is invisible to more than half the audience.

Merman's voice famously filled theatres without a microphone and she was known as "leather lungs", but by comparison Horrocks has a couple of Tesco teabags flapping inside her puny chest, and her singing is criminally underpowered for the belted standards, nor is it any more appealing in the ballads.

She seems beyond uncomfortable. Pitching the role as a scruffy waif in an early Pauline Fowler wig, she’s barely as tall as her Remington rifle which she wields like it was a caber in the Highland Games rather than an extension of her own right arm. She also has a tendency to compensate for her one-dimensional acting by gurning at the audience, most of whom seemed to know her only as ‘Bubble’ from AbFab.

Julian Ovenden looks charming as Frank Butler, and his fluting tenor carries the tunes beautifully. Too beautifully, perhaps, since Frank’s a rawer and more rambunctious character than this rather polite performance suggests.

There’s a willing and capable ensemble, too few in number for the size of the show, but good contributions from Liza Sadovy as a particularly grim circus harpy, and John Marquez as a Brooklyn showman out of his comfort zone in the wild West.

It’s such a waste. This is a show so ripe for revival, with tunes you could actually go IN to the theatre humming, they are so well-loved, and it deserves the kind of treatment Trevor Nunn gave ‘Oklahoma’ at the National, not this clapboarded ham-fisted high-school rendition.

Production photo by Keith Pattinson for the Young Vic

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Low Calorie Breakfast at Tiffany's


What can you remember of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ - Mickey Rooney with an unconvincing set of false teeth and a cringingly awful Chinese accent? Audrey Hepburn cool as a January cucumber in her swept-up chignon, tiara, pearls and yard-long cigarette holder? The gamine, twittery but ultimately loveable party girl around whom New York whirls like snowflakes in a lightweight comedy?

Ain’t none of that here at the Haymarket where undeniably beautiful Anna Friel plays Holly Golightly far closer to Billie Piper in Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Brightly peroxide (collar and cuffs, apparently, from the fleeting glimpse in the nude scene) and occasionally in a picture hat that makes her look disconcertingly like a shiitake mushroom, she may be closer to Truman Capote’s vision of Marilyn Monroe for the party, but captures only some of Holly’s mercurial quality.

To misquote Portia, the quality of mercury has become strained and in 2009 it doesn’t seem quite so ‘appropriate’ for attractive but insubstantial waifs to make a living from merely flirting with middle-aged suitors. Not that this is a morality play about prostitution, or, indeed, about anything apart from the characters who surround Holly, all of them ciphers.

Coming in at a butt-numbing two and three-quarter hours, the play is a succession of quick-change vignette scenes, using what look like two fire-escape staircases left over from a low-budget tour of ‘West Side Story’: there’s no depth, there’s no engagement - in Samuel Adamson’s adaptation of the original Truman Capote novella, it’s simply too hard to care about the characters.

Perhaps appropriately for Ms. Golightly, Friel looks everything but delivers nothing. Style over substance would be fine but she lacks the vital edge which makes Holly emotionally dangerous.

The production’s further damaged by the dismal performance of James Dreyfus, bad enough in Cabaret but here attempting the role of a cigar-chomping movie mogul and still coming out as Tom in Gimme Gimme Gimme. Suzanne Bertish has a better go at the vampish Italian neighbour Madame Spanella, although in a fringed gypsy skirt and paso doble gesturings, she seems to pitch it closer to Madrid than Milan. She’s meant to be an opera singer but mimes her arias, couldn’t they cast someone who could sing?

Capote once said the film was ‘a mawkish Valentine to New York City’ - here it’s more like a Tesco Value birthday card with the Manhattan skyline reduced to a few cheap cutouts against a backcloth lit variously in turquoise and magenta.

At the end, the loose ends of Holly’s story are all tied up, but you’ll yearn for the syrupy closing shots of Audrey and the strains of ‘Moon River’.

Production photo by Johan Persson