One Night In London, Three Choices
The things I do for you lot. London has three new music-based shows to choose from, all of which I’ve now seen. So which would you see if you had just one night in town? Answer at the end.
First up is the most critically acclaimed of the three, the story of the rise and fall of the other Beatles, the Kinks. Director Ed Hall’s sharp ‘n’ scrappy production still shows its fringe origins (if you can call the Hampstead Theatre fringe). You get to know the boys well as they wander about in the audience, and it mostly avoids clichés. The leads don’t dance but they do fight, as the brothers from Muswell Hill graduate from hammering out riffs in their bedroom to (eventually) Madison Square Gardens.
Written with Ray Davies, Joe Penhall’s biographical book focuses as much on the money as the music. John Dagleish gives most vivid performance as Ray, who finds himself famous and wed with a child by 20, while his brother guitarist mad Dave (George Maguire) dons dresses and swings from the chandelier. Their posh, clueless managers do the best they can to keep the band from tearing itself apart, but it’s America that finally destroys them, demanding endless union backhanders as they tour and accusing them of being communists because Ray’s wife is of Lithuanian descent.
‘Sunny Afternoon’ would work well even without music as the socialist brothers descend into management hell. As one manager leaves, he points out that this is what comes of mixing the classes. ‘I’ll go back to my people,’ he suggests, ‘and you can go back to yours.’
The Kinks legend is a rock ‘n’ roll tragedy but the hit-packed finale is great fun, and the songs are smashed out gig-style rather than being tidied up for the West End. For once this is a jukebox musical that works because the lyrics reflect the brothers’ lives and experiences, and inform the core story, and you’ll be surprised at how many songs you know.
Here Lies Love
This kicks off the new Dorfman Theatre (formerly the National’s Cottesloe) in a show about the Steel Butterfly of the Philippines, a song-cycle presented in an immersive production by Alex Timbers that turns the room into a disco. I’m glad I had a standing ticket rather than a seat, as we became part of the floor action in which platforms slide and turn to create 360 degree stages, and everyone gets to dance (in fact we’re taught a Philippines line-dance twice during the no-intermission show and I still couldn’t do it).
Video footage, TV screens and live interviews unfold the story of Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos – the Asian Kennedys whose (possibly) good intentions fast slide into devastating corruption – from Imelda’s 1950s rise from poverty to the moment in 1986 when, after 14 years of martial law and a peaceful uprising, the couple were airlifted out of the country to the USA (which supported them – Imelda’s first call was to Nancy Reagan).
The change in Imelda starts early, as she snubs her former maid and best friend at the wedding, which took place after an 11-day courtship when she barely saw her future husband. Soon she’s commissioning cultural centres nobody wants while her people live without running water, and following the paths to excess that attract all absolute rulers. Much of the dialogue here is verbatim.
The music is in the form of catchy upbeat disco anthems, which feel entirely appropriate to the story, and we, the crowd, get turned into everything from rally attendees to dancers, funeral mourners and protestors, the point being that we become Marcos’s willing slaves in the process, a smart move from Fatboy Slim and David Byrne, who wrote the score.
It’s all far better than ‘Evita’ (not saying much, I know) and has a darker tone, especially when Marcos genuinely fails to understand that after all the imprisonments, bribes, massacres and assassinations (her former lover is shot dead before he can even get out of the airport) she honestly expects people to love her. Of course, Marcos is back there now, and her descendants still rule the Philippines, just as there’s always a Bush lurking in the Republicans.
Oh, and there are no shoes here – that discovery occurred after the play’s timeframe.
Made In Dagenham
Despite what he says, director Richard Goold hasn’t reinvented the British musical, but he has enlisted Richard Bean on book, Richard Thomas on lyrics and Bond scorer David Arnold on music to tell the story of the sixties girl-power strikers who fought for equal pay. The overall tone goes for a ‘Billy Elliot’ vibe, and is packed with sharp one-liners, surreal songs and worker-management confrontations that bring back the awfulness of past industrial actions, with Gemma Arterton as the political naif who becomes radicalised as she grows more conscious of her fellow workers’ plight. The songs aren’t particularly memorable (neither were the ones in ‘Billy Elliot’) but perfectly match the timeframe, with several standouts, especially the second act ‘This is America’.
The set is a gem; a giant Airfix kit of car-parts still attached to their stems that can replicate the factory floor or Dagenham itself. The big surprise is Mark Hadfield as Harold Wilson, getting to sing and dance with Barbara Castle (a no-nonsense Sophie Louise-Dann), who responds: ‘Don’t try to bamboozle me with choreography!’ Wilson gets many of the pithier lines; ‘Don’t stand up’, he tells the ladies, ‘I wouldn’t stand up for you.’ The rest of the characters are beautifully delineated; it’s rare that you get to know a cast this big so well.
British shows don’t often play long – ‘A Private Function’ came off smartish, but then it did have a song about verrucas. ‘Spend Spend Spend’, the story of Viv Nicholson, whose life was destroyed by a pools win, had no happy ending – this has a final moment of triumph. As you’d expect from the shop floor, ‘Dagenham’s language is salty (this is not ‘The Pyjama Game’), and the Ford executives are so completely evil that the American sitting next to me actually booed, but what should you expect from a car company that shot its own workers and sent cards to Hitler?
It is an extremely English show, with jokes about Belgium, Cilla Black, Essex, our political history and all manner of words and phrases only we find funny (including the word Dagenham itself). The second half has one too many songs and a climax that takes place in the TUC hall instead of back at the factory. It’s a minor cavil – on this first viewing there’s no reason why the girls from the Essex Ford plant shouldn’t stay in the West End for years.
So which would I pick for one night in London? Probably ‘Made In Dagenham’, for its home-grown originality and sheer sense of fun.