The London Marathon arrived a few days early for the Whingers. Standing in freezing weather watching people run past dressed as rhinos would have been a doddle compared to this.
Thankfully the Whingers and their plus-eight (remember that – it is important later) had come prepared: thermos flasks of coffee, energy drinks, sports chocolate, pillows and hot water bottles were all smuggled into the auditorium. Beneath his smart evening-wear Andrew was sporting a natty and almost fresh set of his favourite jim-jams.
Most shockingly of all, Phil had broken his “no caffeine after 5pm” rule (one of the conditions of his ASBO) in a determined effort to make it through to the very end of the four-hour (but getting shorter) marathon that is a preview of Gone With The Wind – The Musical!
The big question on everyone’s lips, of course, was: “How can they possibly squeeze the thousand-odd pages of Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel into “just” four hours? The answer is simple…
… They cram it in. The evening unfolded thus:
7.00: The Whingers’ entourage mostly arrive at the theatre as arranged.
7.29: PaulInLondon arrives; Phil stops breathing into paper bag.
7.32: Actors arrive on stage and deliver some purple prose.
7.33: 20 latecomers scuttle into the their seats.
7.34: The stage revolves for the first time (this is a Trevor Nunn production remember) and some slaves sing a Negro Spiritual (can you say that any more?).
7.36: Narrators begin to provide a quick run down on who everyone is.
7.36: Scarlett’s father (who we know to be Irish because he says things like “Is it crying you are?”) sings an Irish ditty.
7.45: Recently purchased slaves arrive.
7.46: A party. Rhett appears.
7.52: Rhett speaks for the first time (not sure what he said).
7:55: Scarlett tells Ashley that she loves him. They sing.
7.58: They split up; she slaps him.
7.59: She agrees to marry Charles Hamilton.
7.58: The American Civil War begins. They sing.
8.01: Scarlett marries Charles. Charles goes to the war.
8.02: Charles dies of pneumonia.
8.03: Scarlett has a baby.
8.04: Scarlett goes to Atlanta. They sing.
8.10: Everyone goes to a fund raiser and Rhett arrives imploring people to buy a pillowcase.
8.16: They auction the ladies and dance.
8.18: They return to Tara. Scarlett sings and actually says “fiddledeedee”. A narrator assures us that “the rest of 1862 went swiftly by”.
8.25: A lot of war news arrives; the set revolves and most of the men die. They sing.
8:30: Ashley returns from the war.
8.31: Having stayed for a week, Ashley returns to the war. He sings and has a snog with Scarlett. The set revolves. There is another fundraiser. Rhett stands on a chair and says something (didn’t quite catch what).
8.35: The townswomen diss Rhett through the medium of song.
8.38: A telegram arrives with the news that Ashley is missing, presumed dead.
8.40: The war reaches Atlanta. Scarlett stays with the pregnant Melanie who is too ill to be moved.
8.42: Desperate for a doctor, Scarlett goes to the streets of Atlanta where she sees (according the narrators) hundreds of injured and dead. She steps over 15 actors, goes round in a circle and steps over them again to suggest the scale of the horror.
8.45: The bed-ridden Melanie – now in labour – is wheeled on. A narrator explains that Scarlett stays with her for two or three hours.
8.47: Melanie has the baby and is wheeled off again.
8.49: Wounded soldiers – all now bearded – wander through the auditorium on their way out of Atlanta.
8.50: Atlanta burns (three bits of scenery flop down and the lighting goes red).
8.51: Rhett leaves to join the army telling Scarlett that he doesn’t give a damn (magnficently rising above the obvious fact that the audience doesn’t either).
8.52: Scarlett and Prissy pull a cart to Tara. A narrator explains that the invisible horse dies. Dawn comes.
8.55: “Tomorrow is another day”.
8.58: Scarlett goes to a neighbouring plantation in search of food. She sings “Gone With the Wind”.
But we get ahead of ourselves:
Andrew had a portent of doom on first entering the theatre when he spotted the racks of cushions made available for the comfort of patrons.
It took a bit longer for Phil to cotton on but he realised something was terribly wrong when Martin (who loved Wicked for God’s sake) looked at Phil over the top of his glasses after only 15 minutes with a pained expression on his face.
On the plus side, director Trevor Nunn groups people on stage very well: it’s his signature, but sometimes it was very hard to tell who was singing (they are all wired of course) or narrating. Phil’s head span like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist trying to to work it all out.
And the cast sing with such conviction that you almost believe the songs might be quite good and the lyrics worth listening to. But this is an illusion. It’s not that they are awful (as in the Take Flight sense of “awful”) they’re just very bland. Lyrics such as “softly as a whisper you’re always on my mind” and “seek love and ye shall find” just seem like a terrible waste of effort (to sing, not to write, obviously). But thankfully (and presumably because they’ve cut them) they never last very long. This causes its own problems because they never seem to build into proper songs.
Who decided Margaret Martin, who has no previous theatre credits, could write a musical worthy of staging on this scale in the West End? We mean, it’s not as though she’s married to Trevor Nunn or anything. The Whingers can understand him wanting to stage his wife Imogen Stubb’s play We Happy Few, but what possible reason can he have for staging this. It’s a mystery.
But one person at least had faith in her abilities: Margaret Martin. According to her bio, “Margaret Martin supported herself from the age of 15. As a single mother, she identified closely with the challenges faced by Gone With the Wind’s young protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara. She felt the filmed adaptation left considerably more within Margaret Mitchell’s epic tale to be explored. Margaret Martin developed Gone With the Wind for the musical theatre on her own.” So she thought the movie was a bit too short , did she? What’s next on her list? Andy Warhol’s Empire?
For personal reasons which can’t be gone into here for legal reasons pertaining to a custody battle over a wide-screen TV Phil was really only there to see the burning of Atlanta. But by the interval he wasn’t sure if it had burned at all. The Olympic torch had more spectacle, even doused.
There were guffaws around the theatre when Scarlett stepped over a few huddled bodies on the floor then rushes round the stage to step over them again. When she announced that “there was death in the air” it was all too much for Phil – the smell of death was certainly pervading the auditorium, but not in the way she meant.
And then there were the hoop skirts. Now, Phil believes you can never have too many hoop skirts on a stage but the ladies do urgently need to be sent back to hoop management class to learn how to handle them properly. Poor Melanie (Madeleine Worrall who’d so impressed the Whingers as Cinderella in Stephen Fry’s Old Vic panto) was having the worst problems and really struggled to maintain her dignity when seated.
And why did the women keep rolling up rolls of toilet paper?
Designer John Napier (Cats, Les Mis, Starlight Express etc) has created an impressive environment which encompasses the entire auditorium but the central set doesn’t achieve much – no matter how many times they revolved it, it always ended up looking the same.
But these are – incredibly – minor carps. The problem is that it’s all so rushed. There is absolutely no time to develop any kind of drama. Although we are told that Scarlett spends two or three hours nursing Melanie through her difficult labour, it’s over in less than two minutes so there is absolutely no sense that this was in any way a gruelling ordeal. She might have been helping Melanie shell peas for all the impact it made.
And the narration, the narration, the endless, constant narration. What little hearts the whingers have sunk like the stones they resemble when the natration first began. By the time we were told that “the rest of 1862 went swiftly by” both Whingers were trying to block it out.
In the back of Andrew’s mind he recognised this story-telling device from somewhere but couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Eventually the penny dropped. Ms Martin was employing the narrative technique developed for primary school nativity plays – “So Mary and Joseph and the donkey went to Bethlehem…”.
The production also employs this device in lieu of set: we were told that the library was full of books but saw only a sofa against a black void.
Performances? Well, everyone gave it their all. There was plenty of gusto. Poor Jill Paice as Scarlett is hardly ever off the stage. She sings fantastically, of course, but it’s all a lot of effort for no return and there’s so much rushing around that she has no time to develop any kind of relationship with the audience, many of whom were wishing that in this version of the American civil war the Yankees had developed napalm so that a sudden and conclusive victory might curtail the story.
TV talent show winner Darius Danesh was struggling with an infection of some kind (no, really). He certainly looks the part and does a decent southern accent and has an annoying smugness that seems just about right for Rhett (we assume this was acting) but isn’t particularly charismatic and Andrew struggled to make out most of what he was saying.
Quite what the critics will make of it all, who knows? No doubt some will trot out the rather obvious “Frankly I didn’t give a damn” so we’ll get in there first. The show’s merchandising even manages to get a pop in.
Tomorrow may be another day, but by the time the Whingers emerged into the night air during the interval it practically already was. And this was just at the interval. The second act was to be even longer.
In the event, the Whingers were pleased that they had brought their London marathon performance foil with them*. Now about Act 2…
* Based on an idea by Ian Shuttleworth