Love can be a tricky and messy business. Particularly if your mother-in-law-to-be has access to the internet or your bride-to-be has to be (allegedly) intercepted at Nice airport.
Yet these must be but small concerns compared with having a girlfriend who keeps a potter’s wheel in her apartment.
After all these years there are few on-stage experiences that can be deemed firsts for the Whingers but this surely would be one. Forget whether the hit 1990 film Ghost could be successfully adapted for the stage as a musical, what the Whingers were most eagerly anticipating Ghost the Musical was just how would they handle that iconic scene?
Not that the Whingers have any proficiency to judge her skills at the wheel, Phil hasn’t tossed a pot since school and those results wouldn’t even give Deirdre Barlow’s new-found potting skills a run for their money. But Caissie Levy’s Molly centres her clay very well and gets stuck in sloshing water liberally. The not-so-metaphorical (but endearingly small) phallus she wistfully fingers tells us all we need to know about how much she’s missing her recently deceased boyfriend Sam (Richard Fleeshman), if not why.
Andrew was shaking with dry laughter from the moment her wheel trundled on. Phil came over all nostalgic for the Potter’s Wheel TV interludes*. Expect Grayson Perry to turn up for the official opening night.
But let us crack on before you glaze over.
Do we really need to trouble you with the plot? Sam and Molly’s love affair is suddenly terminated after Sam starts to investigate some banking discrepancies, gets shot in a back alley, turns into a ghost (brilliantly achieved) and finds a con-artist medium Oda Mae Brown (Sharon D Clarke) who can actually hear him so he can contact Molly and warn her that her life is also in danger.
One of Ghost‘s biggest strengths is that it’s a rather ripping story. The book is by Bruce Joel Rubin who wrote the Oscar-winning original screenplay and – as is often the way of musicals these days – the interpolation of songs mostly merely impedes a tale previously perfectly well told without any songs thank you very much.
For this blame mostly the lyrics by Glen Ballard who co-wrote Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” (All together now: “A summer’s disregard, a broken bottle top and one man’s soul, they follow each other on the wind ya know ’cause they got nowhere to go. That’s why I want you to know…”) which eschew wit at every turn. And as each song concludes you find yourself none the wiser really. The subtext of the songs being no more illuminating than, “I miss him. I miss him a lot. No, I REALLY miss him. A LOT! Gosh, I miss him.” This was a preview and at 2 hours 45 mins it still needs cutting and at least one of Levy’s numbers needs to go. One only has patience for so much grieving.
How the creators must have breathed a sigh of relief when they secured the rights to “Unchained Melody”: it’s like discovering a single bloom in a bed of weeds. Not that the songs are that bad (indeed the tunes are by Eurythmics man Dave Stewart who has written one or two hummable ditties in his time), it’s just that anodyne, rock-ish numbers aren’t really very up the Whingers’ alleys. The anthemic “I Had a Life” will probably have its own life beyond the show regardless.
But there’s one comedy number “Ball of Wax” (indeed) which sticks out like a sore thumb, coming as it does just after Sam’s death where a group of disgruntled ghosts led very ably by Mark White** perform a tap number in a hospital. Now, the Whingers are first in the queue for tap dancing on almost any occasion but Phil hadn’t seen such an inappropriate, ill-positioned number since the tap dancing psychiatrists in that legendary musical clunker Jean Seberg. And what does ball of wax mean? Why wasn’t this number cut when the show tried out in Manchester? Why do most of the ghosts’ costumes fade from the shoulders yet others don’t? Why does White resemble Keith Floyd? Baffling in so many ways.
The performances are pretty good though. And what a relief to see a musical where the four principals Fleeshman, Levy, Clarke and Andrew Langtree as Sam’s best friend Carl can all sing well. Other shows should look and learn.
Andrew was less comfortable with the casting, Mister Fleeshman’s muscular physique reminding him of Groucho Marx’s reason for missing Cecil B. De Mille’s 1949 biblical epic Sampson & Delilah starring Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr: “I never go to the movies where the hero’s bust is bigger than the heroine’s”.
This is a classy and slick production which wisely focuses on the story. Director Matthew Warchus has kept the thriller elements genuinely thrilling and there are some terrific visuals courtesy of designer Rob Howell and video and projection designer Jon Driscoll. Enron has much to answer for. But alongside all the suits and money there are some quite hideous 80s everyday clothes which will make anyone old enough to remember wearing them cringe
Choreographer Ashley Wallen (additional movement by Liam Steel) create interesting formations, mostly on travelators and Phil became quite hooked on the Little Tich style of leaning forward frequently employed by the chorus.
But two elements top all this. Sharon D Clarke has the almost impossible task of filling Whoopi Goldberg’s shoes as sassy Oda Mae. But fill them she does, even her comedically hideous green and pink shoes. Her comedy turn is to Ghost what Nigel Harman is to Shrek: she steals the evening and lifts it from a three to a four thanks to her comic mastery and her vocal skills. That turned out to be just as well given that she was at the next table in the pub afterwards.
And then there are the illusions by Paul Kieve which outwitted the Whingers at almost every turn. Sam’s two final departures were really rather extraordinary.
Of course, there are gripes. There’s the lack of a basic programme (souvenir programmes are available at £7; for more detailed moaning see the footnotes). And Andrew thought the physics of it was rather shoddy and he came out with a list of questions which nobody else was the least interested in answering:
- If Sam can’t grasp solid things such as door-knob, how come he can sit on a sofa? And leave a dent?
- And come to that, why doesn’t he fall through the floors?
- Then how come although he learns to touch solid things to the point where he can beat up Carl, how come he can’t hug Molly without entering Oda Mae’s body?
- And (for those of you who have seen it) what on earth does Molly think is wrong with the picture frame his Carrie Fisher poster is already in? It’s exactly the right size and rather elaborate, being self-standing and all that.
Thankfully they have plenty of time to iron out these credibility issues before it opens and make the whole thing more realistic. But even if they don’t, there is the distinct whiff of a crowd-pleasing hit if Monday’s ovating, tissue-wrangling audience was anything to go by. And it’s probably best viewed during the week before the inevitable hen parties invade at weekends.
What’s with the insidious trend of big musicals selling programmes that are really overpriced, oversized souvenir brochures? The days seem to be gone when you could choose. Ghost‘s “programme” is a whoppingly outrageous £7. Only one out the Whingers’ party of 10 purchased one and few others in the audience seemed to be shelling out for them and presumably that was to use as a fan in the Piccadilly’s stifling auditorium. Stop it at once.
** We are most impressed by Mr White’s credits. A theatrical Homo Universalis indeed:
Among Mark’s numerous directorial, choreographic and producing credits, included responsibility for directing Russell Crowe in The Blues Brothers Musical (Sydney, Australia).
Mark has also proved himself off stage in the West End, as Deputy Master Carpenter (Victoria Palace), Deputy Head Of Stage (Dominion), Head Flyman (Palladium), and Revolve Operator on Warhorse (New London Theatre).
*Not that we’re criticising Caissie Levy’s skills. But they really did do it properly in those TV interludes and barely a hint of a penis.