The Rose Tattoo at the National Theatre features Zoë Wanamaker CBE and a goat so it’s no surprise that the West End Whingers were to be found squished eagerly into the second row of the Olivier stalls for the penultimate preview.
The up-and-coming Mr Williams is on a roll in London at the moment. The current productions of The Glass Menagerie and Lovely and Misfit have both provided the Whingers with enjoyable evenings out. And this one featured a goat. This show would be a dead cert.
The play is not one of Mr Williams’ deftest; it lacks a certain lightness of touch although he himself considered it his “love-play to the world”. Director Nicholas Hytner (who took over when original director Stephen Pimlott unfortunately died after the first week of rehearsals– not an encouraging omen really) assures us in the programme notes that it is “one of the most life affirming plays of the 20th century”.
It’s a wooden sofa of a play: sturdy and enduring but far too big and rather uncomfortable despite being overstuffed with imagery.
The principal motif of the ROSE Tattoo is the ROSE. Wanamaker plays Serafina delle ROSE, a member of the Sicilian community of New Orleans with her daughter ROSA delle ROSE. Following the death of her husband ROSaria della ROSE (who had a ROSE tattooed on his chest) she goes a bit loopy and sits in her underwear eating Cadbury’s ROSEs.
OK, so we made that last bit up but we are confident they would have been Williams’ choice of confectionery had they been around because Williams was understandably a bit haunted by his sister ROSE who had mental problems which were “treated” with a botched lobotomy. It’s a sad story made sadder still by the fact that by the interval Andrew was wishing he could trade his seat in the theatre for a lie down on ROSE’s operating table.
And while we’re on the subject of botched.
The first few minutes of the play are pretty critical; it’s difficult to get the audience on Serafina delle ROSE’s side and Wanamaker CBE fails to swing it. She shouts and raves and rails at people like one imagines a recently widowed Sicilian woman in New Orleans would. But this is before her husband drops dead so by the time she receives the terrible news one is just quite grateful that it might shut her up for a bit.
What happened to Wanamaker? She used to be an interesting actress (e.g. The Boston Marriage at the Donmar) on the legitimate stage (we’re campaigning for the return of that phrase, by the way) and on the telly and in the the talking pictures. She oozed charm and put great energy into realising her father Sam’s dream of re-creating The Globe Theatre.
But then she was seduced by the evils of LCD television, finding easy money (and lots of it) in the form of the BBC sit”com” My Family. She also had the financial sense to hitch a ride on the Harry Potter gravy train as Madam Hooch but blew it by telling the press that the money was “sh*t” and that the English actors were valued less than the Americans. “If they want me for a second, they’ll have to up the rates,” she told the Sunday Times. The gravy train doesn’t stop at Zoe anymore.
Unfortunately, the theatre seemed to be stuffed with My Family watchers which had a most eerie effect on the evening. In case you haven’t seen it, it’s the kind of comedy you can watch without even smiling. But the studio audience members (presumably enhanced by a laugh track) do because (a) they know it’s supposed to be funny and (b) the actors are resort to visual cues in the form of subliminal face tics followed by a pause to indicate it’s an appropriate time to laugh. A floor manager probably holds up a big board with “LAUGH” on it just to be on the safe side.
The My Family fans were clearly there in force as they responded in Pavlovian fashion to what must now be involuntary tics in Wanamaker’s acting, resulting in guffaws of laughter that would surely have flummoxed Mr Williams had he had the misfortune to live to witness this revival.
It wasn’t all bad. The Whingers and their
hangers-on guests were delighted to see the goat make its first appearance. It is paraded around the front of the stage and off again in the traditional manner afforded to the miniature ponies which draw the coach at the end of the first act of Cinderella.
We longed for its return and during the (eventual) interval the usual rush to the bar was replaced by excited rufflings through the programme to see where the goat had come from (the nearby Vauxhall City Farm was our guess), what its name was and whether it had appeared in Casualty and The Bill. Five excited index fingers scoured the cast list in vain for mention of the goat. But then, there it was, that must be it: “Other parts played by members of the company”. Amazing what they can do these days.
All members of the entourage agreed to return after the interval. The possibility that the goat might reprise its parade was just too enticing, and their forbearance was rewarded as the wonderfully satanic-looking animal went through its routine again to steal yet another scene. Phil hadn’t seen a goat on stage since The Goat, Or Who is Sylvia? and flicking through his dusty mental filing system couldn’t recall ever seeing a live one.
Marvellous. And that goat had more to do than the some of the cast, many of whom just seemed to appear in just the odd scene. Indeed, one actor seemed to appear only in the curtain call which seems to us like shameless extravagance on the part of the National.
There was more excitement to come. Phil was thrilled to witness his third real fruit eating scene in a week. Unfortunately not oranges this time (he never really thought they were the only fruit anyway) but bananas which are peeled and eaten by the over-bright stage kiddywinks live on stage. Are theatre directors taking note of the government edict to get 5 pieces a day?
Yes fruit, a goat and a prophylactic (we can’t be bothered explaining that). Phil was beside himself.
The set portraying Serafina’s house is adequate for the story and the Oliver but again the National delivers some very laborious scene changes “covered” by children mulling about and playing the most unconvincing hide-and-seek ever to be seen on a stage. The house revolves on its Lazy Susanby various degrees to present different aspects. Would-be Whinger Mark had a theory that it could only rotate in one direction as it appeared to move through 359 degrees to achieve one scene change. It really was quite difficult to overlook. When Serafina commented that the room was spinning, would-be Whinger Neil leant across and whispered, “Actually, it’s one of the few occasions when it isn’t.”
In fact, Neil could have been at an audition for the role of “Third Whinger” as he was on excellent form. When the chasing of the goat was accompanied by inappropriately jaunty musical accompaniment, he enquired if it was perhaps the latino Benny Hill theme and having counted the New Orleans/Sicilian accents drifting occasionally into Irish, South African and Australian, declared it to be more international than an Olympic Village. A check in the programme revealed that their had indeed been a dialogue coach on hand, but unfortunately she trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.
Almost three hours! Being whizzes at mental arithmetic, the Whingers calculated that you could fit two Sizwe Banzis into a Rose Tattoo. And have about three times as much fun in the process. Mr Hytner should pop into see Mr Paradise in Lovely and Misfit which, running at just 15 minutes, could inspire him to get out his secateurs and give the ROSEs a good pruning.