Our regular reader has noticed a singular lack of whinging in recent reviews.
Have the Whingers gone soft? That’s what they’re saying – softer than a butter cow in the Finborough theatre on a hot August evening.
The recent run of peculiarly enthusiastic ramblings (broken only by Too Close Too The Sun which in its own way provided weeks of entertainment and even a few household items acquired through an ebay auction of the props which will be treasured for years) suggest the Whingers may be suffering from some form of summer madness.
How wonderful then, for Phil at least, to find at last something to put him back in one of his spectacular grumps.
But first let’s set the scene and find out how he reached this state of peevishness.
Phil arrived at the Finborough Theatre to find the bar unable to sell alcohol due to some licensing issue. Perhaps surprisingly, this was not the end of the world: he was able to nip round to a local emporium and purchase cheaper wine and return to the Finborough to pay a £3 corkage. But on his visit to the powder room he found the soap dispenser coming off the wall and as it made its final suicide leap it deposited a suspicious brown gunge all over his hands. There was no water in the taps with which to to wash it off.
It also happened to be a very hot night and the Finborough has no air-con. This was the weather he would have wished for had he been visiting the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Unfortunately that was yesterday, and that was Hello, Dolly! and – unfortunately for tonight’s cast and crew – that show had also raised the musical bar impossibly high.
The Whingers had also had a wonderful view of the previous night’s proceedings but wishing to savour the delicious night air for as long as possible the Whingers electe to enter the auditorium at the last possible minute for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair, and as this venue has an unreserved seating policy, they found themselves in the worst possible position to appreciate the show side on.
Now when something has taken over 60 years to reach the stage in this country there’s usually a reason. State Fair was firstly a film (featuring Vivian Blaine!) in 1945. The stage version has only five songs from that film bolstered by several R&H songs which were featured or cut out of previous shows. Song-wise, it’s not R&H’s finest hour. Only the delightful “It Might as Well Be Spring” (R&H’s only Oscar winning song, incidentally) shines like a burning butter cow in the night. Unfortunately “It Might as Well Be Spring” is the second song in the show so it was pretty much downhill all the way from there. It also features a plot so insubstantial that it makes Hello, Dolly! look like Damages.
There were moments. Phil derived some pleasure from Susan Travers‘ on-stage mincemeat making (Travers, incidentally, was in 13 episodes of Van Der Valk and is a cousin of dear Penny Wilton). The smell of grated lemons permeated the auditorium but Phil’s general expression suggested that he was actually sucking on one. His joy at seeing mincemeat made turned rapidly to horror during the mincemeat judging scene (yes, that’s right, a mincemeat judging scene) which involved spitting mincemeat into a bowl and over a member of the cast and into the jar they were eating from. It was some of Phil’s worst food hygiene nightmares being acted out before him.
All credit to the cast and the band of one (presumably the marvellously monickered Magnus Gilljam who is credited as MD) for plodding cheerfully away at it all with big smiles. Some credit to director Thom Southerland for – if nothing else – cramming 14 people onto the Finborough’s modest apron stage and to choreographer Sally Brooks for finding something for them to do once they were there.
But really, it was the fact that it was done at all that was remarkable – coincidentally 14 is the record for the number of people squeezed into a phone box. From the Whingers seat is was all but impossible to tell what was going on. It was harder than trying to watch an IMAX movie from the front row. And as Phil was sitting next to the piano it was often impossible to hear what was being sung. Thrust stages are usually a disaster for half the audience. Thrusting should be left to Berlusconis the Prescotts and, err, the John Majors of this world.
Never had the Whingers seen so many backs of heads and it was certainly the first time they had watched a curtain call from behind the cast.
Wunderkind Southerland has become a bit of a hero for his ability to rethink classic musicals for intimate spaces and modest budgets: the Whingers were most entertained by Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam. But sadly this is a musical too inconsequential in a venue too modest. We’re long overdue a Calamity Jane though, Thom.
Back row: Sarah Waddell. Philip Rham. David Botham. Third row: Anthony Wise. Susan Travers . Laura Main. Helen Philips. Second row from front: Robert Rees.Siôn Lloyd. Martin McCarthy. Front row: Gareth Nash. Robine Landi.
Footnotes: brushes with greatness
Steve On Broadway‘s partner’s Doug’s Great Uncle was Philip Duffield Stong who wrote the original novel. What’s more, Doug’s mother is Norma “Duffy” Stong Lyon of Toledo, Iowa who was the third person and first woman to sculpt the Iowa State Fair’s now famous Butter Cow and went on to sculpt butter for over 45 years. In 2007 she put her weight behind one Barack Obama and look what happened to him! Duffy retired a couple of years ago. The picture on the right (courtesy of Steve On Brodway) shows the butter queen at her 80th birthday party this year. The Whingers have booked flights to Iowa.
Incidentally, the 2009 butter cow, a Jersey, will be accompanied by “a buttery salute to the 40th Anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moo”n. It was rumoured that there would be a butter Michael Jackson this year but that was all a a bit of a misunderstanding, apparently.
Musical performers at the state fair have included Iowa native Andy Williams, Liberace, Lawrence Welk, Sonny and Cher, Tammy Wynette and Liza Minnelli which rather puts the Lambeth Country Show to shame. You can buy a book about Norma here. Should you be in the area, Iowa’s State Fair opens tomorrow (13th August 2009).