Review – State Fair, Finborough Theatre

Wednesday 12 August 2009

State Fair at Finborough TheatreOur 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.

State Fair

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

Duffy LyonSteve 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).

21 Responses to “Review – State Fair, Finborough Theatre”

  1. “Our regular reader”

    You have just the one, then?

  2. Should you decide to venture to Iowa, we’ll be more than happy to join you – if nothing else, we can take you to the Sondheim Center named for you-know-who in Fairfield, Iowa (

  3. I’ve never understood why anyone would want to stage State Fair, other than for the delightful ‘It Might as Well Be Spring’, which must be one of the best Rodgers and Hammerstein songs (as most of their songs were written for stage, they were not often eligible for Oscars).

    Sounds like you have to lose the live pig. Shame. A pig on stage would definitely liven things up.

  4. JohnnyFox Says:

    First of all may I congratulate the Whingers on not making reference to Ketchum, Iowa (scene of the recently-demised Too Close to My C*nt) or suggesting that Mary Hemingway might have entered her bleu cheese balls at its 1946 State Fair, the year they were married.

    I didn’t find it as disappointing as the Whingers did, although it could have done with more space and definitely the production would have been improved if someone could have ushered a live pig up those many stairs …

    I was disappointed by septuagenarian Susan Travers (playing the mother of two 20-year-olds which says a lot for fertility drugs in mid-1920’s Iowa).

    I wasn’t old enough to stay up late for Van der Valk when she played his wife Arlette. By the third series she’d been replaced by Joanna Dunham. However, as well as being related to Dame Penelope Wilton, she’s also the niece of Bill Travers, and therefore her aunt is Virginia McKenna. She still wasn’t much good, though.

    We loved some of the lines, such as ‘I’m aiming for a pearl necklace in the back row’ (sadly, it didn’t reach) and ‘she’s a woman who knows her way around a cucumber’

    … ah, innocent days.

  5. johnnyfox Says:

    and if anyone wants a lesson in how to sing ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’ here’s a black-and-white Shirley Jones

    • Julia Says:

      I love that video. For what it’s worth, I enjoyed State Fair, and much preferred it to John Doyle’s Chichester production of Oklahoma! that completely butchered the joy and romance of the show.

      • JKH Says:

        John Doyles Chichester production of Oklahoma.
        I don’t suppose you have a clue why they were throwing (rather nice tasting) apples across the stage?

    • webcowgirl Says:

      Damn, Johnny, thanks for that, it gave me goosebumps.

  6. johnnyfox Says:

    Even though the Finborough bar couldn’t serve alcohol, I feel they missed a major catering opportunity offered by replicating the viands available ‘on a stick’ at the Iowa State Fair.

    I can’t imagine how they do ’52’ …

    The Iowa State Fair boasts nearly 200 food stands and more than 50 delectable items available on-a-stick.

    Here’s the list as of August 2009:

    1. Frozen s’more on-a-stick
    2. Chocolate-dipped cake on-a-stick
    3. Chicken club on-a-stick
    4. Buffalo chicken on-a-stick
    5. Chocolate-covered peanut butter round on-a-stick
    6. Chocolate-covered key lime round on-a-stick
    7. Carmellows on-a-stick
    8. Pretzel rods dipped in caramel or chocolate
    9. Pickle on-a-stick
    10. Pork chop on-a-stick
    11. Corn dog
    12. Cheese on-a-stick
    13. Cajun chicken on-a-stick
    14. Sesame chicken on-a-stick
    15. Carmel apple
    16. German sausage on-a-stick
    17. Teriyaki beef on-a-stick
    18. Corn on the cob on-a-stick
    19. Cotton candy
    20. Veggie dog on-a-stick
    21. Turkey drumstick
    22. Nutty bar
    23. Fried pickle on-a-stick
    24. Hot bologna on-a-stick
    25. Shrimp on-a-stick
    26. Chicken on-a-stick
    27. Monkey Tails (chocolate covered banana on-a-stick)
    28. Taffy on-a-stick
    29. Honey on-a-stick
    30. Ice cream Wonder Bar
    31. Deep fried Snickers bar on-a-stick
    32. Deep fried 3 Musketeers bar on-a-stick
    33. Deep fried Milky Way bar on-a-stick
    34. Deep fried Twinkie on-a-stick
    35. Lamb on-a-stick
    36. Meatballs on-a-stick
    37. Deep fried hoho on-a-stick
    38. Fudge Puppy (waffle drenched in chocolate syrup and topped with whipped cream)
    39. Chili Dog on-a-stick
    40. Funtastick Pork on-a-stick
    41. Dutch letters on-a-stick
    42. Turkey tenders on-a-stick
    43. Deep fried hot dog on-a-stick
    44. Chocolate covered cheesecake on-a-stick
    45. Potato Lollipop (4 thick slices of russet potato deep fried and on-a-stick with dipping sauces)
    46. Pineapple on-a-stick (Fresh pineapple dipped in funnel cake batter and deep fried)
    47. Chicken lips on-a-stick (breaded chicken breast smothered with hot sauce, served with blue cheese dressing).
    48. Cornbrat on-a-stick (bratwurst dipped in corndog batter)
    49. Frozen fudge brownie on-a-stick
    50. Ice cream cookie sandwich on-a-stick
    51. Rock candy on-a-stick
    52. Salad on-a-stick
    53. Hard-boiled egg on-a-stick

  7. “Deep fried ho ho on a stick” sounds fun. But was there anything innabun, Mr. Dibbler?

    Penelope Wilton isn’t a Dame. Sadly.

  8. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    No, but after single-handedly getting the unreserved seating policy removed from the Menier the Whingers have been campaigning vociferously for Penny’s Damehood. It can only be a matter of time.

  9. JohnnyFox Says:

    I’d say Penny’s next in the queue after Julie Walters who’s a nearly-dead cert because after ‘A Short Stay in Switzerland’ the Palace will think she’s not got long to live …

    … any anyhoo I tend to refer to all actresses over 60 as Dame, a sort of courtesy title

  10. I was more amused by Thom’s continuing ability to ignore the little details that ruin things for an audience.

    In this case, it was using an obviously plastic gun for the shooting range, complete with obvious blue bits and a US mandated orange cap on the end. Of course, orange capping only came about within the last 15-20 years (my toy guns in the early 80’s didn’t have them), and last I checked a can of silver or grey spray paint could be purchased at the same pound store as the piece in question.

    But agreed about this being one of the least memorable shows in the R&H catalogue. The Forbidden Broadway bit from the last Broadway revival was:

    (To the tune of “Oh What A Beautiful Morning”)
    I’m John Davidson, I starred in State Fair
    And to tell you the truth, it’s not great fare.
    The plot is so vapid you’ll all go insane
    But that’s perfect for me ’cause I don’t have a brain.

    Oh what a beautiful moron
    Oh what a beautiful guy
    I’ve got a beautiful hairdo
    Even without my hair dye

  11. watzabatza Says:

    a grandma’s bday.. how dearing…

  12. Joy Hunt Says:

    Thom Southerlands doing Calamity Jane at The Gatehouse on until 3/7/2010 – perhaps he listened to you whingers!!!

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