There was a horrible inevitability that the Whingers would eventually make their West End stage debuts.
We are not counting our curtain call at Hair where we elbowed less able-bodied patrons out of the way to be first on the stage.
No, this was a more considered performance involving preparation: warm ups, vocal exercises and the necessity to eschew alcohol. Almost. Actually we did neck a pre-show glass of wine (strictly for Dutch Courage you understand) but you are not allowed take your drinks with you if you elect to purchase an on-stage seat at the Duchess Theatre.
No wine! Being a performer in the heady world of the West End doesn’t seem so glamorous now does it? How committed must we have been?
This was the legendary The Fantasticks, the longest-running musical in the world (42 years in New York) which has only ever received brief outings in this country. But what a coup for the show to have the Whingers and their entourage occupying almost all of the on-stage seating to give this second preview such a boost.
We can report that on-stage seating certainly has its pros and cons. The sightlines, of course, are rubbish. Hadn’t the Whingers learnt anything from Women Beware Women? It was like being back in seats D1 and D2 at the National Theatre. Performers frequently masked each other and it was sometimes hard to hear what they were singing. There was an awful lot of less-than-sotto-voce-chit-chat backstage which was sometimes more audible than the dialogue. Haven’t they heard of stage whispers?
And of course there was no chance for the Whingers to whip out their trusty notepads. With failing memories they too would have to follow, follow, follow the entreaties of the show’s only well-known song and “Try To Remember”.
But on the plus side on-stage audience members are held in the bar until the very last minute like attending royalty before being escorted to their seats by a delightful house manager. En route you get the opportunity to see props and costumes, including a tin marked “plums” for the second act opener, “This Plum Is Too Ripe”. It also gave Phil a chance to trip over one of the lights which brought out his inner ambulance-chasing no-win no-fee lawyer.
So, what of the show? Well, it’s lightweight. If it were any lighter it would float away like a soufflé on a dandelion seed. The story concerns two next door neighbours, a boy and a girl (with us so far?) whose fathers engineer a plan to make them fall in love by pretending to be arch-enemies, building a wall between the gardens and forbidding them to see each other. Why they don’t just use the front gate is not explained. Anyway, they fall in love and the fathers are then faced with task of resolving their feud so that it can all end happily. Their plan to achieve this is unlikely, to say the least. Anyway, it’s theatre, isn’t it?
Act II however, ups the ante from “unlikely” to “WTF?”. In fact, this show has the highest “WTF?” quotient seen for many moons. We won’t say more because it wouldn’t be fair and – moreover – we really couldn’t swear to what was going on.
To be honest though, we were more than a little distracted in Act II by the other half of the entourage who were sitting across the stage from us. One kept nodding off and had to be gently nudged awake while another struggled to suppress amusement at the show’s paean to vegetables, “Plant A Radish”, which features the line “They’re dependable! They’re befriendable!” and “Plant a turnip. Get a turnip. Maybe you’ll get two. That’s why I love vegetables; You know that they’ll come through!” No, we don’t know why either. But that’s the trouble with laughter – it’s contagious and when one starts, another will follow.
Now it’s famously documented on these pages that Andrew doesn’t do feet. The sight of anything exposed between the calcaneus and metatarsus on a stage can send him into apoplexy. So imagine Phil’s disquiet when he found that Andrew was so relaxed in his performance that he had kicked off his sandals and was exposing everything south of his talus to the audience. Where would this end? Phil was thankful that Andrew didn’t see Equus.
So much for the book and the music. We were already prepared for the staging having inadvertently read the Director’s Note in the programme. Amon Miyamoto writes:
The setting is nowhere, just a bare stage. As Peter Brook noted in The Empty Space, the essence of theatre can be reduced to a an walking across an empty room which another man watches; but The Fantasticks manages to make magic of its rudimentary set. Through its simplicity, and by spurning any description of the specific time and place, the musical offers the audience a magical experience which is only attainable in the theatre, encouraging them to use their own imagination to be part of – and complete the world of – the show.
Which is director-speak for “cheap”.
What we hadn’t been prepared for was the style of the performances which director Amon Miyamoto (he or she of the 2000 Sunrio Puro Land, Tokyo production of Hello Kitty Dream Revue (One) had plumped for which turned out to be Play Away circa 1972, an interesting directorial choice which principally involves people bouncing up and down excitedly and generally being very perky. What a way to treat London Musical Comedy Theatre Treasure Clive Rowe. And poor Lorna Want who we thought was the best thing in the revival of Evita (she played the mistress who sang “Another Suitcase…”). The show also features Carl Au who was the winner of the inaugural Stephen Sondeheim Prize for the Student Performer of the Year Award although there is not much chance to discover his vocal talents as he has been cast as The Mute, a character with whom Phil was intensely irritated as his principal function seems to be to fanny around striking clownish poses and showering the rest of the cast with confetti (which, to be fair, he did very well). Had Anthony Newley been resurrected? On the plus side Phil was relieved there wasn’t a Memphis moment where The Mute suddenly finds his voice and bursts into song. Congrats for holding back on that one.
The only person who succeeds in transcending the material is veteran actor Edward Petherbridge whose hilarious portrayal of a faded classical actor seemed to belong in a different show, a show that – unlike this one – the Whingers would have been happy to sit through whether they were seated on stage or in the gods.