Many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still*: Things we want to say about disability and theatre

Last month we went to see a play at the Park Theatre, ‘Kill Me Now’. We enjoyed the play and the production, but we did question whether an able-bodied actor was the only option to play one of the key disabled characters.  We didn’t realise at the time that we had unwittingly become part of a full-scale attack on the play’s author, Brad Fraser, who addressed the criticism in an article in ‘The Stage’ earlier this month.  We read his article, we read the article it was responding to, by Dea Birkett in the Guardian, and by the time we’d looked at the floods of comments, we realised that a single sentence in a review about one play wasn’t going to suffice.

We have already commented on some of the equality issues around theatre, whether gender, race, good looks, or personal wealth.  Could we just have re-written one of those posts and inserted the word ‘disability’?  And if not, does that imply that equality of opportunity where disability is concerned is a special case, too complicated and difficult to implement?

Representation, not replication

In our review of ‘Kill Me Now’, our point was that an opportunity to employ a disabled actor had been lost by using Oliver Gomm to play Joey, excellent though his performance was.  However, we were never saying that an actor precisely fitting the character’s disability should be found.  Brad Fraser points out in his article that we need to consider not just what takes place on stage, but all the aspects of playing a role.  In the case of Joey there is also sleight of hand in the performance – we are told that he is almost unintelligible to strangers, but we the audience can understand him – and this fact is also used for comic effect to highlight the needless fear and embarrassment of one of the other characters.  This is a representation of a disabled character, not a replication, and since being unable to control his limbs is a feature of Joey’s disability, even a disabled actor would have to imitate this, in a controlled way.  As actor and director Simon Startin puts it in an interview for the BBC, “I’ve ‘cripped’ up in the past,” he says, referring to a time he portrayed Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest as having cerebral palsy. “I wanted to play him as a disabled character because he’s ostracised and spat at by everybody – and hated. He’s described as a monster.” Startin happily admits that, for this role, his own disability “just wouldn’t cut it”.

The authentic voice?

So, is there more authenticity if Simon Startin imitates a person with a disability different from his own, than if an able-bodied person did it? Does the simple fact of employing a disabled actor add value to the production itself? And if so, how?

One thing is clear, simply knowing about disability is not enough – Dea Birkett’s extraordinarily distorted ‘review’ of Brad Fraser’s plays shows that it is possible to be close to disability (her daughter is a wheelchair user), and still come out with the most mindbending insensitivity and lack of empathy for those with disabilities.  Her complaint about Gomm’s performance is that ‘when non-disabled actors play disabled people, they love to squirm, startle and speak as if they were drunk’.  Not the sort of person we would want representing us if we had cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s, or motor neurone disease then.

There seems to be a lot of jostling for position here, when it is plainly obvious that disability, which covers a massive spectrum of physical, sensory, mental and cognitive states, and cuts across class, race, and gender, cannot possibly be represented by a single voice.

Disabled good, able-bodied bad

Much of the unbridled criticism of Brad Fraser’s play makes the assumption that it was written, produced and performed by people whose lives were untouched by disability. People decided it was bad, and therefore must be the product of the ‘able-bodied’.  But how can we possibly know? Not all disabilities are visible, and not all the contributors to a production like this are known to us.  It is interesting that Fraser, who has often talked about his severely disabled nephew in interviews, steadfastly holds off from mentioning him in his most recent ‘defence’ of his play.  Perhaps he wanted to avoid getting into a game of ‘my disability credentials are more valid than yours’.  All this is deeply ironic given that one of the most negative plays about disability ‘A Day in the death of Joe Egg’, was based heavily on its author, Peter Nichol’s, life, portraying the birth of a disabled daughter as an unmitigated catastrophe.

Getting out of the disability ghetto

Just as the idea of excluding the able-bodied from the process of giving disability in theatre a higher profile seems self-defeating, we don’t see how inclusion can just be about matching a disabled actor to a disabled part.  The parts need to change, and the principle needs to widen.  The rigidity of labelling parts for disabled or able-bodied actors is unlikely to give enough exposure to disabled actors for them to break through, and it allows too many excuses for not employing a disabled actor.  Why not start by asking the question ‘Does this character need to be able-bodied?’ rather than the other way round.  How many other Shakespearean characters can have a disability?  Back in 2010, Cheek by Jowl portrayed King Duncan as blind in their production of Macbeth.  In 1984 Anthony Sher took Richard III’s hunchback and embraced it, using crutches to move with ferocious speed, and made disability powerful.  Should we be criticising these choices for excluding disabled actors or thanking them for showing some imagination about the place of disability in theatre?

A critical mass

What we need is for the number of disabled actors in the profession to grow until it tips the balance towards a more nuanced and multi-layered portrayal of disability, and infuses theatre with more of what it thrives on – difference, drama and inclusion.  Could an able-bodied director have suggested to Simon Startin that he play Caliban as a person with cerebral palsy?  We doubt it, and it is this ability to think the unthinkable and implement it, that makes it essential that more people with disabilities are working in the profession. Then perhaps if Brad Fraser’s play is performed again, the director will find it easier employ a disabled actor.

Perhaps change will only start to happen on a larger scale when there are more disabled people in charge.  In the US, the Rooney Rule requires National Football League teams to interview minority candidates for senior jobs.  Within three years, the number of African Americans in senior positions had jumped from 6% to 22%.  Nobody was being forced to hire them, but the exposure they were given allowed their talents to be recognised.  In December 2013 the RSC and National Theatre joined forces to put on general auditions for disabled actors, and got more than 200 responses.  Every time this happens it gets more difficult to claim that there is nobody to fill a part.  But the project needs to extend to all areas of theatre as well.

Theatre by disabled people for…..everyone

One of the more disturbing aspects of these debates is the polarity they imply.  The perfectly reasonable point that a disabled actor can bring greater authenticity to a part has somehow morphed into the notion that the ‘able-bodied’ will never be capable of understanding what it’s like to be disabled, and must not be allowed to taint the truth of the experience by getting involved.  This kind of solipsism presents quite a problem if you are trying to put on theatre.  Theatre is all about trying to experience life from another person’s point of view.  It’s called empathy, and a world where nobody believes empathy is possible is a very bleak one.  The reality of this journey is that it will cover ground that is uncomfortable for everyone; but let’s not mistake a step on that journey for the end goal, or be afraid to praise progress just because it is not happening fast enough.  We feel that a play like ‘Kill Me Now’ is progress.

* Franklin D Roosevelt

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Mark Thomas reclaims the nest: Cuckooed at the Arts Depot

Saturday 7th March 2015

Mark Thomas affectionately describes the Pentland Theatre at the Arts Depot as ‘flat pack’ and that’s a good description. Sandwiched between the bus depot and Aldi’s, it has a surprisingly spacious and calm interior with a no-nonsense feel.  The perfect venue to see Thomas’s latest show ‘Cuckooed’ then.

Thomas might have the job title ‘comedian’ on his passport, but he is deadly serious about the subject of his latest show – don’t go if you are looking for two and a half hours of mindless entertainment (or as Mark puts it “If you watch Dave more than 3 times a week don’t come to the show”); but if you want to be challenged, absorbed, shocked and a little bit scared, then this show is for you.  Make sure you are on time though, because he sets out his stall early on in the evening by inviting the audience to openly mock any latecomers, and with supremely judged sarcasm, he does an individual summary of the show so far for each new arrival.

The first half serves (if Thomas is to be believed) as the ‘warm up’ act, and is a tightly paced, action packed hour of stand up in which he gives us a hilarious account of his everyday antics as a political activist, including concerted attempts to institute Daily Mail free zones on train carriages (stickers available from the website); the best top tip ever for defacing UKIP posters late at night – wear a high viz vest, nobody will question you; and an extremely short and effective campaign to get Love Film to put subtitles on their DVDs – the unveiling of a massive banner at the Amazon headquarters which read ‘Love Film Hates Deaf People’.  As funny as he is sincere, this is a truly joyful account of how rage can be turned to comedy, and how just how powerful (and fun) mockery can be as a political weapon.  Mark Thomas is certainly a masterful practitioner.

The second half, a ‘proper drama’ directed by Emma Callender, is a much darker and fiercely personal affair.  It is the story of Martin, a former friend and fellow activist, an ex-employee of BAE systems who posed as a ‘gamekeeper turned poacher’ to infiltrate the Campaign Against the Arms Trade for years before being exposed as a corporate spy, employed by an agency to leak information back to BAE.  The sheer disbelief of his closest friends and activitists – this was a man who outdid them all in outrageousness – led to discord and distrust within the organisation and to this day Martin’s actions, and his refusal to break his silence about his motives, has clearly been a thorn in Thomas’ side over the years.  This is a straightforward and absorbing account, with a bit of help from audio-visuals to allow the key players to participate.  Thomas skilfully interweaves a story of deep personal betrayal with the wider picture – the systematic surveillance that goes on unchecked by the law, whether via the domestic extremists register kept by the police which logs in detail the activities of selected ‘extremists’ (and yes, Mark Thomas is on it), or the corporate spying fuelled by paranoia that political dissent might dent the profits of huge corporations.

Thomas invites us in to his world, and the shocking discoveries he has since made, and asks us to reflect on what that means for British society today.  It is very hard to protest that ‘the innocent have nothing to fear’ when presented with activists who are under 24/7 surveillance for holding so-called ‘extreme’ left wing views, or the woman who was in a relationship with an undercover policeman for five years before he disappeared from her life with no explanation – only later did she find out that his identity was a complete fiction.  Mark Thomas declares himself a highly profficient liar, and we get to see some of those skills at work during the show, with the fantastic pranking of an Indonesian army general under the guise of ‘media training’.  He is highly entertaining throughout, but more importantly he never leaves his sense of humour and humanity behind.  Even in the midst of betrayal he finds out that Martin seems to be living in squalor and stops briefly to wonder if he was paid enough for his ‘work’.  Frightening as this show is, it is also a call to action – after all we still live in a country where it is possible to find out what is happening and to protest.  We are not a great fan of awards, but this one got the Amnesty International freedom of expression award 2014 at the Edinburgh Festival, and it is well-deserved, a shining example how you don’t have to stop being a comedian to tackle the most serious issues.

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Euthanasia – let’s have a mass debate: Kill Me Now at the Park Theatre

Sunday 22nd February 2015, matinée

We’ve had some great experiences so far at the Park Theatre, so when we heard that they were going to be hosting a black comedy about disability and euthanasia called ‘Kill Me Now’, we felt strangely drawn to the idea of another visit.

Brad Fraser’s play features Jake Sturdy, a writer who has put his career to one side while he looks after his disabled son Joey (could this be a nod to Peter Nichols’ ‘Day in the Death of Joe Egg’? we wonder).  Joey is about to turn 18, and just as Jake is beginning to wonder about the future, circumstances force both of them to re-evaluate their lives as events lead to a shocking and unexpected conclusion.

Fraser is an assured writer who engages us from the very first moments of the play.  We begin with the most ordinary scene imaginable, with Jake bathing his son (quite relieved at this point to be sitting on the opposite side to the real, water filled bath).  The scene is rich in information with almost no exposition.  We learn about the characters and their situation through the natural and unabashed rituals they have, and the plot is perfectly set up as we see for ourselves that it is getting ever more difficult for the middle-aged Jake to lift the adult Joel out of the bath and into his wheelchair.  This simple start develops slowly into a more involved drama and Fraser seduces us into thinking the unthinkable, dragging age-old taboos kicking and screaming into the light, yet allowing us to see that, as the tagline says ‘normal is relative’.  The shock is balanced in equal measures by the kind of humour that has us burying our head in our hands as we stifle the belly-laughs – a process which is piqued by the visibility of the audience on all sides.

Greg Wise leads the cast as Jake in an unselfconscious and warm-hearted performance, convincingly combining the qualities of an everyman and a superman.  He barely seems to be acting at all, so engrossed are we in his situation and the impossibility of being the carer and father he wants to be.  As Joey, Oliver Gomm is remarkable. His performance, requiring considerable distortion of his body and constant movement, is technically outstanding, but he never allows us to forget the inner life of this character, whose ‘issues’ are the same as any normal teenager.  He exploits the humour of the piece to the full with excellent comic timing.  Our only question would be, with such a rarity, a fully rounded and prominent part for a disabled person, was an able-bodied actor the only option?

As younger sister Twyla, a willing helper who is drawn into an ever more challenging situation, Charlotte Harwood peels back the onion layers of her defences with great subtlety, as we gradually learn how her childhood has affected her life, giving her feisty confidence the lie.  Anna Wilson-Jones starts as a character very determined to keep her life compartmentalised, and her growing discovery that she has something to offer in this bizarre family set-up is warmly and subtly played.  Jack McMullen, a former graduate of both Grange Hill and Waterloo Road, has the perfect CV to play Joey’s sidekick, lovable rogue Rowdy, a self-confessed ‘retard’, brain damaged from birth, whose socially inappropriate behaviour and brutal frankness make him uniquely qualified to help this ever more dysfunctional family.  He is engaging and charming, providing many of the best moments of truly dark humour with perfect judgement.

Braham Murray directs the production with a complete absence of pretension, allowing the playwright’s beautifully crafted story and the fantastic ensemble cast to work their magic.  How rare it is to see a play which is truly weighty, moving and thought-provoking, yet without polemic or preaching.  Another triumph for the Park Theatre, who really seem to be on a mission to stretch and entertain audiences in equal measure.

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Was ever woman in this humour won? The Goodbye Girl Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Saturday 7th February 2015, matinée

Having promised ourselves another visit to Upstairs at the Gatehouse following their impressive Christmas show Singin’ in the rain, we were pleased to find another opportunity so soon – ‘The Goodbye Girl’, a musical based on the classic seventies film which was scripted by Neil Simon and helped Richard Dreyfus win an oscar, with music by Marvin Hamlisch and Lyrics by David Zippel.

The plot is spookily close to the last play we saw, Hello/Goodbye – a couple, thrown together in an apartment which both think they have a claim on, end up falling in love. Except that this version, nearly forty years old, seems to have worn much better.  In New York, Paula McFadden is an ex-dancer who has to revive her career when her live-in lover abandons her and her twelve year old daughter for Spain, simultaneously sub-letting the apartment to his actor friend Elliot Garfield.  When he turns up in the middle of the night, some quick negotiations result in compromise as both agree to live together to keep a roof over their heads.

The story is not exactly original, but it is well executed, with plenty of wit and characters who are both loveable and entertaining with their various foibles.  Paula’s desperate attempts to get back into shape are genuinely painful to watch, while Elliot’s adventures in the world of experimental theatre, playing a new and ground-breaking version of Richard III are still highly entertaining – some things never change in the world of theatre!

As Paula, Rebecca Bainbridge was a curiously familiar face, until we realised that we had seen her many years ago in a production of ‘The Great Pretenders’ at the Gatehouse, where she played an ageing Marilyn Monroe impersonator making a final bid for success in her career and love life.  She has a good-natured spikeyness about her, and brings just enough warmth amid the dizzying rollercoaster of bravado and self-doubt.  Her reaction to Elliot’s request for her to ‘be nice’ to him (misinterpreted as something a little more intimate) is priceless.  We last saw Paul Keating as the scarecrow in the ‘Wizard of Oz’, so his versatility as an actor is certainly not in question. It was nice to see him a bit more close-up, and to enjoy a charming and witty performance that pushes the boundaries of Elliot’s occasional pomposity just enough while showing us his vulnerable side, not least when he turns up after an evening of ‘sorrow drowning’ after the first (and last) night of his disastrous play. The chemistry between the two, whether verbally sparring or giving in to their feelings for each other, was a pleasure to see.

The chorus do a great job of creating the hothouse atmosphere of showbiz, whether playing out a version of Richard III that makes Propeller look tame, or putting on cheesy daytime TV fodder (a nice cameo from Tim Phelps).  James Wolstenholme and Alex Green excel as the kind of male dancers who are exhausting just to watch.

You may be wondering, after five paragraphs, when we are going to get onto the subject of the music in this musical.  The strange thing is that it was hard to see how the music adds much to this story.  We wouldn’t be the first to comment on the propensity for successful films to be raided as material for musicals, but this one was first produced on Broadway just over twenty years ago, and the irony is that the book seems to have aged better than the music.  There are some enjoyable musical moments, particularly Elliot’s song ‘I think I can play this part’, and Paula’s ‘A beat behind’, and the sharp and witty duet ‘My rules’, but for us there were no real stand-out numbers that felt like an essential part of the piece musically.

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Flat comedy: Hello/Goodbye at the Hampstead Theatre

Saturday 24th January 2015, evening

We’re not normally great fans of rom-com, but finding out that Shaun Evans and Miranda Raison were going to team up at the Hampstead Theatre in ‘Hello/Goodbye’, Peter Souter’s play about the first and last moments of a relationship, we were intrigued enough to go – we’d been disappointed to miss Shaun Evans in a recent production of ‘Miss Julie’ at the Chichester Festival Theatre so maybe this would be the next best thing (and probably less grim).

Although technically this play has a cast of four (Luke Neal and Bathsheba Piepe providing some key moments of support), it feels very much like a two-hander.  Alex and Juliet both turn up in the same flat at the same time, insisting it is theirs, and a battle of wills (and almost everything else) ensues.

There is a lot of well observed comedy in the play – the second act argument about how to get the best out of the central heating is priceless – the exasperated rehearsal of well-worn arguments and attempts at logic which are bound to fall on deaf ears will be recognisable to many.  The perfect storm of Alex’s passive aggression and Juliet’s borderline sociopathy is nicely played out and enjoyably painful to watch at times, as they must even argue about whether or not to have an argument.  When Juliet professes not to want any of their ‘joint’ things, and then fights tooth and nail when she realises she might be missing out, we know we are on familiar territory.

The problem with ‘Hello/Goodbye’, however, is that the play just can’t commit itself. There is not enough substance to provide a meaty drama we can get our teeth into, and there is not a steady enough supply of comedy to counteract the lack of plot.  Ultimately the characters are unlikeable and once we get over the delight at the sheer audacity of Juliet’s behaviour, it becomes hard to care about what happens to her.  The dialogue starts to feel as though it could be from a sketch show.  The sexual tension, too, is somewhat laboured – the actors could probably have benefited from fewer heavily signposted references to heat, sweat and the removal of clothing and perhaps director Tamara Harvey could have allowed them to develop the relationship a little more subtly.  It is hard to work out what is missing, but it may be that the dominance of exposition over real-time drama doesn’t help, along with a plot that tries to go to dark places but feels ultimately sanitised.

Miranda Raison is an excellent comedienne, with a wonderfully spikey, disingenuous manner and snappy comic timing, and Shaun Evans is the perfect foil as the introverted completist Alex, with a very nice line in deadpan delivery.  Evans did feel underused though – he never seems to get his share of the emotional action, and it’s very difficult to shine for two hours playing the ‘strong silent type’.

We noticed afterwards that this play has already had an outing downstairs at the Hampstead, with a different cast.  Perhaps that small and intimate space would have served the play better, because the rather bizarre attempts to turn the Hampstead main stage into a ’round’ space didn’t quite work for us.  The space has never felt bigger, and for us, looking down on the action from the back row of the circle, it was hard to feel involved. We would argue that sitting almost behind the back of the set qualifies as restricted view, not to mention having to wait until the curtain call to get a look at Luke Neal’s face!  We can’t help feeling that the Hampstead Theatre is getting too safe in its choices – there’s nothing wrong with the occasionally fluffy piece of pure entertainment (although in this case we’d need a few more belly laughs for it to qualify as that) but we can’t quite see where the Arts Council subsidy fits in.  Surely the people of Hampstead and St John’s Wood would like to be challenged once in a while?

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So Wrong it’s Right: The Play That Goes Wrong brings chaos to the Duchess Theatre

Sunday 18th January 2015, matinée

Anyone who has witnessed, or performed in, badly done amateur dramatics will instantly recognise all the essential elements in The Play That Goes Wrong.  It is the definitive guide on how to not act, direct, write and stage-manage, and it’s a winning formula. The worse the evening gets, the better it is and if its an evening of appalling theatre you are after, this play doesn’t fail to disappoint.

The scene opens with a ‘Director’ introducing his debut production for the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, ‘Murder at Haversham manor’, promising a new high for the society and a big budget production, but it turns out that this drama group take the old adage ‘The show must go on’ to the ultimate extreme, giving us not so much a ‘Whodunnit’ as a ‘Whydidtheydoit?’  Whether battling against a dysfunctional set, unconscious actors, or a disappearing dog, like all great classic comedy, the real laughs come from watching the hapless theatre company trying to rise above disaster, whether dressing a stage hand up to stand in for the female lead half-way through, bravely downing glass after glass of white spirit after a mix up with the whiskey, or the desperation of the actor playing a dead body who must somehow find a way to leave the stage unaided in the full glare of the lights.

There are too many brilliant moments to mention, but the highlights for us must be the elegant precision with which the lead actress is knocked out by a door; the ingenious way in which two actors find themselves holding up the set whilst still managing to take a phone call (in the days before hands-free), and the infamous ‘script loop’, in which the actors get caught in a potentially endless loop of repetition (involving copious amounts of white spirit again) before the culprit finally remembers the line to free himself, to rapturous applause.

Portraying incompetence on this scale is a highly skilled business, and Mischief Theatre, led by Henry Lewis and Jonathan Sayer, have been dedicating themselves to this cause since 2008, and it shows.  The ingenuity with which they reveal the ability of human beings to fail spectacularly is seemingly endless, and it is the attention to detail which delights, whether the actor whose hair is only grey from the front, or the growing confidence of the juvenile lead getting applause for recovering from some terrible mistake. Add some perfect comic timing and a genuine understanding of the human foibles which lead apparently sane people to humiliate themselves in front of an audience, and we have a theatre group worth watching.  It’s impossible to pick anyone out, so let’s just say we wish Greg Tannahill, Henry Shields, Charlie Russell, Dave Hearn, Nancy Wallinger and Rob Falconer many more years of highly skilled and toe-curling antics.

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Driving Mr Jacobowsky: Jerry Herman’s Grand Tour stops off at the Finborogh Theatre for its European Premier

Saturday 3rd January 2015, matinée

The Grand Tour was a must-see for us – another Jerry Herman musical for our delectation, getting its European Premier no less, and a new venue, the Finborough, which seems to have gained a reputation for reviving obscure musicals.

‘The Grand Tour’ is based on a play by Franz Werfel, ‘Jacobowsky and the Colonel’, which in turn was inspired by an intriguing anecdote, as told by Werfel himself to SN Berhrman, who encouraged him to write it as a comedy, and later adapted the play himself.  The story was simple – in the panic to escape France before the Nazi invasion in WW2, a Polish Jew buys a car, but he is unable to drive.  He strikes up a pact with an anti-semitic Polish colonel who can drive but has no car.  Herman’s title is deeply ironic, not so much a Grand Tour as a desperate flight across Europe, especially in Jacobowsky’s case as he travels ever Westward in the face of persecution.

Ultimately, though, Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s book doesn’t bear too much scrutiny.  The idea of two born enemies forced to work together stands the test of time, but it is rather wasted here, with too many blind alleys and under-developed characters, and a surprising lack of tension given the dark theme.

There are two compelling reasons to come and see this production, however.  The first is Jerry Herman’s music which is particularly strong.  There is the powerful I’ll be here tomorrow, which some have said deserves to become a Jewish anthem just as ‘I am what I am’ became a gay anthem.  There are comic numbers such as ‘Do it for Poland’, a beautiful love ballad in the form of Marianne, and the catchy and life-affirming You I like.  The other key reason to see this production is an excellent cast, led by the outstanding Alistair Brookshaw as Jacobowsky.  He is perfectly cast and pitches the performance right on the line between victimhood and resilience, with a self-effacing warmth which soon opens up to reveal a pragmatic and resourceful man, whose whole life has prepared him for the chaos of war.  Never sentimental or self-conscious, Brookshaw lifts the mood whenever he is on stage with a fine sense of comedy and a rich and versatile voice.

Nic Kyle as Colonel Stjerbinsky is the chalk to Jacobowsky’s cheese (or should that be the other way round?), obsessed with honour and military tradition, yet dimly aware that he is missing something.  His emotional journey from stiff upper-lipped duel-fighting (yes, really!) stuffed shirt to grudging friend is a pleasure to watch.  Zoe Doano as Marianne, the Colonel’s fiance who captures Jacobowsky’s heart, exudes charm and fulfills the brief – to be unfeasibly beautiful and lovable.  She is rather under-used, though, as her character stays strictly within the confines of the male relationship she helps to build.

We would be happy to go anywhere to see Jerry Herman performed, but it can’t be denied that the size of the venue at the Finborough is limiting, especially for a production this ambitious – the original Broadway production had 29 in the cast, here pruned to 11.  Even with a Director as talented as Thom Southerland, the stage often feels overcrowded, and although Phil Lindley makes a virtue of necessity with his neat ‘flat pack’ designs, adding to the sense that the world is literally falling apart, it is hard to get a real sweep of history, and the powerful choral voices seem to be undercut by the claustrophobic space.

Our final comment may seem rather perverse given the subject matter, but the final reprise of ‘I’ll be here tomorrow’ is curiously downbeat, and we wondered whether this was a directorial decision or in the original book.  Herman himself is quoted as saying that ‘The Grand Tour is about the indomitability of the human spirit, so it was a perfect piece for me’ – we couldn’t agree more that he has made a career out of lifting his often unlikely characters to an emotional high-point, so we felt a little deflated, robbed of the chance for an all-out emotional ‘grand’ ending.  But if the journey is more important than the destination, perhaps we can’t complain too much.

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