21st August 2011
‘Road Show’ has been described as ‘Sondheim’s latest musical’ in the publicity material. How recent does a piece of work need to be before it can be described as ‘latest’, we wonder? ‘Road Show’ dates from 2008, and there are two previous incarnations going back twelve years.
This story has taken a long time to arrive at the Menier for its European premiere, and it shows. Although we can see how the subject matter might have tempted Sondheim, it is strangely unfocused. We are promised outrageously amoral characters who are larger than life, but in many ways their story is quite mundane in the context of American history. As Addison Mizner, Michael Jibson delivers a very engaging performance. Last seen by us playing Charles Lindberg in the excellent ‘Take Flight’, he is full of nervous energy and we get a sense of his frustrated artistic tendencies and personal conflict. It is almost too complex a portrayal for the material. David Bedella is suitably annoying as the hapless thrill-seeker Wilson, but for a play about sibling rivalry there is very little rivalry or sense of struggle, as though success and failure are ‘two imposters’ to be treated just the same. We were looking forward to seeing Glyn Kerslake again, having previously seen him performing at Brent Cross Shopping Centre in the North London premiere of the opening of the TKTS booth. Anyone who can engage an audience of Sunday shoppers for a whole afternoon gets our vote, and here he delivers one of the most touching and melodious numbers, ‘It’s in your hands now’. But after this he is sadly underused. There are some great Sondheim moments, such as the duet between Addison and his lover as they find themselves in a partnership which is both materially and emotionally rewarding, ‘The best thing that ever has happened’. Other numbers, though, feel like an inferior repetition of Sondheim’s better known work.
The show felt longer than its 95 interval-free minutes, but was too short to give the sense of a rambling saga. The production, like the story, is not coherent. The staging is cluttered with antique furniture, luggage, and knicknacks, none of which really add anything. The device of having characters literally throwing money around to illustrate the vast amounts of wealth involved, is symptomatic of the superficiality of the production, which never digs deep enough into the psyche of the American self-made man to be interesting. The traverse seating layout exacerbates this lack of focus – the playing space is a narrow strip in the middle with the audience on either side facing each other. There seems to have been no attempt to address the limitations of this style of staging. Every view of the actors has other audience members in the background which is just a distraction. Moreover the style of direction resulted in us only rarely seeing performers’ faces. At times the director managed to achieve the impressive feat of positioning the actors so that nobody or only a minority of the audience could see them from the front. Add to this a pillar further restricting our view and a band in one corner of the theatre (right behind our heads) and we found ourselves really struggling to give this production our full commitment. Interestingly, the Broadway production employed more traditional staging, and even from viewing a short video clip we can see how much more visually rewarding this could have been.
Never in a million years would we have believed that we would go to see a show at the Menier Chocolate Factory and find ourselves complaining about the sight lines. But there is a first time for everything and for his production we felt as though we were in different theatre altogether. It seems particularly ironic that in the latest stripped-down layout it is easy to see just how small this space is. And yet the staging made us feel as though we were miles away.
We did write to the Menier about their practice of selling unlabelled restricted view seats at full price and received the rather unsurprising reply that there had been complaints from a number of different seating areas, and that in fact it is not possible to see the whole show from any of the seats, as though this is somehow meant to make us feel better. Perhaps we should have responded by saying that it was not possible for us to pay the whole price of the ticket. It seems incredible to us that such a situation could occur in a theatre where the seating configuration and playing area are frequently built from scratch.