Monday, October 01, 2007

Matinees And Musicals

I do like matinees. There’s something rather illicit and exciting about doing during the day what one normally does in the evening (intensified considerably if it happens to be a midweek matinee).

I have a whole other routine with matinees as well, facilitated by the welcome lack of post-work dash – I potter, I dawdle, I browse, I caffeinate myself in an agreeably lingering fashion, and arrive at the theatre with ample time to spare and not breathless and watch-wary and flustered as is often the case in the evening. I used to see a lot more matinees when I lived out in the Surrey suburbs, and a journey into town required a long, crawling train journey, but now, well, my day job precludes daytime cultural activities during the week, and my weekends tend to be eaten up by stuff.

So I was looking forward to seeing Saturday afternoon’s staging of Parade at the Donmar Warehouse. I knew it wasn’t likely to be the cheeriest of things, but I’d enjoyed Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years when it played at the Menier Chocolate Factory last year and was eager to see how you could possibly tackle such a grim subject in song.

Parade is set in Atlanta, Georgia, in the early years of the 20th century. On Confederate Memorial Day, a 13 year old girl is found raped and murdered in the pencil factory where she worked. Suspicion falls on the factory superintendent, Leo Frank, a Jewish man from Brooklyn, an outsider in every sense. He is arrested, tried and sentenced to death. According to the play, a hysteria built up around his case, with several other girls who worked in his factory accusing him of inappropriate behaviour. The police also found an eye witness (an African American former convict) to testify to his guilt. Eventually however his sentence is commuted to life imprisonment. Perhaps predictably, this does not go down well with the local community, who are eager to blame someone for the girl’s death, and they exert a 'justice' of their own – the kind of justice that involves hoods with eye-holes and a long length of rope.

So, there you go. Frothy it is not. It is however very well done. Bertie Carvel is simply superb as Frank, all anxious and twitchy; cold, nervy and somewhat prim. Lara Pulver was also excellent as Frank’s wife Lucille, but I found her character harder to get a handle on, her total devotion and abundant stoic dignity was a little too neat for my liking. Going on what I remember of Five Years, I don’t think Brown does women very well. Frank is such an intriguing, ambiguous figure and Lucille just seemed a bit flat in comparison.

There is much to admire about this production: vocal performances (though I thought the pretty blonde chap in the cheesy civil war prologue was a little shaky), choreography - everything is very well done. There’s just something about the whole enterprise that didn’t sit very well with me. It’s not that musicals need to be all fluff and uplift (indeed those are the shows I usually avoid), but in the case of this complex story, I think I would actually have preferred a more conventional dramatic approach.

Interesting critical split on this one too, with Michael Billington applauding its eloquence and Christopher Hart getting all squeamish about the subject matter - I think I fall somewhere in between (I’d much rather this than Wicked any day), still, it was relief to emerge after two-and-a-bit hours of such darkness to find it still daylight outside.


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Natasha, Glad you liked the show. It's not an easy musical by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it's a good show. I'm just glad that it translated well for you across the pond.

Linda said...

Hi Natasha - I'm writing a piece on blogging and arts journalism for the Press Gazette and having read your recent Guardian arts blog would love to have a chat with you - I'm sorry to get in touch in the format of a comment on your blog, but it would be great if you could contact me and I have been searching without success for an email address. Best wishes - great blog :)
Linda Jones

Sean said...

I don’t generally agree with the branding of some subjects inappropriate for a certain genre. When does that stop? Will anything that is challenging or different (i.e. makes people uncomfortable) be deemed unacceptable for investigation by some (giving credence to one exception leads to much other special pleading from one group or another)? I thought the Sunday Times review of the show was a great shame, CH being uncomfortable perhaps stopped him seeing the finer points of the show, the audience when I attended were very moved actually. I personally felt that Parade brilliantly dealt with issues and raised great points about our own media today. I thought many of the songs wonderfully complimented the serious theme of the show, with their crazed hysteria of the crowd against justice or human life.

Would we feel uncomfortable with a play dealing with a religion in a critical way, or holding a magnifying glass up to Britain’s underclass for example?

Agree with much of your review, mine is up too.

Interval Drinks said...

I'm not saying that any subject should be off limits, far from it, in fact I'd argue the other way - and I agree the Sunday Times review was rather over the top.

However I did think that the musical format prevented the full complexity of this fascinating case from being explored in as much depth as I'd have liked, the police investigation, the role Conley played in things, the insidious aftermath of Frank's lynching.

As musicals go though, I'd much rather something like this, that made me think, that is still making me think, than vapid fluff like Wicked (I loved Caroline, Or Change for instance) but still I thought the musical format worked against the narrative here rather than with it. Thought Bertie carvel was superb though. An amazing performance.

cityslicker said...

I went the other night and loved it. It's such a pity that the Grey Lady killed it off after such a short run in NY.

Esther said...

I saw a production a production of "Parade" in Boston in May. I'm glad I went, although for me, alot of the emotional impact was blunted because I knew quite a bit about the Leo Frank case going in.

And I understand having a certain amount of ambivalence about how the story is presented. I mean, given the subject matter, I feel strange saying I "enjoyed" it. Still, I do think it's a very interesting show.

I guess "Parade" could have worked as play. But I really feel that the somewhat haunting music helped evoke the time and place, a South where the memories of the Civil War were still very much alive.

Interval Drinks said...

Esther, you have a good point - that final reprise of the Old Red Hills of Home is really quite chilling given all that has gone before - and some of the other songs are very evocative. Cheers for all the comments on this.

Lisa said...

Now, you would actually need to see Wicked first...