REVIEW: Man Of La Mancha, London Coliseum ✭✭

Julian Eaves reviews Man Of La Mancha starring Kelsey Grammer now playing for a limited season at the London Coliseum.

Man Of La Mancha review London Coliseum
The company of Man Of La Mancha. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Man Of La Mancha
London Coliseum
Two Stars
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This is a show that is often talked about, but rarely seen.  And now, thanks to a rare revival at the Coliseum in its running programme of ‘popular’ musicals, it is perhaps easy to see why.  As shows go, this has to be one of the most tragically dated and difficult to stage that London currently boasts.  For particular fans of the bankable leads – Kelsey Grammar in the title role of Don Quixote de la Mancha; Danielle de Niese as his strictly platonic inamorata, the bar whore known as Dulcinella; Nicholas Lyndhurst in a sparkling brace of contrasting roles, the Innkeeper and the Governor; and Peter Polycarpou, largely wasted in the insufficiently developed part of Quixote’s side-kick, Sancho Panza – then there are four reasons to go and see it.  And there is the big ‘tune’, ‘The Impossible Dream’, that ends both acts.  Apart from that, I really wonder if there is sufficient ‘stuff’ here to keep punters engaged.

In the mid-Sixties, when this first appeared, there was sufficient novelty and wonder in it’s ‘show within a show’ format to engage audiences: now, this structure seems awkward and cumbersome, rather than revelatory.  Familiar house director Lonny Price (virtually the whole creative team are return visitors from previous successes like ‘Sweeney Todd’, ‘Carousel’, ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and ‘Chess’ – other people may disagree, but I liked all of them!) does what he can with this clunky apparatus, but even he seems confounded by its static and contradictory nature… so many unresolved issues, straggling loose ends, gaping plot holes. Well, I say ‘plot’: Cervantes’ amusing book is a ‘picaresque’ tale of one damn thing after another; that works well enough on the page, but how many transfers to the stage of such formats really work?  Does ‘Candide’ actually work?  I looked in vain for any sense of direction in this sprawling mess.  Where was it?  All a dream?

Man Of La Mancha tickets
Peter Polycarpou, Kelsey Gramer and Danielle de Niese in Man Of La Mancha. Photo: Manuel Harlan
I could run through the contributions of the other creatives, but to what end?  It seems that, collectively, they are possibly starting to run out of ideas.  Maybe that isn’t fair.  Maybe the material just isn’t good enough (it pales into insignificance against what they have previously had to work with).  But, perhaps, they really just don’t know what to do with it.  James Noone’s set is another pile of junk (cf. ‘Follies’ at the National, etc.).  Rebecca Howell tries to get things moving, but has only the (truly ghastly) fake-rape scene to have ‘fun’ in.  Oh, very, very dear.  Fotini Dimou’s costumes are exactly what it says on the tin, with an updated twist, which just makes the questionable sexual politics all the more problematic.  Rick Fisher lights with garish enthusiasm, and Mick Potter’s sound is loud, louder and loudest.

Hmm.  The Michaels (their eminences, Grade and Linnit) evidently think the show does bear revival.  Or, whoever has stumped up the cash for this show does.  Some people have remarked a strange similarity between this work – especially its central character – and the last show Mr Grammar starred in, ‘Big Fish’, at The Other Palace, about a similarly Quixotic figure.  Well, perhaps that’s just coincidence?  Perhaps.

Man Of La Mancha review
Nicholas Lyndhurst, Peter Polycarpou and Kelsey Grammer in Man Of La Mancha. Photos: Manuel Harlan
Be that as it may, we have also the vexed question of the score.  This show is famous for its one big tune, and it is a wonder.  In the hands – or voice – of Elvis Presley, or Andy Williams, it is something to savour.  Mr Grammar, however, chooses to play the ‘Don’ like a headmaster giving an assembly and he ‘delivers’ ‘To dream the impossible dream’ in the same stolid and inflexible way.  It may rock your boat, but it does nothing to shift mine.  Denise is an operatic soprano and a very good one, and she sings every note that is written, as it is written, and is respectful of every crotchet and rest.  But is that what musical theatre is really about?  Well, yes, IF the rest of the company do the same, or IF the part can be that much distinguished from the rest.  But is it?  Not really.  She sounds like she’s in another show.  Enjoy it for what it is, her part is in another universe.

Lyndhurst probably comes off best, by giving us two diametrically opposite characterisations, and each is wonderful.  He is a fine actor, a brilliant comedian, and he can do everything that is asked of him.  Polycarpou has had much better material to work with than here, and that is what we should remember him for.  Here, there is a chronic lack of imagination in how to work with his talents, which go largely unacknowledged.  Oddly, musically the best moment of the event – for me – comes with Minal Patel’s sublime number as the ‘Padre’: in his one, stand out, musical number, he gives what is simply a masterclass in how to sing musical theatre.  It is a flawless number and one that will leave you with shivers down your spin.. contemplaring what ‘might have been’, if only there had been better material available for the rest of the company.

For the truth of the matter is that this score just isn’t very good.  The boys, who are meant to be such menaces in the prison-environment into which the Don, et al, have strayed, have musical numbers (eg. ‘Little Bird’) which sound as if they should have been meant for the Eversley Brothers.  Oh, dear.  And as for the second act opener of a ‘simulated gang rape ballet sequence’, well…. that had me wondering exactly which audience this show is pitched at!!  Family fare it decidedly is NOT!!!  (Well, not for any families I know…)

So, here it is.  After all these long, long years of (deserved) neglect.  Make of it what you will. There are occasional things to enjoy here, but so many more searching questions to ask, like… ‘Why?’

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