Julian Eaves reviews Lionel Bart’s musical Twang! now enjoying a revival at the Union Theatre, Southwark.
13th April 2018
Lionel Bart, songwriter-creator of musical theatre mega-hit phenomenon ‘Oliver!’ and epoch-defining pop songs like Sir Cliff’s ‘Livin’ Doll’, was the King of British Songwriting. ‘Twang!!’, with its double-barrelled exclamation marks, was the show that brought him down, annihilating his wealth and destroying his career, leaving only artistic and personal oblivion to follow, before his death in broken anonymity in 1999. There is a certain morbid fascination in now being able to go along and inspect the scene of the crash, here revived with difficult to comprehend enthusiasm at the Union Theatre.
Bart’s publishers and executors have had some success in re-launching the two shows that followed ‘Oliver!’, ‘Blitz!’ (I’m not making all these exclamations up: that is how the titles are written) and ‘Maggie May’, but ‘Twang!!’ has resisted revival. Until now. The show was famously chaotic, not least in it having no discernible book, at least not the same book from one performance to the next. Deeming this to be a serious weakness in the property, therefore, the estate wisely invited ‘bids’ from a selection of admired industry figures to make it good. Quite who the other contenders were, I am not at liberty to say, but I can reveal that the winner of this process was Julian Woolford, currently Head of Musical Theatre at leading drama school for the industry, Guildford School of Acting. Woolford writes plays and musicals, and has contributed some of the standard titles on how to go about working in this demanding genre.
His decisions have to be respected. Here, he has retained the songs of the original score – as far as we can tell – and also crow-barred into it not only ‘Livin’ Doll’ (I don’t know why) but also a plethora of quotes – some of them very lengthy – from this, that and the other musical in what now becomes a kind of ‘Your Parody of Parodies’. If this sort of thing sounds as if it could be to your taste, then keep reading.
Wedded to an unremitting torrent of musical-theatre in-jokes, the majority of the first ‘act’ of this entertainment seems also to be striving to attain a kind of humour that it not so much ‘low’ as ‘basement’: it is rather reminiscent of ‘late’ Carry On films, with an insistent and very, very obvious obsession with vaguely awkward smut that recalls the plastic vacuity of Robin Asquith’s ‘Confessions’ series. Again, should this all be the stuff of earthly delight as far as you’re concerned, then please do persevere. As we totter towards the mid-way break, a kind of ‘plot’ seems to surface, and it strikes us as rather familiar from the Errol Flynn film. In the second half, this narrative element receives a welcome fillip, and the show does begin to take on at least something that is like dramatic interest. Not before time, some people might say. However, being reminded of a more successful adaptation of this story doesn’t reflect at all well on this one.
All the usual, formulaic and quite unsurprising moves are executed, and we arrive at a denouement of sorts, although this is padded out to provide a lot more comfort than speed by a terminal – and at last complete – rendition of a laboriously arrived-at run-through of Sir Cliff’s big tune. Along the way, there is only one song of Bart’s that has merited our attention: ‘I’ve Got A Handful Of Songs To Sing You’ is a really lovely number and, were it not buried under a mountain of campyness and tawdry innuendo, we might even properly appreciate it as such. As things are, the script hardly gives us a chance. Instead, the constant reminders of other – much better – musicals simply serves to remind us, over and over and over again, that what makes them worthwhile are all the things which are so conspicuously absent from this one. Although often performed with deft skill, the pastiches and references generate laughter at the expense of ‘Twang!!’ itself, and that rings increasingly hollow.
This is a great pity. There are a lot of moments when you find yourself thinking, ‘Oh, that joke was actually pretty good’. But, the trouble with Woolford’s packed box of tricks is that there’s no room to breathe. Bryan Hodgson’s direction is obedient to carrying out the precepts of the text in the manner they are stipulated, but he cannot get the breath of life to enter this well-preserved but completely inert body. As an end-of-year drama school skit, the thing may well have some charm, and I understand an earlier workshop of the script was indeed carried out at GSA under Woolford’s own auspices. As a work in its own right, if you ever wanted to know why it was such a colossal and damaging failure the first time around, then this version provides abundant clues.
Meanwhile, we have the brisk liveliness of Mitchell Harper’s choreography to admire, and Ben Jacobs’ stylish lighting. Justin Williams and Jonny Rust provide another handsome set for this house – they are getting to be experts on how to use the space here. Penn O’Gara’s costumes are perhaps the least imaginative aspect of the production design: the early line, ‘Welcome to the Sixties…. The 1160’s,’ hints tantalisingly at another direction that might have been taken (by the way, that’s not the right decade for these characters, but I don’t suppose anyone really cares). Sadly, the cast, for all their tireless efforts, are weighted down in fustian and padding, wigs and deeply unsexy floor-length period frocks. For all the exuberant bawdiness of the script, these ravishingly hard-working and likable young people just aren’t given the opportunities to do what the book seems to be trying to do: to give us an object lesson in the worth of musical theatre. Subsequent producers of this show (should there be any, and we have waited 53 years for this revival) may wish to study the spare approach taken by, say, ‘Chicago‘ (no exclamation mark – none needed), to realise that in the theatre, as in life, less is often more… a great deal more.
Finally, we have to hand it to this doughty troupe of players who put their heart and soul into this project. Peter Noden is a pleasant Robin, Kweeva Garvey a bright Marian, Joe Rose picks up welcome pace as he goes along as Much, and Jessica Brady makes a confident impact as Delphina Leuves-Dick (geddit?), Christopher Hewitt is a rather Victor-Spinetti-like Sheriff of Nottingham. Christian Lunn plays Little John in the agreeable manner of Peter Gilmore, and Kane Verrall cranks up all cyclinders at all times to pump more than merely human energy into Will Scarlett (and is blessed with one of the few flashy costumes in a somewhat drab show). Stephen Patrick will be remembered – if not heard – as the peculiar Hob of the Hill and Victoria Nicol is a very Joan Collins’ish Lady Elpheba. Ed Court cuts a splashy figure in the old Basil Rathbone role of Sir Guy of Gisbourne. The clever comedienne Francesca Pim gets perhaps not quite enough to do as Lady Dolly and Micah Holmes provides diversity in the role of the dance captain: oh, what a pity we only get to see his great split-jump right at the very end! Louie Westwood puts in another very consistent re-working of his camp persona as Friar Tuck, Chris Draper is always useful in the ensemble and James Hudson is nice as Alan-A-Dale. Probably the most striking characterisation, though, is that of Lewis McBean’s shameless plundering of Olivier’s Henry V as Prince John, an interesting inter-textuality. They really are a very handsome bunch.
Oh, and Henry Brennan keeps the music chugging along its rent-a-quote course, investing Bart’s mostly rather inferior numbers with more love and attention than they really deserve, and getting to step up at the last minute as Richard I. On drums there is Nick Anderson and James Hudson plays the guitar.
No one could accuse this company of not trying its bloody damnedest to make the whole thing come to life. Word has it that at the first preview the audience was on their side and gladly lapped up its diet of dirt and cliches. Perhaps more audiences like that will follow. I hope, for their sake, they do. On press night, however, I have seldom seen a theatre empty as rapidly, or as quietly, as I did here: it was as if people just couldn’t wait to get away. That’s really not fair on a company that is trying to achieve perhaps the impossible: out of love for one of the very greatest writers in the musical theatre, to bring back – perhaps for the last time – one of his long-lost children that never made it, to give it a new script, to pack it to the gunwhales with knowing humour, and give it a big hug. That might not, ultimately, be enough to change our view of the work, but it’s a heroic attempt and I wonder if anyone, really, could have done it, in the circumstances, any better.
Until 5 May 2018. Photos: Anton Belmonté
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