One of the dangers of missing a press night and catching a play a few days later isn’t so much not being able to go with an open mind after reading the other reviews as having the surprises blown. Of course, you never go to anything with a completely blank slate – advance word seeps out, either via friends who have seen something already or in Baz Bamigboye’s Daily Mail column (who can’t resist writing about things before they open) or via interview profiles. (I try to avoid internet chatroom boards nowadays – though some contributors make worthwhile comments, they foster an unhealthy environment that isn’t always very constructive).
But it’s disappointing that critics so often give the game away. Last night, I went to Joe Penhall’s new play Landscape with Weapon at the National (having missed last Thursday’s official opening since I went to the premiere of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha at ENO instead, and loved it so much I have already paid to go again this weekend). Since Friday was Good Friday, the only overnight review I saw run was in The Guardian, and the Sundays missed it, too. So I was fairly safe. Until I read yesterday’s Independent, that is, on the way into the show. I had only picked it up, in any case, from that handy new newsagent stall positioned near the National’s stage door, to kill time and read my friend Rebecca Tyrrel’s weekly column (I had just spent the Easter weekend with her at the country cottage she rents in Devon).
But I wish I hadn’t. Not for Rebecca’s very funny column, I hasten to add, but for Paul Taylor’s review of Landscape with Weapon (spoiler alert – as they sometimes helpfully say on the aforementioned bulletin boards: don’t click on this link to the review if you intend to see the play). It may be headlined “An ethical battlefield”, but it commits the unethical sin of revealing the ending. “The ending is bleakly beautiful”, Paul writes in the final paragraph. And proceeds to tell us what it is. Actually, I can spot a spoiler alert when I see one, and reading that line that precedes the revelation, I stopped reading. And only returned to it after I left the theatre.
But it seems a pity to me that a critic will spoil something that they themselves refer to as ‘bleakly beautiful’ to future audiences. But I realise that as I say this that I am only too happy to have the game given away on something that is truly terrible. Last Friday, I lapped up the reviews of the new Boublil/Schonberg musical, The Pirate Queen, that opened in New York the night before. Boublil/Schonberg, of course, created one of the most successful musicals of all time, Les Miserables, redubbed The Glums in some quarters, but they’re be pretty glum this time around. The reviews, as so often happens with a bona fide turkey, are likely to be the most entertaining factor about the show. (But having read them, I can’t wait to actually see it for myself, which I plan to do in just over two weeks time….)
New York magazine’s Jeremy McCarter declared, “You can stop wondering—if you’ve been wondering—how a Céline Dion jukebox musical might sound. Without using her actual songs, The Pirate Queen distills enough of her essence to suggest how dismaying the genuine article might be. The bombast, the flutes, the refusal to acknowledge, however fleetingly, the corn spilling off the stage: What you’re hearing is a two-and-a-half-hour meditation on the love theme from Titanic”. He offers a word of respite to one actor: “The able Jeff McCarthy has my condolences. No actor should be asked to play a fearsome pirate chieftain while dressed like a cartoon wizard. His wig of cascading gray curls—which could, in theory, be kind of hard-core for a medieval outlaw—keeps falling in his face, forcing him to flip his hair extremely un-bad-ass-edly. Not for the first time, I thought I might be watching a Christopher Guest parody.” (Guest, of course, has already made the ultimate theatre spoof comedy, Waiting for Guffman, that unaccountably never received cinematic release here, but is one of my favourite films of all time).
In Newsday, Zachary Pincus-Roth observes sadly, “The Pirate Queen isn’t an embarrassment like Dance of the Vampires or a vanity project like In My Life. It just feels a little sad, as if a lot of people put a lot of time into something that’s simply lifeless.”
But paradoxically, it seems, full of action: in the New York Times, Ben Brantley points out there’s a lot of physical activity about. “Sword fights, frolicsome jigs, flag hoisting, rope pulling, stately processions, mincing minuets and hearty river dancing (with ship paddles, no less): such circulation-stimulating exercises occur regularly in this singing costume drama of love and patriotism on the high seas — sometimes, it seems, all at the same time… The operating theory behind The Pirate Queen would appear to be taken from an appropriately ocean-themed bit of zoology: if, like a shark, it never stops moving, then it will stay alive. The optimism is misplaced.”
The show, it seems, is a throwback, and an unwelcome one: according to Brantley, “The Pirate Queen registers as a relic of a long-gone era, and I don’t mean the 1500s. The big-sound, big-cast show pioneered by Messrs. Boublil and Schönberg is now as much a throwback to the 1980s as big hair and big shoulders. The crushing tidal waves of music that emanate from the stage, eardrum-tingling as they are, seem to come from distant shores indeed.”
In USA Today, Elysa Gardner makes a similar point: “Before such hits as Grey Gardens and Spring Awakening, it seemed the story-and-song-driven musical was in danger of being replaced by camp-fests that mocked commercial musical theatre. Now The Pirate Queen has sailed along to remind us why: because by the 1990s, the commercial musical had pretty much devolved into a tuneless, witless spectacle.” Labelling the new show “the latest bloated opus from Alan Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, the duo behind Les Misérables and Miss Saigon”, she adds that “the best thing that can be said about the new show is that it makes their previous ones seem like models of grace.”
Mind you, it wasn’t all bad on the night: the Toronto Star’s Richard Ouzounian was moved to declare that it “may very well be the most beautiful musical I have ever seen”. He praises the set, lighting and costumes, but then complains that “you wait in vain for an actual melody to emerge”.
Also damning with similar faint praise, Michael Sommers of the Star-Ledger writes, “Because the words and music are so relentlessly third-rate — come back, Frank Wildhorn, all is forgiven — what’s best about the musical is clattering stretches of Riverdance-style choreography performed with oars, brooms and swords on every piece of scenery available. The 42-member company cavorts through these Hibernian rhapsodies with considerable expertise.”
But there’s one rave: according to Talkin’ Broadway – Broadway’s most notorious chatroom board, but who also have a young critic on board called Matthew Murray who “officially” reviews for them — “This is the first new tuner of the season that looks, feels, and behaves like a bona-fide hit. … Even when The Pirate Queen feels hokey (which it does sometimes), superannuated (which it does frequently), and overblown (which it does constantly), its stalwart confidence captures the electric and cinematic spirit of musical theatre at its freshest.”
When a critic marches so out-of-step with everything else that has been written about this show, you have to wonder if he’s as reliable as Talkin’ Broadway’s gossip mongers….