After the no view of half the stage at Virginia Woolf experience, I made a vow to myself that in future, when I go to the theatre, I’m going to say “hang the expense” and buy decent seats in the stalls. That’s all well and good, but unfortunately I still had two cheapskate seats I’d booked earlier to use, both on the same day.
First cab off the rank was a matinee production of Hamlet at the New Ambassadors (another English Touring Theatre production, like The Old Country. This was my set Shakespeare text for HSC English back in 1989, but I’ve not given the play much thought (save for seeing Mel Gibson’s infamous film version) since. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a live staging. But let’s be honest here: I might not have bothered going along at all if it wasn’t for the casting of Anita Dobson (aka Angie from EastEnders and Mrs Brian May) as Gertrude. Yes, I can be sucked in by celebrity billing as much as the next man, which at a matinee production of Hamlet is, inevitably, teenagers. (A side note: it’s common for people to complain that the youth of today have no manners, but I had far more problems with people talking at inappropriate moments — ie, when there’s an actor on stage — during The Hollow, which was pensioner central, than here.)
The starring role of the Danish prince was taken on here by Ed Stoppard, who did an excellent job. It’s very tempting when playing Hamlet to go wildly over the top for the soliloquies, but that doesn’t make much sense: Hamlet as a paragon of indecision only adds up if he’s not too passionate about anything, and that was how Stoppard played it. The sword-fighting was impressive, although the haste with which everyone dies reminds you that people who comment on how well Shakespeare plots haven’t seen his plays for a while.
One thing I didn’t have to worry about was the seating. I was originally positioned in the second to back row of the stalls — not great, not terrible — but a minute before curtain, the usher invited those of us in the back to move to vacant seats in the front half of the hall. So I did.
A couple of hours later and it was time for a preview performance of Movin’ Out, which is basically Billy Joel meets Twyla Tharp. In other words, it’s a compendium musical (in the style of Mamma Mia! or We Will Rock You), but with dancers acting out the story wordlessly rather than a conventional script. A band hovers permanently above stage to sing the songs, led by former Eurovision entrant James Fox as ‘The Pianoman’. Fox was in excellent voice throughout, though this isn’t unfamiliar territory to him, since he’s played the same role in the original Broadway production.
Some of the dancing was tremendously impressive, but dance by necessity means you’re not going to get much in the way of a plot (group of 50s friends and how they survive signing up to Vietnam, basically), and there really are only so many times you can watch someone spinning repeatedly on one leg. The musical selections cover the whole of Joel’s career, including his classical compositions. Most stay fairly faithful to the originals, though ‘Only The Good Die Young’ and ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ get rocked up heavily and the latter loses half its verses and most of its original playfulness and tunefulness.
It was a fun evening out, but as compendium musicals go it’s somewhere in the middle ground: nowhere near as good as Mamma Mia! (which does a much better job of integrating songs into plot), but infinitely better than the dire We Will Rock You.
It’s only running for 10 weeks at the cavernous Apollo Victoria, and judging by the audience last night it won’t be getting an extension. The back half of the theatre was basically empty. Despite being told not to by the ushers, most people seated behind me in the dress circle (itself a good thirty rows deep) decided to move down into vacant seats even before the curtain had risen. I chose not to: since I was at the front of a section, I had more leg room, and I could still see the whole of the stage. As cheap seats go, this was a good one, but I’m still planning for it to be my last for a while.