Review: They’re Playing Our Song (Menier Chocolate Factory)

Whilst the latest musical offering from the Menier didn’t garner the critical acclaim of some of its previous efforts, the sell-out audience didn’t seem to care when I went to see the show last week…

I have been looking forward to seeing it since news of the production was announced. I was shocked by the negativity of some of the reviews, especially Christopher Hart’s in the Sunday Times, and was left wondering whether my trip would be a wasted one…

I don’t necessarily expect to agree with what the reviewers say (frankly, I’d be disappointed to agree with much of the nonsense that Christopher Hart writes!), but 4 days on, I’m still surprised by how strongly I disagreed with them this time around.

Let’s get one thing clear – TPOS is not the best musical ever written. The dialogue can be very dated in places, and a few of the songs are a little twee for my liking. But before I go on, I want to point out one of my major frustrations with theatre critics – the inability to distinguish between the quality of a show and the quality of a production.

The two things are obviously intrinsically linked – poor material is still likely to be poor on stage, however well it’s performed. But productions are rarely either truly outstanding or truly miserable, so it wouldn’t hurt reviewers to actually try to make the distinction between writing and production. In fact, Serena Davies in The Telegraph was one of the only reviewers who actually managed this. She acknowledged that there’s “a little musical mediocrity in this sweet show” but still refers to “Fiona Laird’s inspired Seventies pastiche of a production”.

I think she’s hit the nail on the head here – it’s a 5-star production of a 3-star show.

Firstly, let me acknowledge that there are things wrong with the show:

  • Neil Simon’s script: sometimes funny, but too often dated. Not enough many laugh-out-loud moments 
  • Alistair McGowan’s voice: he might be a great actor, but he’s voice isn’t really good enough to carry a musical.
  • Connie Fisher’s accent: her American accent was very strange in the first half-hour, but thankfully she warmed up as the show progressed
  • The new orchestration: very rocky and guitar-based, it’s fun, but I think I preferred it with a little more wind and brass, something that can’t really be replaced by a synth

 Right, now that’s done I can concentrate on all the things right with the show:

  • Alistair McGowan’s acting: Staggeringly good acting – it doesn’t hurt that his American accent was perfect (not surprising for someone who does impressions!). He was a truly magnetic presence on stage. If only his voice had matched his acting.
  • Connie Fisher’s voice: I was a big fan of Fisher’s when she won the BBC series ‘How do you solve a problem like Maria?’, and loved her performance in The Sound of Music. I thought she was equally impressive here, particularly her voice which is fab
  • Fiona Laird’s direction: The material is clearly dated, but Laird’s production embraced that fact, rather than trying to modernise it. She managed to bring out lots of humour, which was no mean feat given some of the clunkier lines.
  • Matthew Wright’s design: The Menier is a small space with limited money, but you wouldn’t know it from the quality of this set. It looked expensive, and the revolve actually worked really well.

In fact, looking back, it’s difficult to believe that I even watched the same show as Christopher Hart. I doubt the show will get a transfer (unlikely the Xmas show, La Cage Aux Folles, whose transfer has just been announced).

Given that, I’d still recommend seeing TPOS before it shuts at the end of September. I appreciate that you might have been put off by the reviews (and I do appear to be in a minority here), but I genuinely think that the show is better than it has been given credit for. Strong audiences would seem to suggest that things are not all bad!



Newspaper review round-up:
Telegraph review (Serena Davies)
Guardian review (Michael Billington)
Times review (Sam Marlowe)
Independent (Paul Taylor)
Evening Standard review (Liz Hoggard)
The Stage (Mark Shenton)

The bloggers reviews:
West End Whingers review
Webcowgirl review
The Londonist review

2 Responses to “Review: They’re Playing Our Song (Menier Chocolate Factory)”

  1. 1 Carol Ann Burridge September 1, 2008 at 3:07 pm

    Ah a journalist that recognises talent at last. I agree its very dated and to me what lets it down (and its not the production or the cast) its the story line and the fact that there are no well known songs in it.Its a pity that somewhere along the line the songs that they composed and wrote couldnt have been slipped into the story so that the audience were then able familarise themselves with their material

  2. 2 Lisa September 1, 2008 at 9:39 pm

    I could listen to Alistair McGowans Voice all day long !!

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