Menier Chocolate Factory, London – until 5 May 2018
Has the Menier Chocolate Factory come to the end of the road? If you want to know how it feels to be trapped in some nightmare prison with no prospect of release, sit in the middle of a row for its current no-interval production of Kiss of the Spider Woman.
I’ve had some good evenings there, feeling ‘in at the beginning’ of shows which later made it to both the West End and Broadway. Sitting across from Trevor Nunn at a preview of the wonderful A Little Night Music when the actress playing Madame Armfeldt started to sing ‘Liaisons’ and I’m pretty sure he wrote in his notebook ‘Phone Sheila Hancock’. Witnessing a technically disastrous early performance of La Cage Aux Folles when Douglas Hodge was sick and an anxious Spencer Stafford made a brave stab at Albin.
Similarly, Sheridan Smith’s indisposition during Little Shop of Horrors at the Menier in 2007 gave her understudy a scary chance long before Funny Girl made Natasha J Barnes a breakout star.
In the 12 years I’ve been reviewing, I’ve had some good times – and occasional bum times (like the crazed awfulness of Paradise Found) – but always an interesting outing to the Menier. Now tickets have crept up to £55 and the seating’s still uncomfortable, I’m increasingly less convinced it has to be given the allowances that apply to ‘fringe’ theatre.
So what about Kiss of the Spider Woman? Some carefully crafted advertising meant a lot of people rushed to book thinking it might be the musical – although after the walking disaster that was Barnum, maybe best not. It is, therefore, a newly translated version of the Manuel Puig novel and stage play which begat the 1993 Broadway hit.
If there is a lesson to be learned here, it’s that if Kander and Ebb adapt something into a Broadway musical or a film and win a slew of Tonys and Oscars for it, the original from which they drew their inspiration may leave audiences feeling flat. So don’t attempt I Am a Camera (Cabaret) or the 1926 Play Ball (Chicago) without music any time soon either.
Second, if you have a superb set by Jon Bausor which really makes your bunkerish basement look like a Latin American prison – don’t cast the leads with people who sound like they’re weekending in Sheffield and don’t have a tall woman who has to dodge the ceiling lights playing a wholly unconvincing and unthreatening prison governor.
The problem is not that the two actors – Samuel Barnett as Molina, the gay window dresser who may be wrongfully imprisoned, and Declan Bennett as Valentin, the revolutionary who should probably be there – don’t throw themselves wholeheartedly into their roles, but that there’s not sufficient at which to throw themselves. In the stage version, Molina isn’t operatic enough as the gay diva, and Valentin isn’t dangerous enough as the revolutionary. The betrayal feels too patently obvious not to arouse Valentin’s suspicion. Even when Barnett’s descriptions of the movies – wonderfully shadow-played on the cell walls – lurch into homoerotic stimulation of his cellmate, interest is lost.
This might be the first time I’ve almost nodded off during buggery.
On or off stage.