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Toby Young
Saturday 17th August 2002

Much Ado About Nothing / On An Average Day / Follies

The Spectator - 17th August 2002

During the interval of Much Ado About Nothing, the RSC's big Summer blockbuster, I sidled up to Ned Sherrin in the bar and started peppering him with questions. Why does Don John hate his brother? What's the back story? And how does Don John hope to get his revenge on his brother by sabotaging the marriage of Hero and Claudio?

"I know your game," said the presenter of Loose Ends. "You want to find out how it ends so you can leave without having to sit through the second half."

If he'd said this to me at either of the other plays I saw last week he would have been right, but in this case he was wrong. At the beginning of the evening I was prepared for the worst, having sat through eight other RSC productions in the past year, but by the time the interval rolled around I was completely won over. Much Ado About Nothing is the best Shakespeare production I've seen since taking over this column.

Set in Italy under Mussolini, it's an unapologetic crowd-pleaser, with plenty of song-and-dance routines, a beautiful heroine in the form of Kirsten Parker and two scorching central performances by Harriet Walter and Nicholas le Prevost. Le Prevost is particularly good as Benedick, whom he plays as an irascible old drunk who's rescued by the love of a good woman. The scene in which he challenges Claudio to a duel, having been put up to it by Beatrice, is absolutely spellbinding. Claudio and his patron, Don Pedro, can hardly believe it when their old sidekick, a buffoon who's used to singing for his supper, unexpectedly lays down the gauntlet. Can this be the same Benedick who usually trots at their heels like a trained poodle? Le Provost appears to grow before your eyes until he towers above his former masters, terrifying them out of their codpieces. It's heart-stopping stuff.

On An Average Day, the latest West End production to feature an all-star cast, could easily be renamed In An Average Play. Woody Harrelson and Kyle MacLachlan play Robert and Jack, two brothers from a broken home who are reunited after over 20 years and spend the afternoon discussing one another's problems. These problems are implausibly huge--Robert is on trial for attempted murder, while Jack has just abandoned his wife and child--and the whole exercise feels less like a play than a two-hour improv class. In the second half both characters veer off in completely unexpected directions, behaving in ways that haven't been remotely foreshadowed, and by the end you're left feeling slightly cheated.

On An Average Day's only redeeming quality is Woody Harrelson's performance, which constantly threatens to explode into violence and occasionally does. Harrelson perfected this role in Natural Born Killers, but there were hints of what was to come earlier in his career. He got his start in the business playing the good-natured barman in Cheers and several years ago one of that sitcom's writers explained to me how he discovered Harrelson's hidden talent for playing psycho-killers. It came about when he wrote an episode that required Harrelson to stand up to a local bully.

"He went way beyond what was required," said the writer, "flying into this eye-popping, heart-attack-inducing rage. It was absolutely terrifying. Cheers was filmed before a live, studio audience and several of the women in the audience started crying. He was never asked to do anything like that again."

Follies, Stephen Sondheim's musical about a reunion of Broadway veterans, could do with an injection of ultra-violence. Even by the standards of Broadway musicals, it oozes sentimentality--it's like a marshmallow dripping with golden syrup. "Golden" is the operative word, too, since all the characters are well on their way to collecting their pensions. The last time these hoofers appeared on a stage was in 1941 and watching them hobble their way through their old routines is like being present at a Christmas party in an old people's home. Occasionally, their younger selves emerge from the wings to remind us of how good-looking they used to be, but just when you're locking in on some beautiful, 19-year-old showgirl she disappears, only to be replaced by some grey panther in a leotard. I was reminded of that Simpsons episodes in which the original cast of Star Trek reassembles at the Springfield mall to sign a few autographs.

The best thing about Follies are Sondheim's witty pastiches of old show tunes, but why bother schlepping your way to the Royal Festival Hall when Kiss Me Kate still has a week left to run at the Victoria Palace? Unlike Follies, which is like a three-hour episode of The Golden Girls set to music, Kiss Me Kate is the real thing.

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