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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 15th January 2005

The Producers / Mary Poppins / Sex Addict


Since October 25 I've been appearing seven times a week on stage, so getting to see anything has been extremely difficult. My last night is January 15 so I'll be able to resume my full reviewing duties after that, but in the meantime I thought I'd bring you up to date on the only three plays I've managed to see in the last 12 weeks.

I first saw The Producers in New York three years ago and hated it. The songs are mediocre, the plot is ludicrous and the jokes aren't funny. I couldn't understand what all the fuss was about so I talked this over with some New York theatre buddies and they said the problem with The Producers is that it isn't actor-proof. In the version I saw Max Bialystock was played by Brad Oscar. They told me that if I ever got a chance to see Nathan Lane in the part I should take it.

Well, the good news is I did get that chance on one rainy Tuesday afternoon in November and, with Nathan Lane in the lead, it was a much better show. The jokes may not be funny, but he is. Indeed, one of the reasons his performance was so winning was because he tossed so much of the material away, almost as if he recognized that 75% of his lines were duds, and then looked on, bewilderedly, as the audience roared with laughter. The bad news, for those still hoping to see The Producers, is that Lane has now been replaced by Brad Oscar. My advice is to wait until the film comes out. Lane is reprising his turn as Max Bialystock in the remake of The Producers due for release in 2006.

Somehow, I doubt Mary Poppins will be such a success that the 1964 Disney film will be remade as well. Rather courageously, Cameron Mackintosh hasn't simply tried to recreate the film on stage. He's commissioned some new songs, got Julian Fellowes to rewrite the book and found a young starlet, as opposed to a middle-aged chanteuse, to play the lead. Unfortunately, in almost every respect in which it departs from the original, Mary Poppins falls flat.

Take Laura Michelle Kelly, for instance. I never thought I'd say this of an actress, but she's far too sexy to play the lead. The reason Julie Andrews was perfect for the role is that she's pleasant to look at but almost completely devoid of sex appeal. It's at least plausible that her presence in the Banks household wouldn't provoke either sexual longing among the men or intense jealousy among the women. Not so Ms Kelly, who is an absolute knock out. She has the face and body of an Eastern European au pair girl, rather than an Edwardian nanny. If she so much as set foot in my house, I'd jump on her.

As for Julian Fellowes's book, it's a pitiful mess. He doesn't seem to have the first clue about how to craft a dramatic narrative. The character that interests him most is Mr Banks, played by David Haig, yet he never really gets to grips with why he's such a stuffed shirt and Banks's transformation, when he realizes the error of his ways and becomes the Edwardian equivalent of a New Man, seems to come out of nowhere. One minute he's Michael Howard, the next he's Bob Geldoff.

Don't get me wrong. There are aspects of Mary Poppins that work very well. Both Matthew Bourne's choreography and Bob Crowley's set designs are excellent and it's full of lovely little touches, such as the various conjuring tricks Mary performs when she's first introduced to the children. But it suffers from the problems that beset most musicals in my experience: it's too long, there are too many songs and not nearly enough attention has been paid to the story.

Sex Addict, a one-man show by Tim Fountain, the playwright who co-adapted my book for the stage, is unlikely to appeal to most Spectator readers. Tim is an extremely energetic homosexual and in the course of the show he logs on to a web site, lines up some potential sexual partners and then invites the audience to decide which one he should sleep with that night. The show ends with him heading off to his assignation on a motorized bicycle.

For those with strong stomachs--he recounts his weird and whacky adventures in a great deal of detail--Sex Addict is actually very funny. In spite of his desire to shock, there's something rather touching and Alan Bennett-ish about Tim. This show is too raunchy even for Channel 4, but he could be the next Graham Norton.

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