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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 25th November 2006

The Sound of Music / Porgy and Bess / Therese Raquin

Connie Fisher, the winner of Andrew Lloyd Weber's search-for-a-star reality show, hits the ground running in The Sound of Music. Indeed, she's so high energy, it's as if she's starring in an infomercial rather than a West End musical. She overdoes everything, right down to the smallest hand gesture. As contestants in reality shows are fond of saying, she gives it "one hundred and ten percent".

I imagine this is exactly what Lloyd Weber was hoping for when he came up with How Do You solve A Problem Like Maria?. Fisher is a non-professional who has been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so, of course, she's going to act her socks off--and it more or less works because she's playing a character who desperately wants to be liked. Even the great Julie Andrews overdid it a bit, as Christopher Plummer pointed out after co-staring with her in the 1965 film. "Working with Julie Andrews is like getting hit over the head with a Valentine," he said. I imagine that when Fisher settles down into the role, she'll make a pretty decent fist of Maria.

More mystifying is the fact that rest of the cast are equally hopped-up. Even Ian Gelder, a wonderful actor who classes up everything he's in, ricochets around the Palladium stage like a pinball. What's going on? Has the director, Jeremy Sams, instructed everyone to perform in the same breathless style in order to conceal the fact that Connie Fisher can't do anything else? If so, that might explain why the other Maria, as well as the actor originally earmarked to play Captain von Trapp, walked out before press night. Or has Sams directed the cast that way for purely commercial reasons? Connie Fisher may be an extremely versatile young actress who's been told to ham it up as a one-note ingénue since that's what fans of the TV show are expecting.

Whatever the explanation, it's not ideal from an artistic point of view. I found it hard to warm to a production that's so relentlessly eager to please. Given how little choice you're given about whether to like the characters on stage, the temptation is to do exactly the opposite. (After being beaten about the head with a Valentine for two-and-a-half hours, you feel inclined to strike back.) To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, you'd have to have a heart of stone not to laugh when the von Trapp family is faced with Nazi persecution.

Still, at least The Sound of Music has a slick, showbiz quality, which is more than can be said for Trevor Nunn's production of Porgy and Bess. Originally devised as a four-hour opera by George Gershwin, Nunn has done his best to turn it into a conventional musical by inserting chunks of the original novel by DoBose Heyward, as well as the stage play that DoBose co-wrote with his wife. Unfortunately, the result feels less like a book musical than an opera in which some of the parts that are normally sung are spoken. Rarely have I seen a piece of musical theatre in which the narrative is so undernourished.

For instance, there's no sub-plot. There are only two characters you're asked to care about--Porgy and Bess--and their story, by itself, simply isn't capable of sustaining your interest for the play's two-hours-and-fifty-minutes running time. To be fair, the first 30 minutes are packed with incident and drama, as are the last 30 minutes, but there's a huge chunk in the middle in which nothing much happens. (This shortcoming is underlined by Nunn's seemingly arbitrary decision about where to put the first-half curtain.) In opera form, the paucity of Porgy and Bess's storyline scarcely matters since the music alone is sufficient to hold an audience's attention. In a musical, by contrast, it's a fatal flaw. Even the magnificent central performance by Clarke Peters as Porgy can't save what is essentially an ill-conceived project.

Not much room left to sing the praises of Therese Raquin--which is just as well since there isn't much to sing about. Nicholas Wright's adaptation of Zola's stage play in which a married woman conspires with her lover to murder her husband is pretty heavy-going in spite of the tabloid subject-matter. The director, Marianne Elliott, struggles manfully to inject a bit of spine-tingling terror into the proceedings, but there isn't enough suspense for it to work as a horror story. Worst of all, we never actually see the murder. If the most dramatic moment in a play takes place off-stage, the audience is going to leave feeling short-changed.

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