Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas - Union Theatre, 19th October 2011

It is the late 1970s, a brothel that has been operating outside of fictional Gilbert, Texas for more than a century. It is under the proprietorship of Miss Mona Stangley, having been left to her by the original owner. While taking care of her girls, she is also on good terms with the local sheriff, Ed Earl Dodd. When crusading television reporter Melvin P. Thorpe (based on real-life Houston news personality Marvin Zindler) decides to make the illegal activity an issue, political ramifications cause the place to be closed down.

Sarah Lark as Miss Mona.
James Parkes as Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd
Leon Craig as Melvin P.Thorpe
Nancy Sullivan as Shy
Frankie Jenna as Angel
Stephanie Tavernier as Jewel
Lindsay Scigliano as Doatsey Mae
Tony Longhurst as Senator Wingwoah

Creative Team:
Directed by: Paul Taylor-Mills
Musical Director: Tom Turner
Choreography & Musical Staging by: Richard Jones
Production Designer: Kingsley Hall
Lighting Design: Howard Hudson

TBLWIT is an odd show. Plot lines run nowhere, some characters seem superfluous, the things you expect to develop into a story don’t. The two halves don’t seem to fit together properly – in Act 2 you seem to be watching a different show with a different plotline from Act 1. Your human sympathy is milked hard for characters which emerge, then fade away completely. Other characters take more prominence in the plot than would seem entirely necessary. The book is dated - stuck firmly in the 70s which, as far as most of the audience is concerned, might just as well be the late Cretaceous era. It doesn’t help anything to play this piece over the top – it needs simplicity, delicacy and a certain touch of realism to paper over the glaring inadequacies of the script. It needs to be sung and acted with clarity, and above all it needs a gentle hand from the director. Well, we didn’t get it. Paul Taylor-Mills directs with all the finesse of a sledgehammer in the nuts, too many people give us accents so over-broad in their attempt at authenticity that they become completely inaudible and a major character over-plays his role to such an extent – perhaps ill-advisedly trying desperately to inject some life into the show - that it becomes a) impossible to understand what he is saying and b) a total relief when he is not on stage.

At some points there is so much schtick going on that the entire piece grinds completely to a halt. A couple of performances are not being given to the back wall as much as given to Southwark Tube Station and possibly further. In a small, confined space, it is extremely badly judged to hit your audience in the face with a sledgehammer where a certain amount of restraint would serve so much better. This is partly the fault of the book – there is none of the coy tenderness of Dames at Sea, just over-gagging and too many badly drawn characters, leavened with attempts at cutesy-pie, homespun wisdom – and partly the fault of the production; think Country and Western music mixed with the excesses of Jerry Springer The Opera.

The entire production failed to gel together for me. It was too loud, too top-heavy, too brash. I could have done without Leon Craig playing Melvin P. Thorpe as a cross between Mr. Toad on speed and a 3rd-rate panto dame with a blonde mullet and dialogue delivered with all the precision and subtlety of a breezeblock (I don’t think I heard a single consonant from him all night). In fact his constant, frantic mugging and melodrama-baddy over-acting just irritated me from the word go. Some chap in the back row seemed to be having a great time guffawing loudly at every gag, and I began to think that Craig was milking the role just for him. I could have done without Tony Longhurst’s risible diction as Senator Wingwoah (couldn’t understand a single, sodding word) and I could have done with the band not playing so goddamned loudly that it made drowned most of the lyrics and made my head hurt into the bargain. I could have done with Miss Mona being played by someone rather more mature and world-weary, rather than the odd mix of a young Dolly Parton and an extremely young Prunella Scales. Here’s a role that should be comforting and motherly, but wasn’t. There was no chemistry between Lark’s Miss Mona and Parkes’ Sheriff Dodd , nor did there look like there had ever been any. In fact, if Parkes had spent a bit less time looking soulful and given his character a bit of backbone (or indeed some mental acuity) then the relationship might have sparked more.

In terms of the manifold failings of the book, I could have done with the Doatsey Mae character being explored more fully - either that or got rid of completely; the role goes nowhere and, depending on how you feel at the time, is either a missed opportunity for character exploration or a complete irrelevance - and I could have done with the characters of Shy (small town girl new to prostitution) and Angel (weary tart with a heart) not disappearing into the chorus 15 minutes after we are first introduced to them and then barely appearing until the final curtain.  These are sympathetic characters and you want to know more about them, but the script just dumps them while careering away with other storylines. 

I've no idea why the Union decided to put this show on.  Its dated and desperately flawed as a show, and the production values were, in my opinion (lets just get this straight before you all start leaving rude messages; IN MY OPINION) very low indeed.  The evening fell flat with a resounding splat and with so many good shows to choose from, I'm sure that the Union could have come up with a more inspired choice.  75% of the Union shows have been fantastic - this one is a turkey. 

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