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Review Round-up: Fantasticks One to Remember?

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A reworked West End production of The Fantasticks opened to critics at the refurbished Duchess Theatre this week (9 June 2010, previews from 24 May).

The record-breaking Off-Broadway musical, which has been running for more than 42 years in New York, has been re-envisioned by Japanese collaborators - director and choreographer Amon Miyamoto and designer Rumi Matsui – and is performed by an all-British cast - Clive Rowe, David Burt, Hadley Fraser, Edward Petherbridge, Paul Hunter, Lorna Want, Luke Brady and Carl Au.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) – “I was once beguiled by the piece in the Open Air, Regent’s Park, but this new Japanese production, featuring eight resourceful British actors, two pianists and a box of props, is a bit of a struggle. The more they smile and caper, the more you feel like, well, stepping on their kumquats… Thank heavens for Edward Petherbridge and Clive Rowe. The first does some of his sweetest, silliest clowning as the old actor, ably assisted by Paul Hunter of Told by an Idiot. And the second is one of the two fathers – the other is David Burt - who create a false division between themselves to make sure their respective children fall in love... Lorna Want and Luke Brady sing well, and are not too ingratiating, as the girl and boy, while Hadley Fraser has charm to burn as the narrator. What exactly Carl Au is doing as the mute is anyone’s guess, but he does it gracefully enough. And there are 12 customers sitting on tiny bleachers on the stage, too. Let’s hope they don’t soon start outnumbering the customers sitting in the stalls, but it might be a good bet.”
  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (no stars) – “Next time you find yourself somewhere less than ideal - in a stifling nightmare, in a traffic jam to the airport, in a trainee gynaecologist's stirrups - count your blessings. It could be worse. You could be stuck in the surreal musical 'comedy' The Fantasticks, directed by a Japanese. With the entire second half still to come…A version of this show has somehow managed to notch up its half century in New York. Perhaps in 1960 it all seemed wildly innovative: an ill-formed tale of romance, with two lovers separated by an imaginary wall, and various escapades as they are tested by their fathers and by a caped narrator. Today it is just cheek-numbingly boring and desperately unfunny. A man dresses up as an Indian mystic. 'He's a fake fakir!' cries one of the 'players' (as they are called). You need to be Kenneth Williams to get away with that sort of line… The narrator (Hadley Fraser) sings opening song 'Try To Remember' tunefully enough and there are perhaps two other numbers worth the candle. Some of the audience sit on the stage and are to be commended for stayingawake…The show is directed by one Amon Miyamoto. There were a lot of Japanese in the house. They watched, motionless, silent. They may well have found it killingly funny. Hard to say."
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (one star) – “Part musical, part physical comedy, part meta-theatrical skit, and wholly self-conscious, it’s a love story with a heart of blancmange. The central characters are next-door neighbours Luisa and Matt. Their fathers build a wall between their homes, hoping that by creating this obstacle they will encourage the children into a rebellious liaison. Yet instead of prompting passion this strategy inspires the two teenagers to seek wider worldly experience… Most of the humour is feeble, and while the performances are serviceable, with Edward Petherbridge raising several laughs, it’s impossible to redeem the material. Some roles feel miscast, with David Burt’s presence as the more awkward of the two fathers especially incongruous... Harvey Schmidt’s music is mostly insipid, and although Amon Miyamoto’s choreography contains a few nice touches, his direction is marred by syrupy sentimentality and a fondness for greatly exaggerated gesture."
  • Libby Purves in The Times (three stars) – “The plot is as mad as a box of frogs. When it does start to make some sense, after the interval, its moral is cloyingly smalltown: the wide world is dangerous, foreigners cruel and violent, and true happiness is marrying the boy or girl next door and watching your comedy dad grow more radishes… This is at least an interesting production, since one lot of foreigners - the Japanese - won round its co-creator Tom Jones. He fell for an Amon Miyamoto production in Tokyo, with a weird lozenge-shaped stage and a dozen confused audience members seated on it : so here it is, an all-American burger with a wasabi twist … Is it fun? Sometimes. The young lovers (Lorna Want and Luke Brady) are sweet, the music elegant. In the long clowning sequences Edward Petherbridge as an ancient actor effortlessly steals the scene every time he puts a foot on stage or does a Sinden boom, proving that to portray a terrible old ham you need a serious, un-hammy old pro.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (two stars) – “Since it's been running more or less continuously off-Broadway since 1960, this musical has certainly earned its place in the history books. Whether it earns a revival in the West End is another matter… Tom Jones (book and lyrics) and Harvey Schmidt (music) draw their inspiration from Rostand's Les Romanesques and, initially, the comic premise is mildly diverting. Two fathers stage a mock feud and erect a wall between their premises, in order to encourage their respective offspring to fall in love… The fathers even arrange a fake abduction of the girl, Luisa, so that the boy, Matt, can gallop heroically to her rescue. But since by the interval the plot has been virtually resolved and we've had the two best songs ('Try to Remember', and 'Soon it's Gonna Rain'), the second half strains hard to excite our curiosity… Matt Brady and Lorna Want are sprightly enough as the woosome twosome, Carl Au capers diligently as a resident mime, and Mr Miyamoto is no fool when it comes to staging.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (two stars) – “If there were ever proof that America and Britain are two countries divided by a common language it must surely be found in the sticky, sugary depths of this ghastly musical... Based on a romance by Edmond Rostand, and with much borrowing from Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Fantasticks tells us once again that the path of true love never did run smooth…There are endless theatrical pastiches on offer, including cod Shakespearean acting, vaudeville song-and-dance routines and a melodramatic abduction… With better material Clive Rowe, as a plump old sea dog, and David Burt as a whimsical button manufacturer, might be genuinely delightful as the apparently stern but actually loving fathers…And Lorna Want (presumably as in wants a better script) and Luke Brady have moments of genuine charm amid the cheese as the young lovers… Hadley Fraser is a charismatic narrator, while Edward Petherbridge and Paul Hunter achieve moments of genuine humour as a pair of down-at-heel actor laddies… But no amount of talent can redeem this terrible show.”
  • - Andrea Kleopa


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