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Review Round-up: Menier Enjoys Smashing Success?

Jack Rosenthal’s 1981 autobiographical comedy Smash! has been revived at the Menier Chocolate Factory, where it opened last week (31 March 2011, previews from 24 March) in a production led by Tom Conti, Natalie Walter and the West Wing's Richard Schiff.

In Smash!, Rosenthal, the late husband of actress Maureen Lipman and father of playwright Amy Rosenthal, offers a "hilarious but scathing look" at the journey of bringing a musical to the stage. It’s based on the experiences the TV dramatist had turning his BAFTA-winning television play Bar Mitzvah Boy into a musical.

Tamara Harvey's production runs until 8 May 2011.

Michael Coveney

"Smash! folded on the road in 1981, the late television dramatist Jack Rosenthal’s only stage play, and even that’s putting it strongly. It’s a fairly enjoyable theatrical indulgence about the making of a musical in chaotic circumstances that stutters into town, has a rhapsodic first night and is then killed stone dead by reviews … It was an enjoyable failure, believe me, with some good writing and a delightful cast ... It’s bitty and stop-start, but the play pulls itself together as in one of those backstage movies where the audience cheers, friendships are sorted, resolutions made, the reviews are terrible and out of all this arises some barmy, kamikaze project to start all over again on Broadway. And there’s a lovely vignette from Carrie Quinlan as a waitress in the Manchester hotel who’s seen the show and found more holes in it than a kitchen colander. But what does she know?”

Michael Billington

"Tamara Harvey's production creates exactly the right sense that everyone, while working for the good of the show, is protecting their own territory. Richard Schiff, of The West Wing fame, makes the composer a figure of wondrously acerbic vanity who prefaces every remark by reminding everyone of his 28 Broadway scores. Cameron Blakely's director is all elegantly attired bombast masking profound insecurity. And Natalie Walter plausibly makes the writer, clearly representing Rosenthal himself, the still, small voice of sanity in this creative madhouse. But the funniest performance comes from Tom Conti as the producer who seeks to exude avuncular reassurance while secretly aware that the show is under-capitalised. What Rosenthal's delightful play really proves, however, is that musicals operate in a special way: in conjuring up a world of fantasy, they leave their creators trapped in their own private bubble of preposterous self-delusion.”

Fiona Mountford
Evening Standard

"Enjoyable as this basic scenario is, it does have drawbacks. The whole project has the air of doom about it right from the start, which makes it tough to invest emotionally in the fate of Whatever Happened to Tomorrow? It is, of course, a title that cries out for multiple cynical ripostes. Although there are some cherishable one-liners - ‘In a musical, nothing's alright until it's too late to be changed’ - Tamara Harvey's occasionally underpowered production struggles to maintain a consistent level of laughs … Rosenthal understandably makes the writer the most sympathetic character and that fine comic actress Natalie Walter anchors the evening as the ever more bewildered Liz, drowning in a sea of rewrites and coming to wish she'd never thought about G.I. brides in the first place … Conti gives a characteristically engaging turn as the canny Austrian producer and there's some delightful scene-stealing from Carrie Quinlan, doubling as a dancer and a waitress. She generates the biggest laughs and looks set to be a smash of a comedy performer.”

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

Smash!, in which Rosenthal’s wife Maureen Lipman originally starred as the writer, didn’t prove a smash hit itself when first staged in 1981, and after touring failed to transfer to the West End. Her daughter, Amy Rosenthal, has now tweaked the script, but this is still only a mildly enjoyable show rather than a consistently funny and touching one. Part of the problem is that we never see anything of the doomed musical itself, or encounter any of the actors coping with the endless new dialogue and re-ordered musical numbers. Indeed we learn almost nothing about the show at all beyond the fact that it concerns GI brides … Nevertheless the heated confrontations between the warring “creatives” offer good comic value and the mounting panic and despair is neatly caught in Tamara Harvey’s affectionate production. Tom Conti brings a nice mixture of cunning and Mittel-European charm to the producer, Cameron Blakely is memorably obnoxious as the director, and Richard Schiff shines particularly brightly as the touchy, monstrously conceited composer who is constantly threatening to walk out of the production.”

Libby Purves
The Times

“There’s nothing like a cry of despair to pep up a comedy. In this case Natalie Walter as Liz, the author, crawling through a chaos of typescripts on a Manchester hotel floor, wails: ‘Is there anything in the world that matters less than a musical?’ … It suits the Menier: the playful, intimate venue has launched hit musicals to Broadway and bravely borne flops, and its very air shimmered with sympathetic hilarity. The five principals drive one another crazy as they cobble together their extravaganza under the delusion ‘sing loud enough, the audience will save you’ … It’s never hard to guess what’s coming, but under Tamara Harvey’s comically crafty direction you float happily on. I treasure the director lying flat on the carpet of a hotel suite, the author crumpled asleep in her posh frock and Conti staggering towards the phone in an ill-tied dressing gown, alternately planning to sell his house and joining the fantasy of a Broadway triumph once they have ‘changed the GI bride into a Cuban refugee’.”


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