For many years people have been telling me that you can have an experience in the theatre like you can have in no other medium. That it is transformative in a way no other experience is. So I go to something every year and mostly my negative feelings about live performance are reinforced. I’m sure I once read that Gore Vidal said that he resented paying to watch people have a better time on stage than he was having watching them, but I can’t find it anywhere, so maybe it was someone else. He did say No good deed ever goes unpunished, make of that what you will. For me the seats are always uncomfortable and there’s no air conditioning and you’re too close to the actors to suspend disbelief. Crucially, the theatre is on at the time I like to eat dinner.
The other night I went I went to see Gypsy at the Savoy Theatre. The book is by Arthur Laurents, the music by Jule Styne and the lyrics by a very young Stephen Sondheim. About the childhood of Gypsy Rose Lee, it is one of the masterpieces of the American musical theatre. The seats were monumentally uncomfortable. There was air conditioning even if it was set too high. I was slightly bad-tempered from having to eat too early, curtain was up at 7.30. I feel if I’m going to give it a chance I should at least sit in the best seats, and at £90 the ticket was expensive. That said, how much does the best seat at a Madonna concert cost? £250? £300? Gypsy has received rave reviews, particularly it’s lead, Imelda Staunton. Well, I sat through the first half, entertained but not transformed. It’s the story of a stage mother and her not talented enough children in depression-era America. They form a troupe. They perform. One squeals in a way that, if she were yours, you would want to slap out of her. There’s dancing and a cow costume. The songs are terrific, as is all the cast and the orchestra. The staging is uncontroversial. I can imagine the original production, in 1959, didn’t look too different. I usually like the beginning bit of things, the set up, best. In autobiographies the early chapters, the struggle, are always the most interesting. I didn’t seriously think about leaving before the second act but I was glad it was going to be shorter.
They sing a song called Together, Wherever We Go that I think is a parody of the sunny, family life that they’re not having but it’s staged as a happy-go-lucky song of love and togetherness. The seat was feeling especially uncomfortable at this point. But then it gets better. There are three songs in a row, the last three in the show, that change everything. First we have Miss Mazeppa, Electra and Tessie Tura, three strippers in search of gimmicks for their acts. None in the Spring of their career, they bring real comic energy to the stage and stop the show. They bump and grind with trumpets and light-up G strings and are truly entertaining. It looked as much fun for the performers as it was for the audience. Then we see Gypsy herself transforming from ugly duckling to most famous stripper in the world. The actress, Laura Pulver, is excellent. It’s very clever how the song the children sing in the first half is slowed down and sung by a stripper. Let her entertain you, indeed. But Mama Rose feels excluded from her daughter’s life and her final number, Rose’s Turn, is exhilarating. It is a declaration of her spirit and her despair at being overlooked. She sings how she did it all for her daughters, but we know, as does she, that she put them through the agonies of a performing life for her own glory and need for attention. She appears to have some sort of breakdown mid-song and we are rapt. The show is an examination of the American dream as sour as any other. The audience stood in ovation, both an actual audience and the audience in Mama Rose’s mind. It is the best performance I’ve ever seen, certainly in the theatre, possibly anywhere. It was the transformative experience people had told me of.
Coincidentally, maybe not, the last time I went to the theatre was to see another monster. On New Year’s Eve 20013/14 I saw American Psycho, the Musical at the Almeida Theatre. I cheated and made it count for two years of theatre service. It was a musical dramatisation of Brett Easton Ellis’ novel/scandal American Psycho. You may remember the fuss when it was written. Publishers refused to publish it, shops refused to stock it, maiden aunts fainted on reading it. It starred, in his first job after leaving Doctor Who, Matt Smith, who is my favourite Doctor of all time. I am old enough to have watched the first episode of Doctor Who, in black and white, on a wintry Saturday evening. My twitter friend Matt Goddard, who knows everything there is to know about this sort of thing, tells me it was 1963. At the end of the first episode Daleks emerge, menacingly, from the Thames. I was young enough then, however, to hide behind the sofa, which is a cliché but I remember the moment clearly. I hid, terrified, and there was a sofa. I loved the first Doctor, William Hartnell, best until Matt Smith took over fifty years later. I find Matt Smith’s young as Spring yet old as time face compelling.
American Psycho, the Musical is the story of Patrick Bateman, a rich and handsome young man, with terrible taste in cheesy rock. He and his peers compete over the quality of their business cards and the women they go out with. My favourite evening on Twitter happened a couple of years ago when Mr Easton Ellis was thinking about writing a sequel to American Psycho. What music, he asked, would Patrick Bateman like now? The answer was Rhianna. Mr Bateman may commit terrible, bloody acts in 1980s Manhattan. We’re never quite sure if they’re only in his mind or not. They sing songs from the period and it was well performed, brightly lit and brilliantly staged with two revolving sections. Matt Smith spends some time walking around in only his boxer shorts. In Doctor Who his limbs ware skinny and palest white, his chest that of a fourteen year old. But it is a wonder to me that actors can so literally transform their bodies and so quickly. For this performance, only months after his last as the Doctor, Mr Smith was buff. I cried at the end. It’s about an empty man in an empty world, what other response is there? The seats at the Almeida are the most uncomfortable I’ve ever sat on.
After it finished we all went into the large bar at the theatre for New Year’s Eve. There was a good crowd and quite a hubbub when Mr Smith joined us. People crowded around him wanting things. Their picture with him? A limb? I don’t know. I waited for the attention to subside. I saw Mr Smith talking to just one person in a corner of the room. I am not normally given to approaching actors, but I wanted his picture for my project 999 Faces, (Mostly Human). I apologised for intruding. He was sweet and lovely about it. I told him how much I’d enjoyed the show and how good I’d thought everyone in it had been. I meant it, too. He thanked me. I told him I’d cried at the end, at the idea of an empty life in an empty world. Aww, he sympathised, and stroked my upper arm! He was charm itself when I asked to take his picture. He smiled and put his thumb up, in a slightly cheesey manner, maybe. I thanked him, said how brilliant it was, but could I just take one more, this time with him looking at the camera like he wanted to murder it. Oh, no no no no, he blustered. He turned his head away for a second, then turned back, looking exactly like he wanted to kill my camera. I took the picture, thanked him, squeezed his beefy bicep, and left him to his evening. Yes, I did that. I squeezed Matt Smith’s beefy bicep.
The rest of the evening proceeded much as you would expect. There was drinking and laughing. There was even some dancing. I was having the best New Year’s Eve of my life. Around twelve everyone counted down to midnight. But what did it matter? So what if we missed the changing of the years? We had a Time Lord amongst us! And that’s why I love Matt Smith.