Tag Archives: Diane Paulus

“Waitress” at the Adelphi Theatre

Let the cooking puns commence: Sarah Bareilles’ Broadway hit has arrived in London. An appetite for the show is easy to understand – it has charm and a great leading lady. The story is an everyday tale from a female perspective with surprisingly gritty touches: a welcome change for such a crowd-pleasing, mainstream project. It’s essentially a show about motherhood, which makes it hard to knock and easy to be moved by. Nonetheless, Waitress is not to all tastes.

Despite efforts at realism showing life’s sour side, the show is (sorry) too sweet. Its ‘Queen of Kindness’ heroine Jenna fails to convince, despite Katharine McPhee’s efforts. Meanwhile her salt-of-the-earth friends, played by Marisha Wallace and Laura Baldwin, who sound fantastic, are sketchy characters. All these lives revolve around men – at least, until Jenna has a baby – and you don’t have to be much of a feminist to think that’s not good enough for 2019. Still, the trio are heart-warming, the performances winning, and the book from Jessie Nelson has a nice grasp on an early midlife crisis, alongside an interesting take on American ideals. In short, it’s not devoid of ideas.

The songs are good from the start and get better throughout. There’s an excellent main refrain and a stand-out number. A strong country music feel, with a touch of the musical Once, the score is by far the best thing about the show. And the delivery is superb. McPhee is visiting from the States and has real star quality. How much she overshadows everything else is a tricky issue – Jenna is a massive role and, ultimately to the show’s detriment, all the other characters feel insignificant. The humour is terrible: adolescent nudges at sex, a sassy African-American and couple of geeks are very dated. Diane Paulus’ direction is efficient and brisk but cannot gloss over the bad jokes.

A selection of dire roles for men makes you wonder if a point is being made about the poor parts women have had to suffer in the past. And none of the men performing helps give any role depth. There’s the odious husband who takes Jenna’s cash and demands she love him more than her unborn child, and the gynaecologist she has an affair with (in his consulting room… eek) and who loves her for her “sad eyes” – if your mother didn’t warn you about men who say that, let me take the opportunity to do so now. It’s no wonder this lot can be done away with so quickly, the question is why Jenna bothered with them in the first place. And that’s without adding the character sketches for her friends’ partners, who are also awful. Concluding with the owner of the diner Jenna works in, who ends up as her fairy godfather (sigh), the show’s wish- fulfilment ends up more than just silly. Jenna gets on in the world not through her cooking skills but by being the owner’s friend. Contrary to all intentions, we end up with a dumb waitress.

Until 19 October 2019


Photo by Johan Persson

“Hair” at the Gielgud Theatre

Hair is an important show. It was the first rock musical, first production to feature nudity on a British stage and the first US show to give equal billing to black performers. A huge success, it came to symbolise the counter culture movement of the late 1960s. Yet while the cast sing about the dawn of the age of Aquarius many astrologer’s say it happened in 1997. Hair might be important, but is it worth reviving?

New York’s Public Theater, who have arrived in London en masse, obviously think so. The energy and conviction of this production is clear from the start and it never wavers. This in itself is intoxicating. Add all the wonderful songs, skilfully orchestrated by their composer Galt MacDermot, with strong singers and you are sure to have a great night out.

Hair isn’t going to shock anymore. Actors taking off their clothes and swearing won’t even raise eyebrows. But director Diane Paulus knows this. The nudity is handled in a tasteful, almost dismissive way. The sexual explicitness is cleverly played for laughs. What Paulus seems to have used this bawdy content for it to bring together the huge cast so that they convincingly play ‘the tribe’ that Hair is all about – there is a fantastic sense of this group as a community.

This exploration of a society is more important than the plot, which after all is thin. Claude, played by Gavin Creel, is about to be drafted. A modern day Hamlet, he finds his obligations pressing down on him as his youth comes to an end. Responsibilities weigh on him to the extent that he wants to become invisible – his particular articulation that his too solid flesh should melt. Creel is outstanding in portraying this angst and his character’s journey. That’s a big achievement given the similarly gifted performers who share the stage.

Will Swenson’s Berger has the crowd on side from the first with some inspired adlibbing. His physicality and almost animal presence make his role as the tribe’s resident stud entirely believable. (I always suspected some people did better out of free love than others and now I have proof). As a further qualification for the role he has magnificent hair. Shining, gleaming, streaming hair – which he puts to great use. It almost made me wish I still had long hair myself. And there would have been plenty of opportunities to join in. The cast are continually addressing and mingling with the audience. There is even the chance to go on stage at the end (albeit with health and safety restrictions dutiful observed). Although all this running around can seem slightly lost in the Edwardian grandeur of the Gielgud, it’s a great deal of fun and a real crowd pleaser.

What’s important about all this audience participation is that the emphasis is on sharing – the tribe want us to experience with them. This makes the evening joyous and also, as Claude’s story comes to its end, surprisingly poignant. Although contemporary events are never alluded to, the fashion in soldiers’ uniforms doesn’t change much and it must be in everyone’s mind that young Americans are still dying in battle today.

It’s easy to knock the hippies. If you aren’t a child of the baby boomers then those lauding the 60s can seem annoyingly insistent. Even if the spirit that Hair embodies so well can sometimes seem naïve, this revival serves to make us question any superiority we might slip into. Are we really more rebellious than those who broke down so much social conformism? The question becomes; how does the age of Aquarius that we live in compare to the one that was so compellingly sought.

Until 4 September 2010

Photo by Joan Marcus

Written 19 April 2010 for The London Magazine