A Chorus Line: London Palladium: Theatre Review

Kat Pope June 11, 2013

Chorus Line

A West End musical only two thirds full on a Friday night set the alarm bells ringing. Word had perhaps got around town but had missed tourist ears, as there was a frothing Babel drifting all round us at the Palladium.

A Chorus Line is a seminal Pulitzer Prize-winning show which changed the face of Broadway musicals for a while in the heady days of the 1970s. Rather than the set pieces of the traditional musical, it follows a troupe of disparate aspiring dancers through the fraught auditions for a, ha!, Broadway musical using a continuous narrative, a running together of songs, stories and, of course, hoofing.

The show began life as an Off Broadway workshopped piece, the brainchild of Michael Bennett (and others if you believe the lawsuits). Using tape recordings of the stories of the humble lives of the backing dancers, their hopes and fears, the piece was stitched together as it was developed.

Word soon spread of the originality of the piece when it was still in its 299 seat East Village public theatre. It soon transferred to Broadway, ending it’s first incarnation in 1990 after a record 3,388 shows.

This is its first West End revival since the 70s and I’m afraid it’s clear to see why it took them so long, for despite the universality of the piece’s subject matter (‘the theatre of dreams’) it’s the very definition of a ‘period piece’. And despite the kudos attached to getting it directed by one of the original production’s co-choreographers (Bob Avian) and choreographed by one of the original leads in the show (Baayork Lee), it doesn’t help its dated feel.

Firstly, the stage of the Palladium is waaaay too big for it. Yes, when the 19 auditionees line up on stage linearly, they fill it, but when moving around, they get lost. Despite all the dancing there’s no upward thrust to the production, and put together with a stark black stage, the action all appears on one plane and on one level. Even when the mirrors at the back of the stage are made use of, it still feels flat, static.

And then there’s the lighting. Stark isn’t the word: it’s retina-destroying. It’s either quintessentially 70s coloured-gel disco style which drenches the figures on stage, or it’s a bare white/yellow spotlight picking up either the face or the whole body of a performer. The spotlight then lingers for such a long period on one person that you find yourself seeing a glowing halo of white fuzz around them. This isn’t pleasant and it happens far too many times for comfort. The lighting deadens everything. I can see how this would have been daring and groundbreaking in the original, but it adds nothing now. Audiences are used to more.

The story is so bare that’s it’s almost not there. Choreographer and control freak Zach (John Partridge) is auditioning dancers for a new musical. He needs to whittle them down to eight. To do this he choses the X-Factor way of Ritual Humiliation By Backstory.

Partridge, billed as the lead, is actually offstage for more of the show than he’s onstage. We see him leading the rehearsals at the top of the show but then he disappears only to turn up as a disembodied voice creepily giving directions and goading the dancers into telling their stories. It sounds like he’s behind the audience: it sounds like he’s the Wizard of bloody Oz. It’s an odd – and again, dated – device, but it’s an integral part of the show so can’t be altered. What could have been was the way it was delivered. Partridge sounds plain stalkerish when asking the dancers “tell me about your childhood” in a voice devoid of emotion. I ‘get’ that he’s trying to strip them bare to find out which ones have the best temperament for the job at hand, but he probes and pokes and virtually bullies them like a puppet-master wanting his employees to dance for his own entertainment.

We do get one short glimpse later on explaining that he’s so driven by his work that everything else goes by the board, including his one-time relationship with Cassie, a girl he just won’t pick for the chorus because he thinks she’s too good for it.

Anyway, on Zack bounds again well into the second half, and he feels like a stranger.

“At first I thought we were in the wrong show,” piped up my son Sid as we walked out. “It didn’t look at all like its poster. Blokey wasn’t in it much and there were no sparkly costumes til right at the end” and I couldn’t disagree. The poster shows Partridge bang in the middle of a chorus line, gold sparkles radiating out. The show? Very little Partridge and one bespangled showstopper of a number right at the end of the show. It didn’t really make much sense at all.

But does the show work in and of itself? Well, no. The monologues go on for far too long, the dancing and singing is frankly a bit shonky in places and, most importantly, I couldn’t have given a rat’s arse about any of the characters. Not one, despite the incontinent backstory outpourings.

Even the gay characters, who were a real leap forward in the 70s by being out and (sometimes) proud, were simply dull and when one fell over hurting his knee I thought “Ah ha! Here comes the drama!” but I kept thinking that all the way to the end when the show’s one number that everyone knows – One (Singular Sensation) – kept revving up and puttering out, revving up and puttering out, revving up and puttering out. “Oh do get on with it!” I thought as the woman next to me tucked into yet another bag of crisps.

Despite not enjoying being transported back to the Decade of Disco, there was one 70s little touch that I did love: the chunky thighs and slightly wobbly tummies of the women in the chorus line. They all looked pleasingly different, all pleasingly themselves. And that’s something we definitely need more of in the West End. Just cut out the redundant revivals please.

Two and a half stars

Event: A Chorus Line
Where: London Palladium, Argyll Street, London W1F 7TF
When: Booking until January 2014
Tickets: view or no booking fee in person