‘Tell Me’ the time

LONDON — The early reviews are in for “Tell Me on a Sunday,” the revised musical version of what began in 1981 in the theater as the sung version of Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s “Song and Dance,” a show that later traveled to Broadway, winning Bernadette Peters the first of her two Tonys.

A transatlantic journey might not be so wise the second time around. Of the April 15 West End premiere at the Gielgud, with local TV name Denise Van Outen playing the lovesick Englishwoman who has a luckless time of it in New York, Michael Billington in the Guardian wrote: “(This is) a slight piece scarcely rendered more plausible by the sassy, sexy Van Outen.” He gave the Lloyd Webber-Don Black collaboration two stars out of five.

The Independent’s Rhoda Koenig found the solo evening “soulless and vulgar,” adding, “Matthew Warchus asked to direct it. I can only ask, Why?”

One would expect a better response from the tabloids — their readership, after all, is Essex girl Van Outen’s constituency. And so it proved. While calling the material “light (and) trite,” the Evening Standard’s Nick Curtis fell hard for Van Outen, calling her “a fully fledged theatrical trouper.”

Simon Edge in the Daily Express wrote: “You get a hell of a lot of Denise for your dollar — and her fans will not be disappointed.”

Elsewhere, while the Mail raved and the Mirror reviled, what no one could agree on was the actual length of the performance. Is it 70 minutes (Express) or 75 (Mail, Guardian) or 80 (Standard) or a generous 90 (Mirror)? (The Independent didn’t hazard a guess.) Those planning to attend might want to take a stopwatch.

MIRTH-FREE “MADNESS”

If satire — as the saying famously goes — is what closes on Saturday night, the mystery surrounding “The Madness of George Dubya” is how this series of puerile potshots masquerading as genuine anti-Bush/Blair outrage ever made it through to Monday. Amazingly, writer-director Justin Butcher‘s play is now on its third London venue, having done the North London “fringe” circuit before opening April 7 at the Arts Theater in the center of town.

The war, at that point, was in full roar, which makes Butcher’s feeble japery all that much more dispiriting to those liberal-minded audience members among whom most London theater critics, I imagine, would count themselves. Yoking bits and pieces from “Dr. Strangelove” to the decades-old drollery of songwriter Tom Lehrer, “Madness” finds a none-too-beloved (by me, anyway) U.S. president clutching his teddy bear as he wages war on “Iraqistania.” (The jumbled name is actually one of the play’s funnier gags, suggesting a leader who regards anything beyond American shores as merely one large linguistic confusion.)

With its references to “Guacamole Bay” and “Gerry Saddams,” the play lets its malapropisms run riot, while co-directors Butcher and Andy Harrison allow the same from a generally hapless cast. It’s hard to know whom to cringe for most — Lindsay Ellis, the company’s lone female, playing Yasmina, the Al Q’aeda cleaner. (At one point, she bursts into “The Rain in Spain.” Why? Who knows.) Or Rupert Mason, whose Wafiq Dizeez (sic) stops the play stone-cold in act two with a morally unimpeachable, theatrically deadening diatribe that elicits cheers and whistles from a clearly already converted, as it were, crowd.

While Thomas Arnold‘s Dubya strikes one expression of bewilderment throughout, “Madness” serves up a lone casting coup in Nicholas Burns‘ Tony Blear (sic again). Remarking toward the end of act one, “I say this to you now,” newcomer Burns captures not only the British prime minister’s speech rhythms but even the gleam in Blair’s eye.

That aside, it’s difficult to know what to make of a seemingly boundless London appetite for convenient anti-American agitprop, as anyone who sat through Michael Moore‘s astonishingly lazy solo show last fall at the Roundhouse will surely recall. All the more reason, then, to lament a level of satire from Butcher for which collegiate is way too kind a word.

Apparently, the author wrote the play in three days. You can tell.

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