Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Coming out of The Producers much of the audience, especially the younger members, looked a little dazed. Was this show terrible or brilliant? Anyone whose seen the original movie, and managed to avoid the largely monstrous 2005 remake, will laugh knowingly, and explain how ironic that is. The film about a shockingly unpc musical, had itself become a shockingly un-pc musical: a smart-arse would tell you that was meta. The dude behind us, laughing uproariously, said to his wife/ partner/ sister/ whoever -who wasn’t, in a condescending, you just don’t get it, tone, “ach, it’s irreverent” and it is, like Jeremy Clarkson.
Here’s the thing, in 1967 The Producers, was a pretty edgy piece of cinema. A film about a bent Broadway Producer (not like that- as this Max Bialystock frequently points out) who corrupts impressionable accountant Leo Bloom (not like that, ditto: yawn) and convinces him they can swindle a bunch of cash if they put on a guaranteed flop. “Springtime for Hitler” is born. There’s a lot about this that was edgy in 1967, genuinely ad brilliantly irreverent: the war was a lot fresher in people’s minds, for one, and despite featuring what seem like incredibly tired clichés about homosexuality now (or should) must have been quite exciting glimpses into another life for some. Ultimately too, couple Roger Debris and Carmen Ghia are both are funny guys with great lines. They are ridiculed, yes but everyone is ridiculed equally, genuinely scathingly, audience included. And this equality of mockery, the idea that everyone, ultimately, is laughably tragic, was always at the heart of Brooks’ work. As a comedian in the 40’s, when everyone else was doing a snappy introductory number, bigging up their talents and what was to come, Brooks sang: “I’m just a ham, minus the looks, I’m here to stop the show, I’m Melvin Brooks.”
So anyway, awful or brilliant: the answer, definitely is both. Inseparably both. It was brilliant like a blood-diamond, glittering obscenely, distasteful and captivating. The set is amazing the costumes are beyond fabulous, the ticket price is worth is for the incredible costuming alone, you will be dazzled, and if you aren’t highly amused by the chorus girl’s alluring giant platinum sausages you have a hard heart indeed. And there is some excellent comic acting here. Phil Jupitus plays Franz Liebkind, the theatrical Nazi, in a fashion I loved, but reminded me somewhat of watching a staff member in a high school play: it as hard to tell if it was intrinsically funny, or only funny because he’s normally not got a German accent/ slapping bums, but teaching you double geography/ doing the Buzzcocks. Either way: hilarious. Jason Manford also reminds one of a teacher in a school play, but not for the same reasons. He is more the tragic teacher, the one who wants to be your best pal, and who everyone thinks is slightly tragic, and who puts their mouth too close when they talk to you, and their hot breath smells of cheese and onion pasties, and stale coffee, and self-hatred. The one who always took the lead part in whatever staff show was on the go, and obviously believed themselves to be a great undiscovered talent, and was wrong. He’s like a trout in a suit, Jason Manford, and it doesn’t matter that he can sing. He’s just awful, and strips all the charm from the character of Leo Bloom, a character we are supposed to empathise with, but in this production, is genuinely revolting.
Cory English is a lifelong theatrical actor, as opposed to one of those off-the-telly ones, and it shows. His Max Bialystok is a wonderful tribute to Zero Mostel’s original imagining, but also excellently sung. Engaging, energetic, and hilarious. Tiffany Graves is excellent as Ula, in that she is perky and stunning, and very bendy, and her Swedish accent is just as terrible as it should be. But the stand out star is David Bedella as Roger Debris: he is beyond fabulous, every line has extra punch, every dance move is chic and hilarious, he has poise, he has the most captivating smile: and he is such a brilliantly camp, stunningly bejewelled Hitler, that he sort of reminds you of the frivolity, of the power and genuine brilliance of the original.
Also brilliantly, this run of The Producers promoted itself in London, by turning up at UKIP party headquarters in full sequinned “keep it gay” goose-stepping Nazi-mode. Now there’s the sort of irreverence I can get behind. But the truth is, a lot of UKIP voters would love this incarnation of The Producers: it has more in common with, Mike Reid’s UKIP Calypso than is comfortable. Several times during the play, the punch-line is no more or less than a black person being black, many of the stock characters are so dated they seem to have wandered out of a seventies sitcom and become hopelessly lost. A kind critic would argue that the screamingly queeny, village-people populated depiction of the gay community is true to the original, but yet other stock characters of this sort have disappeared. Where is LSD, the character who so brilliantly satirised the flower-power hippy? Clearly it was decided that this character was too dated, but funny foreign accents are not, and the notion of the mincing, catty queen is still very much a winner. Its sort of galling that effeminate men are still up for ridicule, but Louis Spence as Carmen Chia, a man who exists merely to flounce, playing a man who exists merely to flounce, sort of hits you over the head with it.
Reviewer : Katie Craig