The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester; Wednesday 5th December, 2018
Dress it up, re-word it, set it out in any font and typeset that you like: the scene listing and plotline summary of Mel Brooks’ The Producers reads like something out of a Daily Mail headline article.
Originally created in 1967 as a film, the stage production is a lift-and-shift of the original story line and concept – namely that of a failing New York theatre producer’s bizarre plot to get rich quick by deliberately staging a bad play. The transition to a stage version faithfully adheres to the original story line and adds a very large portion of big-band musicality, along with plenty of showbusinessy razzmatazz.
The Producers is an inside job – a theatre show about a theatre show. Some of the jokes are genuinely funny and the overall spectacle is thoroughly entertaining. But there’s no getting away from the fact that the core ingredient is shock: this is a show that deliberately attacks the conventions and pretences of theatre, and a lot more else.
Brooks’ send-up of Nazi Germany is extreme, though not too surprising when you consider that he served on the front lines in World War Two. In the Royal Exchange, Dale Meeks gives a brilliantly over-the-top portrayal of the deranged playwright, dressed in his lederhosen with a tin hat and his booming military voice. Meeks delivers an outrageously eccentric caricature, though it’s one which manages to also still exude the neurotic unpleasantness of what it represents.
Nazi-bashing might still be perfectly fine fifty years on from when this story line was first created but there are two other forms of depiction that don’t sit right at all.
The first is the incredibly camp characterisation of the failed New York theatre director Roger De Bris and his partner Carmen Ghia. Both parts are brilliantly well played but they seem to be presented as the most extremely camp and flamboyant homosexual couple that could ever be possible – something just doesn’t feel right about laughing at / with a very camp gay man simply because his over-the-top gayness is amusing to us all.
And even worse is the portrayal of women: the sleazy producers in question admit early on that they’re scheming to exploit rich old women sexually in order to gain money to then exploit better-looking younger women sexually. And when the enigmatic Swedish actress Ulla Inga Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden Swanson arrives on the scene, not only do we have to contend with stereotyping by nationality but rather more disturbingly we’re presented with the spectacle of two sleazy theatre producers (successfully) taking full advantage of a younger woman trying to further her career.
All of which led to an interesting observation towards the end of the show: most of my fellow audience members seemed to be howling with laughter at the sight of dancers forming a giant Nazi swastika; gay men dancing in PVC trunks and knee-high boots; sexy ladies wiggling their bums making sex-crazed men lose their minds; etc. But I just couldn’t get involved in any of that.
I know it’s meant to be a bit of fun but I just didn’t feel it, and the reason is simple. Back in the day it definitely would not have been OK to for anyone in this audience to have howled with laughter as Bernard Manning did his racist and sexist routines at The Embassy in Harpurhey. If that was to be frowned upon then why is entertainment based upon such material deemed far more acceptable when presented tastefully in the form of high art in a city centre theatre?
The Producers seems to have properly triggered me. Earlier this year, I felt exactly the same way about Miss Saigon at The Palace – another example of a stunningly-well presented piece of theatre mounted on an incredibly offensive premise that really should have just been left in the past.
To give credit where it’s due, The Royal Exchange’s Christmas 2018 production of The Producers is a very good-looking and good-sounding piece of theatre that will presumably provide plenty of festive cheer for audiences in the coming weeks. But I’m one festive snowflake who has to admit to not finding the concept of it particularly amusing – I’ll be hoping that Santa delivers something slightly more original in the new year.
Headline font and typesetting: The Daily Mail Online
|Visual pleasure||Some beautiful effects in the Royal Exchange’s round setting with the bizarre sight of pro-Nazi signage and props being lowered from above to rather amusing effect. The costumery is incredible, not just in terms of what was being worn but the pace at which some of the changes took place in order to keep the performance flowing as well as it did.||4|
|Auditory pleasure||A superb musical score with singing and dancing that was virtually flawless. Made all the more impressive by the fact that musical accompaniment was provided by a live band.||5|
|Architecture & Theme||The story line and plot are very well laid out and despite the implausibility of it all the show as a whole moves along nicely. But there’s no denying the awkward uncomfortableness of some of what this show portrays.
At almost three hours it is too long. Parts of the longer first half in particular seemed to suffer from the usual problem of musicals: the dreaded songs that seem to be added as gratuitous fillers – unnecessary add-ins which seemed to disrupt the flow rather than enhance it.
|Artistic delivery||Outstanding performances from what was a very large cast. Star of the show was Stuart Neal in the role of the hapless accountant Leo Bloom – a character that slowly transformed from a hapless buffoon into a surprisingly assertive and manipulative schemer.||5|
|Overall impact||As an entertainment spectacle and as a night out at the theatre this is a brilliant show – but for me it carries a little bit too much unpleasantness in the unchallenged sexism which I just couldn’t bring myself to be involved in.||3|
|0||Detrimental – This aspect of the performance was so bad that it made the overall experience worse|
|1||Weak – This aspect of the performance was poor|
|2||Adequate – This aspect of the performance was perfectly acceptable, though nothing special|
|3||Good – This aspect of the performance was above average, it pleased in some way|
|4||Excellent – This aspect of the performance was much better than normal, it was impressive|
|5||Awe-inspiring – This aspect of the performance was exceptional, new boundaries were pushed.|