When it was good, it was very, very good, and when it was bad it was torrid. Decades before the shamelessly, if entertainingly, overwrought August: Osage County – or, as I think of it, Kentucky Fried Chekhov – the hitherto barely known Beth Henley bagged the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Drama with her southern-gothic-three-sisters Crimes of the Heart.
Despite juicy roles for women, after its UK premiere at London’s Bush Theatre the play never really found its footing here. That may have been down to Bruce Beresford’s perilously overheated 1986 movie starring Jessica Lange, Diane Keaton and Sissy Spacek, at least one of whose work could be filed under the title ‘never knowingly underplayed’.
Interviewed three years later and asked if there wasn’t someone on set who could have stopped everything spiralling so far up into fevered melodrama, Lange giggled: “You mean like the Taste Patrol?”
Now there’s an idea. Watching some of the more misbegotten theatre of the past decades, I admit to impious moments when I’ve thought the Taste Patrol might be a good idea. Terrible theatrical choices could have been avoided. Ironically, I was reminded of that when Oliver Dowden announced that theatres will be allowed to reopen from August.
Obviously, it’s news we’ve hungered for, but given that socially distanced audiences means covering costs, let alone turning a profit, is an impossibility for almost all theatres, Dowden’s announcement strikes me as being (let’s be generous) guilty of something between naivety and sophistry. Mainstream theatre needs a vaccine before it can return.
Yet when it does, I’m secretly planning on forming the Taste Patrol to guide best practice in commercial theatre. Be warned: we shall be stern.
For the first few weeks, audiences will be understandably elated by the return of theatre and joyous standing ovations will occur spontaneously. After that, the Patrol insists they must cease unless performances have been so utterly outstanding that audiences cannot help but be upstanding.
The Tingle factor
Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings has been shamelessly used in countless films from The Elephant Man to Kevin and Perry Go Large via Platoon. Theatre is often no better. Coasting on the emotional effect of pre-existing music rather than working with living composers should cease. The Patrol will generously allow things like Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus for comic effect, but that’s it. Dozens of freelance theatre composers are eager for work.
Pack it in
Designer Christine Jones and the creative team made magic with suitcases in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child but the Patrol believes that should be the end of this trope. Yes, they’re portable, can be easily repositioned and are a metaphor for, ahem, ‘going on a journey’, but from Nicholas Nickleby to Simon Russell Beale’s Hamlet and beyond: enough with the luggage.
The theatre equivalent of screen actors who selfishly and needlessly pause… in the middle… of lines… in order to overextend their close-ups. On stage, actors pull focus and clutch the mantelpiece (or designer’s equivalent) in anguish to milk their moments while selfishly leaving other actors stranded.
Playwrights: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” is a terrific opening line to Rebecca. Elsewhere, recounting dreams is almost always a clichéd, lazily expository way of allowing otherwise underwritten characters to voice something, usually subtext, that the writer doesn’t know how else to achieve.
Enough plays have been built around the Eurovision Song Contest. I should know: I co-produced one. No more. Exception: please can someone revive the insanely underrated, gloriously silly Eurobeat, which wowed on the fringe but unaccountably flopped in town despite Mel Giedroyc being hysterical in gold lamé?
The only time I’ve seen The Taming of the Shrew close to working was Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female version at Shakespeare’s Globe, which seriously upended audiences’ expectations. Would anyone suffer if the Patrol placed a 10-year moratorium on new productions of the impossible play? Likewise, all-male Shakespeare productions. Allegedly, they shed new light on the gender politics. New? For more than 50 years, directors have done this to death. See also – or, rather, don’t – male Lady Bracknells.
On a more positive note, the Patrol declares: