Theatrical Throwback: a negative show experience can sometimes be a memorable one

Early on in my fall 2004 London studies, I got to know the West End’s equivalent of the TKTS booth in New York City. The British version is located in Leicester Square, the heart of central London, and, at the time, advertised its daily deals using a mix of paper and digital advertising. (I would assume they are all digital by this point in time.)

One day I “went round” as they say in London and saw that there was a 10 pound ticket deal for a show that night. I hadn’t yet equated that the price of the ticket was a fair judgement in quality, and so I purchased the ticket for Murderous Instincts: The Salsa Musical. Over the course of the day I became aware — maybe I saw a feature article or two — that the musical had been in “development hell” and wasn’t expected to be well – received. I think I had a few misgivings about going to the performance, but ultimately decided to attend. After all, it was at the Savoy, a storied location in London, and had to have some redeeming qualities, right?

I went.

murderousinstincts04What a train wreck! The musical closed not long after that night, and I was slightly embarrassed to have bothered to attend. Despite the artistic troubles, or perhaps because of them, they had a large advertising budget, and I remember it took some time for their posters to disappear from the several Tube stations I’d seen them in.

For some reason, now 10 years later, I can still clearly recall a handful of moments and brief musical snippets from the show. Was it so bad it was good? An oddly fascinating experience to see such a messy show in the West End? Apparently the star, Nichola McAuliffe, referenced the experience in a later book. One review expressed the broad negative sentiment.

I’m sure these lasting memories of Murderous Instincts are some version of “can you believe that! I can’t either, but I can still tell you about it.” I wish that I hadn’t bothered to see that particular musical, but it was a great learning exercise about the quality of productions and an early clue about the relationship of production, marketing and PR.


The shadow of the pearl earring

firth johannsonThis weekend I had the opportunity to see current cinematic work from onetime costars Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson (again) – pictured at left while they were promoting their film Girl with a Pearl Earring in 2003, with Johansson looking noticeably younger – she was only 19 at the time!

While I saw Johansson’s latest film Under The Skin first, followed by Gambit with Firth, I’ll discuss them in opposite order, as I feel there is more to say about Under The Skin.

So, Gambit. Umm… not quite sure why I caught this one, aside from it being one of three films that were all showing at the Birmingham 8 last night that I was interested in, and I arrived too late for the other two…so I found myself in Cinema Two sitting down for a British comedy, written by the Coen Brothers.

Firth, who seems to have had a case of “I’ve won the Oscar, now what?/how do I live up to these high expectations?” (IMO) over the past few years, stars as Harry Deen, a meek art curator in London who, with an elder colleague (Tom Courtneay) comes up with a high – concept scheme to dupe his boss (Alan Rickman) into believing a piece of fake art is real. They decide that their plan will have to work with the cooperation of a frothy Texas belle (Cameron Diaz…) who comes to London after their initial legwork – and the stage is set from there. Among the featured actors, the film also includes supporting work from Stanley Tucci, doing a slight variation on his Devil Wears Prada character that generated a career renaissance, several Japanese actors, and a bizarre cameo from veteran actress Cloris Leachman.

Given this level of talent, why is this film receiving a tiny US release 18 months after it premiered in the UK? I can’t give specific reasons here, but I’m sure that the film did not turn out the way the producers might have been hoping for. It seems an oddly difficult sell, in that it’s supposed to take place in the modern era but clearly wears its 1960s origins (from the original movie) on its sleeve, and Diaz and Firth don’t really gel well as an onscreen couple.

To confound matters further, Firth’s “good guy” plot proves to be less interesting than the angle afforded to Rickman’s character, and Rickman chews up the screen in a portrayal not that far away from his real self, based on how I observed him on one memorable instance at a London theatre in 2004, which would be a great blog entry sometime.

Once her character is allowed to calm down, Diaz acquits herself solidly, though I found it hard to shake the seeming incongruity of seeing her very American presence alongside two very British actors.

Everything comes to a head in the film’s best sequence, an extended interlude at London’s Savoy Hotel (where I once attended a terrible yet oddly memorable theatre performance that would also be worth a blog entry) where all the characters collide and engage in the most heightened forms of physical and situational comedy. British actress Selina Cadell, who taught some of my classmates in our London theatre acting program, also appears in this part of the film.

I haven’t mentioned the Coen brothers contributing to the script – and they are the sole credited screenwriters – and I guess I felt that the dialogue was sharp, but not stupendous, and especially with their high profile involvement I wonder why they are not saying more about the project.

This may well be a case of more intrigue existing behind the scenes than what the audience sees in the finished product. I’d say it’s highly likely that the film will quickly appear in DVD bins as if it just floated there. But the film’s Wikipedia page gives some insight into its troubled production history, and while the actors probably won’t say much (if anything) about it, I’m sure it will take its place as a curious career anomaly for Firth, Diaz and Rickman.


I think I’ll save a post on Under the Skin until tomorrow….