One for pauper-gawpers: Faith, Hope and Charity at the National reviewed

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

Tony Hawks’s musical, Midlife Cowboy, has transferred from Edinburgh to the Pleasance, Islington. At press night, the comedy elite showed up (Andy Hamilton, Angus Deayton, Caroline Quentin, Alistair McGowan) to see Hawks playing a songwriter, Stuart, whose marriage is on the rocks. To revive his love life, Stuart puts his wife in charge of the country-and-western club they jointly own, and the story follows the travails of their in-house band as they seek glory in a local talent contest.

The cast, led by Hawks, are skilful musicians with oodles of charm but the narrative is short of high stakes and surprises. The script might be punchier. Sample gag: Stuart reacts to a proposal he mistrusts. ‘I’m like a native American. I have reservations.’ Not a bad joke but more are needed. Hawks’s comedy mates should have a flip through the text and contribute half a dozen gags each. Fifty quid a pop. The show would then be ten times funnier.

It’s amazing how often a musical is marred by the writer’s overambition. Hawks has created the storyline, the dialogue, the lyrics and the music. He’s also the producer, director and star. Has anyone played so many roles in one show in the history of musical theatre? Hits aren’t made by solo talents but by collaborators. If he were to turn a classic play or novel into a musical he’d benefit from a pre-existing audience. That’s where the gold lies. His outstanding gift is as a tunesmith. The melodies he writes are constantly moving in strange directions and yet they always feel right in the end. His harmonies are as deft and complex as Noel Gallagher’s. Anyone managing a pop act would do well to rummage through Hawks’s back catalogue and plunder its treasures. There must be hits galore there.

The Dominion hosts a musical, Big, based on the Tom Hanks movie of 1988. A 12-year-old boy finds himself trapped in a man’s body and he lands a job as head of development at a failing toy firm. He’s approached by an ambitious blonde but their romance falters because the kid hasn’t a clue about the practicalities of dating and sex. The comedy comes across well in this ultra-slick and visually dazzling production. Goofily charming Jay McGuiness does good work as the body-swap kid and he’s blessed with a lovely singing voice and a huge range. I went with my 13-year-old son who didn’t ask me a single question until the curtain call — an infallible sign of rapt absorption. And the off-beat storyline about an unfulfilled affair enabled us to talk obliquely about romance without getting into the ickier details. An absolute gift for parents of young teens.

Faith, Hope and Charity is set in a soup kitchen in east London where volunteers help the local population of simpletons, outpatients and ragamuffins to look after themselves. The show, by Alexander Zeldin, aims for absolute naturalism and it achieves this goal with such aplomb that it’s hard at first to believe this is a play and not a glimpse of reality. The characters he creates are completely baffled by the ordinary challenges of life. They can just about get out of bed and put on their clothes but that’s it. They rely on their more talented neighbours to cook them lunch. The menu — tinned spaghetti and a biscuit — is regarded as a gourmet feast.

Several of the banqueters are corpulent and they evidently visit the soup kitchen for social reasons rather than to forestall starvation. Nearly all of them are unfailingly supportive of the others. Barely a cross word is spoken. And that’s where the show does depart from reality. Everyone exists in a vapour of honeyed altruism. A matronly figure opines that wildlife documentaries are popular because ‘animals look after each other’. Really? Don’t animals kill and eat each other? On Christmas Day, some friendly Muslims arrive and distribute cakes to their Christian neighbours. Someone starts a choir and the performers deliver a note-perfect a capella version of a pop song after just a few hours’ practice.

Occasionally there’s a joke. An eccentric who talks to himself non-stop observes that ‘talking to yourself is the first sign of madness’. The crowd at the Dorfman hooted with laughter at that one. I failed to join in the merriment. Living in Tower Hamlets, I see damaged outcasts like this shuffling past my window every day. I’m never tempted to swing by their lunch club, let alone to hobnob with the membership. I bet the pauper-gawpers at the NT would share that sentiment, although few would admit it in public.

The skilful naturalism of the show conceals the socioeconomic reality: a middle-class audience has hired a troupe of actors (who are also middle class) to pose as impoverished dropouts for a night of escapist amusement. This is a zoo. It leaves a bad taste.

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