The Fantasticks – Trying to remember, and trying to forget. (Theatre Review)
11 – 31 January
The Hayes Theatre Company
Photo credit: Marnya Rothe
There are many things to love about the Helen Dallimore directed The Fantasticks currently showing at The Hayes Theatre, that oh-so-unfashionable story about two neighbouring fathers who use reverse psychology to get their children to fall in love across a large fence they constructed to keep the pair apart. The two fathers are Garry Scale and Lawrence Coy, parents respectively of Bobbie-Jean Henning and Jonathan Hickey, who play a perfectly heteronomative sweet girl and boy. Overseeing the narrative as its flows is Martin Crews as The Narrator and also El Gallo who personifies the bad boy of every little bourgeois girls dreams.
Despite such a wonderful cast, the biggest reason to see The Fantasticks is the music. The pared down electronic guitar of Glenn Moorehouse and keyboard by Hayden Barltrop give the old-fashioned play a contemporary edge and sets it in a swirling, empty romance that becomes dark and lonely with the slightest of plot twists. A particularly beautiful moment of introspection sees a mute Moorehouse on the stage observing the players as they revolve around him, entering and exiting as if the journey of life were happening through him and before us. Moorehouse’s guitar is a strong lone voice in a musical where the performers aren’t microphoned, and the sound of its singular cry makes one realise too rarely in theatre are we drawn to consideration of the lone voice of a perfect instrument. Dressed in his metal fan garb, Moorehouse rounds out the play’s travel through time, and calls forth a rare vision among all the nostalgia. This rock infused nuance is extended to the opening number. Having grown up with parents crooning “Try to Remember” on repeat at various intervals in my youth, Martin Crewes’ deconstructed version that is almost shouted at the audience as he blends his role as narrator and El Gallo, is a thrilling surprise. He comes in with a more lilting version at the end, but the off-kilter power of his shodowy rendition is a strong start to the play, giving lots of anchor points for the darker aspects of The Fantasticks, so obvious all these years later, to hit the light.
The music also gives rise to the play’s off-Broadway aesthetic, that anything-can-happen shambolic wildness that is all too tempered by the show’s wise-audience-happy-ending. Dallimore retains that indie feel by moving her players around the small world they inhabit rather than having the world move around them. The set by Hugh O’Connor is one of the play’s strengths, being light and breezy when it needs and equally dark and imposing at other times. Christopher Page’s lighting is kept stark and simple which assists in the indie feel, an ominous EXIT sign flickering on and off as doors to freedom are closed. All in all it has the makings of a wonderfully dark version of The Fantasticks, that hits the spot more than it misses.
With one exception.
Its difficult to see a modern-day version of The Fantasticks without addressing one of the musical’s central controversies, a song titled “It Depends on what you Pay.” The song involves Father number one (Garry Scale) and father number two (Lawrence Coy) planning a fake abduction of the girl (without telling her its fake of course) so that her young lover can rescue her, thereby bringing their romance into the light and giving the fathers reason to bestow their blessing. At its most innocent two fathers are fabricating life experience in the hope of creating a happy ending for their children that will have them by-pass all the pain of real lived experience. But at its worst, the audience is forced to sit through an entire song sung by three older men who are tittering and giggling about rape.
In the 1960’s, when Tom Jones wrote the play, rape meant what rape means today – though Jones tries to fob this offence off by claiming he meant rape in terms of abduction, as used in poems like “The Rape of the Lock” in 1712. Unfortunately writers like The Marquis de Sade in the early 1800 and ever after, codified the term to mean precisely what we (and the 1970’s feminists who brought rape culture to the fore) know it to mean today. To imagine an audience, contemporary or 1960’s, will understand “rape” to mean “bride abduction” is as silly as expecting an audience to hear “Naughty” as “naught in the pocket” or “poor” which is the etymology of that word.
Unfortunately it is clear from the context of The Fantasticks, that in 1960 Tom Jones simply thought three men singing a funny song about faking the abduction of a sixteen year old girl was made saucier if they called it a “rape” rather than an “abduction.” The inclusion of a painful explanatory note in the play doesn’t help the situation, but rather draws attention to the fact that the writer knows he’s in dubious territory. No doubt tired of repeating his ludicrous explanation, and probably growing less convinced by it himself, Tom Jones wrote an alternative in 1990 that for some reason Helen Dallimore has chosen not to use in this version of the play. “It Depends on what you Pay” is such a blunt instrument, that the delicate and clever nuances of the rest of the play are all but lost in an ocean of struggle to cope with the silliness of one song that needs to be permanently cut. I for one was disturbed by the song, and the older couple next to me who shifted uncomfortably in their seats didn’t come back after interval.
One expects that the theatre is the place where we can have all sorts of discussions and no topic is taboo, but its also reasonable to expect we have a warning. The Fantasticks does warn you that there will be smoke machines used and we’d also be told if there were strobe lights or cigarette smoke. Perhaps a warning that one of the songs contains the word “rape” thirty-eight times sung in a comic context by three men wouldn’t be out of place? We’re warned when plays depict strong themes like child abuse, or concentration camps. A few notes of explanation around the foyer would not go astray here.
It’s a shame, because what is set up with great subtlety in The Fantasticks and the way this production makes its own sport from the original have great potential and are lots of fun at times. It’s just that song gets in the way.