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Phil Willmott

Review MAN OF LA MANCHA at the London Coliseum

Man of La Mancha The annual star led musical at the London Coliseum has quickly become a tradition and a treat ensuring busy sales at a venue which otherwise splutters intermittently to life with short runs of opera and ballet for most of the year. Currently in residence for a month is Kelsey Grammer in the title role of 1965’s Tony award winning musical, MAN OF LA MANCHA.

We’ve see Grammer relatively recently in BIG FISH at the Other Palace and this is a comparatively unknown “classic” unseen in London for 50 years and so it’s quite a bold choice as a potential box-office blockbuster.

And yet this ought to be the perfect time for a revival. It concerns a befuddled old man who imagines himself a knight and strides out treating everyone so chivalrously that their mockery turns to affection until eventually they wish real life could be as the noble as old boy sees it.

One could argue that it’s exactly this craving for the moral certainties of myth and honour that drive so many of us to wallow in GAME OF THRONES and the Marvel universe amidst out dangerous and unpredictable world. So I’m sad to report that the show doesn’t really catch fire as it should in this production.

It has three BIG unforgettable anthems and I defy you not to come out humming the title song or the stirring IMPOSSIBLE DREAM and when these are sung the whole piece threatens excitingly to take flight. But then we’re back to the very plodding script, delivered slowly and tentatively by this uncertain cast.

Grammer is very good with terrific stage presence, a strong enough singing voice to do the score justice and a beautiful down-beat melancholy, but no one else stands much of a chance with the thin material the secondary characters are given and which make it so hard to care less about what happens to them.

It doesn’t help that it’s a show within a show with an unnecessary framing device that see Kramer’s character imprisoned for reasons that are unclear, and forced to enact the knights story before a jury of his fellow prisoners. It’s something to do with the Spanish Inquisition but if you know as little about that period of history as I do this makes no impact.

The director Lonny Price tries for some contemporary relevance by putting the prisoners in hoodies but this seems to muddy things even further, and to serve the “in-jail” convention the stage doesn’t really open up beyond the grey prison walls.

All this meant it was good thirty minutes before I could stop trying to work out what everything meant and what the stakes were and could emotionally engage with the story. By this time, for me, it was too late and I could only view events dispassionately. A long patch of similar sounding, slow-tempo and underwhelming songs compounded my disinterest and I began to yearn for it all to be over.

Vivacious opera star Danielle de Niese lights up the stage as the sassy “tart with a heart” tavern wench who first finds wisdom in the knight’s words but her rival suitors are so undefined and the tavern-brawl sequences so limp that her efforts are in vain.

The always wonderful Peter Polycarpou and national TV treasure Nicholas Lyndhurst are cast and wasted as two, low life, potentially comic characters; a cuddly servant and a bumbling inn-keeper, who are never given enough material to make sufficient impact.

The musical arrangements of Mitch Leigh intermittently brilliant score sound terrific when played by the ENO orchestra conducted by David White. Unfortunately the shimmering concoction of earthy brass, soaring stings and flamenco guitars simply reinforces how dull the rest of it is.

An agreeable enough star turn from Kelsey Grammer in an otherwise disappointing evening.

Man of La Mancha tickets