Theatre: Can’t help lovin’ dat Show Boat

Emmanuel Kojo (Joe) in Show Boat (Johan Persson)

Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern’s Show Boat, a milestone in the history of musical theatre, was the first musical to merge a traditional showbiz story with serious drama. Premiered in 1927, it has been revived and revised constantly ever since. The present production at New London Theatre, extremely well sung, directed by Daniel Evans, choreographed by Alistair David and designed by Lez Brotherson, originated at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre.

Show Boat deals with social conditions, racial tensions, marital discord and alcoholism. Hammerstein II and Kern wanted their musical to be taken seriously. Paul Robeson, who was forever associated with that powerful anthem, Ol’ Man River, sang it for the first time at the London premiere in 1928.

The bittersweet love story is adapted from Edna Ferber’s complex romantic novel, which traces the lives of a family of showboat performers over four decades, from the 1880s on the Mississippi River to Chicago in the 1920s.

The weakness is the book. There are far too many leading characters, and by concentrating on everybody the show succeeds in concentrating on nobody. Audiences, however, will be coming for the songs, not the story, and to hear Gina Beck and Chris Peluso sing Only Make Believe and Why Do I Love You?; Rebecca Trehearn sing Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man and Bill; and Emmanuel Kojo sing Ol’ Man River.

Annie Baker’s award-winning The Flick arrives at the National Theatre with two of the original American actors, Matthew Maher and Louisa Krause, and their American director, Sam Gold.

The setting is highly original: a bijou cinema with seven rows of empty tip-up seats. There are just three main characters: a cleaner and a projectionist played by Maher and Krause, and a student who cleans during his vacation, played by the British actor, newcomer Jaygann Ayeh. All three are excellent.

Annie Baker, in a series of scenes, explores the relationship (and the lack of relationship) between the three, while we watch them at work, cleaning up the debris left by cinemagoers.

The play, a deliberate slow-burner, comic and sad, works so well precisely because of the setting and because the actors and the director are not afraid of the silences and are confident enough to take their time. The production lasts three and a quarter hours, including interval, and the actors never once lose the audience’s attention.

Globally, it is thought that more than six million are affected by dementia. Imagine what it would be like to be married to somebody for 25 years and find that they no longer remember who you are. Nick Payne, author of the award-winning Constellations, sets his short play, Elegy, in the near future. Josie Rourke’s excellently acted production at Donmar Theatre is dominated by a split oak tree.

Zoë Wanamaker, hard and edgy, was dying but now, following a successful operation on her brain, she has been given a second life; however, she has lost her memory completely and wants to start afresh. Barbara Flynn is the partner, who had looked after her and cared for her all through her illness. Suddenly, she finds she is single and all alone. Flynn, absolutely gutted, is heartbreaking.