Naked Boys Singing 2009

Musical review conceived by Robert Schrock
Arts Theatre

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The one place in London where you could see nudes during World War 2 was at the Windmill Theatre, which, even at the height of the bombing, never closed. ("We never closed" became the theatre's legend.) Lots of people felt that the Windmill's owner Laura Henderson and its manager Vivian Van Damm should have been awarded CBEs at the very least for their wartime services to soldiers on leave.

The nudes only appeared in tableaux vivants. The Lord Chamberlain, who controlled what theatres could do and say on stage, didn't allow them to move; if anybody moved, the theatre would be closed. ("If it moves it's rude" was the catch-phrase.)

The turning point came in 1968 with the demise of his censorship. The very next day, September 27, the American musical Hair! opened. All through the first act the gallery called for the cast to take off their kit. When they finally did, just before the interval, it was so dark the audience couldn't see a thing.

In 1969 there was a puerile revue called Oh Calcutta! at the Roundhouse. The wittiest line came in the curtain-call when one of the actors said, "If this show doesn't run, I'm going to throw my cock away."

Diana Rigg and Keith Michell were the first actors to appear in the nude in a West End play when they acted in Ronald Millar's Abelard and Heloise at Wyndham's Theatre in 1970. The words THE NUDITY IS TASTEFUL were emblazoned in huge bold letters outside the entrance. The nudity was so brief and it was so dark that sixth formers used to queue up at the box-office and ask for their money back.

Nudity became de rigueur. It was almost impossible to go to the RSC and not see Alan Howard in the nude; similarly Simon Callow almost invariably appeared in the nude on the Fringe. Nowadays nudity is the norm and reached rock bottom with the ghastly Australian Puppetry of the Penis eight years ago at the Whitehall Theatre and still touring the regions.

In the cinema British nudity has proved extremely popular. Just look at the box office success of The Full Monty and The Calendar Girls.

"You're here to see GRATUTIOUS NUDITY," sing the naked boys at the Arts Theatre. True. But how will they fare now that they have moved into the West End? Will they be the cult they were at the King's Head?

The conceit is the boys are auditioning for a nude review. The opening number is so appallingly performed - Chorus Line, it definitely ain't - that you wonder what an experienced director like Phil Willmott is doing and whether it would have been better to see F**king Men instead. Things do improve. The songs don't get better but the kitsch is better drilled.

When a show is called Naked Boys Singing it is presumably legitimate to comment on not just the actors' voices. The production takes a long and deliberately teasing time before the cast throw away their towels and reveal all. No actor stands out. It is immediately obvious that the show would be far sexier if they didn't take off all their clothes. Nothing is more absurd then men jumping up and down in the nude. The little dangling bits look very silly and they look even sillier when two boys start doing classical ballet moves together.

One of the actors (and it's the best joke of the evening) says he wishes he hadn't given up Mary Poppins to appear in the show. He's right: Naked Boys Singing isn't a good career move.

"Naked Boys Singing" is running in repertory with "F**king Men" at the Arts Theatre and there are ticket price concessions if you see both.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch

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