Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Witches of Eastwick

Book and lyrics by John Dempsey; music by Dana P Rowe; based on the novel by John Updike
Opera House, Manchester
(2008)

Production photo

Dempsey and Rowe's mischievous musical adaptation of John Updike's novel visits Manchester this week, courtesy of Cameron Mackintosh, starring eighties pop hearthrob Marti Pellow as demonic Darryl Van Horne, a role originally created on stage by TV's Lovejoy Ian McShane eight years ago.

Eastwick is one of those morally uptight, gossipy little New England towns where everyone knows everyone else's business that have been sent up on stage and screen many times before. Three single women in the town — artist Alexandra, musician Jane and nervous, bookish Sukie — are tired of conforming to the town's moral code, as dictated by town matriarch Felicia Gabriel, and discuss their ideal man over a few drinks. Unaware of their magical powers, they unwittingly conjure up a man that conforms to their desires, Darryl Van Horne, who fulfils them in many different ways and helps them overcome their inhibitions, but of course it eventually goes a step too far with tragic results. Alongside the depravity, a more conventional love story springs up between Alexander's son Michael and Felicia's daughter Jennifer, which is threatened by the activities of the 'witches'.

There have been some changes to the show since the original production. Some songs have been swapped around, Darryl's entrance is now to a song named after him, 'Darryl Van Horne', instead of 'I Love This Little Town', 'Loose Ends' and 'Who's The Man' have been replaced by reprises of 'Dirty Laundry' and 'Darryl Van Horne' and the short, ambiguous curtain lines from the three women have gone. All of these are highlights of the cast recording and it is a shame not to see them live.

The principle cast members have a lot to live up to after the dream trio who originally performed the three main female roles, but they do a pretty good job. The initial scenes between the three of them come over as rather mechanical and stagey, but they all really impress from their individual songs onwards. Ria Jones plays Alexandra with a strong exterior but very vulnerable and uncertain inside; Rebecca Thornhill gets across the stammering inarticulacy of Sukie; Poppy Tierney stands out particularly as repressed, insular Jane whose transformation to sex kitten is the most extreme during her song 'Waiting for the Music to Begin'. Rachel Izen is perfect as battleaxe Felicia with great support from James Greame as her long-suffering husband Clyde. Chris Thatcher is superb as Michael, ably supported by Joanna Kirkland as his sweetheart Jennifer.

And what of eighties pop's most famous smile? He can certainly sing better than Ian McShane, who talked his way through most of the songs, and he gets quite a lot of the demonic quality of the character when he is singing. During the dialogue, he seems to have taken his inspiration from the more annoying antics of Jim Carrey, although thankfully not to the same gurning extremes, which makes him seem more playful little boy than devil, and he never really gets the extremes of chilling evil that McShane found in the part. His performance works in its own way, but is never really threatening.

Unfortunately the good work done by the performers is seriously let down in the technical department. Whilst the sound is loud enough to get above the unacceptably noisy air conditioning system in the Opera House, the quality of it is comparable to a cheap tape player: there is nothing at the top end to aid the clarity of the words and very little lower mid and almost no bass to give the real power that this music needs. The new musical arrangements for a smaller band do seem to be lacking at times, but this may be at least partly due to the feebleness of the sound. This, combined with a lot of late lighting cues and slow follow spots (poor Victoria Hay had almost finished singing some of her short linking pieces by the time the lights found her) and a ten minute delay in starting without explanation or apology, really short-changes both audience and performers in areas that could be fixed so easily.

Peter McKintosh's design puts brightly-coloured costumes against a more monochromatic backdrop of houses that resemble stretched beach huts, which is very effective even though the construction looks a little cheap in some areas. There are some very good flying effects that are set up in quite a subtle and clever way so that the wires are not seen until the last second.

The show itself has some wonderful songs in it (and a few more that are no longer in it) with great music and some lyrics that you can't help smiling at and a book that is a little unclear at times but works well a lot of the time although without a great deal of substance. There are some great performances, despite some scenes that seem under-rehearsed, and the show is great fun, but there are some sloppy elements to the production that are surprisingly poor for a Cameron Mackintosh production.

Running to 18 October

This production was reviewed by Sheila Connor in Woking, by Philip Seager in Sheffield and by Peter Lathan in Sunderland

Reviewer: David Chadderton