The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd; a compendium of theatrical curiosity.

Note: This is not a review, I didn’t see enough of it to be a review – if you did see enough to disagree with me please let me know.

I was reminded of the wonderfully weird world I work in last week when I went to see The Roar Of The Greasepaint – The Smell Of The Crowd.  With clown urchins, the battle of a tramp and a gentleman crook and some kind of dream fairy, 1960s musical giants Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley went existential. We watch with increasingly shuffling confusion as a strange game of life is played between master (Sir) and servant (Cocky), with arbitrary rules weighted against the poorer of the two men.

Some of my colleagues have inferred that this tortured process is a comment on class (and Wikipedia certainly seems to think so). But this whirligig production of cackling choral clowns, apocalyptic circus environments, Victorian blonde visions and ‘Negro’ saviours is so bizarre any such comment surely gets lost in an out of control music hall analogy.  As we see one man constantly testing and beating another, the question does not seem to be one of social power but ‘if Samuel Beckett were to knock off a musical version of Waiting For Godot what would it be like?’ And what a frankly incomprehensible answer Bricusse and Newley have come up with. Because whilst this hallucinogenic whirlwind may have worked in the psychedelic 1960s today I can’t get away from the fact that in its outlandish absurdity this musical has become a true theatrical oddity. Just what led the estimable Ian Judge to produce it?

But why has The Roar Of The Grease Paint – The Smell Of The Crowd slipped into the sphere of the puzzingly freakish for me and not just been relegated to the slowly growing ‘so bad it’s, well just really bad’ pile? What goes into making a theatrical curiosity?

Here at least it seems to be that whilst all the ingredients in the pot are right, with Bricusse and Newley, Judge and designer Tim Goodchild all being names that are synonymous with quality musical theatre, the result was just wrong. It’s not bad because the songs aren’t bad, and the performances aren’t bad and yet the story doesn’t make sense, the choices are too outlandish: the arrow has well and truly missed.

But I don’t hold this show or it’s makers in contempt, instead I’ve felt energised by its strangeness, oddly inspired by its inherent failure. Have any shows ever done that to you? What would you call a theatrical oddity and why? A compendium of these experiences seems to call out to be documented, something with metaphorical jars that is suitably Hunterian, and yes I realise there’s something fittingly odd about that whole idea in itself…

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5 thoughts on “The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd; a compendium of theatrical curiosity.

  1. I would have much more respect for your opinion had you actually stayed til the end, but you didn’t. So how you can write with such conviction about how you disliked the piece, I don’t really know, you lose validity this way – indeed your apparent ‘knowledge’ of the ‘Negro saviour’ as you put it who only appears in the second half demonstrates this perfectly – by all means, you’re entitled to your view, but being so definitive about something you didn’t see the entirety of is ultimately disrespectful to the creative team and a disingenuous exercise for yourself in trying to find something to say.

    • Jamie

      I’m sorry that you’re upset by this piece – I made it clear from the start that this wasn’t a review (the Note at the beginning specifically states this) this is clearly a subjective comment post. I haven’t been disrespectful to the creative team – I questioned the sense behind the show but was actually very respectful of the creatives, whom I quoted as having proven musical theatre pedigree.

      If you’d like to let me know why you feel I’ve missed the point on this show please feel free to leave a comment explaining why you think it works as a coherent piece of theatre. At the moment you seem only to mind that I have commented on a piece that I left half way through, when as a member of the audience I was entitled to do this?

      Honour

  2. “instead I’ve felt energised” – energised to be, do, what? Explain please.

    Interesting thoughts on ROAR and I guess – paraphrasing the famous line ‘one would have to have been around in the sixties not to understand what was going on.’ Perhaps what ROAR needs is an Michael Grandage/Derek Jacobi – style exploration of the sub-text as they did for ‘Lear’.

    All thoughts – as you say – to be taken with a pinch of Maldon. Thoughtful blog must read more.

    Trevor Chenery

  3. This isn’t the first reflection on ‘Roar of the Greasepaint’ I’ve seen that doesn’t seem to understand what it’s about. With respect, I find it very difficult to see how one could fail to decode the extremely obvious class commentary behind this musical, and feel that perhaps had you stayed to the end you might have begun to observe this most apparent of subtexts.

    Each one of the songs and plot points offers a different comment on the means by which the bourgeoisie deceives or forces the proletariat into remaining subordinate, whether it’s flattery (‘Look at that Face’), superstition (‘It Isn’t Enough’), false equality (when Cocky is given a ‘crown’ made of a chamberpot and treated obsequiously by Sir and his followers, yet still made to play the game), or a sense of dependency (‘Where Would You Be Without Me’). The Kid represents the occasionally capricious middle-class puppets of the extremely wealthy, the Bully seems to represent the rise of military dictatorships after the apparent overthrow of the ruling classes, the Girl shows how personal feelings for other people can draw people into unwinnable battles, and the Negro – perhaps most blatantly of all – represents how the end of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement in the USA should be used as an example of the fight for freedom for workers the world over. The fact that both Cocky AND Sir are mistrustful and indeed openly racist toward the Negro is a satire of white bigotry even among the same working classes who should have been showing solidarity with the similarly oppressed.

    Whereas ‘Waiting For Godot’ is principally about man’s vain expectation that he’ll discover the meaning of life, ‘Roar of the Greasepaint’ is a deeply political class commentary about how futile it is for the poor to try and beat the rich at their own game (capitalism). Completely different subject matter. What they do have in common, however, is a non-naturalistic, allegorical style (the ‘outlandish absurdity’ to which you refer), which should bring into even sharper relief the fact that it’s metaphorical. An attempt to understand it as a conventional narrative with realistic characters, as you seem to have done, is to utterly miss the point.

    • Points well made Al and very spot on and I have passed them on to Leslie Bricusse & Gillian Lynne.

      When the show was written it was time when society was beginning to realise that life was predominantly about class and in the early sixties the revolution was all starting to unravel and be talked about.

      The potent mix of Newley and Bricusse just gave it all a head start and sadly no proper UK production that was able to bring out the introspection and underlying themes in the show was ever done. It might have been different if the Royal Court had done musicals.

      Trevor Chenery

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