Do pop stars have what it takes to succeed in the theatre?
Now that the theatres have reopened — barring occasional covid-dictated closures — some of the year’s most anticipated shows are finally being staged. Yet amidst the round of musicals, revivals and hand-wringing wokery, there are a few unexpected curiosities, not least the new play 2:22: A Ghost Story, which is being staged at the Noël Coward Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue for an eleven-week run.
Although its director Matthew Dunster is an acclaimed collaborator of Martin McDonagh’s, the playwright Danny Robins, creator of the podcast The Battersea Poltergeist, is otherwise best known for his comedy writing, and the cast, including the acclaimed likes of Hadley Fraser and Julia Chan, are not cast-iron box office draws. What has led the confident producers to put this on — now, of all times — in a major West End theatre, other than the continued success of its near-neighbouring ghost drama, The Woman in Black?
The age-old question: can musicians make credible stage actors?
The answer is the casting of the musician Lily Allen in the lead role of Jenny, a woman who comes to believe that her house is haunted. It might not quite be Hedda Gabler or Medea, but Allen would be the first to admit that her previous acting experience is relatively modest, consisting of a cameo (as Elizabeth Taylor) in 2019’s Caitlin Moran adaptation How To Build A Girl and an appearance in 1998’s Elizabeth as a lady-in-waiting. Those of us who take a keen interest in the often nepotistic workings of the film industry may note that both films were produced by Alison Owen: Allen’s mother.
Yet although Allen’s star is not quite at the zenith that it once was when she was a world-conquering pop star, she is still an A-list celebrity, with over five million followers on Twitter and a further one and a half million admirers on Instagram. Should even a small proportion of them venture into the Noël Coward over the next few months, the producers will be guaranteed a sell-out show. It may well be that the reviews are excellent, and that the otherwise sceptical are tempted into the West End for a suitably hair-raising night of supernatural horror. However, if the notices are terrifying in a rather different fashion, then the age-old question will be asked: can musicians make credible stage actors?
The obvious response to this, and presumably the one that Allen seeks to emulate, is to point at the extraordinary success garlanding Billie Piper’s theatrical career. Her most recent appearance in the Lorca adaptation Yerma won her virtually every major award, including an Olivier, the Evening Standard Theatre Award and the Critic’s Circle accolade, and was greeted with some of the most rapturous reviews that any major actress of our time has received. While some people might describe Piper as a “former musician” due to her brief singing career around the turn of the millennium, this seems a reductive and faintly sexist way of describing an obviously great thespian’s earlier work. One may as well refer to Cary Grant as an acrobat-turned-actor.
There have been other notable successes in this sphere, too. David Bowie’s performance on Broadway in The Elephant Man in 1980 might have been somewhat overshadowed by the revelation that he was a target of John Lennon’s assassin Mark Chapman while appearing at the theatre, but Bowie’s mime training allowed him to present the deformity of John Merrick entirely without make-up or prosthetics, which led to a successful acting career throughout the 1980s and 90s. Will Young has proved himself a more than credible presence in the eclectic likes of Cabaret and The Vortex over the years, too, indicating that his apparently cheery presence can easily be subverted to far greater darkness.
There is a semi-voyeuristic appeal in seeing one’s former pop idols live and in the flesh a few yards away
Of course, there are countless examples of musicians appearing in singing roles in big West End shows. These might well please their admirers, but could not be said to be insurmountable proofs of acting ability. There are other instances of singers getting it spectacularly wrong. The first time that Madonna appeared on stage, in David Mamet’s 1988 play Speed The Plow, she was criticised for a lack of charisma and acting ability. One review complained, “she is rigid, almost as though she is terrified to be on stage. Her voice has a one-note quality that becomes boring… almost any aspiring young actress in New York could have played this ingenue role with more authority than Madonna.” She returned in 2002 to the West End, in the art world satire Up for Grabs, and the eminent Michael Billington tartly wrote in the Guardian, “they gave Madonna a standing ovation. But, since her performance in David Williamson’s comedy is that of a dogged trier lacking in technique or mystery, the gesture is meaningless: what the audience is applauding is not achievement but some hollow concept of celebrity.”
It is a given that big names lure audiences into the theatre, even if artistic directors might prefer it to be otherwise. Even in an era where pop stardom no longer has the all-conquering power that it once did, there is still a semi-voyeuristic appeal in being able to see one’s former pop idols live and in the flesh a few yards away, rather than the greater distance usually required by musical appearances. Yet while many musicians have given more than credible performances on film, the tougher exposure of a stage role has often frightened them away. For every Piper, lauded to the skies, there is a Madonna, castigated and sneered at.
We shall see before very long which category Allen falls into. She is an entertaining and lively presence in public life, fiercely intelligent and possessed of a caustic wit, and one hopes that her acting ability will reflect something of this charisma. Yet the suspicion remains that this is more an example of attention-grabbing stunt casting rather than a genuine example of the most suitable person appearing in a role. At a time when the industry remains in crisis, with many far more experienced actors struggling for work, it is a shame that the cold economics of bums on seats can dictate such casting.
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