I never saw Viva Forever - the Spice Girls musical. That apparently may have been the worst show ever on a London stage but American Lulu must run it close.
American Lulu is an adaptation of the opera Lulu by Alban Berg, written (but never completed) in 1934. In the original opera, Lulu is a prostitute and showgirl in turn-of-the-century Paris. In this adaptation, Lulu is transported to 1950s New Orleans where this young black woman is passed back and forth amongst the white men who both love her and loathe her.
This modern opera was promoted on the promise of a drama played out against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, all infused with the steamy intensity of the New Orleans setting. Well that must have all got lost in translation as the plot was limp, robbing the show of any narrative drive.
After Lulu kills her Svengali (not much of a spoiler considering it's done so early on) it's unclear where the internal conflict within Lulu comes from. Lulu just plods on through the decades as a miserable prostitute without a sense of direction. Even her string of lovers make no impact, all lacking purpose and definition.
In short, there was no story in this production at all. And as a result, we, the audience, were forced to endure an endless cycle of scenes of Lulu being exploited and, conversely, exploiting her series of lovers. The word 'tedious' does not give justice to how dull this was.
With the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement I think the hope was that this would reflect, in some way, on Lulu's own journey. Well it was a hope that never materialised. Plenty of Martin Luther King speeches were played through the speakers but they weren't linked in to the story at all. There's no evidence of Lulu's character being affected positively or adversely by her colour and the social upheavals of the time - the supposed sub-plot was non-existent.
Worryingly even the musical score could not save this production - it was completely forgettable. There was no memorable piece and the music never varied in emotion or tone. The score stayed at the same mid-tempo bland pace throughout. If an opera can't drive drama from its musical score then that doesn't leave much hope for the other components.
The production wasn't saved by the text, parts of which were frankly laughable. Lyrics on the testing of a hydrogen bomb and the bane of wearing dirty trainers anyone?
This woeful show even hit the surreal when a South Park-style crude animation sequence was projected on to the stage to dramatise Lulu's arrest, trial and imprisonment. Perhaps in retrospect I should appreciate that at least we were spared this sequence being dramatised through performance.
It hurts to have to write this as I am so keen for opera to drag itself out of the stuffy and expensive opera houses into forums where it can be accessed and appreciated by a far wider audience. I fear that anyone who goes to see American Lulu will be put off such experiences for life. And there was plenty of evidence that some damage was done.
The volume of walkouts spoke volumes. I've never seen so many of the audience leave during a show. A fellow member of the audience said on Twitter afterwards that she counted 89 slipping out the doors at least. Indeed that may explain why this two hour production had no interval - the fear that no-one would come back for the second half.
At the curtain call, the cast and the conductor all looked embarrassed. I felt bad for them as I clapped out from a half-empty auditorium. Mercifully American Lulu has only a short run at the Young Vic. No-one will miss it when it's gone.
To September 24, 2013
Young Vic Theatre, London