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Close of play

As Miss Saigon settles in for a triumphant West End run, Joseph Gallivan looks back at Metropolis - a musical that wasn't so lucky

There was a tinderbox atmosphere in the Piccadilly Theatre the night of the last ever performance of Metropolis the musical. Not surprising since it has taken £2.5m down the toilet with it, usually playing to the first three rows only, according to Mary the usherette (£2.10 per hour). "Well I think it's a great show, I love it. Everybody's loved it. It's the reviews that are bad; they've ruined it. And I don't think it was making very much money. I'm sorry to see it finish".

Paul from Chiswick and Trevor from Portsmouth had come along with their wives. Cats, Phantom, Starlight Express ... Tonight was another in a sequence of treats. No, they couldn't understand why it was closing - perhaps it wasn't making any money? Lisa (Essex) was so impressed she was back for a second helping, this time with Robin in tow (North London. The edge of London. Near Watford). A drama and English student, he was reserving his judgement until he'd seen the show. Quite right. However he diplomatically drew a fine line between Metropolis and "rubbish like Aspects of Love".

So why should the winning West End formula suddenly fail? Particularly for the impresario Michael White, who brought us Loot, Ain't Misbehavin', Holy Grail, Rocky Horror and The Comic Strip. It's quite a talking point at the moment. After all, this show had several points in its favour. A set that dwarfs the characters and which mutates so cleverly and so often that the audience is constantly cooing and oohing, as well they hoped to. A cast of 30 made up of muscular workers, sexy girls, horrible stage brats, Brian Blessed, and Christopher out of Brookside. And lots of songs - so many in fact that they've done away with the embarrassing links of musical theatre. None of that here: every one an album track.

On the minus side, however, I have to say it was the most abysmal thing I have ever seen on the stage, ever. Would anyone still have gone, knowing that PC 'Fancy' Smith out of Z-Cars was going to be flown in on a cut-away goldfish bowl, with badger-striped beard and factory owner's frock coat, waving a cane and shouting his head off about "the machines being beautiful"? Well in true panto fashion, yes they would and yes they did.

Since its inception Metropolis has been a radically unstable piece of work. It began as the novel by Fritz Lang's wife. He made the film, which was cut from 182 to 128 to 75 minutes in different countries. Then in 1986 Giorgio Moroder cobbled together what remained, colour-coded it and added songs by the likes of Freddy Mercury and Bonnie Tyler. It was ready for the video generation, so it was almost ready for the stage.

It's no great leap then to arrive at the Piccadilly Theatre's version - there was just the little matter of writing an entire set of lyrics. It seems to have taken Joseph Brooks and Dusty Hughes several afternoons to come up with such wonders as "He's distant from me now", "It's only love", "This is life", "If that was love" ... but then perhaps I'm just splitting hairs in an attempt to isolate some tragic flaw that brought this Michael White venture to its knees? Perhaps in this sort of musical enjoyment centres around the set not the songs? Remember Starlight after all. And - another flop - Rink, again a musical on wheels, about the closing of a roller rink (is that irony or is that a tax dodge?).

The set of Metropolis was one great machine, all gun-metal ducts, valves, wheels and clanking walkways, which hissed authentically as it divided to reveal the rhymes-with-love World Above. In fact, the action kicks off with an absurd YTS accident with two meshing cogs, telegraphed rather than choreographed. Unfortunately, yesterday's Futurism is today's Industrial Heritage so the allure of such heavy technology is lost on the target audience - Individual Heroes of the 10 Glorious Years, suburban to a man and more at home at the keypad than in some underground power station.

Up above is where the imaginatively named Elitists sport in dinner jackets and Lycra, throwing their heads back, laughing scornfully and, well, generally being elite. Their saucy fun takes place on what the cast nicknamed the 'grassy knoll' - a folding tennis court affair which slid down the back wall and crept out on to centre stage in a show of gratuitous hydraulics. And as well as PC Blessed's fishbowl there was the mad scientist's floating 'deck' - Fly booths, curly wires, much wringing of hands ...

The production team didn't shoot their load of theatrical clichés all at once however. The Elitists' most elite number "We're the cream" was saved until the opening of Act II. Act I began with the set obscured by an enormous curtain of steel, through whose little Pentonville door grey-smocked workers to'd and fro'd, until the time was right for revelation and chant # 101.11. It ended on a brilliant optical illusion (designed, would you believe, by Ali Bongo) in which robot and heroine switched places before our eyes. The fans went wild. They cheered. They whooped. They repaired exhilarated to the bar to discuss their sons and daughters' performances - it was their last chance, after all.

At half-time I met Anna and Neil (Hampton Court) who, like everyone else there that evening, seemed to have seen everything going, and had luckily come back from their holiday 24 hours earlier to find their booking had been brought forward a day. Phew! There could have been no two finer representatives of the camp camp there that night than Londoners Nick and David. "The best thing on in the West End. This is my third time, and his sixth. It grows on you; I can't fault it". Are you surprised it's closing? "Surprised - and heartbroken".

Act II proceeded in the same fashion as Act I - much standing with legs apart, wooden solos and shrieky choruses; heroine executed in what looked like a large tumble-drier; and those kids. After the standing ovation, flowers, camaraderie and bows, the mums and dads filed gleefully out and round to the stage door to fill up the stalls for the Private Cabaret. One of the programme sellers had promised to point out to me the show's most ardent fan as he left the theatre. Ardent bordering on the obsessional, since only destiny had prevented him from clocking up his 50th visit. Another week and this unassuming middle-aged salaryman would have qualified for his own round of applause, perhaps even a part. I can't help feeling that an insight into his motives would have been more valuable to producers everywhere than any number of last-minute bums on seats, but he was making no comment. I watched him shuffle off into the night without so much as a backward glance, then went and joined the chosen few inside.

Now wearing their smiley masks the players let their hair down with songs resung full of adult humour and speak-easy words, and there were lots of cat-calls, in-jokes and holiday homo-eroticism. Box office and backstage staff happily stepped onto the boards for their 15 seconds of humiliation, and the painful moment of saying goodbye was put off a little longer. But it became increasingly clear that no one was offering any reasons for failure, other than that the whole thing was a load of utter rubbish. Purely by chance Miss Saigon opened in London the same month.

Brian Blessed -
a heavyweight role in an industrial-strength disaster musical

Punch, 6 October 1989


Copyright © 2002 M. Kniestedt. All rights reserved.