Lucy Moore: Nijinsky

Poor Nijinsky. Poor sad, mad, vanished Nijinsky. His career was astonishingly brief, the trail that was left in his meteoric wake so persistent it is hard to believe he danced for little more than seven years.

He was born in 1889 or 1890, to Polish dancers working in Russia (Nijinsky thought of himself as Polish, but he spoke the language poorly, and spent his life in Russia before moving to France).

His astonishing talent was noted early in his student days at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg, and on graduation he was chosen to partner Mathilde Kschessinskaya, not merely the company’s prima ballerina assoluta, but the tsar’s mistress as well. The newly promoted dancer was also chosen, off-stage, by Prince Lvov, a lover of ballet, and of ballet dancers.

Sergei Diaghilev soon replaced Lvov both in Nijinsky’s bed and by featuring the dancer as his male star in the first season of his Ballets Russes in Paris, in 1909.

In theory the Ballets Russes only borrowed dancers from the Imperial Theatre in their summer holidays. But in 1910, Nijinsky was sacked – perhaps because he was obdurate about an “indecent” costume (it didn’t have shorts over his tights), perhaps because of political manoeuvrings against Diaghilev, perhaps because his partners were not thrilled at the ovations he was getting.

In any case, Diaghilev and Nijinsky embraced the opportunity to create a permanent company in France, away from Imperial oversight. Joined by the talents of Fokine, Benois, Bakst and Stravinsky, the great ballets poured out: The Firebird, Petroushka, Carnaval, Scheherazade.

Nijinsky, however, wanted to create a new way of moving, of understanding music, a modernist style for which few were ready. L’après-midi d’un faune scandalised as the faune – Nijinsky himself – mimed masturbation as the curtain fell. Le sacre du printemps, with its insistence on a brutal primitivism, was somehow even more shocking.

What would have happened to Nijinsky’s future work, we have no way of knowing. Nijinsky, at best a social naïf, was “captured” on tour by Romola de Pulszky, a Hungarian groupie. They married, and Diaghilev responded by immediately sacking his greatest dancer.

The First World War found the star interned as an enemy alien, causing untold damage to his always fragile mental state. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic, although precisely what that meant has been debated ever since. Certainly he was institutionalised, off and on, until his death in 1950.

The rise and fall has been picked over ever since. We know so much about this most famous dancer, and we know almost nothing. Was Nijinsky by preference homosexual, or heterosexual? (Romola, it has been noted, formed relationships exclusively with women otherwise.) Was Nijinsky a careerist, selecting Lvov and Diaghilev to progress his career, or were they predatory older men who gave an innocent young boy no choice? Was the startlingly modern choreography he produced his own, or did Diaghilev and others, as they later claimed, contribute the bulk?

These questions will never be finally resolved, but that doesn’t stop people asking. There have been a dozen biographies since Richard Buckle’s ground-breaking 1971 book, and while new information has from time to time emerged, by now the well has really run dry, and Lucy Moore merely goes over the well-worn ground.

Nijinsky also shows signs of having been produced in haste (presumably to coincide with the centenary of the famous 1913 performance of Sacre), with repetitions abounding, despite the book’s brevity. More troublingly, to produce a narrative flow, Moore has quarantined many of the controversies in the notes. What she calls “the reality” appears in the main text, only to be contradicted in the notes, which most people, of course, will not read.

Centenary aside, why another book? Seven years of dancing, a quarter-century of madness, a further 75 years of squabbles, legends, mythmaking and unmaking. Surely it is past time to let the poor sad man rest quietly in his grave?

Giselle, Mikhailovsky Ballet, London Coliseum

When the Bolshoi’s wunderkinder, Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, suddenly left the company two years ago, the dance world played endless guessing-games as to where they would end up. It was like Claude Rains in Casablanca: round up the usual suspects. The last company anyone expected, however, was the Mikhailovsky, St Petersburg’s junior company to its senior world-class sister, the Mariinsky.

What drew them? Well, the company has an extraordinary Soviet heritage, playing host to some of the great names of 1930s experimental dance. It probably helps, too, that it is now funded by an oligarch, and, with the appointment of the Spaniard Nacho Duato, he provided that greatest of rarities in Russia, a non-Russian artistic director, who brought with him some of his own choreography and the possibility of a varied repertoire.

This two-week London season starts more traditionally, with Nikita Dolgushin’s straight-down-the-line production of Giselle. Osipova and Vasiliev were both straitjacketed at the Bolshoi, she guided entirely into soubrette roles, he limited to the gaudy delights of Grigorovich’s Spartacus and other pieces of heroic Soviet posturing. So Giselle is a defiant gesture of the breadth of their ambition.

The evening is Osipova’s (no-one ever staged Giselle because they had a damn fine Albrecht any more than Hamlet is produced because the director has the perfect Gertrude.) Her first act is well thought through, with some lovely moments – when she plays “He loves me, he loves me not” with a daisy, and finds that it comes out to “not”, she steps back, flat-footed, prefiguring her mad scene later. In the mad scene itself, after she chases the invisible something in the air, her arms end crossed in the Wilis’ stance – the ghosts are already calling to her. And her fluttering, spidery hands clutch desperation from the air, even as she automatically bobs a curtsey to Berthe as she passes.

But it is Act II where her performance deepens, from one of fleet technique and carefully considered acting, to mine the real emotional core of this piece. Giselle has survived for so long because it is multi-layered, yet it is too often played flatly: Giselle is a loving girl, she is betrayed, she dies, she returns to rescue her lover. That’s nice, and sweetly sentimental, but it is not Théophile Gautier’s really quite creepy story. In the original, Giselle dies and she returns, but only part of her wants to save her lover; the other part is already a Wili, and it wants to lure her betrayer to his death.

A couple of pieces of overhanging ivy spent much of Act II going up and down like a bride’s nightie

Osipova conveys that dichotomy with eerie ferocity. Her first entry is breathtaking in its virtuosity – rarely have I seen turns of such speed, jumps of such height. Yet it is subordinate to, and in the service of, the drama. When she circles Albrecht, who is not yet aware of her, she is not protecting him, she is marking her territory. The unvarying monotonous perfection of her (enormous) entrechats makes her a puppet of her masters, the Wilis. And as she beckons him, and makes him dance once more, she is loving and caring – and she is carrion, hovering over his doomed body.

Vasiliev was a willing partner, playing an Albrecht of youthful impetuosity and foolishness, rather than of devious betrayal. The Act II partnering could have been smoother, more invisible, but his solos were remarkable yet never broke the spell of the drama to become virtuoso turns, to the detriment of the story.

Myrtha (Ekaterina Borchenko), too, was a steely dramatic foil, and the corps of 24 all they should have been. Olga Semyonova played Bertha with camp vigour, a red-headed Mae West with a riding-crop.

A few bits of clunk will no doubt shortly be ironed out – technical stutters meant a couple of pieces of overhanging ivy spent much of Act II going up and down like a bride’s nightie, and it would be nice if Hilarion (the touching Vladimir Tsal) and Albrecht found somewhere other than Giselle’s grave to abandon their coats and hats: it began to feel like the foyer cloakroom. But on the whole this was a good basic production fronted by two stellar performers.

Whose review is it anyway?

Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, has complained that Opera News, the US’s largest-circulation classical music magazine, has run negative reviews of Met productions. The magazine, supported financially by an affiliate of the Met, has therefore decided, rather than run nothing but puff-pieces, that it will, instead, not review Met productions (here).

What is this, a lesson in how to shoot yourself in the foot? Gelb looks like an idiot. Readers across the country no longer receive independent views. And classical music, which struggles to find an audience anyway, is the only loser.

Gelb is, it must be admitted, beleaguered. He needs to raise a quarter of a billion dollars a year to run his ravening beast of an organization. But to me he has always sounded like he lives in a weird bubble. I heard him on the radio last year, talking about a singer ‘making her debut’ in a role. Except that I had seen her sing it the previous year at the Royal Opera House in London. So, I assumed, to him ‘a debut’ only counted when it was in America. Then he went on, saying she’d sung it in Chicago. So now nothing happens until it happens at the Met?

And now, we discover, once it happens at the Met, we’re not allowed to read that some people didn’t enjoy it. Or why.

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

“I think people marry far too much; it is such a lottery after all, and to a poor woman a very doubtful happiness.” So wrote Queen Victoria, and reading Kate Summerscale’s extraordinary dissection of a failed marriage, it is hard to argue.

In 1850, Isabella Robinson, a bored and restless married woman of 37, met 27-year-old Edward Lane at the Edinburgh home of his mother-in-law. While Isabella’s businessman husband Henry was absent, Lane saw a friendship between his wife and Isabella develop. Isabella, however, read his polite attentions as suppressed passion, which she brooded over in her diary.

When Robinson’s work took his family south, Isabella developed crushes on other young men, but her marriage jogged on. Then Lane qualified as a doctor and set up a practice near Farnham, where he offered the fashionable “water-cure”.

Isabella became a patient, even while recognising that all he had to offer her was “cool friendship”. Then at some point Lane made overtures, although whether the pair crossed the line to outright adultery will never be known. At the same time, Henry discovered that Isabella had been giving money to the recipients of her crushes and the family decamped to Boulogne. Soon after, Isabella developed diphtheria and rambled in periods of delirium. What she said is unknown, but it led Henry to her journal, and as soon as she recovered he collected their children, her papers and left.

At this date marriages could be dissolved only by an act of parliament, unaffordable for all but a tiny minority. But two years later, in 1858, everything changed: a new act made divorce a possibility if adultery were proved against the woman, and Henry’s was the 11th petition lodged under the new law.

Isabella’s defence was that, since keeping a diary of such explicitness was madness, then she must have been insane: the diary merely recorded what her counsel claimed were lunatic fancies. Lane, with his reputation on the line, agreed. Isabella, he swore, had merely been a friend of his wife and, later, a patient.

Summerscale is fascinatingly forensic, parsing the various witnesses’ statements as she did in her earlier The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, turning the did-they-didn’t-they question into the best kind of detective story. She astutely notices Isabella’s resemblance to Madame Bovary, Flaubert’s notorious novel of the previous year, which has come to embody the fate of the unfulfilled woman longing for life to be an unending romantic novel.

There are perhaps too few reminders that we are, ultimately, hearing Isabella’s story, based on her journal, with nothing equivalent to give Henry’s view of events. Summerscale’s description of Henry as “uneducated, narrow-minded, harsh-tempered, selfish, proud”, is, in reality, not hers but Isabella’s. Even the fact that Henry had a mistress and illegitimate children appears to derive from Isabella alone, for they were never mentioned in court. Perhaps they never existed?

And while Isabella claimed that Henry was rapacious, a more interesting story may be lurking under the surface. Isabella had about £400 a year, while initially Henry earned significantly more, making them rich. Their move to Edinburgh, however, suggests an attempt to reduce expenditure, especially when coupled with the fact that they employed only four servants. Their subsequent relocation to Boulogne would then indicate an even more extreme financial retrenchment: the French town was a resort for the genteelly down-on-their-luck.

As with so much of this case, superficially obvious, and even in Summerscale’s expert hands so mysterious, we may never know. After the event, Lane wrote, “There is so much… recklessness about truth in general… that no partial account of anything is to be trusted.”

Summerscale is too original a writer to quote Tolstoy’s “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, but she follows his lead, detailing the specific unhappinesses, and mapping the way these miseries spread and infected everyone they touched.

That she manages to make the end surprising shows her literary dexterity. Had I been a judge at the Robinson trial, I would have found Isabella guilty for offences against literature: “I dipped my pen but too often in the fairy ink of poesy”, she wrote to herself.

Summerscale triumphantly avoids fairy ink and poesy both, producing a gripping account of the destruction of a marriage.

Historical Fiction: Little Bones, Tom-All-Alone’s, The Whores’ Asylum

Historical novels look simple, but they are difficult to pull off. There is a contradiction built into the genre: they attempt to recreate the past so that we feel it is “now”, past and present simultaneously. A prose style that is too innately archaic (“prithee, fair maiden”) will lose readers; so, too, however, will anything too contemporary, as we halt to consider whether “roommate” or “consciousness” were words that existed at the time the novel is set.

Janette Jenkins, in the most successful of the novels under review, avoids the problem in the most sensible manner. Hers is a smooth, vivid prose that is less concerned with period style than it is with writing well. She has a liking for odd similes – the sea “shivers over the pebbles, like eggs coming to the boil”, girls are “wrapped like onions” against the cold – and a splendidly dry, flat tone that highlights the intrinsic black comedy of being human, instead of the particularity’ of any period: “I’ve never seen the country. What’s it like?” “Well, it’s very wide and green”, says one character; “She can’t be on my conscience”, says another, tapping his forehead, “It’s standing room only up there”.

Jenkins’s restrained prose serves to highlight her baroque story all the better: Jane, the crippled child of feckless alcoholics, is abandoned first by her mother, then by her pretty, selfish sister, in their Covent Garden lodgings.

She is permitted to stay as a helper to “the doctor”, her landlady’s husband, who, it soon becomes clear, is an abortionist whose practice is almost entirely confined to the theatrical world. (“The Good Fairy Cockleshell in Robinson Crusoe has been taken very badly.”) The narrative moves efficiently between Jane’s past and present, and it is a mark of Jenkins’s skill that the cataclysmic event of the later part of the book is part of the smooth weave of the fabric she has created, rather than its raison d’etre, Little Bones is compelling not because it is a historical novel, but because it is a fine novel: the best kind of historical fiction.

Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd sets out with a complicated family tree. The title, the name of the slum in Bleak House, alerts the reader to its Dickensian parent, but the image of the author making air quotes with her fingers is omnipresent, as characters and situations from literature are utilized – Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White, John Fowles’s French Lieutenant’s Woman – as well as history – elements of Jack die Ripper feature prominently – and real places in London, such as the Soane Museum. In fact, the experience can be more like completing a jigsaw puzzle than reading a novel. Which is a pity, as the sections which rely on Shepherd’s own imagination have great power. After the opening of Bleak House is reprinted, the novel reopens with Charles Maddox in his lodgings.

Once a policeman, he has been sacked for questioning his superior, Inspector Bucket. He has only one case, to find any trace of a woman, pregnant and unmarried, who was turned out by her family, and gave birth in a workhouse before dying. Her father, remorseful several decades too late, is now intent on finding her child, and Maddox, without much hope, is going through the motions. Then he is hired by the lawyer Tulkinghorn to find out who is sending threatening letters to his client. A second narrative is Hester’s, who lives at Solitary House with her guardian Mr Jarvis. Maddox’s story is narrated by a present-day omniscient narrator, who gives a running commentary on the action: “A modern neurologist would say he had unusually well-developed spatial cognition…”. If the narrator knows everything, why are clues only being dropped in dribs and drabs? We are not following the characters as they discover things, but are having information purposefully withheld, which can become an irritation.

In Bleak House, Dickens carefully suggests Tulkinghorn’s dark side without providing any solid information about it, making his evil plausible. Shepherd, by contrast, revels in melodrama, and has her characters gasp at his turpitude (“You show neither pity, nor compunction, nor hesitation”). Maddox himself, who is the least reliant on fictional predecessors, is much more realistic, and the domestic scenes, with his half-demented, retired-thief-taker uncle, seem bathed in a white, clear light; the characters have independent life, and one wants more of these scenes. It appears that Shepherd plans a series of novels with this character – the title page announces “A Charles Maddox Mystery”. If we get more Maddox, and less pastiche, it promises well.

Katy Darby has gone for literature, too, in The Whores’ Asylum, by depending on generic period conventions. The book begins and ends with pastiche documentation, as though from the editor of the manuscript that follows, which tells of Edward Fraser and Stephen Chapman, a retiring theology student and a friendly medical researcher at Oxford in the 1880s. Chapman becomes consulting physician to the mysterious Mrs Pelham’s house for fallen women, to Fraser’s prudish horror: he works to break up Chapman’s relationship with her, as he had once broken up another university friend’s relationship, with disastrous results. Fraser is an unreliable narrator, but he seems to have no self-awareness at all, which dooms him to repeat his disastrous actions, to the reader’s exasperation.

At roughly the halfway point, however, the book switches to penny-dreadful territory as the melodramatic incidents, and language, pile up: Mrs Pelham is “a curse. One man has died because of her. The other – well, look at me!” There is a duel, an abduction, women held captive, a Hell-Fire-ish, sadomasochistic sex club, and more. Darby’s prose is a handicap. All her characters (the book is narrated by several of them in turn) speak the same purple-ese: “I was left alone with no company save an empty bottle, a ravaged heart, and the vengeful devil who had made his home in my soul”. Because of this, the improbability of the whole exercise looms in a way it might not if the story had swept the reader along. There is a suicide note that extends to over eighty printed pages, and includes both dialogue and flashbacks. The author appears to have little sense of how people in her chosen period behaved (a would-be clergyman is shocked when a woman fails to attend a duel, and himself acts as a second), or spoke (a middle-class woman uses “God!” as an exclamation).

One wonders how this book was constructed, since phrases or paragraphs routinely contradict each other: the same narrator who is shocked when someone doesn’t show- up to watch a duel immediately afterwards denigrates those who do as “prurient”; a fire burns coal in one paragraph, wood in the next; the doctor plans a physical examination of his injured fiancée, and then worries about the propriety of sitting alone in a room with her. And, finally, he runs away from her, leaving her without a word, “for I wanted her to think of me kindly. As everyone does when they’ve been abandoned. Some of this could have been prevented by a firmer editorial hand. (All three of these books seem to have had sleepy editors or proofreaders: in Little Bones, someone is “leant” a bed, and another character has to fend off “hoards” of admirers; in Tom-All-Alone’s, a response “seems to douse hot oil on Charles’ dry fury”.) Great historical novelists get the details right – Hilary Mantel, for example, whether in her pitch-perfect The Giant, O’Brien, or in her more famous Wolf Hall – but they also leave the details behind them. A Place of Greater Safety is a great novel not because Mantel knows the name of Danton’s milkman, or how affidavits were stored (although she does), but because she makes us breathe the characters’ air and inhabit their minds, by creating compelling and complete worlds. Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs is a great novel not because he knows about Dickens’s attempts at mesmerism, or the minutiae of Great Expectations (ditto), but because he makes us believe in a silly, flighty young novelist who wreaks havoc among people he allows us to care for. What happens to them matters. In this sense, all novelists are historical novelists: all times have their own smell, feel, emotions, and it is the novelist’s job to make us live their characters’ lives, whether they are wearing Armani, crinolines, or woad.

Anna Karenina, Eifman Ballet of St Petersburg, London Coliseum

Dance by and for people with no interest in dance

An apocryphal story tells of an awful theatrical adaptation of the story of Anne Frank. When the Nazis arrive to search the house where the family are in hiding, an enraged theatre-goer shouts, “She’s in the attic!” Well, I didn’t quite point Anna Karenina to the train station, but the thought crossed my mind.

Boris Eifman has always divided the critics. Western audiences tend to respond the way they do to car crashes: they are appalled, but find it hard to look away. Russians, meanwhile, virtually stand on their seats and scream for more. Eifman, who since 1977 has run his own company in the teeth of Soviet hostility, is now garlanded with praise at home, having new studios and a school created for his own company.

But his ballet vision is, to Western eyes, still stuck firmly in those decaying decades of the fin-de-Soviet empire, when the Lycra ballet was king, and clutch ‘n’ grope the method of choice. If Ken Russell could choreograph, Anna Karenina is the ballet he would have made. Maurice Béjart (or, as the great critic Arlene Croce spelt it, “Beige Art”) did choreograph, and this was precisely the type of thing he made.

Eifman doesn’t waste much time or trouble on design or music. The set, by Z Margolin, is a gilt-turned balcony which looks like a Faubourg St-Honoré chocolate shop transported to a Midlands market-town in the 1950s. The music is not only taped, but is bits and pieces of Tchaikovsky, wrenched asunder at will to suit the choreography.

The story is reduced to its bare minimum, simply Anna (Nina Zmievets) torn between an agressive husband (Oleg Markov) and a loved son, and Vronsky (Oleg Gabyshev), all swoony rapture. There is no attempt to show the society the trio live in, to explore why Anna is unable to settle. Karenin has no tragic grandeur, he is not the caring but restrained man, but simply a bully, and a rapist to boot.

 

But that kind of coarsened value, the black/white melodrama, is Eifman’s home. We know, for example, when Anna is unhappy with her husband, because she shifts from classical steps to pseudo-Martha-Graham contractions; Karenin’s dilemma is displayed by wrapping his arms around his body, while his determination exhibits itself in pacing with hands behind his back à la Prince Philip.

It is hard to assess his dancers by any ordinary means. They perform Eifman’s clotted, dense steps with ease, and sail through lifts that are gymnastic rather than balletic (my favourite is when Anna perches on Karenin’s head, and, so burdened, he marches solemnly across the stage). But whether they have any musicality, any ability to shape phrases, create dance moments – well, they’re not asked to. Instead they  telegraph emotion by clutching their brows, or other portions of their anatomy.

Occasionally there is a moment when Eifman sets up a nice theatrical situation: Anna and Vronsky are both alone in their beds, thinking of each other, and the light shifts back and forth between them on opposite sides of the stage. But even then, the choreography they perform is so same-y, so pedestrian, that nothing comes of the scene.

Given Eifman has been doing this sort of thing for nearly four decades, it seems odd to call his work amateurish, but that is, ultimately, what it is: dance by and for people with no interest in dance.

Nights Out by Judith R Walkowitz

(published in the Telegraph 27 Mar 2012)

The rise and rise of Soho, London’s darkly alluring twilight zone

In her fiction, Virginia Woolf transformed Soho into a menacing urban space filled with “fierce” light and “raw” voices, even as she privately commended herself for driving a good bargain on some silk stockings “(flawed slightly)” at Soho’s Berwick Street market.

Soho, a mere 130 acres, with no more than 24,000 residents in the 20th century, is bounded on two sides by the commercial leisure regions of Shaftesbury Avenue and Leicester Square, on the other two by the shopping meccas of Oxford Street and Regent Street. For most of the 19th century it was a ‘“dark, industrial back region that serviced the spectacular front stage of the West End pleasure zone”. In Nights Out, Judith Walkowitz, professor of modern European cultural and social history at Johns Hopkins, explores how, between 1890 and 1939, the industries that thrived on dance, music, food, fashion – and commercial sex – transformed this artisan’s hinterland into a tourist mecca.

At the end of the 19th century the great new thoroughfares of Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue created a twilight zone where the rules didn’t quite apply, an area where to be “foreign” was the norm – only about 4 per cent of Londoners were foreign-born in 1900, whereas a single parish in Soho had nearly 40 per cent foreign-born residents. Yet there was continuity, too: furniture manufacturers in Wardour Street inhabited the same shops that once housed their Regency forebears. Soho thus became both foreign and English, old-fashioned and modern, safe and dangerous.

Virginia Woolf had been in her mid-twenties when an anarchist named Bourdin blew himself up while transporting a bomb to the Greenwich Observatory (Walkowitz, in a very rare slip that indicates she is not a Londoner, calls it the Greenwich conservatory). He soon became renowned as a resident of Soho’s “muddy, inhospitable accumulation of bricks, slates, and stones” – this from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, which fictionalised Bourdin and spread Soho’s anarchist fame across the world.

Much of Soho was superficially more benign. As Shaftesbury Avenue’s theatres brought audiences out at night, Soho’s “little places” to eat became famous – what one commentator called “London’s escape from English cooking”. Walkowitz contrasts two Italian caterers to great effect, both of them impoverished immigrants from northern Italy. Peppino Leoni opened Quo Vadis on Dean Street in 1940; his politics were proudly fascist, and he was interned during the Second World War. Emidio Recchioni meanwhile pioneered the import of Italian delicacies while using his King Bomba grocery as political cover: imprisoned for his radical views in Italy, from Britain he funded several assassination attempts on Mussolini.

With the war, Free French officers set up unofficial headquarters at the York Minster pub on Dean Street, then informally (now formally) known as the French House; Polish officers, American servicemen and more followed. Meanwhile, British-born Italians were obliged to erect signs like the one Bertorelli had on his eponymous restaurant: “The proprietors are British and have sons serving in the British Army”.

Other trades blossomed in this mêlée. Soho tailors had long been pieceworkers for fashionable West End and Oxford Street shops. By the 1890s, the Berwick Street market was a vibrant retail space: an extension to Oxford Street and also its opposite, with its shopping “area” indistinguishable from the street.

As well as leading the textile trade, the Jews of Soho livened up its more respectable nightlife, which for them centred on the dancehalls and Lyons’ Corner Houses. The Astoria opened in a basement in 1927, and just as foreign food was modified to suit English palates, so daring American and South American dances were anglicised and tamed. Lyons’ specialised in mega-catering: the three Soho Corner Houses seated 9,000 people, and saw up to 15 sittings a day: 135,000 hungry customers, coming to eat, talk, look. And even to cruise: several of the Soho Corner Houses had areas informally allocated to gay customers, with friendly “Nippies” keeping tables for regulars. Other aspects of Soho nightlife were less salubrious, with nightclubs and drinking clubs surviving thanks to illicit, or semi-licit, complicity with the local police.

In the Thirties, as crackdowns on police corruption saw many nightclubs close, Soho seemed ripe for redevelopment, and campaigners feared that the district would become nothing more than a giant car park, “London’s garage”. Thanks to the efforts of the Soho Society and others, that did not come to pass, but the creeping pornification of Soho, which replaced so many other industries, remains only briefly mentioned by the author.

She has, however, a wonderful eye for the telling detail. Soho, she notes, appeared dark and mysterious because, in truth, it was: until the Thirties, the surrounding West End street lights had three times the wattage of Soho’s, making shop and restaurant windows gleam enticingly in the gloom. She also has the ability to conjure a world in a pithy phrase: Romano’s in the Strand was a “clean-shirted Victorian bohemia”. All the more pity, therefore, that much of the book is written in Higher Crit-Speak: “female performers at the Empire publicised iconoclastic bodily idioms that troubled corporeal norms of nation, gender, sexuality and class”.

Walkowitz is famed as the author of City of Dreadful Delight, one of the classic books on 19th-century London nightlife, from child prostitution to Jack the Ripper. Now, in Nights Out, she has produced an engrossing exploration of how a district that was not quite anywhere became a synonym for the multicultural city that is London today.

Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London
Judith R Walkowitz
Yale University Press, £25, 428pp

Sweeney Todd, Adelphi Theatre

Melodrama is not something we accept easily these days, tittering gently as the gore runs, moving restlessly in our seats as heroes or villains declaim to the gallery. So all the more odd, on the surface, that Sweeney Todd is the most popular of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals. On the surface. Because, under the melodramatic posturing, Sondheim creates a cold, hard, bleak world.

So not a barrel of laughs, right? Well, no, not right either, for Sweeney Todd is Sondheim at his fastest, his most ferocious, and his funniest. The melodrama of the returned convict Sweeney Todd (Michael Ball) cutting a swathe (literally) through society in a search for vengeance is offset, and enhanced, by his besotted but pragmatic partner Mrs Lovett (Imelda Staunton), who happily bakes his leavings into pies. The mad barber roars that he will be revenged, she checks that he has enough cash to get by: they are a team because they are emotionally deaf to each other.

Mark Henderson’s genius smoky lighting fixes and focuses our attention as the action dots and darts about Anthony Ward’s splendidly grim industrial set, which gestures towards, perhaps, a semi-derelict warehouse, while his 1930s costumes update the original Victorian Sweeney to a Depression-era world, making sense of Mrs Lovett’s poverty, and the many drifting men who, unremarked, go missing after visiting the “tonsorial parlour”. Director Jonathan Kent keeps the complex action moving elegantly across the stage, using all three levels of Ward’s set to good effect as he marks out Sondheim’s shifting rhythms.

But ultimately, any Sweeney boils down to its leads. Michael Ball (pictured above right) has performed in Sondheim pieces before, most notably in Passion, that curiously film noir-ish hyper-drama. Sweeney is, however, a different kettle of mayhem. In Passion the hero is acted upon, pushed around by a psychopath until he succumbs. In Sweeney, Sweeney is himself the psychopath, the actor, not the acted-upon. And Ball, while he does well enough, is ultimately just not big enough – not  big enough psychologically, or of voice, or of sheer physical presence. (He also, for reasons I cannot fathom, sings “American” – his speaking voice is pure Brit, but he drops into transatlantic-ese the minute the music begins.)

There are no reservations, however, about Imelda Staunton (pictured above), who, theatre-goers have long known, is a Living National Treasure, and ought to be preserved by law. In “The Worst Pies in London”, Mrs Lovett’s introduction to both Sweeney and the audience, Staunton is willing to crack notes, to sing coarsely, in order to convey her character. Her “By the Sea”, the lovelorn pie-maker’s dream ditty of a little cottage where her swain can do the odd guest in, is heartbreaking as well as hootingly comic. In fact, Staunton, quiet, efficient and deadly, makes this production hers, all the while bearing an uncanny resemblance to Mrs Bones the Butcher’s Wife in Happy Families.

But in the end it is Sweeney Todd, and Sondheim, that are the stars. It may sound pretentious to compare it to Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, but in musical complexity, richness of counterpoint, and sheer bloody theatricality, it is not far off. The Dies Irae that Sondheim uses as a leitmotif rings in the ears long after the audience has returned home. Sweeney Todd is King Lear without Cordelia. It is a world of no mercy, no compassion, a world that is, tragically, all too easy to recognise.