Track 1: Losing My Mind – Liza Minnelli
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I lost my shit watching High Fidelity. It’s hard to tell what exactly it was that tipped me over the edge. Flipped me over the table. Threw me right through the looking glass. I took five pages of notes but I can’t remember writing a single thing. I felt drunk (and I wasn’t, despite the free-flowing drinks on press night – in retrospect, a clear warning sign.)
Track 2: The Sound of Failure – The Flaming Lips
High Fidelity. Beloved 1995 book by Nick Hornby. Also beloved 2000 film starring a hangdog John Cusack and Jack Black at his Jack Blackiest. And as a musical, a notorious 2006 Broadway flop (it ran for 18 previews and 13 performances.) Ben Brantley’s New York Times review of that run is the type of thing you’d show criticism students if you wanted them to see a Grade A, stone-cold pan: ”If I close my eyes and concentrate really hard,” he writes, “I just might be able to describe a show that erases itself from your memory even as you watch it.” Whew. But also true. It is not good, despite the calibre of the creative team (Pulitzer Prize winners everywhere, although tellingly not won for their work on this particular show.) How could anyone think this story would work on a massive Broadway stage? How could anyone look at the famously low-key novel and film and think – “Yes! This is it! This is what we’ve been waiting for! A show about men sitting around chatting about women and vinyl! A sure-fire Broadway hit! Rush it to production now!” And yet, here we are.
Track 3: London Boy – Taylor Swift
Vikki Stone, brought in to update and adapt the 2006 book and lyrics, relocates the musical back to London, the novel’s original setting. The film was transposed to Chicago, and the Broadway show was set in Brooklyn, but now, we’re in Holloway. Somewhat inevitably, this all leads to a sense of tonal seasickness. It feels oddly transatlantic, with parts of the book sounding incongruously American against the many concerted uses of the word “arse” and references to Woolworths, custard creams, and Battenberg cake. David Shields’ set and costume design make moves towards the charmingly shoddy, with vinyls plastered all over the walls and high-waisted trousers, band tees and thick-rimmed glasses galore, but it’s all saturated with this garishly bright hue which feels tonally at odds with the worn-down aesthetic. It’s not its biggest problem, but High Fidelity is suffering from a bit of an identity crisis.
Track 4: Yikes – Kanye West
The plot has aged like milk. It’s about a group of man-babies who work in a record shop in Holloway, led by Rob (Oliver Ormson, who treads an extremely thin line between charming and oleaginous), the guy who owns the store, who’s just been dumped by his girlfriend Laura (Shanay Holmes, doing the best she can with an utterly unforgiving role.) He’s really into making lists – top 5 albums, top five ex-girlfriends, top five self-consciously-ugly-but-actually-quite-chic-hipster jumpers, I don’t know. It’s a neat little quirk, a cute metaphor which tells us that he’s a perennial observer, not a participant in his actual life. He’s also one of the most gleefully obnoxious protagonists I’ve ever had the displeasure of watching. He is odious – completely incompetent and completely incapable of taking responsibility for his own actions. His compadres are little better – Barry (the Jack Black role, played here with relish by Robbie Durham) is an insufferable music snob, and Dick (sweetly played by Carl Au, though with a dodgily roaming Scouse accent) is just, well, a bit wet. And sure, that’s the point. They’re supposed to be a bit rubbish. High Fidelity is about how Rob goes from idiot man-child to an actual human adult. On the way, though, he harasses his ex constantly, turns up at her house every day, calls her incessantly, and does a host of other things which are pretty unforgiveable. These guys are supposed to be annoying, but fundamentally loveable. Maybe Barry and Dick get away with it, but Rob The Weirdo Stalker categorically does not.
Track 5: Good Guy – Frank Ocean
I’m reliably informed that the original book is actually quite good on masculinity, on men being lonely, on men posturing and peacocking to cover up all their feelings. Very little of that comes across here, though. The musical could be genuinely tender, genuinely sharp and precise on the ways straight men can and can’t express themselves, but those ideas are bulldozed over in favour of – well, I don’t even know what. The void, perhaps. There’s a smidge of self-awareness in the musical, but not nearly enough for it to be actually saying anything of any note. I can’t say that watching a straight guy talk about vinyl and whine about his girlfriend dumping him (for extremely valid reasons, I might add) is all that stimulating. David Lindsey-Abaire (book) and Amanda Green (lyrics) hurriedly smooth over the little bumps and nuances of the film and book, over the messy edges and uglier moments in favour of something with broad brushstrokes and big shiny smiles, aided by Tom Kitt’s blandly sheeny pop score. The problems being dealt with here come across as minute and desperately uninteresting. It’s telling that the big pre-interval number centres around Rob celebrating that he has a 9% chance of getting back together with Laura because she hasn’t slept with her new boyfriend yet. Who cares, Rob?! You total freak!! This is what’s supposed to send us excitedly out into the interval, gagging for more?! Why does this musical exist?!
Track 6: That Don’t Impress Me Much – Shania Twain
Right, let’s talk about the women in High Fidelity. They’re nothing. Literally nada. They might as well not exist. You could print out cardboard cut-outs and put them onstage and the effect would be negligible. The character of Laura is paper-thin and massively underserved – you have little to no concept of her inner life because she is constantly refracted through the lenses of the men around her. Her supposedly big ball-busting number, “Number 5 With A Bullet” is actually just a dream sequence where she (or, in actuality, a projection of Rob’s imagination) fights for a place on his “Top 5 Ex-Girlfriends.” The musical is narrated by Rob, who, in line with being a slimy, pathetic creep, suctions others into his narrative so they can’t escape his shiny, swollen psyche. The women in this musical might as well just be on a conveyor belt, simply there to serve the male ego – soothing and stroking it like it’s a skittish horse or providing some much-needed tough love that the men promptly ignore. Bobbie Little, as Rob’s straight-talking friend Liz, gets wheeled out for a single number to provide some yaas queen, finger-snapping sassiness, because, you know, feminism, or something. They’re there as props for men’s emotional growth, and very little else. Director Tom Jackson Greaves provides a little self-awareness – there’s a neat little moment in one of the numbers where Rob smarmily conducts the all-female ensemble as they dance around him – but it’s not nearly enough to save a show which is just genetically obnoxious.
Track 7: I’m On Fire – Bruce Springsteen
My friend noted as we were filing into the theatre that the preset music was recorded – despite, you know, this being a musical, and there being a live band above the stage. An odd decision. It suggests a lack of faith in the score, which is fair, because it’s pretty shoddy. I can’t remember a single tune, and it’s not even 24 hours later. It’s an extremely brave decision to make a musical based off a book and film which puritanically extol the importance of good music. There’s a moment where Kitt’s score pastiches Bruce Springsteen, but all you can think is – well, why can’t I just listen to Springsteen instead of this milky imitation? More often than not, Kitt slips into mildly entertaining, inoffensively pleasant pop tunes which enter in one ear and exit out the other within about two minutes. They pass the time, and they’re entertaining as they happen, but that’s about it.
Track 8: I Ran – A Flock of Seagulls
Honestly, I WANTED to run. Away from these charmless men.
Track 9: Now I’m In It – HAIM
And yet. Have you ever seen Mark Kermode’s review of Mamma Mia? I’ll link it here. He moves from disbelief, to horror, to despair, to acceptance, to delight. Something similar happened to me in High Fidelity. I don’t know when it was, or what strange alchemy started working in my brain, but at some point, I just started going with it. Like, sure, Ormson’s wide-eyed, unblinking performance as Rob has vaguely Ted Bundy vibes, and sure, all the women might as well not exist, and sure, the book and lyrics are at best rubbish, at worst vaguely terrifying, but I’m here now and I might as well ride this shit-wave down the sewers. It is completely absurd, and there is a perverse delight in watching the chaos go down, like watching a water balloon burst on someone’s head. “Enjoy” would be the wrong word. “Morbidly fascinated” would be more accurate. Multiple times I found myself murmuring, “I can’t believe this is happening,” mainly when Rob Tripolino’s weirdo New-Age hippie Ian did, well, anything. My brain felt fuzzy. I felt like I was coming down with a fever. I kinda…loved it? Against the better judgement of all my critical faculties, against the red flags that were popping up with alarming frequency, I…had a great time. Honestly, I think High Fidelity might have broken me.
High Fidelity is on at The Turbine Theatre till 7th December. More info here.