DISCLAIMER: This review is of a preview performance, official critics aren't invited until tomorrow night, things could change etc etc.
In 1978 Jack Rosenthal attempted to turn his TV play Bar Mitzvah Boy into a West End musical; the resulting flop was the basis for this play, Smash!, now revived at the Menier after Rosenthal's widow Maureen Lipman recommended it. A novelist, Liz (Natalie Walter,) is persuaded by producer Theo (Tom Conti) to write the book for a musical adaptation of her latest hit novel. Over the course of a year she and composer Bebe (Richard Schiff,) lyricist Mike (Josh Cohen) and director Stacey (Cameron Blakely) try to get past their constant arguing to come up with a hit show. Rosenthal doesn't paint too sympathetic a picture of the real-life inspirations for Bebe and Stacey, the former wilfully aggressive and arrogant, the latter demanding constant, costly rewrites and throwing tantrums. (Don Black, Bar Mitzvah Boy's lyricist, comes off relatively unscathed in the form of Mike.)
The play-within-a-play might be ruined by constant tinkering but Tamara Harvey's production feels under-rehearsed. At the end of the preview period the actors don't appear confident in their lines, and often step on each other's cues. In addition there's either some very poor blocking or Conti has no idea where he's supposed to be standing half the time (his programme bio annnounces that he's one of the finest actors of his generation. Not "is considered to be," not "has been called," is. Is his agent actively trying to make him look arrogant?) I'm not convinced the play itself is that strong to start with but tonight's performance suffered from a lack of energy that certainly doesn't do it any favours. The cast finally seem to hit their stride in the final scene but it's rather late by then.
A side note about the staging (set by Paul Farnsworth) which requires people on a couple of rows at the side to take a convoluted path to their seats: This takes so much of the ushers' attention that on at least two occasions that I noticed, they sent people to completely the wrong place, causing some confusion. It's not a reflection on the creative team but it inevitably starts the evening on a bad impression.
Smash! by Jack Rosenthal is booking until the 8th of May at the Menier Chocolate Factory.