Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Theatre review: Master Class

Last summer I went on holiday to New York, where one of the Broadway shows I had the option of seeing was Tyne Daly in Master Class. I picked something else instead, and regretted it when I got back, as Sharon Gless' A Round-Heeled Woman a couple of months back meant I could have seen both Cagney and Lacey on stage within a few months of each other. As it turns out, skipping Master Class in New York was the right move, because it's made the trip over here to the Vaudeville Theatre, so I got to complete the set on my home turf. And while Christine's show had its moments, Mary Beth's is in a different league. Terrence McNally's play looks at Maria Callas, taking inspiration from master classes she genuinely held in New York in 1970 after her singing career ended, and creating a fictionalised version of one that casts a light on the legendary Greek singer. Callas (Daly) may no longer be opera's biggest star but she's still every inch the diva, refusing to remember the session pianist's (Jeremy Cohen) name and criticising those members of the audience she can see for failing to come up with a unique sartorial look. Over the course of the show she also coaches three aspiring singers (Dianne Pilkington, Garrett Sorenson and Naomi O'Connell) in how to perform the arias, understanding the specific demands of the role and investing it with emotion, rather than just singing with technical excellence.

Daly gives a scenery-chewing performance but of course this is a role that demands nothing less. Callas' unforgiving comments come from a genuine desire to help her students, but the one-liners McNally provides her with still serve their purpose of being hugely entertaining. There's also the odd bitch about other opera stars (a student mentions Joan Sutherland - "Please! We must not talk about my colleagues! She tried her best.") It's all delivered with great timing, Daly shooting some looks as withering as her put-downs. The supporting cast are happy to be the foils for the central performance (as well as providing some of the live operatic singing the diva is no longer able to showcase.)

My only niggle with the play is with the moments (one in each act) where an aria transports Callas back to the time in her life she herself played that role. We see her re-enacting scenes with her first husband as well as her most famous lover, Aristotle Onassis. Though these are still well done they are a bit too long and ultimately I didn't think they were necessary - as if the playwright thought he'd be criticised if he missed out the odd flashback. In fact the play is at its best in the titular master class, offering not a biography but a very telling portrait, her occasional offhand comments about growing up in Greece during the War providing a wealth of understated background. The play has a topical heart about how art isn't easy but it is important, but it's wrapped up in a show that's entertaining and frequently laugh-out-loud funny - this is one transfer from Broadway that's very welcome.

Master Class by Terrence McNally is booking until the 28th of April at the Vaudeville Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.


  1. I was very happy I picked this when I was in London two weeks ago (2 February). I solely based my decision on Tyne Daly (oh yes, I was a big fan of both Cagney and Lacey:) and agree with your review; she was amazing. She owned the stage.
    I did like the flash backs, especially the contrast between Callas' different responses to her husbands, because these showed a more personal side of her and illustrated her growth.
    Beforehand I feared the opera bits, but Callas (Daly) made even those fascinating.
    Great performance.

    1. I did like the flash backs, especially the contrast between Callas' different responses to her husbands, because these showed a more personal side of her and illustrated her growth.

      I just felt like they came from a different play, and one that wasn't as good, at that.