Review: Barbra Streisand at Castletown House, Celbridge, Ireland

My perception of the world often feels like I’m trudging through the swirling mud of my emotions, and sometimes I would much rather it wasn’t so, that I could get over myself. Last night, for example, I spent two full hours fuming at the organisation behind the Barbra Streisand concert in Castletown House, that had me and a crowd of us in our section shouting out in anger and frustration, and telling each other jokes with a gallows-like humour. Having slept on it, I realise I should have simply let go of material things, surrendered my seat, and moved to the raised seats at the back of the enormous stadium sized space, out of the chaos, where there were still a few patches of empty unsold seats. (I would guess that the evening was 95% sold out). But money has a corrosive effect, and I lost perspective on how best I could have enjoyed the evening. In other big events I have often done that, happily observing from a comfortable distance, far from the madding crowd. But what stuck in our collective craw was the price of our tickets – €200 each. For that price, we deserved better. Not VIP treatment – we plebs knew that forking out €2,000 would have guaranteed that – but basic standards of crowd management, good signage, a bit of intelligent planning – that’s what I would expect from the Rolls-Royce of open-air concerts. For example, my ticket was in Block AAA – wandering around, bewildered, I saw signs like these:

Helpful Sign

Would you go left or right? Forward or backward? What idiot thought up a system like this?

At least the shambles wasn’t due to the much-feared bad weather. With breath-taking timing and symmetry, as the show started, a beautiful rainbow arced over the main stage, with the majestic mansion as the backdrop, heralding the passing of the last shower of the evening. But the show started 45 minutes late, way past the publicized “8pm sharp” programme time, because the traffic on the way to the venue from Dublin was impossible, and at 8pm the seats were only half-full. Tailbacks had stretched for miles through endless roadworks. Everyone who had tickets for the flat central area, the vast majority of us, wandered around in the slippery mud trying to make sense of the unforgivably incomprehensible seat numbering. Stewards who were well-meaning but poorly trained did their best to direct people, but there were those who knew how the numbering went, and those who didn’t, and if you asked the wrong person you’d be directed to join the queue behind the woman who possessed the secret code to unlock the mystery of the numbering. I know this because I was sitting on a seat on the aisle, and my view, and that of those all around me, were continually obscured by damp lost frustrated people holding tickets in their hands.

My €200 viewOne wouldn’t have minded this so much if it were just the first five minutes of a show; but because of the disastrous traffic, people were continually arriving in a disgruntled stream right through the first half. Friends of mine who left Dublin at 6 arrived at 9.45, just as the interval had started. Empty seats had been taken by people who were fed up searching, encouraged to do so by stewards, only to be unseated by the rightful owners later when they eventually arrived. Some people were told that their seats had been “done away with”. Tempers were fraying all around us; it was a “fiasco”, a “disgrace”, it was “ridiculous”. People would stand in front of us because they didn’t know where else to go – this picture represents my view for most of the show – but the stewards themselves got fed up, and seemed to give up moving them along, so we ourselves had to take turns to ask them to move aside and let us see.

People seemed bizarrely oblivious that they were standing in front of rows and rows of people sitting in a supposedly classy concert – so much so, that voices behind me started hurling abuse at them, who were so exasperated that they argued back. It was a hellish atmosphere in which to try and enjoy a concert. I don’t remember much of the first half, I was so distracted. The two screens on either side of the vast stage holding the orchestra were, of course, barely visible in daylight, the sound wasn’t enveloping enough to enable me to feel connected, and I might as well have been watching a television a hundred feet away. And so, classics that have meant a lot to me in my life like People and Evergreen passed me by.

After the interval, the crowds again milled about for an unforgivably long time, but it was only as it got dark that I began to relax, at around 10.30pm. This clear viewing window lasted for approximately 15 minutes, at which time people began streaming out in front of us, desperate to beat the traffic home.

Her voice is still amazing. Not quite as piercing as it once was, it’s like a blade that has, perhaps, lost its razor-sharp edge; in her upper registers it was noticeable how she was dampening the top notes down a little, to avoid exposing its limits. She is still pitch-perfect, and utterly in command of the music and the stage, and it was obvious how this show is something she enjoys immensely. She was well supported by her quartet of male broadway singers. But I could have cried when, during “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” a group of angry people milled around in front of us again, thus ruining one of the most important songs in her canon for me. One wonderful uninterrupted number was “Have I Stayed Too Long At The Fair?” from Color Me Barbra, which was mesmeric. “Cock-eyed Optimist” was an eye-opener, fresh and amusing. “There’s a Place for Us” was beautiful.

As an artist, Streisand delivered a wonderful show, and if a DVD was produced of the evening it would probably look and sound spectacular. As producer, she failed dismally. This was the wrong venue, logistically, completely unsuited to hosting a crowd of this magnitude. Her show is not suitable for outdoors in daylight. The Irish production team let her down spectacularly, unforgivably.

Too many people had the opportunity of a lifetime ruined last night. For the sake of a romantic picture-postcard backdrop, thousands of people were treated as cattle, mere extras for the DVD. The trouble is, when you are an extra, you get paid. Do I want my money back? Everyone around me was talking about it. But, life is full of disappointments. I certainly hope MCD never get a contract like that again, they deserve to go out of business. As Barbra was talking in her well-rehearsed scripted contented wise-old-woman way about enjoying life to the full, how she was a glass-is-half-full kinda gal now, enjoying the indescribable smell of a gardenia, appreciating the unconditional love of a pet, a baby’s smile, saying how she valued truth above all, I was, I’m afraid, moved to call out “You can’t handle the truth!” and the crowd around me laughed.

Update #1: I’ve been reminded of MCD’s capacity to silence debate and would ask that people stick to direct, incontrovertible personal experiences here, if you wish to leave a comment. You may contact MCD directly here.

Update #2: Ann FitzGerald of the National Consumer Agency has asked that people register a complaint. You can do so here.

Update #3: She says here: “We would ask all consumers with complaints to contact MCD directly and to copy the NCA on all communications”

Update #4: As we’re getting close to 70 comments, I’m closing the list for discussion, it’s too unwieldy, it prints out at 24 pages! But if there are any other first-hand accounts of the concert, you may still post them. When there are other developments, I will post a new entry in the blog.

Update #5: First response from MCD here.

Update #6: Consumers’ Association of Ireland issue a Press Release.

Update #7: MCD committee produces report. Discussion here.