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Beyond The Deepening Shadow: The Tower Of London

November 14, 2018


Described as “a performance,” this was the installation commissioned by Historic Royal Palaces to run for just eight nights, leading up to and including Armistice Day 2018.

Sharing a designer in Tom Piper, whose work on the “Weeping Window” and “Arch” added so much to the poppies installed in the moat for “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” in 2014, Sound Artist Mira Calix, Creative Director Deborah Shaw, Lighting Designer Phil Supple, Staging and Movement director Anna Morrissey and Flames and Mist Effect specialist Mike Jones joined the team to create something marking the end of the First World War, as impressive as the original Tower display, yet different.

They succeeded.


10,000 circular pots of fuel at differing heights were lit each night from 5pm, calculated for the wick to splutter out at 9pm. Each was placed seemingly at random throughout the moat, just as the poppies were.

Smoke effects drifted over the field, and especially composed music played – issuing from the chest level speakers carried by mysterious grey-shrouded figures moving ceaselessly around the moat perimeter among the visitors.

Yes, there were visitors. The lucky few who, like myself, responded quickly to an Historic Royal Palaces email and bought timed entry tickets for just £5 each. An unforgettable experience.

 

Arriving on 11th November 2018, with tickets timed to enter at the exact time 100 years ago that the Treaty of Versailles was signed, I have to admit I hadn’t really known what to expect. Well, not quite true. Disappointed friends had warned of vast crowds the Friday before, so that they were unable even to reach the entrance plaza. Expecting the worst, we arrived early by a different route (walking, as advised, from Monument station to Petty Wales, avoiding the crush on Tower Hill).

 


Vast lines were obvious, myriad nationalities patient behind crowd barriers snaking for distances that would make Disney World in high summer seem deserted. Lacking sign-posts, asking at the ticket window where “moat ticket holders” should go, I was happily directed to a sectioned off entrance through which 15 minutes before my entry-time, my party was ushered with utmost courtesy.

A short time in a holding-pen (watched balefully by those in the ‘public’ line – bit embarrassing), then ushered through ticket checks to a covered pavilion on the Tower Embankment. A greeting from the Master of the Tower, then a few minutes later, ushered further, through a security check and into the Tower itself – by Traitor’s Gate.

A Yeoman Warder demonstrated parade-ground voice lessons (actors should learn), addressing about 200 of us effortlessly. Introduction to the Tower, himself and his job, and how to behave when in the moat. The latter simply to enjoy the experience on our own terms, take pictures and video by all means but no flash photography, feel free to use the benches and don’t worry about the walking artists – they wouldn’t touch us and we don’t touch them.


A walk down a cobbled slope and…


Gasps of wonder from all. Once used to being peered down at (thank goodness zoos today are more far-thinking), all concentration was on the images searing almost literally into our retinas, burning for sure into our souls.

Many cultures and religions celebrate both life and death through kindling of flame. In contrast to the grief of 2014’s poppies, the lights laid in the very same place provoked hope as well as remembrance. While observing the poppies back then, I noted the feeling of seeing soldiers, then graves, then poppies and an all-encompassing humbling.


This time, my over-riding reaction was hope. A lighting of the way.


The grey figures were shadow-guides, the music an expression of pain for sure but also with notes of wisdom and instruction. Certainly against wreaking the same level of destruction ever again (alas, ignored short decades later) but also a reminder of what had been given and how we might proceed more fruitfully from such loss and knowledge.

A slow walk, pausing for short times on the benches, the half-mile took an hour to complete. Fellow moat visitors exhibited utmost courtesy to each other, never walking into each other’s shots as photos were being taken – even sharing ideas for the best spots. Sometimes chatting and exchanging memories and thoughts, other times spread far so that for stretches we got entire sections to ourselves for private reflection.

The path wove movingly for the second quarter-mile, in between part of the display. The corner hiding the “nerve centre,” the grey spirits seemingly meeting and disbanding with more frequency, the music growing more intense.

Finally, with a last long look,


time to ascend the long ramp to the exit. An elevation of some elation, just as it should be. Leaving the Tower in 2014 with the heaviness of loss at what was to come, so 2018 the leaving was more one of hope. Despair at the loss, but a validation that the sacrifice could yet lead to a better future.

“Beyond The Deepening Shadow” is an apt title, and the highest possible tribute underlining those strongest of words spoken each Remembrance Sunday, “For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today.”

I hope that this entry is my way of honouring their desire to “Speak of Us,” and in this 100th year, my gratitude to those generations who served, and those who continue to serve for us remains as bright as those flames in Tower moat that night.

 

 

Photographs copyright Theatremonkey.com. All rights reserved. Unauthorised reproduction is not permitted.

Getting That Red Hot Ticket: Advanced Level.

November 7, 2018

With “Spice Girl” concert madness likely to strike on Saturday morning, and for those who read the most-ever read entry on this blog about buying “Hamilton” Tickets back in January 2017, this is a sequel, based on a very recent experience trying to get tickets for a concert at a well known London venue.

With spectacular bad luck, “priority booking” opened on a day and time I (for once) wasn’t able to access a computer. Some 8 hours later, when I could, I found nothing left in the front section, and a couple of tolerable single seats behind that, with some stuff in the upstairs section as well. Would there be better on public booking day? Should I chance being fairly happy against ecstatic? Hmm….

At that point, “Advanced Ticket Ninja Monkey” kicked in. “Public Booking” opened 48 hours later, and it was time to prepare by weighing up the variables.

KNOWN:
The best seats were unavailable.

Single seats were left. These sell slowly, if at all, once the initial rush is over.

Several ticket agencies in addition to the main venue promised to put tickets on sale to the public at the same time 48 hours later.

UNKNOWN:
Had all the best seats gone, and were any “held back” for public booking?

Would there be a second date added (irrelevant this time, as I couldn’t make any other)?

Did ticket agencies have their own allocation of tickets, or were they simply going to offer the same as the venue?

 

Plan:
Aside from checking occasionally the “priority booking” link in case anything else showed up, and to see if the single seats were left (yes), the big thing was to visit the major legitimate STAR (Society of Ticket Agents and Retailer) companies and find out who else would put tickets up on the day.

Agents divide into two types: Those who provide the venue with the software to run their box office, or have a business partnership; and more general agents who are allocated a block of tickets to sell or are allowed to sell via the venue’s website but at the price the agent chooses.

To distinguish, have a look at another show, or indeed the name of the venue on that venue’s official website. You’ll see a ticket agency logo or name of a booking company somewhere. Something like “Eventim Apollo” says that Eventim are the ticket company providing the official software. “Powered by Ticketmaster” is another giveaway. Just comparing the style of an agency’s website – page layout and how the seat buying page looks – with that being used by the venue’s website also always shows the direct link.

Find an event with tickets available, and get to the “choose a ticket” screen. Now, do the same with other trusted ticket agencies. You may find, once past the agency’s own website screens that you very obviously end up on the same website as the original venue. If the agency have cleverly incorporated the venue technology into their own page design, though, dig a little deeper.

Look at the “address bar” in your browser, and compare the web address. If you see reference numbers for that performance date that match both on the official website AND that of the agency – you know they are “fishing in the same pool” and won’t have a different choice of seats available. Same chocolate, different wrapper, basically.


In my case, Eventim and AXS matched, so I knew not to bother trying more than one of those. Ticketmaster and See, however, only gave a countdown to booking opening, with no means of finding out more until the day.

Note it’s also a good time to check your browser is compatible with the booking system of each agency, by selecting a ticket and making sure you can get as far as the checkout, just saying. Good practice for the day, too, familiarising yourself with how the systems work.

 

PUBLIC BOOKING DAY
About 15 minutes before booking opened, time to get those tanks into position. Opening windows to the venue’s website and those of likely agents.

Oh, and a quick reminder tip for “Spice Girls” fans using Ticketmaster – the Ticketmaster system doesn’t like multiple windows open in the same browser. Use different browsers (IE, Chrome and Firefox, for example) rather than multiple windows in one. And more than one machine, too, raises your chances.

Now, here was the interesting part: more data became available. The display at See Tickets indicated that only tickets in the lower price bracket were going to be available. Instantly, that told me See were selling from the same pool of tickets as everybody else. I didn’t waste my time, and closed that one.

Ticketmaster were still cagey. I let them be as the clock ticked to 5 minutes to booking opening. In the back of my mind, though, was that the pool could well be shared here too. On the other hand, Ticketmaster sometimes do “hospitality packages” with amazing front seats – if the price were reasonable…

On the venue’s own website, with 5 minutes to go, I waited. BUT in another window I used my “priority tickets” link to just see what was going on. I found the same situation as the past 48 hours. This time, I put the remaining single ticket into my basket, and took it to a point where I had 15 minutes to accept it or release for someone else. A slight chance I.T. could crash under the strain, but a calculated risk, I felt.

Clock strikes. Ticketmaster booking opens… turns out they had the same pool after all, and no package deals either.

Back on to the page holding my ticket, checked out, job done. So I’m a few rows further back than I’d really like, but I’m seeing the show, and I’m happy.

So, there you have it. It’s not just about getting a place in line on the day – as the previous blog has it. It’s also about managing your expectation by finding out exactly what tickets are likely to be left, and who may be selling them. Do all that, and remember the magic period you may be given (not all companies do) to compete the transaction, and you are again a few paces ahead in the race.

Des O’Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck: New Wimbledon Theatre.

October 31, 2018

(seen at the performance on 16th September 2018).

Broadcasters aren’t keen on older, white men on TV any more. As Tarbuck admits here, the main reason he isn’t on television is because he can’t cook. The fact over two-thirds of a vast London suburban theatre was full and constantly echoing to laughter for over two and a half hours says more about the state of the nation than the censorious controllers of broadcast media ever can.

Tarbuck and O’Connor appearing together top and tail the show, with Tarbuck taking most of the first half. He gives us a mixture of stand-up, memories and a bit of video (his scoring a goal at Wembley his highlight), sing-a-long (acapella “Do-Re-Mi”) and some “Q and A” when the audience is relaxed enough to be coaxed into it.

For instant transportation back to days when the true “British sense of humour” wasn’t silenced, when everybody knew “it’s only a joke” really did mean that – and was taken that way, and the politics of the few didn’t leave the rest feeling constricted by views they didn’t agree with but couldn’t push against… this was bliss.

Blue, sometimes, but never crude. Stories flowed, wordplay and anecdotes mixed, those who used to grace our screens but have passed are remembered. Time flew even as the clock whirred backwards.

Second half, Mr O’Connor (with false teeth – you had to be there at the interval to get that one) took over. Aged 86, cursed with a trapped nerve in the back that makes walking difficult, talking slightly slurred and gives a rictus grin, this man is the definition of “showbiz legend and trouper.”

Who else in that condition can give 50 minutes of songs, stories and glorious video commentary – and be brave enough to admit that the audience was the one thing making him feel well? In that context, his brief run at “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” out-did for pathos anything even latter-day Garland was recorded singing.

His wife even joined him for her rendition of “I Will Always Love You” – and it was a good one. More to the point, she clearly meant every word and it was reciprocated in their joined hands.

Brought together for some final laughs before the curtain, a cheeky re-written “Favourite Things” had the entire audience mentally adding this pair of names to the end of the list.

It may be “underground in plain sight” but this is proof that there is a real Britain still out there away from the howlings of online and the radio, television and newspapers dictated to. A slice of nostalgia, but also an even bigger helping of hope, and a salute to the truly golden years of entertainment. Here’s to them both.

______________________________________________________

And, just for contrast and for the record…

Spamilton: Menier Chocolate Factory.
(seen at the afternoon performance on 2nd September 2018).

Suffice to say an utter disappointment from a long-term fan of the “Forbidden Broadway” series. Plenty of very old material re-used, and the new stuff served only to tilt at the dull targets of 20 years or more ago, once again.

With the venue running out of programmes – with almost 3 weeks of the show left to run – and no cast list, it’s impossible to name the actors who did pretty well in this (and they are blameless). This is a miniature acknowledgement of that.

Sadly, unlike every CD ever issued by the team, this had me grinning slightly just once (Sondheim as the Yoda of Broadway) – and that is the best that can be said.

1 star. Wouldn’t want to be in the room where it happens ever again, thanks.

Early Doors: Apollo Hammersmith (and touring)

October 24, 2018

Seen at the performance on 2nd October 2018.

Do you like circuses? I loved this one. So glad I was in the regiment, not just wishing I was there.

If those phrases meant anything to you, then you too must be a fan of this mid 2000’s sitcom set in Northern pub “The Grapes.” Nothing ever happens, except that it does. Landlord Ken (John Henshaw) lives with mother Jean (Judith Barker) above the pub. He lusts after barmaid Tanya (Susan Cookson) and it is this triangle that forms the basis of this brand new just-for-stage script.

Downstairs, crotchety barfly Tommy (Nick Birkinshaw – his casting explained with a terrific one-liner) is the most instantly memorable of the drinking population. Corrupt coppers Phil (James Quinn) and Nige (Peter Wright) drop into the kitchenette (super stage design by Liz Ascroft) to regale Ken with their lazy exploits and relieve him of all spirits – literally.

Also back are likely lads Joe (Craig Cash) and Duffy (Phil Mealey) whose lives have moved on now that internet dating is possible. A good sub-plot involving Debbie (Lisa Millett) makes the most of this pair… when they can get their lines out and stop “corpsing,” that is.

Sadly, Eddie and Joan are gone, but replacements June (Vicky Binns) and Freddie (Neil Hurst) are in the spirit and deliver the odd line to great effect.

For nearly two hours, the Cash and Mealey script delivers a strong plot – nicely tied up by daughter Mel (Laura Woodward – pleasant singer, too). There’s old and new jokes, one-liners galore and space for genuine emotion not just pathos.

Frankly, you’ve got to admire the intelligence of the writing and love any show opening with a fabulous musical theatre back-reference. That’s both confidence and class.

The newcomers to the cast, mostly replacing actors who have passed away… plus a few way too expensive to do this old tat (joke) blend in seamlessly with the old regulars. Both they and the audience are as one, having a good time and also finding out a little more about ourselves and humanity in the process.

Fans will love this, newcomers may well get the appeal and want to watch the original programmes.

To the regiment, glad I was there.

 

4 stars.

Once: Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch

October 17, 2018

 (Seen at the afternoon performance on 11th October 2018).


Czech Girl (Emma Lucia) sees angry Irish Guy (Daniel Healy) busking in the street. Each carries gaping open wounds where recent love has gone wrong. Each also carries the spirit of music within themselves, and it is this which draws them together. How dreams are realised and lives begin to move on is the theme of the show, and the story is lyrical yet literal, with a searing emotional honesty.

Director Peter Rowe has taken the original West End and Broadway version to new heights, with a more cinematic approach than previously. Scenes move more quickly, musical interludes working as “establishing shots” to ease each transition.

Gone are the formal rows of chairs at the sides of the stage. The evocative (Libby Watson) multi-purpose set has characters relaxed around pub tables or between musical equipment. Beds, workshops, offices and the entire Dublin cityscape are rolled out as required, with a lovely ‘cliff and sky’ moment too.

This allows the entire cast a more fluid realism in performance, giving them the opportunity to discover hitherto hidden dimensions within both their characters and even the plot.


Strongest is the dynamic between Guy and Girl. This time, the lacerations of their hearts are at the forefront of their minds. Guy is simply angry, Girl lost and keeping steady because it is Czech tradition.

Emma Lucia reveals everything with an “If You Want Me” of yearning sensuality, the best rendition I’ve ever heard and given extra life with a terrific trio routine as it develops.

Daniel Healy’s defining moment is literally “Gold” (though his mirror-posing “Broken Hearted Hoover Sucker Guy” is hilarious – Elvis may never be the same again).

The show is very much an ensemble piece, though, and each member of the ensemble is an extraordinarily special actor / musician.


Kate Robson-Stuart eschews the original stereotype, making Reza fully a strong woman in a foreign land. Already a free spirit used to manipulating all for her own purposes, but now using it as a defensive weapon as well, with high intelligence and a rather stunning shoulder tattoo.

Also in the Czech tribe, Susannah van den Berg plays a mean accordion and stands a strong matriarchal figure. A little note for  Lily-Anne Wilkin (Ivonka) who clearly enjoyed the wonderfully tribal “Ej, Pada, Pada, Rosicka” as much as anyone.

Speaking of, James William-Pattison (Andrej) and Lloyd Gorman (Svec) are wished much luck in the “lucky suit” and deserve success with both careers and curing their Soap Opera / coffee addictions.

For the native community, Peter Peverley (Da) has a wisdom (and lovely sly wit) Guy will hopefully inherit. Samuel Martin (Bank Manager) deals skilfully with both rendering “Abandoned In Bandon” and a critique, delivered with an impeccable timing that should make Simon Cowell consider retiring.

Later, Caolan McCarthy (Eamon) does a lovely job evolving his mental attitude during a 24 hour recording session. Sean Kingsley (Billy) gets a longer time-frame but does likewise and seizes the opportunity to be truly memorable even in brief appearances.

The same is true for Rachel Dawson (Ex-Girlfriend). A cliché is that a good actor is noticed for a tiny role. This really is that cliché. Her perfect, truly perfect, phone call scene must be a calling-card. The reaction is beautifully played also by Guy and Girl.


In true Irish fashion, perhaps the only “but” is that the “pre-show” seems a little too formal, with the tuning-up a little less convincing than the West End’s original freer “jam session.” The show doesn’t quite begin with the same unexpected evolution – a simple lighting cue on a line, almost – which would be lovely to have back. Such a minor quibble as to be meaningless in this glorious revival.

At the time of writing, the Ambassadors Theatre in the West End is unexpectedly free. If Reza and Billy were to go and seduce / threaten the owner, while Guy and Girl tap Bank Manager for the extra cash…

If only. I made a 4 hour round-trip to get to this, and it was worth every second. There’s still a few performances left, if you can, just go. This production’s new sunlight is purest Gold.

 

5 stars, standing ovation and full-fledged sobbing.

 

Dance Nation: Almeida Theatre

October 10, 2018

(Seen at the afternoon performance on 8th September 2018).

From “A Chorus Line,” through “Fame,” to “Glee” and “Dance Moms,” the USA has been crazy about telling the stories of “What I Did For Love.” To dance for an audience, whatever the cost.

Clare Barron’s angle is Dance Teacher Pat’s (Brendan Cowell) local after-school “Dance Company” (as we Brits have learned to call them). Seven pre-teen girls and one boy doing their all to beat the local competition and make it from ‘regionals’ to the ‘National‘ contest in Florida.

We get a series of decently choreographed (Aline David) routines, interspersed with monologues, duologues and occasional group dialogues as hopes, fears and intergroup friendships and rivalries are played out.

The twist is just how explicitly these children express themselves. Bodies are changing, hormones are kicking in and the scary dealings with menstruation, virginity and coming to terms with the roles they will play in their lives are the central themes. Chants of “pussy” (and descriptions of interactions and intensely personal relationships with them); stress and self-harm, irrationally built and demolished dreaming all play a part. It’s tough being 11, 12 and about to be pushed into a whole class above, where once the biggest fish must fight to rise again.

Given the content, it’s no real wonder that adults play the children. Unfortunately, to my mind at least, it rather loses the edge of innocence that may lend the words true verisimilitude. While I also accept there is a dimension of contrast in the decision, it’s actually distracting to consider the idea when the concept is that the children are discussing and expressing themselves through the medium of their childish bodies in the first place.

The other problem is that it all feels to knowing. I’m no expert in children, but the lines spoken seem to come from a far more adult perspective than might be expected – retrospective rather than in very current development. There’s more than a hint that the author doesn’t fully trust her own understanding of youngsters either, undermining further confidence in her central concept.

Still, the performances are mostly interesting. Stand-out dancer Amina (Karla Crome) deals with tricky situations with honesty. Pressured Zuzu (Ria Zmitrowicz) is lumbered with melodramatics in excess of even her tender years and manages some credibility.

Connie (Manjinder Virk) and Dance Teacher Pat have probably the most shocking scene of adult betraying child, and play it well. Token male child Luke (Irfan Shamji) isn’t given much to do – probably even surplus to the play itself – but makes the most of a neutered role.

The neat Samal Blak design of rehearsal mirrors and trophy shelves is effective, and Moritz Junge (costumes), Lee Curran (lighting) and Marc Teitler (sound and composition) lend the whole an authenticity the writing sometimes lacks.

And at that point, I was really prepared to let the production slide. It was mildly interesting, covered no new ground and shocked in a rather crass manner when intelligent alternatives were available. Still, at least it wasn’t dull.

Sadly, that was all totally undermined on my way home. Got off the underground train at my station, just as a delightful 6 year old girl also alighting with her family pipes up, “that journey was a right pain in the bottom.” Smackdown, Clare Barron. Sorry, but you lose, game, set and match to that, and nothing more can be said.

 

2 stars.

Holy Sh!t: Kiln Theatre

October 3, 2018

(seen at the evening performance on 25th September 2018).

Juliet and Simone met at Oxford University, and remain friends after 20 years. Now married with children, they are fighting for places at the only decent school in the area.

St Mary’s is a church school, and it’s “knees or fees” to get in and avoid paying for the private school alternative – 40 ticks in the church register built up each Sunday. Juliet finds her Christian faith “re-awakening.” So does Simone… except that Simone is Jewish.

Alexis Zegerman’s comedy drama is built on wonderfully observed characters. Each has depth and history, and even better, Zegerman isn’t afraid to “drop a bomb” whenever things are getting cosy. This happens pretty often, but for those expecting a left-wing polemic, this really isn’t it. Probably the most right-wing views I’ve heard in theatre for a long while, in fact.

Topics range from the central one of just wanting to “play the system” as everyone else does, forced to as the system doesn’t work; through where racism comes from and may be going, to simply fitting in and how a parent must sacrifice for a child’s future.

For the most part, it motors along pretty well. The off-stage children play pivotal roles, and there are some interesting avenues of morality and culture that beg for a sequel or at least an extra few minutes of exploration.

The second half (particularly the final scene), is far stronger than the first. The fact it makes sense of the whole preceding couple of hours redeems the entire play, making audiences forgive the odd longue.

Daon Broni (Nick Obasi) gives the performance of the evening, an impressive piece of technical acting requiring a mood to be held for a prolonged period before release in a delivery that stuns the audience into silence.

Wife Claire Goose (Juliet Obasi) is successful in being exactly the woman everybody knows. 40-something, highly educated but turning to mush due to childcare and existing on one income, body-clock ticking for a sibling. That she keeps her acting within reality even as the script spins is sound work.

Dorothea Myer-Bennett (Simone Kellerman) works through the peculiarities and contradictions required of her with some aplomb. Probably a candidate for the revival of “Starlight Express” (you have to have been there, in-joke) and more than scheming, yet keeping a degree of sympathy even as sharp intakes of breath are required.

Daniel Lapaine (Sam Green) gets the only false note in the production. Guess what? The author goes for a “middle aged white man who can’t grow up and has a light drug issue and isn’t keen on responsibility.” With that lazy stereotype, Lapaine manages to find a degree of humour and shows more humanity in a moment every parent dreads than the writer probably intended.

It isn’t perfect, thanks to this flawed character, and sometimes the scripting feels like the odd idea could be removed if it can’t be explored properly. Still, it’s highly original, the dialogue is mostly crisp and the acting pulls through any shortcomings.

Worth seeing, particularly if you can get a baby sitter for that 4 year old who needs a place at a good school – there’s ideas here this application season…

 

Four stars.