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Would KISSING bring the public back to theatre?

October 11, 2017

For those who don’t know, the West End went through one of its toughest Summer and Autumn seasons ever this year. Even “hit” shows had empty seats – yet the city was full of tourists and everybody was ignoring those idiots, you know the ones I mean.

Thing is, I think it goes deeper – a thought confirmed to me in a chat about the state of ticketing in general, in which the feeling was expressed and agreed that it’s now “simply too dang difficult to buy a ticket.” Yet, the industry has spent a fortune on new booking websites, and as never before you can choose a seat and have the ticket in your hand before you even close the browser window.

So, what’s gone wrong? My suggestion is that some things are now too illogical for the casual “once a year on the wife’s birthday” visitor to follow. A bad experience, and they are off forever to find some other means of celebrating, as it were.

To that end, I’m thinking that the entire industry should consider that old management phrase “KISS” – Keep It Simple, Stupid!

A few ideas to do just that may include:

1) Becoming pro-active about website names. Still, the name of a theatre with a dotcom on the end all to often goes to a ticket agency – either legitimate or not – that adds a massive service fee on a narrow range of tickets. How can a regular customer be expected to know that in the West End, most theatre chains rather than individual theatre names are used to access the box office? If you want to see “42nd Street” is the place to be – do customers always know that?

Appealing to get the name back is costly, but perhaps worth it? Failing that, what about venues clubbing together to buy the “toplevel” ending “dot officialtickets.” That way, they have control over who can create names like, say “Harrypotter.officialtickets” and have total control of the sites they point to, as only the official venue owner or producer can buy the name – and it can be withdrawn at any time if abused. On the same subject, there are websites who are not members abusing the STAR logo, time for a crackdown?

2) Fix those prices. As in, let’s stop them zooming up and down like a faulty Canary Wharf elevator. At the very least, end the horrible patchwork quilts where three adjacent seats are 3 totally different prices for exactly the same view. Give customers confidence that booking early will always save them money. Amazon does, and it is the reason I buy from those, yes, well, moving on.

3) Think again about how far in advance customers book. The trend now is for even big shows like “The Book of Mormon” to dribble tickets only two or three months ahead out. That’s fine, makes a lot of sense in some ways as sales increase nearer the date and you can put the prices up… but for those “sure fire” holiday periods when folk plan further ahead, it can be a real problem – at least to those who contact Theatremonkey.

4) Have a long think about the spectacular “new period on sale” rush. If your machinery can’t cope, the next day’s news is not happy reading. Pre-register (not ballot, let all those who want to have a chance) but do it in a way that limits numbers. For example, I want to book in April, so I register for the April period – and have an allocated date, time period and access code that will let me and only as many others as the system can handle, book for that month.

5) Kill the touts. I’m thinking heads on pikes along Shaftesbury Avenue. No, I’m meaning let’s ban those re-sale sites in favour of something that gives the venue full control of tickets and pricing. A whole other blog I’ve written before, but anyway.

And finally, as we have followed Broadway with the horrors of extreme “dynamic pricing” how about letting London have the same protection Broadway gives customers over stars not appearing. If the name is above the title but the name is under the weather, let’s follow America and allow an exchange.

All fairly big stuff, but sometimes a KISS is a pretty good start, I think.

On Blind Casting

October 4, 2017

Colour and gender. In theatre, they often determine who gets the part. Wrong levels of melanin and number of X chromosomes means you get to keep on flippin’ those burgers / answering those phones, kid.

“Colour / Gender Blind Casting” is the industry’s reaction to this. The best actor (the word Actress is frowned on, for those selecting to identify wholly in that historical gender label) for the job – gets the job.

Theatre is about making audiences believe in a particular world, so why shouldn’t they accept that woman is man, that a black woman is a white man or whatever? After all, Shakespeare never had a woman play Juliet, and London was a cosmopolitan city with people from all nations living in it.

The question I raise, though, is about those times when such casting makes an audience feel uncomfortable about themselves. For me, that’s when casting is done not because the right person has been found, but when a production team seemingly decide simply to “make a point.” Sometimes it even feels like audiences are “having their noses rubbed in it” too. Instead of the joyous celebration of, say, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Cymbeline,” the result is a confusion that makes audiences fester with uncertainty and ignore the merits of a production as they struggle to be liberal when it goes against all their personal natural instincts.

An online friend was telling her parent about the 2017 production of “A Tale of Two Cities” at the Open Air Theatre. Before she could get the words out, her mother guessed instantly that a pair of identical people, crucial to the plot, were this time played by a Black and White actor respectively.

Let’s be clear, both actors were outstanding… and the artistic vision brave to have faith in its choice, and frankly, it worked for me. And yet, and yet… for those around me… going by the reviews and opinions I read online…

Is there a point beyond which audiences cannot be stretched? Is it when audiences begin to fear they are being required to take part in Orwellian “Double-think” when all they want is an entertaining night out? Do they sniff a Crypto-Marxism that they can’t identify but fear? Do they feel they will be branded if they voice even the smallest “why?”

There’s also the chance of a “back-fire.” I was recently angered by the female Rabbi in religious outfit at the opening of “Angels In America Part 1.” I thought the director was trying to make a “point” insensitively – after all, portraying a female Imam would be out of the question. Fortunately, a good online friend happens to have a PhD in the play, an article in the show’s programme (Dr Garside) and relationship with the production. She assured me it was cast and played as per author’s original instructions. From that, we realised it was a reference to “Yentl” – a big film at the time of the original production, and the writer was just trying to tie old and new America. Had “making a point” casting not existed, would I have seen it far quicker? Possibly… and I’m sure some will still have reservations about the idea in the first place.

Opening up roles and debate is excellent, but if an audience feels in any way confused, or more likely “shut down” by something instead, that has to be counter-productive. Can it be that some elite artistic vision is too strong for the wider public? If so, are there gentler ways to educate, means without fear of something different, rather than seemingly trying to replace one ill with another – substituting apartheid with a form of cultural fascism, almost?

Difficult questions, and one to which I’d love to find an answer and unite the theatregoing and theatre-creating worlds thinking more closely.

Against: Almeida Theatre

September 27, 2017

(seen at the afternoon performance on 16th September 2017).

Ben (Ben Whishaw) is a 20-something internet billionaire drifting around the USA, talking to people about violence of all kinds. From the parents of a High-School-Shooting killer, to an ex-sex worker now University tutor, to those working in an “Amazon-like” warehouse. Every utterance is posted online by loyal aid Sheila (Amanda Hale). Later, he has a crisis of confidence, holes up in his old family home and meets up with 12-year-old best friend, now teacher Kate (Amanda Hale again).

And that is about it, and yes, it really is as vacuously self-indulgent as it sounds.

It’s to the enormous credit of the cast that they stay around to perform the second act (a fair few in the audience didn’t stay to see it). Probably, they knew that the “home” scenes were the only ones with any meaning, a little simple humility and touch of human contact and characterisation.

For the rest, every single actor does what they can to make this horrific juvenile train-of-thought have some meaning. The distinct impression I got was that author Shinn was one of those children whose parents praised him for remembering simply to breathe, and nobody ever stopped telling him that his slightest utterance was purest gold. It’s the only possible explanation.

Actually, it possibly isn’t. Extrapolating from the worst of American television, and the odd visit to the country, there is a sense that what is considered “open and discursive” over there, is simplistic exhibitionism to the British ear. If I am kind, the argument that the play “simply didn’t travel” could be put… and to a point I’d accept it. Sadly, after 2 and a half hours of purest tedium (think trying to discuss the Korean Missile Crisis with Donald Trump, or any other semi-articulate 4-year-old) I’m unwilling to make the final compromise.

There are hints of a decent play, gaining it a single star. The final sequence, in which a working man fights for his right to earn a living raise a useful point, but it is too little, and far too late. A nod, too, for the simple Ultz design – even if even that strays into the pretentious with a marquee that is used only as a place-holder, and a particularly daft amount of stagehand scuttling to cue the changes and shift a TV set about.

Quite why the Almeida considered this worth staging is beyond me; from programme notes) though, it seems to have been commissioned before the slightly less – but not by much – disastrous predecessor “Teddy Ferrara” polluted the Donmar last autumn. We can only hope that the writer gives up soon, or at least loses the postal address for London in his computer.

Meanwhile, take the safe option and try not to buy a ticket, is the only advice I can give. Just occasionally, us reviewers suffer so that you don’t have to. That’s the true definition of anti-violence in anyone’s book.

Starlight Express Concert Workshop Performances: The Other Palace Theatre.

September 20, 2017

Seen on 14th September 2017.

I was lucky enough to attend the original show just a few days after press night in 1984. So I recall the excitement and innovation, the sheer spectacle and the fact that while it didn’t always make sense (and was ear-splittingly loud), it was enough fun that I saw it and the 1990s updated version several more times.

The show still plays in Bochum, Germany. Andrew Lloyd Webber visited recently, found that his score had been locked away… and decided to use his London Experimental theatre to take a look at the show once again. Introducing the work (and Arlene Phillips, original choreographer), the composer said that every performance during this week would be different, as they try other things, so what I saw won’t necessarily be what others did on other dates. This isn’t a review either, more a few notes on what did go on, in a little chug down memory lane.

Using just a few props – a rucksack or two, a foam brick, some red heels borrowed from “Kinky Boots” and 16 of the biggest talents in London, this was a pretty good attempt.

Much of the music remains unchanged, but a lot of the lyric has been polished – re-written to bring it up to date, lines changed to accommodate slight variations in the story, and a few songs re-ordered in the show for greater impact.

The story remains that of a little boy’s dream – a conceit introduced for the 90s revised version, and it works pretty well. It’s still a battle of the trains for speed on the track and the right carriage to haul, but it’s become more democratic, with lady engines and the women being stronger and more independent than in the original.

The casting is impressive. Oliver Tompsett stops the show as Greaseball, George Ure looked surprised at the reaction to his own “Starlight Express” closer to act 1, while Liam Tamne’ bi-sexual Electra is everything the new show could want. Sneaky Patrick Sullivan brings back C.B. with gusto, too – and the only really dated (but MUST be left in) – lyric in the show. Poppa becomes Momma, with Mica Paris bringing the house down twice, solo with the Blues, dueting with Rusty on “Only You.”

Rusty’s love Pearl is given the full Duracell / Energiser Bunny treatment by Christina Bennington. The lady never stops moving, even when stopping the show with “Make Up My Heart” and the new final duet with her Rusty.

Always another guaranteed show-stopper, Natalie McQueen’s perfect timing brought the house down with U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D, while Sabrina Aloueche found something new in Belle, and Laila Zaidi’s Tassita suggests this extra carriage should have a larger role.

With a great ensemble around them, certainly, this was a worthwhile exercise in many ways. I’m not entirely convinced that the mixture of 1980s and current musical styles always work, but most of the change do make sense. Truthfully, I’m also not entirely sure how commercially successful a full run would be either, and I do worry that the critical reaction will be surprisingly negative. The show has its own logic, but there never will be a deeper story – even if strengthening the religious theme is rather interesting.

My own suggestion (on the in-house survey sheets we were asked to complete) is that the show be done using a purpose designed marquee. Trains are played with hovering over or standing inside the tracks, and with full control of the space – unlike a normal venue – seating and tracks could be arranged so that everybody is within 4 rows.

If this event proved one thing, it is that the show does work best with everybody close, on skates or not.

A fun, fascinating and nostalgic 2 hours and 15 minutes. Well worth the £25, and a 4 star show in itself, if it were to be judged that way – with a full 5 for a truly starlit cast.

Yerma – Young Vic Theatre

September 13, 2017

(seen at the afternoon performance on 26th August 2017)

Better late than never is my own luck in finally getting to see this thrilling piece of theatre. Sadly, it’s also almost the theme of the play.

Based on the Spanish Lorca story of a woman whose only real crime was wanting a child to the point of obsession. Writer / director Simon Stone has updated the tale to feature London media folk, and the result is biting.

Billie Piper (Her – though I think the name ‘Louise’ was used once) is the deserved recipient of the 2016/7 Olivier Award for Best Actress. Through the fabulously voyeuristic devise of a reflective oblong (Lizzie Clachan), we see the heart and soul of a hopeful 30-something splinter. Every brave face, declaration of love, each moment of hope is just another cruel chipping away. Stone’s writing, however, manages to control the dramatic tension and hold shape over 100 unbroken minutes so that the final result is neither foreseen nor suffering the inevitability of melodrama expected of a lesser writer.

Piper may be at the centre, but partner John (Brendan Cowell) a businessman whose support is tested equals her performance. The movement of two matched career people in opposite directions while still keeping in step is fine acting – his confessions as genuine as her reactions.

Charlotte Randle (Mary) as the fertile sister with the unstable home life is a sharp counter-point, nicely relaxed about revealing the realities of motherhood. Mother of both Her and Mary, respected academic Helen (Maureen Beattie) has an even drier take on that matter – “Alien” being the simile. Beattie’s timing and characterisation are particularly impressive, capturing the development over time in fewer scenes.

Notes too for young Des (Thalissa Teixeira), friend and blog assistant, thrown in as a reminder of Her younger days. Equally Victor (John MacMillan), a small but key role in the narrative, is a neat reflection of John as things might have been.

Short scenes, with multiple impressive scene changes – applause for Rhodri Evans, Assad Jan, Tim Knight, Ryan Smalley, Sam Shuck, Sophie Rubenstein, Louise Quartermain and Ella Saunders as crew and stage management – work perfectly to give a period of life no couple would wish to live through.

Millions do, human biology defeating medical technology and triggering simple heartbreak. This tale serves the whole thing up without judgement, without glossing over facts and with an emotional punch to leave the audience staggering at the end.


5 Stars and a standing ovation to all involved, and more important, strength and hope to all those for whom this is less a fiction, more a living reality.

Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole: Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre.

August 9, 2017

(seen at the afternoon performance on 6th August 2017).

Back when the internet was young, and even younger, a Nottingham teenager around 14 and a bit years old, emailed the Theatremonkey office to inform us that the Adelphi Theatre had an extra row not shown on our seating plan. From that, a “John Tydeman / Adrian Mole” correspondence evolved, an eager slew of reviews, articles – and occasional short plays too. All of unique, impressive quality. A decade or so later, the wider world now recognises and appreciates Jake Brunger’s talents.

This isn’t the first time Mole has been adapted as a musical. At the height of 1980s “Mole Mania,” Wyndhams Theatre hosted a hugely successful but questionably written version. It didn’t work particularly well, and nor, really, did the TV adaptations. Come 2017, however, Brunger and co-creator Pippa Cleary have found the key, and unlocked its true stage potential.

Brunger and Cleary have realised that, while the book is the cerebral musings of a frustrated nearly 14 year old, a stage version must be situation rather than character-led. That vital difference gives us not just an insight into Townsend’s imaginative characters, but an always involving, frequently hilarious, sometimes bittersweet insight into an entire world beyond his singular observations.

We follow Adrian from one booze-addled New Year’s Day to the next, as he loses and gains mother, step mother, tonsils, a bully, a pensioner and most of all, a treacle-haired girlfriend… all in the space of 12 months. Oh, and spots, of course.

Part cartoon, part drama, part, well, fly-on-the-wall, Luke “In The Heights” Sheppard gives us a (big and) bouncy energy on a crazily inventive Tom Rogers set. Rebecca Howell obliges with some terrific choreography – Adrian and Pandora getting an unforgettable pas-de-deux, Doreen Slater a chance to let rip, and more – and Alex Parker’s orchestra carry us along for the ride.

Witty dialogue and sparky lyrics, a whole bunch of cracking songs – “Perfect Mother” and “Now That I’m With You” being just two highlights – and a Nativity Play that needs to be written in full (as well as requiring to be seen to be believed).

Even better, the cast are around the correct ages of the characters. Three teams share duties, and on this occasion Adrian was calling himself Ben Lewis. Not being played by Ben Lewis, just for some reason Adrian was calling himself Ben. That’s all. I’m certain of the fact. Similarly, Pandora, undercover as “Asha Banks,” had a soft steel core to render any teenage boy helpless in her presence. Certainly one Amir Wilson, as neatly done sidekick Nigel called himself, agreed. Making up the quartet, Connor Davis (Barry Kent) is not only an able singer and comedian, but can add puppeteer to his CV. Simon Lipkin should be afraid, very afraid – and not just for his dinner money.

In the grown-up department, Dean Chisnall is ever-reliable as George Mole. How the idiot storage heater (bet nobody under 40 remembers those!) salesman let the vivacious Kelly Price (Pauline Mole) go, though, is inexplicable… John Hopkins as Mr “Creep” Lucas really got lucky there. He’s one heck of a headmaster too – “Popeye Scruton” to the max. Slipping too far into Beano territory perhaps, but fun.

As teacher Miss Elf, Lara Denning makes plenty of a smaller role too, but really comes into her own later as George’s hilariously uncouth lover Doreen Slater, with a scene-stealing song and dance routine to match. Gay Soper as Grandma Mole is her usual delight, her bracing advice to her grandson a comedic highlight. Barry James (Bert Baxter) is also fabulously cantankerous, with one of the best commentaries on a Royal Wedding, ever.

Sure, there are faults. Adrian’s trade mark “missing the point every time” isn’t always at the fore, perhaps, and there is a certain softening of general attitudes towards children, gender roles and authority that isn’t true to the spirit of the times. The show itself also takes a while to get going, with the early classroom scene a little long once the basics have been established. Having the adults play extra children so soon is both mildly disconcerting and distracting (pigtailed pensioners, Ms Price keeping the dads in the audience interested; moving on) though some good one-liners just about style it out. The second act has most of the pacier fun too, though again that is probably as it should be.

A few anachronisms also slip in. “Multi-tasking” wasn’t a 1980s phrase, nobody had nylon school rucksacks (we used sports-bags, as Adrian’s own diary notes). Cordless home-phones were a little later, as were spiffy stage-management equipment, super-soaker water-pistols and smart wooden lockers. On the other hand, I think Pandora may well have coined “BHS” as a convenient abbreviation long before Mr Green did so.

None of this matters a jot, though, in this riotously colourful, tuneful and always joyous celebration of adolescence. I admit, I’ll also add a personal pride in knowing one of the creators from “way back when,” too; but that aside, this stands as a definitive version of a much-loved book on stage. Long may it continue to be seen and performed by school and other groups, a celebration of British pre-internet adolescent anxiety – for which one Mole speaks for us all.

4 stars.

(Photographs supplied by the Menier Chocolate Factory, used by kind permission).


So, August is here, and I’m taking a blog break until the leaves fall, back on 13th September 2017.

Ink – Almeida Theatre

August 2, 2017

(seen at the afternoon performance on 29th July 2017)

In 1969, “The Sun” was a failing broadsheet newspaper, owned by Mirror Group. Enter Australian Rupert Murdoch (Bertie Carvel), a newspaper man shocked that Britain still uses “hot metal” not computers – a situation he is determined to remedy. With a rag-bag staff, poached from the company who sold him the newspaper, he sets about re-connecting with British Working People – and changes Fleet Street publishing in the process.

James Graham chooses to tell the story in similar fashion. Act 1 is the “broadsheet” as editor Larry Lamb (Richard Coyle) puts together both team and newspaper, and we get a whistle-stop education in how a newspaper was compiled in that era. Act 2 is the “tabloid,” the story of rapid grown, the McKay Affair and yes, the creation of “Page 3.”

Truthfully, it’s engrossing and irritating by turn. For the monkey, act 1 was pretty much outstanding. It happened to be sitting next to someone who worked in the industry at the time though – and the lady wasn’t quite so sure. It almost captured the atmosphere, but she was worried about the structure. By the end of the second half, the monkey agreed.

There’s an even better play in there, somewhere, and it doesn’t quite come to the fore to lift it to 5-star historic status as it hints. Somehow, the excitement of the first half, the camaraderie and very “British” humour dissipates as the pace shifts from organic to episodic. In fact, the final 20 minutes almost seem grafted on – as if they “had to cover the girl” (or indeed, uncover her) and couldn’t somehow find a place for it elsewhere in the production.

Still, this is a hugely enjoyable ensemble event. Coyle evolves from a naïve ambition to hard-bitten editor, Carvel reveals ever-more interesting aspects of the owner in a pair of award-winning performances.

For the ladies, Pearl Chandra makes Stephanie Rahn a wonderful creation, her decision and repercussions heartbreaking. By contrast, Rachel Caffrey simply IS 1969, careless airy astrologer Diana, trophy wife Anna, sexy Chrissie and a neat apprentice too. As the voice of the working woman, Sophie Stanton (Joyce Hopkirk) can’t be bettered – her frankness making many men in the audience as uncomfortable as those on stage, which is good.

Other notable performances are Jack Holden as photographer Beverley (and a neat Christopher Timothy impression – minus cows) and Geoffrey Freshwater as a militant Chapel Father.

On a perfect, shambolic news-room set (Bunny Christie, projections by Jon Driscoll) director Rupert Goold ensures a fast moving event about the happy crew who changed British news forever, and it’s a pleasure to share their story. Do catch the transfer if you can.