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February 3, 2016

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Standing Up for London Arts Funding

February 3, 2016

It’s fashionable, every time Arts Council or Lottery funding is announced, for everybody to get upset about London getting most of the cash.

I’m going to be unfashionable, and ask, “why not?”

Most of the big theatre companies are based here, and do tour extensively. You could argue that the Royal Shakespeare Company, which now send little to London, or the Scottish, Irish or Welsh National Theatres, which send pretty much nothing, fulfil less of a touring obligation than the London-based South Bank National Theatre does.

When it comes down to it, the creatives are also here. Those who write, direct, produce the best the country has to offer, generally live and work here – or at least maintain a presence when not on their country estate.

Likewise, ever wonder why outside of London it’s hard to find a dentist? Dentists are educated people, they want to be near the highest culture. London is it. A huge concentration of keen arts lovers – at a level sufficient to keep every venue open, rather than having to close after two years of folk “just popping in to use the loo” of that shiny new theatre / gallery / café place.

That does mean that we are also lumbered, I mean endowed, with two expensive Opera Houses, when there is arguably a need for just one. OK, Covent Garden should be self-supporting, given its clientele, but wealthy people stay that way for a reason, and I guess they do pay proportionally more taxes. So, if some chav can have a free council flat, why shouldn’t a toff get a cheap night out at the opera – you know who’s paid more in.

Same goes for the wider argument. Londoners generate more tax revenue, so are entitled to see the benefit. The city does more with less cash than many others, and every little extra helps.

In particular, London is the tourist magnet of the country, and arts cash goes to help that. A worldwide hit, funded by grants (think, as ever, ‘Les Miz’ and now ‘Matilda’) returns income as it reminds those overseas that they can see a show here first – or draw them to catch the original.

The buildings too, are generally old. I wouldn’t have it any other way – give me faded gilt over concrete any day – but they require looking after, and are part of the nation’s heritage.

Finally, well, it’s London. “London and Broadway,” and we don’t mean Ealing. It’s a name, a brand, an experience… and if a few extra taxpayer pounds are required to keep it that way, I’ve no problem with that.

Macbeth, Young Vic Theatre

January 27, 2016

(Seen at the afternoon performance on 16th January 2016).

For some inexplicable reason, the Young Vic Theatre have managed to schedule three completely separate versions of “the Scottish Play” into the same auditorium, at the same time. The solution seems to be to allow whoever gets onto the stage first to perform a bit, then trick them into standing on a clever sliding platform or use a concealed door to whisk them off to a secure room while one of the other productions uses the stage until another team can escape back on.

First up, a “yoof theatre” lot have set the play in a subway tunnel, with a violent mugging to open proceedings. Sadly, their lighting lets them down with its flickering, and so team two get to take over. Three girls, fresh from Dance Acadamy via minor private ladies’ college for the ‘nice but intellectually not Oxbridge set’ get to come on and move weirdly while reciting lines they must have learned for parlour games. Last, thankfully, a professional crew from the RSC and National Theatre get to make occasional appearances and deliver the key speeches with all the aptitude you would expect of those illustrious institutions.

And yes, I’m only being about half sarcastic. Carrie Cracknell is one of my favourite directors. Always innovative, with an eye for the unusual. Sadly, here, she totally loses her touch – and indeed I’d venture to suggest, much contact with the text.

The jagged cuts between styles prevent the action from flowing. The doubling-up of characters confuses, and having witches who may or may not be pregnant and have children is simply head-scratching odd.

Only John Heffernan as the title character and Anna Maxwell Martin as his wife come out of this with any credit, both delivering key speeches in a way to thrill any child repelled (as I was) by having to deal with a dead page (not) interpreted by a brain-dead English teacher.

For the rest, I award myself points for punching myself in the mouth to keep myself silent when the witches donned ghost outfits and engaged in a skipping competition. Top marks were achieved when I actually stayed to the end.

To say much more could humiliate the blameless working on this peculiar abomination, clearly the result of – if not a “heat oppresse’d brain” then one rather soaked in a distilled grape derivative, I’d venture…

The GoodMonkey Awards 2015

January 20, 2016

Back from the break, and as ever at this time of the year, it’s “The Goodmonkey Awards.” A chance to reward and recognise everything that absolutely no other London Theatre Awards ceremony is prepared to touch with a bargepole. So, here we go:

 

Theatremonkey Gold Medal. To Mark Rylance. During the performance of “Farinelli and the King” attended, Mr Rylance noticed a disturbance in the audience seats located in a gallery at the back of the stage. He stopped his performance, (without breaking character) to make sure that a lady who had fainted was all right, only continuing when he was certain that she was being properly looked after.

 

Theatremonkey Silver Medal. To Raphael Sowole. At the performance of “Measure For Measure,” his colleague Ivanno Jeremiah was taken ill moments before the show. Mr Sowole (usually Master Froth) stepped in to take the role of Claudio as well as his own. Script in hand, by his final major scene Mr Sowole managed almost a fully acted performance, saving the show for both cast and audience alike.

 

Velvet Defibrillator Pads (to match the theatre seats): to Tom Gibbons for raking up the tension to near heart-failure inducing levels with his sound design for “A View From The Bridge” at Wyndhams Theatre.

 

A Catcher’s Mitt, for all the awards thrown at him: to Michael Urie for a fabulously funny solo performance in “Buyer & Cellar” at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre.

 

The Ed Milli Band, for the inexplicable: to “Game” at the Almeida Theatre. The strangest evening I’ve ever had in Islington. And, considering I was at University around there, that’s saying something…

 

Crystal Ball with a big tick on it: to the Society of London Theatre. I said back in August 2014 that “Miss Pappas must take the acting honours for a debut which is of Olivier standard even at her very young age” for her performance in “The Nether.” Sure enough, her and her three co-stars in the role were nominated. Quite right too.

 

Crash helmets to: Those braving row A at Wyndhams Theatre for “American Buffalo” in April 2015. A chair smashed from ceiling to ground, and debris heading rapidly towards them all… kudos to all those willing to stay put.

 

An Airbag for the back of her uniform: to the young lady usher whose “flip down usher seat” collapsed on her during “Man + Superman” at the Lyttleton Theatre.

 

The Trunchbull hammer: to the bratty girl at “High Society” who was demanding explanations throughout act 1, and finally silenced her parents by asking loudly, “what’s footsie?”

 

The Brand / Ross Answerphone message (for sick jokes played on elderly people): to whoever booked “Gypsy” into the Savoy Theatre. The audience when the monkey saw it were, to be polite, at the upper end of the mature scale… and couldn’t cope with this theatre, which has probably the most stairs in London.

 

A Golden Catheter to: the producers of “The Elephant Man” at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. It’ll help them take the p*ss out of audiences more easily when charging £10 for a programme.

 

The Whitehouse Memorial Blue Pencil: to the Lyttelton foyer announcer for asking the audience to take their seats for “The Mother (pause) with the Hat” rather than using the full title.

 

Tin of Wiskas: to participants in the ‘Catfight of the Year’ to: the Hon Gwendolen Fairfax (Emily Barber) and Cecily Cardew (Imogen Doel) at the Vaudeville “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Brought the whole evening to life. Concurrently, a “Thorn Among Roses” to David Suchet as Lady Bracknell. Too pantomime, my dear.

 

Laurel and Hardy’s Piano: to the amateur scene shifter at “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers” in Regent’s Park. This audience member on the front row decides to reach onto the stage before the show and re-arrange a pile of prop logs to improve her view.

 

Cameron’s Mackintosh: to Nica Burns, for producing “Just Jim Dale.”

 

Hand-held sparkler, for least interesting visual effect: to the National Theatre for that pathetic kite flying on a wire in “Three Days in the Country.”

 

The Mary Berry Cake Slice, for Best Supporting Flapjack: Gold: to the gymnastic ones cast in “Future Conditional” at the Old Vic. The 10 foot vertical leap was spectacular (you had to be there). Silver: for the slightly burnt ones in “Temple” at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre.

 

The Olly Murs Autocue for Worst Programme Presentation: Ambassador Theatre Group and Maidwell Marketing, for putting out a programme for “The Homecoming” costing 50p more than usual and containing the same information duplicated on two pages, plus crediting the author of the work twice with the same play. Concurrently, a sharp tap on the nose with the rolled up said programme, for not bothering to reply to my complaint either.

 

The Joseph Bazalgette Golden Access Hole Cover, for services to London Civilisation: to Delfont Mackintosh Theatres for their “wet umbrella wrapping machine” spotted in the foyer of the Noel Coward Theatre in November 2015. Concurrently, the Silver Access Hole Cover to the producers of “The Tiger Who Came To Tea” at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, for thoughtfully providing a “buggy park” for customers. And not locating it near the tiger cage, presumably…

 

The Glade Plug-In for Weird Scents: to Mischief Theatre for giving us the smell of singed fairy during “Peter Pan Goes Wrong.”

 

And finally,

 

The Grecian Urn, for simply the fastest three and a half hours I spent in a theatre this year: to all involved with “Oresteia” at the Trafalgar Studios. Remarkable.

 

So, that’s the awards over for the year. And what a year it was. I think, honestly it can be declared, the year of the “long one.” Practically every play I saw ran at least three hours, or so it sometimes seemed. Still, it’s value for money on the ticket price, I guess. Thanks to all those who competed, and better luck at the Oliviers for you all.

Best and Worst of the Year

December 23, 2015

Final Entry of the year, and it’s a simple run-down of the best and worst I’ve seen. Subjective as ever, and leaving out a few “re-visits,” the list runs as follows:

Out Of This World:
A View From The Bridge (Wyndhams Theatre)
Buyer & Cellar (Menier Chocolate Factory)
Oppenheimer (Vaudeville Theatre)
The Red Lion (Dorfman Theatre)
Constellations (Trafalgar Studio 1)
Oresteia (Trafalgar Studio 1)
In The Heights (King’s Cross Theatre)
The Winter’s Tale (Garrick Theatre)

 
The Wonder Years:
The Merchant Of Venice (Almeida)
Di and Viv and Rose (Vaudeville Theatre)
The Scottsboro Boys (Garrick Theatre)
Antigone (Barbican Theatre)
Spend Spend Spend (Union Theatre)
Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (London Coliseum)
Man + Superman (Lyttelton)
Carrie The Musical (Southwark Playhouse)
Gypsy (Savoy Theatre)
Bend It Like Beckham (Phoenix Theatre)
Just Jim Dale (Vaudeville Theatre)
Temple (Donmar Warehouse)
Death of a Salesman (Noel Coward Theatre)
The Importance of Being Earnest (Vaudeville Theatre)
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Open Air Theatre)
The Play That Goes Wrong (Duchess Theatre)
Kinky Boots (Adelphi Theatre)
Photograph 51 (Noel Coward Theatre)
The Homecoming (Trafalgar Studio 1)
Harlequinade (Garrick Theatre)
Peter Pan Goes Wrong (Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue)

 
California Dreams:
Molly Wobbly (Leicester Square Theatre Lounge)
The Hard Problem (Dorfman Theatre)
Closer (Donmar Warehouse)
Game (Almeida Theatre)
Rules for Living (Dorfman Theatre)
American Buffalo (Wyndhams Theatre)
Closer to Heaven (Union Theatre)
Hay Fever (Duke of York’s Theatre)
High Society (Old Vic)
The Elephant Man (Theatre Royal, Haymarket)
The Seagull (Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park)
The Motherf**ker With The Hat (Lyttelton Theatre)
Grand Hotel (Southwark Playhouse)
Our Country’s Good (Olivier Theatre)
Future Conditional (Old Vic)
Hamlet (Barbican Theatre, September 2015)
Measure for Measure (Young Vic)
Farinelli and the King (Duke of York’s Theatre)
Pomona (Temporary Theatre)
Close To You: Bacharach ReImagined (Criterion)
The Hairy Ape (Old Vic)

 
Saved By The Bell:
The Mentalists (Wyndhams Theatre)
All On Her Own (Garrick Theatre)
Treasure Island (Olivier Theatre)
Three Days in the Country (Lyttleton Theatre)

 
Bug Juice:
How To Hold Your Breath (Royal Court Theatre Downstairs)
Teddy Ferrara (Donmar Warehouse)
Bugsy Malone (Lyric, Hammersmith)
wonder.land (Olivier Theatre)
Peter Pan (New Wimbledon Theatre)

 
Fewer total disasters than last year, quite a bit of mediocre stuff, though.

 

I’ll be back on 20th January 2016 with the Annual “Goodmonkey” Awards. Until then, “Happy Christmas” to Christian readers, and a good holiday season and 2016 to all.

Peter Pan (New Wimbledon Theatre).

December 16, 2015

(Seen at the afternoon performance on 12th December 2015).

When staging a panto, two elements are vital. The first is a team who are steeped in the tradition. The second is to remember that it is family entertainment – from tot to granny, teenage son to maiden aunt. As Billy Butlin’s famous sign read in every dressing room in every FAMILY holiday centre he owned, “Blue Material. Parents don’t like it, children don’t understand it, and we won’t have it – at any price.”

This year’s New Wimbledon pantomime breaks both rules, and the predictable result is this shipwreck of a production.

I’d gone with such high hopes after last year (both regular readers know that one represented my first engagement with the genre in many years). To say I came away not just bitterly disappointed, but also steamingly angry, is pretty close to the truth.

Ian Talbot is a highly experienced director, a man who ran the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre with seemingly effortless grace and produced some glorious entertainment suitable for all.

Here, interpreting Eric Potts dirty, sordid (and also largely incoherent) version of the classic J.M. Barrie tale, Talbot’s taste deserts him, and the whole crashes to the ground like a fairy surfing where she shouldn’t on her smartphone.

As Smee, the leading man required to interact constantly with us and manage proceedings, Jarred Christmas’s opening appearance bores the entire audience with some unfunny and lengthy stand-up riff about his homeland (how I wish he’d stayed). It then goes on to complain about being in panto at all – 38 days.

For the oaf’s information, he was (supposedly) here for the audience, for the unique joy of being in panto – the most prestigious in London at that; and above all for the sheer glory of being the first experience of theatre for the young, the greatest honour of all.

Selecting a victim from the audience, the entire show is kyboshed permanently with the parting line, “I think we may have got away with that on a Saturday matinee.” No, Mr Christmas, you didn’t. And nor did your later “50 Shades” line. A lack of comic timing burns one of the better jokes (about “Twitter”), and a total lack of acting ability on both his and Verne Troyer (Lofty The Pirate) parts, makes the no doubt substantial fees both command the worst joke of all. Charisma free every time the pair are on the stage (which is a lot), how I wished each of their scenes would end.

Third of the expensive “newbie” trio, Marcus Brigstocke fares rather better. Hook is a hard role, balancing terror and comedy, and he manages fairly well, with a few smart jokes and nice work with his crew – badly mis-used ‘street dance’ act “Flawless.” Shoe-horned into the script, then also given a dire “light ballet” near the end for no reason other than increase the queue for the toilets 10 minutes later when the show finally lets us escape, Brigstocke brings out the best in some dancers who can just about stand on the stage when not in professional motion.

A near silent audience for much of the afternoon were only enlivened by one (auditorium invading) panto classic, “12 Days Of Christmas.” Sadly, once more Potts foul mind polluted a lovely sequence with an entirely inappropriate (and inexplicable to the young ones) key line.

Finally, to go with the bitty and uneven narrative, the staging managed to terrify the smallest around me, and roast the adults, as gas jets blew and a loud bang began the second half. No spoiler warning, audiences need to know. Oh, and a quick extra kick to producers “Live Entertainment” for running projected advertisements for expensive toys before the show and during the interval. How many treats do they think parents can actually afford?

Lastly, Wimbledon’s sound department once again took the holidays off too, with a balance so loud in the front stalls that many song lyrics were inaudible. Given the fact most of the cast couldn’t hit the correct note with a hammer, that wasn’t always a bad thing. Chief offender Christmas should simply be “click tracked,” while some of the rest of the cast should, as Simon Cowell so often suggests, ‘sue their singing teachers.” Sharon Ballard as Mermaid is about the only cast member to escape – just a shame her work was rather redundant.

Having read this far, you may be wondering if it was all doom. No, it wasn’t (oh yes it was / no, it really wasn’t). Youngsters George Ure and Victoria Fitz-Gerald are veterans as Peter and Wendy, and it showed. Ure in particular was convincing as the boy to whom “Dying would be an awfully big adventure.” Fitz-Gerald too overcame a sub-par script with a touching gentleness and graceful movement. Notable as a dancer too was Chloe MacGregor as Tiger Lily. With considerably more acting experience and a decent script, this first-jobber has some potential.

Once past a horribly written opening scene or two, roller-skating Tinkerbell, Francesca Mills delivered the true stand-out performance of the show. Pitching her performance at the perfect anarchic panto level, where the rest of the show should have been, this Sheridan Smith lookalike was the saviour of the day in more ways than just drinking poison.

If Jarred Christmas could be made to disappear, with Ms Mills covering his role, all could yet be well. Oh, and it was rather cute seeing Ms Mills conversing with crocodile (Shane Knight) in the wings before they entered.

Last year’s “Cinderella” – proof that the author can write “clean” if he wishes – is playing at Richmond Theatre this year. If you really want to see the stars of this Wimbledon mess “in the flesh” then fair enough, but personally, I’d suggest a different venue for that seasonal treat.

Twelve Theatre Things of Christmas

December 9, 2015

With the launch of “Get Into London Theatre” (GILTS) yesterday, the season has truly started, I always feel. Fir trees and turkeys may feel differently, but for me it’s all about the “GILTS.”

Anyway, it got me ruminating on the other things that always happen in the theatre world during the Christmas season…

 

1) The Theatre Royal, Haymarket, always has the best decorated foyer and tree of any West End venue.

2) It’s impossible to escape the “giving” season. Think Mr Cumberbatch was doing a ‘hard sell’ from the stage? He’s nothing compared to what your show’s cast will do this season – even taking a bow before beating the audience to the foyer, where they will rattle those tins for charity as only trained actors used to scrounging for loose change can.

3) It’s also impossible to escape the “party” season. Even at a real “laugh a minute” drama, at least 2 of the audience will be “suitably refreshed” before the show – with their “nished as pewts” friends arriving late and being even more so.

4) That huge star brought in at enormous expense for the panto season will catch something off the kiddie chorus / get bitten by the pony / develop bunions from the glass slippers or just get fed up… and go home early. Everybody then pretends that somebody who once unblocked a sink in the background on “EastEnders” is a fantastic substitute Good Fairy (and may even be right).

5) Nobody wants to see a show on Christmas Eve, so the producers panic discount from the week before.

6) From10pm until Midnight on Christmas Eve, theatremonkey.com will sell more “Dinner and Show” packages to big hits, and “Premium Seats” to mediocre shows than it has sold in the previous month. All credit card names will be male.

7) Some lunatic marketing person (probably trained in Saudi Arabia) will think Boxing Day is a good time to launch a theatre ticket sale. As with “Black Friday,” everybody is more interested in cheap electricals and clothes – wise up, man! (did you see what I did there – clever. Not.)

8) By the end of Christmas week, most shows will have more understudies, standby, alternate and swing cast members performing than regulars. 10 shows in a week takes its toll…

9) A spoofing “adult” pantomime will find its front row filled by a busload of primary school kids, due to a mix up at the bookings agency.

10) “Wicked,” “The Lion King” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” will announce simultaneously that their shows have “broken box office records for the show / theatre / West End” over the season. Actually, not hard with 3 extra performances a week and a price increase across the venue since last year…

10) A million children will be captivated by their very first trip to the theatre. A few will become the biggest stars of the future.

11) Everybody will do a “12 Days of Christmas” list on their blog. Except me, as I can’t think of a twelfth one. They then finish with an ironic joke that they can’t think of a twelfth one. Oh…. er…

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