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Ratings for Audiences

July 20, 2016

I don’t mean how many don’t watch “Top Gear” (never did, moving on), I mean giving them a guide on appropriate behaviour.

There’s been a lot in “The Stage” newspaper and others, discussing whether the old fashioned “sit down and shut up, except to laugh politely” form of theatregoing is an obsolete guide to good manners. Given that Kit Harrington says he didn’t mind the “Star Wars Bar Room” that was his audience recently, this is versus regular theatregoers like myself who don’t feel anything at all should change.

So, I was wondering if the compromise might be for producers to give their productions a rating, just like films, so we know what we can and can’t do. With that in mind, I’m suggesting the following:

AP: “Audience Participate.” Given to pantos, stand-up comedy etc. Anything where the audience is actively encouraged by the cast to shout out and / or heckle.

HP: “Hen Party.” Those ‘Jukebox Musicals’ and other shows that end with the audience encouraged to get up and dance in the aisle. An extra “HPD” category indicates that the theatre accept it’s fine to be drunk / take photos / generally behave without the slightest regard to anyone else around you.

C: “Celebrity.” You can make your feelings known by a loud whoop on first sighting the star, but other than that, being quiet and sober during the show is required.

R: “Regular.” The “sit down and shut up” rule applies. For regular theatregoers, who know what to do. All others can put up or ship out, basically.

 

Alternatively, the theatre staff themselves can rate shows according to their own observations and frustrations:

N: National Theatre audience. Quiet, well-behaved, well versed in theatre etiquette. Only likely disturbance is when one of them, unintentionally and discreetly, snuffs it during the show.

F: Same as the above, but in the West End. More of them likely to survive to the final curtain.

NE: Noisy but expected. Shows where the crowd won’t be the usual theatre lot, but should behave pretty well. Think “Funny Girl” etc.

WTF: Yep, it’s a “Jukebox Show” and we can’t control Mandy from Accounting, who is Jägerbomb’s best customer and will have a good time no matter what…

 

Maybe it’s time that reminders were printed on a leaflet sent with the tickets, and projected onto the curtain before the show begins. Back it up by adding proper, paid, security to the front-of-house team. Give the usually young, overwhelmed ushers the backup they need and deserve, with trained professionals available to physically remove miscreants.

Go a stage further. Think about the food and alcohol sold in the theatre. Limit it to quiet and lesser intoxicating products, and search bags more thoroughly for what is brought in.

Add that new technology that will block cameras, and make it clear that “we will prosecute.”

It is down to the theatre as much as the audience, but if we all start communicating, who knows what might just be achieved, longer term?

 

 

So, with the weather heating up, I’m taking a blog break. Back when the leaves start to change colour, on 7th September. Have a good summer, all.

My Harry Potter Experience

July 13, 2016

Sunday 10th July 2016 was my day. All those months ago, when I was lucky enough to be in the first 400 to buy tickets, it finally arrived. Needing something to blog about today, I thought I’d add a few thoughts.

Don’t worry, I’m #keepingthesecret, and my opinion on the shows will be published on Theatremonkey.com after press night, in keeping with tradition. There will be no spoilers either now or when that opinion appears. Millions of fans deserve, I think, to come to the show as I did, knowing and expecting, without any clue what will happen.

What I will say is that it took some planning. So…

It’s a really long day. I left home at 11am, didn’t get back until 10pm. Some 5 hours 15 minutes of theatre, with a 2 hour 40 minute gap between. That’s intense, and if you are bringing children, it has to make even the liveliest wand wilt.

My first concern was the worrying email sent before the show about needing to be there an hour before to go through security. This turns out to be a roped off area under the main theatre canopy, with the most cheerful security staff – armed with their own type of wand, to check bags. There’s plenty of them – 4, for a mere 1400 customers, and if you don’t have a bag, you go on through anyway.

Two things bothered me. First, waiting in line (come December, I’m thinking you could sell a LOT of hot water bottles to all involved). That one wasn’t a problem. Sure, the line went from down the side of the theatre, turned a corner and went further round the block. It moved fast, less than 10 minutes to reach the head of it. Coming back for Part 2, just 15 minutes to spare for me, and I walked straight to the table.

Second thing that bothered me – they don’t allow you to bring food in. Sensible. Some audiences think they can eat McDonalds during a show… trust me, NOT a good idea. However, there are a few like myself who (for personal reasons) need to bring something. No problem. An email to them well in advance, and the duty manager knew all about it and was delighted to assist. He even recognised me second time around.

If you think the elaborate and beautifully themed tickets, website and emails are something, trust me, the experience extends to the staff. Disney theme park standard, the lot of them (or should it be Universal Studios this time?). Once past security, your tickets are taken at the main doors (rather than at the auditorium entrance inside, as is usual). Melissa is the staff member to look out for. An amazing sense of humour, this is the welcome anyone at a theatre would want – and another person with a memory for faces.

In the foyer, a massive souvenir shop has everything from pencils to (expensive, as in, Poundland does them way cheaper) owls, large and small. By the staircase, though, is the programme desk, a reasonable £5 for the two parts – at normal West End prices, I’d have expected twice £4. And it’s a decently written one too, with plenty to read.

A nice touch for non-regulars is that all the doors are numbered, and the numbers marked on your tickets. This theatre has a single staircase to all levels, and doors 1 and 2 are for the stalls (downstairs, ground level), 3 and 4 at dress circle level (first tier), 5 and 6 for the grand circle (second tier) and 7 and 8 for the balcony (third tier, and a long walk up the stairs). Staff seem attuned to helping newcomers, and their directions to seats is impeccable.

Once seated, I have to say the audience experience, for me at least, was wonderful. Well behaved, children wearing Hogwarts Uniforms (no Slytherins, all Gryffendors, I think), even the odd adult with a Potter scarf. I was also lucky that those around me were well-behaved, and there was something surreal about seeing the same folk in the same seats return for the second play. Not sure what. I guess if someone tall / annoying is nearby, you have a problem, but I didn’t.

Only thing to remember – it’s really hot in the theatre. The Palace isn’t known for air-conditioning, and even on a 22 degree Celsius day, it was sweaty in the front stalls (a woman in front of me kept taking off her light fleece and putting it on again). Be prepared for all climates, I’d say.

Anyhow, what to do during the break? I tried something new – a “day room” at the Academy Hotel on Gower Street. 15 minute walk for me, 25 or so I guess for someone slower. Fairly expensive at £59, but it worked. A small third floor en-suite hotel room. Somewhere I could relax in peace, eat, wash (have a shower if I’d felt like it), write my notes up, watch Murray win Wimbledon. Around 2 hours for the same price as I’ve paid for a play of similar length. Worked for me – and if you think that the cost can be split among friends, it’s an idea that beats trailing the streets for the time, I feel.

It’s a long, long day, I think, and I do urge that you plan it a bit, but for those “doing the double” it’ll certainly be a different way of spending your weekend… and one you can’t talk about. You get a free badge after each show – the ushers hand them out. The badge reads “#keepthesecrets,” so, please, do!

Burt Bacharach In Concert: Royal Festival Hall

July 6, 2016

Monday 4th July 2016.

What do you expect an 88 year old man to do on a Monday Evening?
a) Struggle upstairs to bed around 8pm.
b) Doze off in his chair around 7pm – just after finishing his 5pm nap?
c) Stand on stage at the Royal Festival Hall in London for two and a half hours without a break, giving an unforgettable account of his life’s work?

Obviously, here, the answer is C.

I will also state, for the record, that it has to be the strangest concert I’ve ever attended. I expected a “Slick American” event. A big orchestra, running through their carefully rehearsed pre-planned set list, with the ‘leading man’ perhaps seated at a piano – occasionally speaking to us, or joining in a few of the songs. Cool and professional to the end.

What we got instead was “our friend Burt, inviting 2000 of his old friends round to his place for the evening, maybe a few tunes, a few stories, a quick sing-along.” The outsized hall shrank to the size of his lounge, as he casually chatted, shuffled piles of manuscript on top of his piano, told the odd story then decided that “this is the next one we’ll play.”

The full orchestra was present and correct, augmented by Bacharach Junior on keyboards (Junior’s sister was in the audience – horsewoman, not musician, apparently) and guitar-playing vocalist John Pagano.

Two more lady vocalists, the remarkable Josie James, and expressive Donna Taylor made the most of their spots, James stealing the first half, Taylor the star of the “Film Medley” in the second.

The middle section of the show also saw barefoot Joss Stone pad on for almost an hour of banter, stunning song (“I’ll Never Fall In Love Again,” “Close To You” “The Look of Love” ‘ ‘nice tune’ she quipped, you had to be there) and uninhibited giggling when things didn’t go totally to plan.

Still and all, it is Mr Bacharach himself who was celebrated and who celebrated himself. Growling his stories, some old, some new, always startling as he reveals just how and with whom he worked, his generosity shone. From acknowledging every member of his orchestra, to shaking hands with and signing programmes for fans in the front row. Always in charge, always given respect rather than having to command it.

For weeks leading up to the concert, as tickets became increasingly scarce, I admit I worried whether he’d be able to do the show at all. Last night, I heard the man himself sing “Magic Moments,” “Alfie” and “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” (that last one, twice). To have caught somebody deserving of the title “living legend” and found that he more than lives up to that billing – and goes far beyond, I honestly feel. Well, I am very happy indeed that I shared that “Magic Moment” with him. A memory that will remain forever.

Say, is there a song in that?!

Checking the stable door after the War Horse has bolted.

June 29, 2016

The New London Theatre has one of the most flexible auditoriums in London. So, when “War Horse” closed out went the paddock – and in came a dock, allowing Show Boat “Cotton Blossom” to float right into the centre of the stalls.

Naturally, with a totally new layout, I wanted to do what Theatremonkey is famous for – test the sightlines and value-for-money of every seat, adding new material to the site’s unique ’30 years of personal experience’ database.

The wonderfully helpful folk at Really Useful Theatres were happy to oblige, with Richard, their Director of Ticketing, kindly arranging it all (his partner even supplied the witty title for this blog). And so it was that one Thursday Morning in April, myself, Peter – Really Useful Theatre Group’s Box Office Manager, and Lindsey – the New London’s own Box Office Manager extraordinaire, convened in the foyer.

Promptly adjourning to the stage door, (where I’d just been to sign in and get a “visitor” sticker; all out of “Cats” ones, apparently, and had been for years) and via the world’s smallest lift – which can apparently take a wheelchair, just – we quickly found ourselves in a silent auditorium. Minus audiences, they are surprisingly un-nerving spaces. Sometimes, there are crews working to set up the show, others, it’s just you, your guides and a few ‘ghosts of shows past’ as you look around and remember.

A quick glance at an entirely empty auditorium can suggest that every seat has a similar view, many rows pretty much identical. Only time, and the space to explore, reveals just how much variation there is – even in adjacent seats. It’s this variation that provides the basis for Theatremonkey, of course; but it is even more crucial to the Box Office team, as Peter and Lindsey explained.

Peter started by handing me a printed sheet, detailing every seat they knew to have a problem. Some due to rails (replacing those with Perspex was discussed, and rejected, as neither council inspectors nor customers would trust it as safe), others for TV monitors so actors could see the orchestra’s conductor, and even a few (they do care as much as I do about this) for severe lack of legroom. Each potentially couldn’t be sold at “top price,” but it is here that a delicate balancing act begins.

The final price decision lies with a show’s producers, as they ‘own’ the place for the duration of the run (under the ‘four wall deal’).  It’s important to them, of course, that as many seats as possible are sold at the highest price – to return them a profit.

For Peter, the profit consideration for the tenant has to be paramount – but he has also to think of the theatre’s customers, to maximise their enjoyment of the evening and reduce the possibility of complaints. He also needs to ensure a good mix of prices, to suit all pockets.

At the box office counter itself, Lindsey would have the job of convincing the customer that a seat was great value. With both producer and customer to please, it is thus up to both herself and Peter to pool their deep knowledge and experience of both auditorium and ticket retailing and come up with a price structure tempting customers to spend simultaneously the maximum possible – and feel they were getting a bargain, too.

In the end, the only way to do it, is to “walk the theatre,” testing every seat. And so, for two hours, we did.

Starting in the furthest stalls corner, we walked along the rows, regularly pausing to sit down and look at the stage… and compare the seat numbers with the “price maps” (those colour-coded seating plans showing ticket prices).

Trust me, it’s both an art and a science – and something Really Useful Group theatres take extremely, extremely seriously. Peter, who had seen the show already (well, half, he was due to see the rest the next week) was able to explain the movements of the set, and how it might affect views. Later in our visit, as the crew prepared for that afternoon’s performance, the set did move into its second position, and his observations were spot-on accurate – confirming how skilled a job pricing is.

The very cheapest seats are just that. You can see and enjoy most of the show, only missing part of a scene happening above you at an angle, and seeing fewer actors’ faces (not always a bad thing, perhaps) and more actors’ well… anyway….

As you move towards the main section of the theatre, the prices increase, and the difference a few inches makes is very evident (no sniggering at the back). The most interesting change comes, though, between the ‘top’ and ‘second’ price. Quite a drop in cash terms, and yet, in a reverse of a wine-list, the second most expensive ticket is the one most often passed over…

… This time, stalls seats J1 and 2 had me asking an amused Peter if he’d brought his “Father Christmas” costume that day. Second price, perfectly angled towards the stage – as Peter says, “you must have some really ‘great value’ seats in this band.” He’s right, and these were they. A valuable lesson for ticket buyers in every theatre, I think (my beloved cheaper stalls seats at Wyndhams and the Royal Court Theatres being other examples).

Moving upstairs to the circle, the art of pricing became even more interesting. The New London’s unique blend of rails, curves and varied legroom – plus those TV screens – produce a real patchwork of clear views and seat comfort. All of which have to be taken into consideration, along with the desires of some customers to get that “overall” view of the show only balconies provide.

Some seats are easy to classify. Side view of half the stage, through wires? Bottom price. One leg comfortable, the other wrapped around a post… you can see the stage, but… second from bottom price, but warn the customer, and so it goes.

The difficulty comes in the main section of seating, where producers hope to make the most money, and customers would like to be… but won’t always like what they are going to get.

Those TV screens again. Fixed on the balcony front, the balcony isn’t thick enough to attach them without the screens blocking views for either circle customers above, or stalls folk below. Result? A dozen seats in the circle lose a chunk of stage. If that isn’t bad enough, two prime rows of seats have less legroom than those behind… AND the back row has easily the clearest view of proceedings, but is a little further away and is a coin-toss for either top or second price. The Box Office team called for second, producer top, so producers won (prices were revised a little later in the run). The point again, though, is to underline just how many factors affect even the most expensive area of seating, when it comes to ‘pricing the goods to sell.’

With the theatre’s multi-channel sound system being tested (perfect acoustics and multiple speaker channels makes even bland hard rock sound amazing) and a quick return to the stalls to see the boat move into position, it was time to take my leave and ponder just how much work goes into this little considered but most vital of all aspects of our customer experience.

Next time you buy a ticket, selecting it from the screen online, you can be sure that people like Richard, Peter and Lindsey are using singular skills, working very hard to bring you the best deal they can. Prices are high, we all know that, but theatres actually are interested in customer satisfaction as well as ensuring the shows can keep running at a profit. Reassuring, isn’t it!

 

My thanks to Richard, Peter, Lindsey and all at Really Useful Theatres and the New London Theatre for their kindness and hospitality. Without it, this article, and everything on the Theatremonkey site about seating for “Show Boat” could not have been written.

Fringe Theatre Chains?

June 22, 2016

Why isn’t there a chain of fringe theatres, akin to Ambassador Theatre Group, Really Useful Theatres, Delfont Mackintosh and Nimax?

There has been, in the past, the odd person who owned more than one fringe theatre, but there has never been a full chain. The advantages of sharing box office, marketing, producing and general production and day-to-day costs seem quite obvious… yet it doesn’t happen.

Fringe theatres do seem a little more divided. You have the Southwark Playhouse, Pleasance and Almeida – large venues with impressive production credentials and many West End transfers. The smaller Union, King’s Head, Upstairs at the Gatehouse and Arcola with singular places in the business, and a few others – and then plenty more like the Hope which are known by connoisseurs yet don’t always get the attention they deserve.

Would having a single owner to operate and programme many venues make a difference? I think it could be interesting to find out.

Aside from the practical stuff on running costs, the programming of each one could become much more adventurous. There would be opportunities for longer runs, as a production presented in deepest South London (often over an hour and a half away from North London) could be moved to a suitable venue ‘over the river’ and be enjoyed by not only the new local community, but those who couldn’t get in at the initial venue.

The cost of productions would fall, as crews are engaged for longer periods and more mileage is achieved from the sets and equipment, rehearsal time and marketing materials (leaflets don’t have to be junked at the end of a single run).

There’s also a bigger database of customers to be had, and more chance for ‘word-of-mouth’ to spread. So often I miss something because it is only on for 4 weeks. A second chance to go, and to fill seats at the end of a run would recoup losses from emptier early performances.

Perhaps too, brand names breed confidence. Regular West End theatregoers pretty much know which major theatre chains won’t rent their venues to poor quality stuff – and are more confident booking. In the days of Variety Theatre, to know you were playing the “Stoll Moss” circuit was a mark of quality for artiste and star alike. Why not the same for the fringe?

It’s fabulous that anyone with the enthusiasm and cash can present a production in some theatre space somewhere in London, so why not go the next step and try doing more to link them? There can’t be that much to lose, I think?

Queen of the Stardust Ballroom

June 15, 2016

For years I’ve been obsessed with an amazing song on the “Lost In Boston” albums – CDs of tunes lost from shows prior to opening. “Who Gave You Permission” is simply one of the greatest never heard on stage, I think.

It was lost from a 1978 Michael Bennett Broadway flop “Ballroom,” based on the original 1973 TV film “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom.” Recently, I tracked down a DVD of that TV film, and enjoyed a “good old” nostalgia-fest.

The stars are no longer with us, names like Maureen Stapleton – Bea Asher, a recent widower who opens a shop to sell her hoarded junk, and is elected “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom” when she ventures there in search of company. Charles Durning as her lover Al Green, Charlotte Rae as shocked friend Helen, and more.

Of course, everything has changed in the (oh gasp, 40 years!!!) since it was made, but what struck me was just how much better the innocence and simplicity of that time in TV making was.

The script sagged a bit, as an hour’s story was stretched to fill the two hours US advertising required when commercial breaks were included. Yet the actual scenes were economically written, the story told with fewer long “establishing” shots and more dialogue which drove the story. Scenes were longer, too, not jumping like today between locations, but moving with smoothness.

Most of all, plenty was hinted at, but not seen. Older people having exciting love-lives are absent from our screens now. Here, it was being celebrated – and with devilish delight – yet without anything that would actually embarrass a viewer.

Most of all, it was on a human scale. The pre “Dallas” days, when greed reigned and TV pumped out dreams. This time, the only dream was of companionship and it seemed achievable by anybody.

I’d argue that since the loss of Jack Rosenthal in the UK, this is exactly what has been missing from television. Well written, genuine characters with real emotions and stories viewers can relate to, presented in a way that is familiar yet involving. Theatre manages to do it sometimes – “Temple” and “The Red Lion” being two recent examples, so why not TV now? “Reality TV” is not, so why not go back to hiring actors to participate in a scripted reality that’s hopeful and entertaining? A company who does that could end up “Queen of the BAFTAs” with a bit of luck.

In the meanwhile, do try and find both the music and film if you can, a lovely bit of TV history indeed.

Blue / Orange: Young Vic Theatre.

June 8, 2016

(seen at the afternoon performance on 4th June 2016).

BLUE ORANGE by Penall, , Writer - Joe Penal, Director - Mathew Xia, Design - Jeremy Herbert, Lighting - Adam Silverman, The Young Vic Theatre, 2016, London, UK, Credit: Johan Persson/
Another serious omission in my theatregoing history has now been corrected, as I’ve finally seen Joe Penhall’s acclaimed 2000 play – a mere 16 years late. Luckily, it’s in a sumptuously staged production.

Linger on your way to the auditorium, it’ll pay dividends. The audience enters through Jeremy Herbert’s brilliantly designed hospital corridor and precisely detailed consulting room, laden with clues about the play to come. The auditorium itself has been constructed at first circle level, the theatre roof low to allow a focused, claustrophobic “in the round” atmosphere. The stage turns out to be the roof of the room you have entered via, and windows below it allow you to see into it.

Surrounding the stage is a purgatorial moat, into which director Matthew Xia casts mental health patient Christopher (Daniel Kaluuya) at frequent intervals whilst consultant Robert (David Haig) and his trainee Bruce (Luke Norris) decide his fate whilst playing games of ‘office politics’ with a new-found tool, “political correctness.”

It is this element, more so than references to the “Millenium Dome” and “The Fuzz” (plus, doubly sad on the day it was announced, too, the greatest – Muhammad Ali) which turns what must have been in 2000 a socially biting critique into an invaluable historical artefact.

What we now take for granted, fear and (for those of free-mind) regard as insidious invasion in our lives, was then in its ‘exponential growth’ stage. The clever but incompetent – as Robert here, is – found means to wield it as a weapon and career enhancing device, craftily at the expense of others under the guise of aiding them.

BLUE ORANGE by Penall, , Writer - Joe Penal, Director - Mathew Xia, Design - Jeremy Herbert, Lighting - Adam Silverman, The Young Vic Theatre, 2016, London, UK, Credit: Johan Persson/
Options for those unable to adapt, like patient Christopher, were ever-narrowing, and the world becoming a less forgiving and inclusive place – even as the adopted orthodoxy should have redressed the balance in his favour. Trapped in the middle, common sense entered its death throes as Bruce finds; the final resolution he chooses being pretty much inevitable.

The master-stroke of this revival has to be the director’s choice of timing to stage this and spell it out clear for all to see – if they are able to remember a time before the play, or retain a single invaluable streak of individuality in their thought processes. That being a rare luxury, often dependent on how far your job requires you to make sure your “back is covered” at all times.

BLUE ORANGE by Penall, , Writer - Joe Penal, Director - Mathew Xia, Design - Jeremy Herbert, Lighting - Adam Silverman, The Young Vic Theatre, 2016, London, UK, Credit: Johan Persson/
Three gripping performances, prowling an intellectual wrestling ring and each gaining a hold, only for a twist to flip them into oblivion. The Orwellian metaphor of colour double-thinking, melded with race the intellectual leverage to do so.

A prescient piece that time has come to show is actually an indictment and indeed warning of utmost importance.

There were a few empty seats at the performance I saw. Make certain they are filled for the remainder of this not-to-be-missed revival.

 

 

Photographs: Top: Christopher (Daniel Kaluuya) and Bruce (Luke Norris). Centre:  Christopher (Daniel Kaluuya). Bottom: Robert (David Haig) and Bruce (Luke Norris). By Johan Persson. Provided courtesy of the Young Vic Theatre, used by kind permission.

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