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Those “Emperor’s New Clothes” moments

September 28, 2016

I saw “No Man’s Land” at Wyndham’s Theatre last Saturday, and can’t stop thinking about it. What did it all MEAN?! I decided that it was about death. The first half was a musical, old men singing their lives as the curtain falls. The second, the afterlife struggle with devils, trying to regain lost power. That was my reaction and conclusion, partly reached during the performance, partly after much thought afterwards.

The thing is, though, something else also niggled at me…

… had I been duped? Was “The King in the All Together?” Was either Pinter having a laugh at the expense of well, basically, everybody – or have I simply joined the ranks of those who don’t dare to question, but accept that the finery is all there?

Put bluntly, was I paying good money to sit through a right load of old w**k – basically a bunch of disconnected words with a decent knob gag and comedy magic routine thrown in? More to the point, was I being a total pretentious t*at for not realising, or being willing to “go along with it all, because it is the-ay-tar, dar-ling?”

I think I was having one of those moments when I perhaps saw theatre as, well, those who lead their lives in wildly different ways to me might see it.

A couple of weeks ago, I surprised a person I was chatting to, when they asked, “what do you see,” and I replied “literally everything, I love panto as much as Shakespeare.” But I want to go further. I’m also a huge fan of “Coronation Street” (the “senior soap”) and also have never missed an episode of “Hollyoaks” either – a soap so vacuous half the cast asphyxiate in the lack of oxygen within the script. But I love it.

I’ve also not yet missed an episode of the infamous “Stage School” – a “reality TV show for producers who can’t get a job on proper reality TV shows,” and am already blacking out my autumnal Saturday evenings “The X-Factor” as always.

My point is, what would others who watch those TV programmes and enjoy them as much as I do, make of Pinter’s two men telling tales in few words and making little sense, to a silent audience hanging on every syllable and paying up to £125 for the privilege.

I can think of quite a lot of people I know – even one or two friends – who would have either left the theatre after 10 minutes (pausing only to torture the box office staff until they got refunds), fallen asleep, or simply started heckling to a point where police intervention would be required.

And my question is, would they be right? Maybe, and obviously, not to the extremes I’ve outlined for comic effect, but I mean in seeing that collection of words for what it is? It’s not like there was a story (unless you invent one for yourself) nor a point, moral or fable. It was people talking, drinking and eating, and not even people you could relate to in everyday life – they weren’t even speaking naturally, for goodness sake!

And yet, the label reads “art,” no “f” before it either, and the play has seldom been out of production since the 1970s. Should all “art” be inclusive and “intellectually accessible” or are those who consider themselves “intellectual enough to access it” in fact a bunch of deluded prats with a god-complex? I honestly hope not, and that rather like the play itself, I’m putting an interpretation on it…

…but still, I have to wonder, is there such a thing as a “G-String for the mind” – a thought processes we put on a play, covering something which isn’t there or that we’d rather not see – and do us theatregoers employ it rather more than we would like to admit? Like I said, I wonder…

Shows that exist due to internet hype?

September 21, 2016

Back in August, when the next block of Potter tickets were released and sold in hours, I reminded younger readers on theatreboard.co.uk of the mid 1980s and early 1990s where we would wait a year or more to see “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Misérables” and “Cats.” Technology meant the tickets sold a little slower – you could only book by post, phone or in person back then – but the result was the same. As I was typing that reply, however, the thought suddenly struck me, “how did we know they were worth waiting for, and does the internet now play a part in keeping even mediocre shows busy now?”

Back then, a far greater audience read the same few newspapers and heard the same messages on TV and radio, concentrated into a very few stations. With less choice, I guess the hype could build and, rather like Patrick “American Psycho” Bateman, kudos was gained by being first in your social group to have tickets.

Now, the “official voices” are diluted by fan sites, many obsessive. I remember in the early 2000s being highly amused by one such “Les Misérables” site on which a teen girl, not even born when the original opened, painstakingly spelled out every abbreviation for characters that we needed to know, apparently, to be a fan.

It’s also obvious on discussion website theatreboard.co.uk that “Wicked” is by far the most discussed show – and the one I get most day seat reports from too.

These shows have a massive marketing spend, of course, but the fact new generations are finding new ways to spread the word has to play a part in keeping them open, doesn’t it. These fans generate repeat visits, sometimes obsessively, which fills seats even outside the main tourist season, and even hands the baton to yet another generation too.

My question, though, is if this obsession crowds out other shows? Far harder to find “fan sites” about “The Go-Between,” for example. Mr Crawford, of course, but not the show. Likewise “Bend It Like Beckham” in its day and others. I’m not saying that either would have run longer, necessarily, or had much of a future life after closure, but it is weird that few new shows seem to attract the same “critical mass” online as those of my own teenage times.

Are there ways of seeding the web that have not been explored – I don’t mean handing tickets to illiterate bloggers, nor fake or illegal websites being set up posing as fans. I’m talking about sustained campaigns to build awareness, and really involve the obsessive generation in a show. Maybe allow off-shoots from the official show website, letting fans post pages and share comments? Marketing campaigns where they will see them on the latest social media rather than common Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat?

I don’t know why one show “takes” online any more than why one runs or not, but it’s interesting, isn’t it.

Ghost: The Musical (On Tour)

September 14, 2016

Seen at the New Wimbledon Theatre at the afternoon performance on 10th September 2016.

For various reasons, I never saw the original London version at the Piccadilly Theatre, so, unlike (seemingly) most of the audience that afternoon, I have nothing to compare it with. I’m told that the original was a spectacular multi-media effort, with magical illusions to make the producer of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’s” wand wilt.

According to the programme, this is a new version of the show, based on an American small-scale revival – and it is also designed for a national tour. So, I was prepared to accept the compromises… and there were. A superb sound design (Dan Samson) made up for Nick Riching’s rather spare lighting – notably lacking whenever an actor was condemned to leave up or down, alas – though mostly adequate. Mark Bailey managed to give us a sense of place with only minimal flat scenery and no projections, and a decent enough finale backdrop too.

Sadly, Richard Pinner’s illusions were reduced to the smallest scale, and those on the left of the auditorium emitted laughter at the “walking through the door (which conveniently has a sliding panel)” effect, and woeful “spirit leaving body” scenes. Also, could the budget not have stretched to authentic looking hospital and subway signage? Really disconcertingly poor artwork there.

The story itself is as gripping as the original movie, with enough sniffing from the audience around me to suggest the end found its mark. The first half has both pacing and choreography (Alistair David) issues, particularly in the ensemble dance numbers which fail to hide the lack of bodies for the scene and evoke no New York Street energy at all. From the emergence of fake psychic Oda Mae onwards however, things look up.

Oda Mae (Jacqui Dubois) is the real deal. Hilarious, all singing, all dancing and making the unlovable a real character, hers is the performance of the night. A nod to, for her acolyte, huge voiced Louisa (Tarisha Rommick).

For the men, this is Leo Sene’s evening, as evil a murderer as you’ll see on stage – an amoral triumph of characterisation. Notes too, for Sam Ferriday as Carl, his evil employer, and forlorn rapper Garry Lee Netley as the Subway Ghost.

So, with the supporting cast working hard, what of the leads, Sam and Molly? Andy Moss as Sam took a while to get comfortable and find his place on stage. His early scenes are sketched in, which doesn’t help, and the “big number” is hinted at then fizzles out at least twice (and, sadly does so again when its time finally comes). For all that, he’s a likable presence and a hint of real musical theatre ability happens when left alone on stage in the second half.

As Molly, Sarah Harding returned for the performance I saw, following treatment for a reported “Upper Respiratory Tract” infection – ironically” Miss Adelaide’s” complaint in “Guys and Dolls.” Ms Harding cuts a highly attractive figure (there is even an opportunity to observe her torso tattoos, for those into that sort of thing).

Her vocal skills could well have been affected by her problems earlier in the week, as she struggled with every higher note and found the “break” between high and low a struggle to negotiate. Theatre songs also require breathing and timing to transmit their message, and again, her health issues saw her pushed to make the required pauses and emphasis, which sadly proved beyond her capabilities at the time.

Probably down to the stress of it all, her songs were mostly delivered seated, in a rather “pop video” way, and her emotions were held firmly in check throughout, probably to prevent the exhaustion that performing a two and a half hour show after illness will surely cause. A little burst of dance near the end was a nice release for all, though. Still, it may be that the strain of unfamiliarity with musical theatre and its requirements are taking their toll early, with a substitution perhaps going to be required at some point if her health and abilities cannot be found.

In summary, this is an ensemble who try hard, has some outstanding cast members and a tale to tell which proved more than adequate reward for my cross-London trek.

Allegro: Southwark Playhouse.

September 7, 2016

(seen at the afternoon performance on 27th August 2016).

It isn’t surprising that most Brits will never have heard of this 1947 Rogers and Hammerstein musical. It has taken a mere 70 years or so to get a professional London premiere, and the results are, well, fascinating.

Even fewer will know that Stephen Sondheim was mentored by Hammerstein, and was a production assistant on the show. For those who know Sondheim’s work, this has to be a major source of inspiration for that particular musical theatre genius.

For this show is a museum demonstrating the birth of many techniques we see in musical theatre today. The ideas of a chorus, a biog-musical, puppetry and ‘concept over plot’ are all here. Over time, we’ve learned to use only one, or at most, two ideas in a show. R&H decided to try everything simultaneously – resulting in a commercial failure, but a genuinely thrilling experiment all the same.

The concept is to follow a child from birth – Doctor’s son Joseph Taylor Jr – to age 35. His birth being a public holiday in his village, the passing of relatives, the beginnings of romance, of leaving for college, of choosing a career path and partner and taking life decisions. It’s ambitious even for now, and it doesn’t work – but it was sure fun trying.

There’s great beauty in director Southerland’s scenes. From a tiny boy puppet learning to walk “One Foot, Other Foot,” to lovers across a divide and a wonderful “Money isn’t Everything” with signs pointing contrary directions, the simple traverse staging with a few planks, two ladders and a moving gantry keep the action focussed and fluid.

The cast too, are exceptional. Gary Tushaw as Joseph Taylor Jr, the ever-reliable Steve Watts as father Dr. Joseph Taylor, Emily Bull as Jr’s wife Jenny, Susan Travers as Grandma and newcomer Samuel Thomas as Brook are the stand-outs, with a talented ensemble around them.

Special mention too, for Katie Bernstein as Emily. A badly sited gantry for her energetically delivered “The Gentleman Is A Dope” gave my seat (A10) an exclusive view straight up her skirt… I looked away, but it was the most unusual angle I’ve ever heard a major show-stopping number from in 30 years of theatregoing.

And really, that’s a metaphor for the entire musical curiosity itself. The whole thing looks at what musical theatre can do, from a different angle – but would have benefitted from not being dragged down by trappings that could never succeed as intended.

Very beautifully done, with a cast worth catching, the chances are that we’ll never see this again professionally without extreme revisions first. That’s a shame, and the producers deserve the highest commendation for taking a chance to bring us the rarest of theatrical artefacts as they have

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?!