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Shedding a tear…

May 25, 2016

In the programme for the abominable mess that is Suhayla El-Bushra’s “The Suicide,” the National Theatre notes that the play was encouraged for its large “Lyttleton” auditorium because most female writers preferred to write for “The Shed” (or “Temporary Theatre,” as it ended its days last week).

They suggested that women were ‘afraid’ of bigger spaces… I’d suggest that apart from the patronising cobblers inherent in that remark – it is far more the case that the Shed really was the best place for emotional expression, and female writers intuitively knew it. Hence their wanting to work there; the intimate “Table” being a perfect opening production, “Blurred Lines” one of the greatest pieces of theatre I’ve seen.

It really was difficult for me to say farewell to this auditorium. No other at the National felt the same. Sure, the Dorfman is supposed to take over the role – but it isn’t an equal space.

You can’t sit in symmetrical form in a square around the playing area of the Dorfman. If you configure the Pit area, it still leaves two galleries towering above, rather than feeling like a closed box with a far lower (but not claustrophobically so) roof. The Shed had seats right up to the stage on all four sides if need be, and every downstairs seat was close and near eye-level with the cast.

It ‘felt’ different, too. Informal, with the casual excitement of a fringe venue. The acting was looser, the cast feeding off the audience energy, even if the play was weak (‘Hotel,’ sorry, but it was). The Dorfman’s more formal stage loses that.

A quick glance at the figures the National published about the place confirmed my own feedback that it was easily the most popular and accessible venue they’ve ever had. Over 90% of tickets were sold, 34% to under 25s – compared to the usual 21%. Suggests that well-priced seats and friendly environment are all that is required, I’d say? Wonder how the numbers will rack up at the replacement Dorfman, where £20 doesn’t go quite so far…

While I’m well aware that the loss of (word-play intended) cash-cow “War Horse,” the reduction in grants and a weak return on some plays have all left the National shorter of cash than it was; I can’t help wondering at the end of the little red building we all loved from the start.

Programming it seemed easy, the work was regarded highly, tickets sold, everyone wanted to go there / work there. And it’s over. Far be it from me to suggest that it was in some way an embarrassment to those “higher up” at the theatre, to have an incredibly generous and wonderful person, Mr Dorfman, give amazing amounts of money to them… only to find his namesake theatre upstaged by a wooden cube. I’m certain that wasn’t the case. BUT, surely, there was a very strong artistic reason for keeping both for so long as the walls would stand the London climate? Theatre is about using spaces to do new things, and when you find a wonderful space that can help do that – there has to be a duty to use the tool until it wears out.

Anyway, thanks, National Theatre for the Shed. It was wonderful while it lasted, and may its dear timbers now rot in peace.

 

 

 

Taking a break next week, back the week after.

A More Humane Mikado

May 18, 2016

My most recent visits have been dogged by poor audience behaviour – mostly taking photographs / filming, when expressly told not to – and being exceptionally rude to staff trying to do their jobs and stop them.

Therefore, in the spirit of “The Mikado,” I have decided that the “punishment should fit the crime.” So, in that vein, let’s take a look at sentencing guidelines, for those who’d rather do anything that watch what’s on the stage…

Photographers and Videographers: The show’s team get to wire their house with cameras and “live stream” them 24/7, free of charge and unedited.

Latecomers: those willing to watch on TV in the bar, before slipping unobtrusively into their seats can take the TV punishment as sufficient. Those making a noise and requiring “filling in” on what they missed, will find themselves on stage at the interval, script in hand, showing everybody else.

The phone ringing after the “turn it off” warning: Headphones, clamped in place by ushers and playing loud and annoying sounds (any Subo CD will do) for the rest of the performance.

The “glowing” phone: Usher sets the person’s eyebrows ablaze at the interval. Really lights up a face.

Talkers: Ball-gag fitted (ask a “Fifty Shades of Grey” reader for further information).

Seat Kicker: Ticket for any Ryanair flight, seated in front of a five year old boy who has been primed with Haribo and Coca-Cola.

Soap-Dodger: Free skunk to take home.

Arm-rest Hog: much as there’s a temptation to introduce Sharia Law, a sense of proportion must be kept. A simple strait-jacket takes care of wandering arms.

Sweet bag Rustler: Roald Dahl has this one covered. Straight down the rubbish chute with all the sticky papers. If theatres can find giant squirrels to act as the bouncers to do this, so much the better.

Drunk: Has to watch “How To Hold Your Breath” stone cold sober. Actually, Amnesty International may have something to say about that one, but my blog, my rules.

A simple “Ed Stone” type granite block, with the rules clearly set out, located in the heart of the theatre district and reproduced in all programmes and foyer posters may have the desired effect (and maybe knock out a few drunks crashing into an unyielding surface), but frankly, I’m not holding my breath…

…which, come to think of it, should be the punishment for those turning up and coughing through the whole show…

Designed For Who?

May 11, 2016

“Hamlet” at the Barbican did it, “Sunset Boulevard” at the London Coliseum did it, and many, many other shows do it too. What? Have designers who appear never to have heard of the concept of “put your set on the stage.” As a result, at least part of it hangs off in the wings, and some of the audience endure disassociated voices at crucial moments. Worse, while a few (like myself) are willing to accept it at “restricted view” prices – quite often even top price seats miss a bit.

I’m sure, when this is posted, I’ll get something from a designer telling me that, “of course we don’t know until the set is actually built, and is placed on the stage. By then it’s too late to do much, though we cut a chunk out if we can.”

That’s all well and good, but think about this… there was a show before yours, probably many, that employed similar layouts. If it didn’t work for them, why didn’t you learn from it?

There are millions of set photographs online, and I’m sure that with the few set builders, there are also thousands of blue-prints containing helpful measurements that could allow sets to be adjusted at the planning stage.

Producers would be happier as a set which fits the stage means more top price tickets and fewer complaints. Audiences would be delighted to see an entire show, and I’m certain that actors would be willing to forgo a crafty cigarette in a concealed nook for an extra moment in the spotlight.

While we are on the subject, directors have a role to play too – and choreographers in musicals. A show I saw recently (name spared to avoid embarrassment) managed to stage a crucial scene in such a way that only around 20 of the 150 strong audience actually saw it. Actors instinctively avoid (well, unless something went on backstage that we’d love to know about) “masking” (hiding someone else from the audience) each other, and a good director looks out for it – but why actively choose to conceal action, unless it actually does take place ‘off-stage’ a la Greek tragedy?

Perhaps there is a conspiracy to get everybody to see the show twice, from different angles? I’d love to, sometimes, but just don’t have either the time or the cash. You get one visit from me, as a rule, so make the most of it, I say.

It really is time that this problem was addressed I think, by producers, designers and directors alike. We do want to see the show – and by that we mean the show, the whole show, and nothing but the show, thanks very much.

Are ‘Mischief Theatre’ the new ‘Crazy Gang?’

April 27, 2016

At best, the name Bud Flanagan now means to most people the singer of the “Dads Army” theme – recorded just days before he died. Older generations, and those interested in Variety, though, will nod in recognition at “The Crazy Gang.” A band of comedy makers who could fill the London Palladium and Victoria Palace Theatres twice nightly for years on end… and did.

They mostly wrote their own material – they had to, anything by anyone else required ‘bashing around a bit, until it suited us” according to Bud in his autobiography. Wordplay, knockabout physical comedy, the odd song and ‘chasing a chorus girl up the aisle with a chopper’ (easy, missus), kept audiences entranced for decades.

Hmm, “wordplay, knockabout physical comedy, the odd song, invading the auditorium…” Sounds familiar today…

I’m talking about Mischief Theatre. A gang of drama school graduates who decided to write their own play when nobody else would employ them. Now it looks very much as if they will have THREE running simultaneously, come Christmas this year – “The Play That Goes Wrong,” “Peter Pan Goes Wrong,” and newest effort “The Comedy About A Bank Robbery.”

In the original cast we see the familiar faces, sometimes playing the roles they’ve done previously – Fawltyesque, Funny Big Man, Nervous Wimp, Glamour Girl and Mrs Bean – and other times playing firmly against anything they’ve done before.

The point is, they come as a team, an ensemble. The material has been written by and for themselves, and their joy is in performing it for us. If you seek the essence of the “Crazy Gang” in a modern setting, here it is.

Or maybe are they something else, as the sad passing of fellow fan Victoria Wood reminded me. Regular readers know I’m a life-long fan of Pamela Brown’s “Blue Door” books – about a group of teenage youngsters who open their own theatre – and I admit I do wonder if “Mischief Theatre” would be their grandchildren. I hope so, for Lynette, Maddy, Bulldog, Jeremy, Sandra, Nigel and Vicky would surely appreciate the mutual trust, creativity and companionship they exude.

Do we still have such a need for a company like this? The days of the West End troupe are long gone – even the “Branagh Season” and before it the “Jude Law” season didn’t use the same actors; the last I can remember in London was when the National Theatre operated individual troupes under several directors back in the 1980s.

My argument is that I think there is a place for it still, as Mischief Theatre demonstrate. Yes, we see the same names in various West End roles cropping up all the time (musicals, especially, where money dictates a ‘safe pair of hands’ is better than taking a chance). The joy of seeing a performer regularly is that, though we can predict the quality of a performance reasonably well, it’s fascinating to see the new character they play each time.

What Mischief Theatre, and their astute producer have done is create a brand based on that, more than that, a entire team inspiring a devoted following. Certainly, I recognised some members of the audience from previous performances, and on the day I attended most of the chatter was about how we were so pleased to see our “friends” once more – and anticipating how their latest efforts would be.

Whether “Crazy Gang,” “Blue Door” or (I’d say) a bit of both, I hope the team stay together for a long time to come, success holding them together – and I for one cannot wait for the magical day when an announcement may come that “Mischief Theatre will present something new.” Let’s hear it for the Mischief Makers, long may they last.

 

 

 

No blog next week – taking a “Bank Holiday Week break.” Back on the 11th May.

Sunset Boulevard: London Coliseum

April 20, 2016

sunset
Pictured, L-R: Michael Xavier, Glenn Close, Siobhan Dillon, Fred Johanson in rehearsal.
(Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith)

(seen at the afternoon performance on 16th April 2016).

23 years, or half a lifetime or so ago – it feels – I saw the original cast at the Adelphi Theatre at their first matinee after press night. The tale had me hooked, and I saw Patti Lupone’s final matinee (the one where she gave us a concert to cover time needed to release a jammed curtain and get the show running again), Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige over the years. To see this once more on a huge stage, with star leads and full orchestra was an unmissable opportunity, so I grabbed it… and I’m so glad I did.

This is impeccably, and I mean, impeccably directed by Lonny Price, and staged by Linnit & Grade. The advertising suggests a “semi-staged” performance. Frankly, I’ve seen less staging in a full West End run. Think “Chicago” and you have a similar design concept, but a far larger cast and more props. And did I mention the orchestra?

A framework of galleries and two staircases, one side simple, the other elaborate, weave around the sides and above the orchestra. In a vast open space in front, action unfolds with well-selected props and projections used as required. James Noone and Tracy Chrisensen / Anthony Powell (set and costumes) should be proud. Only a dud “spider on a string” corpse is a misjudgement, though amusing for those in the balcony who have to stare at it throughout the show, perhaps.

Glenn Close means I can “tick off” another Norma I have seen. Not able to hit the diva heights (or musical notes) of Patti Lupone, but certainly able to find deep meaning in “As If We Never Said Goodbye” and engaging – and keeping despite homicide – our sympathy from “With One Look” onwards. A beautiful performance.

Even more engaging is the wonderful Michael Xavier as Joe Gillis, writer and victim of Desmond. His survival instinct and selfish exterior, which often overwhelm the character, are here shown for what they are – simple protection against the harshness of Hollywood life. We believe that he has seen the underside of the dream, yet chooses it anyway. With Siobhan Dillon (Betty Schaefer) they make one of my favourite Lloyd Webber / Black numbers “Too Much In Love To Care” even more the Rogers & Hammerstein II tribute that I think it is. To see Ms Dillon looking so well and producing such an attractively driven Schaefer is another delight.

Fred Johanson as Max gives us the perfect “Greatest Star Of All.” Butler, castoff, yet steadfast in all things. If he’d had the breaks of DeMille (Julian Forsyth’s witty, truthful performance is remarkable) who knows.

A word for the superbly used chorus of the ENO; the “New Year’s Eve” party sequence of drunken actresses hoping for a better year was a joy. Even funnier, their exuberant “party poppers” fired streamers high into the proscenium arch at the end of Act One. This lead to a fabulous “Laurel and Hardy” tribute cameo by the stage crew, who sent a pair out during the interval with an almost too short ladder to retrieve it. Naturally, when they finally succeeded, the Great British Public duly rewarded them with an ironic round of applause.

Contrasting with the humour, Price produced two of my favourite sequences ever on a stage. To shadow a dancing couple during “The Perfect Year” was haunting and inspired, to create a montage at the end of act two was neigh-on perfect theatre. In a show which is, ultimately, rather a cold story, finding raw emotion is an impressive achievement.

I couldn’t help but wonder why this couldn’t transfer to the London Palladium, the perfect dream-palace setting for this living fantasy with a rotten core. If economics mean we’ll never see this show again in this lavish and appropriate a production, that’s sad, but gosh, I’m so pleased we have been given this all to brief moment to experience ‘the magic in the making’ just once more as it should be seen.

It’s the Quality that Counts

April 13, 2016

I had an email conversation with a reader the other day. The discussion began with a debate on my feelings about “Phantom of the Opera,” but moved on to “Bend It Like Beckham.” Specifically, ‘did all those “five star” reviews happen because the reviewers didn’t wish to offend a minority group?’

My honest answer was “no.” Certainly, the media has to be careful in its choice of words, indeed, posting this blog will probably offend someone for some unknown reason – but nobody would give extra credit for the content of any show being the latest “politically correct” cause. If “Beckham” were to have had that treatment, then by the same reckoning “Bollywood Dreams,” “Bollywood Nights,” and even the National’s play “Beyond The Beautiful Forevers” would have also been lavished with undeserved praise, and those involved in the productions would be first to abhor it.

Still, as I said to the reader, it’s a really good subject for a blog. If we extend the idea that the appeal of the subject should dictate form, that “Kiss Me Kate” should be marked down for domestic violence, or “Annie” for child abuse for a start. “Miss Saigon” could run forever based on its message of hope for orphans, or be closed permanently for its exploitation of women.

“Blood Brothers” is basically about defying social services, “The Phantom of the Opera” about sexual harassment in the workplace, and “Barnum” simply celebrates conmen.

Back to “Beckham,” and I do genuinely believe that some reviewers did find in it something that most of the rest of us missed. I felt that it JUST fell on the 4 stars, rather than 3, thanks to the warmth it generated. Repeated listening of the cast album confirmed that for me, and I still love “Look At Us Now,” a joyous hymn of survival that I too will sing. In fact, you can happily replace the Singh family with any other immigrant group and the show will remain relevant.

Rather like “The Beautiful Game,” I’m inclined to think that quite simply the show will live again… once it has solved the issue the Andrew Lloyd Webber show also had to overcome. It’s really hard to put football on stage – even after overcoming “audience resistance” to the idea of football in the first place (theatregoers not always being lovers of anything to do with the sport).

Football is a field game, with spectators surrounding a vast playing area, watching a lot of players move at high speed – often clumped together to reach the ball.

Theatre these days is often confined to spectators on one side, and the actors spread to fill as much of the stage as possible.

The Union Theatre revival of “The Beautiful Game” solved the problem by having the stage “traverse” so that it felt like a football pitch – playing scenes at the ends of the stage when “home” backgrounds were needed.

“Beckham,” once the Union (or other fringe venue with a flexible stage) will work – I think – perfectly in that same layout. Jess can actually kick a ball and not injure anyone, and the impact of the final match will be greater. Further, using ends to show divides may point up the symbolism of the show.

So maybe the stars were deserved after all. They recognised the strength of the work over the current staging. In other words, it wasn’t just the subject matter – my musings suggest a different staging could get closer to allowing its true quality to shine, as “The Beautiful Game” did. Thus I do think that it really is the quality of the art, whatever the subject, that indeed is the thing that actually counts.

If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me (Young Vic Theatre)

April 6, 2016

(seen at the afternoon performance on 2nd April 2016).

 

Do you remember a few years ago, when newspapers regularly gave away CDs free? Quite often, they would be of songs you’d never heard before, or want to – but you’d “give it a listen” so that you could feel you were “broadening your horizons.” Well, this was a bit like that. And it shouldn’t have been.

Billed as a fusion of 80s music and dance, the music was the oddity. As I was leaving the theatre, a woman exclaimed loudly, “I’d never heard a single song they used.” I thought it was just me, as the 80s was my era. Even though I had little interest in the music of the time, I knew what was “around,” or so I thought. I guess the “North / South divide” extended to ‘bands we listen to’ as well.

Anyway, quite honestly most of the songs sounded like each other. “Empire State Human” and “My New House” were a bit of relief, as was the ballad “I Know It’s Over,” but the rest just melded into one not very engaging blur (no pun intended, too early anyway). Credit to Jane Horrocks, though, her voice is better than ever as she sang her way through the songbook of her youth.

Horrocks “tops and tails” the piece with (I found out by reading another review – the programme was pretty hopeless on such details) quotes from “The Smiths.” This is all about what love feels like, and how it seemed in her teenage Northern room, then at the end, how it seemed looking back. Well, that was the theory.

The actual book of this presentation was absent, at least to those like myself who like, but don’t fully ‘read,’ modern dance that well. It rather struck me that there was little cohesion or coherence to the flow of songs, interpreted by the hard-working dance troupe; and nothing much developed beyond one couple having a, er, very “athletic” time of it.

That said, the dance was pretty outstanding, Lorena Randi and Daniel Hay-Gordon in particular as memorable movers. The trouble was that the few times it was simple to pick up on any narrative, there was no real progression to follow on to the next song and accompanying routine. I probably missed it, but that’s what it felt like.

Bunny Christie comes up with a fun plug and socket design, a “show” cut-out, and at various times a table, chair and fridge rumbling on and off, too. Andreas Fuchs manages almost always to produce the lighting intended, but it seemed curious to use strip-lights suspended from the grid, which left noticeable shadows on the floor below as other effects painted it. If that was intentional, well and good, but my feeling was that it was simply something that couldn’t be worked around and became, “well, it was meant to be like that, really” in the end.

A loud (I used ear-plugs, worked fine) show; reasonably engaging for the most part – vocals and dance more than the actual music – but ultimately a bit more of a concept than a permanent success. Rather like its decade and subject, really.

About 2 and a half stars, rising to 3 for the odd sequence. At over 50p a minute, there are other ways of learning about love for the same cash, probably…

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