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Round-up of 2016

January 18, 2017

First Entry of the new year, and it’s a simple run-down of the best and worst I saw in 2016. Subjective as ever, and leaving out a few “re-visits,” the list runs as follows – in no particular order under each heading:

Out Of This World (SO – yep, a standing ovation from me. Many more than usual this year, and all deserved).
The Master Builder (Old Vic) (SO)
Funny Girl (Menier Chocolate Factory (SO)
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Lyttelton Theatre)
People, Places & Things (Wyndham’s Theatre) (SO)
Show Boat (New London Theatre) (SO)
Romeo and Juliet (Garrick Theatre)
The Flick (Dorfman Theatre) (SO)
Titanic (Charing Cross Theatre)
Aladdin (Prince Edward Theatre) (SO)
Jesus Christ, Superstar (Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park) (SO)
Groundhog Day (Old Vic Theatre) (SO)
The Dresser (Duke of York’s Theatre) (SO)
Ragtime (Charing Cross Theatre) (SO)
Amadeus (Olivier Theatre) (SO)
Dick Whittington (New Wimbledon Theatre)
Oh Come All Ye Divas (Charing Cross Theatre)

The Wonder Years
Linda (Royal Court Downstairs)
Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Donmar Warehouse)
Bar Mitzvah Boy (Upstairs at the Gatehouse Theatre)
The Painkiller (Garrick Theatre)
The Comedy About A Bank Robbery (Criterion Theatre)
The Caretaker (Old Vic Theatre)
Sunset Boulevard (London Coliseum)
Nell Gwynn (Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue)
Cleansed (Dorfman Theatre)
Blue / Orange (Young Vic Theatre)
The Threepenny Opera (Olivier Theatre)
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Part 2 (Palace Theatre)
How The Other Half Loves (Duke of York’s Theatre)
The Bodyguard (Dominion Theatre)
Richard III (Almeida Theatre)
The Deep Blue Sea (Lyttelton Theatre)
Allegro (Southwark Playhouse)
No Man’s Land (Wyndhams Theatre)
The Libertine (Theatre Royal, Haymarket)
School of Rock (New London Theatre)
King Lear (Old Vic Theatre)
The Spanish Riding School of Vienna (Wembley Arena)
Half A Sixpence (Noel Coward Theatre)
The Last 5 Years (St James Theatre)
Cymbeline (Barbican Theatre)
This House (Garrick Theatre) Cinderella (London Palladium)
She Loves Me (Menier Chocolate Factory)

California Dreams
As You Like It (Olivier Theatre)
Hangmen (Wyndhams Theatre)
Road Show (Union Theatre)
In The Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (Charing Cross Theatre)
Running Wild (Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park)
Elegy (Donmar Warehouse)
Henry V (Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park)
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Part 1 (Palace Theatre)
Guys and Dolls (Phoenix Theatre)
The Entertainer (Garrick Theatre)
Ghost: The Musical (New Wimbledon Theatre)
Vanities: The Musical (Trafalgar Studio 2)
Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour (Dorfman Theatre)
Shopping and F***ing (Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith)
Murder Ballad (Arts Theatre)
Side Show (Southwark Playhouse)
Dreamgirls (Savoy Theatre)

Saved By The Bell
If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me (Young Vic Theatre)
The End of Longing (Playhouse Theatre)
Doctor Faustus (Duke of York’s Theatre)
Breakfast At Tiffany’s (Theatre Royal, Haymarket)
A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer (Dorfman Theatre)
Oil (Almeida Theatre)

Bug Juice
Macbeth (Young Vic Theatre)
The Suicide (Lyttelton Theatre)
Nice Fish (Harold Pinter Theatre)

Some really great stuff this year, and those many “standing ovations,” that were actually very much deserved. A few let-downs, and the three productions I liked least were genuinely excruciating to sit through, but it really has been a good year. If I had to pick a new play, “The Flick” is simply the best three hours I’ve had in a theatre this year, while “Groundhog Day” produced “Playing Nancy” – the finest new show tune in a decade, perhaps.

Coming in a few weeks too, the annual “Goodmonkey Awards” – rewarding the things other awards ceremonies can’t bear to even think about…

 

Dick Whittington – New Wimbledon Theatre

December 14, 2016

(Seen at the afternoon preview performance on 10th December 2016).

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After the severe shock of Jared Christmas 2015 (vile, obnoxious little man, may he never disgrace the Wimbledon – or any pantomime – stage again); I’m overjoyed to report that for 2016 the New Wimbledon panto team are back on form, delivering the finest traditional panto possible, and then some.

We know we are in safe hands as the curtain goes up on a magnificently colourful “I Want to Dance With Somebody,” and Grace Chapman (Alice Fitzwarren) demonstrates a belting voice to go with the looks and charm required of a proper panto leading lady.

Next up,

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Arlene Phillips (Fairy Bowbells) and Matt Harrop (King Rat) make a poetic start on the story.  Harrop’s beautifully judged timing gives us the perfect rat to boo for the rest of the show, while Phillips grows in confidence with every line – later delivering a highlight that has the whole theatre joining in, and loving it.

The first comedy spot follows. In place of the horrific self-aggrandising moaning of Mr Christmas 2015 (that had the theatre in shocked silence as festive spirit bled out of every door), joker genius Tim Vine (Idle Jack) makes a triumphant punning return from an “away game” (you have to be there). Mr Vine ensures that there isn’t a dry seat in the house, and, has the audience begging for more.

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Likewise, panto regular Matthew Kelly (Sarah The Cook) does her solo stuff brilliantly as always (and the frocks, my dear, the frocks!) and better still finds a perfect foil in Mr Vine, their duo surely something Wimbledon’s producers should contract annually for the foreseeable future.

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As title character, Sam Hallion (Dick Whittington) is lucky enough to pair with not one, but two special people. First, Indi-Jay Cammish (Tommy The Cat), his faithful friend. Cammish’s third time in the role, and it shows. Gymnast extraordinaire, mime artist, able to make her single “meow” carry meaning alone or as a whole rhyme, her every moment on stage is a pleasure.

Second, the already mentioned Ms Chapman ensures that the pairing are not only a stunningly attractive couple, but also well attuned, with voices blending and some highly believable acting too (I suspect a “showmance” for sure, here – another panto tradition upheld, if true). Paul Baker (Alderman Fitzwarren / Sultan) should be happy at the match – and if not, he is regal enough to do something about it… if he survives the terrible grape jokes in act 2 every night, that is…

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Worthy of mention are the ensemble – Paige Albery, Rethea Coles, Daisy Darville, George Ioannides, Kamen Knight, Ella Kora, Ethan Tanner and Rhys West, who fill the stage with precision dance and some decent background comedy too. Also not forgetting the Juveniles – Blue Team from Doris Holford Stage School at this performance, who ensure “Never Forget” is an uplifting sequence in the second half (once they have finished loading the ship, of course).

Yes, this time Eric Potts is back on form with his interlacing of classic routines and topical one-liners (Trump and Southern rail – the latter obviously the bane of Ms Chapman’s life, going by her hand signal) and fascinating older material “Turn Again Whittington” and “The Lambeth Walk,” that the youngsters in the audience found as enchanting today as their elders did when first performed.

The whole is ably directed by Ian Talbot once again, with Mal Maddock and Steve Power ensuring the music flowed and Aaron Renfree filling David Howe’s glowing stage with dance energy.

Fabulous clean family fun, the audience buzzing and the feeling lasting right through the season. If you can get a ticket (there really are not many left), turn again to Wimbledon, where the stage is paved with gold.

5 stars.

 

Photographer credit: Darren Bell. Used by kind permission of the New Wimbledon Theatre.

 

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And on that festive note, thanks for reading in 2016, and it’s time for a break. Hopefully, I’ll see you in 2017, back on the 18th January. Merry Christmas to Christian readers, and a Happy New Year to all.

Still about beating ticket touts…

December 7, 2016

For those who tried to get “Adele” tickets and found themselves chasing pavements instead, the usual reasons given in the press were that automated systems were sucking up the tickets before anyone else had a chance – by entering payment details faster than a human could. Further, agreements between venues and “secondary ticketing” websites meant that vast blocks were never on sale at “normal” prices anyway.

Now, last Thursday, something interesting happened. It was Theatremonkey.com’s 16th birthday – and thank you to the literally hundreds of readers who tweeted, emailed and posted on www.theatreboard.co.uk their good wishes, you’ve NO idea how much that meant – anyway again…

I also got an email telling me that (after the late, great, Paul Daniels, may he rest in peace always) my favourite magicians Penn and Teller would be in the UK next year. I’ve always promised myself to go see them, and since Las Vegas is out of the question for the time being, the UK seemed a far better bet.

Better still, if willing to use AXA ticketing, a priority bunch of seats were on sale. True, you couldn’t choose your own, and the fees were £2 more than the usual site, but even so… I went for it, and have a wonderful seat, £30 cheaper than just 2 rows in front. Delighted and can’t wait for my Miser’s Dream (I hope. If it doesn’t happen, watch out at the stage door is all I’m saying).

Point is, though, AXA have found a way to beat the automated system so far as entering personal details as fast as a machine can… while in the “waiting room” to buy tickets, you can ENTER ALL YOUR CARD DETAILS so that when you do get on to buy, just like the computers, it’s all there and you don’t have to do anything more once your seats have been allocated.

It speeds up booking too, as the site isn’t waiting for hundreds of people to fumble with the forms as well as selecting the tickets and dealing with the line, and the whole thing works. I was impressed (even if the total booking fees were, frankly, pretty high and imaginative – “facility fee,” anyone?). So, that’s that bit sorted. Next thing is to eliminate the usability of tickets to start with, making it pointless for a tout to buy them in the first place.

My latest suggestion: ask those customers who are interested to pre-register for an event, and upload photos of those who will be using the tickets. At checkout, once logged into your account (details entered), the user must select the photos of those attending – and the photos will be printed out on the tickets AND digitally entered into the database so that on arrival ushers can check faces and compare them with the online photo brought up on the entry device too, if there’s a question.

There’s no way to re-sell a ticket with a photo on it, nor alter the photo if it is going to be compared, and it’s another weapon, I think. Also, if I’m paying £7 for the service privilege, a personalised souvenir ticket is at least way of getting something for it, isn’t it!

Things People Assume About Theatregoers

November 30, 2016

I do still get the odd, “how did you get interested in theatre, when nobody in your family is connected with it, and you come from such an ordinary background” comment. Answer: my parents did love going to see live shows, and were wise enough to take me when I was very young.

Still, it did get me making a very simple list of things theatregoers seem to be thought of as being… yet I can’t relate to any of them…

Posh. Me? Blackpool chips over Beluga Caviar any day.

Grey haired. Well, half guilty, but its stress, and I’ve not dyed it blue… yet.

Alcoholic. All those “free glass of Prosecco with your ticket” offers. I for one am tee-total, and actually get angry when I get those offers. Add a soft drink alternative, please.

Clever. Well, I do have the certificates, but to understand even the most complex play you need only see a great production and listen.

Rich. In name only, and of course I know which seats to buy and where to get them cheap. If I can’t, well, the odd pricey one I think evens it out, but even I drew the line at £85 for “The Rocky Horror Show,” last year – Richard as narrator or not.

Stupid. If I pay for a premium seat without good reason, I may just let you have that one (see above).

Middle-class. If reading the “Daily Mail” (mostly for Fred Bassett, Baz Bamigboye and Richard Littlejohn) is, then fine. I’d say working class product of a comprehensive school is nearer the mark.

Obsessive. Guilty as charged. Well, one of out 7 isn’t bad, is it?!

Is “Dynamic Pricing” actually restricting producers?

November 23, 2016

From a discussion about “Half A Sixpence” on theatreboard.co.uk, someone was saying that they wouldn’t see the show, simply due to ticket prices, and couldn’t understand why they were not cheaper in order to build an audience.

Aside from the fact a West End show is an expensive thing to stage (particularly on this scale, with a large cast and proportionately small theatre),  my reply was that producers are rather stuck with their options. As I saw it, they were simply,

1) Price the same as other shows – high to start, because you can always discount later (and bear in mind that just because your printed prices are high, you can “dynamic price” at any time. You can also sell to trade / groups etc at prices far below those the public know about.

2) Price low to start, go high if you have a hit. Problem is, you lose revenue in those vital first weeks, and risk a backlash when you return to normal pricing.

3) Price fair, and miss out on “discount hunters” in the marketplace. You only have your show to splash, not a “discount” to wave – whether it really is a discount or not.

4) Price high, hope to sell and hang on like grim death until you have to cut. If you do, you risk destroying your show’s reputation as it is seen as a failure that doesn’t sell.

My point was that producers can’t really win, these days.

In the past, the only people who knew which rows were at which prices were those who either had an obliging clerk on the phone, or could visit and see the colour-coded seating plan on the box office counter. Unless they “moved the rope” (re-priced seats nearest where the prices usually changed to a lower / higher price) the seat prices were fixed and nobody knew different – plus there was only the TKTS booth in Leicester Square to discount to.

Now, it’s all open online, and the public thinks it can see prices and seat locations instantly, and know how a show is selling. Not totally true – most theatres trickle seats to the online booking plans to sell, and seats are often kept off for groups / agents / management use etc. Still, I do wonder if dynamic pricing is actually killing shows in a whole new way, now, by offering chances to be too clever with the marketing of them – as my four alternative methods of pricing suggest.

Sure, “dynamic” maximises a hit (with the corollary of driving away regulars, as Mr Pugh of “The Girls” rightly notes) and potentially allows a quieter night to fill extra seats at lower prices. BUT it also leads to the situation the person on theatreboard moaned about, where prices seem to start particularly high, to allow for later movement, perhaps, but meantime blow the opportunity to sell to the less convinced at a reasonable price. A regular theatregoer knows the prices may change in their favour, but the casual buyer is repelled and will never come back to discover the alteration.

In fact, just as this blog was going to press, a reader emailed to say that she had decided not to see a show at her local theatre because “dynamic pricing” put second price tickets up to above the usual top price on the day she wanted to go – despite plenty of seats being available.

Worse, the vocal minority who love to issue gloomy warnings spot the empty seats, and are given fuel to talk a show into the ground, particularly when unsold tickets later do show up at lower prices.

There has to be something to be said for a return to the old methods. You knew the prices, knew the price structure would stay the same, and decided whether to buy or not without taking a chance things would get cheaper later on. Producers had the flexibility to increase prices or quietly drop the price of seats within a section, and there was a sense of trust between both them and their customers.

Maybe that’s the key. Rebuild that – as “The Girls” will with its lack of “premium seats” and fair prices throughout the house, and perhaps it’ll be a winning situation for producers whose shows run longer as the public begin to book ahead once again. Worth consdering, I think.

The Spanish Riding School of Vienna – Wembley Arena

November 16, 2016

(Seen at the afternoon performance on 13th November 2016)

Still high on my “bucket list” has to be learning to ride a horse. Not something I had a chance to try as a child, but as an adult it just feels like something I’d like to do. Preferably during a relaxed month or three at a luxury 5 star “dude ranch” in Arizona, so maybe there’s a touch of “cowboy” there (no barracking at the back, thank you)… but now, well, Vienna seems tempting.

Since around 1565, The Spanish Riding School (and its forbearers) has taught noblemen and the military to ride. Not just ride, but bond with a horse to an extent where it can perform the most precise movements with just a voice, touch or light movement of reins, and even become a powerful weapon itself on the battlefield.

This 450th Anniversary tour is a chance for those in London and Birmingham (be quick, they are performing there this coming weekend) to get a glimpse of what goes on in the impressive 18th Century building in Vienna that now houses them.

In an almost 2 hour long programme, incredible horsemanship mixes with Austrian classical music and interesting audio-visual slides (presented live by Nikki Chapman) to form a fascinating afternoon.

The show is designed to demonstrate every aspect of the horse / rider partnership – which is for life, as the rider usually stays with the horse right until it retires at around 25 years old. The Lipizzaner horses themselves come from just 7 blood-lines, and the oddest fact of all is that only a horse from one of those lines may be regarded as “white.” All other white horses should, for strict accuracy, be considered “grey.”

The bond is shown first with four horses performing basic steps – yes, in exact time to Mozart – before moving on to explain “Work In Hand – Schools above the Ground;” to us, how they make those horses leap as they do. A horse takes two-thirds of its weight on its forelegs, so it’s quite a feat, beginning on a short rein without a rider.

Moving on, an amusing “Pas De Deux” – literally a ballet for two horses and riders – is a highlight of timing as they keep pace over the wide expanse of the arena. Closing the first half with a solo demonstration of a horse guided only by a long rein and voice, I couldn’t wait to see how exactly these skills came together.

The second half explained it. The three iconic “leaps,” “Courbette,” where the horse rears up on its back legs and jumps forwards, “Capriole” as it jumps with all legs in the air and moves forward, kicking out (lethal in war, the reason for the move) and “Levade” (assuming a statue-like pose on hind legs only for seconds at a time) are demonstrated to full effect. A horse has more than “forward gears,” with the right training they go up, down and sideways as well – often simultaneously… who knew?!

With a finale “School Quadrille” of 8 horses in the arena, the programme closes with each skill demonstrated and a stunning visual memory of animals and riders in harmony, moving together in beautiful, sometimes heart-stoppingly close formations.

It’s an incredibly gentle, horse paced afternoon. That takes some getting used to, coming from our modern fast world. Yet as the time passes, it seems more and more natural and my appreciation of the skill of riders and the standard of the work presented grew exponentially with every passing moment.

A genuinely fascinating afternoon, and I hope one day to take up the invitation they close with, to visit the actual school itself. Another one for the “bucket list,” I guess.

Side Show – Southwark Playhouse

November 9, 2016

(seen at the afternoon performance on 5th November 2016)

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This show belongs firmly to the design and costuming team. Takis gives us a seedy circus feel of lit arches and staircases, with boxes wheeled around to stand on and store things. Natasha Lawes adds make up and prosthetics to the costumes, giving us lizards, tattoos, half man / woman and co-joined twins that fascinate the eye and help the actors immensely with their performances. Only “dog boy” (Oliver Marshall) looks perhaps more Chewbacca than is helpful.

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For this show is about freaks. At the centre, paired Daisy and Violet Hilton (Louise Dearman / Laura Pitt-Pulford), rescued from exhibition and abuse (in all ways)

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by “father” Sir (Chris Howell) and elevated to national fame on the legit “Vaudeville” circuit by Buddy (Dominic Hodson) and Terry (Hayden Oakley).

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The rest of the company play all other roles, from freaks to journalists (resist all jokes). As freaks, Lizard Man (Nuno Quiemado), Half Man Half Woman (Kirstie Skivington), Tattooed Girl (Agnes Pure) and Fortune Teller (Genevieve Taylor) shine in particular. Jake (Jay Marsh), fierce protector – and admirer – of the twins is also outstanding in a role with a emotional huge range.

This is, though, the twins show, and they sing and act everything they can out of this. Their work together is impressive, synchronisation to Olympic standard. No wonder Sir,

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and agents Buddy and Terry wished to keep their company. The strength of the show and their performances is in making this unusual situation so credible.

Sadly, there is a reason this show isn’t more widely seen… the book simply doesn’t work. Lengthy “back story” “Flashback and Trial” kills the pace of the first half, and we are left wondering what happened to the sisters at the end, too (they were abandoned, penniless by a promoter in 1960, got jobs in a shop where they were left, and died of Hong Kong Flu in 1969) missing something far more theatrical.

The rhyming dictionary appears a little more than a Broadway show may tolerate too, and the score just carries the show, but fails to soar for the key points in the tale and create a definitive “showstopper” of a number that the atmosphere cries out for.

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This is probably going to be the rarest chance to see “Side Show,” and I’d venture the best possible one too. The production is perfection in achieving its aim of presenting a difficult musical to the highest standard. Even if the show itself is revealed as too weak to shine in itself, this cast more than generate enough energy to carry it off with a far greater than expected success.

 

Oh, and just to finish, a couple proposed, and accepted, this afternoon, in front of everyone after curtain-call and with the assistance of the cast to get them to the stage. I wish them well – a different end to the show, for sure.

 

All photographs: Pamela Raith. Used by kind permission.