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Bring It On: Southwark Playhouse

August 15, 2018

(seen at the afternoon performance on 11th August 2018).

Following the triumphant “13” at the Ambassadors Theatre in 2017, the British Theatre Academy return to American High School culture, a little bit older, a little bit wiser in a Tom Kitt / Lin-Manuel “Hamilton” Miranda / Jeff Whitty confection celebrating cheerleading and the US teen.

Campbell is looking forward to her Senior Year as elected Head Cheerleader, rounding out her Truman High School career in style. A spanner in the works finds her transferred unexpectedly to the tough Jackson High. No cheerleading squad, no adoring circle of friends… just fellow ex-Trumanite and cheer Mascot Bridget-the-unpopular. “Sink or Swim” is the motion now.

It’s a pretty long-winded setup, taking almost 30 minutes to reach the good stuff, but it’s worth the journey. For those who know Miranda’s earlier work, this has plenty of the elements that make “In The Heights” such a wonderful slice of true life – unfettered honesty about interpersonal relationships; the obvious made even more glaringly so.

The more experienced Kitt and Green provide the soundest structure to his early effort. Kitt’s score isn’t that memorable, though the odd ballad, in particular, sticks. With Kitt, though, Green pours on the attitude to keep the book characters engaging and witty enough to sustain the show.

Tom Paris (Set and Costumes) gives us an open space with two-tone lockers and floor, plus the odd simple bench, mirror and road sign – and plenty of cheerleading outfits and Unicorn Onesies – don’t ask.


Director / Choreographer Ewan Jones keeps the action flowing for all three sides of the audience, and creates some impressive ensemble dance routines. The older cast members cope better with these than the youngsters (a little extra mirror-rehearsal may help tidy and tighten slightly “Do Your Own Thing” in particular) but “We Ain’t No Cheerleaders” and “It’s All Happening” are impressive.

Where British Theatre Academy score biggest, however, is the cast. This is a library of all the theatre performers we will be fighting online for tickets to see over the next half decade or so.

Victim Campbell (Robyn McIntyre) proves her ability by selling a weaker song “One Perfect Moment” in show-stopping style. It can be impossible to love a bitch, but she maintains her edge while never losing sympathy. Her scenes with Danielle (Chisara Agor) are emotionally explosive, as Agor’s remarkable charisma enters the mix. A triple-threat likely to reach the top very quickly.

Fellow victim Bridget (Kristine Kruse) will probably end up with Mischief Theatre at some point. Comic, yes, but with a self-assurance that transcends pity, and a sure understanding of character.

For the rest of the Truman gang, sidekick Skylar (Isabella Pappas) is another step towards a stellar career. Character acting is as natural to her as breathing, facial expressions simply hilarious, and a stage-holding song “Tryouts” demonstrates her range still further.

Loyal Kylar (Clair Cleave) is a versatile MC too, Campbell’s boyfriend Steven (Samuel Witty) is credible, later work with Eva (Sydnie Hocknell) proving that both can produce a very broad range of emotions as required.


At Jackson, La Cienega (Matthew Brazier) is vivid, and to be congratulated on his sound Dance Captaincy and cheerleading supervision on the show. Twig’s (Ashley Daniels) evolving love-life is a lovely piece of sensitivity, with Nautica (Mary Celeste) making the most of her role in proceedings.

Notes too for Cameron (Clark James), Tyler (Ben Terry) and Jake (Morgan Howard Chambers), also Woman (Millie Longhurst), all of whom for dance ability and strong acting add something to the show at many points.

An acknowledgement to the rest of the ensemble too, too numerous to mention but always effective and surely the generation to come once the current “oldies” are safely transferred to less desirable show casts…

So, second year of my own encounter with British Theatre Academy work, and I’m certain it won’t be the last. There’s still a couple of weeks left to see stellar work at below star prices, and I do suggest that you take it.

4 stars.

 

Photo credit: Eliza Wilmot. Used by kind permission.

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And that’s it for the season. I’ll be on summer blog break until the leaves turn around on 26th September 2018. Have a good one, all!

 

£¥€$ (LIES): Almeida Theatre

August 8, 2018

(seen at the 6pm performance on 7th August 2018).

 

Authors Joeri Smet, Angelo Tijssens, Karolien De Bleser and Alexander Devriendt attempt to explain that global banking is not only based entirely on trust and notional transactions, but also affects absolutely every participating nation equally.

To do so, the audience of 70 is invited to join one of ten countries. Split into groups of 7 at casino-style tables, each facing an actor / banker / croupier, we are encouraged to first “buy in” to our country’s economy with our own cash (returned at the end) by purchasing casino chips. A dice game increases or decreases those assets, taxes are paid, and an ever more confusing mountain of options, loans, local to international bonds and short-selling cards are offered as the evening progresses.

Therein lies the problem. Director Alexander Devriendt orchestrates things to be frenetic, and they are. Too much so. Many on my table were confused as to what they were actually doing, and never really grasped the concepts. Luckily, their activity was fruitful – in fact, more so than mine (I played it straight, using the knowledge I have of business and finance), but I could sense many were slightly dissatisfied with their continuing confusion.

Trouble was, the game is not just random, but lacked the discipline of a real financial market. Real decisions are made on actual data, and this is pretty scarce – limited to a few updates and on a revolving board you have to turn your back to see. There’s also a problem in that it is possible to manipulate the game if one has even a modicum of magician’s skill. I chose not to, is all I’m saying on that, but it would have been pretty simple.

When it comes, the final dénouement is impactful – but also one can’t help feeling a trifle contrived and inevitable. Had our table had up-to-the-second information at all times about the activities of our rival countries, and had we known how much better capitalised and informed the entire audience should be, I’m pretty certain the near universal apocalypse we witnessed would have been avoided. That may have been the point, in fact, but it felt unrealistic if so, as markets do know, even if we in this model did not.

As it was, four tables went bankrupt and all of us took a severe beating. I’m proud to say that my own team, despite never getting out of the C credit rating (the only ones to fail at that) also lost only £117m, the second lowest, thanks to our cautious investment approach and deliberately sneaky refusal to divulge economic data to other tables at any time.

Thanks too to our steely banker Hannah Boer, whose firm control of our table was always good-humoured and seldom frustrated (though frequently incredulous) at our combined approach. A quick name-check too for fellow team-mate audience members Paul and Rachel, seated either side of me. Good company and, as I pointed out at one point, not the first time I’ve been next to a lady for just a few minutes, only to find myself several million down…

Three further notes: if you are booked (it’s a sold-out run now, alas) and are told you can’t bring a bag in, actually, you can, provided it is small enough to go under the high bar-stool seats we all have. Second, couples will be split up, to prevent collusion. Finally, egotists may like to be in the first ten people to enter the auditorium.

It’s fun, though not quite as much as it thinks it is, and informative in a general way, with certainly enough sobering notes to make you consider exactly how the economy really works.

5 stars for effort, 4 for fun and 3 for communication and clarity, is the verdict – a healthy B rating.

Why do shows go on sale so far ahead?

August 1, 2018

It’s a good question.

For new shows, West End theatres get reserved by producers the second the current show looks as if it might have an empty seat, more or less. Joking apart, they really are competed for – and producers must already have (or at least make the theatre owner believe they have) a viable production lined up to take the space.

Once that seems to be happening, putting a show on sale gives everybody reassurance that the thing is going to happen, and that the millions being put in are going to stand a chance of re-payment.

It’s practical, too. Aside from theatres and stars being booked way in advance, the more time to build sets and put the creative team together, the better, as well – even if we know the technical rehearsals will run until 6pm of the first preview…

Oddly, it isn’t cash-flow as such. Sure, the theatre owner and producer will haggle like crazy over who gets the interest money on the advance payments, but the producer won’t get their hands on the box office takings until a week or more after the performance has taken place – and will have to find cash to meet daily running costs and tax long before that.

Hype is a good one. It took “Hamilton” around 2 years to reach London – and tickets went on sale 10 months before it opened here. That gap between Broadway opening and London tickets being available fuelled the website-crashing demand in January 2017. Imagine how much more difficult it would have been to manage demand had tickets gone on sale just a few weeks before the show? Yes, that’s right… but who would have talked as much or for so long if they had…

There is also a school of thought suggesting theatregoers book early to be sure they can get the date they want, and plan their own lives and “big trip.” If you are the kind to plan ahead (and yes, I do have tickets for June 2019 already) that’s a fine reason too. The best things take time, so maybe they are all worth the wait.

My guess, though, is that it is also to ensure the big shows are part of the landscape before they arrive. The logo is familiar on the posters and the tube, the name is mentioned in seasonal round-ups months before. Overseas travel operators can book groups in for the coming season, and busy production companies can plan every need from cashflow to staffing far better.

When we are talking about existing shows adding new “booking periods” there’s also several answers. For a new show with good reviews, the answer is of course to “cash in” while the time is right. Keep the momentum going.

For longer running shows, the art is between ensuring future bookings – again overseas operators can plan and publish brochures far ahead – and keeping the hype that the show is doing well… but also… finding out if there is still a market. If there is still interest in tickets 9 months ahead, it’s probably worth auditioning a new cast. If nobody is even looking to see what is available, may be time to move on and thus start the whole cycle once again…

Subsidised Theatre Tickets Squeeze All?

July 25, 2018

The National Theatre’s top prices pretty much match those in the West End, as do those of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Opera ticket prices often exceed both.

Let’s be fair – the lowest prices can be lower than commercial West End ones, though not always… the National can be £18, more than the £15 or £10 of some commercial venue balcony seats, though the seat locations are way better.

We also have to be fair that both National and RSC productions always look “the business” with wonderful sets, huge casts, live orchestras and star names that would put another tenner on the ticket down Shaftesbury Avenue, but are foregone for the CV entry and likely chance of working with a great director and scooping an award.

Still, the original idea of “theatre for everybody” starts to look a little thin, doesn’t it?

Real costs have increased – wages and raw materials in particular. Audience expectations are higher, so some impressive productions even 30 years ago may look somewhat tatty now as ever more talented creatives are indulged everywhere.

My main guess as to why, though, is actually down to the same issues we now see within the wider British economy. Simply: those who were young and supported the NT as it grew on its present site in the 1970s are now those entitled to concession priced seats.

At the other end, theatre thinking is to reach out to the young – those who don’t have much cash, and give them cheap seats too.

Result: of course, those who earn a “reasonable income” (at best) are squeezed for everything they can afford. Now the sheer cost of living is rising, that is starting to hurt, and nobody is doing anything except trying to keep letting them fill the pot to distribute to those with even less.

Is there a solution? Public buildings paid for with tax money have to be accessible to tax payers. Those who once paid tax will claim they are entitled to reap what they sowed, while without bringing in new theatregoers, we lose the chance of theatre for the future at all.

The idea of “buying a ticket for a young person” though an extra box office levy works – if anyone is willing to do so, but it’s donation. Sponsorship and all the other ways subsidised theatres attempt to raise funds by also work to an extent, but in the end it is the middle-aged-middle-income theatregoer taking up the slack.

Maybe, just maybe, it is time to show that they are valued too, and realise that “am I made of money” isn’t just applicable to the ends of the theatregoing range…

Fun Home: Young Vic Theatre

July 18, 2018

(seen at the afternoon performance on 7th July 2018)

With “Caroline Or Change” so recently in mind, I found myself thinking just minutes into this production that it was similar. No surprise, as Jeanine Tesori is the composer.

This time, with Lisa Kron, the story is a few years later, but still very much about family and a child’s formative years.

Alison Bechdel – yes, the cartoonist and creator of the “Bechdel Test” calibrating female involvement in movies – once produced an autobiographical graphic novel about her young life. Two siblings, teacher parents who doubled as morticians and antique home restorers, and a lot of messages about sexuality and identity.

Played without an interval, adult Alison (Kaisa Hammarlund) looks on as she interacts with the world as a child and later University student, drawing (literally) her conclusions and captioning them as she does so.

From the opening as Small Alison (sadly, can’t credit – did ask the Young Vic press office for assistance two weeks ago, but holiday leave meant no reply to date – kind blog reader Robin suggests Harriet Turnbull) begs her father (Zubin Varla) to help her take flight, through encounters with Joan (Cherrelle Skeete) to an ending where we see life narrow, open, twist, close (David Zinn’s set and costumes, Ben Stanton’s light, Jai Harada’s sound all magical) each moment is pared down, and symbolic.

It can be taken many ways. The simplicity of theatrical lines in the same way as ink ones are created. Illustrations hanging together to make points, or simply rather self-indulgent pretention?

Like the best art, it’s very much “in the eye of the beholder.” For me, the layers became a fascinating exploration of a life. The only criticism being that though the musical is fully-formed, the “sucker punch” to drive home the message isn’t quite as interesting as what goes before. Perhaps that’s intentional, and the moving of the audience heart and soul is deliberately inches rather than accustomed jerk.

Still, there’s plenty to admire. Music and lyric are sound, if not entirely committed to memory on first acquaintance, the cast CD is a required purchase after. The performances are particularly strong. The already mentioned Varla and Skeete are charismatic influences on young lives – Skeete on Medium Alison (Eleanor Kane) a particularly successful pairing as they manage awakening without either overshadowing or making predictable the sheer exuberation of it.

Jenna Russell as Alison’s mother, Helen, has little to do by normal Russell standards, but also by normal Russell standards it’s noticeable – her confusion in a telephone conversation understated and genuine. Ashley Samuels plays a multitude of small roles with success, and Alison’s child siblings John and Christian do well, combined with their sister to produce a lovely show-stopper as a trio.

That this made Broadway is no surprise. It’s the kind of open psychology that characterises America. There’s a lot of credit to the Young Vic for taking something somewhat alien to the British emotional mind even now, and taking the chance that it will land.

If willing to accept that the sophistication is in the creativity as much as the story itself, there’s plenty to reward self-examining your response long after the curtain falls.

 

5 stars.

Machinal: Almeida Theatre

July 11, 2018

(seen at the afternoon performance on 27th June 2018)

Another one of those butterflies finally caught in my net, having chased it for years. Fortunately, worth the chase.

First, I’ll plead ignorance. While I recall the lauded National Theatre production of the early 1990s that I never saw (cashflow and academia combining to prevent it), I didn’t in fact realise the age of the play nor real significance of author Sophie Treadwell. Now, though, I see why it is quite so highly regarded as an American classic, and just why Treadwell might have struggled to produce another work quite like it.

I won’t speak of the plot, save to say that a young woman (Emily Berrington) in the 1920s / 1930s works in a typing pool, marries her boss Jones (Jonathan Livingstone) and has a child.

The language is sublime, the construction nigh-on perfect. They combine to suggest that a woman’s life is programmed like a machine. School, work, husband, family. The rhythms of each stage may change – and not for the better as they move from staccato to wail – and her voice grows ever softer, rarely heard unless she takes a decision to lash out.

Director Natalie Abrahami gets the most from her cast, particularly overbearing and oblivious Livingstone and Berrington as she wilts in his lethal glow.

There are lovely performances too from Mother (Denise Black) and Doctor (Andrew Lewis), the pair oblivious to her plight. Nathalie Armin is also notable as a Stenographer and later nurse, and a quick nod for Kirsty Rider’s telephone girl (though she may find it difficult to get a ‘day job’ as one if an employer has caught the show). Neat work too from creepy John Mackay at a table with victim Khali Best.

Why, then, is this a four rather than five star review? Simply, I’m not convinced about the playing with time periods from two thirds of the way through. Until that point, I was visually sure (nice work from Mirian Buether’s simple ‘jaws of life’ set and Robin Fisher’s video, with Jack Knowle’s enthusiastic lighting) that we were watching the original time period.

The decision was taken to begin throwing modern darts once the family was established. Small touches, but it became distracting – or at least divisive. On the one hand, I’m willing to accept that many of the issues in the original play are very valid even now. Against that, the play was already doing a fine job in itself of laying out the issues and achieving recognition of contemporary validity, without having to hammer the fact home by such crass pointers.

Still, it’s a marvellously played and staged revival, served at perfect pace. Worth catching if you can.

4 stars.

Kiss Me Kate: London Coliseum

July 4, 2018

(seen at the afternoon performance on 30th June 2018)

It simply may have been “Too Darn Hot,” or (more likely) “end of run blues” at the penultimate performance in the penultimate week of touring, but this “Kiss Me Kate” from Opera North was sadly a mere peck-on-the cheek rather than the full-on-snog regional reviews advertised.

At ridiculous London prices, this looked shabby from the off. Sure, a huge cast and orchestra, but the set was mostly back-cloths and clearly designed for far smaller stages as the sides were so masked with black curtain it could have been a funeral.

Far worse, the whole thing was pushed back over a metre from the stage front, putting the audience on St Martin’s Lane, as the actors performed somewhere, I’d estimate, around Floral Street. And sometimes it also sounded like it, too. The Coliseum has near perfect sightlines and acoustics, what on earth allowed them to go ahead in this manner?

There was some attempt at giving us value for money. According to the programme, and indeed my own memories of past productions, there were ladles of forgotten and cut material, none of which added much to the show except running time and perhaps boasting rights for those who know the score better than I do and could pick out the extra bars and instruments.

The story remains delightfully politically incorrect, though the violent misogyny is thankfully toned down. Stephanie Corley (Kate) does well enough, helping a slightly under-powered Quirijn De Lang (Petruchio) through an acting role he found difficult. Being fair, his “Where Is The Life That Late I Led?” worked reasonably well, thanks to – by this production’s standards – some light-hearted staging.

Stephane Corley (Lilli) came close with “So In Love,” but Zoe Rainey (Bianca / Lois) scores the biggest hit with “Always True To You In My Fashion,” the only member of the company able to truly breach the divide that afternoon.

Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin as First and Second Gunman struggled to get “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” across, barely raising a laugh until the final verse, but deserve credit for perseverance.

“Too Darn Hot” for the company was the single moment in which the ensemble shone, a brief flicker of life at the start of act two before a return to mediocrity.

For an opera company to tackle a Broadway musical is brave, to put it on the road braver still, and to face a West End audience at the end of it admittedly admirable. Trouble is, there’s an excellent DVD of the Victoria Palace version, staged by Broadway Theatre (Theater, fair enough) experts, which really outflanks this in every way. Considering the resources used, that really is a bit of a pity.

 

3 stars – and only thanks to a couple of outstanding performances.