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Ink – Almeida Theatre

August 2, 2017

(seen at the afternoon performance on 29th July 2017)

In 1969, “The Sun” was a failing broadsheet newspaper, owned by Mirror Group. Enter Australian Rupert Murdoch (Bertie Carvel), a newspaper man shocked that Britain still uses “hot metal” not computers – a situation he is determined to remedy. With a rag-bag staff, poached from the company who sold him the newspaper, he sets about re-connecting with British Working People – and changes Fleet Street publishing in the process.

James Graham chooses to tell the story in similar fashion. Act 1 is the “broadsheet” as editor Larry Lamb (Richard Coyle) puts together both team and newspaper, and we get a whistle-stop education in how a newspaper was compiled in that era. Act 2 is the “tabloid,” the story of rapid grown, the McKay Affair and yes, the creation of “Page 3.”

Truthfully, it’s engrossing and irritating by turn. For the monkey, act 1 was pretty much outstanding. It happened to be sitting next to someone who worked in the industry at the time though – and the lady wasn’t quite so sure. It almost captured the atmosphere, but she was worried about the structure. By the end of the second half, the monkey agreed.

There’s an even better play in there, somewhere, and it doesn’t quite come to the fore to lift it to 5-star historic status as it hints. Somehow, the excitement of the first half, the camaraderie and very “British” humour dissipates as the pace shifts from organic to episodic. In fact, the final 20 minutes almost seem grafted on – as if they “had to cover the girl” (or indeed, uncover her) and couldn’t somehow find a place for it elsewhere in the production.

Still, this is a hugely enjoyable ensemble event. Coyle evolves from a naïve ambition to hard-bitten editor, Carvel reveals ever-more interesting aspects of the owner in a pair of award-winning performances.

For the ladies, Pearl Chandra makes Stephanie Rahn a wonderful creation, her decision and repercussions heartbreaking. By contrast, Rachel Caffrey simply IS 1969, careless airy astrologer Diana, trophy wife Anna, sexy Chrissie and a neat apprentice too. As the voice of the working woman, Sophie Stanton (Joyce Hopkirk) can’t be bettered – her frankness making many men in the audience as uncomfortable as those on stage, which is good.

Other notable performances are Jack Holden as photographer Beverley (and a neat Christopher Timothy impression – minus cows) and Geoffrey Freshwater as a militant Chapel Father.

On a perfect, shambolic news-room set (Bunny Christie, projections by Jon Driscoll) director Rupert Goold ensures a fast moving event about the happy crew who changed British news forever, and it’s a pleasure to share their story. Do catch the transfer if you can.

Ker-ching, My Lord?

July 26, 2017

An article in “The Stage” newspaper on 13th July 2017 had Lord Lloyd-Webber stating that London theatre ticket prices were fairly reasonable, considering how expensive it is to stage theatre. It’s labour-intensive and income is limited to the number of seats you can sell, basically.

In a discussion at theatreboard.co.uk, a reader asked me, “What is your honest opinion of ticket prices compared to 10 years ago?” Given that Theatremonkey has been going nearly 17 years and recorded the prices for most of those, plus the fact I myself have been a buyer for over 30 years, it was a fascinating question. This blog includes most of my reply.

For me, I guess it has felt like a natural progression. I remember £20, then £30, then £40 being the highest price. The stab of pain when “premium seats” came in at double that… and the amusement at the empty seats they caused before theatres “wised up” a little and started to discount them (not that they tell you that).

The fact is, though, that actual prices are not that high if you can forage for the right seat on the right date with the right discount / membership. We didn’t have to do that before, as prices were fixed and the best seats were not “premium” on top of that. Solve that one, and sanity may prevail again.

That prices are high, or are perceived that way, is not, I feel, the actual cause of the death of new audiences. The way in which they are being used by the show’s marketing team will be the death instead. There are, in fact, more discounted seats than ever before – but they have become inaccessible to anybody who doesn’t know how to work the house booking systems to their advantage, and who needs to fit theatre in around their lives.

The big problem is that at popular times, the times that ordinary non-fans look to go to the theatre (weekends, holidays) the prices are in some cases off-puttingly outrageous. Convincing people that there are more reasonable prices on other dates is hard to impossible, and is the real issue here.

When I started theategoing, £10 got you a tube fare, McDonalds meal and standby ticket, with change for a programme. Those days are gone and won’t return. It is, though, still possible to do all that for under £30, so maybe it isn’t as bad as it looks. If you challenge that: Tube fare from zone 5, return, adult, off-peak £6.20. Programme, £4. McDonalds saver meal, burger, fries, drink: £3.20. Total, £13.40. That leaves £16.60 for a ticket. 10p gets you a place at the Royal Court Theatre on standby, £10 into any number of fringe venues, or a bookable £12.50 seat in the upper circle at “Les Misérables,” a £15 ticket in the National Theatre to any production, or a £12 day seat at “The Ferryman,” just as examples.

Not great, but not impossible.

Fact is, we wouldn’t settle for the production values of shows back when I started going in the 1980s. Even “The Phantom of the Opera” is sometimes criticised these days for dated staging. Theatre costs, alas, and the box office is where we all start paying… luckily, the odd short cut is still there, if you know where to look…

 

Bat Out of Hell Poster

July 20, 2017

Yes, finally got it framed and into position on the side of the stationery cupboard at Monkey Towers.

Really nice reward for just filling in their survey at the theatre :).

Bats against Willows

July 19, 2017

To coin a cricketing term, or not. Either way.

An article by top theatre reviewer Mark Shenton in The Stage newspaper of 6th July 2017 debates the wide gulf in professional reviewers’ responses to “Bat Out of Hell” at the London Coliseum and “The Wind in the Willows” at the London Palladium. Opening a week or so apart, in two of the largest (both Matcham designed) theatres originally build for “variety and popular entertainment,” one gained pretty much universal 4 star reviews, the other struggled to reach 3 in many cases.

For Mr Shenton, who incidentally reviewed exactly the opposite way around, the conclusion was that original British shows are given a harder time than imported or derived “jukebox” shows, and this “double standard” directly affected the reviews. Well argued and considered, a good article, but having seen both, I beg to differ.

To be clear, I too was invited to both shows, so didn’t pay for a ticket but was expected to submit written reports read by the production as well as both Theatremonkey.com fans. To also be clear, I genuinely don’t care who has created any production that I see (though I will spend my own cash to see work by people that I particularly admire).

I also loved British shows like “Stephen Ward,” “The Girls” and “Made In Dagenham” when others failed to do so. For this blog article, I will also note that I knew only 1 song well – and just about had heard of 2 more – before seeing “Bat Out Of Hell,” and I wasn’t all that keen to see the show as I don’t particularly like either “jukebox” or over-loud theatre. I was, though, itching to see “The Wind In The Willows” thanks to happy memories of the National Theatre version, and good word from the out-of-town original run of this production. In fact, I even re-arranged my own diary so as not to miss the date I was offered to see it.

Thus, I was as surprised as anyone to be sitting in “The Wind In The Willows” wishing I was back at “Bat Out Of Hell” – or, frankly anywhere else at all. I follow the very strict rule (as laid down by the late Barry Norman) that I must stay to the end, as often all that has gone before will make sense and create a wonderful surprise. On occasion, though, I wish I had taken the lead of most of the rest of my row, and many around me. Simply, I was bored. B.O.R.E.D. The single biggest and always fatal sin in theatre. To have characters and a production that fail to engage the audience so that the are willing to follow a tale (or, tail, in the Willows, I guess) for up to 3 hours.

To break it down, as I saw it.

Bat: Paper-thin but relatable characters – rough boy, posh pretty girl, evil father, split-loyalties mother, gang of friends. Unoriginal, but colourful both visually and in personality, reflecting youthful energy and society that we can recognise today.
Willows: Much-loved characters from childhood. The character traits, though, are all familiar on a daily basis only to someone living in the countryside without the internet, probably; and those happily brought up on similar tales.

 

Bat: Massive set that fills the sides of the stage and leaves space for dancing and impressive – often amusing – special effects at the top of theatrical ability. Costumes and lighting add to the mood. We know we are in dystopia, and it’s pretty raunchy at times, but always something going to happen.
Willows: Large set, some beautiful details – the animal burrows in particular, which are rather lost beyond 10 rows. Also some stonking short-cuts like the reduction of a mansion to a table, and a train out-of-scale with everything else. One horrible and over-used cliché special effect at the end. Costumes refuse to be anthromorphic. Toad has green hair, but that’s about it. The actors don’t even move in “animal” ways a la “Cats.” So how do we really know what they are?

 

Bat: A plot that could be written on a postage stamp, with enough space left over for Amazon’s entire book catalogue, probably twice. Yet it was done with conviction and humour, with enough peril to keep us interested. A small number of characters to track, but plenty of events to draw us into their world right from the start. Sure, the action took a dive for a bit in the second half, but the songs covered it up.
Willows: A familiar tale, oddly stripped of continuity. Endless exposition before the action got going. Characters were introduced then abandoned, the leading toad didn’t even show up until half way through the first half, and was so obnoxious even the kids didn’t care what happened to him – which was lucky as there were several other plots put centre-stage to follow, none of which were really relevant and diverted attention from the main thrust of the story, such as it was.

 

Bat: Whole Jukebox full of songs familiar to those who know the original album. For the terminally uncool like myself, totally and utterly fresh, in the main. And yet, every one sounded like it could have been written for the show, for the stage, and filled the auditorium – not just because of the amplification either.
Willows: All fresh to me, the edge being that I knew the original story. Sadly, many of the songs seemed to echo on the stage before becoming wisps as they crossed the orchestra pit. A couple of nice tunes – really, really nice tunes – but one heck of a lot of surplus ones, too, none of which did anything to cover the slowdown of the plot.

 

Bat: A totally mixed audience, old and young – and, as my own review noted, talking eagerly to each other. Moving forward to empty seats to be near the stage at the interval, knowing “the best songs are yet to come.”
Willows: Mostly bored looking couples, plus a few children with parents or grandparents. Nobody could be bothered to move, some in fact left at the interval. No happy buzz of excited chat either. More questioning if it would end soon.

 

There’s no doubting the creative teams and casts worked equally hard, but theatre is unpredictable and the results, for me at least, were very different. Going by Theatremonkey and also theatreboard readers, the 4 to 1 in favour of Bat, and 4 to 1 against Willows in feedback seems to be shared – mirroring professional review ratios.

Even if, as theatreboard contributor Baemax says, Bat, “Gets a pass for sheer audacity,” it’s enough. Theatre is about getting a reaction, and if one show can when another can’t, that’s the extra distinction between success and failure.

Put another way, I sat in similarly priced seats for both, and “Bat” would have left me satisfied for £65. “Willows,” truthfully, not. Paying “premium” prices, I would still rate the “Bat” worth it, if it comes down to it. “It is the ticket price” as a friend of mine is inclined to say; you are getting a unique experience that simply isn’t available anywhere else.

Honestly, I conclude that for the professional reviewers, there was no malice or holding to standards involved.

It’s a complicated brew that has no formula, but I do doubt it is nationality that has much to do with it. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work – audiences don’t “feel” what the creators want us to. But when it does, oh, what a feeling indeed. Like sinners at the gates of heaven, audiences come crawling on back to the box office for sure… professional reviews or not.

“Blondel”: Union Theatre

July 12, 2017

(seen at the afternoon performance on 9th July 2017).

Interestingly, this tale of Richard The Lionheart’s minstrel was first seen at the other end of the street, when it was the opening show at the then newly refurbished Ed Mirvish Old Vic Theatre in 1983. Coming almost home, this revised version is an exceptionally brave choice by theatre owner Sasha Regan and her team.

As always, the Union goes way beyond usual “Fringe” expectations with a cast of 15 and neat 4 instrument pit band. Ryan Dawson Laight comes up with designs and costumes that are both period and fun (some jeans creep in, along with ballet pumps) and the lack of amplified sound gives us the joy of natural voices.

If we are being totally honest, as our hosts,


the merry Monks (David Fearn, Ryan Hall, Oliver Marshall and Calum Melville) point out, the second half is far shorter than the first… and doesn’t particularly work. It never did, probably won’t… and it doesn’t really matter. For this is a pretty jolly romp, with hilarious Tim Rice lyrics and an acting troupe that refuses to quit entertaining us for a second.

Witty commentators all, you won’t forget ‘Brother’ David Fearn’s opera-trained voice,  ‘Brother’ Ryan Hall’s sense of fun, ‘Brother’ Oliver Marshall’s slight bewilderment nor ‘Brother’ Calum Melville’s dual role of Archbishop willing to compromise for his personal safety.

They set the scenes and keep things moving as we meet aspiring composer

Blondel (Connor Arnold). Leading man looks, comic timing, stage presence, personality in spades, yet with an endearing humility, a future star for certain. If he survives his mother’s sandwiches (please, keep her out of the theatre’s popular café), that is. Union Theatre alumni Katie Meller returns in a very different role (minus the cheese and pickle) and proves once again her versatility in a proud performance.

Jessie May is Blondel’s love, Fiona. I first saw her in “Mamma Mia” in 2010, noting then how musical theatre acting was her strongest suit. Seven years later, she’s even better – and still seemingly unaware of it. A full emotional range from joy to exasperation, a proto-feminist finding a beautiful internal dialogue in “Running Back for More” – casting directors, take note. Oh, and Ms May and her friends are also the splashiest dancers in London.


A chorus of Castle cleaners, “The Four Tubs” (as I nicknamed them) have to develop an independent touring cabaret group (or at least a “Britain’s Got Talent” act – go on, I dare them) based on their “Laundry Lament” – choreographer Chris Whittaker’s best of the fine work in the show. May, Courtney Bowman, Lauren Byrne and Michaela Stern bring the house down with mops – and help cool the front row in this over-heated auditorium, too. If we learn a little too much about one of their love-lives, no matter, all fun. What a bunch of comedians, and indeed singing actors, the lot of them, though.


As their boss another Union Theatre regular, Neil Moors (King Richard – pictured left), is an hilarious icon / star / regal mixture. His steady centring of monarchy allows camply slimy


James Thackeray as brother Prince John to appear even crazier than written… and almost steal the show with “No Rhyme For Richard” (the Tubs backing group, augmented by other cast members, making it even funnier with a quick nod to more than one musical theatre hit).


Hired hitman Michael Burgen (Assassin – pictured right) also gets a lovely chance to shine, spelling out his job and later despatching Monks and crowned heads alike in ever more creative cartoon fashion. Victim Jay Worthy (Saladin / Duke of Austria / Baron) is outstanding, covering three pivotal roles and keeping each very much an individual performance – impressive concentration for sure.

A quick nod too for the mysterious man in green, Craig Nash. Roger Hood, giving it to the poor, I think. Either way, we know who he is, even if Fondle will be the one we all remember. Or something.

And that is the rub. The Rice lyrics are clever, the songs still sound fresh – “The Least of My Troubles” charms, “Saladin Days” is a nice tribute to the original title and “All I Need Are Words” is a real ear-worm. Sadly, however, changes made to the original show (Mathew Pritchard brought in to augment the late Stephen Oliver’s music), alas don’t solve the issue that there isn’t a lot to hang the entire evening on.

This incredibly talented team have probably produced the definitive version of the show, getting every last chuckle and daftness from it, with some good points about feminism and social commentary thrown in for weight. A really great bunch of tunes, even better performed and presented, but alas finally more curio than classic in itself, which is a bit of a pity.

A 5 star show with a 3 star books. It’s a 4, but unmissable – if you can snag a ticket before the run ends this weekend.

 

(photo credit: Scott Rylander. Used by kind permission).

“Working” – Southwark Playhouse

July 5, 2017

(seen at the afternoon performance on 1st July 2017).

It has taken some 40 years for this concept musical based on Stud Terkel’s book of interviews (nice poster tribute in the set) with ordinary working Americans in 1974, to reach London. It’s been revised several times since its first outing in Chicago and short 1978 run on Broadway. The working environment has changed radically too, and yet this show still feels surprisingly contemporary.

Possibly, this was helped by director Luke Sheppard’s bright idea of employing six newly-graduated actors – Patrick Coulter, Nicola Espallardo, Izuka Hoyle, Luke Latchman, Huon Macley and Kerri Norville to act as a sort of chorus for the “old sweats” team Gillan Bevan, Dean Chisnall, Krysten Cummings, Siubhan Harrison, Peter Polycarpou and Liam Tamne who sing about their lives as construction workers, receptionists, flight attendants, truckers, publicists, project managers, delivery staff, teacher and housewife, among others.

Something of a meander, there’s no truly logical construct to the show beyond an expected opening hymn to work “All the Livelong Day” and a “next generation finish” with the wistful hope that everybody will have “Something to Point To” at the end.

Between the two, I’m not sure either that we actually learn anything new. Pretty much as you’d expect, office life is stressful (a few updates are most noticeable here, though little about the pace of life in the modern paper-shuffling factory), while manual labour is hard – sometimes satisfying – and those on the bottom rungs in manufacturing, food and delivery will do anything to break the monotony and hope for a tip.

Still, the cast each get chances to shine. Gillian Bevan gets the very best numbers, “Nobody Tells Me How” from the original score, and a still bitterly relevant commentary on modern teaching; plus the delightful “It’s An Art” celebrating the wonderful service vocation that is waitressing.

Newly re-located song “Brother Trucker” delivered by Dean Chisnall with energetic choreography by Fabian Aloise to show off the youngsters’ chorus is an equally effective set-piece.

Peter Polycarpou’s retired Joe is a stand-out, also as a steel-worker, with pride in his tool belt since the age of 18.

Equally, Siubhan Harrison’s achingly lost factory worker in beautiful song “Millwork” is worthwhile – she also gets to wrap those velvet vocals around a second number later – as does Krysten Cummings as she pours out her hopes in “Cleaning’ Women.”

It is noticeable that gender roles are very much of the period, with no cross-over at all. Whether allowing a woman to be a fire-fighter or a man a housewife would provide a new angle to the show or cause it to dissolve, I’m not sure, but I think I might just have appreciated some kind of attempt to address things, given that the show has been updated.

Still, it’s an interesting “slice of life” with few longeurs and plenty of interesting characters crammed into a 95 minute straight-through running time. The experienced actors are each a unique and original talent, while the newcomers may not yet shine individually, but clearly are gaining much from the experience. Notably their difficult moves were smooth, indicating just how far they must have come as the run nears its end.

There’s only a few days before all punch the clock for the last time. This is worth seeing before then.

4 stars.

Penn & Teller: Live. UK Tour 2017. Apollo Hammersmith.

June 28, 2017

(Seen at the performance on 25th June 2017).

Around 30 years ago, I remember seeing an American magic act on, I think, Ben Elton’s “Friday Night Live.” To a rock beat, two anarchists did a routine with one commentating as another appeared in various holes cut in a cuboid rocket-like structure. Interesting… but then they did it again… this time with clear cubes and a constant refrain of “Trap Door!” Those guys were Penn and Teller, and I was hooked instantly.

A fan for all these years, my bucket-list included seeing the duo live – and last Sunday night that box was finally ticked.

Popular enough to sell out 4 nights in Glasgow and Manchester, plus these 6 at the biggest theatre in London, the audience they draw really is of all ages. Forming a warm bond with the audience to open the show, a terrific youngster of 8 was called to the stage for a P&T version of “Rabbit from a Hat.” Said rabbit ultimately fared far better than one dealt with by an unusually chatty – though inaudible – Teller later, it must be said.

Over two hours of pure fun followed, as the pair presented illusions recent and classic from their repertoire, interspersed with stories and amusing digs at targets like the British Magic Circle and the American “Saturday Night Live” audience. The latter protested in droves at their use of a snake in the old “cut rope” trick (we get that one, ‘carnival geek’ style), but apparently cared not one whit about Teller’s drowning the following week.

A lesson in how not to choose an online password involved five members of the audience and not only confounded the rest of us, but also a magician’s assistant I happened to chat to a few days later. She admitted knowing how it was done… usually… but nothing matched that from my description this time…

And that’s the glory of them. The Heston Blumenthals of magic, endlessly innovative and always unique – even as their 8 year old selves doing the old “cup and ball” routine (and that isn’t a euphemism).

Come the interval (during which Teller likes to walk his cow, according to the video screens), the audience was unusually reluctant to leave. Normally, as the lights go up, there is a stampede for the bar / toilets or both (he gets the drinks, she makes room for them, is my observation). That night, the audience instead remained seated, each grasping two halves of a playing card, comparing them with their neighbours, those in front, and those behind.

Having been asked to choose 4 cards and a cup from a bin in the foyer before the show, Penn had just ended the half by having us all shuffling the cards face down, tearing them in two, exchanging one half of one card with a neighbour, shuffling again, putting one half in a pocket, shuffling and discarding random numbers of card halves into a cup until only a single half was left in a hand. Reach into your pocket for the other half…. remember, the magicians had been on the stage at all times, miles from your seat… and… everybody turn over their cards… Yes! The pieces match! 3300 people simultaneously gasping, “What The F…?!!!” Mathematical, probably, but we swapped card halves, remember…

If their big trick after the interval didn’t go entirely according to plan (mobile phone tricks seem doomed) the second half was as much a pleasure, with the beautiful “shadow cut flower” and less aesthetic but thrilling “Teller Trap” finale. You will never make a sandwich in the same way again.

Most of all, though, and the bucket-list tick of bucket-list ticks, was finally seeing “Miser’s Dream” performed live. For more years than I remember, I’ve loved this sensitive, silent illusion, with an ending that confirms the value of life truly is the triumph of living gold over cold dead silver. My all-time equal favourite illusion (Paul Daniel’s “Magic Kettle” being the other), and without peer.

I think that this is the heart of my hero-worship of this pair. That philosophical humanity underscores all that they do, and they simply love to be a part of making life just that bit more wonderful and inexplicable for all. The sheer humility, perhaps their greatest trade mark, shines through in their live show.

From the very, very reasonably priced souvenirs (most “tours” try and make as much as they can; here, for example, a programme was a West-End matching £8, but with better content) through the unforgettable evening of hard-work and originality – for which they publically thank their whole team – and ending with an open-ended “meet and greet” time in front of the theatre after the show for anyone wishing to stay, Penn and Teller are not just magicians at the very pinnacle of their profession, but people choosing to live at very pinnacle of life.

I’m hoping they return to the UK soon, and the line for tickets starts here.

 

Pure magic, unmissable.
5 glittering stars.