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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.

Why your theatre seat is awful.

June 27, 2018

So many reasons – but they mostly boil down to architecture and the economics of the business side of “Show.”

Most West End theatres are old – 1880s to 1930s. Most are thus “listed buildings” meaning permission in triplicate from the Queen before you can push a drawing pin into a notice-board, more or less.

Back when they were built, people were smaller, so legroom and width were not so important. There’s also probably the fact that they weren’t paying a month’s mortgage for 3 hours entertainment, and were thus less demanding, but that’s a philosophical argument not to do with comfort.

What was the truth is that theatres were designed for “social segregation.” The “orchestra stalls” or “stalls” as we know them today were pretty much how they always were. Except that the back area could have been a “pit” – second to lowest price benches behind the wealthier customers. Today, those are second most expensive and it isn’t always possible to adjust the rake (slope of the floor / height of steps between rows) to help see over the seats in front. Not a consideration when it was only the poor who sat there.

Upstairs, the dress circle meant “dressing up for the occasion” and could have been split into separate boxes. Knocked together to put full rows of seats in, structurally it wasn’t always possible to adjust the building to put a better rake in. Once columns went out of fashion, theatre circles became “cantilevered.” A huge lump of concrete as the back wall (that’s why the entrance doors are via a thick corridor) counterbalanced the balcony in front. It means no pillars required, but also that you can’t move the weight around too easily on the shelf created.

Above the dress circle, the other balcony or balconies could have been fitted with wooden benches, or just left as stone steps. Modern day requires seats, but they have been put on top of the original steps for the same structural reason. Sometimes we are lucky and the steps are high enough that room for legs to “dangle” makes up for the lack of legroom, sometimes not.

With more modern theatres, the sometimes shocking lack of legroom often comes down to architects who don’t actually spend much time at shows, but do have to work to a brief to make the theatre owner happy and wealthy.

Those bolt-upright seats are trendy “ergonomically designed” efforts, because architects are told that it is healthy to sit bolt upright, and that everybody wants to do so (and is capable of it). Even better, they can squeeze extra rows in, as they don’t need so much space in front. It’s also why a couple of theatres have seats that face sideways rather than straight ahead. It’s a space to put a seat in.

There is a small constraint on legroom – the distance to the nearest fire exit, and space between rows is laid down in law… the way around it is to shorten the armrests (which is where the distance from seat to the back of the one in front is measured from). If you see short arm rests and have no legroom, you know why.

There are also rules about how steep the angle of seats to the stage can be. It’s 45 degrees maximum. If you do that, you need even more rails and barriers at the ends of aisles than usual.

Simple economics does mean the more seats, the lower the “breakeven” point, above which the show starts to make money. With the best views in the centre, why have an aisle there, and why not have long rows. If you “offset” them – staggering so that seats are not one-behind-the-other but looking through the gap between people in front, you lose at least one seat per alternate row…

Finally, there’s the fact that theatre can do so much more – and we expect it to. Lights and speakers have to go somewhere, stages have to be raised or lowered, extended or set back, according to the producer, designer and director’s visions. When the theatres were built, the stage was in one place and the seating designed to focus on one point. Change it, the whole perspective alters.

And on that note, just to finish, one thing I’ve noticed over many years is that reader reports do indicate that the more you enjoy a show, the better your seat is, even if it is cheap and officially “restricted view.” Interesting that, isn’t it!

Ten signs you are becoming an older theatregoer

June 20, 2018

Last week, I tweeted that I knew I was getting older when I was offered a choice of sitting upstairs or standing downstairs at a pop concert for the same money… and was delighted to get a seat.

The number of “likes” for that tweet suggested either empathy or the “Great British Mickey Take” (not sure which, though several I’d considered ‘friends’ until then). Anyhow, it made me realise that there are many other signs to look for… and I needed a quick blog, so a listicle it is:

1) You remember when the current revival was originally that cutting-edge smash hit… starring actors who have now passed away.

2) You are now older than practically everybody working on “Les Miserables” and “The Phantom Of The Opera” both on stage and off. Indeed, most of the cast wasn’t even born until way after you’d seen the show at least for the third time.

3) You choose your seat for a combination of few stairs to get to it / enough legroom and backrest not to aggravate the muscles / proximity to the exit / dashing distance to the loo. You also remember when they had ashtrays on the backs.

4) You actually need the loo before, at the interval and after the show.

5) You book a midweek matinee because you don’t have to work – but still hope it is over before the rush-hour.

6) You make a game effort with Google, but still don’t have a clue who the “star name” that ensures a sold out show actually is.

7) You use ear-plugs even at a Rogers and Hammerstein revival.

8) You are mildly irritated that afternoon tea, served to your seat, is no longer an option.

9) You remember when phone and photography warnings were not required.

10) Most of all, you remember when your seat cost less than the souvenir brochure does now… but heave a sigh of relief that you are in on the ‘senior discount’ anyway.

The Rink: Southwark Playhouse

June 13, 2018


(seen at the afternoon performance on 9th June 2018)

Finally caught up with this show, a mere 30 years after first securing a ticket… for a performance 2 weeks after the original London production at the Cambridge Theatre ended. Back then, I was restricted to school holiday theatregoing… now…

Cutting to the chase, this is one for musical theatre connoisseurs, one of those memorable rewards that those of us who love musical theatre with the depth of an oenophile very, very occasionally receive.

The seaside boardwalk is being torn down. Under the roller-coaster, near Caterpillar and Waterslide, the Antonelli Roller Rink has been sold and the wrecking crew arrives. Anna is off to Florida with Lenny, the current boyfriend, in a half-hour… until 7-year-absent daughter Angel arrives. Demolition is delayed as old times are dragged up and just why the place is both blessing and curse for all is revealed.

It’s a deceptively simple Kander and Ebb, right up there with “Cabaret,” “Kiss of the Spiderwoman and “The Scottsboro Boys” in complexity and hidden meaning. From the “instruction sign” – as much a guide to life as to rink users – to trenchant observations about objects making buildings a home. The importance of such items in family history, and the relationships they engender and sustain, are given intimate dissection. We are all “going around the rink” and it is how, where and with whom that keeps us moving, forward or ‘reverse,’ ‘all skate’ or ‘ladies’ only until ‘intermission’ or ‘clear floor’ are lit.


Caroline O’Connor (Anna) is in overdrive. Mother, schemer, survivor. Each given powerful vocal and choreography (Favian Aloise on major creative form for the whole show) demonstrating skills and experience rarely seen in London.

Gemma Sutton (Angel)  may be the daughter from hell, but her performance too is a remarkable achievement. “Colored Lights” stops the show in the first half, “All The Children In A Row” stops the show again in the second. Her beautifully-judged final revelation and subsequent scenes stop the show (and break the heart) to conclude the story on an unforgettable moment.


The pair don’t have the superlatives sewn up, either. Stewart Clarke (Dino) may be a failure on many levels (particularly moral ones), but he is an actor, singer and dancer of rarest ability. I was lucky enough to be in a seat so close as to be practically taking part in some of his interactions with his wife and daughter – and it was an absolute privilege and thrill to study his work at such close quarters.


With a small cast and many roles, there is no room for ballast, and the team rise to the occasion. Ross Dawes (Lino) gets a beautiful scene as a father rightly angry at the rejection of all he has worked for. Michael Lin (Lucky) not only has a lovely moment at the Prom, but also a lot of skating talent in a joyous ensemble number in the second half – think a budget “Starlight Express” with far more humour. Jason Winter (Tony) and Elander Moore (Benny) also getting nods for some fine work – Winter making a rather good nun, if truth be told.

Ben Redfern (Lenny) deserves special mention. Playing a character at various ages, plus a lovely moment in drag during a show highlight “What Happened to the Old Days,” he is a major reason for the show’s emotional success, the understated yet crucial scale against which decency is measured, frequently difficult to determine in other characters. He makes an excellent reference point.

Bec Chippendale’s dilapidated rink is perfect – the period American feel and aforementioned dilapidated sign board in particular. Extending even under the seating, row A should watch its toes. Joe Bunker keeps the pit band up to scratch and Libby Todd’s costumes deserve a particular note for both the amazingly green trouser-and-pullover ensemble Angel is forced into (I suspect a bet was won) but also coming up with actual personalised dog-tags for Dino, impressive use of the budget on a detail few will notice, but those who do, admire.

Rarely seen, the perfect cast in the perfect show in the perfect theatre with the perfect creative team. No wonder the audience rose as one at the end, and I was proud to say I was one of the first on my feet.

5 stars, standing ovation.

 

Photo credit: Darren Bell. Used by kind permission.