Diary of a Theatre Addict: from New York to Edinburgh and Eastbourne, plus meeting Judi Dench

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I’ve not been here with my usual weekly diary of a theatre addict for a month now, since my last posting here. 

So today I’m catching up, not on a week, but on an entire month — during which time I’ve been to Edinburgh, Barbados, New York, Eastbourne and of course London. I’ve interviewed Andy Nyman, Sheridan Smith, Joe McElderry, composer Lucy Simon, Janie Dee and Diana Rigg.

I’ve (only) seen 19 shows — though one of them I saw twice on consecutive nights (and am returning to again next Saturday for another viewing), namely Grey Gardens – a show that has got the musical year off to an exceptional start. (And yes, I’m even buying my tickets for next weekend — always the mark of a show I truly love! It has just been announced that last summer’s US production at Sag Harbor that starred Rachel York and Betty Buckley is heading to LA’s Ahmonson Theatre this July, and I’ve already been consulting flight schedules….)

Two of those shows were in Edinburgh, where I went to spend a few days between Christmas and New Year; that I wrote about here; another seven were in New York (there should have been two more, but I had to cut the trip short when the massive snowstorm that hit the city last weekend made me leave town on the Friday evening instead of Sunday morning). noises-off-bwayNew York was partly pleasure, partly work: I reviewed the new Broadway production of Noises Off (pictured left) that had just opened here, and reported on some of the rest of my week here, which also included a couple of the notable things I’d missed back in London, including Audra McDonald’s one-night and Ramin Karimloo’s two-night return to the London stage.

But one of the reasons I had to make sure I was home by last Monday was four awards events back-to-back: on Monday, the Oliviers in concert launched this year’s 40th anniversary celebrations of the event at the Royal Festival Hall, which I reviewed here; judi-dench-mark-shentonand on Tuesday, I hosted this year’s Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards, at which Judi Dench accepted the award for Best Shakespearean performance, but the Daily Mail hilariously focused on what she’d chosen to wear in a news story that masqueraded as a fashion report, which you can check out for yourself in the picture of the two of us together.

Judi made an effort not to distract from the purpose of the evening and slipped into a simply stylish monochrome ensemble. he versatile screen star – who has played a number of leading roles in Shakespeare’s best-loved plays over the duration of her 59-year career – sported a white loose-fitting silk top, featuring a scooped neckline, a black longline cardigan and a pair of black slim-fitting trousers. Judi topped off her conservative look with a pair of small-heeled black boots which afforded her some height. She decorated her right wrists with stacks of thin silver bangles and her neck with delicate gold chains.

Then on Wednesday I was part of the judging panel of this year’s Offies Awards, whose shortlist has been announced today. Given the number of shows that were eligible for consideration, it always impresses me how rigorously Sofie Mason, founder of the Offies, and her co-conspirator Diana Jervis-Read have established a way in which the productions have an equal opportunity to judged and rewarded. Shows are seen first by banks of assessors who submit reports; those that are short-listed for awards by them are then seen by super-assessors in each category, and finally the super-assessors and a team of professional theatre critics including the FT’s Ian Shuttleworth, Daisy Bowie-Sell (from Whatsonstage), Tom Wicker and myself meet to discuss them all. The winners will be announced on Sir Ian McKellen’s Twitter feed on February 28.

On Friday The Stage held its annual New Year’s party at Drury Lane, as usual — at which this year’s Stage Awards were presented, crowning the week’s awards events with recognition to theatres, schools and people for achievements across the year, including the Almeida (London theatre of the year), Manchester’s Royal Exchange (regional theatre of the year), Cardiff’s The Other Room (fringe theatre of the year)  Producer of the year (Sonia Friedman, for the second year running) and Theatre building of the year (National for its NT Futures refurbishment and rebuild). I was on the judging panel for this one, too — though I hasten to add I excused myself from voting in the Best School category, won by ArtsEd London, since I teach there!

And talking of ArtsEd — I was back there last Wednesday to see its production of Urinetown, performed by 3rd year Musical Theatre students. This is an audacious, disquieting and knowing musical presented with unabashed energy, and featured a star-making turn from Vinny Coyle as Bobby Strong, living up to his character’s name; he has a great voice, acting and huge presence. Particular kudos, too, to Domonic Ramsden, who despite breaking a foot in the previous night’s performance, was absolutely superb on crutches, which he made seem utterly organic to his performance: much like Antony Sher used them, deliberately, in his famous Richard III, they became an additional tool of menace.

the-mother-tricycleI also, of course, spent part of the week catching up on other shows, new and old — I was at the openings of Caryl Churchill’s latest perplexing play Escaped Alone at the Royal Court that I longed to escape from (my review is here) as well as the transfer of Florian Zeller’s The Mother to the Tricycle from Bath’s Ustinov (pictured above), following a similar journey as Zeller’s The Father, which I reviewed here.

I also caught up, on its penultimate night, with Richard Greenberg’s The Dazzle at Found 111, which I was due to see when it first opened but was prevented from doing so when I was held up by an over-running hospital appointment then a non-arriving Uber. I’m glad I waited — at the time I was having to take one step at a time, and since there are more than 70 to get to the venue, it would have been a very slow journey. Though Found 111 is only a temporary space — it is due to be converted into luxury flats soon — its great to see such a bold alternative in the heart of the West End; as Emily Dobbs, co-producer of the play with the Michael Grandage Company, said in an interview with Lyn Gardner in The Guardian,

It’s all in the juxtapositions. I look across Charing Cross Road and I see Bend It Like Beckham playing in the theatre opposite, and here we are in Found111 trying to do something on a different scale and in a different way. There’s room for both of us. In a way, what we’re doing is turning the commercial model on its head and saying small can be beautiful. You don’t have to be a grand West End theatre or big producing house to create work of high quality that sells tickets. It feels like a moment, as if we might be on the cusp of something.

Of course selling tickets to this one wasn’t difficult: the main reason most people would have booked to see it would have been to see the return of Sherlock star Andrew Scott to the live stage.

But in fact there was a lot more to it. This disturbing play about co-dependent brothers who become hoarders is acted with impressive feeling by Scott and his co-star David Dawson.

cats-napier-setAnd yesterday, I went to see a central part of some of the nearly 200 theatre productions that have been designed by John Napier in his 50-year career, in a brilliant retrospective exhibition he curated at Eastbourne’s Towner Gallery. It closes there today, but a London home must surely be found for it, since most of his work has begun in London from the National (including the famous horse masks for Equus) and RSC to such landmark international musicals as Cats (his set model is pictured right), Starlight Express and the regional productions of Les Miserables and Miss Saigon.

 

Napier himself led a fascinating walking tour of the exhibition yesterday, that traced his career from art college to early stage design for the Royal Court (that first stripped out the idea of a stage at all and created what must have been theatre’s first immersive space back in 1970) to his current preoccupations as a sculptor. Seeing me amongst the throng, he said, “I’m working on different stages now, Mark — ones with no actors.”

lear-napier-paintingHe has also productively turned his own productions into artworks, including an incredibly desolate painting based on his set design for Edward Bond’s Lear (also at the Royal Court, pictured left). At one point in his commentary he reflected, “I feel I have fulfilled my life.” What a wonderful thing to be able to say!

And I feel I am fulfilling mine, celebrating it and all the other theatrical wonders I am privileged to see.