I’ve had a ‘slow’ week — or at least a slower one! By tonight, medications information pills I’ll have seen just seven shows — but also three readings, information pills too, so perhaps that makes ten. I’ve also done two big interviews — with singer Jane McDonald, ahead of her season in Cats in Blackpool, and with actor David Suchet, as he returns to the West End in The Importance of Being Earnest this coming week, both of which will run in The Stage on July 9.
And as part of my teaching sessions at ArtsEd to the first year acting class, I’ve had playwright Simon Stephens come in to talk very generously and inspiringly to the two groups they’re divided into, too. Oh, and I’ve been interviewed myself publicly for BBC TV News (about the impending Harry Potter play), and privately by a student for an undergraduate thesis on how the blogosphere has impacted on the theatre.
I’ve also had a lovely catch-up lunch with my former critical colleague Charlie Spencer, now happily retired (and well out of it at the Daily Telegraph, whose arts pages seem to be floundering since the departures, too, of long-serving arts desk supremos Sarah Crompton and Paul Gent), and a meeting with Matthew Warchus and his executive producer John Richardson to talk about musicals (new and old) at the Old Vic (watch this space!)
So perhaps it wasn’t a slower week at all! But then I like to keep busy, so I’m not complaining. I’m only sorry, as ever, that I can’t see more: I’m particularly sorry that I had to cancel my ticket to see Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree on Thursday at the National (but relieved that at least it wasn’t Friday I cancelled, when the guest turned out to be my friend Philip Quast, who only told me on Saturday that he’d done it!); and I’m sorry I wasn’t at Burt Bacharach’s concert at the Royal Festival Hall on Friday (or at Glastonbury on Saturday, though I’m not sorry I wasn’t there!) I also missed the opening of The Seagull at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, but maybe I can still catch that in the next couple of weeks, and the opening of Rentboy – the Musical at the Above the Stag (which I probably won’t!)
It was a week in which there was also welcome news of a couple of forthcoming theatrical returns The James Plays trilogy are being revived for an international tour in 2016 and Nick Payne’s Constellations is returning to the West End for a short run at the Trafalgar Studios following its recent UK tour.
Keeping on top of all of this is just one of the many jobs I do in addition to the “night job” of actually seeing and reviewing shows. And some, of course, I see purely for pleasure: having seen, and loved, the preview I attended to review Bend it Like Beckham last weekend (which you can read here), I went back again to the opening on Wednesday to enjoy it all over again. I already know that this will become a show I return to again and again…. (My interview with director Gurinder Chadha can be found here)
Re-visiting shows, for work and/or pleasure, is something I do often enough. This last week I also re-visited Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (my review is here), to see my 3rd Willy Wonka: it’s amazing the calibre of classical acting talent this role is attracting, as Jonathan Slinger now follows in the footsteps of Douglas Hodge and Alex Jennings.
I also reviewed the openings of Educating Rita at Chichester’s Minerva on Tuesday (review here) and The Trial at the Young Vic on Friday (review here). The first saw a bit of unscripted onstage drama when Lenny Henry (below) lost his way, part way through the first act, and had to leave the stage to recompose himself. In an idiotic column in The Observer, Elizabeth Day declared the incident, “one of the best things I have ever seen on stage” and went on to say,
Up until that point, the play had seemed stilted and dated. Henry’s collapse was a real, human moment amid an unconvincing make-believe. The unexpectedness of it added a frisson of surprise to proceedings. For the duration of the play, we were thrillingly uncertain as to whether he was going to make it to the end in one piece or not. I don’t much like the theatre. You’re not really allowed to say that, are you?
Then why go, one has to ask? She then proceeds to list her litany of complaints against the theatre, including this one:
Plays are long. Unnecessarily, self-indulgently long. You’ll have to miss dinner to see one, either wolfing down a quick sandwich beforehand or spending several pounds at the bar on tiny tubs of ice cream or artisanal crisps (roast ox or Szechuan pork flavour, retailing at £1 a bag). There are never enough loos. Trying to elbow through the crowds to the lavatory during an interval at the National is like enduring the first day of the Ikea sale crossed with a battle scene in Game of Thrones.
Perhaps she should simply go to see Constellations — 70 minutes without an interval, and she can not only eat at leisure after, but use the restaurant loo while she’s at it. But then why let facts get in the way of a good generalisation? At least there IS an interval in a long play (by which I mean anything over 2 hours). If we’re complaining, at least theatre shows have them — movies don’t.
She also moans: “Somehow, because it’s theatre, we’re all supposed to love it and talk in hushed, reverent tones about how great it is. I’m not sure why this should be. It feels like we have lower critical standards for plays than almost any other art form.”
But I’d also suggest that this kind of sneering, attention-seeking tone seems to come from anti-theatre trolls than almost any other art form, too. Why do apparently intelligent people feel compelled to let us know how much they hate it? It’s really quite simple — just don’t go. And save yourself — and us — the effort of having to listen to your complaints.
I’ve managed a 9-show week, approved but the truly frustrating thing is that the show I’d been most looking forward to of the week, thumb if not the summer, I ended up missing — owing to traffic. Yes, I know, I know — we should have just left earlier. But we looked up how long it takes to drive from London to Grange Park Opera in Hampshire to see Bryn Terfel as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, and it said two hours from where we live in Borough, near London Bridge — so we allowed three to be safe.
In fact, the first hour-and-forty-five minutes were spent just getting to the M3. At which point I was still hopeful we’d make it — but then M3 traffic was gridlocked, too. As hope vanished — and we knew that the first act is the lion’s share of the evening, from 5.20pm-7.10pm, followed by a 90 minute dinner interval, with just another hour to go afterwards — it didn’t seem worth persevering just so that we could see the second half.
Perhaps we should have followed the Grange Park’s instructions on its website about taking a helicopter there instead! A someone tweeted in response to me when I said this, “If everyone took that option it would be like a gala performance of Miss Saigon!” I can’t think of another regional theatre that offers such advice, though talking of Miss Saigon, I once saw a show at Sheffield that Cameron Mackintosh was at and he’d come by helicopter to! (It was My Fair Lady, not Miss Saigon, though, that he was seeing).
So I missed Bryn’s Tevye (pictured left). Anyway, at least I’ll be able to see Fiddler on the Roof, albeit without him, later this year when it is revived on Broadway. And last night we started watching the original 1971 film version of the show with Topol on Sky. On Friday, though, having lost hope of seeing Fiddler, we turned around and come back to London via a stop-over in Kingston, finding a restaurant on the river just behind the Rose Theatre to have a lovely outdoor dinner at!
Then we used the opportunity that we were back in London early to head to Woolwich Barracks to catch the 10pm Greenwich+Docklands International Festival free showing of their centrepiece show The Four Fridas instead. That, too, was slightly jinxed — owing to heavy winds, one of the features of the show, an aerial display on a large screen, was cancelled; but it was worth being there for the huge piece de resistance in which the Mexican Voladoras and caporal of Xochiapulcho (pictured left), making their first visit outside their home country, scaled a massive vertical tower and then dropped, head first from it, and were spun around it, all the while playing musical instruments upside down, till they reached the ground. (Full disclosure: Bradley Hemmings,founder and artistic director of GDIF, is a personal friend, so I was happy to be supporting this amazing free public project).
I had a busy week reviewing, everywhere from the Finborough (A Third, reviewed here) and St James (The Dreamers, reviewed here) to the West End (The Importance of Being Earnest at the Vaudeville, starring David Suchet as Lady Bracknell, reviewed here). I also went to Manchester for the opening of wonder.land, the new Damon Albarn/Moira Buffini/Rufus Norris collaboration, which I reviewed here; it was probably a bit premature to have the combined forces of the London critics aimed at it, after just a handful of previews, and as I noted in my review, “There are still tweaks and cuts to be made to clarify and shape it, and with a transfer to the National’s Olivier Theatre already booked for the end of November and Paris to follow, this is only the first pass at making the show work. I’ll be intrigued to revisit it in a few months time.”
I also re-visited Memphis, to see its star Killian Donnelly (left) in the lead role one more time before he left yesterday (he’s next in Kinky Boots at the Adelphi); he’s just amazing to watch. A true everyman, he doesn’t radiate star quality in the looks department — yet the moment he starts performing, he’s absolutely astonishing, as a singer, dancer and actor. I’m beginning to wonder if he’s our best new leading man in musicals. (He’s also hardly been out of work since he first started working in the West End in 2008 in Les Miserables, starting as a swing and ending up as Enjolras; then going on a stint in Phantom of the Opera as Raoul, then Tony in Billy Elliot, before originating the lead role in The Commitments, then Memphis).
Memphis, of course, is a musical with book and co-lyrics by Joe DiPietro — and I’ve suddenly been saturated by all things DiPeepShow. (Another disclosure: we have a good mutual friend who once misheard me talking about him and thinking I’d called him that. The name has stuck and that’s what I call him all the time now). Back in April I saw the Broadway premiere of his first original play there, the short-lived Living on Love, not long after seeing the London premiere of Memphis. Last weekend, I saw the new UK tour of Love Me Tender, the re-titled version of All Shook Up, Joe’s first Broadway musical in 2005. And last night, I saw a revival of Joe’s first big off-Broadway hit I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, at a tiny space above the Arts Theatre.
I never did see the original off-Broadway run of nearly twelve years (from 1996 to 2008, making it the second longest running musical in off-Broadway history after The Fantasticks) at the Westside Theatre, but have seen it in several incarnations in London, including a brief West End run in 1999 and one at Jermyn Street Theatre in 2005. Last night’s had a Rolls Royce cast (pictured above) – including two original members of the London production of Avenue Q, Julie Atherton and Smon Lipkin, plus Gina Beck and Samuel Holmes, which I will be reviewing for The Stage tomorrow.
And talking of the Westside, that’s also where the Kander and Ebb revue And The World Goes Round first originated back in 1991 (and where I first saw the work of Susan Stroman, who would become one of Broadway’s pre-eminent choreographers thereafter). By coincidence, that’s the show I’m also seeing again tonight at Chelsea’s The Pheasantry, with a cast that includes Oliver Tompsett and Debbie Kurup. The world does indeed go round…. and so does my life, spinning endlessly back to shows I’ve seen before!