Critics are in a mad rush all over town at the moment to keep up with the flood of openings. Just the other night Michael Billington was telling me that he’s got a straight run of 10 openings to cover, night after night.
Henry Hitchings told me just yesterday that he’s got 20 consecutive theatre trips in his diary (he usually does three or four a week).
As I’m no longer constrained by the strictures of a weekly Sunday column that requires me to be ‘current’ with my theatregoing, and I share lead critic duties on The Stage with my colleague Natasha Tripney, I can juggle my diary a bit more flexibly. So although there’s absolutely no let up in my own theatregoing, either, I actually managed two nights ‘off’ this week — though that didn’t mean staying at home.
On one of them I hosted a live public interview with Elaine Paige at the Hospital Club, to benefit Mountview’s 70th birthday (she didn’t actually go there, but is an artistic associate of the school); on another, I travelled to Peterborough Cathedral to hear Howard Goodall conduct his own glorious oratorio ‘Every Purpose Under the Heaven’ with a large youth orchestra and choir, joined by professional soloists.
The eclectic Goodall (left), of course, has a big musical about to open in the West End — a stage version of Bend it Like Beckham, which begins performances at the Phoenix Theatre on Friday week (May 15), which he tells me he is still busily orchestrating, and I have to say I am looking forward to no musical more this year. Over 30 years ago now, I saw his first musical The Hired Man while I was still at Cambridge when it premiered at the Astoria (now a hole in the ground at Tottenham Court Road) in 1984, and made the trip down several times to see it again there. It shook me to the core: a hauntingly beautiful and evocative score, with an English choral sound that we simply do not get in musical theatre, that remains to this day for me the greatest British musical of these last 30 years.
Goodall has become a major force in the years since, as classical composer (you can’t listen to Classic FM, where he has also been composer-in-residence and presenter of an erudite weekly show of film music that he recently gave up, without hearing his music being played!), composer of TV themes (including Mr Bean and Vicar of Dibley), TV presenter and educator. He’s also written several more musicals, a couple more of which have landed in the West End, but Girlfriends was a notorious flop in 1987 after transferring from Oldham’s Coliseum where it had premiered the year before, and Love Story didn’t get its due when it transferred from Chichester to the Duchess in 2010. (Both of those shows were stunningly revived at the Union Theatre in a dedicated Goodall season last year).
He’s had better success as a composer of musicals commissioned by the National Youth Music Theatre, who have staged the premieres of his gorgeous scores for The Kissing Dance in 1998 and The Dreaming in 2001 (the latter was also seen int he Union season), while Sage Gateshead commissioned his musical version of Shakespeare’s Winer’s Tale in 2005.
In a world where Kinky Boots wins Tony Awards (over the far superior Matilda), or Sunny Afternoon (a compilation musical based on old Kinks songs) wins the Olivier for Outstanding Achievement in Music for composer Ray Davies for simply having written those songs three or four decades ago (over more original contributions to entirely new musicals like Here Lies Love and Memphis, even if the latter has a tendency to sound recycled), I hope that Goodall’s own deeply original voice is finally going to be acknowledged with Bend it Like Beckham, his most conspicuously commercial project to date, and not just by me! Listening to the ravishing, haunting beauty of his oratorio celebration of the King James Bible on Friday, I was frequently in tears at the sheer feeling of the soaring music: the true ecstasy of art.
There was also musical theatre ecstasy, in parts, to the one-day, all-star concert staging of Sondheim and Goldman’s 1971 musical Follies at the Royal Albert Hall this week, which I reviewed here for The Stage.
The Albert Hall is hardly the most appropriate venue for its story of crumbling marriages set in a theatre that is itself crumbling and about to be demolished to make way for a car park; I’d love to see at somewhere like Wilton’s Music Hall. The last Broadway revival of Follies in 2011 played, somewhat ironically, at the giant Marquis Theatre, buried within the Times Square hotel of the same name, that had itself been built at the cost of five venerable Broadway houses, the Gaiety, Astor, Helen Hayes, Morosco, and Bijou theatres.
It was seeing a photograph (left) of Gloria Swanson standing in the ruins of a once-famous New York cinema the Roxy (which seated nearly 6,000 people and stood on West 50th Street) that inspired Sondheim and Goldman to write their piece, so it was doubly poignant and added another ironic layer that Broadway was bringing it back to a theatre that had risen out of the ashes of New York’s shameful way of erasing its past.
Another 70s musical Bugsy Malone — originally written for the cinema — was also gloriously reclaimed this week (my review for The Stage is here) to formally re-open the Lyric Hammersmith after its £20m refurbishment scheme. Interestingly, the Lyric is another theatre that was demolished — but before they did, they saved all the plasterwork, and reinstated it within a brand-new building, so you have the peculiar sensation of finding a classical old auditorium sitting incongruously in the elevated middle of an office block like building.
Yet another 2001 British musical Closer to Heaven was also brought back to the stage, too, this week, at the ever-resourceful, ever-industrious Union Theatre. But the show — with a (mostly) original score by the Pet Shop Boys and a book by Jonathan Harvey — was a mess back in 2001 when it premiered at the Arts Theatre, and it still is now. It’s patchwork book about an aspiring bisexual boy band performer and club culture is all over the place; as Matt Trueman put it in his review for Whatsonstage, “the plot’s stringier than the dancing boys’ vests.” But the Pet Shop Boys score is fun, and the show is is given an intentionally trashy, colourful production by Gene David Kirk, oozing with sex in Philip Joel’s pulsing dance.
The next week will also bring an even more notorious flop musical Carrie back for the first time since it crashed and burned on Broadway back in 1988. closing after just five performances, after transferring from Stratford-upon-Avon where the RSC premiered it the year before. The creators were so stung by the experience that they withdrew performance rights thereafter, and it remained a virtually unseen curiosity until an off-Broadway company revived it in 2012. Now London is finally getting a chance to see what all the fuss is about when it opens at Southwark Playhouse in Wednesday.
I’ve already snuck in to take a peek, by permission of the producer, but will hold my council until it opens officially on Wednesday! But on Thursday I will be back to host a post-performance talk with the director and some of the cast, and we’re going to be joined by the original stage Carrie Linzi Hateley (below) and Sally Ann Triplett, both of whom made their Broadway debuts in it. Triplett has since been back just last year to star in Sting’s The Last Ship, which played at the Neil Simon Theatre literally opposite the Virginia (now the August Wilson) where Carrie played.
I’ve also been in early — by invitation — to the return of The Audience to the West End (which opens officially on Tuesday). While Helen Mirren is now reprising her Evening Standard Award winning performance as the Queen on Broadway (and has just been nominated this week for a Tony Award for her efforts), she’s been succeeded by Kristin Scott Thomas here. The show is at a new home, too — the Apollo, across the road from the Gielgud where it originally played. Meanwhile the Gielgud has, of course, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time — which originally played at the Apollo (until par to the ceiling notoriously came down mid-performance in December 2013).
My guest for The Audience, Smooth FM Drivetime presenter Anthony Davis, actually turned up at the wrong theatre and was waiting for me inside the Gielgud — completely oblivious to the front-of-house signage for Curious Incident! It reminds me of a night I attended a Jason Robert Brown concert at the Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, and a series of befuddled tourists approached the front-of-house manager in the interval: they thought they were seeing Thriller Live!, which plays every other night there…
Also this week, I caught up with Alan Ayckbourn’s rarely revived, but utterly hilarious and surprisingly moving Way Upstream, splendidly revived at Chichester Festival Theatre (my review for The Stage is here).
Meanwhile in the coming week, I’m taking two nights ‘off’ to see my friend Scott Alan hosting concerts of his own work at the St James Studio, joined by star-in-the-making Cynthia Erivo (who later this year goes to Broadway to reprise her performance in The Color Purple that she originally gave at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory). I’m also looking forward to another trip to the St James Studio next Sunday to see Jamie Parker — so good recently in Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory, and a UK Theatre Award winner for his Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls at Chichester — do his solo cabaret.
I’m also seeing The Vote at the Donmar Warehouse on Wednesday, ahead of its live telecast on Thursday, and Two Gentlemen of Verona at ArtsEd, where I also teach regularly, on Tuesday afternoon, directed by no less than local resident Trevor Nunn who is completing his Shakespearean canon by directing the play for the first time. All that, and The Pirates of Penzance, too, opening at the London Coliseum next Saturday with Mike Leigh — who of course made the wonderful bio-film about G&S Topsy-Turvy — directing English National Opera’s new production.
See you in the stalls — or here, on Twitter and in The Stage.