Diary of a Theatre Addict: Three Continents, Two Islands, 11 Shows, 1 Film

Mark ShentonInclude in homepage slide?, Thought of the day1 Comment

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addictI woke up last Saturday in Africa and today I’ve woken up in New York. In between, I’ve also been back home in London, so I’ve been on three continents in the space of a week, or at any rate one huge continent and two comparatively tiny islands, namely mainland UK and Manhattan.

I no sooner landed from Johannesburg on Sunday morning than, after 12 entirely theatre-free days in Africa, I saw two shows that day (reviewing the new British musical Duncton Wood at the Union for The Stage here, and then a celebratory return of the moving 1980s memorial to those lost to AIDS, Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, back at the very West End home that it had transferred to from the King’s Head in 1993). By the end of three nights later, I had seen five more, plus a film, so I was definitely making up for lost time.

The seven shows included over-due catch-ups for the RSC’s new Death of a Salesman, that I missed both in Stratford-upon-Avon and on its London press night owing to a clash in mid-May with Communicating Doors at the Menier Chocolate Factory, and the hit transfer of Bath’s Ustinov production of The Father to the Tricycle.

salesmanBoth were well worth seeing: even if I find Antony Sher excessively mannered as Willy Loman to be truly moving, I was overwhelmed the still devotion of Harriet Walter as his wife Linda, and hugely impressed by the wonderful Alex Hassell as their older son, a notably buff Biff (pictured with Sher). The Father is another play about a father’s relationship with his adult offspring, but in this case one in which the child becomes the parent as the father slips into Alzheimer’s.

I’m often chasing my tail in this business — critical diaries are routinely too full to necessarily see everything at the appointed times — and I’m grateful for the flexibility of being able to go better late than never. In the next couple of weeks, I’ll be doing more catch-ups on shows that opened while I was in South Africa,  including the National’s Beaux Stratagem and the Donmar’s Temple, and — having missed their first nights — I’ll be catching the penultimate night for Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage at the Arcola and the last night for Peter Pan at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, as well.

There was no designated press night for The Elephant Man — as is often the habit nowadays, critics were invited to a range of performances with reviews embargoed not to appear before last Monday. The only difference, in this case, as I wrote here, is that the producers had held an invited ‘opening night’, with post-show party, the previous Tuesday, before any of the critics had even started seeing it. Critics were officially an irrelevance to the celebrations. As I wrote, “Perhaps in this kind of ‘event theatre’ if we’re not cheerleaders then we can only be party poopers.” So the producers kept our opinions away from their party by nearly a week. That’s surely a first.

I caught the show myself on Monday, after the reviews had already run that morning, and I can only say for myself that I was amazed at the two-five star reviews I’d read (Metro and the Daily Mail) before I got there. For me, Andrzej Lukowski hit the nail on the head in his two-star Time Out review,

In the likely event you’ve come purely to gawp at Cooper you’ll go home happy. But it made me uneasy: opening with a scene in which the buff star theatrically adopts Merrick’s disabilities one by one, it’s an ostentatiously full-on performance – bordering on ‘Tropic Thunder’s mythical ‘full retard’ – that draws our attention to the skill of actor, not the humanity of the man he’s playing. I can’t help wonder what the difference is between Victorians paying to be titillated by a grotesque and millennials paying to be titillated by a Hollywood actor playing a grotesque (except we’re paying more).

All I can say is thank God I wasn’t paying.

My London week also included a return visit to Miss Saigon, which critics were invited to see again on Wednesday to catch four new principals alongside three holdovers from the original line-up. But as I wrote in my review for The Stage,

It was rather unfortunate that for a press showing to welcome four new principals to the cast, two of them were off, as was a third original member who has remained with the company. But Miss Saigon is now such a well-oiled machine that it was unimpaired; and besides, it usefully proves the point that in this case it is the show that is the star, not the actors. That’s a salutary lesson about both the fallibility of human actors as well as their inevitable dispensability.

One of the missing newcomers contacted me on Twitter to explain that she was undergoing surgery the next day. These things can’t of course be planned, but it was odd that a press night designed specifically to see them went ahead.

At least with films you don’t have the problem of understudies. You may inevitably have replacements when a play or musical moves from the stage to the big screen; but the joy oflondon-road London Road, one of my Top Ten Favourite Musicals in my final run-down to my feature of Fifty of them for The Stage, is that the entire original cast are there, including stunning turns from Nick Holder, Michael Shaeffer and Clare Burt, as well as terrific replacement cast member Linzi Hateley (who took over from Rosalie Craig in the show’s transfer to the Olivier, though Craig did return for the film in another role), as well as featured newcomers Tom Hardy and Olivia Colman. Instead of a playing multiple characters, the cast only play one each, which makes the show feel less like a sketch-show, more of a through-narrative to open it up in interesting new directions.

Then I headed to New York for a bracing three night Tony Awards weekend: this is the culmination of the year’s season and a public celebration (and advertisement) for it. There are parties everywhere on the night, of course, though I’ll already be on a plane back to London by then, as I’m teaching future Olivier and Tony winners (I hope) again at ArtsEd on Monday afternoon. But I’ve already been to one Tony celebration — the now annual Tony Trivia Night, late last night at 54 Below, hosted by Twitter’s @BroadwayGirlNYC, and this afternoon I’m going to the annual Tony party for West End, Broadway and Australia marketing agency AKA.

I’m also having a party of my own revisiting a couple of shows that I’ve particularly loved this season, but I fear may not be much longer for this world if they don’t win tomorrow: on-the-townOn the Town, easily my favourite revival of the year (though it will probably lose to The King and I), and The Visit (my favourite of the nominated new musicals, though my actual favourite was The Last Ship and was not nominated), the latter of which stars my leading actress in a musical Chita Rivera (though again she’s probably going to lose to Kristen Chenoweth for On the Twentieth Century, who would also be a worthy winner).

See you back in London from Monday, when this particular addict teaches at ArtsEd in the afternoon, then heads to Jerwood Space to hold a public interview with Claude-Michel Schonberg, then goes to the first night of the new British play with music Teddy at Southwark Playhouse — a show for which I wrote a programme note!

  • Ian

    Excellent column as always, Mark. Still can’t bring myself to see LONDON ROAD, though!