I should be in Edinburgh right now. I was going to go to the festival right at the tail end of the festivities, on the basis that this way I wouldn’t have to see any poor shows but could see only ones that had I’d heard good things about already. But then, (happily) tired out by my three weeks in the US and with plenty to catch up on in London (and beyond), I decided to skip out on Edinburgh after all this year — I’ve not been since the Olympics year of 2012 when I wanted to escape London for part of it, and then went direct to Canada to avoid the rest.
Partly its because anything that makes a splash at Edinburgh invariably makes its way down south. I can think of only one Edinburgh show I loved all the way back in 2007 — a Pet Shop Boys revue called Seriously, that came to Edinburgh by way of Australia — hasn’t had a further life afterwards (and I still mourn its absence: I went three times in Edinburgh).
But I actually knew I could use the time constructively at home, catching up on stuff I’d previously missed or would otherwise. McQueen fell into both categories: I missed its original London at the St James back in May, but was able to be at the first night of its West End transfer to the Haymarket last Thursday, which I reviewed for The Stage here. My negative review was picked up by a follower on Twitter who pointed out that “the subjective nature of theatre most clearly displayed on my Twitter feed!”, contrasting my review and its rating with a tweet from blogger West End Wilma who had stated, “Shows like @McQueenThePlay make me remember how wonderful my life is. To be able to witness such beauty on stage and write about it. #Joy”
She then weighted in with a reply stating, “One of us actually understood the show though. But which? The blogger or the respected ‘critic’? *5 for @BendItMusical and 2* for @McQueenThePlay. I think @TheStage need a new critic!”
I actually re-visited the glorious Bend It like Beckham last Monday (for the third time now), and already have plans to take a friend at the end of September as well. I’ve always said there’s no right and wrong in theatre reviewing — but WestEndWilma obviously thinks she’s right! And she’s perfectly entitled to her opinion. But I’m not the only respected ‘critic’ (her words) who didn’t much care for it: I’ve also seen two star reviews from the Financial Times, the Daily Telegraph and The Times. By the same token, I wasn’t the only respected ‘critic’ who gave Bend it Like Beckham a five-star rave either – there were five-star reviews from the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Sunday Express, amongst others. Presumably there should now be a mass culling of national critics! (Only, presumably too, so WestEndWilma can take our places…..!)
I never thought I’d ever quote Tony Blair, of all people, in defence of myself, not least from an antagonistic piece in yesterday’s Observer in which he decried supporters of Jeremy Corbyn for living in a parallel universe, but I sometimes think that commentators like WestEndWilma suffer from the same problem. As Blair writes apropos of Corbyn’s supporters, and what they’re doing, “It’s a revolution but within a hermetically sealed bubble – not the Westminster one they despise, but one just as remote from actual reality. Those in this bubble feel good about what they’re doing. They’re making all those “in authority” feel their anger and their power. There is a sense of real change because of course the impact on politics is indeed real. …However, it doesn’t alter the “real” reality. It provides a refuge from it.”
I don’t think I’m ‘in authority’ or indeed an authority; I also actively welcome the dialogue of twitter and engage directly in it, and enjoy the fact that critics are being regularly challenged now. But I don’t call for people to lose their jobs as a result. The (self-appointed) blogger doesn’t have a job to protect; s/he can’t be fired, they can only stop publishing their site, entirely at their own discretion and by their own choice.
I welcome the wide variety of opinions that are now out there — as someone with a foot in both camps, as a professional (and paid) critic, as well as someone who has my own site (this one) and actively promotes the community of independent writers via MyTheatreMates that I co-founded, I’m not about silencing voices that I don’t agree with, unlike WestEndWilma.
Meanwhile, I continue my restless and relentless pursuit of catching as much as I can, which gives this weekly blog its title. I saw 8 shows this week — and one of them one and a half times over. That last one was Our House at the Union (pictured left), which I saw the first half of on Friday, then returned to see all of on Saturday evening. The reason for the curtailed Friday visit was an incident with a mobile phone photographer sitting in front of me that rattled me sufficiently not to want to stay: when I protested what she was doing, she turned around and informed me that she was taking a photograph of her little brother in the show, “and if you’d wiped his arse as often as I have you could take one too”, or words to that effect.
The sense of entitlement was both baffling and bizarre — much as in my famous incident at confronting a woman who was taking flash photography regularly though Einstein on the Beach at the Barbican Centre a few years ago who turned out to be Bianca Jagger, and was a friend of the director Robert Wilson (who tweeted in her defence and thanked her for her support of his work!) The fact that these people were somehow connected to the show seemed to excuse them, in their minds, from traditional protocol and good manners. (Whereas Jagger publicly accused me of assault, whereas in fact I openly admitted only to insulting her, the Union Theatre offender did, to her credit, come up to me to apologise in the interval; I can only assume she’d found out who I was, but whatever the case, I accepted the apology but not the excuse).
I’m glad I returned to the show on Saturday, though: this remains one of the most audacious and clever of all jukebox musicals, cleverly folding those Madness classics into a show that tells two parallel stories simultaneously about the life choices we make and how different outcomes can follow. There’s a real vivacity to these songs with their mad, restless energy, released in a ragged rock ‘n’ roll treatment of spontaneity and exhilaration. The mostly young company at the Union make it their own with infectious high spirits and charm.
I also loved another fringe musical revival I saw on Saturday afternoon: the Landor are currently hosting a smashing production of the thoroughly old-fashioned Thoroughly Modern Millie. This was the 2002 Broadway musical version of the 1967 film that starred Julie Andrews, and onstage made a star of Sutton Foster (and won Rob Ashford a Tony Award for his choreography). Here, squeezed onto the tiny stage of the Landor, an ace five-piece band, Sam Spencer-Lane’s boisterous choreography and a terrific pair of leads in Francesca Lara Gordon and Ben Stacey exude old-school charm.
My week also included catching up, belatedly, with Michael Longhurst’s amazing production of Caryl Churchill’s A Number that was first seen at Southampton back in Feburary, then transferred to the Young Vic earlier this summer, before returning for another final two week run in Southampton. The Young Vic is less than 15 minutes walk from my Southwark home, yet I managed to miss it there so instead I had to take the train from Waterloo to Southampton, then a £8 cab ride to get to the Nuffield! That’ll teach me for missing something on my doorstep!
But it was more than worth it (especially since South West Trains were doing a summer promotional discount fare of just £20 return!). This was an absolutely spellbindingly intense revival of a play I’ve seen twice before — both in its original Royal Court premiere (with Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig) and then at the Menier with Timothy West and his son Sam. Now another father-son duo John and Lex Shrapnel playing the father and son/s of the play, giving it another layer to its layered portrait of genetic inheritance and how unique any of us might be. The play gets deeper with each repeated viewing; and here it is amplified as we are turned into intimate voyeurs to watch it in the enclosed chamber of Tom Scutt’s design that has us watching it through mirrored windows from four sides of the playing space.
There’s also an element of voyeurism to Mrs Henderson Presents (pictured left), a musical based on the 2005 film of the same name about the war-time era of London’s Windmill Theatre which offered a variation on traditional burlesque to work around theatrical censorship laws, as the young women posed naked as theatrical tableaux. I reviewed its brief regional premiere at Bath Theatre Royal for The Stage here, but feel sure it will have a future West End life.
I also caught an altogether more modest musical, in every sense, the 55-minute The 3 Little Pigs being given morning and matinee performances at the Palace Theatre; it is another in Stiles and Drewe’s continuing obsession with all things porcine, following the starring role afforded to a pig in Betty Blue Eyes, and prior musicals that revolved around wild or farmyard animals in Just So and Honk! respectively. Here the pigs keep their pork scratchings covered, unlike in Mrs Henderson Presents. It’s a slight show, to be sure, but as charmingly performed by a cast that features Simon Webbe as the predatory wolf, Alison Jiear as mother pig and Leanne Jones, Dan Buckley and Taofique Folarin as the piglets, it’s a summer delight.
Last but far from least, I of course also caught the opening night of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet (left) at the Barbican (reviewed for The Stage here). Enough words have been written about this — not least by me — but now at last the play and production can finally speak for itself.