Jenna Russell in Concert (Cadogan Hall, November 7)
Les Miserables (Mountview, ran November 1-6)
Bandstand (ArtsEd, ran November 2-6)
‘Night, Mother (Hampstead Theatre, London NW3, to December 4
Footfalls & Rockaby (Jermyn Street Theatre, London SW1, to November 20)
Pride and Prejudice (Sort of) (Criterion Theatre, London SW1, open-ended run, booking to April 17, 2022)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Duke of York’s Theatre, London
When I originally launched this website a few years ago, I used to run a regular column that was called “Diary of a Theatre Addict” that chronicled my week’s activities, and certainly lived up to its title. When I lived in London, I routinely saw between seven and twelve shows a week — I was literally out every evening, plus frequent matinees.
Just as an alcoholic can’t live above a pub, I realised that if I was to introduce more moderation to my theatregoing I’d have to put some obstacles in the way — like not living above the pub anymore. I wasn’t, of course, anticipating that COVID would create a compulsory lockdown on all theatregoing, and which led me to experience a different kind of existential crisis entirely: who am I, if I’m not going to the theatre all the time?
But meanwhile, it also gave me a new perspective: that I could survive without the theatre after all. So last summer my husband I moved to a tiny village in rural West Sussex, on the South Downs between Chichester and Brighton.
I can still easily reach London from here — and as well as Chi (pronounced Chai by the locals) and Brighton, I’m also within striking distance of major theatres in Southampton, Crawley and Canterbury, all but the latter of which I’ve now visited. So although my theatregoing HAS reduced, I’m still seeing around four or five shows a week, combining an overnight stay in London at least one night a week (when I can see four shows, namely two on each day before taking the late train home on the second), and one regional show or a Saturday matinee after a visit to London for a meeting I attend on alternate weeks.
Anyway, all of this preamble is by way of explaining — even confessing — that old habits die hard, and I managed to see 11 shows across the last week! This column covers seven of them; two others were repeats, purely for my own pleasure (the last matinee and the last night of Anything Goes at the Barbican and The Normal Heart at the National respectively); one is a show that opens officially tomorrow (Choir of Man at the Arts Theatre), for which reviews are embargoed to 11.59pm, so I’m prevented from including here now (but have tweets ready to go live at that point); and the last was a regional touring thriller that I’m choosing not to comment on yet.
And tomorrow I’m off to New York for the first time in 23 months, after the borders finally reopened to arriving British visitors from today. My 11 show count this week was a good warm-up for New York, where I’m already booked in to see 19 shows in 13 days (10 on Broadway, nine off-Broadway or beyond), with a 20th slot still to be filled!
Of the seven shows I am writing about in this column today, three are already past: one was a one-off, one night event only, and two more were student shows that played last week only. Two more are limited Off-West End runs (with one then set to play a regional week in Bath afterwards); the final two are transfers to the West End, from Glasgow’s Tron Theatre and the National Theatre respectively, that are booked in for longer runs.
So this is quite an eclectic spread. Each had something special to commend them. The evening that brought me the most joy was seeing the utterly spellbinding Jenna Russell in concert for one night only at Cadogan Hall: she really is the very best we’ve got in British musical theatre right now. She’s a singer of real emotional truth and heft whose expressiveness is stunningly conveyed in a voice that pulses with raw feeling; she’s also a consummate actor, which has lent itself to plays as various as David Hare in the West End and Annie Baker at the Almeida, and an absolutely lovely person. There’s no better combination.
Last night’s show — which astonishingly marked her full-size solo concert debut, after a much smaller, more intimate cabaret appearance at the Hippodrome last December between lockdowns— offered a full retrospective of her career from stage school to leading lady across more than 35 years, from Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown to Stiles and Drewe and Howard Goodall. She’s also a brilliant storyteller: the key to great cabaret is always how much a performer shares of themselves as well as their choice of material. And Jenna is supremely generous and revealing in both song and speech. I’ve followed her onstage career for most of its course; I also purely by coincidence know her mother a bit, as well as the man she names as her best friend from college days onwards, Johnny Barr. Like many, I feel part of her extended family now.
And that was led last night from the piano by ace musical director Nigel Lilley, joined by six other musicians. But even if you were new to her work, she makes everyone feel part of her life and her journey, just by being there. And after the year she and we have all just had, it was good to back in her wonderful presence again.
From a performer at the peak of her powers, to young actors just starting out on their journeys in the theatre: there’s always something really exhilarating about watching 3rd year drama school actors in their final public shows. Last week I saw two sets of them, at probably two of the three foremost schools in the South East that specialise in full-time graduate musical theatre training, namely ArtsEd and Mountview (the third is GSA in Guildford, while the Royal Academy of Music is also highly regarded for its one-year postgrad course).
At Mountview — now housed in a splendid bespoke home in Peckham, after a semi-peripatetic existence that took them from Crouch End to Wood Green in North London before finally crossing the river — a handsome new theatre space called The Mack has opened, named after its benefactor Cameron Mackintosh, who also gifted this year’s students with the opportunity to present the first full student production of the show, in a brand-new staging that is far from a replica of the original that some of them may graduate into as their first jobs (he is pictured centre with the cast at the performance he attended last Thursday).
This unmistakably bold, contemporary take on the show — by director Matt Ryan, once himself a performer in the West End edition of the show many years ago, co-directing with Shiv Rabheru —reinvents it as a story being told in the here and now. It’s a startling and exhilarating way to see (and hear) such a familiar show, and it is performed with true panache by its youthful cast.
At the performance I saw last Wednesday afternoon (and also seen by Mackintosh himself when he attended the following evening), Scott McClure [pictured above left] and Elwyn Williams led the company forcefully as Valjean and Javert respectively; it may be a big ask to expect such young performers match the vocal heft of actors like Colm Wilkinson or Philip Quast (my two favourites in each of those roles, from the original and 10th anniversary productions respectively), but both are well on their way; also notable are an adult Gavroche (instead of being played by a child) from Ewan Grant, who is older than required; and a particularly forceful Enjolras from Joey Zerpa-Falcon.
At ArtsEd, the students were given an equally unique opportunity: to present a UK premiere for the 2017 Broadway musical Bandstand about post-war PTSD, mapped to a brassy Big Band pastiche jazz score, that’s performed with zest and sizzle by a cast led by a thrilling leading man and lady Hassun Sharif & Billie Bowman (pictured below) at the performance I saw (the show’s principals are double cast, giving four performances each across the run).
I taught at the school for nearly a decade — and this year’s 3rd year were the last I taught in person in 2019. (Last year’s classes were on zoom). I’m no longer associated with the school, but still immensely proud of my time there and the great students I met and taught.
From young actors to theatre veterans again, I caught some really inspiring ones last week. At Hampstead, a really intense and moving revival of Marsha Norman’s 1983 Pulitzer and Tony winner ‘Night, Mother — a play about a woman preparing her mother for her own suicide — that originally received its British premiere at this address back in 1985. It’s a grim subject, but is acted with ferocious control and emotion by Stockard Channing and Rebecca Night as the mother and daughter respectively.
Channing — a Broadway regular who has also been seen a few times on the West End stage — is sheer class, and in this vanity-shedding performance she dares to look her actual age. Night is like a young Julia Roberts, but with natural stage chops which Roberts (who I saw in her Broadway debut in Three Days of Rain in 2006) sorely lacked. It turns out to be a riveting, revealing evening.
At the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre, it was another thrill to see the sensational Charlotte Emerson and glorious theatre veteran Siân Phillips in Samuel Beckett’s wise and haunting poetic meditations Footfalls and Rockabye. It may run for just 40 minutes, but seeing this in such close quarters was intense and exhilarating.
By contrast, the new comedic stage version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (Sort of) — with that subtitle giving the nod that it is not exactly a conventional treatment of the famous story — felt to me to outstay its welcome at over two and a half hours. Given how many loving liberties Isobel McArthur (who also appears in multiple roles, and co-directs it as well with Simon Harvey, with additional comedy staging by Jos Houben) has taken with Austen, it is surprising that this show’s team didn’t seek to reign it in a bit in terms of length.
I’ve already documented last Friday how the view from my seat in the second row of the dress circle was so severely compromised that I found it difficult to fully engage with the show, so it is unfair to criticise it too much. Without what was effectively a pair of human pillars directly in front of me, I might have been able to enjoy it more. At the same time, this is a realistic danger that audiences might find themselves in, so it is also fair to point it out.
Finally, another play adapted from a literary source, Neil Gaiman’s supernatural family thriller The Ocean at the End of the Lane, has transferred from the National to St Martin’s Lane. Like the hit stage version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (that also began its life in the Dorfman), it is similarly about a teenager on a journey of discovery confronting a mysterious adult world that he feels out of kilter with.
But even if that play is strongly echoed at times, and is presented with a similarly evocative sense of theatrical flair and daring, it operates on a more fantastical level, even as it offers a touching portrait of a family touched by loss. There are some wonderful puppets and startling visual effects, too.