Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE, which is my week in review (plus reviews of others, too).
SUNDAY APRIL 24
Today twitter is dominated by reactions against the Mail on Sunday’s absurd assault on Angela Rayner’s integrity, with its anonymously sourced news story accusing the deputy leader of the opposition Labour Party of trying to distract Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Parliament by crossing and uncrossing her legs, much like Sharon Stone’s predatory character in the film Basic Instinct.
As Martin Waller,whose twitter biography states he is a former financial journalist, now retired, tweeted,
All of which is a salutary reminder of why I’m so glad to be my own boss now. Not that I was ever paid the big bucks, but in the more rarefied world of arts journalism I was nevertheless pressured to write “to order” (most notably when Andrew Lloyd Webber threatened to sue over an article I’d written that was in fact entirely accurate, but which called into question the physical condition of theatres he was trying to sell at the time — and did sell — with a mark-down of some £2million, stated to be to cover refurbishment to the venues; a little entry I felt I could claim full credit for). At other times, I was challenged for how my views may play out amongst the other ‘journalists’/critics on the publication or its readers.
And on the Sunday Express, I was once asked to interview the 10-year-old son of the friend of one of the company directors who was in a play, even though he clearly didn’t have much to say. Another time, the editor asked me to ask an actor about her recent miscarriage — an area that was specifically marked off limits by the publicist, and would have been anyway out of sheer common decency, and when failed to produce the goods (because I refused to ask it), the interview was spiked because, the editor said, she was “withholding”. It’s all so deeply compromising (and crushing).
MONDAY APRIL 25
- My newsletter today has a preview of my next fortnight in the theatre from London to Broadway, including reviews round-up for FUNNY GIRL that opened last night, with Beanie Feldstein as Fanny Brice. To read in full, click here: http://shentonstage.com/shentonstage-daily-for-monday-april-25/
TUESDAY APRIL 26
In a feature for The Guardian today, MIchael Billington writes of the news that Greg Doran is stepping down from the artistic directorship of The RSC that it’s time for the company to be led by an actor. When Nick Hytner stepped down from the running of the National in 2013, it was widely reported that Kenneth Branagh had been approached to throw his hat in the ring; in the end, the post went to Rufus Norris.
For the RSC role, Billington suggests Andoh Adjoa or Simon Russell Beale as two possible candidates. Branagh, who has successfully founded his own theatre and film company Renaissance and is also an RSC alumni, might be another name; but also how about Adrian Lester or Noma Dumezweni?
Whether they have the appetite or ambition to do so is another question. There are also a number of directors waiting in the wings who could also more readily rise to the challenge. Rupert Goold, one of our very best Shakespearean directors, has been artistic director of the Almeida since 2013, and it could well be time for him to move on. Billington also suggests Simon Godwin, a British director who is currently at the helm of Washington DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, but still works in the UK (where he directed the Ralph Fiennes Antony and Cleopatra in 2018 and Romeo and Juliet in 2020, both for the National Theatre, though the latter was turned into a filmed version instead of a live one when the theatre was shut down by the pandemic).
Also on Billington’s list are Blanche McIntyre; Owen Horsley, who has just directed the two-parter Henry VI at Stratford-upon-Avon; and Erica Whyman, Doran’s deputy and currently acting artistic director.
But another left-field candidate could be Michael Grandage, who has not directed for the RSC but during his tenure at the Donmar Warehouse directed some of the most exciting and rigorous Shakespeare productions I’ve ever seen.
WEDNESDAY APRIL 27
Tonight and tomorrow see the openings of the hottest tickets of the year so far: the entire runs for both PRIMA FACIE at the Pinter and the return of JERUSALEM to the Apollo are entirely sold out (see reviews below). So it’s a relief to be gifted press tickets, and I never take that privilege for granted. At the same time, a bit like trees falling in the forest, critics recording the event prove that it has happened.
And in the case of PRIMA FACIE, there is at least a NT live screening on July 21, for which reviews will presumably help encourage attendance.
As someone who hasn’t seen any of Jodie Comer’s acclaimed television work — from DR FOSTER to THIRTEEN, KILLING EVE and HELP — I haven’t got a benchmark to compare her performance in this solo legal polemic against, but making her West End stage debut (and only her second-ever stage appearance at the age of 29, she is thrillingly assured and in control of every beat of this gripping vehicle for her. Playing a barrister who is usually involved in prosecuting sexual attackers who herself becomes victim of non-consensual sex, and finds her faith in the legal process severely tested in the process, she is fiercely committed and concentrated. Her stardom has turned this into ‘event’ theatre, but Suzie Miller’s play — originally produced in Sydney, Australia with a different leading actor — is both gripping and gruelling, as it piercingly lays out how the stakes are so heavily stacked against the victim in reporting a sex crime.
In the afternoon, I caught up with another ‘event’, Mike Bartlett’s THE 47th at the Old Vic. This chilling, churning prediction of the next chapter of American presidential history has Bertie Carvel giving an uncannily precise impersonation of Donald Trump in Rupert Goold’s propulsive production, which is as swift as it galvanising.
It is one of the plays of the year (so far); Bartlett’s script is as gripping as one of the best episodes of West Wing, a series that passed me by when it was originally broadcast, but my husband and I have been working through slowly since the pandemic. Aaron Sorkin’s series really is amongst the finest television I’ve ever seen, not least for the stunning ensemble cast.
* My ShentonSTAGE newsletter for today has a round-up contains a round-up of the Broadway reviews for Lincoln Center Theatre’s revival of Thornton Wilder’s THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH and Michael R Jackson’s A STRANGE LOOP; and also has my own reports of seeing ANYONE CAN WHISTLE at Southwark Playhouse and Julian Clary in BORN TO MINCE at the Bloomsbury yesterday. To read in full, click here: http://shentonstage.com/shentonstage-daily-for-wednesday-april-27/
THURSDAY APRIL 28
HEATHERS, an off-Broadway musical version of the 1988 high school film, is a show that simply refuses to die in Britain. It transferred from its original sold out UK premiere run at the Other Palace in 2018 to the Haymarket; after pandemic lockdowns, it returned to the Haymarket last year, before returning to its original home at the Other Palace in November 2021, after co-producer Bill Kenwright took over the ownership of the theatre from Andrew Lloyd Webber and installed Paul Taylor-MIlls, who produced the original production there, in charge.
Now the show is taking a hiatus from May 3-19, to enable filming to take place for a live capture of the stage version (for which casting is yet to be announced). As part of the shoot there will be two live performances, and a ballot will be held for tickets, with details to be announced.
Given that the original avowed intention of the Other Palace — initiated by Lloyd Webber but supposed to continue under Kenwright/Taylor-Mills — was to turn it into a home for new musicals, it may seem somewhat off-brand for it to have become a simple receiving house for a long-established hit. But there is a second studio space at the theatre where new work can continue to be showcased, which starting tonight includes a return season for Sam Harrison’s LOVE IS ONLY LOVE (and I will be seeing at next Wednesday’s press night).
FRIDAY APRIL 29
In a feature for The Guardian yesterday, Guardian chief theatre critic Arifa Akbar responds to actor Viola Davis’s response to a poor critical response to her film THE FIRST LADY, in which she plays Michelle Obama, that critics “absolutely serve no purpose”, and quotes Kwame Kwei-Armah’s assertion that “reviews are a legitimate part of the industry’s ecosystem”.
She goes on to say,
“Criticism over the last few years has become increasingly lenient, given the pandemic and the desire to support the creative industries in straitened times. Maybe this has inadvertently left some actors and artists less hardened to negative reviews. But it is not our job to sell tickets or books or TV subscriptions. Criticism is already perilously close to the market and we are in danger of eroding its worth if we are not absolutely honest and remember we serve only our readers.”
In an online world of constant cheerleading, honest criticism has become harder for some actors and creatives to take. For myself, I always say that it is only by having a full context of a critic’s tastes — what they dislike as well as like — can we begin to know whether or not they’re to be trusted or not.
Last night I was at the opening night of the West End return of Jez Butterworth’s 2010 play JERUSALEM, returning to its original transfer home the Apollo after it had premiered at the Royal Court, with Mark Rylance reprising his now legendary turn as Rooster Byron, a modern day Pied Piper living rough in the Wiltshire countryside, dispensing implausible tales of giants and orgies and dealing drugs to the ragbag of young followers who accumulate around him.
It’s a play of staggering theatricality and bold imagination that simultaneously provides an unfettered portrait of individuality and piercing loneliness: Rooster is at once lovable and repellant, the latter not least for seducing the under-age daughter of a local and his neglect of his own son. So there’s ambivalence as well as a celebration of his fiery sense of independence.
As James Graham wrote in a perceptive essay for the Sunday TImes recently, “The exaggerated tales and brags of greatness are seductive and harmless, until they’re not, and reality reinserts itself. It feels as if what Butterworth is saying is that these myths that comfort us can also destroy us if we use them to fortify ourselves against the truth of our situation. Rooster is a romantic figure, yes — Butterworth calls him Byron, for heaven’s sake — but he’s also tragic and lonely without a real place in the world. The play is messy and complex, happy and sad, a celebration and a warning. Sounds pretty English to me.”
But earlier in the same essay, he also wonders aloud: “Yet is it this deeply romantic portrayal of a proud Englishman that has some questioning whether the play is, on reflection, a celebration of something to be wary of? Is Jerusalem that rare thing in progressive theatre, a promotion of more conservative ideas about nostalgia for traditions and a great past that may never have existed? I know not everything has to be a salvo in the culture wars that are being played out mainly in the minds of news commentators and on comment threads, but in tense times I can’t deny the scepticism of some of my, in particular, migrant colleagues or friends that now is the right time for an interrogation of nationhood and belonging.”
Since the play’s premiere in 2010, much has changed in Little Britain, which has only got littler since we exited the EU. You can’t help thinking that Rooster would have voted leave — some of his followers even express a wariness of adjoining counties, let alone countries. Could it be that Rooster and his acolytes, living freely (in every sense) in the woods, are pursuing their freedoms at all of our expenses? No wonder the local community almost universally express condemnation for him and sign a petition to get him evicted from the land.
Regardless, Rylance’s award-strewn performance is already itself the stuff modern theatrical legend, and he is once again in startling, mercurial form His totally invested performance is a miracle of dark and dangerous physical energy, in which he starts off doing a handstand in a tub of water and ends with him a crumpled, bloodied mess. There’s nobody quite like him — he’s a one-off, like Rooster Byron who he is inhabiting.
Announcements of the week
- ELF — based on the 2003 film of the same name that has had two seasonal Broadway runs in 2010 and 2012 before coming to the Dominion in 2015 (where it set then record ticket prices), is to return there this Christmas, running from November 14-January 7, with an opening night on November 24.
- The RSC have announced that MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO, based on Hayao Miyazaki’s 1988 animated feature, is to be presented at the Barbican Theatre from October 8-January 21, with a press night on October 18, with music by Joe Hisaishi in a new adaptation by Tom Morton-Smith. Phelim McDermott is to direct. Meanwhile, at Stratford-upon-Avon, Rachel Kavanaugh will revive her 2017 production of Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL from October 26-January 1, in a version by David Edgar, the RSC”s most produced living writer whose career with the company has spanned four decades.
For more details and press contacts for these productions, visit my updated list of forthcoming productions in London, selected regional theatres and on Broadway here: http://shentonstage.com/theatre-openings-from-w-c-april-25-onwards/
Openings of the week: London
Two of the hottest tickets of the year (so far) opened back-to-back this week, both already sold out for their entire runs: on Wednesday, Jodie Comer made her West End debut in the solo play PRIMA FACIE at the Harold Pinter, and last night Mark Rylance returned to the Apollo, where JERUSALEM had its original sell-out transfer from the Royal Court in 2010, to reprise his award-winning role as Johnny “Rooster” Byron in Jez Butterworth’s play.
In Time Out, Andzrej Lukowski diligently lays out the background to Prima Facie: “If you hadn’t noticed, Jodie Comer has been busy recently. With four series of Killing Eve’blitzed out in the last five years, plus myriad other projects ranging from Disney’s goofy action smash Free Guy to Channel 4’s devastating coronavirus care home drama Help’ she’s been too busy to find the time in her whirlwind career to perform on the stage. At 22 she wasn’t treading the boards as a young unknown, but starring in her breakthrough TV role in Doctor Foster. But now, aged 29 and with Killing Eve all wrapped up, she’s finally had a moment to make her stage debut, and I don’t think the outcome was ever in much doubt. In short, the entire run sold out aeons ago, and she absolutely owns the stage for 100 uninterrupted solo minutes.” However — and it’s a big however — he then declares, “It’s a personal triumph somewhat mitigated by the fact that the play she’s chosen is pretty clunky…. for all Comer’s charisma, the text is stodgy, and the drama ponderous and lacking nuance.”
For The Guardian, Arifa Akbar says, “Jodie Comer’s West End stage debut is a baptism of fire by any standards… Comer delivers. She roars through Suzie Miller’s script. The play roars, too, sometimes too loudly in its polemic, but Comer works overtime to elevate these moments…. Comer is in almost constant motion, and we wait for her energy to falter but at no point does it sag. Though entirely different in subject matter, her performance matches that of Rafe Spall’s in the monologue Death of England. She swaggers, too, like a female version of David Mamet’s adrenalised men, jumping up on a table to enact a scene at court, sliding out of her wig and suit into a slinky dress, throwing a packet of half-eaten crisps at the audience and swivelling in a chair as she speaks of having office sex.”
And in the Evening Standard, Nick Curtis concludes: “Comer is the reason we’re here. Her commitment made the production happen and kept it alive through delays. We all wanted to know if she’s as good live on stage as she is on screen. And the answer is no: she’s better.”
Reviews for JERUSALEM are yet to appear. I will digest them in Monday’s newsletter.
Openings of the week: Broadway
In my Wednesday newsletter, I rounded up the reviews of two of the most ambitious and audacious of the season’s Broadway openings: Lincoln Center’s revival of Thornton Wilder’s THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH (that opened on Monday) and Michael R Jackson’s musical A STRANGE LOOP (that opened on Tuesday).
Wednesday itself saw two big comedy openings: POTUS (the full title of which is shown below), a new comedy by Selina Fillinger with an all-star, all-female cast (including such Broadway luminaries as Julie White, Vanessa Williams, Lea de Laria and Lilli Cooper and TV names Rachel Dratch (Saturday Night Live) and Julianne Hough set behind the scenes in the White House opened officially at the matinee (the same day that I coincidentally saw Mike Bartlett’s THE 47th at the Old Vic, which also puts the White House centrestage), and then MR SATURDAY NIGHT, a new musical version of Billy Crystal’s 1992 film, with Crystal himself reprising his film role.
Many of the reviews for POTUS make comparisons with its televisual and theatrical antecedents. For Deadline, Greg Evans writes: “Like some strange brew blend of VEEP, Noises Off and one of the late Charles Ludlam’s outrageously vulgar (and still sorely missed) Ridiculous Theatrical Company follies, Selina Fillinger’s all-female, star-packed political satire POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive is an occasionally glorious mess of a farce, sometimes chaotically funny and other times as what-were-they-thinking?? goofy as the last segment of aSaturday Night Live episode. If POTUS never quite rises to the level of those three influences – not as darkly clever as VEEP, as lightning quick as Noises Off nor as go-for-deliriously-broke as Ludlam – POTUS barrels through its weaker stretches on the contagious enthusiasm and in-it-together vivacity of a crowd-pleasing cast.”
For Queerty, Merryn Johns hits the bullseye with this: “You might think you’re arriving for sharp feminist political commentary. You’re really coming for an episode of Veep put through a Saturday Night Live blender and turned into a blue slushy. It might make you happy and feel good. It might make you sick. Either way, it’s a purge.”
In the New York Times, Jesse Green calls it a “snappy and intermittently hilarious farce”; and in Time Out New York, Adam Feldman writes:
“The White House setting is an excuse for a broad, zany, old-school comedy, which is a rarity on Broadway nowadays — especially in the form of a world premiere by a twentysomething woman. You can feel how hungry the spectators are to laugh together, and they get to do it often in this silly, fast-paced lark. It helps enormously that the production, directed by Susan Stroman, is so well-cast. This ensemble makes an implicit argument of its own for female accomplishment: Even when their characters are floundering hopelessly, these ladies are pros.”
MR SATURDAY NIGHT is a throw-back, in every sense: to a role that Billy Crystal previously played on film, and to a different age of musical comedy. Also returning from the film as his brother and agent is David Paymer, who was Oscar-nominated for his work there.
As Adam Feldman notes in Time Out New York, “Thirty years ago, Crystal wore aging makeup to play this role on film. He doesn’t need it anymore, but he never really did: He has Buddy in his bones. Crystal has been playing this alter kocker alter ego since at least Saturday Night Live in 1985, and Buddy’s type of Catskills-and-Friars-Club cut-up is embedded in his comic style: He has deep affection and respect for the generation of comedians that Buddy represents, and he keeps their spirit alive in his timing, his rhythms, his soulful aggression. In Mr. Saturday Night he honors their history with a sweet, slight, nostalgic musical comedy…. By Broadway standards, Mr. Saturday is a modest little show. In John Rando’s production, there are only four other actors.”
He goes on and concludes, “Everything about it is resolutely old-fashioned—in some ways it’s a celebration of oldness itself—and it’s not long on drama. But it delivers exactly what it promises: Crystal, completely in his element, with a crowd that is more than happy to buy what he’s selling. He’s the cream in the borscht, the schmaltz in the gribenes, and his prodigious charm makes Mr. Saturday Night a very haimish experience. If you have a taste for this sort of thing, the show is—o Lord of old comics, forgive me for what I’m about to write—the show is a Crystal ball.”
And in the New York Times, Laura Collins-Hughes writes, “As a piece of theater, the show is a bit of a mess; the jokes, even some of the hoary ones, work better than the storytelling, and the acting styles are all over the place. Still, it makes for a diverting evening — because it will almost surely make you laugh, and because of how acutely tuned into the audience Crystal is. Ad-libbing his way through the script, fine-tuning the funniness, he feeds off the energy of the crowd at the Nederlander Theater…. Crystal is utterly in his element performing live. If you are a fan of his, or simply someone who has missed that kind of symbiosis between actor and audience, it’s a pleasure to watch.”
In Variety, Frank Rizzo warmly embraces it: “The end result is certainly the funniest show on Broadway in years, if not the most likable. Look for a healthy run, at least with headliner Crystal, who last packed houses with his autobiographical show 700 Sundays. And with composer Jason Robert Brown and lyricist Amanda Green supplying one of the most appealing and disarming scores in some time, what’s not to like?”
* Last night saw the opening of MACBETH at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre. But as I already mentioned in my column on Wednesday, reviews are embargoed reviews embargoed until 4pm (New York time) today. This is Wednesday, not the usual range of prior critics’ performances. According to Broadway Briefing, the invaluable Broadway daily newsletter,
My Wednesday newsletter, however, quoted a local theatre journalist offering an alternative explanation: this, he wrote to me, is designed, with “one purpose and one purpose only: so that the New York Times review will not appear in the Friday print edition. This is a longstanding Hollywood gambit when the studios expect a banging clamor of pans.”
My reviews round-up for this will duly appear in my Monday newsletter.
SEE YOU ON MONDAY
If you can’t wait that long, I may also be found on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/ (though not as regularly on weekends).