Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE, which comes to you after another mini-London theatre marathon — four shows in two days!
THE COLLABORATION (Young Vic)
This week saw press performances for the world premiere of Anthony McCarten’s latest re-imagining of celebrity encounters, THE COLLABORATION at the Young Vic, in this case of pop artist Andy Warhol (by now living and working in a prism of repetition rather than inspiration) and street artist Jean-MIchel Basquiat (then on a fast-rising trajectory to superstar of the art world, but wrestling with heroin addiction).
They were put together by their mutual Swiss agent Bruno Bischofberger to team up on a joint exhibition, and the play charts their wary differences and jealousies, and eventually emerging friendship, in a gripping series of encounters, first in a gallery, then at the respective apartments of each.
In a programme interview, McCarten is asked for his favourite quote from the play and he answers: “When Basquiat grills Warhol on what will be left for artists of the future to make art about, Warhol replies, ‘Trash. Trash. But we have to celebrate something.”
Nadia Latif, former Young Vic Genesis fellow in 2018 who subsequently directed the British premiere of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s FAIRVIEW there and who will in April direct another Drury play MARY SECOALE at the Donmar, once dubbed former theatre critic Matt Trueman as “trash trash trash” on Twitter so perhaps it was actually meant as high praise — though she also tweeted, “Mind you, I always feel like it’s just a matter of time before white male critics rip off their mask of respectability and reveal the racist/sexist/elitist/myopic lizard men underneath. Bun [sic] them all.”
But then as this play demonstrates, hostility, motivated by jealousy, is a common impulse amongst artists of any stripe. and critics are never immune to these defensive reactions.
Though the play is conventionally structured, it is lifted into the realm of extraordinary by two utterly magnetic performances from Paul Bettany, making an overdue return to the stage, as the uptight Warhol (above right), and Broadway and TV actor Jeremy Pope (last seen on the New York stage in a Tony nominated performance in AIN’T TOO PROUD) as the broodingly brilliant Basquiat (above left).
In Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical masterpiece about another artist Georges Seurat one song ‘Putting It Together’ describes the process of making art:
“Bit by bit, putting it together
Piece by piece, only way to make a work of art
Every moment makes a contribution
Every little detail plays a part
Having just a vision’s no solution
Everything depends on execution
Putting it together
That’s what counts!”
And the same is true of Kwame Kwei-Armah’s production, which is full of detail and style, and evocatively designed by Anna Fleishle who creates the different worlds each artist inhabits with ingenuity (and an assist from Duncan McLean’s projections). Fleishle, also currently represented on the London stage by THE FOREST at Hampstead — and the soon-to-return 2:22 A GHOST STORY — is now one of the secret weapons of British theatre; the moment I see her name on a press release, my anticipation levels rise accordingly.
BUT I’M A CHEERLEADER THE MUSICAL (Turbine Theatre)
Paul Taylor-Mills, founder of Battersea’s Turbine Theatre and now also back in charge of The Other Palace Theatre in Victoria (which he previously ran for Andrew Lloyd Webber and is now presiding over for its new owner Bill Kenwright), has finally realised an original musical on its stage, BUT I’M A CHEERLEADER THE MUSICAL.
Based on a 1999 film about a gay conversion therapy summer camp for young gay men and lesbians, it was first presented in extract there during Taylor-Mills’s MTFestUK seasons of workshop presentations of new musicals (called off this year after controversy over the all-white line-up of writers whose work had been announced would be showcased).
In a note issued on Wednesday to coincide with its gala premiere that night, Taylor-Mills wrote,
“It’s been a few years since we launched our special space hidden underneath the oldest railway bridge in London. In lots of ways it’s utter madness and shouldn’t work, but thanks to an army of supporters (mainly Bill Kenwright!) we’ve been able to create and thrive, even through the obstacles that the last couple of years have brought.
Given this slight pause I wanted to take this opportunity to remind myself and our audience of our initial vision. The Turbine Theatre sets out to provide a safe space for new work to be developed. A space where work could be nurtured and audiences responses were considered as an essential ingredient for how that work grows. This desire stays firmly in place and we’re thrilled that tonight’s show is the very first project to have come through our musical theatre festival – MTFestUK.
Tonight is monumental for lots of reasons. It marks the first brand-new musical to be presented at The Turbine Theatre. Additionally, this particular musical has been a 20 year journey for the writers and a four year journey for myself. All that said we all hope that this is just the beginning.”
All of which is a useful reminder of just how long the development timeline of new musicals invariably is.
And though there are, inevitably, grumbles on twitter that this is an American-written show that is now being given this prize opportunity instead of a British one, two points should be made: one, given that this is an entirely privately funded and operated theatre, it is also entirely up to Taylor-Mills as artistic director what sort of work he wants to invest in and promote; and two, he has drawn on an American producing partner — Adam Bialow, formerly an executive with Lionsgate, the film and TV company who produced the original film — to co-finance this run. And with a 12-strong cat and band of three, it can’t be exactly cheap to produce it in this small space.
The show’s format and milieu may hardly be original — we are yet again in the high school genre, from the home-grown UK musical EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE to Broadway’s THE PROM (both of them subsequently adapted as feature films) that specifically address gay high school experiences, along with shows like HEATHERS, BE MORE CHILL, BRING IT ON and DEAR EVAN HANSEN that variously put teen trauma on stage.
And while others in this list have variously addressed homophobia, bullying and depression amongst teens, BUT I’M A CHEERLEADER constantly has its bright, cheerful surface atmosphere offset with more serious undercurrents, not all of it fully earned; but at least the show has higher aspirations. A slick — if overlong — production. directed by Tania Azevedo, is full of terrific performances, led by the tremendous Alice Croft. Alongside some newer faces (to me), it was also great to see the always-cherishable Tiffany Graves (though she’s playing an uncherishable villain here) and the wonderful Jodie Steele.
THE CHAIRS (Almeida Theatre)
Ionesco’s THE CHAIRS is another play revolving around a couple, in this case two actors struggling to get through a performance of a play that’s like a meta-theatrical cross between WAITING FOR GODOT (in which Godot sort-of actually arrives) and NOISES OFF. The endlessly playful Complicite master actors Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni (her offstage partner as well as on, to add further layers) are at the very peak of their powers.
Hunter will return later this year to reprise the title role in KING LEAR at the Globe, with Magni joining her as Kent, 25 years after she first played the role on the same stage. I can’t wait to see her again then.
THE NIGHT LARRY KRAMER KISSED ME (New Wimbledon Studio)
30 years on from the Off-Broadway premiere of David Drake’s autobiographically inspired solo show THE NIGHT LARRY KRAMER KISSED ME in which he played himself (running for a year and subsequently made into a feature film), it is currently being revived at the New Wimbledon Studio (ending tomorrow).
I saw Drake perform it in New York, who had obviously LIVED it as well as acted it; so it is a particular testament to the fierce commitment of Scottish actor John Bell that it feels still alive to the current moment, and not just a piece of archival gay history.
After last year’s’ stunning revival of THE NORMAL HEART, a new generation will have been “kissed” by Larry Kramer’s call to arms and activism that so inspired David Drake when he saw the play’s first production at the Public Theater in New York 37 years ago. Now Bell is another of them.
The play captures perfectly the spirit of the times that Kramer, a seminal figure in the AIDS struggle, caught so vividly in his play; and now Bell newly articulates the personal story of someone Kramer inspired.
And it is brilliant to see a one-person show, clearly created as a vehicle for its writer, be given such a vivid new life. As it happens, yesterday an announcement was made for the return of another New York born solo show, in this case a musical, called THE LION. When I saw its creator Benjamin Schueuer perform it at the Other Palace Studio in 2014, I saw it three times in the space of its short run there, and declared in 2015 that it was my single favourite musical of all of last year, whether on Broadway or in London.
That quote has made its way onto the poster for the show’s return that has been announced in May for Southwark Playhouse, but with a different actor Max Alexander-Taylor now playing Schueuer himself.
Scheuer, who is previewing a new musical ELODIE’S MOUNTAIN at the Phoenix Arts Club on March 9 (and yes, I’ll definitely be there!), will be a tough act to follow; but the piece I know can stand on its own two legs.
I’ve long said that Elaine Stritch’s stunning solo autobiographical show AT LIBERTY should be performed by another person; now that Stritch is no longer here to perform it herself, I hope someone takes up that challenge.
SEE YOU ON MONDAY
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