ShentonSTAGE Daily for MON FEBRUARY 14

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Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE, and a depressing start to the week with weekend reports of a West End show (THE DRIFTERS’ GIRL) having to be stopped because of an audience brawl in the stalls. (You can see some of the distressing footage in this tweet here).

BRAWLING IN THE STALLS

This sort of publicity is hardly going to encourage audiences back into the theatre. I’ve written about the difficulties of audience behaviour and decorum in the theatre for years, and there certainly seems to have been a cultural shift: on the one hand, we obviously want theatres to be inclusive, welcoming spaces for all, but on the other, police them too rigorously and you risk imposing your values on them.

In some quarters, it seems that the drive to invite access to all means doing away with the old norms of theatre etiquette that mean that theatre should be a rowdy, free-for-all in which we can all enjoy it however we may wish to. But this libertarianism, as with the denial of our collective responsibility to keep ourselves AND EACH OTHER safe from a deadly virus, means that with everyone setting their own rules there’s no longer an underlying respect for each other’s space and enjoyment.

If even the Prime Minister whose government makes the laws doesn’t think they apply to him, and he and his staff are free to party when the rest of the country is in lockdown, what hope is there for anyone to follow any rules at all? 

We saw SOLT utterly fail to provide any leadership during the pandemic on mask wearing and theatre safety UNTIL the government mandated it, unlike on Broadway where masking is obligatory at every theatre, so it seems they will stand idly by on disruptive behaviour in their theatres as well.

Once again, it comes down to commercial interests: theatres were loathe to insist on mask wearing for fear of deterring audiences until such time as it became law (briefly), and SOLT’s CEO Julian Bird (who is departing from his post this year) wrote to me to suggest that people have different views on this matter in any case, so no action could be taken. 

The same will no doubt be the case now that audiences are getting drunk and rowdy in theatres; we could perhaps begin by asking who exactly SOLD the drunken audience their booze. And if they ARRIVE drunk, they should be denied admission. The first could impact bar profits; the second deter audiences from coming in the first place. So yet again SOLT will no doubt not act, for fear of upsetting their landlord members.

And we should spare a thought for the ushers and front of house managers who have to negotiate the tightrope that results. They’re the theatre’s frontline response workers — while the theatre owners and producers are happily counting their profits on their yachts or in their Bloomsbury or Covent Garden offices, far away from the theatres themselves.

It is well beyond the pay grade of ushers to be expected to have to act as police on such matters. Theatres may have to hire additional trained security staff to handle such matters — or change their reliance on bar sales.


BAZ MAKES A BREAK FOR IT…..

The Daily Mail’s longtime entertainment columnist Baz Bamigboye is stepping down from the paper after almost forty years, to join Deadline.com — the thrusting online entertainment news platform — later in the year.

It will be a big loss to the Mail, to whom he lent rare credibility (and was one of the few people of colour working in a senior editorial role on the paper); and a big gain for DEADLINE, since Baz knows EVERYONE and EVERYTHING in both the film and theatre worlds.

Bamigboye’s Friday column has long been the place to find breaking news of new West End and regional theatre; partly it was based on cozy relationships with producers and publicists who fed him their exclusives, and the rest of us got used to reading his ‘announcements’ on Fridays with the official press releases then landing in our inboxes later that morning. I will never forget being summoned to a National Theatre press conference at 9am on a Friday morning, only to find one of the major announcements that day — Bryan Cranston starring in an Ivo van Hove directed adaptation of the film Network — preempted in a Baz story in the Mail that day. 

But Baz also earned his keep by regularly breaking stories that the publicists didn’t necessarily want to have revealed.

He was also sufficiently independent — and well connected — to find stories before a press release was written. Other journalists would then have to chase his tail to get the stories verified. When I used to report theatre news for the theatre outlet Playbill, based in New York, my editors would expect me to have stories that Baz had; and I’d routinely have to cite him as the source when I did so.

Journalists and critics shouldn’t necessarily be bigger than the stories they report, but Baz — a towering figure of a man — is also by sheer dint of personality the leading entertainment reporter working today. Yes, he had a big reach thanks to the Mail; but Deadline will get him to an even broader international audience, and without having the Mail’s toxic politics, too. 

FROM NEW YORK TO HORNCHURCH, AND HOUSTON TO THE BARBICAN

I landed back from New York on Friday morning; and on Saturday evening I was  at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, at the far end of the District Line as it trundles into Essex, for artistic director Douglas Rintoul’s new production of the Arthur Miller classic ALL MY SONS.

I last saw the play on Broadway in 2019 with Annette Bening as Kate Keller and playwright/actor Tracy Letts as her husband Joe in this shattering drama of a family reckoning with past harms conducted in the name of “business” that left 21 young wartime pilots dead thanks to faulty equipment supplied by Joe’s family firm; it is long been one of my very favourite plays.

So travelling out to Hornchurch — even if it took me nearly two hours to drive there from central London — was actually intensely rewarding. Soon-to-depart artistic director Douglas Rintoul (he is leaving to take over at the helm of Ipswich’s New Wolsey) has directed a beautiful, shattering production, with exemplary performances all around.

Particularly poignant are Eve Matheson and David Hounslow (above left and centre) with Oliver Hembrough (newly clean-shaven for the first time in memory, above right) as their son.
I’ve previously seen Hembrough on this same stage in a wonderful production of Howard Goodall’s great musical masterpiece THE HIRED MAN, which was originally premiered in 1984 in a production that transferred to the Astoria in London (now no more) after runs in Southampton and Leicester that first made me fall in love with the composer’s richly and evocatively English brand of chorally-inspired and inspiring music.

He has since gone on to score many more musicals, including the highly underrated GIRLFRIENDS, the utterly gorgeous LOVE STORY and the exhilarating BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM, as well as THE DREAMING and THE KISSING DANCE for the National Youth Music Theatre, amongst others, but he is better known nowadays for his television theme tunes to such shows as BLACK ADDER, THE RED DWARF and VICAR OF DIBLEY.

His classical work, however, may just be his masterworks: the last two, INVICTUS and now UNCONDITIONAL LOVE, have been commissioned and premiered in Houston. Yesterday afternoon I attended the UK premiere of the latter, gloriously sung by the BBC Singers with Goodall himself conducting, at the Barbican’s Milton Court. This extraordinarily beautiful and moving cantata of gratitude and remembrance memorialises our collective and individual experience of living through the Covid pandemic. It was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, so will have reached a much bigger audience than were in attendance at Milton Court.

It seems utterly shocking (not to say negligent) that the National Theatre hasn’t embraced a composer of such standing as Goodall, yet have produced terrible shows by Damon Albarn (WONDER.LAND), Tori Amos (THE LIGHT PRINCESS) and Jim Fortune (HEX), two of those three co-authored by artistic director Rufus Norris.

SEE YOU TOMORROW

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You can also find regular updates on ShentonSTAGE LIVE, a rolling theatre blog that appears on my website, updated throughout the day as necessary, to reflect news updates and other observations and commentary as they occur. The landing page for this is here: http://shentonstage.com/shentonstage-live/
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