ShentonSTAGE Daily for MONDAY JULY 25

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Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily.

Last week ended with the (comparatively) rare occurrence of a Friday night press night at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park —  a strategy that is most regularly used by theatres trying to ‘bury’ their reviews, as no weekend papers carry ‘overnight’ reviews on a Saturday, there’s no Evening Standard until Monday, and even online outlets might be slower off the mark on a weekend. (WhatsOnStage published a review on Saturday that was conspicuous for appearing to be unedited, a fact that was originally confirmed by the critic responsible on Twitter; it was subsequently deleted, but I have a screenshot of):

The editor of WhatsOnStage has since accused me of falsely saying they have no weekend editor; I am happy to duly confirm that there was one — they just didn’t do a very good job.

But there’s no avoiding the harsh truth for 101 DALMATIANS, a new musical version of Dodie Smith’s story that is best known for the Disney animated feature released in 1961, that had its premiere delayed for two years by the pandemic. It finally happened on Friday, and I wish I could say it had been worth the wait. But alas, it’s no CATS — it’s a dog of a musical in every sense!

First the positives though: 101 DALMATIANS looks a treat, the puppetry is sublime, the dogs (and their puppet masters) a delight, and Kate Fleetwood (pictured below) is a splendid Cruella deVille, who here is re-imagined as a desperate and despicable social media influencer, with all the horror that implies, whose interest in dalmatian puppies is pretty sinister.

But someone forgot to write the show they are in. Beyond updating Cruella to the age of social media, there’s little motivation for her cruelty towards dogs; we take it as a given.

And the score (by actor-turned-composer Douglas Hodge) — the main reason to musicalise anything — is a bland and endless parade of songs that hardly ever advance the action. It’s basically directionless and pointless.

On a mercifully dry summer’s night, it’s still a pleasure to sit in Regent’s Park in the warm glow of a theatre audience willing a show to succeed; and there’s even a LIVE Dalmatian puppy to briefly enchant. But as TS Eliot put it, “first, your memory I’ll jog, And say: A CAT IS NOT A DOG.” If only 101 DALMATIANS were more like CATS.

CLOSER (Lyric Hammersmith)

Clare Lizzimore’s stunning revival of Patrick Marber’s CLOSER at Lyric Hammersmith, 25 years on from its National Theatre premiere, reveals a play that remains a brutal, bruising and brilliant portrait about the cross currents of love, desire and obsession.

Just last week I wrote very personally about how directly BILLY ELLIOT impacted me here, and seeing CLOSER again now, too, gained extra power from a life journey I’ve been on, too.  Having myself worked a 12-step programme around love and sex addiction, long after I saw this play the first time in 1997, the play hit me even harder. Marber’s characters are in a constant fight with themselves and each other over romantic and sexual obsession, possession and withdrawal.

This harrowing, eloquent play about love and the strange ways it manifests itself and people exert power over each other is played with alternating notes of anguish and exhilaration by a stunning quartet of actors (pictured and named above).

Director Clare Lizzimore also populates the stage with added “shadow” actors, and musicians to underscore the action. It’s a play of deep and overlapping layers, intricately stitched together; this is a major reclamation of a play that still feels bang up to date.

Reviewing the reviews

As with theatre itself, when it comes to reviews about theatre, you pay your money — or not with many web outlets — and take your chances. It’s by building a regular relationship with particular critics that you come to know and appreciate their judgement (and therefore know whether it aligns with yours). That’s one of the flaws of The Guardian’s set of floating critics beyond chief critic Arifa Akbar — we don’t get to read them regularly enough to know who any of them are and why we should pay attention to them.

Fortunately, we know exactly who Quentin Letts in the Sunday Times is, having read him for the last decade in the Daily Mail. He at least wears his many prejudices and agendas on his sleeve. In yesterday’s column, he used favourable reviews of JACK ABSOLUTE FLIES AGAIN and MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, both at the National, to attack the venue, which is his favoured position: even when he comes to praise something there, he ends up trying to bury the theatre itself.

He duly declares: “How unexpected: two watchable comedies at the National Theatre. In recent years the NT has become such a factory of misery, churning out elite-leftist orthodoxy under the name of entertainment, that laughter seemed to have fled its concrete halls for ever. Simon Godwin’s take on Much Ado About Nothing and, more powerfully, Richard Bean’s Jack Absolute Flies Again are a welcome aberration and should revive the National’s battered box office.”

Of the latter, he concludes his review by stating: “Bean pokes fun at us, yet he does so with affection and, in the end, deep respect for our resilience and decency. From a theatre that too often seems to disapprove of Britain, that is radical and welcome.”

It’s one thing to fail to credit co-author Oliver Chris anywhere, twice attributing the play solely to Richard Bean; that’s just sloppy, lazy journalism. But his attacks on the National Theatre itself have now become such a regular part of his reviewing armoury that I just want to shout: “Change the record, love!” 

SEE YOU ON FRIDAY

I’m skipping a mid-week edition this week, but will be back on Friday, ahead of a two-week hiatus when I travel to Cape Cod. 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

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