Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily.
Last week I tried to go to Southwark Playhouse twice — first to see LIFT in the main house (the Large, as it is called) last Tuesday afternoon, then THE LION in the Little on Friday evening, but was twice thwarted.
For LIFT, I had checked availability online, and more than half the house was still available, before requesting a ticket from the show’s PR. Who then replied, “Sadly we don’t have any further press allocation this week but could offer you 2x tickets on Wednesday 1st June at 7:30pm.”
As the agent of one of the lead creatives had asked me personally to see it, when I ran into her at an opening at Chichester’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS the previous week, I duly contacted her, as well as the show’s director Dean Johson, to see if they could find out what the problem was.
It was eventually sorted and a ticket was arranged, as originally requested; Dean replied suggesting, “Seems it was a miscommunication rather than anything malicious.” To which I responded: “Given that their job is ALL ABOUT COMMUNICATION, it’s interesting how often they MISCOMMUNICATE!!!! (As Mama Morton is told in CHICAGO about her high price of making a phone call, “You must get a lot of wrong numbers….”)
In fact the young producer Liam Gartland then e-mailed me personally to claim responsibility for the decision, as mystifying as it is, to try to delay me seeing the show for more than a week. Given that it closes on June 18, it would have seemed a good idea to let me see it sooner rather than later, in the hope (assuming I like it) that I can actually encourage people to go?
But then when I got to the theatre, the performance had just been cancelled, owing to a flood (the theatre has a notoriously leaky roof and it had rained that day). So I finally actually went yesterday afternoon.
And then on Friday, I was due to see the press night for THE LION — I boarded a train to London from West Sussex at 14.17, and checked my e-mail, only to find one was sent two minutes earlier, at 14.15, cancelling that night’s show, too. This was due to illness, with the press night rescheduled to last night.
So yesterday I was able to see both LIFT and THE LION on the same day, and it made for a very musical day!
Another hundred people…..
My own interest in seeing LIFT again goes back to the original 2013 production at Soho Theatre, which I saw and starred a pre-famous Cynthia Erivo (and was filmed by Digital Theatre; view a trailer here).
In one of the most famous songs from Sondheim’s Company, characters sing of their journeys to and through New York City:
Another hundred people just got off of the train
And came up through the ground
While another hundred people just got off of the bus
And are looking around
At another hundred people who got off of the plane
And are looking at Who got off of the train
And the plane, and the bus
LIFT narrows the focus down still further: to that part of the journey that is being begun (or ended) by lift, at tube stations like Covent Garden (where it is set), or Camden Town, Earl’s Court, Elephant and Castle or Borough (where I used to live when I was in London). In the enforced intimacy of this setting, you pass an uneasy 90 or so seconds of furtive looks and stolen glances (to quote another marvellous musical, The Hired Man, set as far away from the tube network as it is possible to be, namely the great open spaces of Cumbria).
Craig Adams and Ian Watson’s musical — first conceived when Adams was a student at Mountview in the late 90s — has essentially eight characters looking for an author, rather than Pirandello’s six. The structural problems of the show that float the attractive songs over a loosely assembled concept of passengers connected by a busker at Covent Garden tube station remain, but as a concert, this is ace.
Stunningly designed by set and lighting designer Andrew Exeter, who defines the space with neon lighting strips that change colour and resemble different tube lines, it is vibrantly performed by its 8-strong cast — led by 2013 X Factor finalist Luke Friend as the busker — and Sam Young’s live band.
“It’s not the roar that makes the lion, it’s the pride.”
In 2014, an extraordinary little musical called THE LION — a solo show performed by its author Benjamin Scheuer, accompanying himself from a range of onstage guitars — played a short London season at the Other Palace’s downstairs studio.
This deeply poignant and affecting personal autobiographical solo musical encompasses family legacies of troubled parental and healing sibling relationships, as he faces a life-threatening illness before his 30th birthday and finds his own creative voice in the midst of it.
It quickly became my favourite original musical of that year, whether in London or New York. I saw it multiple times at the Other Palace, then followed Scheuer to see him again in New York and then New Haven. Now it is being performed for the first time not by himself but by the strikingly different but also deeply wonderful Max Alexander-Taylor (pictured below).
The actor-musician — again accompanying himself on a set of four acoustic and one electric guitar — and the production, co-directed by Alex Stenhouse and Sean Daniels, capture the changing moods of the show with effortless shifts of register, as he daringly connects eye to eye with audience members, and swaps guitars for different sounds.
He also handled a first-night fainting by an audience member with concern and grace; Scheuer told me after the show that during the time he performed the show this was not an uncommon occurrence, as people became overwhelmed by the story.
It is a simply gorgeous piece of writing and sublime theatre making that is now the revival of the year (so far).
Is it time for critics to be cancelled — or even banned?
The Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park took an extraordinary step on Monday. Following a review of its production of LEGALLY BLONDE. It tweeted:
Though the theatre doesn’t identify the source of its disapproval, it is clear that it is Quentin Letts’s review for the Sunday Times Culture. He will, of course, be delighted; there’s nothing he likes more than provoking a culture war.
At the risk of causing further offence, it is important to repeat what he actually said. He writes of its director, “[Lucy] Moss, seeking new political relevance, has cast fuller-bodied, nonbinary actors and turned the whole thing into a relentlessly zingy assertion of minority pride. Fellow fatties of the world, first we take Harvard, then we take Brenda Hale’s old seat on the Supreme Court. Such is the devotion to diversity that even the story’s two cute dogs (normally a bankable crowd-pleaser) have been turned into camped-up humans. It lends new meaning to “poodle-faker”. With sound balances askew at Tuesday’s press night, ears were throbbing after a few minutes of caterwauling from Courtney Bowman, who plays the central figure, Elle. Bowman has a likeable grin, but she is no Callas. The opening song, Omigod You Guys, is a horror of nasal shrieking, “like” and “omigod” being just about discernible amid otherwise indistinct words. Elle’s big thing is pink. She and her mates leap about like a flock of flat-footed flamingos. The stage’s superstructure wobbles under the weight of the company’s loosely choreographed gyrations.”
The review concludes: “This production is too awed by the very fault the musical should tease: socio-political orthodoxy.” And In the self-same column, he also reviews THE FATHER AND THE ASSASSIN at the National, in which he refers to the “cringe-making breaking of the fourth wall when Godse rages against Brexit and tells the audience to ‘know who your enemies are!’ Today’s theatre practitioners don’t half love ramming it down our throats.”
But isn’t he using the bulk of his columns to ram his own disapproval — whether it is of plus-sized performers or Remainers — down our throats? The Sunday TImes used to be the home of legendary critics like Harold Hobson and James Agate; like so many things in Little Britain, it is now sadly the home of petty columnists like himself and the infuriating television writer Camilla Long, not real critics. (Sample Long entry from a recent review column on Ten Percent, the English remake of the wonderful French series Call My Agent: “Why turn something that’s extremely French into something that’s English? It is embarrassing, like watching a frog version of Ab Fab.”)
And maybe I am playing straight into feeding their narcissistic desire for attention and controversy by writing about them. But it’s all rather tragic; and the theatre — and readers who are interested in it — are the real losers. Instead of getting a critic who genuinely loves the theatre, they instead get a lame controversialist. It’s like the paper is trolling its readers.
Well, maybe the answer is to simply stop buying it. But then we’d miss some pretty good interviews, which it still excels at.
SEE YOU ON MONDAY
With the long Jubilee weekend ahead, I won’t be back here till 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).