Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily. This is the only edition I will be publishing this week, as I leave for a week on the Costa Brava in Spain today at 6am…. I will be back here tomorrow week (June 29).
But as so often before I travel, I’ve made up for the temporary respite in my theatregoing by bingeing ahead of it. I’ve had an undeniably eclectic schedule, that included new plays at the Royal Court (THAT IS NOT WHO I AM, that I’ve already written some of the back story about here and here), Chichester Festival Theatre (Stephen Beresford’s THE SOUTHBURY CHILD, en route to a run at London’s Bridge), and the penultimate performance of Anupama Chandraskekhar’s THE FATHER AND THE ASSASSIN at the National.
I also saw a concert performance of the 2000 musical version of John Updike’s THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (originally premiered at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane) last night, and last but by no means least, a London concert appearance by the great singer-songwriter-showman extraordinaire, Barry Manilow at The O2 Arena the night before.
THAT IS NOT WHO I AM WAS NOT WHAT IT PURPORTED TO BE
I’ve already written about THAT IS NOT WHO I AM, a play about the unravelling of different versions of reality that has itself become an example of a false narrative being intentionally advanced by the Royal Court theatre about its authorship.
They conscripted TIME OUT as a willing partner in this slightly absurd piece of theatrical intrigue, who promoted the story via an “exclusive” preview announcing the play in the first place, then in a pair of follow-up videos speculating on the playwright’s identity, which in fact becomes a central part of the narrative the play itself spins (as the playwright herself becomes a character in it).
And I found myself becoming a player in this drama about the drama when Time Out theatre editor Andrzej Lukowski took umbrage at my questioning of the journalistic ethics of this and proceeded to block me from viewing not just his personal twitter account but also the publication’s public theatre one, too.
He then sought to address the controversy by casting aspersions on the state of my mental health — something I have actually been pretty open about on Twitter in the past, so more shame to him than to me — and suggesting that my column on it was “mad”.
According to his version of the story, TIME OUT’s active participation was a joke ALL ALONG, and I’m crazy for not playing along.
As Clive Davis noted his one-star review for THE TIMES, the news that the playwright was in fact Lucy Kirkwood had leaked before the press night, “leaving the Court looking clumsy and naive. Have they been taking PR lessons from Rishi Sunak?” His review concluded: “My own pet conspiracy theory, for what it’s worth, is that agents of Nadine Dorries have secretly taken control of the Royal Court and are doing their best to run a left-wing institution into the ground.”
The publicly funded Royal Court has lurched from PR disaster to PR disaster in the last few months — including not spotting the flagrant anti-semitism that was embodied in the naming of a character in its production of Al Smith’s RARE EARTH METTLE until it was about to open, even though it had been alerted to concerns long before that — which led to a formal investigation by the theatre and a very public mea culpa and commitment to do better.
And yet here they are again, intentionally misleading the theatregoing public and using client journalism outlets to facilitate this.
All of which has succeeded only in overshadowing the play itself. It got the play being spoken about, that’s for sure; but it turns out, for all the wrong reasons.
THE SOUTHBURY CHILD and THE FATHER AND THE ASSASSIN
It was a relief after all this drummed-up controversy to see a couple of real plays in the next two days: on Friday, I was at Chichester for the opening of Stephen Beresford’s poignant play THE SOUTHBURY CHILD about a crisis of faith, family and marriage for a Church of England vicar, and then a day later, at the penultimate performance of Anupama Chandrasekhar’s THE FATHER AND THE ASSASSIN at the National’s Olivier.
I very nearly missed the latter; of course no critic can ever be expected to see EVERYTHING, but the National has long fallen off my list of essential venues, so seeing this play had not been a priority. At the same time, I kept hearing good things about it, and how it told a culturally important story about the assassination of Gandhi with fresh insight and dramatic momentum.
For me it was particularly impressive that I was surrounded in a sold out Olivier Theatre by a substantial contingent of Asian theatregoers, a constituency rarely catered for by British theatres and therefore rarely seen amongst its audiences. Yet as when the Bollywood-inspired musical BOMBAY DREAMS played at the West End’s Apollo Victoria ahead of WICKED taking up seemingly permanent residence there, if you build it they will come; here’s a play, as with that musical, that this audience could relate to, while also teaching new things to others like me who had come along for the ride.
THE SOUTHBURY CHILD, meanwhile, inhabits a more recognisably English theatrical landscape of a country vicarage, and the earnestly flawed man who presides over his flock, clinging onto his principles of faith even as he has betrayed his wife.
The play is not always too plausible, but Nick Hytner’s production is propelled by the kind of intrinsically warm-hearted performance of fundamental decency from Alex Jennings that keeps you fully invested in it. It is the acting rather than the (over)plotting that holds you gripped in a play that sometimes feels over-stretched on Chichester’s large stage.
TWO MUSICAL EVENINGS OF REAL PLEASURE
I also revisited two old favourites on Sunday and Monday: first on Sunday, Barry Manilow — who just last week turned 79, and is still making the whole world sing (or at least the whole O2 Arena) revisiting many of the legendary hits he has produced in a career spanning more than half a century.
The voice is still strong and secure, and he even has (some of) the moves as he propels himself into dancing; but it’s the audience ourselves who provide the most intimate connections with the material. These are the songs that have accompanied our lives for decades, and there’s a glorious sense of a shared history with each other and Manilow in appreciating them again.
“I can’t smile without you,” he sings; how utterly wonderful it is to be smiling AGAIN with him.
It was also thrilling to see THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK flying again on a London stage — no, they did not take off, as they did at Drury Lane in 2000, and fly directly over our heads to the top balcony, but merely managed a short elevation off the stage itself at the end of the first act. But Dana P Rowe and John Dempsey’s musical version of John Updike’s novel soared once again in a production newly directed by Maria Friedman, who was an original cast member in 2000.
A stunning company saw composer Dana P Rowe and Friedman (third and fourth from the left) joined by Alfie Friedman (Maria’s own son), John Partridge, Natasha Barnes, Carrie Hope Fletcher, Laura Pitt-Pulford, Jennifer Gabriel and Claire Moore (above left to right).
THIS WEEK’S OPENINGS AND FUTURE OPENINGS
My regularly updated guide to theatre openings in London, selected regional theatres and on Broadway is here: https://shentonstage.com/theatre-openings-from-w-c-june-20-onwards/
SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY
I’ll be back here a week today, on Wednesday June 29. 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