Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE, currently appearing on a less regular schedule while I deal with ongoing back pain issues. (I am seeing my surgeon again tomorrow; meanwhile, though, I live by Sally Bowles’s statement, “What good is sitting all alone in your room?” So I am persevering…. and am in London again today after coming up to town last night.
As there’s a tube strike today, I’ve had to adjust my plans; I’m staying in Earls Court in West London, and going to Hammersmith tonight for the opening of Tim Walker’s BLOODY DIFFICULT WOMEN at Riverside Studios, so rather than heading across town and back again for a matinee I’d hoped to get to at Southwark Playhouse, I’m going to stay in the area I am in already. I wonder how many other people are having their theatre plans disrupted?
The West End and theatres elsewhere around London do not need this. They’ve had to deal with the serial uncertainties of COVID; now adding uncertainties around public transport is one interruption too many.
An evening of cabaret joy
I’m nevertheless pleased I made the trip. Last night I saw West End musical maestro Gareth Valentine — the go-to conductor, musical director and arranger for the big Broadway sound in the West End, but who himself hails from Wales — made his long overdue debut as a star in his own right, presiding over a riotous solo retrospective of (some of) his career to date at Crazy Coqs.
With names dropped freely from Roger Moore (who gave him a Cartier watch after departing from the original London production of ASPECTS OF LOVE before it opened, which Valentine had tutored him — unsuccessfully) — through to Chita Rivera (with whom he worked on the London transfer of Kander and Ebb’s KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN, and became a loyal friend of) and Betty Buckley, it was an evening rich in affectionate (and not so affectionate) anecdotes, with spot-on impressions of luminaries like Andrew Lloyd Webber and Trevor Nunn.
In a career (so far) spanning over four decades, he has worked with many great— and some grating — stars, and shared indiscreet stories about many. This remarkable evening was like an insider’s guide to what makes the West End tick, kick and sick, from one of its key creative personalities but whose contribution typically goes unremarked.
Musical directors are the most prominent members of the creative team who remain on the scene long after their original collaborators have long departed; they were in the room when it originally happened, and continue to be there when it is still happening every night.
Last night Gareth Valentine proved his own star quality — the kind that saw him as a child singer in Wales knocking Bryn Terfel into third place in a local singing competition when he came second! Valentine is a different kind of musical superstar. (His next gig: conducting MY FAIR LADY at the London Coliseum! I can’t wait: this Lincoln Center revival was my show of the year when it premiered in New York in 2018).
A friend messaged me on Sunday to say:
“Went to see THE BOOK OF MORMON again last night. Left at the interval as the couple sat behind me were so drunk they were having a full conversation and swearing throughout. No staff about to do anything about it.”
After the recent incident of THE DRIFTERS’ GIRL needing to stop the show because of a drunken fight in the stals, it really is time for the West End to improve the audience experience: no outside booze should be allowed (they check handbags already, so surely this won’t be too difficult to enforce), and not sell anymore to drunks.
A night in the West End isn’t cheap. It should not be ruined by the selfish behaviour of others.
Are theatres too dependent on ‘star casting’?
We’ve seen prices go sky high at the Playhouse thanks to the star casting of Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley in CABARET; but the announcement today that they are being replaced by Fra Fee and Amy Lennox respectively — two terrific West End actors but not ‘star’ names, pictured below — should hopefully see a measure of normality return.
The production may actually turn out to be more affordable to audiences as a result.
So finally the production might be judged on its own merits as opposed to a fascination with its star names.
All of this also throws into relief a comment made last week by Rufus Norris about the difficulty of casting plays at the National Theatre that was quoted in a tweet by THE STAGE that went viral, but was actually taken from an interview he gave to THE TIMES. (As both THE STAGE and THE TIMES are behind paywalls, most people commenting on this only saw the tweet, not the original stories).
There was an inevitable pile-on from actors who’ve never been even auditioned at the National; no casting department can see *everyone*. But this comes after nearly two years when hardly anything happened at the NT — and now that it is open again, it is on a restricted schedule that has abandoned repertory but instead is focused on continuous limited runs for each show, making it no different to places like the Almeida or Donmar. So fewer actors than ever are in their pool.
Of course he was referring to ‘star’ names that help sell tickets; but the National has never been about that. it’s a place, like the RSC, that should be MAKING stars, not wondering why they aren’t clamouring to appear there.
SEE YOU ON THURSDAY
You can 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: https://shentonstage.com/shentonstage-live/
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