What’s in a list? BuzzFeed created an entire editorial industry out of them (though they also of course do far more serious journalism, too), with “listicles” that included such historic aggregations as “15 Poop Horror Stories That Will Make You Feel Better About Yourself” and “The 21 Absolute Worst Things in the World.”
It may have once been, as Andy Warhol stated, that everyone will have 15 minutes of fame, but now it’s probably the case that everyone will appear on a list of something somewhere. This week Variety published its annual Broadway Impact Report, listing some of the most influential operators on Broadway from actors and directors to artistic directors and producers. But kudos, too, to Broadway Briefing founder Matt Britten for finding himself on the list, a free newsletter of curated content about Broadway that he publishes daily. As Britten told Variety, “We imagine Broadway Briefing as a way for everyone in this industry to start their day on the same page, literally and metaphorically — to reinforce the strong sense of community on Broadway.”
The currency of social media puts a lot of store on ‘influencers’ — people who stand out from the crowd in their field. So it was also gratifying this week to find myself on a list, published by Klear, of the top ten theatre influencers. I was listed in third position, behind West End Producer and Sheridan Smith, and one ahead of Lyn Gardner. The only other journalist apart from Lyn and myself listed is Ben Hewis, who this week also finally signed off as Deputy Editor of theatre website Whatsonstage in order to go freelance.
And talking of lists: this week I’ve just started my own series in The Stage of My Top 50 Musical Theatre Songs. Across five instalments, I am offering my personal favourites. This is, inevitably, quite subjective; in my first column, you can find my choices from 41-50, including links to YouTube clips where you can hear (and sometimes see) performances of each of them.
LONDON OPENINGS OF THE WEEK
* Antony and Cleopatra, opening at the National’s Olivier Theatre on September 26:
With the title roles played by two RADA graduates, Ralph Fiennes (graduated 1985) and Sophie Okonedo (graduated 1990), both of whom have been Oscar nominated, the National’s new production is directed by NT associate director Simon Godwin, who is departing soon to take up a new post as artistic director at Washington DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.
In a review for Time Out, Andzrej Lukowski writes, “There are a couple of good ways to really balls up this play. One is to miscast the leads. The other is to freak out in the face of its 37 continent-hopping scenes. Godwin tackles each obstacle nervelessly. In this he is aided by his regular collaborator Ralph Fiennes, who plays Antony as a boozy old lion, still in the political game through ego as much as ambition. The Roman statesman is clearly a shadow of his glory days, but there is a poignancy in the sense of damage to him. Perhaps Fiennes’s biggest contribution, though, is to swallow his celebrity status and let Sophie Okonedo’s Cleopatra dominate the stage…. Okonedo is fantastic, though, and quietly subversive.”
And he says of Godwin, “He is not a flashy celebrity director, and I doubt a day of national mourning is likely to be declared when he quietly quits Blighty to head up the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington DC next year. Nonetheless, it will be our loss: he has a gift for making very old, very long plays feel disarmingly fresh, and he concludes this chapter in his NT career with a thoroughly enjoyable take on Shakespeare’s great historical tragedy…. There will always be cooler directors than Simon Godwin: and most of them would have had a nervous breakdown tackling Antony and Cleopatra. This is a rollicking send-off.”
In The Stage, Sam Marlowe concurs: “Simon Godwin’s modern-dress assay on Shakespeare’s knotty drama is thrilling, humane and impeccably lucid, set alight by the firepower of two stars – Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo – in the title roles. These are fine performances, rich in detail, full of passion’s tremulous desire, yet movingly tempered by the rue of middle age….. Okonedo is magnificent, a kitten one moment, a tigress the next, sensual, witty and ferocious. Fiennes’ Antony, at his booziest and most raddled, growls ‘Come on, my queen, there’s sap in’t yet”’ his eyes somewhat unfocused but still roguish. The grotesque farce of their final moments is horribly sad (and, incidentally, features a very impressive, very real live snake).
Compassionate, politically astute and psychologically perceptive.”
* Pinter At the Pinter — the first two parts (of a seven-part retrospective of all 20 of Pinter’s one act plays, as well as poems and sketches that will take place across the next six months) under the stewardship of director Jamie Lloyd opened at the Pinter Theatre on September 27. Pinter One comprised four short plays (plus a recently found sketch and two poems). Pinter Two reprises two early plays, originally written for TV in the early sixties, The Lover and The Collection, that Lloyd previously staged (in different productions) at this same address in 2008.
In a four-star review for The Guardian, Pinter expert (and biographer) Michael Billington contextualised the opening salvo: “What exactly do you learn from the opening pair – Pinter One and Two – which can be seen on a single day? That Pinter has the capacity to both terrify and tantalise but, above all, that the division of his works into the political and the personal is ludicrously artificial: whether the context is the public or the private world, he is always fascinated by the roots of power…. While Pinter Two seems lighter in tone and texture than Pinter One, it is ultimately exploring the same questions about the unverifiable nature of the past and the fallibility of power. Together the productions launch what looks like being a compelling journey into the dark heart of Pinterland.”
In the Mail on Sunday, Robert Gore-Langton strikes a more contrary note, giving Part One a one-star review (“The political plays in Pinter One feature torture and more torture; indeed they are torture”) and part two three stars (“For some human cheer, best try Pinter Two”). By contrast, Andzrej Lukowski, in his four-star review of part one for Time Out more confidently asserts, “Really, the rest of the first half is just preamble to 1984’s One for the Road, which I feel pretty comfortable calling one of the greatest plays ever written…. It is a brilliant and horrifying play, a meticulously wrought vision of human darkness.”)
In an interview with Russell Tovey (right), who stars in Pinter Two, the actor tells londontheatre.co.uk of the broader ambitions for the season: “I think a whole new generation will discover Harold Pinter. They might be drawn by the people who are in it. They might be drawn by Martin Freeman or Danny Dyer or Jon Simm… or me… and then they’ll experience an incredible play. They’re going to experience true theatre. What we are proud of. One of our biggest exports and most important writers there has been. They’re going to experience a lot of passionate people performing in something they feel very privileged to do. That doesn’t happen very often.”
Ola Ince — who as I reported here two weeks ago won this year’s h100 Theatre and Performance Award, directs what is billed as a coming of age story, a semi-autobiographical performance poem by Debris Stevenson, inspired by Dizzee Rascal’s ground-breaking grime album Boy in da Corner.
In a three-star review for the Sunday Times, Maxie Szalwinska writes, “You could say that the Royal Court has been championing grime for years — all those bleak kitchen-sink dramas, all the umbrage the venue has prompted — but never quite like this…. Like Stevenson’s sprinting lyrics, Ola Ince’s production oozes assurance. It’s the skill with words that clings, rather than the grit.”
In a five-star review for the Evening Standard, Fiona Mountford declares, “It’s rare to come across a piece of theatre that is so gloriously and absolutely itself as this sparks-flying homage to grime music and its role in shaping the life of a bullied, dyslexic teenage girl. It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve seen all year and marks out writer/performer/lyricist/dancer Debris Stevenson as one of the brightest emerging talents around. It is, in short, the real deal.”
REGIONAL OPENINGS OF THE WEEK
Two tours of West End musicals opened this week.
*The first British tour of Kinky Boots has launched in Northampton — the home town where the show is actually set. In a review for WhatsOnStage.com, Michael Davies writes his own redundancy notice: “There are some shows which simply defy the critics and become a firm favourite when admiring audiences get behind them… Kinky Boots’ book writer, Broadway veteran Harvey Fierstein, admits in the programme that the alchemy behind a hit show is something of a mystery. I must confess, I too am a little bemused by it, at least as far as Kinky Boots is concerned. Don’t get me wrong: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this show…. And there’s something rather poignant about bringing this true(ish) story home to the town where it actually happened for the start of a nationwide tour…. But in the end, what does it matter what the critics think? There’s so much here to win over the crowd that the standing ovations will keep on coming as the show makes its year-long trip around the country.”
* Rock of Ages has also returned for a UK tour, opening in a new production at Manchester’s Opea House. In a one-star review for WhatsOnStage, Mandy Martinez pans it, asking: “Is it still ok for blokes to leer at girls’ bums when they bend over in skin-tight shorts? To stick her fingers down his crotch and rub? For him to take off her panties and give them a good sniff, or for her to stick a bottle up his backside, or for him to simulate tit groping…? This is all just nasty smut dressed up as high camp, conveyed through a nauseating prism of very loud, very noisy rock tunes.”
NEW YORK OPENING OF THE WEEK
* Roundabout Theatre Company offered the world premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet, opening September 25 at the American Airlines Theatre, with Janet McTeer returning to Broadway to star in the title role of the great actress playing Hamlet, as she famously did in 1899.
In a Critic’s Pick review for the New York Times, Jesse Green wrote, “Is it chance or synchronicity that brings Bernardt/Hamlet, a muscular comedy about a woman unbound, to Broadway at this grim transitional moment in gender politics? Either way, Theresa Rebeck’s new play is so clever it uplifts, so timely it hurts…. Bernhardt/Hamlet, directed with wit and verve by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, is a deep-inside love letter to the theater as a kind of laboratory in which experiments in both art and equality are possible.”
* Playwright and director Terry Johnson is to adapt and direct a new version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, running from November 30 prior to an official opening on December 6.
* Hamilton will have its first major cast change as it enters its second West End year. From December 3, Allyson Ava-Brown, Dom Hartley-Harris and Jon Robyns will join the cast as Angelica Schuyler, George Washington and King George III respectively, replacing Rachel John, Obioma Ugoala and Michael Jibson respectively. Original London cast member Sifiso Mazibuko will take over from Giles Terera as Aaron Burr.
* Joining the previously announced Gillian Anderson, Lilly James, Monica Dolan, Sheila Reid and Rhashan Stone in the new Ivo van Hove stage version of All About Eve is Julian Ovenden. It will begin performances February 2 at the Noel Coward Theatre, prior to an official opening on February 12. It has also been confirmed that singer-songwriter PJ Harvey will write a new score for the production.
* Further names have been added to the all-star roster of actors who are appearing in the Pinter at the Pinter season. Janie Dee and Robert Glenister will appear in Pinter Four: Moonlight/Night School, with a cast that will also include Peter Polycarpou. And John Heffernan will appear in Pinter Seven: A Slight Ache/The Dumb Waiter.
*Casting is yet to be announced for the West End premiere of Waitress. But at a press launch for the show this week, composer Sara Bareilles (who has played the title role herself on Broadway) was joined by Broadway star Gavin Creel — who originated the role of Elder Price in the West End transfer of The Book of Mormon. Could he be eyeing a London return? You can watch Bareilles and Creel performing ‘You Matter to Me’ from the show here: https://www.whatsonstage.com/london-theatre/news/waitress-sara-bareilles-gavin-creel-matter-she-used-to-be-mine_47670.html
THEATRE NEWS BEYOND LONDON
* The UK Awards, rewarding theatres and productions nationwide, are being presented on October 14. The production categories are decided by a judging panel, of which I am proud to be a part; but the awards for Most Welcoming Theatres are chosen by public vote, and the 12 regional winners have been announced. This year’s regional winners included the Mill at Sonning for the South East, which won the overall prize in 2017, Swindon’s Arts Centre for the South West, the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch for the East, Theatre by the Lake in Keswick for the North West, Belfast’s Grand Opera House for Northern Ireland and Pitlochry Festival Theatre for Scotland.
* StageCon, the UK’s first convention for theatre fans that was going to do for stagey-folk what sci-fi conventions do for those fans, has been postponed. It was originally planned to run over the weekend of November 3-4 at Shoreditch Town Hall; now, according to a press statement issued on September 28, control of the event has been passed to United Theatrical as Producer and General Manager. James Yeoburn, the UK General Manager for StageCon, commented, “All involved in the event continue to keep this community celebration at heart. We have listened to the feedback received in the weeks since launching and recognise that ticket prices and lead time have prohibited many of the most loyal fans from being able to attend. It is important that we acknowledge that feedback, and work with our industry partners to make the requisite changes to allow for greater accessibility. We are sorry to not have the chance to share the exciting programme of events and performances developed for November, but look forward to presenting this with ample notice for next year. United Theatrical are delighted to be leading the StageCon that everybody has waited for, including us!”
* Critic Matt Trueman has revealed that he is moving on from WhatsOnStage. In a column on the website, he wrote, “When I joined WhatsOnStage four years ago, I wanted to put the theatre I loved in front of as wide a readership as possible. The aim was to alert a mainstream audience to more alternative work; to tell fans of, say, Shrek: the Musical what was going on at the Gate. I hope I’ve managed that along the way, but more and more, I feel I’m seeing less and less that I love. That raises two possibilities. One is that I’ve lost my love of theatre. The other is that there’s less theatre to love.”
Another possibility is simply critical burn-out. Prior to Whatsonstage, he wrote his own blog, and he wrote, “Since starting that blog ten years ago, I’ve seen close to 3000 shows. That’s a lot, that’s the job. That changes one’s relationship to an art-form certainly, but if anything, it’s increased my love for theatre. The best shows still send me out sky high, whether they’re serotonin shot musicals or world-shaking new writing, and I’ve seen some extraordinary theatre this year: Dance Nation, The Inheritance, Notes from the Field, Buggy Baby, Gundog, Five Easy Pieces. However, over-exposure makes it more difficult to love the mediocre. Like any addict, your tolerance rises. It takes harder hits to get the same highs, and the same old stuff just isn’t doing it for me any more.”
So now he’s looking to go away and hopefully find what he’s been missing.
NEW YORK NEWS
* These boots are made for walking…..Kinky Boots (which has just opened a UK tour, see above) will close at Broadway’s Al Hirschfeld Theatre on April 7, 2019, after 2,507 regular performances and 34 previews. Director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell commented, “I’ll never forget the very first performance of this show, back in Chicago in the fall of 2012. It was one of those magical nights in the theater, when the material connects with its audiences in exactly the way you hope for. It felt like a gift from the theater gods then, and it still does to this day. In the years since, we have witnessed attitudes towards gender non-conformity start to change all across America in ways we couldn’t have begun to imagine in 2012. It’s never easy saying farewell to a beloved production, but knowing that Kinky Boots is leaving a more accepting world than the one it was born into is hugely gratifying for everyone involved.”
* Veteran Broadway publicist Merle Debuskey, who was the long-time publicist for Joseph Papp’s Public Theater from the time it was founded, has died, aged 95. In an obituary in the New York Times, Playbill publisher Philip S. Birsh commented, “He was much more than a press agent. He was something of an invisible hand in a lot of things.”
Jeffrey Horowitz, founder of the Theater for a New Audience, commented, “He was an athlete of the body and mind who could spontaneously coin compelling arguments; he had both Damon Runyon and Shakespeare in his soul.”
* Farewell, too, to Frances Edelstein (pictured centre), former matriarch of my favourite Broadway diner, Cafe Edison, which shut in 2014, and who has died, aged 92. In an obituary for the New York Times, the Holocaust survivor who emigrated to America in 1947 was quoted saying of her cafe that served Jewish cuisine, “It makes me happy when I think of all the gentiles we made Jewish.”
INTERVIEW OF THE WEEK
* Finty Williams, daughter of Judi Dench and Michael Williams, follows in her parents footsteps to star in the first West End revival of Hugh Whitemore’s Pack of Lies that they originally premiered at the West End’s Lyric Theatre in 1983.
In an interview in The Times with Andrew Billen, she speaks of the unfairness of comparisons that might be made: “A lot of people want to go, ‘She’s not as good as her mother,’ which is true, but I can also name you another 80 people who probably aren’t as good. It pisses me off being pre-judged. That pisses me off, pisses me off hugely. Just because I don’t think it’s fair. I don’t know whether, if your father is a brain surgeon, people go, ‘He’s not as good a brain surgeon as his father.’ I don’t know whether that happens, but because of who Ma is, a lot of people have an opinion, which they form before they get to know me or before they see what I can do…. If it was Grand National day, she [Dench] is up and leaping Becher’s Brook and I’m in the novice race at the beginning, and you think about all the hundreds of actors between me and her. She is jaw-dropping, but I also happen to think that Helen McCrory is jaw-droppingly brilliant. I happen to think Ruth Wilson is jaw-droppingly brilliant. Zoë Wanamaker. I don’t aspire to be any of those people. I’m me, and I’ve got the cards that I’ve been dealt.”