August 20:Friday diary: Theatrical returns for Oleanna and Jersey Boys

Mark ShentonInclude in homepage slide?, Thought of the day1 Comment

Plus: online trolls on

Nearly 30 years on from its 1992 premiere, David Mamet’s bruising, scorching two-hander play Oleanna still proves uncommonly prescient on cancellation culture and grievance in the academic world. It follows a young female student who confronts her male professor with an accusation that leads directly to his being denied tenure (and with it, also jeopardises the property he is buying for his wife and family on the strength of the anticipation of his imminent promotion).

As revived now in a production that has transferred from Bath’s Theatre Royal to the Arts Theatre that is performed with ferocious focus and a total lack of sentimentality by Jonathan Slinger and Rosie Sheehy, its power is undimmed; if anything, it is amplified now by the fact that these wars are being waged seemingly daily on Twitter nowadays. (Twitter didn’t exist when the play first opened). And we’ve all been consumed by them in one way or another.

As raw and revealing as it was when it received its British premiere at the Royal Court in 1993, when Harold Pinter, no less, directed a phenomenal David Suchet and Lia Williams in it (pictured above), it still leaves me reeling — even though I know the outcome.

While the indescribably grubby Arts Theatre now takes the crown for London’s least appealing mainstream venue, I would still wholeheartedly recommend it; some shows are worth seeing anywhere.

But as a side note, it is also incredibly depressing that Mamet — once such a brilliant provocateur and wordsmith — has drifted inexorably to the right (in 2020, he even called Donald Trump “a great President”), and with it, seems to have taken his talent with it, which has led to such Broadway misfires as The Anarchist (2012, where it ran for 17 performances) and the West End fiasco of Bitter Wheat (2019); the latter was a thinly-disguised portrait of a Harvey Weinstein-like film producer’s fall from grace, and in my review at the time, I wrote,

“Distasteful and misjudged don’t begin to describe it. If, as Oscar Wilde once wrote, there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about, then Bitter Wheat would be an instant winner – but talking about it could prove to be a lot more interesting and provocative than the stupefyingly silly and frequently offensive black ‘comedy’ that has been served up here under the author’s own lethargic direction.”  

Jersey Boys returns — and restores the Trafalgar Theatre to glory, too
Another returning show is Jersey Boys, the bio-musical that tells the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and as such has one of the best catalogues of any pop jukebox show.

While it’s disappointing that the recent reopening of The Phantom of the Opera downgraded the impact of the show by reducing its original orchestra from 27 players to 14 and also removed some of Maria Bjornson’s original epic design features, this downsized version of director Des McAnuff’s original Broadway production actually enhances it.

Its industrial framework of a set is now more human-scaled for the intimate and incisive retelling of this group’s personal journeys, and the swift, sensational pace of a production that showcases over 30 pop tracks is thrillingly performed by a youthful cast, led by yet-to-graduate Mountview alumni Ben Joyce as Frankie Valli.

This is an amazing time for new drama school graduates making their mark in the West End: the night before, I saw Ivano Turco, who graduated last summer from Urdang Academy, make his West End debut in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella in the lead role of Prince Sebastian. And at the London Palladium, of course, Jac Yarrow is reprising the title role in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat that he debuted at the same theatre in 2019, ahead of his own graduation from ArtsEd.

But this is also an amazing time for beloved theatres to be given a new lease of life: after the dire misstep that saw the Whitehall Theatre ‘transformed’ into the two theatre disaster that was Trafalgar Studios with the most notoriously uncomfortable seating of any London theatre, the original theatre configuration has been reinstated and the theatre’s original art deco features dazzlingly restored. And the new seating — although the colour scheme is a bit District Line — is amongst the most comfortable of any theatre in London now.

And a week today, previews begin for Frozen at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane — which Andrew Lloyd Webber has lovingly restored to the tune of some £60m. I can’t wait to visit.

Is Theatreboard is full of the theatre bored?
Twitter is bad enough for my mental health at times; but that’s as nothing compared to visiting the hotbed of gossip and grievance that is, a fan chat board once managed by WhatsOnStage but now independent of it.

I recently stumbled upon two threads, and although there’s no point arguing with stupid, as I know from my experience of Twitter, there’s nothing more annoying that being falsely accused on the facts.

In one thread on Carousel at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, someone called dievl says:

I had not even reviewed Cinderella at the point this comment was posted (on August 10), and did not give Hairspray or Joseph a five-star rating — so the correspondent is 50% wrong – but also 100% wrong of my intentions.

And in another thread about Cinderella, “Dr Tom” (senior member) says:

I had actually BOUGHT I had BOUGHT an allocated ticket to the final Sunday matinee of Cinderella before it shut down – a performance that started 40 minutes late, because they were rehearsing the understudy in. So I DID NOT take a seat from anyone in the queue. It’s true I bypassed the queue, but only because I am currently on a walking stick, so the management didn’t make me queue unnecessarily – not because I’m me, but because I’m currently disabled.

Dr Tom may, of course, be referring to another occasion when he thinks he saw me ‘jumping the queue’ — but he posted it in the Cinderella thread, so I assume he’s referring to it.

On the other hand, I was in London yesterday — and three separate twitter followers who I didn’t know approached me unbidden in public to tell me how much they admired my website and columns. Admittedly, two of them were outside the Theatre Cafe, where you might expect theatre fans to congregate; but the first was randomly in the shadow of Centrepoint. It was very gratifying to hear these unbidden expressions of appreciation; so often nowadays people are only too fast to criticise, but slow to appreciate. I am very grateful to each of these people, and all of you for being here and reading these words.