Diary of a theatre addict: from the Tony’s to future Tony winners at ArtsEd

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addictI woke up last Saturday in Africa and today I’ve woken up in New York. In between, price visit I’ve also been back home in London, so I’ve been on three continents in the space of a week, or at any rate one huge continent and two comparatively tiny islands, namely mainland UK and Manhattan.

I no sooner landed from Johannesburg on Sunday morning than, after 12 entirely theatre-free days in Africa, I saw two shows that day (reviewing the new British musical Duncton Wood at the Union for The Stage here, and then a celebratory return of the moving 1980s memorial to those lost to AIDS, Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, back at the very West End home that it had transferred to from the King’s Head in 1993). By the end of three nights later, I had seen five more, plus a film, so I was definitely making up for lost time.

The seven shows included over-due catch-ups for the RSC’s new Death of a Salesman, that I missed both in Stratford-upon-Avon and on its London press night owing to a clash in mid-May with Communicating Doors at the Menier Chocolate Factory, and the hit transfer of Bath’s Ustinov production of The Father to the Tricycle.

salesmanBoth were well worth seeing: even if I find Antony Sher excessively mannered as Willy Loman to be truly moving, I was overwhelmed the still devotion of Harriet Walter as his wife Linda, and hugely impressed by the wonderful Alex Hassell as their older son, a notably buff Biff (pictured with Sher). The Father is another play about a father’s relationship with his adult offspring, but in this case one in which the child becomes the parent as the father slips into Alzheimer’s.

I’m often chasing my tail in this business — critical diaries are routinely too full to necessarily see everything at the appointed times — and I’m grateful for the flexibility of being able to go better late than never. In the next couple of weeks, I’ll be doing more catch-ups on shows that opened while I was in South Africa,  including the National’s Beaux Stratagem and the Donmar’s Temple, and — having missed their first nights — I’ll be catching the penultimate night for Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage at the Arcola and the last night for Peter Pan at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, as well.

There was no designated press night for The Elephant Man — as is often the habit nowadays, critics were invited to a range of performances with reviews embargoed not to appear before last Monday. The only difference, in this case, as I wrote here, is that the producers had held an invited ‘opening night’, with post-show party, the previous Tuesday, before any of the critics had even started seeing it. Critics were officially an irrelevance to the celebrations. As I wrote, “Perhaps in this kind of ‘event theatre’ if we’re not cheerleaders then we can only be party poopers.” So the producers kept our opinions away from their party by nearly a week. That’s surely a first.

I caught the show myself on Monday, after the reviews had already run that morning, and I can only say for myself that I was amazed at the two-five star reviews I’d read (Metro and the Daily Mail) before I got there. For me, Andrzej Lukowski hit the nail on the head in his two-star Time Out review,

In the likely event you’ve come purely to gawp at Cooper you’ll go home happy. But it made me uneasy: opening with a scene in which the buff star theatrically adopts Merrick’s disabilities one by one, it’s an ostentatiously full-on performance – bordering on ‘Tropic Thunder’s mythical ‘full retard’ – that draws our attention to the skill of actor, not the humanity of the man he’s playing. I can’t help wonder what the difference is between Victorians paying to be titillated by a grotesque and millennials paying to be titillated by a Hollywood actor playing a grotesque (except we’re paying more).

All I can say is thank God I wasn’t paying.

My London week also included a return visit to Miss Saigon, which critics were invited to see again on Wednesday to catch four new principals alongside three holdovers from the original line-up. But as I wrote in my review for The Stage,

It was rather unfortunate that for a press showing to welcome four new principals to the cast, two of them were off, as was a third original member who has remained with the company. But Miss Saigon is now such a well-oiled machine that it was unimpaired; and besides, it usefully proves the point that in this case it is the show that is the star, not the actors. That’s a salutary lesson about both the fallibility of human actors as well as their inevitable dispensability.

One of the missing newcomers contacted me on Twitter to explain that she was undergoing surgery the next day. These things can’t of course be planned, but it was odd that a press night designed specifically to see them went ahead.

At least with films you don’t have the problem of understudies. You may inevitably have replacements when a play or musical moves from the stage to the big screen; but the joy oflondon-road London Road, one of my Top Ten Favourite Musicals in my final run-down to my feature of Fifty of them for The Stage, is that the entire original cast are there, including stunning turns from Nick Holder, Michael Shaeffer and Clare Burt, as well as terrific replacement cast member Linzi Hateley (who took over from Rosalie Craig in the show’s transfer to the Olivier, though Craig did return for the film in another role), as well as featured newcomers Tom Hardy and Olivia Colman. Instead of a playing multiple characters, the cast only play one each, which makes the show feel less like a sketch-show, more of a through-narrative to open it up in interesting new directions.

Then I headed to New York for a bracing three night Tony Awards weekend: this is the culmination of the year’s season and a public celebration (and advertisement) for it. There are parties everywhere on the night, of course, though I’ll already be on a plane back to London by then, as I’m teaching future Olivier and Tony winners (I hope) again at ArtsEd on Monday afternoon. But I’ve already been to one Tony celebration — the now annual Tony Trivia Night, late last night at 54 Below, hosted by Twitter’s @BroadwayGirlNYC, and this afternoon I’m going to the annual Tony party for West End, Broadway and Australia marketing agency AKA.

I’m also having a party of my own revisiting a couple of shows that I’ve particularly loved this season, but I fear may not be much longer for this world if they don’t win tomorrow: on-the-townOn the Town, easily my favourite revival of the year (though it will probably lose to The King and I), and The Visit (my favourite of the nominated new musicals, though my actual favourite was The Last Ship and was not nominated), the latter of which stars my leading actress in a musical Chita Rivera (though again she’s probably going to lose to Kristen Chenoweth for On the Twentieth Century, who would also be a worthy winner).

See you back in London from Monday, when this particular addict teaches at ArtsEd in the afternoon, then heads to Jerwood Space to hold a public interview with Claude-Michel Schonberg, then goes to the first night of the new British play with music Teddy at Southwark Playhouse — a show for which I wrote a programme note!
addictI’ve been cramming the diary even fuller than usual, doctor if that’s possible, over the last week, even allowing for the fact that I actually allowed myself a day off yesterday (imagine!), paying a social trip to have lunch with friends in Bath — and even resisting the temptation to see The Mother at the Ustinov studio, even though it had both a matinee and an evening performance I could have popped into see.

So perhaps I’m slowing down a bit. But it certainly didn’t feel like it last Monday, when I landed from New York at 7.30am and wrote up a column published on The Stage website that day on the results of this year’s Tony Awards before I even left the airport. I had got myself upgraded (using mileage, I hasten to add) to Virgin Upper Class for my return leg, only so that I could use the Virgin Revivals lounge on arrival (but no, they paying tribute to the previous night’s Tony winner The King and I, despite its name).

And then I headed directly to Osterley, home of Sky News, to do a live TV interview on this year’s Tony results, and particularly the great run of British wins for shows that included the National’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Best Play, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Scenic Design, Best Lighting), The Audience (Best Actress, Best Featured Actor), Skylight (Best Play Revival) and Wolf Hall (best costumes).

From Osterley it was direct to ArtsEd in Chiswick (both of them handily on a direct route from Heathrow) for my weekly triplicate teaching sessions with the first year Musical Theatre students, for whom this week’s class for the first two groups was devoted to the musicals of Boublil and Schönberg. Claude-Michel-SchonbergThe third group, however, got an extra bonus: they came with me to Southwark for an interview I was conducting with Claude-Michel Schönberg himself (pictured left) at Jerwood Space, at the end of a day laid on by Mercury Musical Developments for its aspiring musical writers to work with the master himself.  He was quietly inspirational about sticking to your guns in trying to write musicals of your dreams, and also revealingly honest about the ‘borrowings’ that musicians typically make from each other and openly acknowledged the ones he’d made in Miss Saigon.

My day wasn’t done yet — from Jerwood I finally made it home to drop off my travel bag and then head to Southwark Playhouse for the first night of Teddy, which I was reviewing for The Stage here. Fortunately, just as Osterley and ArtsEd were in a direct route from Heathrow, so Jerwood Space and Southwark Playhouse are neatly positioned about equidistant from my home in a five minute walk either direction, so at least I didn’t have far to go!

I spent a lot of time at ArtsEd this week — as well as my Monday teaching session, I also teach there on Thursday, this time to the first year acting students, and for this week’s session I brought in young playwright Diana Atuona to talk to them. They had all seen her debut play Liberian Girl at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs, mainly because one of the third year ArtsEd acting students had been in it — Juma Sharkah, who was subsequently shortlisted for an Olivier Award in the ‘Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre’ category.

And on Friday I was back at ArtsEd to see the final show of the 3rd year Musical Theatre students, Defect — the world premiere of a show, developed by new musical organisation Perfect Pitch, by Craig Adams and Clare Prenton, that brilliantly saw them engaging and wrestling with an atmospherically weird ‘West Side Story’ like story of love across a divide of genetic mutations.

I have watched this year’s 3rd years — some 32 of whom were represented here — grow across their time there, and it been amazing to watch many of them already migrating into the profession for real. I’ve already seen some of them in Carrie at Southwark Playhouse and Sweeney Todd at The London Coliseum. Some more of those missing from the line-up here are already in Mamma Mia!, Les Miserables and High Society in the West End; another is in A Damsel in Distress in Distress at Chichester; others are now in the tours of Love Me Tender and Shrek.

This is an incredible track record for one school’s graduating class, and although I’m obviously not unbiased here, there were no defects, at least from the training and performance point of view, in Defect.

Sam-ORourkeSam O’Rourke (left), who played the lead in Defect at the performance I saw, is already lined up for two jobs: a lead in the Open Air Regent’s Park production of 7 Brides for 7 Brothers, then a tour of the new musical The Smallest Show on Earth, featuring an Irving Berlin score. I last saw him in the lead of the ArtsEd production of Crazy for You, when he proved his worth as an outstanding comic actor, singer and dancer: a true triple threat. He’s going places, and fast.

This week also saw me at Chichester for the opening of A Damsel in Distress (whose cast contained another graduating ArtsEd third year Mairi Barclay), the latest ‘new’ Gershwin musical following in the footsteps (not to mention dance steps) of My One and Only, the aforementioned Crazy for You, Nice Work if You Can Get it, and the current Broadway hit An American in Paris. The Gershwins’ wrote great songs — some of the greatest, in fact, in the history of Broadway — but few of their shows, outside of Porgy and Bess, are truly revivable. The fashion for making ‘revisals’ out of old properties is a brilliant way of making their songs theatrically viable again, and A Damsel in Distress is another expertly joyful, irresistibly silly addition to the repertoire. I reviewed it for The Stage here.

The Chichester opening clashed with the London premiere of Patrick Marber’s latest The Red Lion at the National, so I didn’t catch that till Thursday night (and reviewed it here). I was also out of synch with Waiting for Godot, briefly imported to the Barbican from Sydney Theatre Company, which opened last Friday when I was in New York so I caught up with on Tuesday and which again I had a personal investment in — Pozzo was being played by my good friend Philip Quast, and it was great to have him back on the London stage, for the second time this year (he was also Judge Turpin in the ENO Sweeney Todd), since his return to his native Australia three years ago.

I’m continuing to play catch-up today, with a double bill later of the National’s The Beaux Stratagem this afternoon and the Open Air Theatre’s Peter Pan tonight — as I couldn’t make the first night of the latter, I’m making the last night instead! Truly a case of better late than never. But I’m checking the weather forecasts hourly as a result…..