July 16: A day of encore pleasures

Mark ShentonInclude in homepage slide?, Thought of the dayLeave a Comment

plus the Critics Circle honour Michael Frayn, and the lack of disabled access at the Vaudeville Theatre

Regular readers will know that I like nothing more than seeing shows I’ve already seen and loved again…. and again. As a critic, you see shows under specific circumstances — as invited by the production (unless you’re the Telegraph and misrepresent why you want to see a first preview, that is, then review it even though you said you weren’t going to, as happened with the McKellen Hamlet at its first performance nearly a month ago, and which the rest of us will officially be seeing this coming Tuesday; our reviews will, however, be delayed until Wednesday evening, so as not to clash with those for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella, which jumped on the McKellen date even though the latter was set ahead of Cinderella’s twice-changed review date).

On those first nights, or press previews, we are invariably seated amongst other critics, or (highly) partisan audiences, made up of agents, investors and other friends who are there to cheer on the show.  So it can be a more realistic experience to go on non-press performance, and see a show amongst more regular patrons.

As I was in London on Wednesday to attend a Critics’ Circle lunch in honour of Michael Frayn, as he was presented with the 2020 Award for Services to the Arts (see below), I used the opportunity to treat myself to a matinee return visit to Pippin at Charing Cross Theatre that I’ve already reviewed here, and then an evening return visit to Starting Here, Starting Now (at Waterloo East Theatre that I’ve also already reviewed here.

Both shows are an indelible part of my early teenage theatre going experiences, in my native South Africa where I saw local productions of them in Johannesburg before I was sixteen. And I’ve loved them both ever since, even as each has grown in resonance and relevance to me that I never could have appreciated then.

Pippin is a musical that centres around a young man (played by Ryan Anderson, pictured above) facing an existential crisis about how to bring meaning and purpose to his life, as he suffers an ongoing depression, and voices in his head urge him to commit suicide; I couldn’t have known it watching the show as a young teenager, before depression became a regular companion for me, just how much I would identify with Pippin’s plight.

But just as Pippin finds eventual comfort and release from his demons by learning to live in the present and appreciate simpler joys, I feel I have finally achieved a similar sort of recovery. Enjoying this show again in the present  was for me an example of seizing a pleasure I knew I was going to have.

And Starting Here, Starting Now is a plotless revue of songs about romantic yearning, disappointment and yes, learning to live for today, that has a particularly effortless Manhattan sophistication both in its elegant Richard Maltby Jr lyrics and David Shire’s memorably tuneful accompanying melodies.

As performed by a wonderful company of three experienced and mature performers, last night’s performance was enriched by a particularly enthusiastic audience. It turned out that at least half of the socially-distanced house were from the family of one of them Gina Murray (pictured above left, with Noel Sullivan, centre, and Nikki Bentley, right, photographed by Gareth McCleod), including her younger sister (by a year) Mazz, herself recently an astonishing Norma Desmond in a concert performance at Alexandra Palace Theatre last month.

Celebrating Michael Frayn….
On Tuesday afternoon members of the Critics’ Circle gathered to honour the recipient of its 2020 Award for Services to the Arts, an annual event in which each section puts forward their own nomination and then the entire membership votes on who should receive it. During my tenure on the council of the Critics’ Circle, first as drama section chair, then as President, I’ve been part of six of the last 11 years of lunches, honouring Alan Ayckbourn (2009), Stephen Sondheim (2011), Nick Hytner (2014), Maggie Smith (2015) and Carlos Acosta (2018), plus — in the circle’s centenary year when each section gave its own award — to director Max Stafford-Clark (2012).

This year’s winner Michael Frayn was put forward by the literature section, not the drama one, but Michael Billington, a former Critics’ Circle President himself who has been writing about (and at an early point alongside) Frayn — who had started out as a journalist for the Manchester Guardian — for nearly sixty years, was given a chance at the lunch to (ap)praise his playwrighting career, and he pointed out how “richly diverse” his output has been. He then asked — and answered — his own question:

“Is he, to use that famous distinction explored by Isaiah Berlin, a fox who knows many things, or a hedgehog who knows one big thing? Michael Frayn certainly knows many things but I’d list him with the hedgehogs in that virtually all his drama, even a spiralling farce like Noises Off, not only has an overt theatricality but is a way of exploring a philosophical conundrum. No one has defined that better than Michael Frayn himself: far more acutely, in fact, than any critic. In the Introduction to one of the Collected Editions of his work, he writes that all the plays included are about “the way in which we impose our ideas upon the world around us.”

In the marvellous Alphabetical Order, set in a newspaper cuttings library in the pre- digital age, it is about classification. In Clouds, about a journalistic trip to Cuba, it is about our subjective response to the unfamiliar. In Donkeys Years we see a group of middle-aged men going back to a college re-union and trying to impose the memory of their younger selves on the reality of the present….. Everything he writes is about what he once called the central puzzle of life: that the world plainly exists independently of us and yet equally exists only through our consciousness of it. Michael Frayn has written an amazing body of work, has made the theatre a brighter, livelier more inquisitive place and I can’t think of anyone more deserving of a Lifetime Achievement Award.”

Six finds its third West End home…. but not everyone is happy
I was personally massively relieved when Six left its original home of the Arts Theatre — easily the worst venue in the West End now that the Trafalgar Studios is no more but has been restored to its long-hidden art deco splendour — to re-open at the Lyric on Shaftesbury Avenue; of course that theatre is booked for the West End debut of Get Up, Stand Up! from October 1, but on Wednesday it was announced that Nimax have offered it a new “forever-home” at the Vaudeville (pictured below, with its current tenant Constellations).

While it may be noted that in the process yet another theatre that usually houses plays has been turned over, for the foreseeable future, to a musical, thus reducing the available stock of playhouses, there was — for some of Six’s devoted army of followers — a fly in the ointment, namely the Vaudeville’s famous lack of facilities for disabled patrons. They are required to visit the nearby Strand Palace hotel or the adjoining Adelphi Theatre to find accessible toilets.

Yesterday Nica Burns, chief executive of Nimax Theatres, issued a statement explaining the challenges the theatre faces, from its “tiny” front-of-house footprint for which they “simply don’t have the room” to install an accessible loo, to the six steps to the stalls that make access to the auditorium difficult, but for which a stair lift has proved impossible to install owing to fire regulations.

She promises,

“In the meantime, we will continue working on the Vaudeville challenges, checking new technology as it comes on stream and doing the best we can. The Vaudeville is a little gem of a playhouse and we’ve presented hundreds of brilliant shows to our audiences and welcomed many disabled customers. Let’s be very clear, we do care. We do think about you. We respect you. From the bottom of my heart I wish we had better facilities for you. In the meantime, we will do our best to accommodate all of our customers’ needs and give you a very warm welcome.”

The Vaudeville is indeed a glorious jewel of a West End theatre where I’ve spent many, many happy afternoons and evenings. But in 2021 it is no longer good enough that it is not possible for EVERYONE to enjoy a hassle-free visit there. So a solution must be found, and perhaps a reorganisation of some of the physical space needs to occur. The stalls level foyer may indeed have a tiny footprint, but the box office and an adjoining small bar area could be relocated (or the latter entirely taken away) to find more room for that loo. And there’s step-free access to the dress circle from the alleyway that runs alongside the Vaudeville connecting the Strand with Maiden Lane behind it; perhaps the stage left box could be converted into a toilet, with seating for disabled patrons made available in the front row of the circle?