Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily, in which I look back on the last seven days of theatre news and reviews (including my own).
FRIDAY AUGUST 4
The death was announced today of Michael Boyd, former artistic director of The RSC (from 2002-2012), at the age of 68, following cancer.
As the Daily Telegraph noted in their obituary of him, he “was regarded by critics as one of the great unsung heroes of British cultural life. When he took over as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company in July 2002 following the sudden resignation of his predecessor Adrian Noble, he inherited a company in near-terminal decline.”
He turned it around and re-floated a seriously listing ship. He also programmed iMATILDA, ts next cash cow after Les Miserables, and presided over the complete overhaul of its Stratford-upon-Avon home theatre, turning it from a proscenium arch theatre to a thrust stage one.
SATURDAY AUGUST 5
Today I travelled to Dublin for a visit of less than 24 hours — I landed at 11am and leave again tomorrow at 7am — but I saw two stunning Broadway shows: the penultimate performance of the 10th anniversary revival of TITANIC at the Bord Gais Theatre, and a new production of FUN HOME at the Gate. Both are musical theatre at its passionate best, which I wrote about here!
SUNDAY AUGUST 6
Yet another pan today for THE CROWN JEWELS at the Garrick comes from Susannah Clapp in The Observer, which has gone to the top of the charts as the worst reviewed of the openings of the year so far. As Susannah writes, “It manages to be at once simple-minded and confusing, skimpy and flabby – a show stuffed with stars but devoid of star quality.”
But she also makes an observant point: “Watching this made me wonder how Mike Bartlett’s play Charles III, first seen at the Almeida nine years ago, has stood the test of time. I seem to remember that Prince Harry appeared in it looking like a hunted fox…”
MONDAY AUGUST 7
Tonight I appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, as part of a panel discussing the notion “are critics dead?” This was prompted by a piece in The Guardian last week suggesting that “influencers” are being prioritised over critics in respect of coverage solicited for new film releases. And I’ve certainly witnessed the rise of bloggers and influencers on first nights for theatre openings too.
There is, of course, a case to be made, as The Stage’s Sam Marlowe does in the programme with me, for the democratisation of critical voices and not a concentration of power in a handful of (previously) mainly white middle-aged men. But in an age where everyone can now be a critic, or at least call themselves one, critical expertise and trust is being lost.
Director Suba Das is one creative who wouldn’t miss critics. In an online panel discussion held by the Young Vic in 2021, as I reported on here at the time, he dismissed critics entirely: speaking of his time as an associate at Leicester’s Curve, he said, “I spent seven years of my career at a regional theatre. And what was fascinating was that national mainstream press reviews have next to no bearing on sales.” The same was true of a production of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST that he’d directed at Bolton Octagon in 2020: he admitted to getting “absolutely terrible, terrible reviews”, but he also told of how it made absolutely no difference to his career or the success of the production.
“This has no bearing in a way on my career, which was a kind of weird watershed moment that must mean that I’ve got an established track record now, and trust and confidence in relationships with venues. And it had no bearing on sales.”
But as he has continued to fail upwards, it was announced today that, after just over a year in post as creative director at Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, he is stepping down, so he’s got his wish: we won’t be reviewing his shows there anymore.
His early departure is just the latest in a round of artistic appointments that have recently been brought to a premature end, including Gbolahan Obisesan left Brixton House in January, after two years and Bryony Shanahan and Roy Alexander Weise, who left Macnhester’s Royal Exchange where they had been joint artistic directors in April, after three years. In a column for The Stage, Amanda Parker suggests it is indicative of a sector-wide failure to invest in and support the ethnically diverse appointments that have been made.
She quotes one senior leader telling her in confidence:
“I’ve had those conversations with the big companies: I’ve worked in them. And I can tell you that we are not treated the same. Some people are allowed to learn from experience to develop their skills, but others are invited in to tick the box. You can express your artistic vision, but woe betide if you try to develop a strategic vision.” And she says of Das that he “was appointed following an intensive search by one of the sector’s leading recruitment agencies. I’m interested to know what his departure says to Arts Council England, which has welcomed the Everyman and Playhouse back into the portfolio after a period of financial difficulty – no doubt in part because of a strong, attractive, refreshed creative leadership.”
TUESDAY AUGUST 8
I can hardly wait for the UK premiere of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s 2009 Pulitzer prize winning musical NEXT TO NORMAL at the Donmar Warehouse. In fact I booked a ticket for the first preview that was supposed to take place this Saturday (August 12), but this was postponed to Monday (August 14), by which time I’ll be in Edinburgh; and when it opens officially on Tuesday August 22, I’ll be in Provincetown. But I’m going to sneak into a preview between those two trips on Saturday week, and then see it after it opens after I return from Cape Cod to formally review it.
Like Jason Robert Brown, who is an accomplished performer of his own work too, Kitt is a wonderful singer and pianist who has fronted his own band. He comes from a rock and pop tradition; as he told me in an interview here, “I had a dream of following in the footsteps of my heroes Bruce Springsteen, Elton John and Billy Joel,”
Going to the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park means always keeping an anxious eye on the skies and weather forecast, and today didn’t look promising at all as it rained all morning and into the afternoon. But by the time I left home for the park, it was dry and the forecast showed a clear evening ahead. Colleagues Tim Walker (seated next to me with his guest), Michael Billington (above right with his wife) and Neil Nornan (not in the picture) had a sociable dinner beforehand.
But it wasn’t to be. About 40 minutes into the show, it started drizzling gently, then slightly harder. A stage manager came on stage to suspend the show and tell us to go to the bar (which is undercover, at least). After a further 25 or 30 minutes, an announcement was made that after checking with the Met Office and being told that the rain would persist all evening, the rest of the performance was cancelled.
But the crowd didn’t disperse. This was the opening night after all, and the cast and company were due their first night party. Which duly went ahead. And the rain *did* stop!
Usually critics don’t hang around for after-show parties — they’re not our celebration, after all, but also we usually want to get home to write our reviews of what we’ve just seen. But as we’d not seen enough to write about it, there was no urgency to leave immediately, either.
And I was able to say hello to John Owen-Jones, who doesn’t actually appear in the show till the second act, so we had not seen onstage; as I left the park afterwards, he was heading to his car, and even gave me a lift to Baker Street station.
It was also a pleasure to meet Callum Howells, star of TV’s IT’S A SIN, with his co-star Omari Douglas from that show, the latter of whom I had taught when he was a student at ArtsEd. Callum told me how he’d been following me for years — and we had once met after a performance of SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD at the St James Theatre (now the Other Palace), and I’d commented to him about what a big star Cynthia Erivo was going to become — and how absolutely correct I’d turned out to be!
WEDNESDAY AUGUST 9
Today I did a double bill of musicals I’ve seen before: in the afternoon, I returned — for the 14th time! — to GROUNDHOG DAY at the Old Vic (and will be returning for a 15th time on Saturday), and in the evening, I revisited the revival of ASPECTS OF LOVE at the Lyric on Shaftesbury Avenue.
I’d reviewed the latter for PLAYS INTERNATIONAL when it opened in May here. It was originally due to run till November, but is now closing early (on August 19), so I was keen to catch it again. It is really beautiful — it has such a gorgeous score that is incredibly sung, particularly by Michael Ball (pictured above, who had starred in its original 1989 production as the young man and now plays the uncle George) and Laura Pitt-Pulford, and the production is stunningly designed. But it’s all in the service of a truly preposterous story! But then so many operas are like that too!
THURSDAY AUGUST 10
I recently interviewed Martin Shaw and Jenny Seagrove about a new play they are premiering at Windsor Theatre Royal that you can watch here; today I went to Windsor to see the play. There is a press night next Wednesday (August 16) and the run has been extended to August 25, so I will refrain from commenting until after it opens. But the curtain call, with Shaw and Seagrove joined by Josh Goulding, is pictured below.
My columns last week on
My ShentonSTAGE Daily column is my regular Week in Review(s) round-up of the last 7 days, with a new READ/LISTEN/WATCH feature of things I want to highlight, including an exclusive preview of a Benjamin Scheuer video from his new show @Mountain4Elodie.
My ShentonSTAGE Daily newsletter today is on going to Dublin on Saturday to see the last day of the current tour of the musical TITANIC and the Irish premiere of FUN HOME at the Gate Theatre, plus the first stunt of this year’s @EdFringe when performer Georgie Grier went from an audience of one to a full house.
On the Monday August 7 live edition of Radio 4’s FRONT ROW, debating whether the critic is dead, with fellow panellists Sam Marlowe (reviews editor of THE STAGE) and YouTube vlogger Mikey-Jo Bouchier @MickeyJoTheatre).
SHOWS AHEAD IN LONDON, SELECTED REGIONAL THEATRES AND ON BROADWAY
My regularly updated feature on shows in London, selected regional theatres and on Broadway is here: https://shentonstage.com/theatre-openings-from-w-c-august-7-2023/
See you here on Wednesday
I will be here on Wednesday, with a special edition live from the Edinburgh Fringe. If you can’t wait that long, I may also be found on Twitter (for the moment) here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/, as well as Threads and Instagram with the same handle (@ShentonStage).