ShentonSTAGE Daily for FRIDAY AUGUST 26

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Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily, at the end of a busy week that saw me begin it in Edinburgh, return home to West Sussex on Wednesday, then head to Bath yesterday, and finds me today and tomorrow in London! (So no, my theatre addiction hasn’t been entirely solved by moving to the South Coast…..)

But I’ve seen some truly wonderful shows along the way. Since last reporting from Edinburgh on Tuesday after the second of my brief three day visit there, I saw four more shows in Edinburgh — two of which were fringe highlights. And last night I caught the latest UK revival of Sondheim’s often-produced INTO THE WOODS — itself already also running in an entirely different production on Broadway, that cast a web of both sheer enchantment and unease in Bath.

MORE EDINBURGH HIGHLIGHTS 

Outside the Traverse, plays in Edinburgh featuring more than a single actor are an endangered species, so it was exciting to return to the Assembly Rooms for a play that actually featured six!

It was good, too, being back at the Assembly Rooms, the original home and anchor of what has become Assembly Theatre with multiple venues all over the city, but it is now a pale shadow of its former thriving self, with its ground floor entirely refashioned into retail space, so it has lost three spaces there that used to host shows (the Supper Room, the Edinburgh Suite and the Wildman Room); this was, with the Pleasance, the original Edinburgh multiplex venue, but now comprises just two rooms that are still used for shows.

Still, they’re amongst the most spectacular of any in Edinburgh: the Ballroom (pictured above), with its grand chandeliers neatly avoided by the extensive rigging, and the Music Hall, one of the biggest fringe venues there is.

And it was in the Ballroom that my former colleague and frenemy (turned firm friend) Tim Walker brought his clever political play BLOODY DIFFICULT WOMEN, about the legal challenge that Mrs Gina Miller brought against Theresa May that forced her to get parliamentary approval to trigger Article 50 to leave the EU. I previously reported on it when it premiered at RIverside Studios in March.Tim has relentlessly pursued the serial abuses of Boris Johnson and his cronies on Twitter, and become quite a spokesperson against the insanities of the present day; my admiration for him knows no bounds. And he has included his fierce disdain for Johnson — whom he knew as a journalistic colleague when both were on the Telegraph — in this play, as well as a gritty portrait of the revolting former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre (whom Walker also has first-hand experience of). 

The play has been neatly updated to include notes like Theresa May’s refusal to clap during the parliamentary standing ovation after Johnson was finally deposed and gave his final PMQs recently (though he refuses to leave the building, still drawing a prime minister salary but no longer doing the job).

As the play replays the disgusting ways Dacre holds our democracy and judiciary in open contempt — and the terrible influence he casts over our politicians — the play

makes significant points. But it is also brutally entertaining: who doesn’t enjoy watching a theatrical villain at work? The only shame is that these real-life villains have brought Britain to its knees. Dacre famously called the judges who ruled in favour of Mrs Miller “enemies of the people” in a famous Daily Mail front page story, but it is clear that it is he, who in fact, is.

This play has the allure of a thriller — even if we know the outcome.  The play now deserves a much longer life. But there’s a logjam in shows circling the West End’s limited stock of available theatres; I hope it finds one.

Colin Hoult’s THE DEATH OF ANNA MANN marked my sole entry into the world of stand-up that tends to dominate the fringe, but it is so fully realised theatrically speaking that it didn’t feel like a stand-up at all, as a character actress (played by Hoult, pictured above) spars and parries with her audience with lightning wit and grit, in a way that is as fully realised as Barry Humphries’s Dame Edna.

I absolutely adored this highly original show; it comes to Soho Theatre briefly in October, but is already sold out. I hope I get another chance to see it.

Finally, I also saw Jonathan Wingfield’s A DEPRESSION-CURE SHOW at Surgeon’s Hall, run by the Space on Nicolson Square, an autobiographical one-man show in which he charts with honesty and clarity some of his own family history and his attempts to overcome depression and addiction with the help of 12-step programmes.

I’ve often written about my own mental health break-throughs thanks to this work, so of course I related very powerfully to it. I also happen to know Jonathan well through the rooms — he is, in fact, my fellow traveller, and we worked through the steps in one programme together (and are continuing our work together now).

A fundamental principle of 12-Steps is preserving the anonymity of fellow members, but I am not breaching it here as both of us have been entirely honest and public about our work in the fellowships, and Jonathan has given me permission to write about it here.

And one of the many gifts that the work gives us is freedom from the past, but also freedom in the present — with the bravery to offer our unadorned selves to the world. I salute my friend and fellow traveller Jonathan for his work in doing so here. 

INTO THE WOODS (Bath Theatre Royal)

Working through the legacies of family trauma has been a big theme of my 12-step work; and I know of no musical that addresses this more keenly than Sondheim and Lapine’s 1987 show INTO THE WOODS, which features the damage created by absent fathers and overbearing mothers with devastating impact.

No wonder I find it so personally moving. I’ve seen it countless times over the years, from the Broadway premiere in 1987 and its (entirely different) West End original production in 1990, to two Broadway revivals (and one off-Broadway and another in Central Park), plus two major London revivals (at the Donmar Warehouse and in Regent’s Park, the latter of which is the one that subsequently transferred to Central Park). I’ve seen INTO THE WOODS in at least ten different productions.

Now, in Bath, co-directors Terry Gilliam and Leah Hausman (who also choreographs) have created a stunningly vivid reinterpretation, that’s visually spectacular, hilarious and moving by turns, and full of terrific performances. This musical masterpiece is re-born with freshness, tenderness and vivacity.

It is both constantly playful yet also deeply poignant, too. Jon Bausor ingeniously locates it in a Pollock’s toy theatre frame full of surprises, like a thrillingly realised giant pictured from the waist down (see below) and plenty of other good visual jokes.

The spectacular and resourceful cast invest each character with highly individualised interpretations that make a familiar show completely fresh. The Mysterious Man is played by Julian Bleach like a sinister combination of Complicite’s Simon McBurney, Robert Helpmann’s Child-catcher in CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG, and Bette Bourne.

Alex Young, playing the Baker’s Wife (above left), now officially enters the pantheon of our greatest contemporary Sondheim actresses, alongside Julia McKenzie, Imelda Staunton, Janie Dee and Joanna Riding. (And here wears a wig that makes her look a bit like another, Rosalie Craig),

Though Rashan Stone (above right) isn’t the strongest sung Baker I’ve ever heard, he has a heartbreaking sincerity as an actor that makes him one of the most moving. I also loved Sondheim veteran Gillian Bevan as Jack’s mother, Nicola Hughes as the Witch and Audrey Brisson’s Cinderella.

This is a production of courage and confidence, daring to add its own interpretative flourishes — I loved the subversive appearance of the Grim(m) Reaper — but also making a sometimes unwieldy show entirely cohesive. Act two is as brilliant, for once, as the first.

The Old Vic definitely missed out on a hit here (it was due to run there from April to July this year, but was cancelled following staff objections to Gilliam’s public support of a comedian who had been seen as anti-trans). And it has set a very unfortunate precedent for stifling artistic freedom. I’m glad that Bath have been braver; and I now hope it finds a London home, too.

SEE YOU (NEXT) TUESDAY

Have a great Bank Holiday weekend — the last before Christmas! I’ll be back here on Tuesday. If you can’t wait that long, I may also be found on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/ (though not as regularly on weekends)

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