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).
First of all, apologies for the late afternoon appearance of this column today — usually I publish first thing in the morning, but I was in London overnight last night and the draft I’d saved of this vanished from my phone, so I had to wait till I got home to West Sussex before I could re-post it from my laptop.
Today I’m adding a new feature to this weekly round-up, a read/listen/watch section directing you to things I’ve written or participated in across the week, or those of others that I’ve particularly enjoyed.
FRIDAY JULY 28
Kevin Spacey was acquitted on Wednesday (July 26) on 19 charges of sexual assaults against four men that had been alleged to have been committed between 2004 and 2013.
But though he has walked away from a four week trial at Southwark Crown Court a free man, a question remains an around whether his career and reputation can be publicly rehabilitated.
In a piece in The Guardian, long-time London PR guru Mark Borkowski thought it wouldn’t be easy, stating,
“I think it’s highly unlikely that a big franchise will come knocking on Kevin Spacey’s door while this level of negative publicity hangs around him. I don’t believe the likes of Disney or the big US studios will take that kind of risk. However, when you look at Johnny Depp, he has managed to find some very interesting, independent projects [since facing domestic abuse allegations]. The world is a very big place with many different attitudes and values. We’ve seen many people who’ve been accused of things, or thrust into cancel culture, finding a career path – despite the noise on social media…. As a Hollywood star, Kevin Spacey will want retribution, to ignore what’s happened and move forward with his old job, to seek the adoration he once had. But what he wants may be very different from the actual opportunities he’s offered.”
SATURDAY JULY 29
I’m used to the (slightly rarefied) energy of a First night, when a show officially meets those who’ve been summoned to stand in judgement over them, namely the collective force of the critics, of whom I was part of for many years, as well as supportive friends and family who sit by them to try to whip up some enthusiasm.
Nowadays, there are as many, if not more, “influencers” alongside the critics, there to promote the shows via their social media channels, and generally — though not necessarily — bringing an (over)eager (and sometimes manufactured) enthusiasm of their own, because the hospitality they’re receiving is part of their reward, and too much negativity (or honesty) may curtail those g(r)ifting channels.
In a feature for The Guardian, film critic Manuela Lazic wrote about how this is happening across the film industry too, where, as the subheading put it, “a shift from knowledgeable writers to those simply in search of free tickets devalues cinema – and audience experience.”
As Lazic points out, “If all discussion of a film’s merits before release is left to influencers, whose driving ambition is to receive free merchandise by speaking well of the studio’s products, what can we expect the film landscape to look like? Where will engaging, challenging and, if not completely unbiased then at least impartial conversation about cinema take place, and how is the audience to think critically of what is being sold to it?”
So who needs critics anymore, now that influencers get better priority? The industry — whether film or theatre — clearly wants outlets they can control. And critics are far too independent and more likely to go rogue from the message the PRs want to see distributed.
Sometimes I therefore like to operate outside of the existing system, and reassert my own independence and personal enthusiasms. So instead of waiting for the first night, I occasionally like to go to the first preview. These performances — where a show meets its audience for the first time — are potentially more interesting and far more democratic events. For a start, they’re not invitation only; anyone can buy a ticket. And as they’re not being reviewed, there isn’t the same tension in the air.
Tonight a friend invited me as their guest to the first preview of the new summer production of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES at the Open Air Theatre, and although I’m returning on Tuesday (August 8) to formally review it, I was able to simply sit back and enjoy it, with no notebook ready by my side.
I will reserve my appraisal till then, but Jerry Herman & Harvey Fierstein’s 1983 Broadway musical retains its wonderful life-affirming lustre, and is more necessary than ever. At a time when the culture war warriors of the American right (and in the UK too) are determined to fuel and foster division on gay and trans rights, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES dared, 40 years ago, to suggest there are different models for families. It was fierce and bold for its time, and sadly, remains so today.
SUNDAY JULY 30
I spent part of the last two days at a recovery programme convention in London for one of the two twelve-step fellowships I belong to. (My other one has a convention I’ll also be going to in October in Salisbury). It’s a wonderfully intense way to re-connect with the work, and share the ways it has changed my life
Yesterday I did a chair (an extended share) on sustaining a marriage in recovery; today I did another on resentments, which form the biggest part of a step four inventory, as you reflect on harms and wrongs you’ve wittingly or unwittingly perpetrated. Sadly, I know too much about holding onto those, but am working on it now! As someone said today, “Holding onto resentments is like swallowing the poison and expecting the other person to die.”
And on Twitter today, I saw these wise and pertinent words, too: “Addiction is giving up everything for one thing. Recovery is giving up one thing for everything”
MONDAY JULY 31
Tonight I saw the opening of a new stage version of the 70s TV series ROCK FOLLIES at Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva, adapted by Chloë Moss from the original series scripted by Howard Schuman that featured songs by Schuman and Andy Mackay.
As revisited now with a lot of period charm, it feels a bit like an English version of DREAMGIRLS (with less energised songs) as it charts the rise and disintegration of an all-female singing trio, splendidly played here by Zizi Strallen, Carly Bawden, Angela Marie Hurst and Zizi Srallen in the roles originated on TV by Rula Lenska(who was in attendance at the Minerva tonight, sitting with Schuman, pictured below together when they took a bow at the curtain calls), the late Charlotte Cornwell and Julie Covington respectively.
The first six-part TV series aired in 1976, just five years after Broadway’s FOLLIES, and this production is directed by Dominic Cooke, who also directed the last London revival of the Sondheim/Goldman musical at the National Theatre in 2018. This one isn’t quite in the same league, and suffers, particularly in the first act before we are fully invested in the characters, from feeling a little too episodic. The songs, too, don’t exactly take the roof off the theatre. But it has a gathering strength, and by the end I was moved by its accumulating grit.
TUESDAY AUGUST 1
In 2006, I attended the world premiere of a stage musical adaptation of THE LORD OF THE RINGS before it came to the West End’s Theatre Royal, Durry Lane the next year. It ended up a costly failure; when it closed less than a year after opening, I wrote a column for The Guardian, in which I stated, “This could spell the end of the age of the musical behemoth. Theatre audiences can be equally content with the more modest virtues of good stories that are well told.”
Tonight an altogether more modest version of the same show (pictured above) proved that I was right, with the opening of a neatly domesticated revival on the far smaller stage of Newbury’s Watermill Theatre, with a prologue and epilogue set in the theatre’s delightful gardens.
This small but mighty theatre recently lost all of their Arts Council England funding, but artistic director Paul Hart has seized this fact as a challenge to present what might just be the most theatrically ambitious and physically spectacular production ever staged there; the sheer stagecraft is a wonder to behold. The storytelling is still a bit portentous, but the musical numbers soar; and there are some agile and engaging actors.
WEDNESDAY AUGUST 2
“I’m here, and I’m fine, and I’m seeing you for the 13th time”, to paraphrase one of the most powerful songs in GROUNDHOG DAY that I saw yet again this afternoon in its return run at the Old Vic. Tim Minchin and Danny Rubin’s ecstasy-inducing musical is about learning to come out of depression, let go of the past and create a new future. I cry every time — and today was no exception!
It’s a show that speaks to me so personally and so profoundly, as I wrote in my review for PLAYS INTERNATIONAL here.
And I’ll be back next week twice more — for the Wednesday matinee and Saturday evening, making it 14th and 15th times in all! I am living my own version of Groundhog Day seeing it.
THURSDAY AUGUST 3
We’ve got a bunch of Broadway shows currently populating West End theatres, with some more yet to arrive, including MJ to the Prince Edward next year, after the early closure of another one, AIN’T TOO PROUD, vacates the theatre next month (on September 17).
But tonight a 2017 Broadway misfire THE SPONGEBOB MUSICAL came to the South Bank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, and proved to be an eccentrically bonkers, seriously trippy delight, full of energised songs with Lewis Cornay leading the cast in the title role with endearing charm. It might help to be stoned while watching it — I had a marijuana vape in my bag, but it’s to mediate my back pain, not show pain, so I’d not used it, alas!
NEW FEATURE: READ/LISTEN/WATCH
In this new weekly feature, I will highlight some of my own journalism as well as that of others from time to time.
My most recent ShentonSTAGE columns:
- FRIDAY JULY 28:
- MONDAY JULY 31
- I’m a guest on the latest episode of THE LAST SHOW ON EARTH, a podcast series hosted by musical theatre stars John Owen-Jones and Alistair Brammer:
You can listen here: https://shows.acast.com/the-last-show-on-earth/episodes/mark-shenton
- My interview with Jenny Seagrove and Martin Shaw, about the play ALONE TOGETHER, My at Theatre Royal Windsor from August 7-19.
WATCH IT HERE:
- BENJAMIN SCHEUER begins an Edinburgh fringe run of his new solo autobiographical musical A MOUNTAIN FOR ELODIE tonight at the Gilded Balloon. I’ve already written here about the preview performance I saw last week at the Phoenix Arts Club in London last week. Here is an exclusive preview of his music video of one of the songs in it, “I Think Your Mother Is Sexy”.
WATCH IT HERE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wceZlSFN3A4.
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-july-31-2023/
See you here on Monday
I will be here on Monday. 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).