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Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily.

We are, astonishingly, already in December — and the panto season is even upon us already. I’m going to see MOTHER GOOSE (with Ian McKellen in the title role) in Brighton on Sunday (no, not a press night — I bought a ticket), while Hackney Empire’s version of the same title opened last night (with Clive Rowe directing as well as starring).

The London Palladium has JACK AND THE BEANSTALK coming up (opening night is December 14), with regular headliners Julian Clary, Nigel Havers, Gary Willmot and Paul Zerdin joined this year by the return of Dawn French.

There’s also an awful lot of CHRISTMAS CAROLS about — the Old Vic perennial has already opened (this year with Owen Teale as Scrooge), as has one on Broadway with Jefferson Mays (playing EVERY role from Scrooge, Bob Crachit and Tiny Tim to Fat Businessman and “Indignant Potatoes”). Next week sees the return of Simon Russell Beale in the Bridge’s version and the Queen Elizabeth Hall hosts DOLLY PARTON’S SMOKY MOUNTAIN CHRISTMAS CAROL.

Regionally, Curve In Leicester has already opened THE WIZARD OF OZ (pictured above) for its Christmas show, which it was announced this week would be this year’s summer show at the London Palladium, as well.

There are full details in my regularly updated feature on shows in London, selected regional theatres and on Broadway here:

My theatre week

I’ve had a low-key theatre week myself. But it’s not always about quantity but about quality, and I had two superb evenings in the theatre. On Monday, I attended the opening of the transfer of James Graham’s BEST OF ENEMIES to the West End’s Noel Coward Theatre, a year on from its premiere at the Young Vic — a venue that is currently also transferring its production of THE COLLABORATION to Broadway (and is about to open a new biographical musical MANDELA in the Cut).

Intriguingly, BEST OF ENEMIES also features a cameo appearance by Andy Warhol, one of the protagonists of THE COLLABORATION. But its central characters are right-wing commentator William F Buckley Jr  and the liberal multi-hyphenate Gore Vidal (played by David Harewood and Zachary Quinto, pictured below, respectively), going head-to-head in ABC Television’s debates about the 1968 party conferences preceding that year’s presidential election.

The American former VANITY FAIR star writer Kevin Sessums — now based in London — wrote a blog this week that heavily referenced Nick Curtis’s review for the Evening Standard:

“It takes a lot to shock me but there was a line in Nick Curtis’s review of Best of Enemies, which has transferred to the West End from its original production at the Young Vic, that I had to read twice when I came across it while reading his five-star rave in The Evening Standard as I was taking the Bakerloo Tube line home to Kilburn last night after seeing the production at the Noel Coward Theatre. Even though that previous sentence is affectedly British, this man who just wrote it is still affectively American – and thus can be shocked by this next sentence written by a British theatre critic. “The two protagonists are largely forgotten now,” Curtis curtly wrote. They are? Not in my life. To forget something, one has first to have experienced the knowing of it. William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal might not be known by some because of one’s youth or a yawning gap in one’s cultural knowledge. I’ll give the curt Curtis that. The editor in me, however, wanted to change that “forgotten” to “unknown” because the writer in me – and political animal of the taxonomic American genus – knows that once one had knowledge of these two knowing cultural warriors who sparred with words – and their respective but not respectful (never more appropriately described) rapier wits – then one could never forget them.”

If these television debates — if not their debaters — were unknown to me before I saw this play, I’ll never forget them now. Especially as fiercely embodied by David Harewood, reprising the role he played at the Young Vic last year, and Zachary Quinto, replacing the original Charles Edwards to make his London stage debut.  And both Graham’s play and Jeremy Herrin’s electrifyingly propulsive production contain them within a framework that is constantly gripping.

Along with THE DOCTOR — transferred from the Almeida to the Duke of York’s next door, for another week only — it proves the West End’s dependence on the subsidised Off-West End, as these are the two best plays in London right now.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (London Coliseum, to December 10)

English National Opera, as is well known by now, is currently facing an existential crisis — entirely precipitated by the sudden withdrawal of the entirely of its current funding, with an instruction that it will be partly reinstated if the company moves out of London. (Easier said than done: no regional theatres were consulted before the Arts Council issued their edict, and ENO already owns its London home, the Coliseum, pictured below).

Their production of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, about a banker facing an existential crisis of his own and drawn back from the brink of suicide after a financial crisis engulfds him, could not have been more sadly but appropriately timed.

But talking of timings, I was misled by the stated ones for its running time, which was listed in the programme and press release as “2 hours 10 minutes with an interval”. That should have said “plus” an interval, not “with” one, and with an extra ten minutes added at the front of the evening by a delayed start and a short address by the ENO chairman about their current plight, it meant I missed by last direct train back home to West Sussex, and I had to take a train to Horsham and complete my journey by cab. That cost me an extra £60.

I love ENO, but its London-centricity extends to not honouring running times so that theatregoers from outside London are actively discriminated against by circumstances like this. And not for the first time: on the first night of the company’s return to the Coliseum after its pandemic closure, the CEO also made a pre-show speech, and it meant I had to leave SATYAGRAHA before the third act. (I subsequently bought a ticket to return for the whole show later in the run).

This show, though, is well worth seeing. Based on the 1946 Frank Capra film of the same name, it is a healing piece about not stressing the little things — or even the bigger ones — but to count one’s blessings.

This ravishingly sung modern opera could become a Christmas staple for ENO  — if it survives to see another Christmas, that is. It would be horrible if it didn’t.

You are holding my hand
You were just there for me
Quietly taking a stand
Changing the end of my story for me

A new song has been added to the end of MATILDA, now adapted into a film by its original director Matthew Warchus for Netflix (but currently on cinematic release). Tim Minchin’s wonderful “Still Holding My Hand” beautifully encapsulates the show’s overriding theme about being able to change the narratives of our own lives — with a little help from our friends.

Yes, we can change the story. I’m living proof of it: I’ve done this myself in the last two years — thanks to a 12-Step trauma fellowship that has helped me to re-write the dysfunctional relationship I’ve had with a father who never could — or would — accept me. Much as Matilda herself suffers in her family of origin. But happiness IS possible.

And this film is pure joy. Emma Thompson is a glorious Miss Trunchbull — though no one will ever quite equal Bertie Carvel, who originated the role for the RSC, having her played by a woman removes the panto shadings.

There’s also wondrous work from young Alisha Weir in the title role, with Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough as her neglectful parents and Lashana Lynch as the teacher Miss Honey who changes her life (and whose life is changed by her).

See you here on Monday…

If you can’t wait that long, I may also be found on Twitter (for the moment) here: (though not as regularly on weekends)

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