Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily, in which I look back on last week’s news and reviews (including my own).
SATURDAY JANUARY 7
Soho Theatre has increasingly pivoted to cabaret theatre over the last decade. Their post Christmas cracker of show A NIGHT AT THE MUSICALS has two of London’s most individual and subversive drag talents Le Gateau Chocolat and Jonny Woo offering a lightning (it not entirely enlightening) journey through some of their favourite musicals, from CHICAGO’s “All That Jazz” and “Memory” from CATS to “Some People” from GYPSY and “Part of Your World” from LITTLE MERMAID; the choices are hardly radical, but the interpretations frequently are.
As, of course, are the costumes, including the total absence of one: Jonny Woo ends one song (almost) completely starkers, which isn’t just rampant exhibitionism on their part, but also more revealing, in every sense, than just about body positivity.
The definition of “musicals” is stretched to a few pop entries, which — given that songs like MacArthur’s Park heard here have turned up in shows like PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT — is fine. I did, however, long for an “easter Egg” — a song that only true aficionados would recognise, instead of more obvious replays from THE SOUND OF MUSIC and THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW.
Still, there’s always next time: I reckon this could be a solid alternative to panto.
SUNDAY JANUARY 8
This weekend saw final performances for two West End long-runners: on Saturday, COME FROM AWAY left the Phoenix, and today MARY POPPINS made her final flight at the Prince Edward.
Both are genuinely HEALING musicals: MARY POPPINS tells how a damaged family can be repaired, from the inside, by a Higher Power (in this case, a nanny wit(h supernatural skills); and COME FROM AWAY, which shines an incredible light on the darkness that was 9/11, and how human kindness was able to triumph amongst people inadvertently caught up in it when their flights were diverted to a small town in Newfoundland.
MONDAY JANUARY 9
My column today takes another look at this year’s THE STAGE 100 list, published last Thursday, and wonders aloud whether it is time to retire this divisive listing of theatre’s (allegedly) most influential figures; what’s the point when genuinely influential figures like Bill Kenwright and David Pugh are excluded, but peddlers of fringe tat like Chris Clegg are included?
But it underlines a deeper crisis in what passes for arts journalism today. The Stage’s list is DESIGNED to ignite controversy. As a supposed champion of the theatre industry upon whose health its entire existence is predicated, it is undermining both the industry and itself.
Yet at the same time, columnist Kate Maltby today made a valuable point in a feature on the changing role of press nights, also in THE STAGE. As she writes, “The truth is that London opening nights have been going the way of Broadway for some time. Big West End shows feature a buzz of celebrities and influencers on the red carpet – gushing ‘reviews’ posted before the second act. What’s difficult for critics is that, increasingly, we’re treated like a nasty fly in the ointment, an inconvenient obstacle to the true purpose of the evening – which is to choreograph a unanimous standing ovation.”
She tells two stories of recent press nights she attended: at one, she was chastised for failing to join the standing ovation, with the couple behind her telling her she had “ruined the night for everyone” by being “the only people in the room too nasty to stand up”. At another, she and her guest were berated for leaving too hastily after the end of the show, and accused of undermining the evening by failing to show proper appreciation.
I’ve been publicly challenged frequently on twitter myself, most recently by producer Piers Cottee-Jones, for not being sufficiently in awe of the shows he’s involved in, or his co-producer colleagues who’ve put them on. They want nothing but unconditional love. I can only suggest that it’s the wrong business to be in, in that case.
TUESDAY JANUARY 10
The Young Vic’s fraught Christmas run of the musical MANDELA has stumbled from cancelled shows to (currently) a series of concert performances only. They belatedly added three swings to the company, who’ve had to hastily learn a number of tracks before going on.
They’ve publicly referred to “unprecedented illness”, but after the experience of COVID, surely there’s nothing unprecedented about this at all. I have made three separate attempts to see it, each of which have been cancelled; last week a user of Theatreboard.co.uk posted about attending a performance that got cancelled in the interval. (When I quoted this post in full, without attribution as the users of the site go by handles instead of their full names, one of the site’s administrators posted that I was wrong not to give them credit; but it’s an interesting concept trying to credit someone whose identity is unknown. It was also suggested that I should have requested that person’s ‘permission’; it’s a public site, though, so surely it is fair to quote them publicly. It’s no more than they are already doing themselves!)
I made one more request to try to see it tomorrow (January 11), but the theatre didn’t reply — I ended up making other plans instead. Illnesses happen; but the theatre have badly mismanaged their response to it, choosing not to communicate what is happening. This is no way to run a publicly-funded theatre.
I also found myself unexpectedly free tonight as well, having misunderstood an invitation to revisit SIX in the West End; my error entirely, and the producers did offer to help, but by then I’d also made other plans to go revisit JACK AND THE BEANSTALK at the London Palladium before it closes on Saturday.
That was a treat to myself, so I was glad to have made the mistake on SIX (which I can see anytime). This is so utterly joyous and quite the most spectacular show in London. And Julian Clary is a true Palladium superstar: one of the outright funniest, filthiest and most fabulous stars we have, as spangly as Liberace but far funnier.
The childhood delight of panto is mixed with abrasive adult humour in perfect balance. But this isn’t a one-man show, either: the usual repertory company that includes Gary Wilmot, Paul Zerdin and of course Nigel Havers also has returning superstar Dawn French, powerhouse vocalist Alexandra Burke and delightful newcomer Rob Madge amongst its ranks.
WEDNESDAY JANUARY 11
Someone sent me a private message on Twitter the other day: “Apologies. I went to see Hex thinking your review must be wrong. It wasn’t.”
I’m sorry, in fact, to read it. I don’t, as a matter of fact, think I’m necessarily right — and am more than happy for readers to feel differently to me. I don’t want ANYONE to have a bad night at the theatre, if they can help it. I also do think people should be free to make up their own minds; though one of the points of critics to my mind is to see shows so that others don’t necessarily have to.
When I missed the chance to try to revisit MANDELA at the matinee today — though I’m told the full production has now, in fact, resumed — I booked a ticket to instead see April de Angelis’s KERRY JACKSON at the National, hoping that the mostly negative collective judgement of my critical colleagues would prove to have been misplaced.
But it was £30 and two-and-a-half hours wasted. Having produced HEX, the single worst musical in town, the NT have also, astonishingly, offered the worst new play I’ve seen in a long time, too. If it was difficult to believe that the theatre actually brought HEX back at all, it is just as difficult to believe that this play went into rehearsal, let alone actually opened.
Its portrait of a thrusting, Leave-voting restaurateur in Walthamstow — whose biggest challenge seems to be a poignantly sensitive homeless man with a penchant for reading who uses the back of her premises as a toilet — is unconvincing on almost every level, and oddly offensive at the same time.
The singularly unlikeable title character threatens to shop her chef (illegally resident in the UK) to the authorities, an act of self-harm that’s akin to her vote on the EU, given that she runs a Tapas restaurant; she is played by Fay Ripley (above right) with a kind of blowsy vitality, but her self-destructiveness is difficult to watch, let alone believe in.
I had a much better time — even if the characters are having a much worse one — seeing Lillian Hellman’s WATCH ON THE RHINE revived at the Donmar Warehouse.
I saw the last major London revival — over 42 years ago (!) at National, when it starred the late, great Peggy Ashcroft, amongst a company that also included Adam Godley and Tanya Ronder (could it be the same Tanya Ronder who is now wife of Rufus Norris, and employed by him to co-author the aforementioned HEX?); now, a cast of current theatrical royalty, including two of our very finest actors — Patricia Hodge and Geoffrey Streatfeild — plus the estimable John Light, bring it to a vividly inhabited and intensely moving life.
It’s a quietly stunning evening of theatre: an old (1940s) play, very much of its time; the action stays in its period, honouring a story about the cost to a family of honourable political dissent. It comes at a high price. The shattering idealism, however, wrenches it firmly into the here and now.
THURSDAY JANUARY 12
Prince Harry’s autobiographical SPARE has finally hit the shelves of book stores; I’ve not bought it, but I feel like I’ve already read it, such has been the wall-to-wall coverage in every newspaper in the world, from the Meghan and Harry baiting Daily Mail to The Guardian, it seems, as well as his tour of TV studios from Anderson Cooper on CBS to The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert.
I find myself tearing up every time I read about his family’s cruelty towards him and his wife; he has been serially gaslit and undermined at every turn, mainly in the interests of the self-preservation of those at the top of the family line of succession.
As someone who myself has had to deal with a toxic father who I have finally managed to exclude from my life forever, I have a very strong sense of identification; I belong to a 12-step fellowship that has helped me to process the grief and trauma of this, and I overwhelmingly feel that Harry is clearly one of us. He is finally owning his own story, though; and I feel the same kind of relief as when I stopped being in denial about my own losses.
I was similarly relieved when I was forced out of both the SUNDAY EXPRESS and THE STAGE — I no longer had to accommodate industrial levels of toxicity and gaslighting there, either. (THE STAGE is, famously, a family-owned title).
FRIDAY JANUARY 13
The New Year always provides a moment for genuine reflection — and the possibility of renewal.
I’ve made some big changes to my life in the last few years, not least in leaving London (where I’d lived for over 40 years) for a new base about 60 miles away, on the South Downs in West Sussex.
Instead of having the National Theatre less than ten minutes away from my front door, my nearest significant theatre is now Chichester Festival Theatre, just over twenty minutes away. It’s not a bad exchange — it’s certainly true they’ve produced more hit shows down there recently than the National have; next week sees the transfer for Steven Moffat’s THE UNFRIEND from the last Minerva season to the West End’s Criterion.
But there’s a big change ahead, as Daniel Evans departs from the artistic directorship to take up the reigns at the RSC (jointly with my friend Tamara Harvey, who leaves Theatr Clwyd to do so — just at the point when that theatre is being closed for a massive refurbishment).
This promises to be a year of big artistic changes, with Tom Morris also stepping down at Bristol Old VIc, where he is being succeeded by Nancy Medina. Tom LIttler is also about to take over from Paul Miller at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre.
Though there’s usually no set time limits for artistic directors in British theatre, most artistic directors here serve for around a decade before passing the baton; this keeps the theatre in a state of constant renewal. Compare and contrast this to the position in the US, where founding artistic and executive directors are virtually lifetime appointments. This week it was announced that Barry Grove, who joined Manhattan Theatre Club as managing director in 1975 when he was just 23, is stepping down, now aged 71, just as the only artistic director he has served, Lynn Meadow, is about to celebrate her 50th anniversary in the post.
During their time together, the company has expanded from an Off-Broadway one (still maintaining a presence there where it has two spaces at New York City Center on west 55th Street) to one with a permanent Broadway home, too, the Samuel J Friedman Theatre in west 47th Street. According to a piece in the New York Times, “The company’s annual budget has grown from $172,000 to about $27 million.”
Asked what the future of the company was, he told the New York Times it was yet to be written:
“I think it’s yet to be charted, but I hope that it will continue to be involved in important new work, and that it can remain a viable not-for-profit that will allow a next generation to do the work they feel needs to be and wants to be done. I’m not looking to tower over the future. I full well expect they’ll take the place beyond where we have and to places I haven’t even maybe dreamed of.”
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: http://shentonstage.com/theatre-openings-from-w-c-january-9/
There have, in particular, been a number of new Broadway updates, including transfers for the recent City Center revival of Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s PARADE, plus a rather more delayed Broadway bow for the Public Theater’s 2013 production of the Imelda Marcos musical HERE LIES LOVE.
Next week London sees the Off-West End bows for two shows first seen in New York: George Takei’s autobiographically inspired musical ALLEGIANCE, in which Takei himself stars, at Charing Cross Theatre (opening Tuesday) and Axel Edelman’s solo show JUST FOR US, at the Menier (opening Wednesday), as well as a transfer for Steven Moffatt’s THE UNFRIEND from Chichester’s Minerva to the Criterion (opening Thursday).
See you here on Monday
I will be back on Monday. If you can’t wait that long, I may also be found on Twitter (for the moment) here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/ (though not as regularly on weekends)