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 JULY 14
I know there’s a housing crisis in London, not least for aspiring renters, and today I saw a retweet of someone’s plea on Twitter: “if anyone knows of any queer-friendly places that could take two performers that’d be brill.”
Although I am primarily based in West Sussex now, I also have a old rental flat in Elephant and Castle that I’ve recently taken back possession of, in which I am taking the smallest room as a crash pad for myself when I’m in town; when I saw the above, I replied — and I now have two new tenants!
Twitter has brought me many challenges, but it has also introduced me to new friends — and now flatmates!
SATURDAY JULY 15
Today I caught up with two new productions that opened during the week but whose press nights I couldn’t get to, either because the press agent couldn’t accommodate me (in the case of DR SEMMELWEIS) or I could fit it into my schedule (in the case of CUCKOO at the Royal Court). I wrote about these already here:
SUNDAY JULY 16
There’s a twitter account called @SondheimLyrics that simply posts choice Sondheim lyrics. Yesterday it posted this:
“Working for a tiny compensation, hoping for a thunderous ovation”.
Is this the story of working on the London “profit share” fringe? I’ve written extensively before about how I no longer review shows where actors aren’t paid at least on terms equivalent to the Equity Fringe Minimum, and I still make this stand: if the actors aren’t being paid, they’re not in a production of ‘professional’ standing; so I’m not going to offer the possibility of a “thunderous ovation” from me. That will only boost their egos; it won’t put food on their tables.
MONDAY JULY 17
Today’s latest frontier in the culture wars being pursued by the current Tory government is to go after so-called “low value” degrees, forcing institutions to limit the numbers of students studying for subjects thus deemed.
I actually read Law at Cambridge — a “high value” presumably — but then ended up not using it AT ALL by devoting my life to arts journalism (certainly a career with a “low value” financial return), instead of law! Did I fail? No! (Though I would have earned more money, potentially, as a lawyer, I’d have hated my life).
Meanwhile, the same PM who talked down “low value” degrees duly entertained some of the leading lights of British theatre, including Rufus Norris, the artistic director of the National (pictured below with the Prime Minister) and the joint CEO’s of SOLT, in a reception at Downing Street on Tuesday.
I understand the pragmatic need for the artistic director of the NT to play “nice” with the “authorities”, but given how disgracefully this government has treated the arts — and in particular freelance workers during the pandemic — it’s not a good look to be pictured this way.
Peter Hall, the NT’s second artistic director after founder Laurence Olivier, was famously a thorn in the side of Margaret Thatcher, who apparently told her arts minister, ““How long do we have to keep on giving money to that awful man?”
As Kate Maltby wrote in a piece for the New Statesman, following Hall’s death in 2017, “He used his position to fight for the rest of the arts world tooth and claw. One legend states that he leapt on a coffee table to personally harangue William Rees-Mogg, chair of the Arts Council. In fact, the truth is better: ever the theatrical, Hall performed this stunt in front of a mass of journalists he’d summoned to the National for a press conference in 1985. Dramatically, he announced that Thatcher’s cuts had forced him to close the studio-style Cottesloe Theatre, cut 100 jobs, and end the National’s regional touring productions. All were visibly Public Goods. The result was total PR victory. Ken Livingstone’s GLC stepped in with a grant to save the Cottesloe; 47 directors of subsidised theatres arrived for a meeting in support of Hall and a vote of no confidence in the Arts Council. In earlier years, Hall had made the case for an RSC grant and a National Theatre endowment – now, he was the leader of campaign for subsidy across the sector.”
Yet now in 2023, we have the current director of the NT appearing cravenly grateful for his audience with the Prime Minister. Is this the most embarrassing photograph of the year so far? It could be.
When I saw DEATH DROP at the Garrick Theatre, I said it was the sort of thing that would close in the interval on Broadway. It has now done even better than that: it has closed before it even began performances, with the producers announcing an indefinite delay to its planned opening at Off-Broadway’s New World Stages.
TUESDAY JULY 18
Last night Chichester Festival Theatre opened their new summer production of that old warhorse THE SOUND OF MUSIC. (This follows their magnificent 2021 revival of R&H’s SOUTH PACIFIC). My full review for PLAYS INTERNATIONAL is here:
WEDNESDAY JULY 19
Tonight I caught Tiano, a cabaret duo made up of tenor (the T of the name) Shimi Goodman and pianist (the iano) Chris Hamilton, at Crazy Coqs. This long-term couple met when they were both at drama school in the early noughties; Goodman has worked regularly in the West End, in shows from BOMBAY DREAMS to DIRTY DANCING, while Hamilton has become a regular performer on cruise ships, sometimes with his husband.
No wonder a reviewer for OUT NEWS last year described them thus: “It is an almost unthinkable scenario that Liberace and Pavarotti had secret love children, let alone that those children went on to inherit their fathers’ talents! Then they met one another, fell deeply in love and married. Well, you would be forgiven for thinking just that, as married couple Chris Hamilton (Piano) and Shimi Goodman (Tenor) take to the stage to perform to a sell-out audience of dedicated fans.”
Watching them onstage together in an evening of music, romance and wit, their easy onstage rapport and clear love for each other is inspiring. In an evening of great heart and musicality, their repertoire stretches stretches from mash-ups of Rachmaninov and Queen to ‘Moon River’ and original compositions by both of them.
THURSDAY JULY 20
The Royal Court today announced a bold choice for the successor to Vicky Featherstone as artistic director: they have appointed David Byrne, founder of the New DIorama, to take over in early 2024. Unlike Max Stafford-Clark, Ian Rickson, Dominic Cooke or Featherstone, Bryne’s track record is as a producer, not a director; an appointment like this hasn’t really happened in a major venue since Jenny Topper ran Hampstead Theatre for a decade and a half from 1988, leaving after she moved them into the brand-new purpose-built home they are now in.
But Byrne has certainly been a shape-shifter amongst British theatre creatives: it is on his watch that the New Diorama led the development of two of the last year’s biggest fringe to West End successes, FOR COLOURED BOYS… (whcih transferred from the New Diorama to the Royal Court en route to Shaftesbury Avenue) and the current hit OPERATION MINCEMEAT.
He has also led such innovative iniatitives as setting up NDT Broadgate, which provided rehearsal and development space after the pandemic to over 8,000 creatives at low or no cost.
In a press statement, he has commented,
“At its founding, George Devine imagined the Royal Court to be where ‘the experimentalists of the modern era could be seen’, often ‘in advance of public taste.’ For over a decade at New Diorama, I’ve embraced those ideals, seeking out and supporting the boldest and most exhilarating artists so that, together, we could re-write the theatre rule book. In this new role, I’m excited to continue working in service of the playwrights and artists raring to take big swings. Together, we’ll shape a rejuvenating culture from which the experimentalists of this new era are safe to take risks, can gamble like they’re never going to lose, and where audiences can glimpse the future of theatre, today.”
Byrne is himself a playwright. In a piece for The Guardian, its chief critic Arifa Akbar wrote, “Byrne’s work is a fine fit for the Royal Court, which has publicly declared its commitment to addressing structural inequalities around issues such as race. How will his maverick sensibility translate to a larger venue, with a far bigger main stage (and a second space upstairs)? Unlike the Royal Court, the New Diorama is not one of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisations. Byrne is certainly resourceful in finding funding, but now may need to adhere to different criteria.”
She also points out: “A small fringe venue can also, more easily, be a testing ground for new writing without incurring harsh judgment around its misfires. But these misses should not always be counted as failures: I have admitted before now that I regarded Black Boys … as a failure when I saw it at the New Diorama. On its second staging at the Royal Court, it took my breath away. This is what more time and greater resources can do – and Byrne has more of them now. He saw the play’s rough-hewn brilliance where some of us did not. I hope he brings an unexpected edge to the Royal Court and that he does not temper his radical, dynamic, fringe sensibility, or grow more commercially conservative. He must take the spirit of the New Diorama with him.”
The man behind @WestEndProducer has finally been officially unmasked: it is jobbing actor Christian Edwards. For the last decade, he has attended first nights fully masked, and run a hilarious twitter account and even become a published author via Nick Hern books (and columnist in THE STAGE), as his alter ego.
In a column unmasking himself for The Stage, he wrote, “It’s been an interesting journey, and I’ve learned a lot. WEP would be invited to all the press nights, posing on the red carpet in his flashy theatrical jackets like a celebrity in his own right. People in the industry would have deep conversations with me, sharing honest thoughts and asking for advice, even though they had no idea who I was. People opened up to WEP. They wanted to believe he was someone really important. And I suppose, in a way, he was. But that’s the interesting thing – through WEP, I have seen two different sides of the industry. The one where I am successful as WEP – I had a voice, wrote books and articles, did radio interviews, made public appearances, was written about in the national press and felt as if I was making a difference. And then there is the real me, a jobbing actor. The truth is, the only time I felt really successful was when I was wearing that bloody mask. After a few years, it started messing with my head (my therapist has had a field day).”
No, I never knew who he was until his announcement today, even though we messaged each other regularly over the years, and he even came around to my flat in SE1 to record a podcast interview! Bravo, WEP, and thanks for the fun (and friendship!)
Today I also spent a delightful afternoon filming a video interview with long-time colleagues and friends Jenny Seagrove and Martin Shaw,at the office of Bill Kenwright about the new play they are starring in together, Simon Williams’s ALONE TOGETHER, at Theatre Royal Windsor, from August 7-19.
This is part of the theatre’s third summer season under artistic director Sean Mathias, and follows another new play, FRANK AND PERCY, that ends its run this weekend, starring Ian McKellen and Roger Allam. Brand new plays in unsubsidised theatres are rare; what a wonderful show of confidence in new writing this season is.
Tonight I revisited THEN, NOW & NEXT, a rare entirely original new British musical by actors Jon Robyns and Kit Orton receiving its world premiere at Southwark Playhouse.
It definitely rewards a second viewing, both for its intricately textured songs and their powerful delivery by the tremendous cast, led by the fine, fierce Alice Fearn (pictured above), whom I was seeing for the first time tonight. When I saw it a few weeks ago, she was off ill and her director Julie Atherton boldly stood in for her, script sometimes in hand, as I wrote in my column here; it was great to see it again with a fully rehearsed company.
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-17-2023/
Tonight I’m at the brand-new Lavender Theatre in Epsom, Surrey to see their debut show ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, and tomorrow I am (finally!) catching up with James Graham’s DEAR ENGLAND at the National. I’ll be reporting on both on Monday here.
See you here on Monday
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/ and Threads with the same handle (@ShentonStage).