Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily.
I reported here on Wednesday on the previous night’s opening of CRAZY FOR YOU at Chichester Festival Theatre, about which other critics turned out to be as crazy for as I was (with the Telegraph, Guardian and The Times all unanimous in their five-star delight).
At least Chai, as we locals know it, is on my doorstep (it’s a 20 minute drive), so I didn’t have to endure chaotic trains to get there. Instead, that’s what I had to face myself the next day, as I travelled to Leicester for the opening of a brand-new production of BILLY ELLIOT at Curve.
The lack of information at St Pancras was astonishing, with crowds of passengers milling around and no trains departing. But I managed to get on one that did leave, and happily got to Leicester with time to spare.
Stephen Daldry — who also directed the original film that the musical is based on –entirely owned the original production at the Victoria Palace, which was stunningly choreographed by Peter Darling to give it a propulsive momentum and a tender, aching heart. That was always going to be a tough act to follow; but Curve artistic director Nikolai Foster knows his theatre’s impressive scale, and employs the expanse of that massive stage to give it an epic sweep, on an industrial set of raw scaffolding poles, yet still manages to capture the show’s intimacy and especially its heart.
He is greatly aided by Ben Cracknell’s rock stadium lighting, which is a set all of itself — and focuses attention with scale and intimacy as required. And Elton John’s score is simply galvanising under George Dyer’s musical direction of an onstage band.
An extraordinary cast includes veterans of the London production like Joe Caffrey as Dad (who graduated during the London run from playing BIlly’s older brother Tony to father Jackie) and Craig Armstrong (who spent 11 years in the West End with it, where was also assistant resident director, and here reprises his original role as George).
There are also beautiful newcomers to the show, including a definitive Mrs Wilkinson from Sally Ann Triplett that is full of brass and brilliance; Jessica Daley as BIlly’s late mam, who breaks your heart; Luke Baker (the original Dean in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie) as brother Tony; and Rachel Izen as Grandma. But it’s the kids, of course, who steal the show. As it should be.
This remains truly a masterpiece of a show: a British musical about a still shocking chapter of our industrial history that changed the nation forever, and actually matters, cut through with a portrait of community, resilience, and the saving graces of art. It says so much; I cried and cried.
And part of that reason is purely personal, I know. It’s the portrait of a father — and family — gathering to support a young boy’s dreams. As I cry, I know I am mourning for the lack of my own father’s support in my life — but I’m reconciled to it now.
Just as a letter that Billy’s mum leaves for him to read after her death provides comfort for him, so an email that my father sent me in 2020 helped me come to terms with the fact that he’d never be there for me. My mother had ended their 63-marriage three weeks before she died, when he forced her on her hospital deathbed to make a choice — whether she wanted to die with him, or with her sons, whom he made clear he was going to bar from the family home.
She died in November 2019, surrounded by the love of my brother and myself and our respective partners. Her husband wasn’t there. And he didn’t come to the funeral. (We informed him of her death; he did not respond, or ask about funeral arrangements). But when the pandemic arrived, I realised it was now or never; I should at least try to make some kind of peace with him. I re-opened channels of communication. But after a couple of phone calls that went okay, the old him resurfaced — and it ended when he wrote me an email.
Here is just a small part of it:
Strange though it may be to say, the letter was actually very healing: it made me realise there was absolutely no hope of him ever being able to accept me for who I am — and the lifelong unease I had with him was grounded in something I was right to be wary of. I will never speak to him again. That much at least is a relief. He will now be the person dying alone — unlike his wife.
And here in BILLY ELLIOT, I watched, in floods of tears, as a young male Royal Ballet dancer told Billy’s dad to support his son unconditionally, as he had not been. And then watching him glow with pride when his son is accepted into the Royal Ballet school.
It is an extraordinary musical. And yes, I may relate to it more closely than others. But great art speaks to each of us personally. And I make no apology for it, or for sharing my own experience. It may help others who’ve been through something similar.
A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART TWO (Donmar Warehouse)
There’s also a lot to relate to in Lucas Hnath’s A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART TWO, an arresting and vivid imagining of what might have happened if Nora returns, 15 years after leaving her stifling marriage, to resolve unfinished business.
This play was originally premiered on Broadway in 2017, where its conversation about the state of one famously failed marriage from Ibsen’s play saw it unpack the consequences of a wife’s abandonment of her husband and three young children, on him, their housekeeper (who gives up her life to look after him and raise the kids), one of their daughters and of course herself.
It is a thrilling and complex play of ideas that raises all sorts of intriguing questions and debates about the structures of monogamy and whether a life of solitude is ultimately better for the soul than being trapped in a relationship from which you cannot easily escape.
Again, I’ve found myself — in the past — feeling just that kind of suffocation in relationships. I’m now in the easiest one of my life (though it also requires work, inevitably).
But another interesting thing: the original production was produced by Scott Rudin, one of Broadway’s previously most prolific producers who also had the best taste in shows. Who else would have brought such a daring and provocative play to Broadway?
But after accusations of his serial and consequential bullying of staff emerged (one was reported to have subsequently taken his own life), he has withdrawn — at least publicly — from the business. According to a press release at the time the events became public, ““Scott Rudin has withdrawn from producing The Book of Mormon. He is not involved in the management of the show, has no decision-making role, and will receive no financial compensation moving forward.” (Given his original producing interests in creating that show, it is weird he has been entirely shut out now).
As always, it is not always great people who create great art…..
But James Macdonald’s London premiere of the play DOES feature great actors, including a spellbinding Noma Dumezweni as Nora (pictured above). Rae Smith’s set begins with a coup d’theatre, as the stage is entirely covered by a massive house as you enter the theatre.
But fear not — you WILL be able to see the play. And with the Donnmar re-configured into an in-the-round space, the production also creates a new dynamic for this famously problematic theatre, where too often it is only the central seating bank that gets a decent view of the action.
@sohoplace: a bold new theatre for London
Funnily enough, I went to the Donmar straight after getting a sneak preview of London’s newest theatre, @sohoplace, a brand-new 602-seater West End space above Tottenham Court Road’s new tube and Crossrail hub that is also in the round (though it can be rearranged in other configurations).
It is the West End’s first new-build theatre to open in fifty years. (We’ve also of course had the now-shuttered Boulevard, but although that is IN the West End, it was not a West End theatre; and there’s The Bridge, but that’s not in the West End but on the South Bank).
It is part of a $300m regeneration project on the North East edge of Soho, and is a personal passion project for the West End’s most indefatigable producer and theatre owner Nica Burns, who began her career running the Donmar Warehouse in the 1980s (in-between the RSC running it and it becoming a producing theatre in its own right) whose company Nimax Theatres own such venues as the Palace, Lyric, Apollo and Vaudeville and will operate it.
She personally escorted a small group of critics around the building, and was like a justifiably proud parent as she did so. (She is pictured onstage below, from the second circle, with Blanche Marvin, the 97-year-old legend who founded the Peter Brook/Empty Space Theatre Awards that I was on the judging panel of, and Nica was a valuable supporter of).
It is due to open formally in the autumn, for which details are yet to be announced. But we also got a taste of some of its other features: a ground-floor restaurant will welcome people all day, while a top floor rehearsal space and green room bar (to be called Nica’s Bar) will provide a hub for actors.
I can’t wait to see it all in action!
SEE YOU ON MONDAY
I’ll be back here on Monday. 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