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 JUNE 9
Tonight saw the opening of an utterly thrilling revival of ASSASSINS, Sondheim and Weidman’s already-audacious 1990 revue about presidential assassins, being re-played as a dark game show set in the Oval Office presided over by a KFC-eating and Diet Coke-drinking Donald Trump.
Weidman’s book, in particular, is given full weight by director Polly Findlay, and it’s superb to see musical theatre actors like Danny Mac (last seen in the West End in PRETTY WOMAN) rising to the occasion with fiercely committed acting performances.
Nick Holder’s Samuel Byck (who plans to crash a 747 into Nixon’s White House) and Peter Forbes as the Trump stand-in (pictured above) are both stunning in a company that also features Jack Shalloo, Harry Hepple, Luek Brady, Carly Mercedes Dyer, and Amy Booth-Steel as other would-be and successful assassins.
I immediately booked myiself in online to see it twice more — though my plans to go to the Thursday matinee were ruined by an emergency dental extraction, I’ll be seeing it again on Monday evening.
SATURDAY JUNE 10
Today I had a day of pleasurable repeat viewings of two recent openings — ONCE ON THIS ISLAND at the Open Air Theatre, then Dickie Beau’s RE-MEMBER ME at Hampstead. I’ve since written about my penchant for returning to shows I’ve loved for pleasure in my column that ran on Monday here: https://shentonstage.com/shentonstage-daily-for-monday-june-12/.
SUNDAY JUNE 11
Today I saw 42nd STREET transfer to Sadler’s Wells from its recent outing at Curve Leicester; I can confidently declare: this is a summer hit to equal ANYTHING GOES at
the Barbican in 2021. And, thanks to the choreographic brilliance of Bill Deamer, it is just as exhilarating. My full review for Plays International is here: https://playsinternational.org.uk/42nd-street-sadlers-wells/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=42nd-street-sadlers-wells
MONDAY JUNE 12
Tonight I saw Barb Jungr and Mike Lindup’s SOHO SONGS, an intimate song cycle of songs about the different lives led in this (now gentrified and generic but once bohemian and brilliant) district of the West End, in a workshop presentation at Crazy Coqs.
Some great songs are terrifically performed by a youthful cast comprising Hannah Nuttall, Emma Salvo, James Gulliford, Stephen Lambert and Will De Renzi-Martin (pictured above), and a classy three piece band led by Michael Webborn on piano. Director Benji Sperring gives it shape and style; I look forward to seeing its next iteration.
TUESDAY JUNE 13
Playwright Jack Thorne is having the busiest of times: while HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD, co-written with JK Rowling and director John Tiffany, continues at the Palace, his NT hit THE MOTIVE AND THE CUE is destined for the Gielgud Theatre in December, and tonight he had WHEN WINSTON WENT TO THE WAR WITH THE WIRELESS open at the Donmar.
This fascinating, layered exploration of the estates of government, the media and the church, as their inter-dependent relationships were redefined by the General strike of 1926, provides a fascinating and entertaining account of the early days of the BBC, and how its first Director-general John Reith sought to maintain its independence from government interference. The resonances with today are unmissable.
The terrific ensemble cast of Katy Rudd’s production is led by Adrian Scarborough as chancellor of the exchequer Winston Churchill and Stephen Campbell Moore as Reith, it also has the brilliant Haydn Gwynne as PM Stanley Baldwin.
WEDNESDAY JUNE 14
For the last three summers director Sean Mathias and producer Bill Kenwright have brought “event” theatre to the small and historic but newly mighty Theatre Royal Windsor.
In 2021, they brought Britain’s reigning theatrical monarch Ian McKellen to its stage, where he has made history by playing the title role in an age-blind HAMLET, a full fifty years after he originally played the role; now McKellen has returned, at a still springly 84, to play Percy, an octogenarian sociology professor, finding new love with Roger Allam’s Frank, recently widowed after a long marriage to a woman, in Ben Weatherill’s romantic charmer of a two-hander.
As in David Storey’s HOME, that brought Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud to the Royal Court stage in 1970, they meet walking on Hampstead Heath; but fifty years on, this play can now safely go where that one didn’t, to imagine (and show) more than just a meeting of minds, but their bodies, too.
It is, in its way, quite daring, having two national treasures (one of them long out, the other in fact straight) playing characters who are accepted for who they are; as Fiona Mountford notes in her review for inews, “McKellen is an icon both for his acting and his activism. Taking this role is an act of gentle activism: an excuse to rock out on stage in a rainbow tutu and a Stonewall T-shirt (“Some People Are Gay – Get Over It”) as Percy takes Frank to his first Pride. Sitting among the genteel audiences of the Theatre Royal Windsor, none of whom seemed to turn a hair, it’s impossible not to marvel at how far we’ve come.McKellen’s character speaks for a generation when he talks of being disowned by his parents as a young man in the early 70s. Looking around at the rows of straight couples, all of them nodding in sympathy, I was reminded of the ways in which gay liberation also brought freedom for straight people. Freedom to love gay siblings and children; freedom to be part of non-nuclear families without stigma; freedom to just chill out a bit about the whole thing.”
Mathias’s gentle, episodic production detonates to a regular track of laughter, like a television rom-com; and kudos to both actors for holding the stage so effortlessly on a stiflingly hot night in a theatre completely lacking in air-conditioning. I was wilting, but neither actor seemed to break out in a sweat at all.
THURSDAY JUNE 15
Today came two big pieces of theatre-related news: Rufus Norris is to leave the NT next year, after the end of his current second contract at the helm; and Glenda Jackson has, at 87 years old, more sadly left the planet, after an amazing life and career that saw her become a twice-Oscar winning actress, then giving it all up to become a constituency MP in her fifties (representing Hampstead and Highgate from 1992 to 2015, before returning to the stage and screen in her final decade.
I only caught the tail-end of Jackson’s first theatrical run in the 1980s, though I’ll never forget her in ROSE (at the Duke of York’s in 1980), SUMMIT CONFERENCE (with Georgina Hale and a young Gary Oldman) on Shaftesbury Avenue in 1982, the title role of PHEDRE at the Old Vic in 1984 (pictured above), Botho Strauss’s GREAT AND SMALL at the Vaudeville in 1985, THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA in 1986 that transferred from the Lyric Hammersmith to the Globe (now Gielgud) in 1987 in a production that also featured Joan Plowright, Howard Barker’s SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION at the Almeida in 1989, and the title role in MOTHER COURAGE at the Mermaid in 1990. Michael Coveney wrote of the latter, anticipating her plans to enter politics, ““God help her opponents in the House of Commons, should she get there.”
She returned to her stage roots after nearly a quarter of century’s backbencher service in the House of Commons, playing the title role in KING LEAR at the Old Vic in 2016 at the age of 80 (pictured above, and reviewed by me at the for The Stage here), a role she subsequently reprised (in a different production) on Broadway in 2019. I last saw her onstage on Broadway a year earlier when she starred in a revival of Edward Albee’s THREE TALL WOMEN, winning the Tony for Best Leading Actress.
NORRIS’S NATIONAL — AND WHO”S NEXT?
Rufus Norris was a very popular choice when the former actor turned director was appointed to succeed Nicholas Hytner as artistic director at the National in 2015. But where Hytner’s innovations included such incredible legacies as the £10 Travelex funded season and even more significantly, the NT Live programme of live broadcasts, to widen popular and international access to the building, Norris has had to battle with keeping the show(s) on the road, first through the Covid shutdowns and since then with the challenges of its drastically reduced funding combined with increased Covid-relarted debts and lower revenues (once WAR HORSE and THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME wrapped their lengthy transfer runs).
He’s done so with a pragmatic abandoning of repertoire programming that used to define the NT, more co-productions with other theatres and imports from the regions, like the hit transfer of STANDING AT THE SKY’S EDGE from Sheffield’s Crucible.
But there’s no getting away from the fact that the NT — once one of the most essential players in the British theatrical ecosystem — has also become significantly less exciting in recent years: I used to see everything that was ever done there, now I regularly miss shows entirely. The Almeida, for instance, is now a more go-to theatre than the National; and if there was any justice, Rupert Goold — whose production of James Graham’s DEAR ENGLAND opens at the NT next week — would be front-runner to take over from Norris now.
But after five white men — three of them Cambridge graduates — at the helm since Olivier was founding artistic director, it is probably time for a woman to take the reins at last. The recent resignation of Indhu Rubasingham from the Kiln positions her as ready to take over the NT; as a director whose hit production of THE FATHER AND THE ASSASSIN returns to the Olivier in September, she has regularly worked in the building while also running the Kiln, including the UK premiere of THE MOTHERF**FUCKER WITH THE HAT in 2015, which I reviewed for The Stage at the time here.
Another possible candidate is Polly Findlay, who I expected to be in the running to take over at the Donmar recently from Mike Longhurst; that job went to Tim Sheader; I suspect Findlay, who has just done a tremendous job with ASSASSINS at Chichester (see Friday above), may be in the running now. So would Josie Rourke, Longhurst’s predecessor at the helm of the Donmar, who recently directed an acclaimed DANCING AT LUGHNASA at the NT (one of the many shows I missed there).
Then there’s internal candidate Clint Dyer, who is already deputy artistic director, and has not only appeared regularly on NT stages as an actor but has also directed and co-written work there; but it is arguable that despite being at Norris’s side for the last few years, he hasn’t the full directorial experience quite yet.
Other former internal candidates are Tom Morris, who left the NT for a successful tenure running the Bristol Old Vic and has a proven track record as a hit-maker with his co-direction of the NT’s WAR HORSE, and Ben Power, a one-time deputy artistic director at the NT (from 2014-2019). The fiercely ambitious Kwame Kwei-Armah, currently artistic director at the Young Vic, can’t be ruled out, either. He began his writing career at the NT and has recently been appointed artistic advisor to New York’s Manhattan Theatre Company alongside his Young Vic duties.
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-june-12-2023/
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/ (though not as regularly on weekends)