ShentonSTAGE Daily for MONDAY JANUARY 24

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Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily, which will next appear this week on Friday.

A hex on HEX

It’s not unusual for artistic directors of national companies to pursue the holy grail of producing a hit musical — not just for the financial security of the venue they are running, but also for their own. Trevor Nunn led the way with Les MIserables at the RSC (after having previously already scored big-time for himself with Cats and Starlight Express); but the path is also littered with those that try and monumentally fail to do so, most famously Terry Hands with Carrie (the RSC again), but also (now mostly forgotten, but not by me) Peter Hall with Jean Seberg at the National in 1983, that had music by Marvin Hamlisch.

Now one of Hall’s successors Rufus Norris has HEX — which closed on Saturday (though, given that it never officially opened, could it be said to have closed? If a tree falls in a forest…..) After its scheduled pre-Christmas press night was twice postponed owing to COVID related problems (it was originally due to open on December 15, then moved to December 21) , it was denied a press night entirely.

But after the fiasco of MANOR, the first play to reopen the Lyttelton which received zero and one-star reviews, HEX has only been spared the same fate by not opening to the critics at all. Rufus Norris stated in a letter to the critics on January 6 that the plan now is to revive it for a full run in November, when it will be made available for review,, as I wrote in a column here. “The relationship between the work we make and the press is obviously a symbiotic and essential one, and we look forward very much to welcoming you to Hex when we return.”

Or not. GIven that it had trouble selling tickets this time around, it may be best to not throw good money after bad and bring it back after all. But given this possibility, I bought a ticket to the penultimate performance on Saturday afternoon, and found a show so seriously misconceived I’m surprised it made it beyond a table read, let alone to a blighted Covid-beset preview period. But Covid is the least of its problems. In fact it my be its saviour. How it got quite so far, though, is another question.

Of course, with Norris himself directing HEX — and writing the lyrics, to a book by his wife Tanya Ronder — there was no one to challenge the show’s multiple missteps; the tone is all over the place, the storytelling dire, and the songs negligible.

It does make you wonder what, if anything, the NT’s dramaturgy department is actually doing. As one composer friend, who has had many musicals produced (but none at the National), told me,

“Something has gone worryingly wrong with aesthetic judgment and quality control at the National in recent years with musical theatre choices (and plays, though they are not just picking writers who’ve never written a play before on the whole to come up with their new plays).” 

Another composer has said to me that they’d seriously wonder whether they’d even WANT to take a new musical to the National now, given this track record — which also saw Tori Amos’s THE LIGHT PRINCESS premiere there in 2013, Damon Albarn’s wonder.land in 2015, and the misfiring stage version of Disney’s PINOCCHIO in 2017.

In a 2017 interview with Rufus Norris on WhatsOnStage, he warned against nepotism in the theatre, saying, “All of us work under a lot of pressure, and the competition is very high… what that means is that you often rely on who you know. There is a reason nepotism exists and that’s because you go with people you trust. It exists in every industry and every country in the world and in this industry it’s really important that people who run theatres, or people who create opportunities are aware of their own habitual tendencies to go with what they know.”

Yet here he is, four years later, himself co-writing a NT musical with his wife. As another writer said to me this weekend,

“Trouble is, as you said (and only you have the guts and independence to speak this truth to power) who exactly is going to take Rufus to one side and explain some home truths about their direction of travel? Nobody who wants to work there, that’s for sure.”

Just before the pandemic arrived, Rufus Norris signed up to extend his tenure as artistic director at the National to 2025. Of course, artistic accidents happen — it’s the cut-and-thrust of producing theatre after all — but it is also the role of the NT’s board (and theatre critics) to question the artistic choices that led to those mistakes happening.

When David Lan himself directed his first production at the Young Vic soon after taking over in 2000, it was such a critical bomb that, at the next press conference, he stated he wouldn’t be employing that director again; and indeed he mostly stepped back from directing in the next seventeen years that he presided over the theatre, becoming instead a producer and facilitator of other talents.

As MIchael Billington noted in an appreciation when Lan stood down, “He has shown that you can set your seal on a theatre by your taste and the talent you choose to promote.” That included providing a home for an international slate of such directors as Ivo van Hove, Simon Stone, Benedict Andrews, Katie Mitchell, Richard Jones, Joe Hill-Gibbins, Gísli Örn Garðarsson and of course Peter Brook.

The Young Vic duly became London’s most essential theatre (a title it has now yielded, I think, to the Almeida). But of course the National, which receives the most public funding of any theatre company in the UK, should be that. HEX may be an unfortunate blip; but following hard on the disaster of MANOR, I fear that a pattern is emerging.

Also last weekend
Over a two night stay in London from Thursday to Saturday, in addition to HEX I also had a happier time catching the similarly COVID-blighted BRING IT ON at the end of its Christmas residency at the Queen Elizabeth Hall next door, which after losing 13 performances of its run there, was forced to cancel its subsequent planned UK and Ireland national tour.

In a statement, its producers Selladoor Worldwide commented, “Cancelling 13 performances has resulted in an overwhelming loss of income for the production during a peak period that would otherwise have provided a vital financial backbone of the tour. This lost income, amounting to hundreds of thousands of pounds, has sadly rendered the remainder of the tour financially unsustainable. It would be irresponsible for us to continue, and we, therefore, have no option but to cancel the remainder of the tour.”

This all-American high school musical about cheerleaders indeed had plenty of things to cheer for. It’s a musical about teenagers — in the mold of High School Musical and its other successors — but with a seriously adult pedigree, including a score with songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda (pre-Hamilton, of course, but distinctively his) and Tom Kitt (who wrote one of my favourite musicals of the century so far, Next to Normal). All of it is exhilaratingly packaged with athletic dance by Fabian Aliose, and a captivating young company.

By coincidence, the next afternoon I saw another Brodway musical set on the high school bleachers —  LYSISTRATA JONES, originally produced on Broadway a few months ahead of BRING IT ON in 2011.

A knowing, modern take on Aristophanes’ ancient sex comedy, it was buoyantly performed by 3rd year MT students at ArtsEd London — a school I taught at for over nine years. I’m sad I’m no longer part of the school, but it’s lovely to visit and support the next generation of musical theatre performers. Their training has clearly paid rich dividends.

And talking of spotting talent: I also saw PEGGY FOR YOU at Hampstead Theatre, Alan Plater’s utterly gorgeous portrait of the late, great but utterly single-minded theatrical literary agent Peggy Ramsay, who had a unique roster of playwriting clients whose careers she variously nurtured, bullied and cajoled. Ramsay is played to crisp comic perfection by Tamsin Greig, who captures her brilliance and eccentricity in equal measure.

I truly wish I’d known her. But watching this lovely play, I feel I did.

THIS WEEK’S OPENINGS

I now regularly update my listings of London, Broadway and regional shows here.

This week’s openings include:

  • Wednesday January 24:

REGIONAL: Dr Semmelweis (Bristol Old Vic) January 20-February 12, press night January 26), Mark Rylance stars in the title role of the world premiere of a play, based on an idea by himself and co-written by him with Stephen Brown, in a production directed by Bristol Old Vic artistic director Tom Morris. Press contact: Freya Cowdry at Kate Morley PR. https://bristololdvic.org.uk/whats-on/dr-semmelweis

BROADWAY: Skeleton Crew (Samuel J Friedman Theatre), January 11-July 31, opening January 26. Manhattan Theatre Club present the Broadway premiere of Dominque Morisseau’s play set in a small car factory in 2006 Detroit on the brink of foreclosure, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Press contact: Amy Kass at Boneau/Bryan-Brown, https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/shows/2021-22-season/skeleton-crew/

  • Thursday January 27:

LONDON: The Glow (Royal Court), January 24-March 5, press night January 27. The Royal Court’s artistic director Vicky Featherstone directs a new play by Alistair McDowell, whose previous Royal Court plays include all of it, X and Talk Show. PR: Rosie Evans-Hill at Royal Court. https://royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/theglow/

REGIONAL: Doubt: A Parable (Chichester Festival Theatre) January 22-February 5, press night January 27). Lia Williams directs Monica Dolan, Sam Spruell and Jessica Rhodes in a new production of John Patrick Stanley’s 2005 Pulitzer prize winning play, set in a Catholic school in 1964 New York. Press contact: Lucinda Morrison at Chichester. https://www.cft.org.uk/whats-on/event/doubt

SEE YOU ON FRIDAY
See you in your inbox on Friday. But if you can’t wait that long, you can find me on Twitter @ShentonStage (though not as often on weekends)

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