ShentonSTAGE Daily for MONDAY JULY 17

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Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily.

On Saturday, I played ‘catch up’ on two productions I missed the official openings of last week — DR SEMMELWEIS, that transferred from the Bristol Old Vic to open officially at Pinter on Tuesday, and CUCKOO that opened at the Royal Court officially on Wednesday — and, not for the first time, I thought what a relief it was to go to regular “civilian” performances with “normal” audiences, away from the forced bonhomie and strange, stagnant tensions of first nights.

The (so-called) press is now defined so widely that more attendees are actually “influencers” rather than “critics”; the PRs welcome them as soft touches (and producers in turn now use their often pointless quotes as indistinguishable from traditional critics). I’m not saying that ALL bloggers are inferior to critics and that getting paid to write is the sole quality that puts the opinion of a “critic” above that of a blogger,  but they are written under different conditions and with different disciplines. Critics, for example, will have a prescribed word count and a set deadline; they will also (usually) have an external editor, so (in theory, at least) they will have had another set of eyes on their work, to eliminate typos and catch other editorial errors (though I find myself sometimes emailing the editor of THE STAGE to correct basic errors there; as it is an industry publication of record, I feel that it is important that it is accurate).

Going to a show post-opening means, too, that you arrive with a sense of what those ‘official’ reviews have been, and can compare your own reactions against. This may mean arriving with over-inflated expectations — or lowered ones — to wrestle with.

A critic wants to tune out as much of the “noise” around them as possible to arrive at their OWN opinion, but in truth it’s impossible to entirely avoid it — even as you sit amongst an audience, it is providing its own ‘noise’, as in explosive applause or stifled yawns. So having an idea of what the reviews have already been allows adjustments to be made. 

I duly found both DR SEMMELWEIS and CUCKOO better than I was expecting them to be. From the reviews I’d read, I expected SEMELWEIS to be earnest and worthy, and not as entirely gripping as I found it to be.

But I also found myself distracted by a different kind of noise as I watched it: the knowledge that its maverick star Mark Rylance — probably now the biggest theatre name we have — apparently took a “distilled garlic solution” instead of the Covid vaccine, in contradiction to the advances of medical science that this play details and advocates as it tells the story of a Vienna-based Hungarian doctor who made a startling discovery around mortality rates on maternity wards in the hospital where he worked was based on differences in hygiene standards on those run by doctors and others run by nurses.

In eschewing science in his own life choices regarding mitigating COVID risks, Rylance seems to be disbelieving the play he has in fact initiated and is co-credited for bringing to the stage. Life is full of contradictions!

Different life choices are shown in stage in Michael Wynne’s new play CUCKOO, where four women from three generations of the same family in Merseyside’s Birkenhead are variously glued to their mobile phones as they eat a fish and chips supper together — and many of their interactions are confined to electronic communications thereafter, not least when the granddaughter holes herself up in her grandmother’s bedroom, and issues requests for food and drink through text messages only. This play is very much in the Royal Court tradition of domestic family dramas, even down to the ironing board in the living room, but given a new contemporary spin that’s truly full of signs of the times.

The show, which will transfer to Liverpool’s Everyman after its run in Sloane Square, is VIcky Featherstone’s directorial swansong after a decade at the helm of the Royal Court. As I sat in those gorgeous tan leather seats in this historic theatre, I reflected sadly on how I’ve alas become a relatively infrequent visitor here in the last few years. I know that the fortunes of theatres change over time, but what had under Dominic Cooke been the single most essential theatre in London has long slipped in my personal ranking. The Donmar, under Michael Grandage, and the National, under Nick Hytner, had previously occupied this top spot. Right now, for me it is Rupert Goold’s Almeida Theatre, while the top regional theatre is currently Sheffield’s Crucible, under Rob Hastie. 


My regularly updated feature on shows in London, selected regional theatres and on Broadway is here:

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