Welcome to today’s (slightly delayed) edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily, in which I look back on the last week of theatre news and reviews (including my own), from August 11-17.
As I was in Edinburgh from Monday to Friday, I didn’t manage to file this column from there; and last night I flew out to Boston, en route to our annual summer trip to Provincetown on Cape Cod (though we’re actually staying in North Truro this time, the costs of staying in P-town itself having finally defeated us).
From Monday last week, I was in Edinburgh for four nights — an extra one on my visit last year — but it is as much as my budget and stamina can these days stretch to.
Staying in very basic — but excellently located — student accommodation, with shared bathrooms, cost me £515 for four nights. Add in the flight, and I spent over £700 to come; by comparison, in June my husband and I had a week in a four-storey villa overlooking the sea on the Algarve for less than £600 each, including flights!
I don’t know that the return on my investment is really enough to keep coming back. Not least because even when you’re here, the FOMO is huge; you begrudge the wrong choices you make all the time. And the stress is off-the-scale at times. Travelling by tram from the airport after I land, I get off in St Andrew’s Square and (eventually) hail a cab to complete my journey to my first scheduled show just across North Bridge. If I was able bodied, I could walk it in about ten minutes; but North Bridge had been a building site for the last three years, and in gridlocked traffic, it takes twenty in a cab that barely moves. When I finally arrive at theSpace on the Mile, I find I’ve missed the first five minutes of Jessie Millson’s PRESSURE COOKER. But I don’t feel too bad when another London colleague arrives at the same show after I do.
This means that, having got us there, the young Bristol student company won’t get a review from either of us: we can’t review a show we’ve only partly seen.
Not that this hard working company will need our help drawing an audience: they’ve packed the place out for their first performance on Monday, simply by taking to the streets and flyering like crazy.
Companies have to put in a lot of work to be here. But so do audiences. It’s a constant battle: with the traffic, as already noted; with the elements (though this time it was mercifully dry for all but one evening of my stay); with the geography (there are so many hills that I just have take cabs to get around); with the awful queuing everywhere; with the expense of tickets. Life is slightly easier for critics, I acknowledge — but even this isn’t fool proof.
I’d arranged a press ticket to see Benjamin Scheuer’s new solo show A MOUNTAIN FOR ELODIE at the Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose with the London PR for it; despite a confirmation by them, it wasn’t at the box office when I arrived. The venue’s box office manager insisted there was nothing he could do; it was up to the management of the show to arrange press tickets.
Even when I pointed out that I was quoted on the poster, he refused to help; so I went up to the venue entrance and asked the front of house person there to tell Scheuer I was there. I eventually got in; and it was the single best show I saw, so I’m glad I persevered.
And for another show I was seeing at Greenside @Infirmary Street, I arrived early; the auditorium was not ready yet, so I sat in the venue courtyard. A FOH person assured me they would tell me when the room was open; when the start time came and went, I asked another FOH person and discovered the show had already started! Given that the show was a comedy called LEECH, by a young student company who were mostly 18-years-old, about trying to create a show specifically to attract and appease a cranky theatre critic, it was more than a little ironic that the venue had succeeded in making me cranky to see it!
FRIDAY AUGUST 11
After Tuesday’s official press night for LA CAGE AUX FOLLES at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park was rained off, I rearranged to see t tonight; the balmy night held, and my full review for PLAYS INTERNATIONAL is here: https://playsinternational.org.uk/la-cage-aux-folles-at-regents-park-open-air-theatre/
SATURDAY AUGUST 12
Today I do a double bill of London repeats: in the afternoon, I see the final matinee of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN again at @sohoplace, followed by GROUNDHOG DAY (for the 15th time!) — tonight was supposed to be the last performance before a week’s extension was announced, so I’d booked expecting to see it one last time then. As it happens, it will be my final opportunity to see it, for now, as I’m in Edinburgh from Monday and only back for one day next Saturday, when I have two other shows planned.
I’d previously reviewed BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN when it first opened for PLAYS INTERNATIONAL here; seeing it again was to be able to bear witness to lead actors Mike Faist as Jack and Lucas Hedges as Ennis (pictured above) fully relaxed into their roles now, and especially their frank intimacy.
SUNDAY AUGUST 13
Today I attended a gala send-off for London’s oldest fringe theatre, the King’s Head in Islington, which is finally shutting its doors after 53 years before it moves to a brand-new purpose-built space next door next year.
Stars of the past who have played on its tiny stage — and occupied its frugal dressing room — like Steven Bertkoff, Linda Marlowe (now 83, pictured above) and Janet Suzman were present to reminisce and perform extracts from shows they’d done here.
The theatre had long become something of a grimy shithole, to be frank, yet it still occupied a unique part in the theatrical ecology of London; people like Victoria Wood and Richard E Grant had begun their careers here, and it has latterly been at the forefront for emerging LGBTQ+ talents to develop and showcase work.
MONDAY AUGUST 14
My first day on the Edinburgh fringe didn’t start well, as outlined above, when slow traffic meant I missed the opening minutes of the first show I was seeing; but I had a better day after that, seeing three more terrific shows.
These were DOM, a play about Boris Johnson’s notorious former adviser Dominic Cummings that played like a Marina Hyde column come to 3D life, at the Assembly Rooms; Sam Lupton’s delightful part-magic show, part relationship confessional HOW TO BE DUMPED, about the aftermath of a failed relationship, at the Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose; and the utterly fantastic DONNA AND KEBAB ARE MARTHA AND EVE: A CELEBRATION! (pictured above) about the 35-year professional partnership of two British-born Greek Cypriots at the Gilded Balloon.
TUESDAY AUGUST 15
A terrific day on the fringe starts with Olivia Ruggiero’s BROADWAY DIVA (at the Assembly Rooms), a gentle hour of great Broadway songs, not all of them obvious, that are luminously well sung by an Australian soprano who has recently relocated to London.
Next, also at the Assembly Rooms, I see the return of Cora Bissett’s moving autobiographical show WHAT GIRLS ARE FOR (pictured above) that tells a punky, spunky story of trying to make it in the music industry — as the losses and setbacks mount up, she shows resilience and survival.
Another musical performer Declan Bennett presented an equally autobiographical solo show BOY OUT THE CITY, about finding himself alone in the Oxfordshire countryside during lockdown as his boyfriend works abroad, and discovering the true value of surrender.
I’ve been on a similar journey: my husband and I also moved out of London, and as a city boy born and bred, I’ve found a new me with different priorities now. (I’ve also done a lot of recovery programme work)
FInally today I see Benjamin Scheuer’s A MOUNTAIN FOR ELODIE at Gilded Balloon’s Patter Hoose; this is an intense and moving exploration of fatherhood, grief and the impossibility of achieving closure. In 2014, he brought his first solo musical THE LION, about being diagnosed with cancer at the age of 29, to Edinburgh; it became my favourite musical of that year when it transferred to London’s St James Studio (now the Other Palace). Now in his early 40s, the new show picks up where the previous one left off, as he becomes a father for the first time (despite fertility problems thanks to his sperm looking like ‘banged up cars’, as his specialist tells him). Heart-rending and heart-warming by turns, it is an evening of stunning songs, devastating storytelling and thrilling guitar playing.
WEDNESDAY AUGUST 16
One of those duff days on the fringe, where I see two consecutive duds: Tim Whitnall’s LENA, at the Gordon Aikman Theatre in George Square, is a deeply pedestrian bio-musical of the one-time child star Lena Zavaroni and her early death, aged just 35, of anorexia; though Erin Armstrong in the title role gives a gorgeously voiced impersonation of the star, the play makes much less of an impression.
Then Kieran Hurley’s ADULTS, at the Traverse, is a squirm-inducing sex comedy about a straight married schoolteacher hiring a male sex worker and meeting one of his former pupils managing the brothel. Even Conleth Hill can’t redeem it.
Meanwhile, back down South, I miss tonight’s press night for Simon Williams’s ALONE TOGETHER at Windsor Theatre Royal. It’s refreshing to see an unsubsidised regional theatre giving house room to a brand-new play; I recently interviewed its stars Martin Shaw and Jenny Seagrove for the theatre’s website here, so I went to a matinee last week. These actors have long collaborated on both stage and screen; playing a tetchy long-time married couple, Williams has provided a moving portrait of how the re-discover the importance of communicating with each other, and Shaw and Seagrove have an effortless secret language to do so that yet again makes a kind of theatrical magic. (They are joined by the excellent Josh Goudling, pictured above with them).
It’s a play that benefits from not knowing about any of the surprises it springs, so no spoilers here — but it cuts deep and hard about grief, denial and coping strategies in long-term relationships, as well as more modern online ones.
THURSDAY AUGUST 17
My busiest day at Edinburgh begins with a 10am showing at the Traverse of the New Diorama’s AFTER THE ACT, a powerful verbatim musical using real-life experiences around the homophobic Section 28 legislation that the Conservatives introduced to outlaw the promotion of homosexuality as a “pretend family relationship” in the mid-80s. Like LONDON ROAD, the National Theatre’s brilliant musical based on the real-life (and death) stories of the serial murderer of Ipswich-based prostitutes, it tells an important story vividly and musically.
Adam Lenson, who gave up training to become a doctor to become a theatre director and Twitter activist instead, is presenting a solo autobiographical musical ANYTHING THAT WE WANTED TO BE at Summerhall. An inventive (but not invented!) re-telling of his own cancer journey when he was just 34, it is both powerful and involving.
Alice Carey’s THE FLEA (at Hill Street Theatre) is another solo show that tells a punchy tale of a woman’s dependence on male approval that has her surrendering herself to her partner’s manipulative behaviour. It is scarily convincing. (One of the incidental pleasures of being in Edinburgh are chance encounters: running the bar at Hill Street is a long-time twitter follower of mine, actor Ross Jamieson, and it turns out that he has agreed with me on many issues! What a pleasure to find someone who aligns with one’s own views!
LEECH (at Greenside @ Infirmary Street) may have annoyed this critic by starting without him (through no fault of my own, see above), but this scrappy but entertaining farce, performed by a cast of actors who are mostly just 18 years old, was a lot of fun.
I end the day at Edinburgh Playhouse, the largest theatre in the city (and indeed the UK), with over 3000 seats, to see a double-bill of Pina Bausch dance pieces performed by a company from the Senegal. The auditorium is stiflingly hot; why on earth does this theatre not have functioning air conditioning here after collecting restoration fees for years?
Still, it was thrilling at last to experience Bausch’s THE RITES OF SPRING live and in person; its intricate patterns of athletic movement are breathtaking to watch.
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-august-20-2023/
See you here on Friday
I will be here on Friday. If you can’t wait that long, I may also be found on Twitter (for the moment) here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/, as well as Threads and Instagram with the same handle (@ShentonStage).