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). This now appears every Monday instead of Friday.
MONDAY OCTOBER 2
My week in review(s) column of news and reviews (including my own) across the last week (from September 25 to October 1) is here: https://shentonstage.com/shentonstage-daily-the-week-in-reviews/
Regular readers will already know how obsessed I am by Tim Minchin and Danny Rubin’s musical version of GROUNDHOG DAY; it will open in Melbourne, Australia, next January, and this may be the spur that gets me back Down Under for the first time in a decade.
TUESDAY OCTOBER 3
Tonight saw the official West End opening of Sondheim’s OLD FRIENDS, the new Cameron Mackintosh devised and produced tribute show to the late composer, who died in 2021. I reviewed it in full for PLAYS INTERNATIONAL here: https://playsinternational.org.uk/stephen-sondheims-old-friends-at-gielgud-theatre/
It was born, of course, of the one-night gala tribute held at the Sondheim Theatre in May 2022 to mark his passing. But just as SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM marked Mackintosh’s first foray to Broadway in 1977 (after he transferred it, sight-unseen, to the West End from a country house festival produced by John Dankworth and Cleo Laine the previous year), Mackintosh has now brought it — and headliner star Bernadette Peters in her formal West End debut for an extended West End run to bring his long personal and professional association with Sondheim full circle.
As I note in my review, a misleading claim is made for the material selected as having been drawn primarily from shows that Mackintosh personally oversaw productions of. But who cares who claims credit for what: this show is a glittering evening, if a hardly ever surprising one.
And as a friend has pointed out, there’s a Sondheim revue at the Gielgud, a play about Gielgud soo. at the Coward, and a play by Coward at the Ambassadors!
WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 4
London also has a Shaw Theatre on the Euston Road, but it is hardly ever used for theatre productions anymore but is buried inside a hotel where it is mainly a conference facility. So we are instead being treated to a Shaw revival, not at the Shaw Theatre but at the Old Vic, where Richard Jones made his reputation in the mid-1980s with his boldy iconoclastic takes on classic plays, and now returns to stage PYGMALION in a wildly expressionist take.
He’s still breaking with convention and surprising us. It is stunningly cast with Bertie Carvel, one of our most chameleon actors, as Professor Higgins (third from the right above), Patsy Ferran as Eliza Doolittle, (second from left), Sylvestra Le Touzel as Mrs Higgins (extreme right above) and John Marquez as Alfred Doolittle (extreme left). All triumph to show something completely different.
THURSDAY OCTOBER 5
Today I had a two-show day, paying a long-overdue return visit to the ever-enterprising Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond in the afternoon, to see Josh Seymour’s scorching revival of Polly Stenham’s wounding 2007 play of family dysfunction, THAT FACE, in which two siblings confront the impact of their parental neglect.
Since I first saw the play at the Royal Court in its original production, I’ve dealt with the fall-out of my own family trauma in a 12-step fellowship that deals specifically with those legacies and helps you to process and move on from them. I’ve now successfully done so, but seeing this play again struck particularly poignant notes as I regularly hear stories like these in the rooms. This is a bruising play, and bracingly well acted by a cast that is led by Niamh Cusack as the falling-apart matriarch (above left).
And tonight I saw the return of Cal McCrystal’s ivacious English National Opera production of the G&S warhorse IOLANTHE, stunningly designed, wittily staged and choreographed, and gorgeously sung.
News that STARLIGHT EXPRESS is due to return to London in a new immersive production that will open at Wembley’s Troubadour Theatre next year prompted the above hilarious Hamlet cartoon in THE STAGE.
FRIDAY OCTOBER 6
Last night saw the official London opening, at last, of FLOWERS FOR MRS HARRIS, a warm-hearted delight of a British musical, at Riverside Studios, after different productions were seen at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre in 2016 and at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2018.
When I reviewed it for The Stage at Sheffield, I wrote that “Rachel Wagstaff’s book and Richard Taylor’s virtually through-sung score lends it a very British kind of aching longing and steadfast determination that never seems strident but always feels plausible. There are no applause breaks to disrupt the flow, either, just a glowing warmth that spreads infectiously across the entire auditorium.”
Clare Burt — now one of the stars of OLD FRIENDS (see above) — originated the role of Ada Harris, the Battersea charwoman widow who dreams of owning a Christian Dior dress and raises the funds to go to Paris to realise her dreams. Now she is succeed by the no-less perfect casting of Jenna Russell (pictured above with me after the show on Wednesday night, when I saw it)
She brings her special sense of everyday ordinariness and yet crushing feeling to the stage in a performance that is simply spellbindingly true and makes the show utterly unmissable.
Last saw a performance of LES MISERABLES at the Sondheim Theatre brought to a halt by climate change activists from STOP OIL; the rest of the show was cancelled and the audience refunded.
There are plenty of opinions about this on Twitter, naturally, but I was drawn to this comment by actor Alex Young:
And Alistair Brammer, who has actually appeared in the show, also tweeted:
SATURDAY OCTOBER 7
This afternoon I belatedly caught UNBELIEVABLE, the new Derren Brown co-devised magic show at the West End’s Criterion Theatre, in which he pulls off the ultimate magic trick of headlining a show without having to actually appear on the stage himself.
Though the compelling charisma of Brown himself is missing, the show is similar in structure to one of his own shows, with a neat dovetailing of historical context and thrilling surprises that are neatly packaged with showmanship.
And in the evening I saw the last performance — at least for now, I hope — of the Donmar Warehouse’s London premiere of NEXT TO NORMAL. This was my sixth viewing in all — three of them in the last week eight days alone — of a show I simply love.
Star Caissie Levy is pictured above in her curtain speech, thanking all the people who have helped make it happen, from understudies and FOH staff to the crew and creative team. What a wonderful send-off to a glorious show!
SUNDAY OCTOBER 8
In an interview with the Daily Telegraph to promote a new memoir called DIFFERENT ASPECTS, Michael Ball is revealingly honest about many things, including the recent failure of the revival of ASPECTS OF LOVE to take the town. “Some shows are simply of their time. To be honest, ASPECTS was never a great hit anyway,” he tells Claire Allfree.
He also states:
At least he’s honest about the expectations of undiluted praise. And that helps to explain the rise of the gushing fan bloggers, who offer it unfiltered on demand, in preference to critics who may state inconvenient truths or at least opinions.,
This year’s UK Theatre Awards were held today at London’s Guildhall; I used to attend these regularly, as for several years I was one of the critical judging panel that decided the winners. Though it’s impossible for any individual critic to see all the potential nominees from shows across the country, the way it works is that individual ones will strongly champion a particular nomination, and win the support of their fellow panellists to vote for their choices. It’s duly gratifying to see the tiny unfunded Mill at Sonning win the award for Best Musical Production for their summer revival of GYPSY — I didn’t see it, either, but I’m sure it was well-deserved.
Former BBC news presenter Joanna Gosling was ‘let go’ after 23 years on the job; in today’s Sunday Times, she writes movingly and honestly of the impact it had on her.
“Starting out again in midlife (actually at any stage — I’ve done it once already in the form of getting divorced) is scary. And yet most people who’ve done it will say it can be a springboard to a new, happier life. For me that’s been true after both of my life-changing periods, but you have to be brave to grasp change and stick with it.”
She goes on to say:
“The question of identity has to be faced by everyone going through a big change. No longer married. No longer a journalist, or lawyer, or teacher. Whatever it is that has given you status is about to go. Who would I be now? How might that affect me? How might it affect how others saw me? While my job was high-profile, it never felt about status, because that wasn’t why I did it. But, still, I had to be really honest about whether I had been too glib about this, by really considering all that flowed from my status: a good salary, a shorthand understanding by others of who I am and what I can do, probably benefits I didn’t perceive or seek out. The job I had done for 30 years was integral to who I was.”
This resonated strongly with me — as someone who has spent the last twenty years wrapped up in my identity of being a paid theatre critic, I’ve ended up, post-pandemic, of being in the position of no longer being able to earn a living from my writing.
But I’m still doing it here, because it is part of who I am. But the terms under which I now do it have changed — fundamentally for the better, too. I am no longer beholden to, or controlled, by editors who can affect my income, and require me to make compromises on my opinions (which have long had a tendency to get me into trouble). So what if a press agent denies me tickets? I can and will buy tickets to shows I want to see. But I also don’t need anymore to see them all, either. I’m now, for the first time in my critical life, my own man, and free at last of outside influence. It is a priceless commodity.
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-october-9-2023/
See you here next Monday
I will be here again next Monday. 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 Instagram with the same handle (@ShentonStage).