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).
MONDAY OCTOBER 23
My week in review(s) column of news and reviews (including my own) across the last week (from October 16-22) is here: https://shentonstage.com/shentonstage-daily-the-week-in-reviews-october-16-22/
At the opening of tonight’s return run of ENO’s 2013 production of LA TRAVIATA, it was nice once again, for the second time this season after PETER GRIMES a few weeks ago, to see the full ENO orchestra join conductor Richard Farnes in taking an onstage bow at the curtain calls.
Given the current state of morale at the company, where Martyn Brabbins recently stepped down from his role as the company’s music director (as I wrote here), at least the musicians — whose livelihoods are being threatened in the ongoing restructuring of the company — can bask in the audience’s appreciation of their fine work. Except that applause alone will not pay their bills.
But seeing them onstage, as a collective force, is a salutary reminder of what goes into creating the production we’ve just seen and especially heard. To be honest, there was less to look at during the show itself, which is scenically dull, with a set made up primarily of red drapes that are repeatedly reconfigured. But the music soared throughout.
TUESDAY OCTOBER 24
Today came news that I’ve long been dreading: the death of Bill Kenwright last night, aged 78, was formally announced this afternoon. He’d had major surgery for liver cancer a few weeks ago, and then spent a long time in intensive care, but had finally been discharged home, so I hoped a corner had been turned. But it was not to be.
He had lived several lives all at once; one of the most prolific theatre producers we’ve ever had in the UK — at times during the 90s he would have up to ten shows playing in the West End, as well as being the anchor of the touring programmes for many regional theatres — he was also a long-time football fan who became a majority shareholder of premier league team Everton and its long-time chairman.
I really didn’t know — or understand — his football life, though I know it gave him immense pleasure, and more recently even more pain, when he was forced to pass the ownership on to those with deeper pockets, but that have still not proved deep enough to appease the fans. It must have been a huge blow to him that he was unable to attend matches even before his illness struck, on police advice for the negativity of the fans. (The board of directors were told not to attend, due to “‘a real and credible threat to their safety and security” following “malicious and unacceptably threatening correspondence” sent into the club.)
The two most recent shows I saw by Bill Kenwright Ltd are truly representative of his passion, populism and ability to pick unexpected winners: a new tour for CALENDAR GIRLS — THE MUSICAL (which, like BLOOD BROTHERS that he revived in 1988 and took on to a nearly quarter-century run in the West End) had not been a big success on its original outing under different producing auspices, but now looks like a winner, and FRANK AND PERCY, a new play by a young playwright called Ben Weatheriill that stars Ian McKellen and Roger Allam, currently running at the Other Palace, a theatre he personally owned in Victoria after buying it from Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Over the years he had taken over the management and control of several flailing regional theatres, from the Liverpool Playhouse and Leatherhead’s Thorndike Theatre to (currently) the Theatre Royal, Windsor, and reinvigorated them.. He was also, for several years, Peter Hall’s producing partner for his own West End company.
But most of all, Bill Kenwright meant a lot to me personally: he was a mentor and supporter through tough times and happy times. He and his partner Jenny Seagrove were guests at a party my husband and I held in London in 2012 to celebrate our wedding. We’d speak and see each other regularly, bonded by our shared experience of depression, but mostly our true love for the theatre, which I know he recognised in me, often telling me I was the Jack TInker of my day (the late Daily Mail critic who was another champion of the theatre). Though he ran a famously tight ship in his productions, there were few more personally generous than Bill with his support, both financial and emotional.
When I first told him about my need for spinal surgery, he offered to fund it — though I didn’t need to take him up on it as I had private insurance, it was lovely knowing it was available. I know many actors, down on their luck through addictions or other problems, who were looked after by him personally.
He was a warm, gregarious and emotional friend. I regarded him as the father I never had, but had never told him. During the summer, I told Jenny, and she told me I should tell him. In our final conversation a few weeks ago, before he went for his surgery, we both spoke about how we soldier on despite the pain in our bodies — that keeping busy keeps us going. And I was able to finally say that he was a father figure to me. My actual father is still alive somewhere, but I will never speak to or see him again in this life. But I’ve now said goodbye to the man who was like a father instead.
WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 25
When friends join me on my reviewing trips to the theatre, they’re often fascinated by the process of how it all works, like whether and how I take notes (I do, but they’re most illegible; it’s the act of writing, however, that creates a memory I can draw on).
In a feature for the New York Times, its chief theatre critic Jesse Green was followed by an editor at the paper Sarah Bahr, to document the process first hand.
After he takes his aisle seats, she writes, “He pulled out a five-by-eight-inch red spiral notepad, slipped on a pair of dark blue glasses, and wrote the show’s name and the date at the top of the page. It would be the most legible thing he would write all evening. ‘The first thing I do after a show is transcribe my notes,’ Green told me. ‘They’re unreadable half the time, but they’re still helpful to jog my memory’.”
It’s reassuring to know that he feels the same as I do! And also: “Even after a thousand reviews, staring down a deadline fills me with fear. After all, you start with nothing but what’s in your head and a few nearly illegible scribbles in your notebook.” But writing, he said, should be a pleasure, not a curse. “It must grow from fear to enjoyment,” he said. “It remains an amazement to me that it so often does.”
True again. One of my favourite lines in any musical is what Dot says of Suerat approaching the job of painting in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. “A blank page or canvas. His favourite. So many possibilities.” I feel the same about a blank computer screen. And often I will start writing not knowing what I actually feel about a show; but by the time I finish writing, I do.
THURSDAY OCTOBER 26
Last night I caught an intriguingly subversive one-man show #IHeartMichaelBall at Islington’s Old Red Lion Theatre about an obsessive Michael Ball fan (who is a lot less keen on Alfie Boe). The fans can be scary; this one is both sweet AND scary (and really channels his hero’s voice too).
It’s a bit of a spoiler, perhaps, to point out that the show was presented as part of the Old Red Lion’s Grimfest season of horror-themed shows, but this show hauntingly provides a back story of family abuse that drives its obsessive fan to a dark place. I wouldn’t recommend the show to Alfie, though.
FRIDAY OCTOBER 27
Another night, another one-man show, but this time intensely autobiographical: I’d previously seen Sam Morrison’s SUGAR DADDY at Off-Broadway’s Soho Playhouse, and tonight I revisited it at another Soho — Soho Theatre in London.
I wrote about seeing it in New York here, and found it just as bracing on my second viewing. Morrison has a nervous energy that is disarming, but also a serious purpose: by sharing his grief at the loss of his partner (from COVID), he is freeing himself from it, too, in an act of true remembrance for the lover he lost.
It’s a beautiful story of love and loss, with lots of laughter.
SATURDAY OCTOBER 28
I was due to see a matinee of Penelope Skinner’s new play LYONESSE that opened in the West End on Wednesday today, but late in the morning I got an email from the show’s PR saying they had an understudy on for one of the actors, who would be reading the role on book, so could I reschedule.
It may well be asked why a professional West End show did not yet have its understudies prepared, but the bigger question — from reading most of the reviews — was how it had even got to the stage at all. In an interview in THE STAGE with playwright Penelope Skinner, it is revealed: “She sent Lyonesse to [director Ian] Rickson, who sent it to [producer Sonia] Friedman, without telling Skinner. A reading was arranged and very quickly casting was being discussed, with [Kristin] Scott Thomas top of the list to play Elaine.”
Brand-new plays opening untested in the West End are vanishingly rare — though last night previews began for another, BACKSTAIRS BILLY, that Michael Grandage has brought to the Duke of York’s — but clearly this one became a star-driven vehicle once Rickson conscripted Friedman’s attention.
I feel I may have had a lucky escape now, and won’t need to see it at all.
SUNDAY OCTOBER 29
Today’s news of the passing of Matthew Perry, one of the stars of TV’s FRIENDS in the 90s who became a friend to us all through it, at the age of just 54 was another shock, though not an entirely unexpected one, given his very public struggle with addictions.
In 2016 he brought an autobiographically based play THE END OF LONGING the West End (and took it off-Broadway a year later); reviewing it for THE GUARDIAN at the time, Michael Billington wrote, “Given Perry’s well-documented, and happily conquered, period of addiction, the play feels at times like a piece of confessional therapy: when the audience applauds Jack’s climactic account of confronting his personal demons, you are not quite sure whether they are cheering the character or the actor.”
Perry had written a lot about his struggles with his addictions; and the most moving thing I read today was something he wrote anticipating how he might be remembered.
I’ve been public, too, about some of my own mental health battles; and he’s quite right. I hope that my own biggest contribution to the world is to have provided hope to others who suffer from depression that they’re not alone. And it’s why in 12-step recovery, I’ve also done a lot of service, helping others to find help through the two programmes I’ve been part of.
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-30-2023/
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).