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 30
My week in review(s) column of news and reviews (including my own) across the last week (from October 23-29) is here: https://shentonstage.com/shentonstage-daily-the-week-in-reviews-oct-23-29/
Tonight marked the 1st anniversary of the opening of @sohoplace, Nica Burns’s beautiful new purpose-built West End theatre that foregrounds accessibility and has made major strides towards inclusivity in every one of its productions so far, employing physically disabled, neurodiverse and deaf actors, and with THE LITTLE BIG THINGS is hosting a brand-new British musical based on the true story of a young man who suffered a catastrophic spinal injury on a holiday in Portugal that changed his life forever at the age of 17.
My original review for PLAYS INTERNATIONAL Is here; but on a third viewing, this is still the most moving — and thrillingly inclusive and exhilarating — original British musical in town. Simply gorgeous!
TUESDAY OCTOBER 31
Tickets are now on sale for what’s being billed as “the last, last UK concerts” for BARRY MANILOW, who I’ve been following for more than forty years. (Next week I’ll be in New York to see HARMONY, his long-aborning original musical, finally make its Broadway bow).
I’ve seen him everywhere from Broadway (in a 1989 concert run at the Gershwin Theatre) and Las Vegas to the Royal Albert Hall and O2 Arena; it’s lovely that I’ll now be seeing him off in the comparative intimacy of the London Palladium, where he’ll be a few weeks shy of his 81st birthday when his run there ends.
He’s had an amazing innings, and created a body of work writing songs that, as one of his biggest hits puts it, “makes the whole world sing.”
WEDNESDAY NOVEMBER 1
Time was, not so very long ago, that I’d run myself ragged trying to see, if not EVERYTHING, then as much as I possibly could. Of course it was always an impossibility.
I’ve now embraced being defeated — but more importantly, cutting the ones I just don’t need to see. After reading the reviews for the revival of The Pillowman, for instance, I was persuaded not to waste my time — a decision confirmed by its producer’s desperate use of an admiring quote from an all-too-reliably gushing blogger above the canopy (a sure sign, of course, that the show had not been able to muster more credible quotes). Then the show’s director Matthew Dunster tweeted at the end of the run, “fuck the critics”, and I knew I’d made the right decision, and tweeted as much.
But then the star Lily Allen took umbrage — how dare I not see her play? In the narcissistic world she inhabits, my failure to take an interest in seeing her show was an insult — not a decision I could have possibly reached rationally. (Our twitter ‘spat’ meant that I achieved the dubious distinction of being reported on by none other than the NME).
She shouldn’t have taken it so personally. Last weekend I was due to see LYONESSE, the brand-new play that has opened “cold” in the West End without a prior subsidised run starring another Lily (this time, James, not Allen) and Kristin Scott Thomas, and it has earned mostly dismal one or two star notices.
But when I was asked to delay my planned visit last Saturday afternoon by the fact that an unprepared understudy would be reading in for one of the supporting cast, I decided not to reschedule but give myself a break entirely. (Just as Doon Mackichan, the absent actor, has now chosen to do so herself, withdrawing from the production with immediate effect).
Reading today’s reviews for Kenneth Branagh’s KING LEAR — which he has directed and also plays the title role in, alongside a cast made up entirely of fellow graduates of his Alma mater, RADA — has similarly spared me an evening in the theatre. (I have, after all, seen the play often enough; and I don’t need to indulge its star’s nepotistic vanity to see it again).
I sometimes think it is the public duty of critics to see things so that others don’t need to. I’ve also recently passed on Portia Coughlan at the Almeida and the RSC’s Hamnett after reading some of the reviews (though they have not been as critical as most were for LYONESSE or Lear).
THURSDAY NOVEMBER 2
Last night I was at the opening of THE TIME TRAVELLER’S WIFE at the Apollo, which was met with a mostly hostile press this morning. (My own considered — and considerably warmer — response is here: https://playsinternational.org.uk/the-time-travellers-wife-at-the-apollo-theatre/)
It has taken a year for it to get to the West End since its try-out at Chester’s Storyhouse, showing yet again the biggest pressure for producers is finding an available theatre. But it’s only the final hurdle in the obstacle course of staging a brand-new musical: in a programme note, producer Colin Ingram says how five workshops were held for the show between 2019 and 2022 (one of them on Zoom). Now all this effort could be derailed by its reception.
A similarly abbreviated fate befell the 2014 stage version of MADE IN DAGENHAM that premiered at the Adelphi Theatre but lasted barely six months. But Richard Bean, David Arnold and RIchard Thomas’s musical has not died completely; in 2016, a co-production between Ipswich’s New Wolsey and the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch — a few stops from Dagenham itself — brought the show “home” to where it is set.
And today I saw another production of the show, this time at ArtsEd, the West London drama school (where I proudly ught for nine years, until 2021, so my final classes, held online during the pandemic, were with these third year students when they were in their first years).
I’m sad that in future years I won’t have gotten to known some of the students there before seeing them in their 3rd year productions like this; it has been one of the privileges of my life to have watched young talents that have included Jac Yarrow, Dom Simpson, Miriam Teake-Lee and Tom Francis (currently starring in SUNSET BOULEVARD at the Savoy, three years after graduating in 2020) becoming leading West End players.
From today’s polished and heartfelt company of MADE IN DAGENHAM, there’s a particularly mature and marvellous performance from Zara McLellan as Labour cabinet minister Barbara Castle.
FRIDAY NOVEMBER 3
I’ve recently caught two outstanding solo shows. Maimuna Memon’s MANIC STREET CREATURE (at Southwark Playhouse, to November 11) and Anoushka Lucas’s ELEPHANT (at the Bush Theatre to November 12), that provide their author/actor/singer creators superb personal showcases, but also serve a wider purpose.
Memon — a singer-songwriter who was so scintillating in STANDING A AT THE SKY’S EDGE at the National — offers an intense and intimate flip side to the story of NEXT TO NORMAL, telling what it is to be the partner of someone who suffers from severe depression.
As someone who has suffered ongoing depressions for much of my adult life — though I’ve now worked a 12-step family trauma fellowship that has, I hope, finally vanquished those demons — I relate to this show, at least from my empathetic understanding of how I imagine my husband must have felt.
I have felt essentially unlovable for great stretches of my life, yet the evidence of my husband’s love is there to contradict this narrative. But if I can’t rescue myself, it has always been doomed to failure to expect rescue from someone else. But time and again, I have sought out relationships — or jobs — that I hope will do so.
Maimon’s show is a shatteringly honest and heartbreaking portrait of what it costs her, too.
Meanwhile, in ELEPHANT, Lucas, who was so utterly wonderful as Laurie in the import of OKLAHOMA! to the West End, offers an intimate and searing portrait of identity and curating yourself to people’s expectations. What a big hearted and thoughtful play that uses her personal biography to tell a bigger story of the contradictory pull of assimilation and alienation.
SATURDAY NOVEMBER 4
I arrived in New York late last night for another week of theatre and cabaret. Things did not get off to a good start, as my BA flight from Gatwick (which is about 30 minutes from where I live in West Sussex) was cancelled while I was en route to the airport, and I was rebooked to fly from Heathrow instead in the evening.
So I had to make my way across town to Heathrow instead. Luckily I had allowed myself plenty of time, and hadn’t planned on seeing a show tonight, but when I asked BA if they would cover the extra expense of the re-route, they replied that as I’d accepted the change, I wouldn’t be eligible for any compensation.
I’ve not flown BA for over 25 years, and here was a timely reminder why: THEY made the change, and TOLD me to go to Heathrow instead. I’d not exactly accepted it — I had NO CHOICE.
And then I arrived in New York and checked into easily the worst hotel i”ve ever stayed at here — the bed was so uncomfortable I barely got any sleep at all, so today I checked out again and moved to a much nicer hotel in the Theatre District….. It’s at times like this that I really miss having my own apartment here, as my husband and I did for a decade from 2012.
Still, it’s all worth it in the end to be back again in this most dynamic of theatre cities. This afternoon I caught a new production of PAL JOEY, the 1940 Rodgers/Hart and O’Hara classic musical, that has been deconstructed and reconstructed from the inside out at City Center.
Launching the 30th anniversary of the ENCORES! series of classic musicals being re-appraised there — and the 80th anniversary of City Center itself — this production is more wholesale revisal htan revival, much as CRAZY FOR YOU did for the 1930 Gershwin musical GIRL CRAZY; but there they at least signalled the overhaul with a title change, as well.
So I can understand that defenders of the original PAL JOEY are disappointed that the show only occasionally resembles the original: not only do the songs that have been retained sound very different in the entirely new arrangements, but a jukebox musical approach has seen songs from elsewhere in the R&Hart catalogue interpolated alongside them.
It’s a similar approach to how Kander and Ebb’s 1977 screen musical NEW YORK, NEW YORK was earlier this year brought to Broadway. But unlike that misfire, the creative team here — led by co-directors Tony Goldwyn and Savion Glover (who also choreographs and appears as part of a soft-shuffling ensemble of ‘ghost’ characters) feel as if they’re creating a different mood board and vibe entirely. Rich, widowed society lady Vera Simpson’s courtship of a studly young club singer Joey Evans is now amplified by being about an inter-racial as well as inter-age relationship.
As stunningly played by Ephraim Sykes and Elizabeth Stanley (pictured above), there’s danger and subversion to their highly charged coupling. Brooks Ashmanskas also delivers a tour-de-force, as a re-gendered society gossip columnist who delivers a sizzling version of the show’s wonderfully jagged Zip, while one of Broadway’s original Dreamgirls — Loretta Devine, who created the role of Lorell in that 1981 show — makes a long-overdue return to the New York stage as club owner Lucille Wallace.
SUNDAY NOVEMBER 5
Stephen Sondheim, a composer who spent his entire career reinventing the Broadway musical, remained experimental to the last, leaving one unproduced show at the time of his passing in 2021 that he’d been working on for a long time with playwright David Ives, inspired by two Luis Buñuel films.
Shortly before he died, he approved plans for it to be brought to the stage, and its current world premiere at the Shed, at Hudson Yards, is of course An Event.
But this experimental existential drama is also an infuriatingly unsatisfying coda to his extraordinary body of work that comprises a second act that is mostly a play, not a musical (there’s just one full song, and a lot of underscoring). Yet as directed by Joe Mantello, it has the redeeming quality of a never less-than-watchable all-star cast of theatre regulars, including Bobby Cannavale, Micaela Diamond, Amber Gray, Rachel Bay Jones, Steve Pasquale, Jeremy Shamos, David Hyde-Pierce, Denis O’Hare and Britain’s own Tracie Bennett.
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-november-6-2023/
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).