Apologies for making an unscheduled absence from here for the last fortnight, but life has been intervening in making things feel particularly overwhelming.
The last two Mondays have involved the funeral of my mother-in-law (pictured below), and a memorial for Bill Kenwright: two people who impacted on my life in very different ways, but who shared an unconditional acceptance of me for who I am, and gave me a lot of love. I will miss them both immensely. (I’ve previously written about Bill’s impact on my life at the time of his passing here).
Of course life unfortunately doesn’t take a pause even when I feel compelled to take one myself, so as I catch up today there’s quite a few big stories to report — while other events that seemed important at the time are already entirely diminished.
Does anyone really care, for example, who actually won the MAMMA MIA! reality casting show to take over as Sophie and Sky in January? (All the finalists were professionally trained, so the winners could have equally been selected in a conventional casting). But as a prime time extended advertorial for the original West End production — now approaching its 25th anniversary — it served a very different, nakedly promotional purpose.
On the other hand, the announcement of Indhu Rubasingham, to take over the artistic directorship at the NT, sets a new bar of inclusivity as the first woman and person of colour to hold the post. It breaks the long stranglehold of white men — three of the five to have held the post so far were also Cambridge educated (Indhu went to Hull University, while her immediate predecessor Rufus Norris was a RADA trained actor).
Also announced last week: ENO is officially relocating to Manchester, a decision that is likely to be Nadine Dorries’s lasting political legacy, and not necessarily in a good way. Though I don’t want to pre-judge the outcome, there will be significant challenges ahead.
MONDAY DECEMBER 4
My week in review(s) column of news and reviews (including my own) across the last week (from ) is Nov 27-Dec 3:
Tonight I returned to see SUNSET BOULEVARD at the Savoy, specifically to see Nicole Scherzinger’s Monday evening stand-in Rachel Tucker (pictured above second from right). I have already much admired Jamie Lloyd’s utterly audacious take on this Andrew Lloyd Webber/Don Black/Christopher Hampton warhorse in my review for PLAYS INTERNATIONAL here, but Tucker’s performance takes it to another level again: ferociously well-sung and fiercely well acted, this is one of the performances of the entire year and undoubtedly the best Norma I’ve yet seen (from a catalogue that stretches from Patit LuPone and Glenn Close to Betty Buckley, Elaine Paige and Petula Clark).
She’s found herself, unfairly, on the scrapheap of fame, despite still clearly being a simmering object of beauty and passion; Tucker projects her heartbreaking need for continued validation through a prism of desperation and desire. The rest of the production — thrilling in its youth and sense of dynamism — casts a dark pall over her dilemma; but even her ever-loyal former husband Max is darkly sexy, as played by David Thaxton, to amplify the distance from her perception of a world where youth is to be chased at all cost to reality,
TUESDAY DECEMBER 5
Today came English National Opera’s official announcement that Manchester has been selected as its new home base, with a press release announcing. “ENO will be firmly established within Greater Manchester by 2029, delivering performances, wellbeing and learning activity with multiple partners and venues across the city-region, whilst continuing its substantial opera season every year at its London home, the London Coliseum.”
Of course there’s a long way to go between now and 2029, but this apparently now irrevocable course of action — set in train by a now long-departed culture secretary Nadine Dorries, who in the end was very slow to formally resign and continued to take her full salary even after announcing she was stepping down from parliament — will have a big hill to climb.
As Observer classical critic Fiona Maddocks eloquently put it in her review column,
“Greater Manchester has a population of under 3 million. Greater London’s is nearer 10 million yet apparently cannot sustain two major opera companies. Opera North, an exceptional and focused organisation, performs regularly in Salford. Everyone – ENO, Greater Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, the Labour council and city mayor, the new Factory International, the Lowry, Arts Council England, Opera North and, for good measure, the government, the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House as well as a few more – is delighted, according to the press release. Everyone, we must assume, except ENO’s chorus, orchestra and technical staff, whose future is bleak, and whose collective voice is unheard. An opera company is not an idea. Nor is it a team of administrators. Or a building, even one as troublesome but loved as the Coliseum. It is a body of highly skilled musicians and backstage magicians who, through their hard-won expertise, make it all happen. They give the company its identity, its character, its sound, its sense of community, its quality, its spirit, its ethos, its heart. If they too are delighted and thrilled, so will I be. For now, I reserve judgment.”
WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 6
Actor Jason Manford posted a social media post on his Twitter/X account about the disgraceful state of the Manchester Opera House after a performance of the panto JACK AND THE BEANSTALK that he is appearing in there.
This is naturally appalling for anyone with any sense that people should tidy up after themselves, but the theatre is to blame for both selling the stuff in the first place (at a great profit) and not making adequate provision for people to easily discard their trash afterwards. But then audiences nowadays are being encouraged to put their needs, which seem to include the need to consume vast quantities of snacks, ahead of the actual reason they’re there, to see the show on the stage
THURSDAY DECEMBER 7
I was back at the exhilarating GUYS AND DOLLS at the Bridge Theatre (for the 4th time) tonight — and it was superb, as ever, though there was a second act show stop, before they descend to the sewers from the mission, when a riser failed to rise and I saw a dancer fall off the platform that wasn’t in place; luckily he was not injured, but it demonstrates, in real time, the challenges of a production with so many moving parts.
And it demonstrates just how important strong stage management is; the failure should have been noticed sooner, but wasn’t until a dancer met a drop in the stage level that wasn’t supposed to be there.
FRIDAY DECEMBER 8
A sad farewell to one of the most pioneering but unsung heroes of post-war British theatre: Richard Pilbrow has died, aged 90. He was a leading lighting designer of his generation who became a leading consultant in new theatrical builds, including the construction of the National Theatre.
It was on the stage of the Olivier that in 2016 I hosted a panel discussion with him to celebrate the NT’s 40 years on the South Bank. He was a generous and warm man, and his legacy will live on.
SATURDAY DECEMBER 9
Today I caught up with Annie Baker’s INFINITE LIFE at the National Theatre, in a transfer from New York’s Atlantic Theatre. The play is an evocative, enthralling meditation on living with pain; as I do so myself, 24/7, it has a particularly powerful personal resonance; but the superb naturalistic performances by a cast of US theatre royalty make it transcendent.
It’s a deeply uncomfortable play to watch, but it takes its audience on a journey to a place of exquisite kinsmanship amongst the patients that made me feel at one with them. They are me and I am them; not a place I want to be, necessarily, but as I am, their acceptance and forbearance is mine, too.
One thing I do with my current spinal condition is to count my blessings: at least I’m still mobile, albeit in physical pain. Henry, the lead character in THE LITTLE BIG THINGS, paralysed since an accident at the age of 17, is in a wheelchair; but his story is a heartfelt one of accepting and overcoming this limitation. As such, it was a wonderful companion piece to revisit after seeing INFINITE LIFE; taking my husband to see it for my fourth viewing, I marvelled anew at just how beautiful, tender and tuneful it is.
It is undoubtedly my favourite new musical of the year; and it has the most inclusive, inspiring cast of any show in town. I’ll be returning a few more times before it closes in March, I’m sure.
SUNDAY DECEMBER 10
Tonight I was at the Novello Theatre for the live television finale to the reality TV contest MAMMA MIA — I HAVE A DREAM that saw Stevie Doc and Tobias Turley win the roles of Sophie and Sky respectively, that they will take over on that same stage at the end of January (pictured below).
Over the last decade, numerous West End shows have found their leading actors in this way, but this was the first time it was done for a show that’s already playing, so they were able to present the finale on the actual set of the show.
But though as a Abba song famously puts it, The WInner Takes it All, that’s not entirely true for the contestants of this show: even before the finale played out, it had been announced a couple of weeks earlier that contestant Desmonda Cathabe, who was knocked out in an earlier round, had won a leading role in the new touring version of Disney’s Aladdin.
Taking part in such a high profile, high-stakes show has increased all of their visibility, and like Samantha Barks — one of the judges on the series who began her own career on the reality TV casting show to play Nancy in OLIVER! but didn’t win herself — it has led to great things.
TUESDAY DECEMBER 12
Today I had an afternoon of glorious R&H, followed by an evening of (more muted) R&R.
The matinee was an all-star gala celebration of the musical theatre partnership of Rodgers and Hammerstein to mark the 80th anniversary of its beginning (with OKLAHOMA! in 1943), held at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane where appropriately such landmarks as OKLAHOMA!, CAROUSEL, SOUTH PACIFIC and THE KING AND I had received their UK premieres.
Tom Stoppard’s 2006 play ROCK ‘N’ ROLL puts such rock figures like the Rolling Stones, Cambridge resident Syd Barrett and underground Czech pop band the Plastic People of the Universe amongst its sprawling set of references as it observes the growing pains of socialism in Czechoslovakia between the late 60s and late 80s under its dramatic spotlight.
I didn’t much like the play when I saw its original production at the Royal Court, and wasn’t too much more engaged with it tonight at Hampstead Theatre.
WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 13
Not unexpected, but nevertheless welcome, news at the National Theatre, where today it was officially confirmed that Indhu Rubasingham, who recently announced she was stepping down from the Kiln Theatre, is to take over from Rufus Noris as artistic director in 2025, joining Kate Varah as executive director (they are pictured below).
Not only is she qualified for the role, she has also EARNED it with her work, both at the venue itself (she has directed in all of its three theatres) but also in her leadership at the Kiln.
A few hours after receiving the announcement I was back at the NT myself, revisiting its magnificent Christmas show THE WITCHES, dark and gritty but also full of wit and wisdom, too. Sally Ann Triplett and the kids are a living wonder. My original review for PLAYS INTERNATIONAL is here: https://playsinternational.org.uk/the-witches-at-the-olivier-national-theatre/
Uh-oh: yet another DEADLINE report on ArtsEd (is this the fourth or fifth now?), complete with audio evidence of bullying by principal Julie Spencerof students there has been published. Visit https://deadline.com/2023/12/listen-artsed-principal-attacks-students-leaked-audio-andrew-lloyd-webber-1235654390/ to read and listen.
THURSDAY DECEMBER 14
Last night saw the opening of the Palladium panto, which this year is PETER PAN. My full review for PLAYS INTERNATIONAL is here, and as ever, it is a joyful treat, starring the irrepressible Julian Clary (pictured below).
Tonight saw the opening of STRANGER THINGS: THE FIRST SHADOW, the first part in a possible trilogy of stage works based on the Netflix series. As I’ve missed the series entirely, I’ve been slow to be interested in seeing it onstage, and despite some early encouraging reviews — some of which suggest that prior familiarity with the source material is not a prerequisite — I’m more inclined to trust my instincts (and those of the negative reviews of THE TIMES and NEW YORK POST), and let it pass me by.
FRIDAY DECEMBER 15
Tonight I revisited — for the third time — Sohdheim’s OLD FRIENDS at the Gielgud Theatre. Sometimes you just want to spend an evening with beloved friends — and this show is just full of them!
But alas tonight’s audience also included, seated directly in front of me in the second row of the dress circle, a young child of three or four years old.
And as he bounded around in his seat constantly for nearly the entire 75 minutes, clawing at his parents for attention, it made it impossible to concentrate on the show. How or why kids that young are admitted is beyond me. But when I checked with the theatre manager in the interval, he insisted it was house policy to admit everyone over three, and said that it was important for theatre to be “inclusive”. On twitter someone suggested that Sondeim’s own credo would be to encourage ‘children and art’ (to quote a song not heard here, from SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE), but truly this child was bored out of its mind and did not want to be there.
And the child should simply have not been there. This was Sondheim, not Sooty; I don’t want to be snooty, either, but I had bought my ticket, and the evening up to then had been ruined.
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-december-18-2023/