Welcome to my weekly theatre newsletter, back after a week off. As regular readers know, I’ve been posting about my current bout of depression — my first for nearly three years — and this is making it hard to function fully.
My commitment to this writing is part of my attempt to defeat it, as it provides a focus and a sense of meaning, as I try to make sense of the internal chaos as well as the inevitably external ones of a country failing under 14 years of corrupt Tory (mis)rule, and awful events all over the world from Gaza and the Ukraine to America trying to fend off another Trump presidency (I really, really hope they do).
There’s not always a lot to be cheerful about, in fact; depression becomes a rational response to the world. But there is joy and relief to be found, and it is my job — in this newsletter and in my life — to seek it out, as much as I can, while helping you to avoid the bad stuff, too!
One of the antidotes, for me, are trips to the seaside; one of the advantages of living in West Sussex is that the nearest stretch of it is about 25 minutes drive away, across the South Downs at Worthing (pictured above), where my husband and I regularly go for breakfast, lunch or tea at Sea Lane Cafe.
We also have plenty of lovely country pubs nearby — our gorgeous village has four in it or nearby (though one has just closed its doors, with the locals now rallying to re-open it as a community resource). And there are plenty of country drives and walks.
I am returning this week to my day-by-day diary format, as this makes it more containable and disciplined to write.
MONDAY JANUARY 29
The reviews are out today for the West End transfer of the 2022 Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s 1968 comedy PLAZA SUITE, which had a gala opening at the Savoy Theatre last night. Having seen it on Broadway in 2022, with the same husband and wife team Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker starring, wild horses couldn’t drag me back to see it again.
The critics are somewhat divided — though it mustered appreciative four-star reviews from Nick Curtis in the Evening Standard and Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph, the majority were one or two star pans, like Fiona Mountford’s declaration in iNews that “an inert production manages to make both marriage and comedy appear a relentlessly joy-free trudge”, while Susannah Clapp noted in The Observer, The pair are in a hopeless case dramatically. Yet paradoxically, John Benjamin Hickey’s sluggish Broadway production is an ad for the theatre. The sheer thrill of seeing the screen couple in the flesh has sent prices soaring. What might have happened with a crisply directed, sharply written play?”
Those prices — reaching £390 a ticket — push the West End into Broadway’s greed-is-good territory; and audiences HAVE to convince themselves they’re having a good time and have not been sold a pup. Maybe the kinder reviews can confirm that; and though I don’t want to second-guess the intentions of those reviewers, who may have genuinely had a good time, it may be that that the critics didn’t want to be out-of-step with populist opinion that had already propelled it be a box office hit. Something similar happened when the execrable stage version of DIRTY DANCING first opened in the West End in 2006 with a massive advance. Many critics were surprisingly kind, yet the show was truly dire. (But the show ran for nearly five years regardless, and has had two return runs at the Dominion since).
TUESDAY JANUARY 30
Last night I saw (for the umpteenth time, from London and Broadway to Manchester, Las Vegas and Stockholm!), MAMMA MIA! again, in order to catch the first performance of “Mamma MIa! — I Have a Dream” winners, Stevie Doc as Sophie and Tobias Turley as Sky, whom I’d seen take the prize in the live television finale on December 10, as I wrote about here at the time.
Though the casting by reality TV public vote continues to be a gimmick, as both performers are professionally trained — she at ArtsEd, he at GSA –— and could have won the roles in a regular audition, it has paid off in terms of engaging a new audience. And in the 25th year of the show’s West End run, that’s worth doing. Both performers have the brio and confidence to blend effortlessly into it as if they’ve been here for months. And the show, meanwhile, still feels freshly minted. It remains both a blessing (in its ingenuity and infectious fun) and a curse (having spawned so many lesser imitators). But it’s wonderful to see how fresh and funny it still is. And Mazz Murray, who leads the cast as the single mum Donna, is both fierce and fabulous.
In less welcome news, I heard yesterday of the passing of fellow theatre blogger and enthusiast Gareth James, who has died following complications from surgery. Gareth was someone I’d run into again and again, at theatres and concert halls in London and beyond, and not just on first nights but at regular performances, and could always rely on his warm and generous smile and thoughtful insights. HIs theatre blog remains available here.
WEDNESDAY JANUARY 31
The passing of theatre legend Chita Rivera was announced today, Broadway’s original Anita in WEST SIDE STORY (1957) and the original Velma Kelly in CHICAGO (1975), as well as the original star of other such Kander and Ebb musicals as THE RINK (1984, playing Liza Minnelli’s mother, for which she won her first Tony Award), KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN (1993), and THE VISIT (2015).
I saw her in each of those latter three shows, as well as CHICAGO when she came to London to play Roxie Hart in the West End revival in 1999; and interviewed her on several occasions too, including for The Stage in 2015 and for London Theatre in 2019. (There’s a priceless tweet of her and Gwen Verdon performing the Hot Honey Rag from Chicago here).
She truly was one of a kind; the sort they simply don’t make anymore. We first met, very briefly, in 1984 when I spotted her in the audience at the National Theatre seeing ANIMAL FARM; she was with Fred Ebb, and I asked them both for their autographs! The last time we met was in 2017, backstage at a tiny theatre on Cape Cod (pictured above), where she was presenting her solo cabaret.
THURSDAY FEBRUARY 1
Yesterday it was announced that Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre has been added to the Theatres Trust annual Theatres at Risk register. Its last operators closed the building last June; Liverpool City Council, who own it, did not renew its lease and it now “faces an uncertain future.”
I’ve only visited the Epstein once, in 2018 when I travelled there to see TV cleaner Kim Woodburn star as the WIcked Queen in their production of SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS; it wasn’t much good, but I’ll never forget it, either!
FRIDAY FEBRUARY 2
Last night’s opening of the return of THE HANDMAID’S TALE at English National Opera went ahead, after a late interim settlement was reached between Equity and the company over the chorus. As `Equity said in a statement,
Let’s hope the resolution holds; ENO can’t afford, in any sense, to lose performances or the goodwill of its audience and staff, as it tries to negotiate a new future.
SATURDAY FEBRUARY 3
I have written regularly in my columns about the difficult state of professional theatre criticism, and how it’s a vacuum that is increasingly being filled by fan blogs and social media instead. There is, of course, a place for it all; or there should be. But as critics diminish in importance, coverage and reach, it is the theatre itself that loses out on ways to reach its audience with reliable, curated content and opinions that can be trusted. As I told a theatre owner many, many years ago, “You’ll miss us when we’re gone.”
And it’s not just in theatre that this applies. A feature in The Guardian this week pointed out the loss of many important outlets in popular musical criticism too. Reporting that “”the influential and widely read music website Pitchfork was being folded into men’s magazine GQ, with the loss of many jobs”, it was also stated that this followed “the massive downsizing of the essential voice of the international underground Bandcamp Daily. Elsewhere the recent loss of small titles, such as the brilliant Gal Dem website produced by women of colour, and long-running print titles such as Q, suggests that the threat to music criticism as an industry is tangible and pressing.”
As John Doran writes,
“You may not agree with a lot of contemporary criticism – and if you don’t you’re not alone, a lot of it drives me up the wall, and I’m not even exempting my own website from this observation – but it is, essentially, a friend who is always there for you; albeit a friend who can occasionally be infuriating and difficult to get on with. Often, people haven’t even considered what a future without music criticism will look like, but when pressed some will argue the curatorial heavy lifting can be done by streaming service algorithms. But these recommendations are a much less friendly proposition than music criticism.”
And as he also says,
“Yes, we do need a music press independent of streaming platforms to help us sift through the mountains of crap, but we need people to see that we are far more than just than a glorified Argos catalogue. When we lose the independent spirit of sites such as Pitchfork we lose something crucial of music itself, because to assume that record reviews only exist to help you buy music is a fundamental category error. Criticism is never, ever, just about the music. When we talk about music we’re often talking about everything else in life that is important besides.”
And that’s something that I’m able to do in this blog: I can widen the conversation beyond what I’ve seen or not seen to what really matters. I’m happy and proud to be able to do this.
SUNDAY FEBRUARY 4
In a recent feature in the Evening Standard, TOTAL FILM editor-at-large Jamie Graham wrote about how he watched 967 films last year, and he stated, “I’ve been watching 800-plus films annually for a while now. It’s both my job and my passion. That, though, is only part of the true reason”.
This reminds me of myself, who used to think nothing of seeing between seven and twelve theatre shows a week. (Unlike films, you have to physically attend shows where they are playing, at the times they are playing there, so outside of Edinburgh where it IS possible to see five or six shows a day, I was limited to seven evening shows and five matinees a week).
I used to live in this constant state of theatre marathon running for fear of missing out on shows I felt I should see; but I was also running away, too — from myself.
I’ve now brought my theatregoing down to a more manageable two to four times a week — partly thanks to living outside London in West Sussex, but also because I can now face the possibility of not seeing everything. After reviews put me off, I decided not to see LYONESSE (starring Kristin Scott Thomas, pictured above) or the revival of THE PILLOWMAN in the West End last year at all. I’m pretty sure I didn’t miss anything. Now I don’t lose sleep on missing shows. It’s a big step in the right direction.
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 Instag