Welcome to my reformatted weekly theatre newsletter — instead of a day-by-day account of the previous week’s news headline stories and reviews, I’m going to provide expanded commentary on selected items of interest to me, but as usual from my own perspective.
I’m not seeking to be comprehensive, or even right — this is just a weekly opportunity to get things off my plate, and into the public discourse.
I am, as Indicated last week, no longer attempting the fool’s errand of trying to see everything, which always defeated me before I’d even begun; but I’ve officially taken myself off the theatrical treadmill for the first time in my life!
This means a new sense of freedom: on the weekend I made my usual Saturday trip up to London, and I tried for a rush ticket for Sondheim’s OLD FRIENDS for the matinee (pictured above), after a morning meeting that I go to every week.
But when I didn’t get one — it would have been my fourth time seeing it — I simply went back home to West Sussex after my meeting. Sure, I was disappointed — but it really didn’t matter. I’d seen it enough times, and someone else would have had the pleasure instead. And my meeting is the primary reason I come up to London on a Saturday at all, spending time with recovery friends that have changed my life for the better.
Yes, the OLD FRIENDS of the Sondheim revue — some of whom I am happy to dall old friends of mine, too — would have been fun to see one more time. But it’s also a kind of greediness that I should be reigning in. Sometimes enough is enough. And it’s a great lesson to start the new year with. Getting off the theatre treadmill is no bad thing.
A LITTLE LESS MUSIC
Last week saw the death on January 4, at the age of 100, of Glynis Johns — who originated the role of Desiree Armdfleldt in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, and so became the first person to publicly sing what would become Sondheim’s single most famous song, ‘Send in the Clowns’ (she is pictured below with Len Cariou, the original Fredrick Egerman).
The song was written specifically for the limitations of Johns’s “nice llttle silvery voice”, as Sondheim once put it; “I wrote it for her voice, because she couldn’t sustain notes. Wasn’t that kind of singing voice. So I knew I had to write things in short phrases, and that led to questions, and so again, I wouldn’t have written a song so quickly if I hadn’t known the actress.”
It famously paid off: as the New York Times put it, “Stephen Sondheim composed his most famous song, ‘Send In the Clowns,’ for an actress with virtually no voice, Glynis Johns, and few genuine singers have performed it as effectively.” (You can see her performing part of it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vz-sSgi28Yc)
And in OLD FRIENDS, it was performed by Bernadette Peters, who no longer has much of a voice left — but which therefore lent the song an even richer poignancy.
Losing Johns follows the recent loss of two of the original London company, too — Joss Ackland (the original Fredrick here), died on November 19, and David Kernan (Count Malcolm in the West End, and part of the original cast of SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM, the 1976 UK-born revue of Sondheim’s work that went to Broadway in 1977) died on December 26.
FELLOW TRAVELLERS, ON AND OFFSCREEN….
I’ve mentioned my 12-step fellowship meetings already today. In most of the programmes that fall under its banner, you work with a sponsor — a fellow who has completed the steps themselves and therefore offers their experience, strength and hope to you as you work it under their guidance. It’s a kind of passing of the torch of recovery
But in what is now my primary fellowship — Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families — we work with a different model of fellow travellers. This means we work alongside others also working the programme at the same pace and place as we are, which means there’s less of a hierarchical relationship between us.
The fellowship helps us to explore the legacy of family trauma on each of our lives; and its both deeply poignant and deeply appropriate that the title of a wonderfully rich American mini-series is also FELLOW TRAVELERS, which explores the legacy of the McCarthy-era witch hunts of communists and ‘degenerates’ (namely, gay personnel) in the ranks of the US government in the late 40s and 50s.
This is a trauma that gay men were particularly susceptible to, forced to deny and hide their true selves to their families, peers and even themselves for decades.
Watching this brilliant series over the weekend on Amazon Prime, which carries the story straight over to the AIDS crisis that engulfed the gay community in the 1980s, it makes deep connections to the costs of living our lives this way.
No wonder we have been deeply traumatised. Doing the 12-steps has set me free of some of the most punishing effects of having been brought up against this backdrop, but I’m more accepting now of the reasons I have suffered — and am currently undergoing — periods of deep depression.
But what is particularly thrilling to see is out and proud lead actors, led by Matt Bomer and Britain’s own Jonathan Bailey, playing these characters in such an upfront and frequently sexually explicit show. They remove all the shame from it.
And the crisis of AIDS leads to a kind of liberation: now that they were facing death clear in the face, they became truly fearless. It’s a real inspiration. I wept and wept.
I also wept tears of recognition reading an interview with Labour MP Liam Byrne in Sunday’s Observer in which he described wrestling with extreme depression after the death of his alcoholic father in 2015. He, too, found help in ACA — “I had a vague memory of this movement in America called Children of Alcoholics. I Googled it, and I realised there was an office in Bristol, the National Association of Children of Alcoholics [Nacoa UK]. I got on a train, knocked on the door, and there was this woman, Hilary Henriques, who set the charity up. I said: I’m an MP, and I think I sort of need some help, and maybe there’s a way I can help you too.” He went on to make a speech in parliament: “And I was completely knocked out by everybody who then got in touch and said, ‘Me too.’ I’d say about a quarter to a third of MPs are the children of alcoholics.” Really? This seems a lot. “Yes, but all the pathologies you develop to survive it are the same as those that take you into a place like politics.” I must look alarmed, because he adds quickly: “The children of alcoholics are kids who are trained to try to put things right; who build armour plating so things can’t hurt them. They’re perfectionist and very driven.”
I recognise this only too well.
THIS WEEK’S OPENINGS
I am no longer updating my list of future openings on this site, but will lst the week’s main openings here in this newsletter.
- Tuesday January 9
THE UNFRIEND, (Wyndham’s Theatre) December 16-March 9, press night January 9. Steven Moffatt’s debut play returns to the West End, after its original transfer from Chichester’s Minerva Theatre previously played at the Criterion. Directed by Mark Gatiss (Moffat’s co-writer on TV’s Sherlock and Dracula), Lee Mack joins the cast to replace Reece Shearsmith, with Frances Barber reprising her performance in the title role. Also in the cast are Sarah Alexander and Nick Sampson.Gatiss is currently also be found on the stage of the Noel Coward Theatre, playing Sir John Gielgud in THE MOTIVE AND THE CUE.
- Wednesday January 10
LONDON: The Enfield Haunting (Ambassadors Theatre) November 30-March 2, press night January 10 (moved from December 6). Catherine Tate and David Threlfall star in Paul Unwin’s new play, based on a famous poltergeist event. It is directed by Angus Jackson. Press contact: Nada Zaukula at Storyhouse, firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: https://enfieldhauntingplay.com
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)