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Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park

July 22, 2015

My final visit to Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre last Saturday evening was an eventful one.
As followers of the twitter feed will know, I actually saw a woman in the front row reach out from her seat before the show, and start moving a pile of logs placed in front of her as part of the scenery, to improve her view. Never seen a member of the audience interfere with anything placed on the stage in 40 years of theatregoing.

Aside from that, the Park remains one of the highlights of my theatre year. I have their full £50 membership, which I find excellent value as you get £10 off seats, plus the usual “preview” discount of £5. As it has become a family tradition and we buy around 9 tickets per season, that means I’m £££ ahead – and that’s before getting a further quid off each programme, and a bunch of discount vouchers too.

uopenairseat2JUL14 uopenairseat3JUL14
I love the place enough that A18 is also “Theatremonkey.com” sponsored – the label is there for all to see.

It’s so informal that you can wear your old clothes without remark. Indeed, you really should – best glad-rags get ruined if the weather turns nasty, and even if not, you can guarantee something sticky or staining will find you in the air.

The one thing that does amuse me, though, is how much kit you need to take with you when you go.
There’s the obvious – raincoat (even when they predict a dry night… don’t trust it… lucky I didn’t on Saturday). Likewise, even a warm night turns cold around 9pm – so bring something woolly. If you forget, the £5 park “bin liner” style affair is pretty good. So voluminous that it covers every bit of you, and the seat beneath, keeping it all dry – and adds a bit of warmth too. They also sell re-cycled wool (from sheep that died under a bicycle’s wheels, presumably) blankets, if required.

Less obvious are the following, all part of our “kit,” and often regarded with envy by first-timers, who make copious notes:

Large plastic bags. To sit on. When the seats are wet, they stay wet.

Paper Towels (kitchen roll). Take a load. Dries everything, removes muck from your seat far better than the park-issue cloths that have removed a tonne already.

Disposable plastic bag to put dirty towels into…

Sun-block. Even if it’s 70 degrees. Total sunblock in the afternoon and even early evenings can be a must.

Insect repellent. Midges are theatre fans, who knew.

Anti Bacterial / anti viral hand spray. I use a product called “Response Beta.” Better than those gels you can buy, as it deals with viruses as well as bacteria. Can also be used with paper towels in cases of “bird strike” from above. Lucky? Nope.

Plastic bag for your programme. Gets soggy otherwise.

Opera Glasses – it’s a big place with a big stage, and action happens all over.

Umbrella: ONLY for walking to the station. NOT for use in the theatre.

You can, of course, add picnic / drinks etc (bring plastic glasses, the floors are uneven concrete and glass has been heard to shatter every night I’ve ever been – and I’ve not been singing).

Oh, and the “high numbers” side of the theatre is shadier, worth knowing, particularly in the heat of a matinee. There isn’t much in it, if it’s really hot – but a tiny bit can be better than nothing.

My point, though, really is this: it’s worth every moment of preparation, as it is the best theatre night out of the London summer. Go.

School Arts

July 15, 2015

A reader reminded me a couple of weeks ago that the “Mousetrap Ticket Scheme” allowing teachers a free ticket to see selected West End shows has closed. An article in “The Stage” newspaper that week reported that school group visits to the dedicated children’s’ theatres the Unicorn are down 6% and the Polka Theatre now opens Wednesday to Sunday rather than Tuesday to Saturday as it is parents rather than schools taking children to the theatre. Oh, and “the arts” won’t be part of the revised national curriculum for schools either.

 
Some of this is really nothing new. At primary (elementary) level, we got a couple of “Theatre In Education” visits in the school main hall, and late on, one trip to the ballet. In high school, one theatre visit in 5 years. The only extra ones came in the sixth form when I formed a society and took a few groups to some of the big shows. Even then, it was teachers who were snapping up more than a few of the tickets.

 

At university level… nothing… and some friends admitted they wanted to see a play but were too intimidated to go into the theatre to buy tickets. And these were people who happily backpacked around the world.

 
Is any of this surprising? Not really. To get children involved in “the arts” really hasn’t changed over the years. If they are lucky, they come from “artistic” families where theatre and music are in the family home and imbibed (OK, cost is a factor, but there are a lot of very cheap means of obtaining tickets for young people, and do you need all those pay TV channels to rot your kid’s mind rather than improve it?).

 
At school, the child also does have to be lucky. First, with inspiring teachers to get them fizzing about English and Drama. Then to be in a school that elevates the arts to the status of sport. In my day (and now) there were prizes for achievement in sport – but write a great short story, or perform in a school play? You’d better be equally good at karate, is all I’m saying, and that’s if you are noticed at all.

 
Better than nothing are the few groups earnestly note taking for exams, sat in the stalls and seeing little beyond what they need to pass… plus a few badly behaved groups upsetting fellow theatregoers because they don’t have a clue about etiquette. Not surprising, as the escorting staff don’t either… they’ve never been to the theatre. Indeed, I have it on the best authority that a good few teachers have never seen a live Shakespeare play in full.

 

I’m afraid my own feeling is that very little can be done, even if there was any motivation to do so. Give away free tickets? It’s the best-informed who will get them, or else those who will come once, and never again. A sustained free season ticket may work – but once the need to pay kicks in? And of course, who pays the theatre?

 
You could drag every pig-ignorant teacher to a show – but the free scheme is gone, and if they are pig-ignorant anyway, what’s the point? Won’t pass it down to the kids.

 
Bring theatre into schools? Not the same thing at all. And for most kids, it will just be a chance to miss class / keep warm at lunch time, nothing more.

 
Accept the situation? Easy route. Let those who are lucky enough to find the path have it – it keeps the drama courses full in further and higher education, and keeps the “riff raff” out of the really good plays and great musicals they’ve never heard of or will see unless Hollywood does a re-make. Callous, and the current way things are going.

 
I don’t have a solution, I wish I did. All I want to say is that it was never solved in my own school time, and I don’t think it will be now. To end on a positive, though, in my school time the folk in the arts were saying theatre would be well gone by 20 years ago… it’s still here.

 
I think, in the end, things will continue along that path… but maybe they could work out just fine. Here’s hoping.

Nice surprises at the Theatre

July 8, 2015

I know I often write about the doomy stuff – annoying fellow theatregoers, high prices etc, but there’s also the great stuff, things that keep you going and restore your faith, so….

 

1) Dragging yourself to see something “just because” and finding it was a billion times better than you hoped. “Once” was the most obvious. Knew not a thing about it going in, had to re-write my top 5 musicals ever list on leaving. Most recently, “Temple” – a play I knew nothing of, on a subject I didn’t care for, with a cast I wasn’t keen on… forgive me Father, for I knew not why I thought any of that.

 

2) Free water. Thanks Sir Cameron and the National Theatre. Appreciated.

 
3) A really good chat with the person next to you. Theatremonkey was partly built on such chats, and I still love meeting folk from all over the world, finding out what they’ve seen and what the theatre is like outside the M25.

 
4) A really good chat with the ushering staff. Mostly young, mostly “resting actors” or training ones – with the odd writer and director too. If you get the chance, do talk to them. Fascinating to hear about the work they are doing and their dedication in getting where they want to be.

 
5) Legroom. When choosing my own seats, it’s a must; when I don’t have a choice, it’s nice to have it. Bonus points when there is no seat in front.

 
6) Likewise that aisle seat so you don’t share the arm-rest and can lean away from the soap-dodger next to you / be first to the bog / know you can escape early if you had to / beat the exit crowd.

 
7)  If you can’t get the aisle seat, at least have someone short in front. Silent adult around 5ft is my preference.

 
8) Reserved seats. No, I mean it. I’d go to fringe theatres more often if I knew I didn’t have to turn up two hours early to queue to get the only decent viewing spot in the place.

 
9) Having that ticket for a “sold out” show, having gone online at ‘rope-drop’ to nab it, and being lucky enough not to have the IT fail you while booking it. Bit of a greedy one that, but you know what I mean…

 
10) Best until last, but regular theatregoers will recognise it: That “moment.” That perfect moment when cast and audience are in perfect tune and nothing else exists. Time melts away and the connection is only broken as the lights go out for the final time. It’s rarer than a Cumberbatch “Hamlet” ticket, but when it happens…

 

Theatre surprises, addictive, what more can I say.

Harry Potter and the Philosophical Theatregoer

July 1, 2015

So Harry Potter is scheduled to arrive in play form at the Palace Theatre next year. Fascinating.

Have I already staked out where I wish to sit? You bet. My owl will be circling the box office waiting for the moment booking opens… They’ll be cleaning owl s*it off that counter for weeks, I’m guessing.

And yet, and yet…

… remember “I Can’t Sing.”

Based on the massive worldwide hit TV Show, “The X Factor” it lasted about 6 weeks at the London Palladium in 2014. It wasn’t great – fatally flawed in the second half, in fact – but it was nowhere near as bad as some shows which hang around for years.

What it comes down to, I think, is capturing the “zeitgeist.” That moment when the public will pay anything for anything, just because the brand is currently the hottest thing on the planet.

In theatre terms, we are talking the upcoming Cumberbatch “Hamlet.” Sold on the name of the leading man alone, it doesn’t matter if this is the best version since the original (5 stars from Qyntyn Lytts in Ye Daylee Mayl) Globe Theatre production or an epic failure to rival the O’Toole Old Vic Scottish play. The tickets have been sold, a profit made and the producer hasn’t a care in the world beyond hoping the star stays alive to complete the run and that the theatre building remains standing. As for the public, you’ve more chance of getting into Mr Cumberbatch’s pants than of getting a ticket to see him act, probably.

The fact Universal Studios have invested so much in a theme park area for Mr Potter suggests that this is one phenomenon which will be ongoing. Still, will the public buy tickets for a stage version? My guess is that it will sell exceptionally well – enough that the producers will get a return on their investment – as booking opens.

My other guess is that what happens next will depend on showmanship and exceptional theatre management.

By that I mean that the producers will need to be realistic about ticket prices. Premium seats dominating much of the stalls and dress circle, with regular top price extending to the particularly uncomfortable upper circle is simply a “no.” It could well happen, and will shorten the life of their show unless the production itself is so unmissably amazing that a family ticket costing more than their annual holiday still seems a wise investment.

And that’s the second thing… can they produce something that compelling on stage? It’ll need to look “the business,” with clever magic and enough story to reveal things Potter fans would wish to lap up and not find elsewhere. Just like the theme park, it’ll need to be unique and compelling to last, and no doubt spread around the world.

So, yes, exciting times. Now please excuse me, my owl needs feeding, and then it has my booking missive to despatch.

 

Theatre on Television

June 24, 2015

For almost a decade from the mid 80s, myself and my friends were addicted to Barry Norman’s 40 minutes or so “Film” programme. A deeply authoritative round-up of that week’s releases, film clips, news and interviews with “triple A list” stars that other programmes could only dream of.

The moment Mr Norman retired, I (and everyone I knew) stopped watching. This was a man who really understood film, had impeccable taste but also a way of telling viewers to “go see what you think” for yourself – never actively discouraging anyone from seeing anything at all, and often encouraging me to see something I never would have considered.

You can guess what I’m going to say next. Yes, you are right. There isn’t – and has never been – anything like that for theatre.

Partly because theatre is mostly fleeting. A show plays a few weeks for a few thousand people and is gone. Also, partly, because I honestly don’t know anyone who is the equivalent of Mr Norman. There’s a few professional reviewers whom I trust – the inestimable Mr Shenton, Ms Mountford, Mr Shuttleworth, Ms Purves and Mr Coveney being a quintet able to warn when “something wicked this way comes.” I’ll also always miss Jack Tinker of the Daily Mail – the first critic I ever read regularly. I quickly learned that we agreed only on two artists, and that otherwise, I should hurry and see anything he disliked, and could happily miss anything he raved about.

Without a Barry Norman type TV voice, however, theatre probably can’t get more than the current “magazine column” mentions in broader arts and news programmes.

I do think, though, that there is an opening in the “fly on the wall” category. There have been a good few “backstage at the show / theatre” documentaries over the years, but what I am pitching today is “Audience Watch.”

We take an auditorium (and foyer, if you like) and wire it with several hundred tiny cameras. A couple of presenters, one hairy, one pulchritudinous with a psychology  degree, then hide out and commentate on captured footage.

The inspiration struck me this week at the Open Air Theatre. In the light of a summer evening, you can see the audience in front of you – and the steep steps mean you get a good view. Aside from a woman in front of me who appeared to really loved the taste of her guy’s earwax (or her depth perception was really poor) there was one act of outstanding interest taking place a row ahead of me, just over the aisle.

An elderly man could be observed masticating through most of act 1. When exhausted, he withdrew the little grey ball from his mouth, reached into his bag and brought out a crisp window envelope – the type banks send adverts in – and placed the gum into it, then carefully re-folded and stored…

Just how organised is that? Save an envelope thinking “hmm, that’ll do the put my gum in when I go to the theatre.” AND remembering to take it on the night. And I thought my own “rain pack” I always take to the park (and needed, that night) was good planning.

If we can’t have the shows reviewed, why not the audience? The material is there, for sure.

Miss The Swish

June 17, 2015

My favourite book as a child was “The Swish of the Curtain.” My favourite character’s greatest desire was to make the curtains in his theatre “swish” – open and gather in heavy bunches in the top corners of the proscenium arch. He gets his wish… luckily for him they even had curtains at all.

Such are the economics in the West End, that nobody appears to be able to pay anyone any more to do more than the legal requirement of “lowering and raising the safety curtain (actually a hefty bit of metal, more like a wall) in the presence of each audience” at the interval, and occasionally they even get that waived.

The official curtain-raiser at the start and finish of the show appears to have been made redundant, the material re-cycled as costumes or sold off to less fashionable members of the audience for their own outfits (I’m talking to you, lady in J26 at, well, never mind) and the entire idea abandoned in favour of “set worship.”

Yep, even if it’s just a piano or potted plant / actors warming up (mutually exclusive or combined, I’m saying nothing, make up your own minds), we are able to admire the static output of the designer’s art as we take seats, fold coats and shuffle through programmes for the name of this budding theatrical Henry Moore.

And frankly, it spoils it.

It’s been literally years since I’ve heard an audience gasp in appreciation as the curtain went up (actually, ‘in the business’ it’s known as the “curtain going out” – who said this blog wasn’t educational) and a particularly marvellous pair of…, er, scenic design was revealed.

Instead of going for impact, we are required to absorb the visual inspiration for the piece before a word is spoken or a sofa softly lit. It worked, brilliantly, for “Cats” – indeed, establishing us as guests in their world accounted for the long original run… but do we really need to feel part of Brooklyn before we meet Mr Loman and his family? And I might add, it really doesn’t work when you can see the actors trying to sneak into their starting positions either.

My solution is simple. If we can’t afford to pay anyone, ask for the ushers to select people from the audience. One using a mobile phone, one disturbed by it. You can probably guess the rest, but to spell it out – the knowledge that a quick trip to the fly-floor as a counterweight, transported by neck, may stamp out two irritations in one go.

The curtain falls (comes in. Like I said, educational, no?).

Diversity?

June 10, 2015

No, not the street-dance group discovered by Simon Cowell. We are talking the number of ethnic minorities and those of different gender and orientation on stage and behind the scenes.

I was, I admit, pretty surprised at “Behind The Beautiful Forevers” at the National Theatre to find that an Indian play had a mostly white, male creative team. By contrast, “Bend It Like Beckham” has a mostly Indian team directing and involved in the creative process – perfect for allowing that production to delve deep into its cultural roots.

What I found harder to understand was the recent calling, by some sections of the theatre community, for ‘greater representation of minorities’ – including actors from less financially well-off backgrounds – in the industry.

Erm… on that I don’t follow the logic. Sorry, I just don’t.

Theatre is an amazingly attractive environment to work in. It is fun, can be lucrative and isn’t sitting around in a grey suit every single day (unless cast as an office worker, of course).

What it is also, is a near 100% meritocracy. If you are any good, you can get a living out of it.

When I started, I knew nobody in the business beyond encountering one lecturer for a term at University, and all the front of house and box office staff I came into contact with visiting shows. Literally years of work later (the first few practically unpaid), I feel, in a small way, a part of the industry now. I’m not unique either – several bloggers and website owners have carved a niche the same way.

And it applies to many folk elsewhere in the industry too.

Simply, if you want it enough and are prepared to do anything to get it, the chances are that something will happen. It may not be exactly what you wish for, but it’ll be close. Plenty of immigrants land on these shores with literally nothing at all – and end up with massive companies through sheer hard work.

Sure, nobody should be allowed to actually place boulders in front of anyone, and it’s nice that folk think boulders should be cleared from the paths of others…

…but if you are in a hyper-competitive world, then isn’t the person you want to hire the one who has looked at the boulder and then scrambled over it using nothing but their own physical strength to do so?

 

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