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Should Shakespeare Shuffle Off?

November 26, 2014

Jemima Lewis, a journalist on the Telegraph

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/william-shakespeare/11214992/Shakespeare-is-too-obscure-for-the-stage-methinks.html

thinks so. On stage, anyway. Too hard to understand and anyone laughing at the jokes is pretentious as nobody REALLY “gets” them any more, and they were not funny in the first place.

So, basically, a gravedigger waving a skull and declaiming “alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well” isn’t hilarious – particularly if the grave digger inserts a cigarette in the skull’s mouth first. Well, to be fair, the journalist was a woman, and that’s “schoolboy” humour I’d say… rather proving that funny is in the mind of the beholder, except that which school girl wouldn’t find the idea of a bloke trying to attract her by wearing yellow stockings hilarious? And doesn’t everyone laugh at word-mangling ramblers like Dogberry?

And all is Shakespeare. I’ve written at length in this blog about the WWET (World’s Worst English Teacher) who appears related to that journalist’s one, for doing the same thing – reading “round the class” out of the script. No feeling, no context. Nothing.

As I’ve also said, I had already seen Bill the Quill’s output done on stage – so WWET could (and now, hopefully does) rot somewhere like the Wackford Squeers Home for Underachieving Educational Folk. So WWET had no effect on me whatsoever. I ignored the idiot and “did my own thing” very successfully, as it turned out, in the exams – and now of course earn a living from my writing.

Of course WWET and that ilk cause the damage that make an otherwise sensible journalist publish such ideas. It’s just because the most vital thing of all is missed. As I’ve already mentioned… “context.”

Most of us grew up watching American films and television programmes. Sorry, American movies and TV shows. An educated (and, frankly, hormonal teenage few in search of a bit of pre-internet titillation) ventured further in to “World Cinema,” i.e. “those films you have to read as well as look at.”

Even the most well-travelled don’t truly understand every nuance of another country’s arts output… but from the “context” of the story, environment and speech-patterns, we figure it out and understand perfectly well.

And Shakespeare is no different. We can tell our “patches” from our “drabs” by the costumes they wear, scenery around them and the tone of voice used – provided the director is inventive enough. Is it any more baffling than a reference to “pop fly” or “flic” in a modern film made overseas? I think not.

Had I the money or a time-machine, I’d have made certain every teenager in the country was able to see the 2012 Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Not as starrily cast as the 2013 Smith / Walliams / Grandage version, but so simple and inventive, anyone (and I took a ‘first timer’ myself) not only “understood,” but laughed uproariously. The “Chav Dream” as it was known, played by everyday builders and a population that wouldn’t look out of place in “Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” (as the production indeed ended) was entertainment, pure, simple and as easy to understand as a John Lewis Penguin.

For sure, ban bad Shakespeare interpreters, but keep the Bard off the stage? Not since Cromwell, my dear.

 

It seems it is about the price tag (sorry, Jessie J)

November 19, 2014

Last week’s entry got a lot of interest (http://www.theatreforum.com/index.php?/topic/79645-dynamic-ticket-pricing/); and also coincidentally seemed to be a theme on journalist and reviewer Mark Shenton’s website too (http://www.thestage.co.uk/opinion/shenton/2014/11/are-theatre-fans-being-penalised-for-booking-tickets-early/).

Those on theatreforum noted that it wasn’t really “dynamic pricing” as such which upset them – though when prices fell, it was annoying of course – but a lack of clarity in pricing.

Mark Shenton highlighted that too, noticing how the same seat could be three different prices at one show, depending on the date, and that you could save nearly £100 either choosing a different date or even picking a seat a couple of seats away with the same view…

Expanding the them by both was how hard it was to decide whether to book in advance or wait in case of a deal. Those flexible enough to be able to get into London quickly at will and only needing a single ticket (and not fussy where they sat or even what they saw) were doing fine. Getting the tickets they wanted at a good price.

Those living further away and leading busier lives, however, were less happy. Forced to make a choice or “sweat it out.”

I’ve been in both camps myself; right now, it’s really towards the latter to a great extent. I am luckier than most in that invitations to review balance out tickets I pay for (plus, all tickets I do buy are “tax deductibles,” so that’s an automatic saving) but even I get caught sometimes, having to buy seats to take a slot in the diary that I know would otherwise vanish. Yes, I know where the “cheap but good” seats are, but even so, I feel the frustration of overseas visitors too.

The clearer pricing is, and the greater range of “fixed prices,” the more audience members will benefit, I think I’d conclude. Another one for the marketing department to ponder, I’d say.

Does ticket price influence success?

November 12, 2014

I kept quiet when “I Can’t Sing,” “Stephen Ward” and “From Here To Eternity” closed earlier this year. All that could be said then was said by others, I felt, but now I’ve had a thought. Was it dynamic pricing that was to blame?  None of the three shows used it, beyond cutting prices to draw the crowds, but I wonder if its prevalence at other shows is harming the industry in a more general way?

Discounting already does, according to some sources. Big shows need “advance box office” revenue guaranteed. Knowing that there could be savings means regular theatregoers don’t book that far ahead. Indeed, when “I Can’t Sing” dropped from £65 to £32.50 in the final weeks, I sold more tickets in 5 days than in the previous 6 months. All to regular theatregoing readers, if my inbox was accurate.

What I’m talking about is when it goes in the other direction. “Skylight” opened to rave reviews. So good, premium seats went up from £97.50 to £125, top seats around them added a fiver, second price £2.50.  And the online community were hacked off. Really annoyed.  I remember the same thing happening with “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” some years ago, with the same reaction.

So what I wonder is this: At one time, theatre used to be all about “enjoyment.” It was a pleasure for the audience to buy a ticket and see a show.

Now, I’m wondering if too much of the glitter has rubbed off for too many people, and they can see the hard business underneath. Worse, with dynamic pricing – the changing of box office prices (what used to be called “moving the rope”) that was done secretly, is now very open and clear for all to see and discuss.

Are we serving up too much reality with our entertainment now, and could retaining a little mystique actually help shows to a longer run? Interestingly, “Memphis,” the hit of the season, has just announced an extended booking period. The seats are an easy sell, but the producers have been not only clever, but extraordinarily courteous to their audiences. The prices from late March 2015 have been revised, with a larger (but not overwhelming) block of “premium” seats… but also many seats in the rear stalls and dress circle down in price as low as £30.

It means they’ll have sold those seats in advance, and not face losing anything if a circle has to close on a quiet date. They’ll take the interest money on the advance booking, have happy customers in better seats than they may otherwise afford, and everybody wins. Now that IS dynamic thinking…

We Will Remember Them

November 5, 2014

“In Flanders fields, the poppies blow,” so runs McCrae’s poem.

As most people at the moment will tell you, the same is true of the moat at the Tower of London. I was there at twilight on Saturday, and can honestly say that as a piece of art it was memorable for all the right reasons.

I’m amazed at the scale of it. All four sides of the moat filled with poppies, with more cascading from a tower and in a “wave” on one side near the embankment. They’re big too. The size of a large man’s hand, mostly… I was lucky enough to have ordered one back in August, and now wonder where I’ll display it, given the size.

It was a mostly British crowd, and I’m not sure why the press were saying how dangerous it was, as everybody just made space for each other as we filed round, as us Brits do. Sure, a lane on Tower Bridge is closed to traffic, and there’s one “pinch point” in front of the main display on the drawbridge side, but with great humour, everyone who wished to, got to stand at the rail. That said, “go early or late” (it’s wonderfully floodlit) is good advice.

In that wonderful atmosphere everybody was talking to each other, at random. And one of the topics was who had indeed ordered one. Those who had were joking about which one was “theirs,” (it was a good joke, as there are hundreds of thousands on view), those who had not were congratulating the rest on being “lucky,” and everybody was hoping nobody would re-sell them online at a profit – unless raising money for charity.

Most of all, though, people were saying the same thing. In the same place. The corner of the Tower from which you could see the moat along Tower Bridge and also the moat on the main drawbridge entrance side of the Tower… probably half a million poppies in all…

… EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM A SOLDIER WHO GAVE HIS OR HER LIFE FOR MINE AND EVERYBODY ELSE STANDING THERE IN AWE.

Humble.

We WILL remember them.
upoppy2010

 

X Factor: the annual moan.

October 29, 2014

Simon Cowell is back in the show, so that’s one thing fixed. Having been glued to it since it began, though, I wondered why I ended up chatting through most of it last year, and why I’m doing the same now.

First up, it’s the music. “Standards” are called “Standards” for a reason… everybody knows them. The joy of the original was hearing how a contestant interpreted “Wind Beneath My Wings,” “Angels” etc and comparing them to the original. Now, truthfully, I often don’t have a clue what the song is, except that the sound (an inanity) is not what I’d want to listen to. Sure, I can hear if someone is in tune or not, but I just can’t form an opinion. If you want a wide audience, you have to appeal to everybody, not just those with a knowledge of the last 5 years of chart output. Hence the mix on “Strictly” is drawing what was once the “X Factor’s” ‘Family’ demographic. Interestingly, the “80s” episode two weeks ago was entertaining for me… while “movie night” using recent films I’ve not seen wasn’t…

Second, frankly, is the that the prize isn’t worth having. At first, we really believed that we were choosing somebody who could light up the charts and ‘go places.’ With so many winners scrapped, and scrapped so quickly, and telling painful stories in the press of what happened… it’s nearly like cheering for “The Hunger Games.”

Third, and I really don’t care if anyone thinks it’s discriminatory to point it out, because I think it is true: how come every black and / or poor contestant has a feckless past? Criminal convictions, illegitimate children etc. I know plenty of black entertainers, and plenty more folk from less than wealthy backgrounds. All of them are exactly the same as me… normal people who work hard and wouldn’t know trouble if it bit them. It’s one thing having “sob stories,” another to confuse the viewing public as to how an entire community doesn’t actually live.

There’s a lot to be said about redemption of course too (Cameron Mackintosh and Susan Boyle made a lot of cash out of it), but sometimes you wonder if some of that is even what those applying actually want – though perhaps the public humiliation is occasionally justice of the roughest sort. Or am I being cynical?

Fourth (and fifth through infinity), are all those clichés. Not just the repetitive rubbish the judges spout about “nailing it / making it your own / I’m storming off (yeah, just to pick up a pay cheque) / we chose the song because… (it’s under licence to our record company already so is cheap) / 110%” etc. And not just the pathetic sob stories already mentioned. We have the “We made a mistake, bring them back” / Make a band out of losers (works once in a hundred, otherwise the results are execrable) and the numbnut that the public love to hate.

OK, we went without the last in 2013, and they’ve kicked out anyone interesting (loved Chloe’s voice until her last performance) in 2014 already, but frankly we know and can spot every manipulation the programme tries now – and I just can’t be bothered to list them all. Is it just me who wonders if Ben Elton’s book “Chart Throb” is a manual for the producers – as in Elton’s idea of “give the one we want to lose the worst song” etc…

Last, and by no means least, I’m afraid Dermot O’Leary manages to be both dull and insincere. Best friend one moment, ‘who are you again?’ the next. And unable to raise a laugh even when something truly funny happens. Paging “Ant and Dec,” please…

With all that said, roll on Saturday night (and 8.30pm Sunday, when I know I can miss the first half of the show and just find out who is through – come to that, let’s get it back to a single night, no need to draw it out!). I’ll be watching again. What do I do with my life?!

Barnum (National Tour)

October 22, 2014

Seen at the New Wimbledon Theatre, at the afternoon performance on 18th October 2014.

For me, this show has always been associated solely with Michael Crawford playing Michael Crawford, playing a clowning showman called Barnum. I’ve watched the DVD of that 1980s performance many times, and been disappointed by the one previous revival at the Dominion Theatre some years ago.

This re-invention, therefore, was fascinating enough to make me trek across London to see.

BARNUM - Linzi Hateley as 'Chairy' and Brian Conley as 'PT Barnum'. Photo by Johan Persson
Brian Conley, plus the ever-wonderful Linzi Hateley, doing a Cameron Mackintosh version of a show with great music but a dodgy book? Can’t miss the only chance to catch it in London. So I didn’t.

It’s clearly Mackintosh. The cast getting among the audience with neat circus routines even before the Mac trademark semi-transparent curtain goes up. Being front-row, I can now add “juggler’s assistant” to the CV – surprising myself by actually delivering the juggling equipment correctly first time, on cue! Anyway…

 

3. BARNUM - Brian Conley as 'PT Barnum' and company.  Photo by Johan Persson
Conley simply plays Barnum. No humbug. He’s thought about the man, and though he banters delightfully with a “homeless man from Detroit” (you had to be there) and later rises to inestimable heights in my esteem by leaving the stage during the final bows to chat to two tiny theatregoers in the third row (getting right down to their level to do it, wow!) – he never forgets that there’s a serious side to both the man and leading a musical. A darkness lies behind Barnum’s fairground exterior, and Conley brings that out in a way no actor playing the role has done before.

Sure, he “sing speaks” more than previous incumbents in the job, but his voice is there when required, and his comic timing and magic illusions are impeccable (or he can talk his way out of the odd slip!).

BARNUM - Linzi Hateley as 'Chairy' and company. Photo by Johan Persson
As wife Chairy, West End evergreen star Linzi Hateley pulls off another triumph of musical theatre performing. “The Colours of My Life” and “I Like Your Style” never sounding better, “One Brick at a Time” and “Black and White” never meaning more. Oh, and her concentrating face as she reveals a new talent at the end of the show is almost worth the price of a ticket alone.

BARNUM - Landi Oshinowo as 'Blues Singer'.  Photo by Johan Persson
Others worthy of mention are Landi Oshinowo’s bluesy Joice Heth,

 

BARNUM - Mikey Jay-Heath as 'Tom Thumb'.  Photo by Johan Persson
Mikey Jay-Heath’s engaging Tom Thumb (no thanks for the shower, Mr J-H),

 

BARNUM - John Stacey as 'Bailey'.  Photo by Johan Persson
and John Stacey’s commanding Ringmaster.

 

4. BARNUM company.  Photo by Johan Persson
The entire circus ensemble also deserve applause for a huge variety of skills, mostly happening simultaneously all over the stage so that I’m sure I missed at least half of them… though certainly felt the heat of the fire-eating.

Fans of the show will note that while act one remains pretty much original, the second half has been more than a little meddled with. Barnum’s emotional change is dealt with in a new and blacker song, “Barnum’s Lament,” and the favourite “Prince of Humbug” has gone. That’s a pity, a real pity, as there is space for it in the show, I think. The changes are not perfect – the tone gets too dark and doesn’t lift soon enough to prevent the short second act from sagging (why the original song was there, I think) but once back on track the ending is inventive and immensely satisfying.

This would need to be scaled up – a larger ensemble, bigger and better set – for a West End production, and the second half still needs another look; but sorted out, and retaining the current leads, one can only hope a home is eventually found for it.

As I remarked to my new Midlands friends – found in the adjacent seats to mine – afterwards, and to which they heartily agreed, “That were a right good afternoon out.” If it comes your way, don’t miss the chance to see it.

 

All photographs above, credit: Johan Persson. Used by kind permission.

A reply from the Almeida

October 16, 2014

In response to my entry about the person who didn’t want to go to the Almeida, the venue’s Marketing Officer Simone Finney kindly allows me to publish the following reply that was sent,

Thank you again for your message and for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. Welcoming existing audiences and inviting new ones to the Almeida is an important and ongoing part of our work.

It is worth noting that the term ‘Development’ and the names listed under Development in the theatre programme are actually our fundraising team. A team this size is required in order to raise the £1.5m a year, more than 30% of our income, which is required to ensure that we can continue to create the work we do.

We are aware that the architecture of the theatre can be intimidating, and we work hard to address this with targeted projects that invite and encourage new people to visit us. We also hope that our ushers provide a friendly face in the foyer when people arrive, and we receive consistently positive feedback about the helpfulness of our staff. 

We know that additional signage in the foyer is needed, and we’re currently looking into updating this in a way that will be clearer for our patrons.

We have recently begun to explore new avenues of audience engagement that take a more person-to-person approach, as you suggest, connecting with relevant community groups directly to invite them to the Almeida. 

In May, we hosted a morning tea and theatre tour in conjunction with Angel AIM, who are focused on creating an age-friendly town centre in Islington. For Little Revolution, we reached out to a range of groups in Islington and Hackney, including Islington Pensioners Forum and the St Mary’s Path Housing Association.

Almeida Projects, our creative learning team, partners with schools in Islington and surrounding boroughs to give local people the opportunity to participate in our work and be part of our audience from a young age. In November, we are taking the production of Our Town into two schools in Bexley and Ealing, two boroughs without professional theatres. Projects like these allow us to take our theatre directly to new audiences.  

We work hard to communicate with local community through Islington First, Under 30s, and our Young Friends scheme. We reach a growing number of people through these initiatives; our hope is that, as audience members like yourself have positive, welcoming experiences at the Almeida, they will share these with others who may feel hesitant about visiting for the first time.  

We hope this information is helpful, and that you will continue to feel comfortable sharing your experiences of the Almeida with other people who may not have been. Thanks again for taking the time to write in, and we look forward to welcoming you to the Almeida again soon.

 

With Best Wishes,
Simone Finney 
Marketing Officer

 

If that doesn’t prove what a friendly place they are, I don’t know what will! Thanks to Simone and team, it really is appreciated.

 

 

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