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Spend Spend Spend (Union Theatre)

March 30, 2015

(seen at the afternoon performance on 29th March 2015)

Young Miner’s wife Viv Nicholson won £152,319 (£2.5m today) on the football pools. This 1998 musical charts exactly what happened to the money after she declared that she would indeed, “Spend, Spend, Spend.”

The lowest highs and highest lows of the win are charted over two fascinating hours of story-telling in a quite remarkable production.

As the “older, wiser self” Julie Armstrong produces a stunning performance, with the comedic and character abilities of Julie Walters and the musical theatre presence of Imelda Staunton. Worth the price of admission alone.

Her younger self (Katy Dean) also proves exceptionally adept at the emotional changes the role requires. Naïve cinema “ice-cream” girl, physical and emotional punchbag, lover, alcoholic, mother, celebrity is quite a range, managed with aplomb.

Around them, 13 talented actors manage to cover the widest variety of roles. Of particular note, Oliver Jacobson finds the comedy in each he is assigned, Adam Colbeck-Dunn and Stuart Simons make a menacing pair of financial people and Tom Brandon as Matt makes a triumphant return to the Union Theatre following his hit in “The Beautiful Game” last year.

Director Christian Durham and Choreographer Heather Douglas have come up with a classy staging. The theatre naturally lends itself to intimate moments “Canary In A Cage;” but their triumph is in filling it with huge production number events like “Spend Spend Spend” – a berserk burst of celebrants, gorgeously leggy chorus-girls (my phone number is with the box office, ladies…) and one (possibly legally actionable) Bruce Forsyth impression.

It looks great too, with Olivia Ward’s lavish period costumes a highlight, Tim Deiling’s versatile lighting and Ell-Rose Hughes clever wall frieze and simple reliance on chairs and sofas.

Sure, you can see why the show failed to set the West End alight in 1999. Steve Brown’s music is expertly played by the house band under Inga Davie-Rutter, but little of it actually sticks in the memory. Steve Brown and Justin Greene may have come up with a compelling book, but the lyrics too are sometimes pedestrian, wandering in and out of the locality rather than firmly establishing a sense of place and time.

What it all means, is that this is the rarest opportunity to see a forgettable show revived in the most unforgettable manner. This hugely talented team have produced a million-pound production out of nothing. Phoning the box office and “spend, spend, spending” on a ticket will bring a guaranteed first dividend. A real “8 draw” of a show. 24 points.

“Buyer & Cellar” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

March 25, 2015

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(Seen at the afternoon performance on 15th March 2015).

Official text: “Buyer & Cellar is an outrageous new comedy about the oddest of odd jobs – an underemployed Los Angeles actor going to work in Barbra Streisand’s Malibu basement…

It stars the award-winning Michael Urie best known for his TV roles in Ugly Betty and The Good Wife. He has also starred on Broadway in How to Succeed… and in London he most recently appeared in Celebrity Autobiography.”

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My Opinion: To misquote the show, “there are not enough Oliviers in the world that they could throw at Michael Urie.” This young actor holds the audience in the palm of his hand for an hour and 40 minutes without once losing its attention, without a single stumble or hesitation, yet alert and interested enough in his own work to allow himself the odd genuine giggle and pause for his engrossed audience to express their appreciation.

The real masterstroke of the performance is actually at the beginning. Michael Urie introduces himself and sets the scene with a little back-story about Barbra Streisand’s ‘coffee-table’ book “My Passion for Design” and how it influenced writer Jonathan Tolins to imagine what it would be like if an unemployed actor (the reason for that unemployment is hilarious in itself) got the job of pretending to be a shop assistant in Steisand’s private underground home shopping mall.

Ms Steisand herself is treated with respect. Urie naturally switches voice and body-language to narrate conversations, but it’s without parody. Indeed, sympathetic even as the tale becomes more outrageous.

A perfect bland setting by Andrew Boyce, and simple projections from Alex Koch are enough for Urie to let us tour the estate, and the attention to detail includes an authentic American Kit Kat wrapper.

It’s witty laughter from start to finish, and expect a sore ribcage by the time the show ends. As a masterclass in both writing and acting, this is completely unmissable on all counts.

Improved musical endings

March 18, 2015

A  couple of weeks ago, on the Theatreforum.com message Board, I was thinking about alternative endings to musicals.

I’ve long said that Christine should have gone off with the Phantom (sparing us “Love Never Dies,”) but sitting at “Miss Saigon,” I realised the ending would be immeasurably improved if Tam “went postal” with Chris’s service revolver, taking out Chris, Ellen, Kim and The Engineer, before throwing himself on John’s mercy as an orphan…

On the tube home, I came up with a few more:

Blood Brothers: Turns out that Mrs J had been given one wrong baby at the maternity unit. So they never were… she dies of irony poisoning…

Les Misérables: Following Javert’s suicide, his police laptop is examined. A remark by Cosette to her new husband leads to further connections, and the whole Javert / Valjean dynamic triggers a new “Operation Yewtree” style public inquiry.

Billy Elliot: An injury in the first term ends his career. Back home he discovers ‘White Lightning” and white powders… after rehab, he ends up as driver to Michael’s world famous Drag Show.

Once: Guy realises what a blithering idiot he was – giving Girl all his cash for a piano. He tries to get it back. The final cliff-top scene reprises “Falling Slowly” as she sets him straight about a gift being a gift.

The Sound of Music: The Captain and Max realise they have more in common than they think – Maria and the kids end up staying with the nuns, as the two guys march happily over the pink hills to happiness.

Annie: Annie blows Daddy Warbuck’s fortune on Barbie dolls (including “Californian Divorcee Barbie” – comes in a huge box with all Ken’s accessories). Obviously, he returns her to the orphanage.

Legally Blonde: After a cosmetics accident, Elle sues the company and gets interested in chemistry. She goes back to Harvard, does a chemistry degree and starts teaching. As it isn’t making much money, she uses her knowledge to start manufacturing Crystal Meth.
Actually, that might even make quite a good TV series spin-off, perhaps?

Jesus Christ, Superstar: On the cross, he suddenly decides to “always look on the bright side of life” instead. His cheerful tune causes the Romans to let him go, and he teams up with Mary Magdallen, supporting her with a fabulous touring magic act and ultra-cheap catering service.

Cats: Old Deuteronomy changes his mind and chooses Gus instead. Grizabella gets McCavity to neuter him, and Old Deut sings a closing reprise of “Memory” in exactly the same key as Grizabella did, bandaged from the waist down.

A Chorus Line: Zack picks his final 8, then announces that the whole thing has been a “wind up” for his own amusement. He dies under a hail of dance shoes…

 

Well, some of them may be adopted, who knows?

Combating Discount Culture

March 11, 2015

In January 2015, the owners of Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) did an interview with “The Stage” newspaper about the year ahead, making “combating discount culture” their main aim .

If ATG are serious about it, well, they are the ones with the muscle to do it. They have the venues, the producing companies and the computer systems to really change things if they want to.

The venues they control include many of the most popular in London, and the largest regional ones outside. So anything they do is instantly felt by the theatre going public.

As producers, and major investors in producers, the dialogue about ticket pricing is easy to have. Being both landlord and tenant, communication channels are constantly open.

Most helpful, ATG’s booking system is the best around, the most responsive and clearest… and provides a tool for changing prices as quickly and often as they wish. And that’s the key to what they wish to do.

Currently, ATG (along with Delfont Mackintosh) are the major exponents of “dynamic pricing.” Prices change according to demand, and may see many seats set at “premium” then descending as low as second or third price when they fail to sell – or cheap seats suddenly becoming more expensive with demand.

Previously, theatre practise was to “move the rope.” Demand saw “fixed” changes in price, say between row S and T, becoming flexible with T suddenly joining S in the higher range. Beyond that, box office staff used discretion on a daily basis (as some still do) to get what they can for remaining tickets each day.

I’m now wondering if the way to combat discounting is the “Mousetrap” approach. The only production in London to claim “no discounts from any source” (bar the odd group rate occasionally), I’m wondering if combining the wiles of “dynamic pricing” with the salesmanship of box office staff and the hard-headed approach of “The Mousetrap” is the solution.

“Hard Pricing,” where prices are fixed, never change BUT there are more of them, could be the way forward. “The Mousetrap” has four (five from June) in the stalls, but there’s no reason why a larger venue shouldn’t have far more.

Assess each seat and price it individually, then stick to it. The ends of the rows aren’t as good as the centres, nor the front rows as those a few back, nor the back as those forward. Currently, it’s those less desirable seats, and the wildly over-priced ones which are filled by discounting. Why not price them temptingly from the start and let your venue make the money from both the booking fee and interest on advance sales? Even better, you don’t need to spend on marketing a show that’s sold out.

A quick example (fictitious and not based on any actual venue) is shown here:

example1

 

example2

It might surprise you that the difference between the “traditional” (top) and my idea (bottom) is just £6675 – 28% less gross income. That is 11% LESS than the average discount on a regular ticket offer.

Now, I created the above “on the back of an envelope” in 5 minutes, without working out those figures until the end, but I think it makes a point. If done properly, the yield from “Hard Pricing” would actually be greater. Even in this example, you could argue that 28% represents lost income from unsold seats at those high prices… which may well be full if far cheaper…

As customers realise that not only will prices not change but that they will truly be paying exactly what a seat is worth, they will become confident to book ahead. You’ll still have the ticket agencies able to sell too; as most take “live” feeds from the box office, they’ll also have the advantage of this pricing to which they can add commission.

I could go a step further and suggest the National Theatre’s approach – a huge captive “mailing list” market who buy far in advance at very reasonable prices – again major theatre owners have “club rooms” and a “card programme” which could be materials to build on; but for the moment, I commend the idea of “Hard Pricing” to the house.

Right way to Innovate

March 4, 2015

Another juke-box musical opens in the West End, with the professional reviewers proclaiming the star to be a hit, but the show itself typical of the genre. Meanwhile, two decent original musicals will fold in the next few weeks and one will be replaced by a revival of a classic.

At £67.50 or more, it’s really no wonder audiences won’t risk their cash on a new show. Doesn’t matter how excruciating the revival may be (still recovering from “Miss Saigon” last week), it’s a safer bet for sure.

Just as in theatre, though, sometimes taking an innovation in life can be fun. I’ve spoken long and often about how I dislike Kindles – yet the Kindle app is the one I use most on my tablet now. Admittedly, I have to. They not only wrecked my local library service so I can’t get new books easily any more, but also some of what I read isn’t in printed format. But that’s another story.

Also another story; when did a stunningly pretty girl last give you a delighted giggle and round of applause as you purchased a Big Mac from her? Do shop assistants abandon their customers to come to your till to tell you that you are “awesome?” Are you engaged in conversation every time you shop, by staff wanting to know all about you? Can you amaze and confuse London Underground staff with your Jedi skills, opening a tube gate with no visible Oyster card?

Since last autumn, all this has happened to me in everyday life, and I now know what celebrities are dealing with. It’s fun at first, but now, well, honestly, I really do just want to pay for my shopping and be on my way without comment. Still, the attention persists.

Why? I’ve been using (and am now addicted to) the “Payband.” A black rubber bracelet containing the same “contactless payment” chip as a credit card. No fumbling in pockets, just touch your wristband (works even through thin pullover and coat sleeves) to the card reader in shop or at tube gate. Sorted. Or would be, if everybody didn’t stop you to demand where they could get one (not available any more, sadly, as the trial ends in May).

My point is this, though. The system is free, improves my life (rare that technology does) and in using it I’m helping develop the future of payments – just as I did when I took part in the prototype Oyster Card trials over 20 years ago.

If theatre wants innovation, it has to deliver something that early-adopters can latch onto at little cost and high benefit to themselves, and which makes life better for them to an extent that they tell everybody else.

That’s what cheap preview performances are for, for a start… and why I booked seats for “The Mentalists” (at Wyndham’s Theatre from July) without hesitation when news of their bargain £9.50 preview tickets leaked out.

Innovations which delight get attention (as my simple arm accessory proves), and theatre may do well to remember that. Fun, promotion and profit go together, so let’s have more of it in the industry which invented and relies on the first two for exactly that result.

Too Stupid for Stoppard?

February 25, 2015

According to playwright Tom Stoppard, his latest effort “The Hard Problem” had to be “dumbed down” four times during previews before a sufficient number of the audience ‘got’ the literary references.

I’ve seen the play. SPOILER ALERT it’s about a young scientist who gets a job at a prestigious banker-funded research institute. The banker has a young adopted daughter. The scientist once gave up her baby from a teenage pregnancy for adoption. Guess the rest. SPOILER ENDS. I guessed the entire plot in the first twenty five minutes, and spent much of the rest wondering how bright the author was. Even “Hollyoaks” has a more inspired story arc.

On the one hand, I understood the scientific and literary references. On the other, I’d actually handed over £50 of my hard-earned cash to watch this piffle. And flashing me with a pert pair of buttocks wasn’t going to distract me from noticing just how thin that investment was.

Though, to be fair, they were very attractive buttocks…

But back to the point.

Most obviously of all, audiences pay your wages. Insulting them is never a sound idea. “Doing A Ratner” is something to fear, never emulate.

Tom Stoppard also forgets that the foundations of knowledge may be solid, but the accumulation on those foundations are ever growing. Even more impressive, that which once was considered exotic becomes commonplace. Franklin, Watson and Crick and Pauling unravelled DNA and Nobel Prizes were awarded for it. Now, a fairly bright high-school kid will explain base-pairings to you without thinking about it.

The same kid will, of course, also be able to cure your computer virus and connect your wifi – though admittedly not know how to move socks from a floor to a wash-basket (that is a bit advanced, after all).

They may think Churchill is a nodding cartoon dog, but they have knowledge which will see them through life. If not a Stoppard play – though in this case, it would have.

What Stoppard values as “general knowledge” is valid, but in this multi-media world with ever growing and faster flowing streams of material to process and understand, it’s increasingly hard for anyone to hold everything so readily to hand.

Yes, it’s sad when “current” displaces such fondly cherished “old” general knowledge – sadder still when that “old” knowledge was denied to someone in the first place. I’m the first to cry “foul” over my own (in)comprehensive education. It’s the cruellest social engineering metered out to anyone who can’t afford to pay or has no opportunity to fully “work the selective” system. Yet you can (as I did) do something about it. Basically realise early that you are being cheated and READ. Nothing that they tell you to, but the stuff those who are actually getting an education are reading. Emulate too the things they do, and you can acquire something worthwhile.

To be told by someone who didn’t receive a “public school” education, yet has done exactly as I did and “educated themselves” that he judges us to be “too think to understand his work” rather smacks of either chronic insecurity or creeping senility.

Theatre can teach, and the fact audiences turn out and pay to hear your ideas is an opportunity to inform and breach that gap.

Audiences are not getting thicker, life is simply getting faster, parameters of knowledge wider. You could use the opportunity to remind them of knowledge that may be on its way to sidelining, ensuring its survival rather than scaring anyone from the source. That would be the truly stupid thing to do…

Into The Woods, the film.

February 18, 2015

I already enjoy the Digital Theatre version of this musical, captured live at the definitive Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production, and was a huge fan of the original London production. Thus I made a rare venture into the cinema to see how Disney magic could make Sondheim’s shape up.

First jolt is the literal approach film requires. There isn’t room, in the mass audience required to make a movie pay, for subtlety. And this is as subtle as a giant’s footprint – and about as imaginative.

That isn’t to say it doesn’t look the part. The woods, village and castle are fairy-tale precise. It’s just that whereas stage versions have inventive fun with the setting, costumes and characters, the film has to be conventional.

So, second jolt is that Jack and Little Red Riding Hood are children. The stage version, and the songs the characters sing are full of sly observations about maturing, heightened by being sung by twenty-something performers. The frission of sexuality between Jack and Giantess and Red and Wolf are spices to season the blandness. All lost here, though the songs are performed nicely enough as earnest plot-movers.

Third jolt is Meryl Streep’s witch. In an already magical land, she almost has little to do. An already shortened libretto means her hold on proceedings is diminished, while, if we are being honest, her voice isn’t perhaps at its strongest either when tackling Sondheim. Sadly, not only are her biggest numbers mis-handled, her one original song didn’t make the final edit either.

OK, and a final criticism, I’m afraid I found Anna Kendrick as Cinderella rather vacant. But that could just be me.

On the plus side, James Cordon does well as the baker, and there’s nice work from the princes.

The script editor too makes a decent fist of shortening and “dumbing down” the script for the wider audience, and the songs are mostly left alone – the form seems to be to ‘abandon totally’ rather than edit. A good choice. Oddly, though, the music didn’t sound as lush as in days of Hollywood musicals past, but that could have been the cinema rather than this film.

As an introduction to Sondhiem, it’s not bad. It lacks the warmth and connectivity of the stage show, the true darkness and empathy, but it’s a reasonable enough attempt that I’ll be buying the DVD in the sales. That said, the Digital Theatre version is also still available… and the gap between them is wider than I’d hoped.

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