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One Shed of Red

April 16, 2014

Happy Birthday to the Shed. The wooden contraption grafted onto the front of the National Theatre, and suddenly the coolest venue in London.

I’ve written before about wanting to save it, and it looks like we could be lucky. What I wanted to do today is explain why.

Simply, it’s first year has made me want to go to the theatre again. Particularly the National. I’ve seen more in the Shed in the last year than the other auditoria. That isn’t just down to the fact the programme changes more often, but also because the work they do is fascinating, the ticket prices reasonable, the seats wonderfully close to the stage and the atmosphere totally relaxed.

OK, there have been a couple of shows I’ve been less than keen on. “Bullet Catch” was a total mess, and I thought “Home” was boring; but “Blurred Lines” is one of the most exciting pieces of theatre I’ve seen in years, and “Nut” was an intriguing piece of drama.

The National Theatre does tend to have a “house style,” which is fine, but grates a bit if you see too much of it. You can guess the scenery, how the lighting will go, even when you’ll get a music interlude. In the Shed, they seem to have left those rules mostly behind, and it’s a joy to be surprised each time.

Better still, the relationship between the audience and stage is like a fringe venue that hasn’t been simply carved from an existing pub. It’s “properly done” with a large enough budget that there’s no scrimping, but not as lavishly comfortable as a West End theatre either. That tangy edge lends something to both the space and the performers, making it easy to involve every member of the audience in the stage action.

£20 for a top cast and some great new writing is appealing, and the “restricted view” policy of the last year (sadly gone now) put some fantastic £12 seats in the reach of the least pecunious.

The venue will last until 2017 if permission is granted, and they say it can’t go beyond that as it will have exceeded its lifespan. I say that as a birthday present we should club together for a few cans of red creosote and see if we can’t extend the life of one of the best theatres to open in London, ever.

Once again, Happy Birthday, Shed.


I’m not blogging for a bit, back on the 14th May, leaping the odd bank holiday. Have a good one, one and all.

When famous people die

April 9, 2014

“What do say, about a girl. A 25 year old girl who died?” is the haunting opening of the musical “Love Story.” On Monday evening I got home from the theatre and heard the shocking news that a 25 year old girl, a mother of two tiny children, had indeed died.

I was already a little sad at the loss of the wonderful Mickey Rooney, and to hear of Peaches Geldof just made me think.

Now, I’d never met either of them, and only knew of Ms Geldof as a character in the tabloid newspapers, and Mr Rooney from his work on screen (why didn’t I see him when he was on in “Sugar Babies” in London? Why?). Yet the news made me stop.

It isn’t even that I’m “star obsessed.” I’ve met the odd one or two famous names, known some slightly less famous ones personally over the years… and they really are ordinary people in extraordinary situations brought about by the recognition of a unique talent and a drive few of us possess.

My belief has always been that every single human contains the same quantity of every single emotion a human can feel. Joy to despair, hope to sadness, hate to, of course, love. The only difference is that some lives share their emotions over a period of many years, while others share it all in a few weeks, days, sadly even minutes or seconds. But the fact remains, that portion of emotions has been shared forever, and becomes part of all it touches.

When a widely-known name passes, despite not knowing the person directly, I guess it is the work that they have done – stage, film, TV, writing, that has spread their emotions out to us, and that is why we feel them.

All I can say, of course, is to express condolences to the families of both, and hope that the departed have found peace.

Cumberbatch Hamlet April Fool!

April 2, 2014

For those who missed it yesterday, and because I don’t like wasting material…

This was the attempt at an “April Fool” for 2014.

It was announced this morning that the Summer 2015 production of “Hamlet,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch will be a cultural celebration of the close ties between the UK and Denmark.

Producer Sonia Friedman says, “I am delighted to be strengthening relations with the Danish arts world, and welcome both their cultural and financial support. We are now not only able to ensure the authenticity of the piece through utilising local skills and knowledge in design and casting, but also access commercial sponsorship that will assist greatly in meeting our planned production budget while off-setting the price of tickets for ordinary theatregoers.”

The production will open on 12th July 2015, exactly 500 years to the day Hamlet’s Father Christan II ascended the Danish throne. A royal gala event, it will be held in the presence of both Queen Margrethe II of Denmark and our own Queen Elizabeth II, plus members of the household.

On stage, the National Theatre of Denmark will be much in evidence. Queen Gertrude will be played by leading Danish star Anna Kronenbourg. Most famous for creating the role of Christine Daae in the original Copenhagen cast of “The Phantom of the Opera,” this will be her London debut.

The set will be designed and lit by the Danish National Theatre’s award-winning team of Bang Neilsen and Lens Klar. Three years ago, they won the Andersen Prize for an innovative collapsible set for “Peer Gynt.” This time, they are considering options for either a classic or modern design at the Barbican. Whether to use Rosenborg Castle as an inspiration, or more recognisable modern landmarks, Neilsen has reputedly quipped “Tivoli, or not Tivoli, that is the question,” to his team.

With a £3.2m budget, this will be the most expensive “Hamlet” ever staged, and the Danish Ministry of Commerce is delighted that its most famous brands will be contributing.

Already confirmed is the assistance of The Maersk Group with the shipping of the set from the workshop of the Danish National Theatre to London. In return, shareholders with at least 1,000,000 shares registered as at 31st March 1915 will gain access to seats ahead of the general public.

Similarly, famous Danish chocolate and marzipan makers Anthon Berg will be running a “Charlie and The Chocolate Factory” style contest, with “golden tickets” to the play hidden inside various wrappers from early 2015. A terminal in their Strøget store from 1st April 2015 will provide visitors with access to tickets ahead of the main booking period opening.

Premium” seats are to be sponsored by Danish Bacon. Mindful of the sensibilities of vegetarian, Jewish, Hindu and other theatregoers, the “Bring home the Bacon” slogan will only be emblazoned on tickets for 9 of the 18 rows. Their generosity will see these seats priced at only £115, rather than the necessary £175 originally predicted.

For those with less money, a unique marketing campaign will be launched by Lurpak on 31st January 2015. Customers will be encouraged to collect 30 specially designed wrappers or tub lids from its butter products. These can then be sent in to the address provided, enabling 10,000 customers to purchase up to 2 specially widened seats each for selected performances.

Finally, Denmark’s most famous export, Lego, will mark the event with two thrilling tributes. The first will be a model of the Barbican Centre, to be unveiled at Legoland in Windsor on the day the production opens. The second will be the release of a limited edition Lego re-creation of the Bang Neilsen stage set. Following the success of the 2013 “Tower Bridge,” popularised by David Beckham, it is hoped this 1750 piece box will have similar long-lasting appeal.

Summing up, Danish cultural attaché to London, Lars Priloof, says, “It is a great joy to us in Denmark to once again participate in the sharing of our most famous royal and England’s most famous writer. We look forward to 2015 with much anticipation.”



If you didn’t get the “Hamlet’s Father,” “Anna Kronenbourg” (and a Kronenbourg), “Bang Neilsen and Lens Klar” (Bang Nails In and Lens Clear), plus the other daftness… the final old classic anagram “Lars Priloof” (April Fool) should be the clincher.

Thanks for laughing. Or not. As you like!

It’s about the money, money, money…

March 26, 2014

Following on from a few weeks ago, about dynamic pricing, two articles in the Stage newspaper interested me.

The first was that orchestras now find audiences are opting for cheaper seats. The second suggested that any ticket sold at a discount was due to a failure in pricing in the first place.

Both items made me wonder if the authors ever paid for their own seats, or actually considered the regular customers who make up an increasingly frustrated minority in auditoria across the nation.

First off, a lot is said about the “Dynamic Price” model of budget airlines being the way forward. Having worked in aviation ticketing, I’ve seen both sides – and can safely say that they couldn’t be more different.

Sure, there are a few attractive seats on a plane – and not always bulkheads in Economy Class either, as that’s where the screaming babies get put. Worse, the really brilliant places on a long-haul plane are “out of bounds” to passengers (usually).

Point is, on a plane you can buy extra comfort if you wish, but other than that, you are getting to your destination and that’s it. The deal is that you get exactly what you pay for – a seat with known legroom, known service and a (hopefully) safe landing.

In theatre, pricing doesn’t reflect these variables – and it often can’t either. Some seats have more legroom than others… but don’t have view that justifies a higher price… and there’s the difference. It is the view and sound that matter, and not just the fact you arrive at the end of the show.

So, regarding orchestras – of course audiences are not going to pay just to see. They come to hear, and if a cheap seat is aurally excellent and tolerably comfortable, it’s “job done.” I myself normally sit in the cheapest balcony at the Barbican Hall for just that reason. Any “expert” that doesn’t get that reasoning, doesn’t have a clue, I’d say.

As for discounting… a musical isn’t Majorca. People don’t commute to musicals on a regular basis to work (show crew and associated followers like the author excluded), or live in them, or have other reason to keep a bus going to them full often enough to be economic. You may HAVE to go to Majorca to visit Uncle Jose and Auntie Juanita, but you most certainly do not have to pay to see any show that doesn’t appeal.

Rather like a package holiday, the only choice a promoter has is to find out what anyone will pay to shift perishable stock. A discount isn’t the price failure the expert in the article says – any producer will tell you they can fill as many seats as they like if they priced them at £3 a throw (and there is an industry that does just that). It’s selling at a price that allows, if not a profit, at least a tolerable break-even or minor loss that’s important.

Discounted tickets fill seats that would remain empty mostly because there simply is no public desire to see a show. Nobody forces the public to go – unlike essential travel – and the quicker the minds in the “dynamic price” camp realise that, the better.

All regular theatre goers want is decent seats at fair prices, and those prices to be fixed whether we book early or late. Treat us better, and remember that “premium” seats don’t necessarily sell at those prices and may be sold cheap or left embarrassingly empty when they could have gone at a reasonable price – you’ll fill your seats. Well, that’s my opinion, anyway.

Sport v theatre fans

March 19, 2014

An old “Smith and Jones” (I think) comedy sketch had a wildly cheering, scarf-wearing “Sadlers Wells”  crowd chanting slogans at the opposition “Royal Opera House” lot over the aisle. That made me wonder about what theatre and sports fans may just have in common:

1) Loyalty to a person. Player on field or stage. They all have fans who travel miles to see them and are upset when the idol doesn’t appear.

2) Tickets cost a fortune in the top flight. Big West End hit or Premiere league game, both the thick end of £70 or more.

3) Obnoxious behaviour by a minority spoil it for everybody else. Yep, the drunken yahoo exists in both the stalls and grandstand. Annoyingly, only the grandstand is covered by the type of CCTV that can pick it up, though.

4) You can watch it on screen. Yep, both theatre and football get broadcast. Only difference is that if “King Lear” over-runs, they won’t move “Coronation Street”…

5) You have to wait for folk to die to pick up a prime ticket. Particularly in the membership heavy theatres like the Donmar, whose “priority membership” lists are closed until somebody leaves. Same goes for a number of cricket and football clubs, I’m told.

6) Watching the same old stuff, time after time. Well, there’s only so many stories and ways it can be done, just as there is only one way of putting a ball into a net. It’s the exciting variations that we live for.

7) The managers talk a load of rubbish. Well, they do. Entertaining rubbish, but it still isn’t them facing the crowd every night – though to be fair, they all do take the blame when it goes pear-shaped.

8) Everybody wants to demolish the old venue and move to a cheap one so they can put housing on the original. Stadium or auditorium, same thing.

9) Andrew Lloyd Webber writes for both. Two World Cup and an Olympic theme, I think. You can’t escape him.

10) The genders will never agree. Sure, there are men who like musicals, just as there are women who live for football – but they are always held up as the exception to the rule.

So maybe sports fans and theatre goers have more in common than we think. And for those who’ve been to a “Jukebox” musical on a weekend, you’ll probably agree even more…

1984 at the Almeida Theatre

March 12, 2014

Seen at the Almeida Theatre at the afternoon performance on 8th March 2014.

On the whole, I preferred the real thing. Those difficult Junior High days over, two “residential” school trips, “Starlight Express” and Atari home video games…

… which is my way of saying I agreed with the lady sitting next to me who exclaimed, after 1 hour 40 minutes, “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

That isn’t to say there is nothing good about the play. The performances are of a high standard, with several potential Olivier contenders. Tim Dutton’s “O’Brien” is a chilling enforcer, having even me believing he was holding up five, or three, or however many, fingers he wished me to. Gavin Spokes produced a Parsons straight from the book – injecting humanity and great sympathy into the simple party member. Mentions too for Matthew Spencer as intellectual Syme and Stephen Fewell as a convincing double-agent. Also not forgetting Asha Banks as a robotic Child – a young name to look out for in a few years.

In the leading roles of Winston and Julia, Mark Arends and Hara Yannas do their best against staging determined to undermine them. Having to play several scenes “off-stage” means it takes a considerable time to forge a personal link with the audience; and poor direction leaves Yannas in inappropriate costume for a major sequence. Would a character trying to conceal her real motives from the enemy turn up to a secret meeting in the very dress she wears to rebel? That said, she manages an interesting take on a sexless functionary trying to become a real woman. Had she been able to do that on stage rather than in a projection, the full impact of her performance would have been even greater. Similarly, Arends as Winston works best when we can see him live, rather on a screen with 80 tiles (yes, I counted them, it was that kind of afternoon).

Which it was. For some unknown reason, creators Robert Ike and Duncan Macmillan decided to frame the play as a “reading group” 100 years into the future – when the government of 1984 had collapsed and Winston was a fictional creation of the period. It was significant that after the first 20 minutes of “too clever, dear, let’s have him time-travel” (do leave that to the Doctor, please!) they gave up on the concept for most of the rest of the play – several self-indulgent loops excepted. One pointless final reference, however, kicked a remaining support straight out from under the piece.

1984 is about something beyond austerity – an endless grimy subsistence. This play had a set not unlike a decent grammar school, the latest video equipment and more theatrical gimmicks than Trevor Nunn’s storeroom. Such strong material needed little in the way of such dressing, nor the cast the weights it placed on them. A stunning hour and 20 exists here, if only the source material had been trusted. As it is, it’s worth catching for some of the performances alone, but, as I started out by saying, it’s no match for the real thing.

Many Happy Returns

March 5, 2014

No, not birthday ones. I mean how I got to see “Henry V” recently. Browsing for other information, I suddenly thought, “oh, wonder if there’s anything” and took a look. There, shining at me, was a single ticket for a date I could make, and at a reasonable price too.

There’s a certain joy in that, and I think it is somewhere the computer scores over the telephone.

I well remember spending an afternoon on the phone, trying every ticket agency just to get a single seat for something – and hearing the boredom (OK, disguised hostility, well, not that well disguised) in the clerks’ voices when I asked them to see if they had a ticket for something they’d already told a hundred others “no” to.

Online, you can check as often as you like – and you can get lucky. I’m not saying it’s perfect. There’s that disappointment when the time lag means somebody else actually has the ticket held already, and you can’t get it to your own basket. Still, it often works.

Once more, though, the dead hand of “dynamic pricing” kills the pleasure, if the seat is a good one (or, frankly, pretty rubbish but still in the mid stalls or dress circle) it gets a “premium” pricing. Not for me, alas.

Occasionally, to be fair, it works the other way, with the seats sold at the last moment more cheaply, but that’s rare.

So, perfection would be a single page where a theatre chain could post all the returns and dates, at fair prices, for the lucky and quick to pick off. Then, they can experience the fun I always have chatting to the fellow “return” owners about just how lucky we were. Sharing another pleasure, what could be better?!


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