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Opera House audiences ARE different…

April 22, 2015

As the regular reader of this blog knows, I’m no fan of opera, and so never have cause to venture into establishments mounting that sort of event. With “Sweeney Todd” at the London Coliseum, though, I broke the habit of a lifetime and went along.

I’ve always been a fan of the Theatreforum.com message board’s “Bad Behaviour At A Show” thread, and noted contributor Parsley’s sociological study of the Coliseum audience – deserving a Nobel Prize. Now I’ve seen it all for myself…

…The jolly debauched rabble at a Jukebox musical I can take; but never before have I encountered such a frightening sense of passive-aggressive upper-middle-class entitlement.

Knowing I had an aisle seat, I arrived about 10 minutes before (so others can fill the row without my needing to move). This upset the woman who thought she’d booked it for the dead dog’s remains she was wearing (an Astrikan hound?), and made clear her irritation that now she’d have to put the thing on her lap. Sorry I’m deliberately enjoying a little “me-time” and only required a single seat, ma’am, I’m sure…

Ahead of me, Miss Trustafarian*, and Miss Debutante-WeebleHead were planning a “simply marvellous” few days holiday break costing my annual food bill… each. As the show starts, Miss Debutante-WeebleHead decides that the rake (how steeply the seats are stepped between rows, so you can see over the one in front) isn’t to her taste, and spends the entire act mostly with her head and upper body at 45 degrees into the aisle, but occasionally wobbling back (but not falling down) and pendulum-ing 180 degrees across my vision to whisper to Miss Trustafarian and flick through her programme – in such a way I could read it too – even though I didn’t wish to do so.

On the plus side, when in aisle mode, I got a lovely view with nobody in front. Almost cancelled out the rest of her total disregard for anyone around her. The Lucy Clayton School has obviously closed – or her parents should sue for a refund.

All-change at the interval, as what Parsley called his beloved “seat shuffle” was celebrated in grand style.

Someone I suspect to be The Right Honourable Kyd de Fiddler-Face smirkingly spread himself, and his belongings, over two seats across the aisle a row ahead of me – which had been empty throughout act one.  No chance a second mover was going to sit next to him, even though he’d grabbed the desirable aisle seat, then.

Miss T and Miss D-WH spotted empty seats further forward too, and moved, leaving their pair in front of me clear. They remained so until 5 minutes into the second act, Mr Opportunist Shuffle-Limbs and his good lady, sitting beside them, spotted the fact. Mr OS darted into my sightlines, gave them a test (hurting my foot, banging the seat down) but decided to stay put and just do some quick aerobics every few minutes in his original place instead.

Mistress Dead-Dog beside me also clocked the situation and whispered a plan to her husband… fortunately, they sized up the “Oik who wouldn’t let poor Rover rest” (i.e. me) for what I was – and decided against. They realised that well-placed foot in the dark would have propelled them forward several more rows than they’d intended, had I been disturbed. In both senses of the word.

I now know why private boxes at the venue command a premium. And oh, the front-of-house staff there are wonderfully friendly. The abuse I saw them take, and the (quite right) moaning I heard after as they cleaned the £125 seating area and found debris I’ve not even seen left behind by panto audiences full of children.

It’s another world among opera-goers, I’m telling you…

 

As for the show? Ran the gamut from “good” to “amazingly excellent,” certainly justifying what I paid for a ticket (and that wasn’t, I assure you, anywhere near the top price…).

The “good” were the setting and staging themselves. Similar use of platforms around an orchestra to various US productions down the years, with the cast moving around a raised centre area, forestage and even occasionally into the auditorium. The only problem was how “polite and restrained” it all was. No anger in the early moment scores were thrown away and a piano upturned, and little aggression in the characters for the rest of the evening.

The “very good” included the use of a large chorus and some neat “ad-libs” (with a double-bass player the butt of many a good visual gag). Kudos to Emma Thompson (Mrs Lovett). What she lacked in vocal ability, was more than made up for in comedic gifts. Know which I’d rather have.

The “amazingly excellent” unsurprisingly went to what big opera companies can do best. The score never sounded better as played  by David Charles Abell’s orchestra, Bryn Terfel spoils permanently any recording of Mr Todd I own (in a good way) and Matthew Seadon-Young’s box-bound “Joanna” was near unforgettable.

Once I’ve fully recovered from the audience experience, if they repeat the experiment with another show, I may just be convinced to make a second visit. Though I suspect I may explore a seat in a private box this time.

 

*Some names have been changed slightly, to protect the guilty.

Game. Almeida Theatre.

April 1, 2015

(Seen at the afternoon performance on 21st March 2015)

The strangest afternoon I’ve spent in theatre in years.

ALMEIDA THEATRE production of GAME by Mike Bartlett directed by Sacha Wares
So, a young couple can’t afford a home. They take up the offer of rent-free luxury accommodation, with a little pocket-money and a free car too. Is there a catch? You bet. The house is the set for a kind of “paint ball” game taken to almost sickening extremes.

This intriguing premise works very well indeed on paper (they provide a free script with the programme – nice). Staged, this is a somewhat over-done event. Audiences are herded into one of four “zones” or “hides” as they turn out to be. Action is then viewed through one-way glass if watching house occupants, live in your “zone” or on video if happening in another zone or out of audience view. So that you miss nothing, audio is via headphones throughout.

The result is oddly detaching. A very human story, minus the live contact theatre usually provides, means a disconnect between cast, audience and material. Indeed, it was noticeable that I wished to engage with one of the actors doing something unspeakable right by my elbow. Normally, “breaking the wall” would be out of the question, but after just 30 minutes, I think I was dying for human contact.

The story itself does raise questions. About entertainment and media, about the value of life measured against entertainment, about reducing life itself to a game in search of profit and… just why does a director ask a lady to “prove that she is one” in the crudest way, while leaving a male actor more fully dressed? That was tacky beyond the call of the script.

ALMEIDA THEATRE production of GAME by Mike Bartlett directed by Sacha Wares
It’s well written, particularly well acted by Jodie McNee (Carly) and Mike Noble (Ashley) as the victims, Kevin Harvey (David) the guard with a conscience and Clare Burt as a person perhaps doing what many stressed parent might wish to – but would never dare. A large cast of assorted players ensure that this is a team effort.

Too short to explore the concepts raised really satisfactorily, yet intense enough to leave a mark, this is something I’d like to see in a simplified staging and extended in text at the Donmar or any small fringe venue that has an empty thrust stage, with the subjects on the main level and the rest on that balcony above. It’s also perhaps going to be a great one for final year drama course students to get stuck into as well.

Beneath the technology, there’s valid points to be made and, if this staging will go down in theatre history as unique and unrepeatable, the play itself will have a far longer life as something with a fresh voice and a genuinely compelling central idea.

 

Photographs (above) show Jodie McNee and Mike Noble. Photograph credit: Keith Pattison. Used by kind permission of the photographer and Almeida Theatre.

 

I’ll be taking a break for a couple of weeks, back on 21st April. Enjoy the holiday weekend, everyone.

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

ubuyercellarbanerMAR15
(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.”

ubuyercellarMAR15
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.

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