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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?).


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?


The Worst Jobs in Theatre.

May 27, 2015

Aside of course from mine, at times, particularly on a Friday afternoon around 6pm when a slew of new offer emails arrive, or if I’ve paid to sit through what turns out to be a very long evening indeed.

So, what others can I think of?

The person who has to launder all the Lycra for the cast of “Cats.” Well, unless it’s a fetish of course (I’ve not Googled to find out as I understand they record searches…).

Cleaner after a panto matinee. ‘Nuff said.

Barman on stage at “Once: The Musical”. Endless moans over prices. It was a themed setting you paid for, you know.

Sound designer at the British Mime Festival.

Box office staff at the Cumberbatch Hamlet. Talk about “Groundhog Day.” Phone rings: “any tickets?” “No”. And it’s been going on for them since last August, and will go on for them until this October. No wonder the Barbican has block-booked a psychiatric ward for November…allegedly…

Being the chandelier rope holder at “The Phantom of the Opera.” What a life. Turns up for work, hauls the rope to raise the thing to the theatre ceiling, stands on the rope through act 1, takes foot off at the rope at the crucial moment. Then, while everyone else has a drink, spends the interval hauling on the rope to get the hook out of the way. Stands on rope again for rest of show. Lets it drop and goes home. Done twice on matinee days.

Usher at the Dorfman Theatre. That place is so flexible in layout, and can change several times a week… plus they can get allocated to the other 3 venues in the National complex. How do they remember exactly where to send the customers?

Confetti maker at “Sunny Afternoon.” I’m assuming this is automated. Place a sheet of paper on a bench, lower the cutter, voila. Quite fun for 10 minutes, but knocking out a million 5x1cm rectangles all day, every day, and loading them into a bag. That’s job satisfaction, not.

Billboard poster at “The Mousetrap.” Turn up once a year to update the cast photographs. And, er, that’s about it. A sort of doss, except for the boredom, I suppose.

Theatre, it’s not all fur coats and after-show parties after all, is it…



I’m taking a blog break next week, so back on the 10th June. See you then.

Carrie The Musical: Southwark Playhouse

May 20, 2015

(Seen at the afternoon performance on 14th May 2015)

It’s beyond rare for me to take an afternoon off work to see a midweek matinee, but for this, I made an exception. Why? Because I attended the press night of the original show at Stratford Upon Avon all those years ago, and something huge just pulled me back… and I’m delighted that it did.

For this is quite probably as great as this infamous (biggest loss on Broadway for many years) show will ever get. Right venue, right cast, right music, lyric and book, right director, set and costume designers. Yes, it’s the definitive version all right – and an absolute ‘must’ for anyone who calls themselves a musical theatre aficionado. So what did they do this time that just didn’t work in Stratford all those years ago?

The show has been massively re-worked. Many songs replaced, the “Don’t Waste The Moon” drive-in sequence dropped in favour of “A Night We’ll Never Forget,” sad, but the correct choice to drive the story – and thank goodness insane “Pig” is nowhere to be seen. A classroom sequence “Dreamer In Disguise” sets up a better relationship with the second half, and the climax is swifter. Oh, and the ladies no longer shower in their underwear (the entire ludicrous opening sequence is gone), which helps credibility from the off.

It also now works here as this isn’t a show for a refined traditional theatre. It needs the audience on three sides with a scruffy ‘High School’ space in the centre. With director Gary Lloyd’s effective decision to have action taking place even in the aisles, real footage on the kids’ mobile phones and a neat “school corridor” (nice one, Tim McQuillen-Wright) leading us to the auditorium, plus some nice effects by Foy and Jeremy Chernick the scene is well set. Also particularly noteworthy are Ugne Dainiute’s costumes. With prom season here, this is the person to ask. No s**t.

Most of all, though, casting director Will Burton must take the credit for assembling the finest troupe possible.

carrie mother daughter
Kim Criswell is every inch the Broadway star, making Carrie’s mother both monstrous and sympathetic, with a voice and performance outstripping original Barbara Cook.

Daughter and title character Carrie gets an original casting in slight Evelyn Hoskins. Previous choices have all been to portray Carrie as bovine, the dim butt of jokes. Hoskins brings far more to the role. Tiny, clearly intelligent, observant and just waiting to bloom if she knew how, Hoskins has an independence and credibility making her final decision believable, even rational in a way never seen before. With vocal talent to match her acting, this is a triumph.

Around them, supporting characters are faultless. Reliable Jodie Jacobs as Phys. Ed. Teacher Miss Gardner finds humanity with a beautiful rendition of “Unsuspecting Hearts.”

Pairing Sarah McNicholas (Sue Snell) and Greg Miller-Burns (Tommy Ross) is equally inspired. McNicholas had a breakthrough last year as the young Mistress in “Evita” for producer Bill Kenwright in the West End. Here, she throws down her marker as a certain leading lady – the “Wicked” team need to see her for “Elphaba” immediately for a start, for this is an impressive triple. With Miller-Burns, their duet “You Shine” is totally appropriate,

carrie duo boy girl
and Miller-Burns matches her with wonderful sincerity in taking Carrie to the Prom at Sue’s request. If musical sequel spin-offs were possible, “Sue & Tommy” with McNicholas and Miller-Burns should be high on the list.

Gabriella Williams as Chris Hargensen apparently has “Sophie” in the West End “Mamma Mia” lined up after this. It can only be hoped she really is a versatile actor, otherwise Abba fans are going to be surprised to get a “Bitch from Hell” trying to find her father. Joking apart, Williams pulls off the very tricky ‘nasty as a defence’ required to perfection, delivering new song “The World According to Chris” as it should be sung.

In smaller roles, Eddie Myles (Freddy Holt) has a likeable confidence, while Patrick Sullivan and Olly Dobson ( George Dawson / Dale ‘Stoke’ Ullman) will be useful additions to the profession once they complete training, Sullivan has an innate sense of timing worth watching, Dobson a fluid technique. Dex Lee (Billy Nolan) manages to make a dangerous character understandable, while David Habbin’s Mr Stephens will be credible to anyone who has ever tried to teach final year high-school.

For the ladies, Bobbie Little’s Frieda Jason is nicely sassy without caricature and Emily McGougan (Helen Shyres) is not just catwalk stunning in her prom outfit, but moves well too, while Molly McGuire gives follower Norma Watson real definition as a member of the gang.

On the minus side, going back to the original novel and introducing the ‘inquest’ element seems to slow the pace at times, then become lost when it might be needed; and the show’s book crumbles slightly at the end, with a slightly inexplicable conclusion. The biggest issue is also never satisfactorily solved either – simply the lack of lightness. Teenagers laugh, cruelly, yes, but also with great flights of fantasy at times. It’s always been missing in the darkness of “Carrie The Musical” and a little more levity could well heighten the drama.

Within this current production, Dan Samson’s sound design also badly needs tweaking so that the sound comes from the same direction as the cast member singing.

That said, this is a remarkable presentation, and I only wish the West End had somewhere that it could move into, bringing an almost 30 year history to a fitting conclusion and giving these talented youngsters an even greater place to shine.



Photo credits (above top) Evelyn Hoskins as Carrie and Greg Miller-Burns as Tommy; (above below) Kim Criswell as Margaret and Evelyn Hoskins as Carrie. Photos by Claire Bilyard, used by kind permission.


Why theatre beats politics

May 13, 2015

So, the circus has left town for another five years, and our new clowns have been chosen. Safely locked in the loony bin with the big clock, if we all manage to ignore them for long enough the damage should be minimal.

Still, I think the theatre world is better, and here’s why:

1) We only have to believe in theatre for two hours (four at most, if Trevor Nunn is directing). Politics expects us to suspend disbelief on a permanent basis.

2) The critics have a say just once, then shut up, instead of droning on for years.

3) If a show gets criticised, the actors don’t resign. They keep going for as long as they can. Beats all those so-called leaders the morning after the night before.

4) On the whole, actors cost less. The Equity minimum wage is far lower than what we pay anyone in politics – and at least we are entertained in return (OK, granted, Boris is sometimes an exception, but you get my drift).

5) You don’t get Scottish actors pitching themselves against English ones or those who agree with Europe ganging up on those who don’t. Instead, they all sit around together working out how to make their play the best they possibly can.

6) Theatrical adverts you get through the post are a lot more fun than political leaflets. And they include things like CDs and DVDs that you want to keep and watch again.

7) Theatre is always guaranteed to improve the lives of everybody it touches. Changing moods for the better and offering hope.

8) Let’s face it, most actors are better looking on telly than politicians…

9) … and they are chosen on their abilities rather than who they may have gone to school with or how far they agree with the text.

10) In the theatre world we know how to manage a massive budget, and don’t spend trillions on anything which can’t go towards improving what we do best.

Well, that’s all I can think of right now, but you get the picture. Vote theatre every time.


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