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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.

 

 

Love Story: The Musical. Union Theatre, SE1

October 10, 2014

(Seen at the Evening performance on 8th October 2014).

The second time I’ve seen the show in a London Fringe theatre inside a year… and I think director Sasha Regan may have created the “definitive” staging, that future productions may be well advised to follow.

Previously, there’s always been an emphasis on ‘sad and romantic story,’ which enthralled the 70s film audience. Regan wisely takes an alternative tack, giving far more weight to the characters, and allowing their emotions to create the tale’s arc.

In this, she received invaluable help from casting director Adam Braham, who assembles a stage full of perfect performers.

For the first time, Jenny (Victoria Serra) and Oliver (David Albury) are played at their “correct” ages. Her in the fullest bloom of youth and hopefulness, him on the cusp of manhood. It’s a magnetic pairing, utterly convincing in their growing emotional intensity.

Serra resists the temptation to copy the spikiness of all previous incarnations in favour of a far sweeter approach, with the barbs as the building blocks of her charm. That she ensnares her Oliver is no surprise at all – frankly, judging by the bar-talk at the interval, if he wasn’t interested, there was an orderly queue of substitutes already being formed…

Luckily, the incredibly gifted Albury is more than man enough for her. Matching his co-star both vocally and in acting ability, his transition from rebellious Jock to fully formed emotionally-aware man is impressive. The final hospital scene is a thrilling emotional climax of his acting skills.

Two surely rising Musical Theatre stars.

Other performances are equally deserving of mention. Most of all, Neil Stewart as Phil Cavilleri. Holding an audience breathless in a solo telling of his pride in his daughter, it’s a simple image that will burn long in memory.

Seamus Newham also manages to give a gruff roundedness to Oliver Barratt III, a father who can’t communicate with his son, but certainly knows how to play to a theatre. As his wife, Deborah Poplett too understands how to convey a small role with maximum impact – a comment equally applicable to ghostly Tanya Truman (Jenny’s Mother) who creates a moving spirit.

In other brief roles, ensemble members Ellie Ann Lowe and Grace Osborn provide beautiful vocal opening and closing eulogies, while Adam Bayjou is the perfect “Hippy Vicar” and convincing Doctor, Nathan Elcox another defeated medic and Norton James a versatile support to the company.

Yes, there are faults, which lie mostly in the construction of the piece itself. The long “black-outs” between some scenes suggest extra work could be added to make it more cinematic. On the plus side, introducing an interval (the show is normally played as a straight 1 hour 45 without a break) allows the audience to re-group and heightens the emotional impact of the second half.

For those seeking a beautifully sung, memorably melodic miniature jewel of a musical, with a cast who will probably remain unequalled by future revivals, this is unmissable.

Until 25th October 2014.

 

On a personal note, many thanks to Sasha Regan and the team at the Union Theatre for a great evening. I attended with my theatregoing group, who had “bought out” all the tickets for that night. Something I’d now recommend to anyone else who can muster 49 friends to share a show with, for sure!

 

As this week was a “double post” week, the next blog entry will be on 22nd October 2014.

Reaching Out?

October 8, 2014

The Almeida Theatre alone has at least 9 people listed in its programme who appear to be involved in “development” of the venue. Building audiences, involvement of the community, children, artists… it’s a laudable aim…

So why did I have the following conversation with somebody, as I caught a little sun in a nearby park before seeing (ironically, as it’s about community integration) “Little Revolution” there?

We started to chat because the person (I’ll keep the gender and age to myself, as I respect privacy, but will say it doesn’t fit into any deliberately targeted category) had a wonderful dog on a lead – and I can’t resist a hound. Who can?

Anyway, turns out said canine had been a good dog at the vet’s and was being treated to a walk in an unfamiliar location before heading home. On informing the owner in return that I was heading to the Almeida, I was fascinated by the response, “I’d love to go there – they did a Judy Garland thing a while ago – but I don’t dare. It’s so intimidating. And when I do go to the West End theatre with my (adult) family, the drinks are so expensive, aren’t they.”

The Almeida are generous to the local community with ticket price discounts, and operate a fairly reasonably priced catering outlet… and of course have their legion of “development” workers…

… yet the fundamental appears to have been missed. The white paint, steel and glass simply scared a willing audience member away!

On my own visits, I’ve found staff welcoming, and the box office staff in particular went out-of-their-way to sort a booking problem I had when their website overloaded and crashed due to demand.

The only criticism I have is that from the outside, exterior signs don’t make it clear where the stalls entrance is, and you can tell “first timers” from the way they look at the well-signposted circle entrances (on the pavement) and miss that stalls users go in through the newer foyer doors.

So, how does such a simple barrier come to be ignored, and how can it be broken down? I guess on the first, it’s because it wouldn’t show up in a survey – because who counts those they don’t know about?

On the second, the way I’ve done it is simply by “hand holding.” I first encountered a similar thing years ago at university, when a group of friends – all extrovert “talk to anyone” types with confidence I envied – admitted that one weekend they’d gone to Shaftesbury Avenue, fancied seeing a comedy play… but funked going in to buy a ticket, as they weren’t sure how.

I explained it all to them, and offered to go with them next time… as indeed I’d done for fellow sixth-formers not that long before… result. New Theatregoers. I really hope Theatremonkey does the same, as that’s one of the reasons I started it and wrote the book.

Should theatres have “ambassadors” to knock on doors, stand in the streets and guide new people inside. Simply have a friendly “door person” receptionist as a first contact? A start perhaps. Sometimes, I guess you do have to make developments one person at a time….

Little Revolution (Almeida Theatre)

October 1, 2014

Seen at the afternoon performance on 27th September 2014.

There’s pure gold sprinkled through the debris of this sprawling 90 minutes. Alecky Blythe performs in her own work, using the “verbatim method” (actors speaking words actually recorded by the author, in the tone and accent they hear) examining the 2011 London Riots.

Ms Blythe spent that scary time on the streets of Hackney, talking to residents, looters, shopkeepers, anyone who would speak to her. She then followed up at post-riot community events and edited the whole to perform with a cast of local people and actors.

Director Joe Hill-Gibbons stages her gleanings “in the round,” with the riot heard only as noises in the foyer, and the odd actor appearing with a cardboard box encasing expensive electronics (possibly unrelated to the play?). This is because the riot itself isn’t the focus of the piece, it’s all about the people.

The gold I referred to at the beginning of the piece isn’t in the play itself but in the anger Blythe’s interviews generate in the watcher. The shaking of complacency is the most valuable asset of all. Her well-chosen selection of subjects play out the proof that there is no coherent society any longer – and that we have simply lost the ability to communicate across social boundaries.

On the one hand, a “group from the square” seize on bewildered newsagent Siva (nicely confused Rez Kempton) and use their connections to get Marks & Spencer to sponsor a “heal the community” street party, put Siva on breakfast TV and of course re-open as soon as possible.

Across the road, still Siva’s customers, but grateful for just £300 to run their own “Help Youth against Crime” campaign, the “estate residents” are the ones actually experiencing every aspect of the conflict, yet seem doomed to remain always voices without the power to be heard.

Resentment, lack of understanding and empathy, are at the core of Blythe’s work. If one side understood that it was general resentment of how the other is treated by every strata of authority: police, council, welfare, that they take for granted… perhaps the riots would never have happened. These thoughts are the strength of the play.

The weaknesses, though, are myriad. The under-educated, morally, intellectually and socially, participants barely get a mention, and there’s a distinct failure to draw clear conclusions from what has been explored. To end on a shrug seems to reduce the piece to voyeurism when it could have been a laboratory of fresh viewpoints and insights using a unique theatre technique.

Still, the cast is mostly strong. Good to see Imogen Stubbs back on stage as well-meaning committee type Sarah; Ronni Ancona and Melanie Ash turn in convincing worried working-class mothers, while Barry McCarthy is the quintessential ‘revered senior’ and Lucian Msamati the barber who knows. Alecky Blythe herself seems slightly uncomfortable with the attention, but her presence is a welcome insight into how the production was created.

Had this tried to hit fewer targets, and taken a less busily elaborate staging route, it may have been more powerful. As it stands, to allow anyone in the audience to take away a feeling of failure is a brave choice, and for that reason alone, the whole is to be applauded. It’ll solve nothing, but perhaps it may spark recognition of issues, if not actually begin the dialogue those issues require if they are to be addressed.

 

Giving a Show Stars

September 24, 2014

After the performance of “Grim: The Musical” at the Charing Cross Theatre, my guest for the evening asked how many stars I’d give it. As both regular readers know, I don’t review shows nor give ‘star ratings’ to anything I see. A 1 to 5 scale doesn’t work well for me, probably because I did time in the travel trade and know what they don’t do for hotels.

To digress on that, did you know that in many countries you can get more or less an extra star because the bathroom soap is wrapped rather than in a communal cake on a string (likewise the butter in the dining room…)? Or that a goldfish-bowl sized pool rates two extra stars, a broom-closet meeting room another, $100 to the local inspector the full house?

Add to that the fact that I’ve stayed in all types of hotel and learned that in a single country there are 5-star hotels I wouldn’t have boarded my cat in (I mean, for $400 a night you’d expect the “Playboy Channel” to remain unscrambled at least. I didn’t want to watch it of course, just noticed when flicking through, really. No, really); while at the other end of the scale there are no-star hostels I’d cheerfully live in if they’d have me as part of their extended family of owners.

And so it goes with theatre. Some “5 Star” lauded stuff I’ve seen, I wish I hadn’t, some denigrated “1 star fodder” I wish had run long enough to see again. Still, I did think about what I’d say might earn a show its stars (individual wrapped ice-creams rather than a communal one on a string being, of course, a starting marker. Not). Accepting there isn’t such thing as a “no star” show – though perhaps if one was so totally offensive to everybody, it could happen – then:

One star more or less means the cast turned up sober, remained on the stage without falling off, and completed the performance with the audience awake.

Two stars if the plot is coherent, the odd line or song lasts in the memory until clear of the foyer and something appeals in the production or cast performances.

Three is earned for producing something of “West End” standard. Adequate in all respects – story interesting, a string of memorable scenes and performances, but you’d be careful who you told to “go see” as it won’t appeal to all.

The extra star comes if the show is worth recording and transferring to Broadway. A good-looking and good-sounding piece that you’d happily send a friend to for a special evening out.

Five stars, well, “Once,” the original “Les Misérables” or “Cats,” “Amadeus,” “The Audience” is probably the standard. Something that takes theatre to a new level, that leaves the audience staggering out to the box office to try and get another ticket as soon as possible. Ageless and timeless, “a classic.”

By that scale, of course, I’d dish out 5 stars around every 10 years, but as I don’t, I don’t. Perhaps that’s the reason why?!

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