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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?!

Join the SNP (Shaftesbury Nationalist Party) today!

September 17, 2014

With all this succession stuff in the air, I suddenly realised that it was time for another minority to “stand up and be counted” (even if that count is, er, one) at the moment.

Yes, I suddenly realised that it was time that Shaftesbury Avenue declared independence from the rest of the West End, and today I officially inaugurate a party formed solely for the purpose of achieving that aim.

For those who don’t know, Shaftesbury Avenue has a proud, often colourful, history. Following the collapse of the ruling Stoll Moss Empire of medieval times, a power known as the “Really Useful Group” occupied many theatres in Shaftesbury Avenue and treated them with corporate respect. In around 2004, we saw glimmers of hope, with the appointment of King Cameron the First to the realms of the Queen’s and Gielgud, following victory in “The Battle of the Palace,” and the treaty of “Les Miz” that same year. Queen Nica managed to share power, with the acquisition of the Palace itself, to add to her dominions of the Apollo and Lyric, and thus the core state has a stable and caring monarchy – one placing the “Really Useful Group” firmly over the Charing Cross Road border into Tower Street. With two inner islands of the Piccadilly (Panter tribe) and Prince Edward (King Cameron loyal), and the outer (already self-governing) island of Shaftesbury itself, this is a true Nirvana and well able to cope as a proud and independent nation.

For far too long, Shaftesbury Avenue has handed over its taxes to the wider state, and seen nothing in return. Sure, both British national companies – the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre present on the Avenue work they originated, but it can’t last forever and the fickleness with which these shows move theatres every 20 years or so indicates just how remote the national companies are from the proud Shaftesbury Avenue economy. Besides, it was Shaftesbury tax money which allowed them to do it in the first place.

I see power itself operating from the Palace of course. Already fully equipped with enough seats downstairs for the wealthy, and a remote balcony from which the poor can catch the occasional glimpse of events below, the perfect seat of government already exists.

A self-opinionated and mostly self-elected ruling group of narcissists, fraudsters and others of dubious morality will easily be found for each sitting, simply by leaving the door open for half-an-hour with a “free tea and biccies” sign hung on it. That way we’ll save on the costs of an actual election, of course, and end up with exactly the same cross-section of political personalities.

Preservation of the rights to trawl tourists’ pockets is a key reason for independence. For too long, other streets like the Strand and St Martin’s Lane have encroached on our fishing rights, by changing their shows more often than we have. By taking control of our border with Piccadilly Circus tube station, it should be possible to prevent anyone entering Coventry Street and thus be unable to reach Leicester Square and land tickets at TKTS without first walking past the box office nets of at least 4 of Shaftesbury Avenue’s own theatres.

Currency should produce few issues. Shaftesbury Avenue has a long and proud tradition of taking anything anyone cares to negotiate with (this is a family blog, so further details by private message only on that one), but in particular it is happy to accept the credit card of any country on the planet, provided it has a “Mastercard,” “Visa” or “Amex” symbol on it. Provided too that the SOLT Theatre Token is accepted at the continued parity of £1 voucher = £1 Shaftesbury Avenue Theatre Ticket, there should be no problem with the changeover.

Better still, we will be able to set our own ticket prices far more easily. Free of the need to consider taxation and minimum wage laws, there is room to slash prices at the door yet maintain a quality of production that should continue to dazzle… at spectacularly lower prices than now.

With proper control of our borders, we should also be able to prevent ever-again immigrants from “The X-Factor” and other “Reality TV Shows” from sneaking onto our stages and taking jobs from actors who have actual talent. Sure, refugee camps may spring up around the Criterion, but that is for the Mayor of London to deal with, and he could easily return many to their “studio of origin” if he chose – no ferry required since Waterloo Bridge runs right to the ITV studios on the South Bank.

We can further improve valued artistic citizens’ lives with the restoration of “Stag (Night) Hunting,” and it’s extension to “Hen Nights.” This will ensure a return to manageable levels of behaviour from both – and with silencers, the cast of “Jersey Boys” will remain unaware of a successful “bag” taken in the stalls.

Shaftesbury Avenue’s unique culture of over-priced inauthentic Chinese restaurants, crappy expensive burgers, the £10 glass of warm wine and musicals that last forever is a heritage which deserves preservation, and this can only be achieved if it can gain full separation from those who would impose quality food and intellectual ideas on the cowered inhabitants.

Anyone wishing to join the SNP is free to sign up below. Details of membership fees and our first Party Conference somewhere exotic (I’m thinking the Islington Almeida?), plus the official party uniform of canvas jacket with overlong sleeves that do up at the back, will follow to interested parties in due course.

Hamlet Hype

September 10, 2014

What were you doing at around 9.30am almost a month ago today? 11th August 2014. Nope, not the day Nick Clegg failed an IQ test, or Simon Cowell said something amusing unscripted. No. The day “Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet” tickets went on sale.

Like a lot of folk wanting tickets, I spent that half hour before 10am getting organised.  Knowing that the Barbican promised their technology was up to the job, and that there would be a “random queuing system” in place from 10am, I put it to the test with two computers – “work” and “home” – tuning in. My “home” computer I pointed to the page at 9.30am, and my “work” machine at 9.45am.

True to their word, at 10am the “random place allocator” kicked in. “Home” machine was allocated place 6549. “Work” fared better – getting allocated a very respectable place 327. So it really was random – when you pointed at the page didn’t determine when you got in line. Fair play to the Barbican, it did what it said.

The green man (you had to be there) stopped marching at around 10.25am and after a “heart in mouth” pause, the booking page appeared. Smooth as silk street (little Barbican joke there), I found there was plenty of good upper circle and balcony, plus a bit of dress circle too to pick from. I got the (fairly reasonably priced, I felt) £30 upper circle seat I wanted with no problem.

Very happy, and well done Barbican on your IT, I’d say. But I would, because I’m a happy customer. Really, I am genuinely sorry for those less fortunate. Hence this blog entry.

And here’s the thing… actually, I’m not a Benedict Cumberbatch fan in particular… so why did I feel the need to do all that to secure a ticket?

Two reasons. The main one is that I am a fan of producer Sonia Friedman, so I wanted to see what she’d do with the play, given how amazingly well “Mojo” was produced. Also, I wanted to cover the play for; and I knew my best chance of tickets was to “go for it” like everyone else – then use all my wiles later if I had to… except that I doubt many would work in this case…

… and that of course was due to “hype.” Millions of fans of the lead actor, only a limited season, though at least in a large theatre. Hopefully, a few of those fans won’t have seen a Shakespeare play before, or have been to a theatre, and will grow to love it too. Yet, I don’t think that was the main reason for such a fast sell-out.

I actually put it down to technology.

First, the internet spreads news and builds anticipation like nothing previously invented. Information can be read, exchanged, discussed as never before, so that even those less interested begin to wonder what they might miss out on.

Second, it allows tickets to be sold far more efficiently. In the “old days,” it was either “wait in line” in person at the box office (skip school / work, hope you aren’t filmed for the news), send a letter with a cheque (a sort of IOU form issued by a bank, kids) and self-addressed envelope for return of tickets – or hang on the phone for the three people answering calls… IF you could get a ringing rather than the ‘busy’ signal. With all those factors to consider – time and number of staff processing bookings, it would take days or weeks to “sell out” some 10 weeks of performances.

The Barbican, bless them, managed to get 27,000 or so (though I suspect many, like me, had multiple machines in that line) in an orderly queue and deal with 250 or so (based on where I was in the line and how long it took for me to be allowed in to buy my ticket) around every 15 minutes. Thus the Barbican sold their tickets in a matter of hours in orderly fashion. Like I said, I was impressed.

Finally, technology also allows remaining tickets to be scooped up faster. “Returns” can appear and be snapped up at any time. Elsewhere, the Barbican’s admirable “Shop a ticket tout / scalper” (which I’ve tested, and doesn’t appear to work) and “photo ID required” policies supposedly all but closed down that route. I found only 5 seats on sale when I looked out of curiosity,  the centre did nothing about it, though – so they perhaps don’t have as much influence as it seems, alas.

What it all adds up to is that tickets are simply, like the rest of life, circulating faster and more efficiently than ever before. If not actually fairer, at least the Barbican’s way has been democratic, which I for one can’t argue with. Still, perhaps the old way was a little more fun, as you played the game over a far longer period and it wasn’t almost entirely restricted to the most computer literate… a bit of the “old way” gone, alas, perhaps.

Still, all I have to hope for now is that I’m “fit and well” on the day… only a year and a bit to go for me.

P.S. As I was writing this, a heavily discounted offer came in for Macbeth at the same venue. Surprising, as I thought the place was a magnet for Shakepeare fans… of course, it could just be the curse of the play, couldn’t it?!

A Streetcar Named Desire: Young Vic Theatre

September 3, 2014

(seen at the afternoon performance on 30th August 2014).

“They shouldn’t allow a pregnant woman to climb on a chair to hang decorations,” I thought to myself – only seconds later remembering that Vanessa Kirby had only strapped on Stella Kowalski’s “baby bump” during the interval, and was doing something they call “acting.” Brilliantly.

Miss Kirby’s performance is just one of a clutch making the production very special indeed. Her on-stage (see, I’m getting it right, now) husband Ben Foster’s clear thinking Stanley Kowalski and Corey Johnson’s humble Mitch also deserve equal prominence, and the supporting roles of Nurse, Doctor and Woman are nicely filled by Stephanie Jacob, Nicholas Gecks and Claire Prempeh. I did also wonder if Otto Farrant was paid for playing the Young Collector; given what he gets every night, it would seem greedy to demand cash too… but moving swiftly on…

…To the reason all the tickets were sold (probably). Gillian Anderson in the West End again. Sporting a huge plaster just below the knee (exclusive, from an usher: she knelt on a broken plate at Tuesday’s performance – the fact she missed Wednesday was down to personal illness alone, apparently) her take on Blanche Dubois is fascinating.

Ms Anderson settles on a low simmer for much of the evening – just occasionally giving a flash of what lies beneath the surface. Her final scenes are therefore more impactful for leaving the audience feeling that they should have spotted the signs of distress far earlier. The pain of her final circle around the stage is thus considerably more intense for those watching, and a reminder of just what a fine play this really is.

The quality of Benedict Andrews direction is beyond doubt too. Clarity of character shines from every actor, each word and action is natural, and we feel no artifice observing these lives.

This lead to curiosity at the staging. So much so that for the first time ever, I actually emailed the theatre to check some technical details. SPOILER ALERT for those who have not seen it, the production is set in an apartment. Fire escape, combined kitchen / dining / bedroom area (curtain to divide the bedroom as required) and a bathroom. The whole oblong on a revolve which is almost constantly in motion.

It makes for difficult viewing, as scenes you’d like to see are sometimes obscured. Yet there’s no doubt that the movement (at varying speeds) clockwise for “reality,” anti-clockwise for when Blanche descends into fantasy adds to the interpretation.

As the Technical Director kindly explained, “We have no upstage or downstage or indeed stage left or right on this show.  Our fixed points are the 4 entrance doors to the space numbered 1 to 4, and the metal docking platform that aligns with the staircase.  It’s lively, and the actors often make entrances from different doors each night depending exactly where the revolve is; the revolve cues are not fixed, they react to the show.” SPOILER ENDS.

This, for me, explained away why the piece seemed so natural, despite such a complicated staging. The cast required to think, and no two performances the same, no wonder the randomness of their lives can be so beautifully exposed.

I had only two other quibbles with the design in the end. Twice the script refers to things which weren’t picked up – it wouldn’t have taken much to add buttons to a dress, nor figure out how to explain the position of the bathroom, as the text required.

Otherwise, this exceptional cast and highly original presentation are well worth catching either live or during one of its cinema showings.

Tricycling in Politics

August 13, 2014

The news that the Tricycle Theatre has caused promoters to cancel a film festival by first requesting to view the films, then questioning how it is funded, ‘got’ to me this week. What does it mean? Should I “de-list” the venue? Protest? Applaud it? Throw up?

The “pre-viewing” request was obviously ridiculous, but to go on to the funding thing… whatever their motive… is particularly odd, isn’t it… I mean, as in really strangely deluded thinking…

My reasoning is that in this day and age, you can NEVER be sure where the money is coming from for anything at all. Where something is made (labelling isn’t quite what consumers think it is), how it is produced, who funds it and owns the factory and what else they do. You just can never know.

I know it sounds harsh, but I know darn well that I will, totally inadvertently, have bought something at some time that was produced by a child or underpaid resident of a state that abuse its nationals.

Out there is a miner dying because I want a new computer built with rare toxic ores that he dug up without having protective clothing available, that his wife washed with her bare hands, taking the toxins into her body, and that his 10 year old son and daughter stacked when they should have been in school rather than absorbing poison. And then repeated in reverse when my old machine was sent back to their country for re-cycling. If you are using a computer to read this, sorry, but it could have been you too…

There’s fantastic hotels in London owned by ruling elites of nations who think gender and religious discrimination is fine. Happy theme parks with investment from oppressive regimes. Cars produced by manufacturers that make weapons parts and perhaps once engineered components for gas chambers. Drug companies who produce wonderful medicines but won’t offer them cheap to those who really need them but can’t afford them.

I’m probably exaggerating (I hope to the highest that I am), but… like I said, it’s a global economy and someone, somewhere is leading a miserable life so that mine can be unbelievably rich and comfortable in a way they wouldn’t even dream of because they don’t even know it exists. On the other hand, they have work and so are not in danger of starving to death while they do… but it’s flippant to say that’s not a bad trade-off, isn’t it.

Yes, sanctions can sometimes work – largely where a country can at least feed itself and the elite are the ones to suffer. But all I am saying is that to identify “sources of income” as a reason to react may be a tad simplistic…

oh, and just out of interest…

I bet much of the I.T. the Tricycle use was developed by programmers whose education and training were funded by the particular government the theatre is trying to make a statement about. Should probably go back to good old paper tickets and sliding light-boards for the duration, if they feel that way about how things are funded, perhaps…

The problem is that entrenching positions and closing dialogue won’t solve anything – that’s what gets the world into these situations; all sides must keep talking. Privately, I’ve resolved that I’ll think twice about going there in the future… no full boycott because, as I said, dialogue is the only way to solve anything – but just, well, “is my visit REALLY necessary.” Shame, as “Handbagged” was one of the funniest shows I’ve seen this year.

But seriously, if a theatre is becoming politically self-censoring, rather than using the stage for the correct purpose – to explore issues through drama – then where does it end? Where does it all end?

EDIT: Since this entry was published, on 15th August 2014, common sense prevailed and the venue rescinded the condition. Why they thought it was a good idea in the first place… still, it gave me a blog entry…

I’m taking a blogging break for a couple of weeks. Thanks for reading, and see you all on 3rd September. Have a good summer.

Subscription Seasons

August 6, 2014

In the 1980s, the owners of the Old Vic, the Mirvishes, attempted to bring their Canadian business model to London and sell a whole season of tickets – a seat at each of 4 shows, to the public. It didn’t work then… and when the Spacey regime tried it again at the Old Vic in March 2014, it didn’t work either.

I wonder why? It seems to work for opera – and it’s the only way to be in with a chance of seats (not prom places) at the “Last Night Of The Proms” each summer.

So why not for theatre audiences in the West End?

I guess partly because a good proportion of West End visitors are tourists, and won’t be sticking around for the whole season.

For locals, I think there’s so much choice that many don’t wish to be tied down. Opera and Classical music are a fairly homogenous art form. Theatre is so varied that there’s always something new and interesting, so you have to keep your dates open.

I’ve also noticed that Londoners don’t book that close or that far ahead. Busy lives, so around 3 weeks to 3 months seems to be the norm – so far as I can see. To commit to so many dates up to a year ahead… maybe not.

Of course, the fact is that regulars usually have a good sense of what will discount, and that too makes a difference.

Finally, for the latest Old Vic attempt, I was also slightly baffled. Had I known that I could have booked “Clarence Darrow” and “Electra” despite already having seen “Other Desert Cities,” I’d have been on it like a shot. But I just didn’t get the message. And in the end, I was lucky and got tickets to Darrow because everyone else appeared as bewildered as I was.

In a way, I’d quite like someone to try again, to see what happens if the system is brought in at the start of the season, rather than after the first production. If there were great discounts and the advantage of priority for “hot tickets” it could just work – a really fun challenge for some marketing team, somewhere, perhaps…

Cracking the “Day Seat Line Decorum” problem.

July 30, 2014



As the picture above shows, I think I may have cracked it at last!

Imagine this sign done properly, hanging just under the theatre canopy.

And with a CCTV camera angled to capture the lucky 10 in order of arrival.

As the sign says – the footage will be checked to prove the order of arrival… and serves the duel purpose of confirming identity when tickets are issued just before the show (as most are, to prevent them being sold on during the day).

A big advert for the show that “day seats” are available, no way for anyone to “hold places” for anyone else, nor “queue-jump” – can’t even “sell on” your place as the whole thing is on video…

…and linked to an online webcam, it’d be easy to see if it’s even worth turning up that early to begin with.

Nothing to add this time, as a picture paints a thousand words for a change, I think!


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