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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.

Why “Harvey” isn’t revived more often

May 6, 2015

It was lovely to see this play about an invisible rabbit back in the West End for that short season, but I’ve wondered why it isn’t seen more often. Having thought about it, the reasons are obvious. It really is down to casting the title character.

For a start, there simply are not that many 6ft plus invisible rabbits in Spotlight’s casting directory. 2ft visible ones, yes – nearly as many as 5ft 3 slim musical theatre belting ladies; but once past the height / viewable thing, not so good.

Of course, when the play was first staged, there were far fewer casting problems. After the war, many invisible rabbits were of course discharged from active service in the spy-corps. Having seen how Thumper became a big star in “Bambi,” they took advantage of veteran re-training programmes in the USA to take drama courses. In the UK too, the lines for auditions at RADA were legendary, and carrot-peddlers became wealthy catering to the queues.

These days, of course, there are so many more opportunities for invisible rabbits, that few wish to work on stage every night when they could be making a fortune at “Harry Potter” parties with just a cheap cloak as a prop.

Further, drama training has changed, with the “triple threat” – those able to act, dance and sing, most in demand. While two out of three isn’t bad, let’s face it, even the most tepsichorially gifted rabbit admits a problem getting close enough to dance “cheek to cheek” when toe-to-toe. Also, a single leap and they are clean over their dancing partner.

So, with so few professionals available for the part, producers have two options. They can either lie, and pretend that “Edward Plinge” (the name that goes into theatre programmes if a cast member wishes to remain anonymous / doesn’t exist) is playing the rabbit… or they have to pay a considerable premium for a full qualified invisible thespian. Which means ensuring the show is a hit, with a full house every night.

It is at the theatre the second problem is noticeable. Well, quite a few, actually.

The main issue is that rabbits obviously have large families – all loyal to their performing relative, and buying massive groups of tickets. The invisibility gene is dominant, they height one recessive in rabbits, so it means hoards are perched on the tops of the seats, rather than folding them down. It’s the only way many can see. What that means, sadly is that the human audience perceive theatres as less than full – and spread rumours that the show’s a failure.

Worse, rabbit paws are soft, so applause are soundless – nobody knows they are there. Even a “standing ovation” won’t be seen (and it’s risky for rabbits to attempt to bounce to thier feet, given the low overhanging circles if launching too quickly).

Finally, of course, sales of refreshments are lower than usual. Can’t sell carrots as they are too noisy to eat, lettuce doesn’t keep and nobody makes a decent hay flavoured ice-cream.

So, it’s a case of catching revivals while you can, and making the star feel special by asking for a “pawtograph” after. Hopefully, if he stays “in the business” this charming play will be seen more often once again.

Closer To Heaven: Union Theatre

April 29, 2015

(Seen at the preview performance on 26th April 2015).

If nothing else, this musical is the sharpest reminder of just how quickly time flies in the 21st Century. “Prepare to be shocked” is the opening theme… well, it might have been back then… but today, sadly, we are so used to drugs / gay relationships / manipulative media men and general hedonism that this script manages to be both dated and rather tame.

Luckily, it doesn’t matter all that much. For this is an utter triumph of presentation for the Union Theatre. Once again, Adam Braham finds a cast capable of raising an aging show to unimaginable heights.

Director Gene David Kirk, musical director Patrick Stockbridge, choreographer Philip Joel, designer David Shield and costume designer Barbara Williams place us firmly in a seedy 2000 club, authentic down to the phones and computers they use (nice touches) and making witty use of the in-built Union Theatre architecture to maximum effect. Inspired pre-show immerses the audience instantly, and the cast proceed to reel us in for the night.

The most fascinating thing, oddly, is how the cast here interact. It’s very noticeable that every young person on stage shines brightest when playing with a more experienced performer.

In particular, the father / daughter pairing of Amy Matthews (Shell) and Craig Berry (Vic) is a dynamic that the “EastEnders” writers should consider importing to television directly the run is over. Berry makes an emotionally confused character rock solid to the audience, his sexuality always and never in doubt.

With him, Matthews gives a hint of a useful evolving musical theatre character actor, as opposed to her somewhat stilted early conversation with young Jared Thompson (Straight Dave). It’s a shame that her progress in the show is then only hindered by the script allowing her character to rather peter out.

Thompson does get the better written of the young lead roles. Managing to carry the ending with an impressive “For All of Us;” he also demonstrates a similar strength in experienced / younger acting when playing a difficult scene with excellent Ken Christiansen (Bob).

As a catalyst, Katie Meller’s Billie Tricks is an excellent host, with shades of Patsy from “Absolutely Fabulous” about her – yet delivering the best, most meaningful, scene in the production, as she and Matthews discuss ageing and reality dawns on the younger woman.

In supporting roles, Connor Brabyn (Mile End Lee) and Ben Kavanagh (Flynn) are actually reflections of each other. One may deal drugs, the other be a music assistant, yet both are trapped by circumstance and have an anger that drives them. Two thoughtful and effective pieces of work.

Most worthy of mention, though, are “Billie’s Babes,” Ellie Mitchell, Tamsyn Blake, Grace Reynolds, Martin Harding, Ben Somerside, Jamie Firth and Alex Tranter. As club dancers and general ensemble, they are always worth watching – high energy and well executed ensemble dance routines, plus plenty of inventive interplay that puts any average West End cast to shame. In particular, watch out for some hilarious boy/girl interactions, and also a fine piece of characterisation (Ellie Mitchell) as drugs take hold of her near the end of act two.

If this show proves too much “of its time” to revive again, then this production has to be its definitive swan-song. If you can get tickets, go see.

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.

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