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“Muse of Fire” DVD review

October 7, 2015

Dan Poole and Giles Terera had two things in common; acting ambitions, and a loathing of Shakespeare born in school.

Lacking cash, a reliable car and any real contacts in the theatrical world, they decided to make a film about that loathing. 25,000 miles and over 2 years later, “Muse of Fire” is the result.

Starting with a “vox pops” outside a West End theatre, in which most contributors could quote something by the Bard but little more, the duo decided to contact as many well known exponents of the Shakespearian stage as possible in order to demystify and return to the public the greatest ever playwright.

Interviews with – among others – Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, James Earl Jones, Mark Rylance, Tom Hiddleston, Jude Law, Zoe Wanamaker, Ewan McGregor, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley, Derek Jacobi and, finally their idol Baz Luhrman follow.

The journey to meet them all goes from London to Los Angeles, via productions of plays staged in Denmark, Madrid and a tiny theatre in the Eastern USA, that they just happened to notice in passing.

Most of all, the journey happens to the two young men. Their rather frantic “mugging for the camera” tone at the outset become far more mature as the pair grow along with their project. The slightly outdated, well, downright cheap cartoon graphics depicting their journey become less a rebellion, more proof of just how tight the budget is – the scenes of Poole tiling a bathroom for a living underlining the fact.

After all that effort, what is achieved? Steven Berkoff is the answer. His transformation into “The Godfather” as he recites Shakespearian text is simple proof that it is all about how the word is spoken, and that “the rest is silence.” A compelling presentation, with the language given a meaning and context is all that is really required. Sure, knowing iambic pentameter helps (you’ll be an expert after watching this), but entertaining clarity is all.

The companion disc to the feature is a further hour of drama classes, “Shakespeare In Practice” where a troupe of mostly young actors are coached by such experts as Peter Gill and Bonnie Greer. There’s several exciting moments, including Sandy Foster and Tony Hasnath as Romeo and Juliet (a clip of which appears also in the main film) and the deep joy when an Orphelia and Hamlet know they have “got the scene right” under the direction of Henry Goodman.

This pair of films should be of interest to anyone hoping to learn just why they should love a 400 year old writer. It may not be the most polished of documentaries, but the list of interviewees is impressive, and collectively Dan and Giles have ended up with an important documentation of opinions from some of the late 20th and early 21st century’s greatest actors and directors. An historic achievement in itself, and one arguably of importance to posterity in its own right. Rather like the plays themselves, in fact.

Buy it now at Amazon.

Squeezing the Middle

September 30, 2015

No, I’m not clothes shopping. Well, I am looking for a winter coat, but that’s by the by and my weight isn’t a problem there. Too much information probably. Anyway. What I mean is that this year it has increasingly seemed like everybody is “searching for that sell out hit” rather than concentrating on what a few producers do best – bringing something of amazing quality in, and hoping to find an audience. “Oresteia” and “Oppenheimer” were good examples – building to full houses after a slow start; but it seems that patience is running out, and I say that is ruining the West End.

This season, I’m seeing too many theatres with the pattern, “big hit, short ‘filler’ entertainment,’ no show because we don’t have another ‘big hit’ lined up.” Even worse, most of the “star vehicles” I’ve seen this year have been a disappointment, one way or another. “Hamlet” this past weekend being the last in a long line.

Stars work to a schedule, around other booked work, years ahead in film, months in TV. They commit for a few weeks to theatre, give commentators plenty to talk about as premium seat prices reach the stalls in the gent’s lavatories, and vanish.

Frankly, we need more balance and less headlining.

Let’s see a return to a really good play, done well. Price it reasonably, give audiences a chance to find it – and who knows. “The Play That Goes Wrong” took that path, and had me reaching for my credit card the second a sequel by the same team was announced. Judging by the seats I got, I wasn’t the only one feeling the same.

Yes, one or two plays a year deserve the full “hype” treatment, possibly doing well for the whole industry by reminding the world that theatre is there and can be spectacular. When that starts to affect what investors are willing to fund to put on, there’s a problem.

Here’s hoping that producer Kenny Wax may become the person to emulate. Do a show well, keep it modest and grow your hit from seed. Plant as many as you can, care for them, and surely the West End will flower all year, rather than wither at the first frost.

Grand Hotel (Southwark Playhouse)

September 22, 2015

Or “What I did during the holidays, part 2.”

Seen at the afternoon performance on 29th August 2015.

 In my (now rapidly disintegrating) notebook from “way back when,” I noted that the original, sadly short-lived, Broadway transfer of “Grand Hotel” at the Dominion Theatre was “Rich, dark Belgian Chocolate.” A black stage, a square of chairs and a chandelier, and anything could happen against that deeply melodic score and velvet lyric.

This first major London Fringe revival is, alas, closer to Cadburys. That’s not to decry the bar I love, but the truth is that it just isn’t of the same texture, nor are some of the ingredients of the highest quality. Too little cocoa, too much other stuff to bulk it out and dilute the “snap.”

There’s plenty to work with. It’s a well-costumed (Lee Newby / Eleanor Bull), and well cast production – more of which later. Simon Lee (Musical Supervisor and Adapted Orchestrations) and Michael Bradley (Musical Director) come up with one of the best orchestral accompaniments ever heard in a venue this size. Sadly, Andrew Johnson (sound design) is defeated by the space, so that rather more than a few words are lost.

And there lies the issue. What possessed the creative team to think that a long narrow “traverse” strip of stage was a good idea? No hotel has a foyer that shape, and this show’s foundation is the intense intimacy built between individual characters. If half the audience aren’t watching one end of the stage because there’s also something happening at the other, emotional energy dissipates and can never be re-gained.

While the odd large dance number works – newcomer Durone Stokes making a fine adult professional debut as Jimmy, working with Jammy Kasongo to provide the most fun of the night as a versatile song, dance and comedy double-act; and there is something to be said for the “flowers and petals” train station sequence, for the most part, too much is lost.

Scott Garnham’s perfectly delivered “Love Can’t Happen” perishes when half the audience can’t see Grushinskaya (Christine Grimaldi on finest form) reacting. Similarly, Victoria Serra’s cut-glass take on Flaemmchen sees a major, beautifully executed, routine performed to only 30% of the house.

For the rest, there’s a lot of striding around, Kringelein (George Rae) turning in a faultless dying performance despite being made to travel unexpectedly long distances. His initial “check in” encounter with anti-Semitism is perfectly judged, but how much of the audience saw it?

With neat character performances from Philp Rham (another sick man made to move around) as Colonel-Doctor Otternschlag, Rhiannon Howys as Madame Peepee, a chance to glimpse Valerie Cutko of the original production as Raffaela, and a couple of convincing “good time girls” in Leah West (Tootsie) and Ceili O’Connor (Trude), not to mention Jacob Chapman’s Hermann Preysing there’s a lot going on…

… and ultimately the director is defeated by it. A crucial sequence with money and love leading to humiliation is fumbled, and worst of all, a dire “Cabaret” (the musical) ending, with the rise of Nazi Germany referenced so crudely as to atomise the dust of emotions remaining, fumble wonderful opportunities. The show contains its own shades of darkness and light, and this director fails to trust them (or got ‘hung up’ on linking early small acts of racism at the start with a need to show how they have grown by the finish).

One day there will be another major revival of this show, and hopefully several of the cast will get to take part in it. Until then, it’s a chance to hear the score, enjoy some fine characterisation, and understand what a great show this could be.



Victoria Serra sings “Girl In The Mirror”:

Bugsy Malone – Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith.

September 16, 2015

Or: “What I did during the holidays, part 1.”

Seen at the afternoon performance on 1st August 2015.

I’ve never watched the complete Alan Parker film. Sure, I’ve seen a few clips (probably due to an early crush on Jodie Foster) and watched enviously as the school class below mine was taken to the early 80s lavish Her Majesty’s Theatre stage version. Did they see a young Sheridan Smith? Who knows. Anyway, when the chance to see a new “live” version happened, I jumped at it.

Having leapt the first hurdle – the theatre hate single people, (don’t like them buying good seats when only a pair are left – a word with the box office begrudgingly sorted that one); and the second hurdle of chewing gum on the back of my seat (removed by a house manager who implied I was making a big fuss, and who didn’t clean the seat properly after removing it; thank goodness I carry sterilising liquid with me – my acid remark about ‘walking the house’ deserved, I think) I settled down to watch…

…. and quickly found that his was quite the most expensive school play I’ve ever paid to see.

A simple but highly effective set of a backstage area, with the usual iron staircase to the ‘stage door,’ supplemented by various rolling screens and props to give other locations, worked well. Nicely lit too, and the costumes were a triumph. Kudos to Jon Bausor, James Farncombe and Susanna Peretz.

The opening moments were pretty great as well, Asanda Jezile’s Tallulah promised much with a confident narration.

Sadly, it all unravelled for me from there. Ben Harrison’s sound design ensured that those on the 8th row near the side stage speaker couldn’t hear a word being sung over the orchestra.

Luckily, the plot is practically invisible, so that it didn’t matter much. Being able to follow the story using the lyrics would have been good, but as the thin material stretched even thinner with elongated dance and ancient panto-style “tell a joke down the line” sections to try and pad out a second act, it may have been for the best.

Flashes of inspiration – a well choreographed “So You Wanna Be A Boxer,” and the nicely ironic movement as kids fell victim to the dreaded (though not exactly spectacular) “splurge” gun were far outweighed by the crass decisions. These included a dull “love the very little guy” moment “Tomorrow;” and a particularly dated, cringe-worthy, “make ’em stand for us” ending. If I wish to give a standing ovation, I will, otherwise, I’ll sit, thanks. And on that subject, I expect to see the stage while seated until the end, as I paid for, not have to move into the aisle so I was not blocked by the person standing in front (still, it gave me a chance to put my coat on and beat the crowds to the exit).

Much of the dance seemed to lack energy, which I accepted as I thought that those involved were very young. Turned out, the ensemble were actually drama school graduates. Another disappointment. They may have been told to dance slowly and as children would, but if so, not the greatest directorial decision, perhaps.

Among the youngsters, Zoe Brough showed her stage experience with a Blousey Brown rather outshining Sasha Gray’s Bugsy Malone. Her timing was noticeably sharper than his, though he succeeded by the end in convincing me that this was a little operator who cared.

It was noticeable too that Jenson Steele’s Fat Sam drew few laughs. Probably the audience couldn’t hear him, but the speed he was required to deliver comedy at didn’t help. A running “knuckles” joke also fell flat, even with the younger male audience who usually go for that kind of physical humour.

A slew of dodgy accents, the slowness of the whole show’s pacing and the fact West End prices were charged (premium seats, even!) for a show far below the standards of juvenile-led shows there, and this is one not very satisfied customer.

There’s a reason the show failed first time in the West End. It lacks the emotional depth of “Oliver,” the drama of “Annie,” the wit of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and the delightfully tuneful scores of all of these. This production proves that “Bugsy Malone” has flaws in script, and so many variables among a very young cast that no amount of fine physical staging can raise it beyond school show staple.

The Lyric is a pleasant auditorium, many of the front of house staff cheerful, but the ticket was expensive, and I won’t hurry back due to the rude management. Not the best start to the break, but there was still another fringe visit to come…

Hype Active Ticket Market

September 9, 2015

What were you doing at 12.01am on Monday, 17th August 2015? If you were sensible, the answer would involve getting some sleep before starting another working week. Unless you were in another time zone, of course, in which case, suit yourself.

Assuming you were British, not up to buying a “priority membership” and desperate to see “Funny Girl” at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, then chances are you were like me. Hunched over a computer, hitting the refresh button until “booking from 17th August 2015” vanished and the list of dates appeared – then quickly sifting through to find that perfect seat on a date you could go.

Jason Maddocks, Head of Sales and Marketing at the venue, explains, “The whole thing was truly extraordinary. The sales opened on the website at midnight and for the first hour is was pretty busy. The deluge really started at 9am when the phone lines opened and the email announcement to our database went out.

It took 90 minutes to completely sell-out. I have been involved in sales and marketing for shows both here and in the West End for 20 years, I’ve never seen demand quite like it. As our sales staff were describing seat locations to customers, the tickets were literally disappearing before their eyes. Of course the down side is there are a lot of very, very, disappointed customers. People become quite agitated when they can’t have what they want, but what can we do. It’s a limited season, we are a small venue and demand was unprecedented.”

I was lucky. One of less than 20,000 to be so. Sure, the show could well move to a bigger venue later, but I’ll get to see it in the space it was first rehearsed for.

And I’ll try to think what might have happened if I hadn’t been mad enough to stay up so late – given the fact it was sold out by 10.30am. I may well have got a ticket at 8.30am when I start work, but… well… the competition may have been stiffer, the web slows on a Monday morning, and I would probably not have got the exact seat I wanted. So…

… Still and all, was I a victim of hype, and is it becoming more frequent?

I think the truth is, “partly.”

Yes, it’s the first time the show has been seen in London since 1966, and it has a rising star name in the lead, but Ms Smith isn’t internationally famous (yet) and the show has been seen in other countries fairly recently, so… I put it down to two things: Simple lack of ticket quantity. The Menier is an amazing venue, my seat will be literally a few feet from the stage – and the experience should be unbeatable in that respect alone. The closeness of performers and audience should be special. The only way that is achieved is by having fewer than 200 tickets per show. The fact the run is only 12 weeks limits numbers further.

Second, once more, the fact tickets are so much more easily available with online technology than the old days of a few phone lines / having to stand in line at the venue. Sure, it was fun queuing for a massive concert outside Wembley Stadium from 3am once, when I was a teenager… but now, I admit, lying in bed with a tablet computer was far more comfortable.

Combine the two – short runs in restricted spaces and easy access to tickets and really, no wonder a show can sell out so fast. More to the point, the story can spread even more quickly with instant social media.

Provided the right people – genuine fans and musical lovers got the tickets, and the touts / scalpers didn’t then I guess it’s OK. It’s what it is all about, isn’t it? Still, maybe the slightly slower pace of life is something to savour still – or perhaps I’m simply addicted to the “great British queue.” At least you know where you are when you can actually see the thousand in front of you and hope your wait is worth it. Six hours standing in the cold really does allow the hype to settle and reality to set in… perhaps that’s the bit we need to work on, restore the balance a little by slowing the process. Don’t ask me how, but it might be fun to try…

Mysterious Laws Of Theatre.

July 29, 2015

As I prepare to take a summer break from this blog, I thought I’d leave with something to ponder during those long final days of the holiday season.

So, here are 10 laws of theatre, handed down by the generations. Some old, some newer, but always worth a thought:

1) The first programme buyer always uses a £20 note.

2) The ice-cream buyer in front of you always nabs the last chocolate one.

3) Large people know instinctively which seats smaller people have already booked, so that they can buy the ones directly in front.

4) The least punctual people always buy the most central seats.

5) Stage managers monitor all tube journeys. If yours is delayed, they’ll start the show on time for the first time in the run.

6) Flu bugs know when you are particularly looking forward to a show, and which performer you particularly wish to see…

7) The more you love a particular show, the more likely it will close prematurely.

8) The bigger the ego, the fewer performances a star has to do each week.

9) Your mind will wander just as the crucial line is spoken which makes sense of the next two hours.

10) Theatre producers have incriminating photographs of all West End theatre owners. It’s the only explanation for the revival of “Let It Be.”


And on that note, have a great break. I’ll be back on 8th September, as the leaves start to fall and the campsite outside the Barbican for “Hamlet” returns reaches epic proportions…

Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park

July 22, 2015

My final visit to Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre last Saturday evening was an eventful one.
As followers of the twitter feed will know, I actually saw a woman in the front row reach out from her seat before the show, and start moving a pile of logs placed in front of her as part of the scenery, to improve her view. Never seen a member of the audience interfere with anything placed on the stage in 40 years of theatregoing.

Aside from that, the Park remains one of the highlights of my theatre year. I have their full £50 membership, which I find excellent value as you get £10 off seats, plus the usual “preview” discount of £5. As it has become a family tradition and we buy around 9 tickets per season, that means I’m £££ ahead – and that’s before getting a further quid off each programme, and a bunch of discount vouchers too.

uopenairseat2JUL14 uopenairseat3JUL14
I love the place enough that A18 is also “” sponsored – the label is there for all to see.

It’s so informal that you can wear your old clothes without remark. Indeed, you really should – best glad-rags get ruined if the weather turns nasty, and even if not, you can guarantee something sticky or staining will find you in the air.

The one thing that does amuse me, though, is how much kit you need to take with you when you go.
There’s the obvious – raincoat (even when they predict a dry night… don’t trust it… lucky I didn’t on Saturday). Likewise, even a warm night turns cold around 9pm – so bring something woolly. If you forget, the £5 park “bin liner” style affair is pretty good. So voluminous that it covers every bit of you, and the seat beneath, keeping it all dry – and adds a bit of warmth too. They also sell re-cycled wool (from sheep that died under a bicycle’s wheels, presumably) blankets, if required.

Less obvious are the following, all part of our “kit,” and often regarded with envy by first-timers, who make copious notes:

Large plastic bags. To sit on. When the seats are wet, they stay wet.

Paper Towels (kitchen roll). Take a load. Dries everything, removes muck from your seat far better than the park-issue cloths that have removed a tonne already.

Disposable plastic bag to put dirty towels into…

Sun-block. Even if it’s 70 degrees. Total sunblock in the afternoon and even early evenings can be a must.

Insect repellent. Midges are theatre fans, who knew.

Anti Bacterial / anti viral hand spray. I use a product called “Response Beta.” Better than those gels you can buy, as it deals with viruses as well as bacteria. Can also be used with paper towels in cases of “bird strike” from above. Lucky? Nope.

Plastic bag for your programme. Gets soggy otherwise.

Opera Glasses – it’s a big place with a big stage, and action happens all over.

Umbrella: ONLY for walking to the station. NOT for use in the theatre.

You can, of course, add picnic / drinks etc (bring plastic glasses, the floors are uneven concrete and glass has been heard to shatter every night I’ve ever been – and I’ve not been singing).

Oh, and the “high numbers” side of the theatre is shadier, worth knowing, particularly in the heat of a matinee. There isn’t much in it, if it’s really hot – but a tiny bit can be better than nothing.

My point, though, really is this: it’s worth every moment of preparation, as it is the best theatre night out of the London summer. Go.


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