Theatre in lockdown part 4: The Original Theatre Company.

London’s theatres went into lockdown on 16 March 2020. (The date is stamped in my memory as it was the day before I was due to see Uncle Vanya.)

It was sudden, to say the least. Actors and audiences alike were given about an hour’s notice. The lockdown was also, initially, ‘advisory’ – which I believe was a way of avoiding insurance obligations. In a stroke, actors, designers, technicians and producers were rendered out of work, with no sign – for some time – of respite or financial help.

The NATIONAL THEATRE stepped in, with alacrity. For several months they streamed a play a week, free, from their archives. THE SHOWS MUST GO ON, set up by NBC Universal, did the same thing, beginning with Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals.

This was a life-saver, but there was a snag. Audiences got used to watching first-rate West End and Broadway productions for free (though donations were much needed and appreciated). The smaller theatre companies, left high and dry, could not compete.

One lesser-known touring company, THE ORIGINAL THEATRE COMPANY, is a case in point. Their production of Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art was due to begin touring the UK. When the shutters closed they filmed it instead and streamed it, charging, as I remember, a ‘pay what you can’ token fee. Then, with no experience of filming they set up ORIGINAL THEATRE ONLINE and decided to mount a new version of an earlier production, Birdsong, on Zoom. As ambitions go it doesn’t get much braver than that. (See my review of it here: https://londontheatrevisits.com/2020/07/02/theatre-in-lockdown-part-two-birdsong/)

(theatreweekly.com)

They had huge problems: with sound, synchronisation, lighting and with rights. Having set a deadline of 1 July – the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme – and garnered a good deal of publicity, they had to stick to it. After a lot of experimentation they settled on actors filming themselves individually, in their homes, on their mobile phones, in full costume and makeup, in front of green screens. All this was put together by filmmaker Tristan Shephard in two weeks and resulted in a massive hit that deservedly won them five star reviews from the international press.

Since then they’ve produced three more plays written and filmed during lockdown: Watching Rosie, with Miriam Margolyes, Apollo 13 by Torben Betts and, currently, The Haunting of Alice Bowles, adapted by Philip Franks from an M R James short story.

(originaltheatrecompany.com)

They have also filmed a three-parter called Home Made: The Evolution of Original Theatre Online, in which the artistic director, Alistair Whatly, tells the full story of the company’s remarkable transformation.

It is the best example I have come across of remarkable innovation and sheer guts in the face of disaster.

The Haunting of Alice Bowles is streaming until 28 February, tickets £15.

The Habit of Art is also streaming until 28 February, tickets £10.

Next up is Good Grief, streaming from 15 Feb to 15 April, tickets £39.

Details of these productions and Home Made (free to watch, donations very welcome) can be found here: https://originaltheatreonline.com/productions

Patsy Trench
© January 2021

A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Old Vic

With London zipping from total lockdown to Tier 2 and now Tier 3, theatres have been opening and closing like malfunctioning automatic doors. Covid is proving hugely disruptive to everyone around the world, but possibly more so to theatre workers, most of whom are freelance.

As I posted before there were supposed to be three versions of Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL running simultaneously in London. But with the Bridge and Dominion Theatres due to close tonight the only version available, albeit in streamed version, is courtesy of the Old Vic.

oldvic.com

Theatre makers are having to become film makers now. The Old Vic’s In Camera series, where actors perform live to an empty theatre and the play is streamed live to audiences around the globe, is one of the few innovations that has managed to keep going through this awful pandemic year.

A Christmas Carol is a story that never fails to tug at the heartstrings, and this version, by Jack Thorne, is no exception. Scrooge is a comparatively youthful chap and is ably, and movingly, played by Andrew Lincoln. He is well supported by a cast of actors, singers and glass ringers (making music with glasses, a lovely touch), a live band and some very fancy and ghostly special effects.

It is not the same as the live experience, not by a long chalk. I found the split screen distracting – it is often split into three, which means that two people talking to one another appear in different sections of the screen and it is difficult to visualise them, or to connect properly with them, especially when one actor jumps from one section to another. And the sound values were a bit all over the place (though that may well be my television). The modern additions – the appearance of Scrooge’s tyrannical father, to partly explain how Scrooge ended up as he did, and his meeting up with his old love Belle – fit in well without seeming overly ‘woke’. Despite the over-complicated camera work, I was utterly moved and engrossed throughout.

Covid has produced some wonderful innovations – as one would expect from creative people. Personally speaking I prefer my streamed plays plain, in full screen. The original was set in the round, and I can well imagine how wonderfully engaging that would have been. Nothing could replace that. But being able to watch a play ‘live’ on one’s television screen at home is the closest one can get now to the real thing.

The play is running until 24 December at 7pm each evening. Tickets are available here: https://www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on/2020/old-vic-in-camera/a-christmas-carol-5

Uncle Vanya on screen

Sometimes a production comes together so completely and seamlessly you forget you are watching actors on a stage, or – in this case – on a screen.

I missed out on the stage production of Uncle Vanya by one day. The axe fell on the show, as on other West End shows, on 16 March. They re-scheduled it to open again in May (how optimistic was that), and I booked again, and it was cancelled again.

(unclevanyacinema.com)

But now here it is again, this time on screen, filmed during lockdown in an empty Harold Pinter theatre, and how lucky I feel to have been able to see it at long last. To say it is perfect is not an exaggeration. From the setting to the lighting to the adaptation (Conor McPherson), to the cast, every single one of them, we are right there in the room with the hapless Vanya (Toby Jones), his sweet niece Sonya (Aimee Lee Wood), the world-weary Dr Astrov (Richard Armitage), loyal Nana (the still beautiful Anna Calder-Marshall) and impoverished neighbour Telegin (Peter Wight) as they roll around their dilapidated farm somewhere in rural Russia.

I know the play well. A century ago in my acting days I played Sonya, the pure-hearted, stalwart niece of the title character, the most – the one – uncomplicated character in the whole piece. Plain and idealistic, she is hopelessly and heart-breakingly in love with Dr Astrov, and he only has eyes for the beautiful Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar), who is married to Sonya’s father, the Professor (Roger Allum). At the age of nineteen or so I empathised with her completely.

The adaptation is absolutely spot on. Edging close to anachronism but never overstepping the line. Bringing the play utterly up to date while retaining its late 19th century sensibilities. Astrov’s speech about the wrecking of the environment could have been written yesterday, by Richard Attenborough or Greta Thunberg.

Bravo to every single one of them, and especially to director Ian Rickson. An absolute marvel. Why this production didn’t sweep the boards of the Olivier Awards is beyond me.

The film premiered yesterday and is showing again in certain cinemas on Sunday. https://www.unclevanyacinema.com/ It’s also due to appear on the BBC as some point.

Here’s a lovely review by Sarah Crompton from whatsonstage. https://www.whatsonstage.com/london-theatre/reviews/uncle-vanya-harold-pinter-armitage_50759.html.

Richard Armitage and Aimee Lee Wood (whatsonstage.com)

There are advantages to lockdown, and Uncle Vanya is one of them. We get to see the actors in close-up, we see the sweat, and the tears (no glycerine here I don’t think). As with Andrew Scott in Three Kings and Michael Sheen, David Threlfall and Indira Varma in Faith Healer – both productions streamed live from an empty Old Vic – this is acting in the raw. Acting so sublime it is not acting at all. A dazzling light in what is turning out to be a long, dark, Covid tunnel.

Patsy Trench
London, October 2020

London in Tier 2 lockdown

Wow, the rules change every minute. Tier 2 lockdown means we can only socialise with one other household in our ‘bubble’, and as far as I can tell we are allowed one bubble only.

However, the THEATRE goes on. I have so far come across THREE very different productions of A CHRISTMAS CAROL opening in the next month or so.

THE BRIDGE THEATRE is presenting a three-person version of the story devised and directed by Nicholas Hytner and featuring Simon Russell Beale, Patsy Ferran and Eben Figueiredo. It runs from 27 November to 16 January. Bookings open 20 October. https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/

THE OLD VIC’s version is part of their ‘In camera’ season, which means it will be performed in an empty theatre and streamed live all over the world. This is Matthew Warchus’ ‘big-hearted, smash hit production of Charles Dickens’ immortal classic’ adapted by Jack Thorne. Bookings open in November. https://www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on/2020/old-vic-in-camera/a-christmas-carol-5

THE DOMINION THEATRE is presenting ‘a socially distanced production of Alan Menken, Lynn Ahrens and Mike Ockrent’s A Christmas Carol musical’ from the beginning of December 2020, with Brian Connelly as Scrooge. ‘The production will feature a symphonic 24 piece orchestra and an all-star West End cast, with over 50 artists set to be on stage.’ It sounds ambitious, though I’m not sure what a ‘symphonic 24 piece orchestra is’.  https://www.whatsonstage.com/shows/west-end-theatre/a-christmas-carol_235143 Tkts from £33.75.

It seems that theatres will keep running as long as they are able to, even if London goes into a fiercer lockdown. Light on the horizon perhaps.

Patsy Trench
October 2020

.

London still in (partial) lockdown

London is a strange and slightly sad place these days. The West End is virtually empty, and though pockets of it – the parks in particular – are pretty well-populated on a day when it’s not raining, there is none of the usual vibrancy, let alone the crowds that I and so many others usually complain about.

Piccadilly Circus

Art galleries are open, for the most part, though you have to book your visit online ahead of time, and then find an entrance that is actually open and then follow a one-way system. Cinemas likewise. At the BFI they have actually removed every other seat so even if you go with a friend you’re socially distanced from them. And there’s no point turning up early and having a nice meander around the building as most of it other than the cinemas themselves is closed. If you want to get a cup of tea you have to order and pay using a QR app. It’s all very Brave New World.

(That said, bearing in mind the difficulties, the staff in these places are exceptionally friendly and helpful.)

HOWEVER there are signs of life. The National Theatre is presenting a one-man play called The Death of England, Delroy, in a reconfigured – in the round, and again socially-distanced – Olivier Theatre, beginning October 21.

The Bridge Theatre is presenting Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues and An Evening With an Immigrant (performed by Barber Shop Chronicles writer Inua Ellams). Great for one-person plays, not so good for actors in general.

The National Theatre now

 Hampstead Theatre is re-presenting its cancelled-pre-Covid production of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter from 18 November to 19 December, socially-distanced, stating ‘the air in the main house auditorium is changed completely every 4 minutes and 45 seconds’. https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/

Southwark Playhouse is already running its pre-Covid production of The Last Five Years. https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/the-last-five-years/

Meanwhile in the West End, according to the Evening Standard, Nimax Theatres are opening up some shows any minute now, viz.

This Is Going To Hurt, with Adam Kay (Apollo Theatre) October 22-November 8
Six the Musical (Lyric Theatre) from November 14
Jimmy Carr (Palace Theatre) November 16-21
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (Apollo Theatre) from November 1
The Play That Goes Wrong (Duchess Theatre) from November 19
https://www.standard.co.uk/go/london/theatre/london-theatre-reopen-coronavirus-lockdown-lifted-a4433986.html

I don’t know how the commercial West End can afford to run their shows with reduced capacity audiences, but good on Nimax Theatres for giving it a go. I’m sure local cafes and restaurants will be more than glad to see some life back in the West End – that’s if they’ve survived so far.

Fingers crossed more theatres will be opening up soon. Meanwhile actors are still having a very hard time and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, so if you able to send a donation no matter how small, the theatre world will SMILE on you and wish all your dreams will come true.

http://www.actingforothers.co.uk.

Patsy Trench
London, October 2020

Theatre in lockdown part three: THE OLD VIC

My latest theatre experience involved a one-to-one with actor Andrew Scott. We were suitably distanced – he in an empty Old Vic Theatre in south London and me in my flat in north London. At 7.30pm on the dot on Friday 4 September, me at my dining table, he on a bare stage, he told me the story of his father.

It was just him and me, and several cameras, and the buzz before and the applause after of an (imaginary) audience. Because of the nature of the play it felt suitably intimate in a way it would not have done had I been sitting in the theatre some distance from him. He spoke to me directly about the father he met for the first time when he was eight years old: a womanising, charismatic, feckless Irishman and an absentee father. In lesser hands he might have seemed like a cliche. But there was nothing cliched about Three Kings, either in the writing – Stephen Beresford – or the performance.

I confess I’ve had doubts about Andrew Scott in recent times. I didn’t like his Gary Essendine in Present Laughter, and I felt overall he was becoming a tad too mannered. But here he is on the top of his form: thoughtful, versatile, emotional, wry – he inhabits several characters, including his father, his (English) half-brother, his father’s ex, and himself at eight, seamlessly – and in total command. To perform live, to camera, in close-up, for an hour, alone, is as tough as it gets. I was riveted from start to finish.

Andrew Scott (oldvictheatre.com)

The production was viewed, and reviewed, around the world. It was also ‘sold out’. How a streamed play can be ‘sold out’ is a mystery, and a missed opportunity on the part of the Old Vic, it seems to me.

Next up at the Old Vic is Faith Healer, by Brian Friel, featuring Michael Sheen, David Threlfall and Indira Varma. Same clunky booking procedure (you log on, and then you wait. You don’t have to sit by the computer and you can log out of the booking page but you need to be on hand when your turn arises, which could be many hours later), but undoubtedly worth the effort.

~~~

Theatre is nothing if not creative. You can also book to see, in person, Sleepless: A Musical Romance, playing at the Troubadour Theatre in Wembley until 27 September. Tickets hereThe Bridge Theatre is presenting Beat the Devil, a one-man play by David Hare about his personal experiences of contracting Covid19, featuring Ralph Fiennes. I tried to book one seat for this but the computer said No. (A victim of socially-distanced seats.) And now all performances are sold out. The National Theatre is producing a one-man play called Death of England: Delroy, a sequel to Death of England, written by Clint Dyer and Roy Williams and featuring actor Giles (Aaron Burr from Hamilton) Terera some time in late October in a socially-distanced Olivier Theatre. More info here.

All is not quite lost.

THEATRE IN LOCKDOWN part two – BIRDSONG

The lockdown caused by Covid19 has produced some remarkable innovations on the part of performers, directors, writers and producers. In addition to ISOLATION STORIES (see my previous blog), there has been a similar series called UNPRECEDENTED, the glorious (if slightly niche) STAGED, starring Michael Sheen and David Tennant (or David Tennant and Michael Sheen) and a rehash of Alan Bennett’s TALKING HEADS, all of which have been produced during lockdown, with social distancing, and are being shown on our TV.

In the theatre, the OLD VIC has produced a live social-distanced production of the play LUNGS, performed in the theatre to an empty auditorium by Claire Foy and Matt Smith. Their rather cumbersome booking procedure proved to be too much for me, but it was obviously a huge success as they kept adding performances, and hopefully the income will go some way towards assuring the Old Vic’s future. Performing till 4 July, tickets available for 4 July only here: https://www.oldvictheatre.com/availability/lungs-in-camera

Lungs online (theguardian.com)

But surely the most remarkable achievement of all has to be Original Theatre’s online lockdown production of BIRDSONG. Adapted from Sebastian Faulks’ novel by Rachel Wagstaff from her stage version, this full-length production was created by actors in isolation filming in their own homes, in full costume and makeup, in front of ‘green screens’. We only ever see one actor at a time, but the interaction between them is so realistic you forget they are not in the same room, or trench. Backgrounds are superimposed on top of their bookshelves (or green screens), and sound effects were added in post production. For a glimpse into how they did it, see here: https://originaltheatreonline.com/.

The cast of BIRDSONG online (theatreweekly.com)

Which only goes to show despite the current dire circumstances, and a certain lack of support on the part of our government, you can never ever keep a good creative down.

BIRDSONG is screening until 4 July in the UK only. Tickets cost £15. For bookings, go here: https://www.birdsongonline.co.uk/

 

 

 

 

Theatre in Lockdown

We are now in week eight of lockdown here in the UK, and I can safely say I have watched more theatre than ever before. There is so much on offer, from the National Theatre, the RSC, the Globe, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Complicite, and many many other sources, West End and fringe.

Barber Shop 2

nationaltheatre.org.uk

Streamed theatre is no substitute for the real thing, obviously, despite the deftness of the filming. But it does have one big advantage: it’s global. Punters from all over the world can watch our NT’s plays along with us, or Lloyd Webber’s shows on YouTube. Andrew Scott in Sea Wall can be viewed by anyone – see the links below – as can Forced Entertainment’s improvised spoof Zoom meetings. And lockdown has produced some remarkably innovating and enterprising ideas, from dancers, singers, musicians, sports commentators and, of course, actors. ITV recently transmitted ISOLATION STORIES, four short plays about the stresses and strains experienced by various households in lockdown, featuring real-life fathers and sons, and a heavily-pregnant – in life and on TV – Sheridan Smith, filmed by the actors themselves, and all written, performed, edited and transmitted in less than two months.  An unprecedented (if you’ll excuse the overused word) achievement in the unprecedented situation we all find ourselves in.

Personally speaking, holed up on my own as I am, I have found the breadth and speed and variety of this extraordinary creativity hugely inspiring and immensely comforting. Theatres are facing a pretty grim future. They need packed audiences to keep going at the best of times, and God knows when they will be fully back in action. Theatre companies have been hugely generous streaming shows for free, with requests for donations to performers’ fundraising sites. Lloyd Webber’s shows raised £500,000 in donations to Acting for Others – the major fundraising site in the UK representing 14 charities. Cameron Mackintosh’s Foundation donated £100,000.  The National Theatre’s first streamed show One Man Two Guvnors raised £50,000 (I don’t know how much money subsequent shows have raised). The musical Eugenius raised over £15,000. Individual performers have raised several thousands by organising streamed performances from fellow artists and musicians, including musical directors.

Whether or not the dreaded Covid19 has or will change the face of theatre permanently remains to be seen. But for a spontaneous outburst of extraordinary creativity it is – and there really is no other word for it – unprecedented.

NB: I am posting regular updates on streamed shows on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/patsy.trench
But at the time of writing this (19 May) here are links to some of the shows on offer now:

ACTING FOR OTHERS: https://www.actingforothers.co.uk/

NT At Home:  https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/nt-at-home
Complicité:  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCf3g9LOkCr5qqWUxMEz97eQ
Sea Wall:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j01kVmBoJW0
The Globe:  https://globeplayer.tv/ (£4.99 to rent)
Forced Entertainment:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVDgqloH420

© Patsy Trench
19 May, London, UK

 

 

Coronavirus 2 – Uncle Vanya

Following my blog of a few days ago checking out theatre streaming sites while we’re all confined to barracks, I’ve been looking further into what’s on offer – more details at the end of this blog – and I began by dipping into Digital Theatre. (https://www.digitaltheatre.com/consumer/productions)

Digital Theatre has been going for some time, and their large catalogue includes shows from the National Theatre, the West End, the fringe, and overseas. Like NT Live the shows are filmed live, with an audience, so you do have to remember the performances – and on occasion the makeup – are larger than life.

I’m not used to streaming and I encountered a few problems: the speech was out of sync – not so important when you’re relying on subtitles – and on occasion the picture would freeze as my internet connection struggled to keep up. Also the website has no search function, and if you watch the show over two days, as I did, unlike Netflix – which remembers what you were watching and how far you got – you have to start from scratch and fast forward.

I began with the Vakhtanger Theatre production of Uncle Vanya, filmed live in Russia in 2010. I have a particular soft spot for this play as it marked my first significant appearance in professional theatre – Harrogate Rep in the ‘60s – playing Sonya. Sonya is the young, plain, idealistic, passionate, pure-hearted girl who works her socks off alongside her disillusioned uncle to keep the family property going. She is naïve to a fault and deeply in love with the neighbouring Dr Astrov, another disillusioned soul, who is barely aware of her existence. I identified with Sonya wholeheartedly, and in the course of my 20-year long career as an actress it was the most rewarding role I ever played.

digitaltheatrecompany.com

The Vakhtanger production, highly praised when it appeared in the West End in 2012, is self-consciously stylised, indulgent, occasionally histrionic, sometimes annoying and often riveting. Played on an almost bare stage with a full moon glowing in the dark background, it reminded me at times of Complicite shows of the 1980s. I personally prefer my Chekov lower-key, and without the perpetual music; and the best moments for me were the quieter and more personal scenes between, say, Yelena and Sonya patching up their quarrel, and the joshing, painfully poignant farewell between Yelena and Astrov. The London production closed down the day before I was due to see it, and I’ve been in mourning ever since. So this went some way towards making up for it.

~~~~~

Next on my calendar tonight for home watching is Mark Thomas’s Check up: Our NHS @ 70, courtesy of the Arcola Theatre. (Available until 28 March, pay what you can.) https://www.gofasterstripe.com/cgi-bin/website.cgi?page=videofull&id=38659

Thursday 26 March: The Habit of Art.  Showing at 8.15pm, courtesy of The Original Theatre – www.originaltheatreonline.com. A touring production filmed live. Pre-bookable. Cost £3 or more. They are also streaming The Croft on Friday 27 March, but I am booked on that date to see

Delux by Ballet Boyz courtesy of Sadlers Wells. https://www.sadlerswells.com/whats-on/2020/digital-stage/ Available at 7.30pm on Friday 27 March: ‘the same time the work was due to be performed in our theatre. It will be available to watch on the Sadler’s Wells Facebook page as the first in our weekly series of Sadler’s Wells Facebook Premieres.’

Patsy Trench
25 March 2020

 

 

Coronavirus – The show does go on

Theatres and cinemas throughout the UK, and in many other countries, are closed due to the Coronavirus pandemic. This puts a lot of people out of work, with no knowing where their next penny is coming from.

It also leaves the punters, ie us, without any form of live entertainment. But the theatre and cinema businesses have not stood still. I’ve been compiling a list of theatre companies and other organisations who have set up a live streaming service, some for free. I will be watching a good deal of what’s on offer and posting the odd review. I will also try to update the list from time to time.

Happy viewing!

ARCOLA – https://www.gofasterstripe.com/cgi-bin/website.cgi?page=videofull&id=38659
Mark Thomas :  Check-Up: Our NHS @ 70. Pay what you can. Till 28 March. The Arcola is in dire need of funds, so be generous!

DIGITAL THEATRE – https://www.digitaltheatre.com/consumer/productions – £9.99 per month. Digital Theatre have been filming live performances of West End shows and have a large catalogue. One hopes part of their subscription goes towards the people who made the shows.

LEXI – https://thelexicinema.co.uk/film/virtual-mustang. Showing today, 23 March, at 6.30pm. Also Mubihttps://mubi.com/leximember.  A kind of arthouse cinema version of Netflix. First 3 months free, courtesy of Lexi, thereafter £9.99 per month.

The GLOBE THEATRE have an online streaming service for some of their past productions. £4.99 to rent, £7.99 to buy. https://globeplayer.tv/ 

The NATIONAL THEATRE is not offering a streaming service yet, but with their huge archive of NT Live productions no doubt this will come in due course.

THE STAGE – https://www.thestage.co.uk/features/promoted/2020/where-can-i-watch-theatre-online-coronavirus-and-theatre-streaming/ – has a comprehensive list of shows available on all sorts of devices. Personally I wouldn’t want to watch a play on my mobile via Instagram but no doubt a lot of people do.

I and You – Hampstead Theatre will make its 2018 production of I and You available to watch on Instagram. The play by US playwright Lauren Gunderson was directed by Edward Hall and starred Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams and Zach Wyatt. It was original filmed for IGTV in 2018 and will be released at 10am on March 23 [today] and be available until March 29.

Luke Wright – The poet, performer and playwright – winner of The Stage Edinburgh Award for his performance in  his 2015 play What I Learned From Johnny Bevan – will be performing a poetry set every night live on Twitter at 8pm.

Cyprus Avenue – First staged at the Royal Court, David Ireland’s play Cyprus Avenue was adapted for BBC Four in 2019, where it mixed stage performance with on-location footage in Belfast. It will be available for free for a month from March 27 via the Royal Court’s and the Space’s website, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages.

Timpson: The Musical – The Stage Edinburgh Award-winning company Gigglemug has made Timpson: The Musical available on YouTube. The Stage called it a “zany musical comedy that hits all the right notes.”

Patsy Trench
March 2020