Harold Pinter explained

Did you ever find the plays of Harold Pinter puzzling? If not, you are a rare person. When asked to explain them his response was either dismissive or on occasion downright rude. But no matter whether you like his work or you hate it one thing you have to admit is he was revolutionary, he turned theatre into a form of abstract art, open to any kind of interpretation you like to put on it. He wasn’t alone of course, but he was unique.

Harold Pinter (telegraph.co.uk)

Harold Pinter (telegraph.co.uk)

So here for your edification and entertainment is the first of three sketches, titled Parties, Pauses and Politics, that set out to tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the master. What some people aren’t aware of is that Pinter started out his life writing revue sketches. Kudos to those who can spot the references.

Pinter Party Time



Two men in a pub.

MAN 1             Dark.[1]

MAN 2             Eh?

MAN 1             He had dark hair, didn’t he, in the end?

MAN 2             Who?

MAN 1             Harold Pinter.


MAN 2             Who’s Harold Pinter?

MAN 1             Or did he go grey? In the end. I think he went grey in the end.

MAN 2             Who did, Harold Pinter?

MAN 1             Or maybe he went bald. Yes, I think he did go a bit bald in the end. Not completely bald, not totally, as in not a hair on his head. Receding. Yes, that’s it.

MAN 2             Who went bald in the end?

MAN 1             Harold Pinter.

MAN 2             Oh.

MAN 1             He was a playwright.

MAN 2             A playwright, was he?

MAN 1             Yes.

MAN 2             So he wrote plays.

MAN 1             He wrote plays, yes.


MAN 2             What sort of plays did he write?

MAN 1             Well …   He wrote about parties.

MAN 2             Parties? That sounds like fun.

MAN 1             There’s ‘The Birthday Party’, and ‘The Tea Party’ and ‘Party Time’. And then there’s ‘A Night Out’, and                                   ‘Celebration’. And  ‘One for the Road’.[2]

MAN 2             And they’re fun are they? They sound like fun.

MAN 1             I expect so. They’re meant to be fun, aren’t they, parties? Or so they say.


MAN 2             ‘One for the road’. Funny expression, isn’t it? ‘One for the road’.

MAN 1             What’s funny about it?

MAN 2             Well. ‘One for the Road’.

MAN 1             Yes. Right.


MAN 2             So what else did he write, this Harold Pinter?

MAN 1             He wrote one called ‘The Homecoming’.

MAN 2             So that would be about …

MAN 1             … someone coming home, yes.

MAN 2             That’s nice. ‘The Homecoming’.

MAN 1             And ‘No Man’s Land’.

MAN 2             Isn’t that the bit that …

MAN 1             The bit that …

MAN 2             The bit of land that …

MAN 1             The bit of land between the borders of two countries, is that what you’re trying to say?

MAN 2             That’s it. That’s what I was trying to say. ‘No man’s land’.

MAN 1             So called because it belongs to no man. Terra nullius.

MAN 2             What?

MAN 1             No man’s land. Latin.

MAN 2             Oh.


MAN 2             Funny place for a play, isn’t it? No man’s land.

MAN 1             It’s metaphorical.

MAN 2             It’s what?

MAN 1             Meta-phori-cal. It’s a metaphor. For a state of mind. For a person’s state of mind.

MAN 2             A person’s state of mind in the bit of land that’s between borders?

MAN 1             Forget it.


MAN 2             So what sort of plays were they, these party plays?

MAN 1             There’s one about a man who’s living in a boarding house in a seaside town. His name’s Stanley.

MAN 2             A boarding house?

MAN 1             With this landlady who’s all over him, and her husband.

MAN 2             What’s he doing living in a boarding house? I didn’t think they had them any more, boarding houses.

MAN 1             And these two men stop by. Called McCann and Goldberg. They’ve come looking for him you see.

MAN 2             They’ve come looking for Stanley? What for?

MAN 1             I don’t know.

MAN 2             What do you mean you don’t know?

MAN 1             He doesn’t say.[3]

MAN 2             Who doesn’t say?

MAN 1             Harold Pinter. He doesn’t say why these two men have come looking for Stanley.

MAN 2             Does he tell Stanley?

MAN 1             No he doesn’t. If he told Stanley then he’d have told us, wouldn’t he? Unless he deliberately told him in private and kept it a secret from us. There wouldn’t be a lot of point in that, would there?


MAN 2             So then what happens?

MAN 1             Well they come looking for Stanley, and then they give him a birthday party.

MAN 2             That’s nice. Give him a birthday party, that’s really nice.

MAN 1             Only it isn’t.

MAN 2             Why? Doesn’t Stanley like birthday parties?

MAN 1             Not those sort of parties, no.


The Birthday Party, Sheila Hancock and Justin Salenger, 2008 production (guardian.co.uk)

The Birthday Party, Sheila Hancock and Justin Salenger, 2008 production (guardian.co.uk)

MAN 2             And then what happens?

MAN 1             Well Stanley tries to have his way with this girl …

MAN 2             Have his way?

MAN 1             Yes.

MAN 2             What, you mean, as in  …

MAN 1             Have his way.


MAN 2             And then what happens?

MAN 1             In the end they take him away. They dress him up so he looks respectable and then they take him away.

MAN 2             Where to?

MAN 1             I don’t know.

MAN 2             So these two men arrive on Stanley’s doorstep, give him a birthday party, and then they dress him up and take him away.

MAN 1             That’s about it, yes.


MAN 2             Is that all?

MAN 1             That’s about it, yes.

MAN 2             Well.


[1] A reference to the opening line of ‘Old Times’

[2] These party plays were either about torture or dysfunctional relationships

The weird, the wonderful and the violent

The weird

Golem (theguardian.com)

               Golem (theguardian.com)

1927 are weird, there is no other theatre company like them. They mix animation with live action and music, with a tinge of silent movie and clowning. Their latest, Golem, features various versions of the eponymous (and animated) central character who transforms himself from benign slave to controller, and turns the initially shy and harmless Robert into an aggressive, ambitious fashion slave. So yes it is a swipe at modern technology and some people have remarked on the heavy-handedness of the message, or even, with the students I was with recently, the rather tired subject matter. But to me 1927 are less about subject matter and more about visual invention, and nothing comes more visually inventive than 1927. The current show isn’t as tight as their previous one, The Animals and Children Took to the Streets – which was, in my view, perfect. But a slightly overlong production from 1927 is still a memorable experience.

Only one of them is live (telegraph.co.uk)

Only one of them is live (telegraph.co.uk)

Golem runs at the Young Vic Theatre until 31 January 2015.


The wonderful

Tim Piggott-Smith (theguardian)

Tim Piggott-Smith (theguardian)

King Charles III is simply wonderful, no less so on second viewing. The power of the Shakespearean language, jarring to begin with perhaps until you get used to it, adds to this big play a totally appropriate feeling of grandeur. It is an important play, it dares to question the purpose and the existence of the monarchy. It reminds us how our reigning monarch, the only monarch most of us have ever known, has kept herself and her opinions so completely under wraps: never uttering a controversial opinion (or any kind of opinion) on anything; never interfering in government, never attracting a moment’s scandal; arguably the most inscrutable public figure in history. So it is not far-fetched to assume that her successor, who’s not so averse to expressing his feelings in public, will not be so prepared to simply sign off on every parliamentary Act that is presented to him.

It is a bold, theatrical, thought-provoking and funny play, with resonances of Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth. Definitely one for our times.

King Charles III is at Wyndham’s Theatre, also until 31 January.


The violent



Frantic Assembly’s Othello, at the Lyric Hammersmith, is nasty, brutish and short. There’s been some heavy editing here as not only does it run straight through for 100 minutes without an interval, for the first ten or so minutes we get no words at all. Rather we get Frantic’s familiarly physical scene- and character-setting, accompanied on this occasion by loud rock music (Hybrid). The set is a north country pub where a pool table represents everything from a battlefield (resonances of Black Watch) to the marital bed of Othello and Desdemona. The walls of the set bend and reshape themselves at will, or when someone – usually a pumped-up Iago or a drunk Cassio – bumps into them. The words, when they do come, are Shakespeare’s, spoken in dialect. It is a production for young people and young people comprised I’d say 98% of the audience on the night we saw it. They were quiet throughout and enthusiastically noisy at the end, so it worked for them.

Steven Miller (Iago), Leila Crerar (Emilia) and the Handkerchief (oxfordtimes.co.uk)

Steven Miller (Iago), Leila Crerar (Emilia) and The Handkerchief (oxfordtimes.co.uk)

Personally speaking I’ve always had problems with this play. Why is Iago so obsessively jealous of Othello? Why does Othello believe him so easily when he slanders Desdemona?  This production doesn’t solve those problems, in fact what it gains in furious, brutal  physicality – and shortness – it loses in character development, so that Othello himself, despite an affecting performance by Mark Ebulue, seems almost peripheral. But there are moments of pure Shakespeare, especially in Emilia’s powerful condemnation of Othello, delivered with heartbreaking passion by the track-suited Leila Crerar.

Othello is on at the Lyric Hammersmith until 7 February 2015.

The ticket-buying jungle (updated)

I last blogged on buying theatre tickets in London over a year ago, so I thought it was time to check again to see if anything has changed.

I’d been listening to visiting students’ experiences booking tickets for shows online. Inevitably they began by Googling the show and more often than not they landed on a sponsored ad for a ticket agent selling tickets at a mark-up price.

Her Majesty's

                   Her Majesty’s Theatre

I am happy to say that if you Google a London show these days you are more likely to arrive at the show’s official site, which leads you to the official ticket agency for that show – very often the owner of the theatre. That’s the good news. The not so good – and surprising – news is that the official agent may not offer you the best deal.

I was looking to buy tickets for a date in November for two long-running shows, Phantom of the Opera and The Woman in Black. The results are printed below, but the conclusion I came to, which is not quite the same conclusion as last time, is that the important thing when booking tickets online is to SHOP AROUND.

Phantom of the Opera (ticketmaster.co.uk)




What is the best way to book a theatre ticket in London?

  • If you live here and have the time, visit the theatre itself and see if they offer deals. Many of them sell cut-price tickets on the day, or offer student or other discounts a couple of hours before the performance.
  • Visit the Official London Theatre tkts booth in Leicester Square. They sell tickets for West End shows at half price plus a booking fee, but you mostly have to buy them on the day. You can check availability on their website at tkts.co.uk. WARNING: There are dozens of ticket agents in the Leicester Square area calling themselves ‘Official’, so you need to make sure you’re at the right place.

Tkts booth (tkts.co.uk)

  • If you are booking online then SHOP AROUND for the best deal. Begin with the official site for the show, but you may find, as I did, that other ticket agents offer better deals.
  • Some outlets such as Time Out – uk-offers.timeout.com/deals – have special offers on shows.

NB: If you are booking for a show at the National Theatre, the Globe, the RSC or the Barbican, go to the theatre’s or the company’s website. Likewise for shows on the fringe.


How do I know if a ticket agent is legitimate?

  • Check to see if they are a member of STAR (Secure Tickets for Authorised Retailers – www.star.org.uk). If not, this doesn’t mean they are disreputable, but you don’t necessarily know who you are dealing with. Most reputable agents will tell you what the face value of the ticket is and how much they are charging on top.
  • Most independent ticket agents will have similar offers, so BEWARE the sole agent who offers tickets for a totally sold-out show.
  • NEVER buy from anyone in the street, or outside the theatre itself. Ticket touts are the scourge of live events everywhere. If you are waiting in a queue for returns inside a theatre and someone offers you a spare ticket, check with a member of the theatre staff that it’s genuine before handing over your money.


So who is offering the best deal on tickets for Phantom and The Woman in Black for today, 24 October?

The official website for Phantom is See Tickets and a top price stalls ticket costs £71, which is £66.25 + £4.75 booking fee. The second price stalls ticket is £53, £48.75 + £4.25 booking fee.

The official website for The Woman in Black is The Ambassador Theatre Groupatgtickets.com, booking through lovetheatre.com. But the best price for today’s ticket is through tkts, at £26.75 or £16.75 (plus a booking fee of £3 or £1). Atg has one ticket left in the stalls at £47.50 (£19.50 for students or £23 for seniors, no booking fee).

Some independent tickets agents such as lastminute.com have special offers in November for stalls tickets at £27.50, with no booking fee (Normal price £47). But they don’t tell you where you’ll be sitting.

There’s more information below:

GOOGLE SEARCH RESULTS for The Woman in Black & Phantom
for Tuesday 11 November 2014

When Googling Phantom the official site comes up first, and booking through the site takes you to See Tickets or Ticketmaster.

The Woman in Black’s official booking site takes you to atgtickets.

The following four companies are independent agents charging a mark-up.

Phantom: Stalls row M, £63 (face value £50) + £2.50 postage.
TWIB: Stalls row D £60 (FV £47.50); stalls F (special offer) £28.99 (FV £47.50)

boxoffice.co.uk  – as above.

Phantom: Stalls row O £67.50 + £2.50 postage (no face value)
TWIB: As above

Phantom: Stalls “second price”, no row number, £58 (£50 + £8 booking fee)
TWIB: Stalls top price £27.50 (no booking fee)

atgtickets.com (The Ambassador Theatre Group, official site for TWIB)
Phantom: (redirected to lovetheatre.com) Stalls row Q £57 (£50 + £7.50 booking fee)
TWIB: Stalls F £47.50 + £3 transaction fee

Phantom: Stalls row P £53 (£48.75 face value + £4.25 booking fee)
TWIB: Stalls row D £52.25 (£46 face vlue + £6.25 booking fee)

If in doubt or need of more information or advice please CONTACT ME on patsy@londontheatrevisits.com and I will see if I can help.



THE AMBASSADORS THEATRE GROUP own the Apollo Victoria, Donmar, Duke of York’s, Fortune, Harold Pinter, Lyceum, Phoenix, Piccadilly, Playhouse, Savoy, Trafalgar Studios.


Lyceum Theatre

THE REALLY USEFUL COMPANY own the Adelphi, Cambridge, Her Majesty’s, Palladium, New London, Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

Theatre Royal Drury Lane

DELFONT MACKINTOSH own the Gielgud, Noel Coward, Novello, Prince Edward, Prince of Wales, Queen’s, Wyndham’s.


NIMAX THEATRES LTD own the Garrick, Lyric, Apollo, Vaudeville, Palace and Duchess Theatres.

SIR STEPHEN WALEY COHEN owns the Victoria Palace & the Ambassadors Theatre.


Ambassador’s Theatre

THE OLD VIC THEATRE TRUST (Robert Bourne & Sally Greene) own the Old Vic & the Criterion Theatres.

Old Vic

Old Vic Theatre


Backstage tours & other things

Not only is London the theatre capital of the world (discuss) but it offers, in addition to the rather more obvious and glittery shows in the West End and elsewhere, a plethora of other theatre-related events, such as backstage tours and workshops.

Backstage tours

I’ve ‘done’ the National Theatre, Drury Lane and the Globe more times than I am now able to count. Each of them has something to offer but of all of them the one that seems to go down best with my students is the backstage tour of the National.

The Temporary Theatre (NT)

The Temporary Theatre (NT)

This is not just because it is the National Theatre, now boasting no fewer than four auditoriums, including the Shed – now renamed the Temporary Theatre – and the about-to-open Dorfmann – what used to be the Cottesloe; and not just because the NT has such extraordinary facilities, and all on the one site; but because the tour guides, in my experience anyway, are such enthusiastic, knowledgeable, passionate and great communicators.

At the Theatre Royal Drury Lane a pair of actors take you around backstage in the persons of David Garrick, Richard Brinsley Sheridan – past managers of the theatre – and Nell Gwynn. In the course of it they impart a massive amount of information in a highly entertaining way, but the last tour I went on was so massive – 60 people, at a guess – it took so long to herd us all about we could barely hear, or see, what was going on.

Drury Lane theatre, the Royal Box

The Royal Box at Drury Lane Theatre

The tour at the Globe is definitely worth doing in the winter, when you actually get to walk onto the stage and, if the mood takes you, spout whatever comes to mind to an imaginary audience. In the summer the stage is annoyingly occupied by professional actors, and since the tours are so popular you may find you are in one of around a dozen groups, each with its own group leader vying to be heard above the others.

Students from SUNY New Paltz

The Globe stage with students from SUNY New Paltz


I’ve taken my students to workshops at the National, the Globe, the Haymarket, the Duke of York’s, the V & A and the Prince of Wales Theatres. They vary in quality, but again you can always rely on the National to produce the goods., although recently they’ve had to curtail their workshops during the redevelopment of the building, which when it opens shortly will include a brand new education centre.

'Commedia' workshop at the NT (students from SUNY)

‘Commedia’ workshop at the NT (students from SUNY)

I have also conducted my own workshops, which involve a certain amount of improvisation and are based either on a specific play or a particular writer, most possibly William Shakespeare. Workshops are excellent for getting to grips with gritty new plays and impermeable old ones (eg Shakespeare); for investigating the collaborative nature of theatre by putting oneself into the shoes of the writer, director, producer, actor or marketing person; and for understanding the context the plays were written in.

V & A set design workshop (students from Kingston)

V & A set design workshop (students from Kingston)

If you’d like information on any of these please click on Contact Me.

Shakespeare in Love



One of the many joys of Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s screenplay of Shakespeare in Love is the way it takes the p*** out of the acting profession – with its preciousness, its silly rivalries and ridiculous rituals – while at the same time spellbinding us with theatre magic. One of the joys of the stage show is that it – or rather the adapter Lee Hall – retains the wit and magic of the original and adds some of his own.

I wasn’t sure in the beginning if the wit wasn’t veering a bit towards slapstick. Shakespeare appears not to be able to write a complete sentence, and has to rely on his fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe to write his sonnet for him and the actor Ned Alleyn to give him the title of his play. The motley group of actors auditioning is straight out of panto. There’s even a scene borrowed from Cyrano de Bergerac where Marlowe prompts Shakespeare as he stands beneath his Juliet’s (Viola de Lesseps’) balcony clumsily attempting to woo her with poetry. But as Shakespeare regains his muse and his senses so does the play.

It’s an inspired choice to have Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod of Cheek by Jowl to direct and design respectively; they of many productions of minutely observed and forensically detailed Shakespeare. There are cheap gags but there are also moments of stillness and profoundly moving seriousness, as in the final death scene from Romeo and Juliet, which is played and performed as written and which rendered the otherwise up-for-a-thoroughly-good-time audience totally silent. The cast of thirty or so is largely unknown, though I recognised Paul Chahidi from playing Maria in the all-male Globe Twelfth Night, Ian Bartholomew from Oh What a Lovely War at Stratford East earlier this year and the glorious Anna Carteret – who never descends from her Olympian balcony – as Queen Elizabeth. But the younger ones are unknown (to me at least). Tom Bateman is a virile, tender and funny Shakespeare, and speaks the poetry beautifully. Lucy Briggs-Owen as his love and muse Viola seemed a tad fidgety and overwhelmed by the space, but the moments between them are sweet and funny and as romantic as they need to be. Otherwise I particularly enjoyed David Oakes as a dry-as-a-bone Marlowe and Alistair Petrie as a gloriously understated Wessex.

Lucy Briggs-Owen & Tom Bateman

Lucy Briggs-Owen & Tom Bateman

The set is a simple galleried theatre, plain wood, that moves up and down stage and represents the two theatres (the Rose and the Curtain) plus Juliet/Viola’s balcony and the ship on which Viola de Lessings finally departs from England to her new life in Virginia with the tight-arsed, ludicrous Earl of Wessex. The cast is huge and includes four versatile musicians, one with a cello strapped to him and one of them singing in counter tenor.

Oh, and there’s the dog. Of course. Not a major role but shaggy and adorable, and with his own particular brand of curtain call.

Ian Bartholomew & Barney (or Scrumpy)

Ian Bartholomew & Barney (or Scrumpy)

The Pajama Game

Shaftesbury Theatre

It’s the songs that make the show irresistible. I boasted to my cousin beforehand that I could sing every single one of them, word for word, and would do so there and then if she didn’t buy me a drink. She, being considerably younger than me, found to her amazement – though not till afterwards – that she could have done the same, even though she had no idea such classics as ‘Hey There‘ and ‘Hernando’s Hideaway‘ came from a show she’d only vaguely heard of.

I did think to begin with the vast expanse of the Shaftesbury Theatre was too big for a show like this. (I wished I had caught it at the little Minerva in Chichester where this production originated.) It’s not just the crudeness of the sound quality – the continuing problem of personal miking makes some of the voices uncomfortably shrill, and you never quite know where the sound is coming from – but a big space like this by definition enduces big performances and a sort of overexuberance that can be quite annoying, and can  detract from what is, at its centre, a small and sweet story of the company man and the union woman falling in love and then falling out again over seven and a half cents.


Joanna Riding and Michel Xavier (shaftesburytheatre.com)

But you can get used to anything I guess and by part two it’s impossible not to sit back and just let those fabulous songs wash over you. ‘There once was a man‘ works wonderfully in that space and is wonderfully staged. The performances, over-projection and shrillness apart, are excellent. I particularly enjoyed Alexis Owen-Hobbs as Gladys, and one of my favourite musical songs of all time – ‘I’ll never be jealous again‘ – performed meticulously by Peter Polycarpou and Claire Machin.

The show is directed by the miraculous Richard Eyre and choreographed by Stephen Mear. It runs until September. Resist it if you dare.

Shakespeare’s London Theatreland

I read about this book on the website of the Museum of London Archeology. It’s written by an archeologist, Julian Bowsher by name, and tells the story of the discovery of remains of playhouses discovered in London recently and dating back to the ‘golden age’ of theatre in Shakespeare’s time.

Shakespeare's London Theatreland

It is an accessible book, nicely jargon-free and very readable and, to someone like me, fascinating. I had no idea for instance that there were so many playhouses built in the latter part of the 16th century other than the ones we know about: The Theatre, which I had erroneously thought was the first purpose-built playhouse to be built in England since Roman times (I blogged about it here), The Curtain, The Rose, the Globe, The Swan, The Hope and The Fortune. Most of the others were short-lived, or there’s not much known about them. I also didn’t realise how many playhouse-builders lost so much money, or got entangled in complex and lengthy disputes, though it doesn’t take a genius to realise that running a theatre commercially has never been and never will be a job for ordinary mortals.

It may be my perception but it seems as though contemporary interest in old playhouses really began with the discovery of the remains of The Rose Theatre on Bankside in 1989.

The Rose site, 1989 (geograph.co.uk)

The Rose site, 1989 (geograph.co.uk)

I can remember the outcry when, having discovered a surprisingly large section of the theatre’s foundations between the demolition of one building and the development of another, the powers that be were about to allow the new building to be built right on top of them, obscuring them and presumably demolishing them all at once. I remember how the guiding lights of theatre at the time, headed by Dame Peggy Ashcroft and the local MP for Bankside, Simon Hughes, came and camped on the site in protest at the redevelopment, and won. (The foundations are preserved and the new building went ahead without disturbing them.) Ever since then the MOLA  – The Museum of London Archeologists – have been hard at work uncovering foundations of all the theatre mentioned above, with the exception I believe of The Swan, which is on the site of Sampson House, not far from the Globe and the Rose, which has been too thoroughly gutted over the years.

Sampson House, on the site of the Swan Playhouse

Sampson House

The Hope Theatre, in The Bear Garden, round the corner from the new Globe, has been hidden behind hoardings for years now, and I was quite distressed the other day when I walked past to see it is now a demolition site. Bowsher’s book tells us however that the site – which had a dual purpose as a playhouse and a bearbaiting ring – was excavated ‘between 1999 and 2000 but very little was found, as most of the building lay outside the site limits’. What they did find were the remains of piles of animal bones, legacy of the bear-baiting.

What used to The Hope Playhouse

The Hope

The book includes a number of walks around Shakespeare’s London, to sites of old playhouses, inns and bear-baiting rings, from the City and West end to Greenwich and Hampton Court. It is published by  Museum of London Archeology and costs £20. Much recommended.

For more on MOLA and its excavations of playhouses visit the Museum of London’s website HERE:

Oh What a Lovely War

When I heard that the Theatre Royal in Stratford East was reviving the iconic show that premiered in that same theatre back in 1963 I had to buy a ticket right away, and that was over a year ago. I didn’t see the original production, so the opportunity to be able to sit in the same seats watching the same show folk were first watching fifty years ago was irresistible. My expectations were sky-high, and I was not disappointed.

Oh What programme 2014

Programme 2014

Oh What a Lovely War is the First World War done as an end-of-the-pier pierrot show. This means bawdy humour, national stereotypes, goosing and bad jokes, most of which we probably wouldn’t be able to get away with now. But all this is counterpointed by a banner stretched across the back wall filling us in with the progress of the war. So for instance while we’re watching characters dancing to the Twelfth Street Rag we are being told ‘November …Somme battle ends …Total loss 1,332,000 men … Gain nil’. So a bit of you is laughing your socks off and then suddenly being caught up short, which means your emotions are being put through such a wringer that at one point – especially towards the end of the first act when the Jerries and the Tommies sing carols and started chucking Christmas presents at one another – it becomes almost unbearable. I can’t remember when I last felt quite so emotionally battered in the theatre.

Programme 1963

Programme 1963

There have been complaints, from Michael Gove in particular (our education secretary, for overseas readers) that shows like Oh What a Lovely War and Blackadder present a distorted view of the war and undermine our soldiers’ bravery and heroism. It seems to me he is completely missing the point. The show goes nowhere towards glorifying war, quite the opposite, but nor does it neglect the fact that ordinary soldiers were anything other than astonishingly brave and remarkably heroic. However rather than presenting them as gung-ho heroes waving flags and singing patriotic songs we see a bunch of exhausted, muddy, disheartened and often badly wounded lads desperately trying to keep their spirits up by singing a bawdy song, knowing the next push will probably be their last. There is one scene where a bunch of French soldiers, resisting orders to advance as ‘lambs to the slaughter’, eventually do so and ‘baaa’ like sheep while being gunned down one by one.

As a chronical of war it may not be to an academic’s taste, and obviously not to an Education Secretary’s, but as a piece of theatre it is everything theatre should be. The ensemble cast is faultless. Joan Littlewood would have been proud.

Joan Littlewood (telegraph.co.uk)

Joan Littlewood (telegraph.co.uk)

Directed with great panache by Terry Johnson, it features among others Caroline Quentin – surprisingly good, I’ve never seen her on stage before – Saun Prendergast as a hilariously incomprehensible drill sergeant and Ian Bartholomew (last seen by me as a panto dame) as General Haig. Fabulous. Cannot recommend it highly enough.

It runs until 15 March at the Theatre Royal.


And here out of interest is Kenneth Tynan’s review of the original production, reprinted in The Guardian on 31 January:

Littlewood returns in triumph

It seems to me quite likely that when the annals of our theatre in the middle years of the twentieth century come to be written, one name will lead all the rest: that of Joan Littlewood. Others write plays, direct them or act in them: Miss Littlewood alone “makes theatre”.

 She has come back to Theatre Workshop, after two years’ lamented absence, with a triumph unimaginable anywhere but on a stage; it belongs uniquely to its birthplace – the bare boards that are Littlewood’s home ground, filled with the passion of Littlewood’s home team.

According to the programme, Oh What a Lovely War (Theatre Royal, Stratford East) was “written by Charles Chilton and the Members of the Cast”; it is further described as a “group production under the direction of Joan Littlewood”; but I must risk the lady’s fury by insisting that it is essentially a one-woman show. The big, tough, purposeful heart that beats throughout the evening belongs only to Joan. You feel that her actors have a common attitude towards more than acting, a shared vision that extends to life in general; it is thus, rather than by any rehearsal method or technique of staging, that true theatrical style is born.

The plot is history: nothing less than the First World War. The cast is decked out in the ruffs and white satin suits of a seaside pierrot show. We are to witness (the compere brightly confides) that famous extravaganza, “the War Game”, enacted by the entire company with musical interludes drawn from songs of the period. The proscenium sparkles with fairy lights; and a terrible counterpoint is soon set up between the romanticism of the lyrics, all gaiety and patriotic gusto, and the facts of carnage in France. Illustrated by stills of the trenches and news reports flickering across an electrified ribbon screen.

Between songs. and with minor costume adjustments – the addition of a tunic, a helmet, a Sam Browne belt – the cast perform a montage of brisk, laconic sketches, rooted in improvisation but stripped of all irrelevant detail. We glimpse a bayonet practice, conducted in lightning gibberish; a military ball, rippling with intrigue; a shooting party of international tycoons, blazing away at wildfowl while debating the relative merits of various neutral trade routes for exporting arms to the enemy; and the Christmas truce on the Western Front, which Miss Littlewood handles with utter disdain for sentimentality – the Tommies recoil with nausea from a gift of German cheese, and respond by lobbing an inedible Christmas pudding into the opposite trenches.

Meanwhile, the songs grow more bitter; the lunatic Haig has taken command, and the dead are rotting in mountains, monuments to his unswerving conceit. And still, indestructibly if not always suddenly, everyone bursts out singing.

In the second half, the show tends to repeat itself, as the war so tragically did: but by then Miss Littlewood’s passion has invaded one’s bloodstream, and after the final scene, in which a line of reluctant heroes advances on the audience, bleating like sheep in a slaughterhouse, one is ready to storm Buckingham Palace and burn down Knightsbridge barracks. The production brings off a double coup: it is revolutionary alike in content and form. And even those who mistrust revolution can hardly deny that it has the most memorable score in London.

The cast (an ensemble from which I invidiously select the names of Ann Beach, Murray Melvin, Victor Spinetti and Brian Murphy) behaves with the same relaxed audacity that Miss Littlewood captured on film in Sparrows Can’t Sing. I hope success will not doom her present troupe to the fate that immobilised its predecessors: indefinite incarceration in the dreaded West End.


The Mistress Contract

The mistress’ contract is a great idea. She gets to live in a house with a swimming pool, rent free, in return for sexual favours granted to him any time except when she’s travelling or ill. What they get up to at other times is their own private business. The contract obviously works because it has lasted over thirty years and it still continues even though She is 88 and He 93.

The play isn’t quite so successful. There’s an awful lot of talk, and most of it isn’t that interesting. Sexual  and gender politics, sex, feminism, what her kids are up to etc., some of which they tape for possible publication, but nothing about what’s going on in the world outside the plate-glass house she lives in and he visits, which appears to be in the middle of the desert yet by the sea somewhere on the west coast of the USA not far from LA (so I assume).

The problem is it is hard to engage with either character. She, the naturally beautiful and extremely talented Saskia Reeves, has worked strangely hard to make herself unattractive, with her specs, lank hair and drab clothes. Moreover she’s a windbag, which is a problem for the audience if not for him. There is one heart-stopping moment when, having been told by her that She has been propositioned by a younger man, He cries – I don’t want you to fuck anyone else and I don’t want to fuck anyone else! – which is really the first sign of a genuine and actually rather conventional emotion: jealousy. Unwittingly or otherwise this rather undermines the play’s theme of non-commitment but it’s a one-off moment and though it ends in an embrace – a rare moment of physical contact – it doesn’t really lead anywhere.

I almost (but not quite) longed to see the two of them getting their gear off and getting down to it rather than talking about it (they don’t). Calling the characters He and She and setting the play in an unknown place doesn’t help. Significantly when they are preparing their book she refuses to allow him to mention her mastectomy because it’s too personal, and she wants to be seen as Everywoman. 

The Mistress Contract, based on the true and eventually published story (by He and She) and dramatised by Abi Morgan, touches on fascinating stuff but in such a bone-dry manner it’s difficult to feel truly involved. I was reminded partly of The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion’s account of the year her husband died and her daughter simultaneously contracted a serious illness. Two potentially dramatic emotions, death and sex, intellectualised till there’s very little life left in them.

But the idea is something else, definitely worth thinking about. I wouldn’t half mind living in the desert by the sea with a swimming pool in return for … A high price to pay? Maybe, maybe not. All enquiries please send to Box No 2038698.

The ticket-buying jungle (updated)

I first blogged about buying tickets for West End shows a year ago (see here). Recently ticket touts have been in the news for charging outrageous sums for sell-out shows so I thought it was time to take another look at what’s on offer.

As I said before as a theatre tour organiser I am usually booking group tickets, generally for students. This way I not only get special deals, depending on the show obviously, and availability, but I get to avoid booking fees. I also know who to deal with: I know that if you Google show tickets the chances are the first sites that come up will be sponsored ads, paid for by agencies who may charge a big mark-up fee. As a tour booker I deal exclusively with the theatre owners or with ticket agents such as See Tickets.

Last year I featured two long-running West End shows, Phantom of the Opera and The Woman in Black (both of which, as it happens, are still running). This time I’m going for two other hot shows, The Book of Mormon and the Donmar Warehouse production of Coriolanus.

The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon (atgtickets.com)


As it happens the first site (sponsored) that comes up on Google is the official show website: http://www.bookofmormonlondon.com/home.php. For Monday 3 February a premium seat in Row G of the Stalls will set me back £127.25, which includes a booking fee of £2.50 per ticket. In Row P it’s only £49.75 (including the booking fee). The booking agents are the theatre owners, delfontmackintosh.com.

Through www.ticketmaster.co.uk there is very limited availability for that date, but I could buy a ticket in Row G of the Stalls for £140, which is £125 plus a booking fee of £15. Box Office collection is another £2.85; so the total comes to £142.85, which is £15.60 more than I’d be paying through the official site.

The only other site I could find with availability on that same date was www.seatwave.com. Here it costs £159.29 for an unspecified seat somewhere in the Stalls, which is £134.30 plus £24.99 booking fee. (They do say the ‘face value printed on ticket excluding fees: £125’.) There may be further fees on top, I didn’t want to go as far as having to log in.

Conclusion: Stick to the official site at delfontmackintosh.co.uk – the owners of the theatre. It’s the cheapest option and they have the best availability. In fact this is such a no-brainer I am surprised some agents can find enough customers to keep them in business.


Tom Hiddleston (tomhiddlestononline.net)

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus (tomhiddlestononline.net)

It was this show that was on the news recently because according to the BBC one agent was charging £2,015 for a couple of tickets whose face value was £35 per ticket.

For Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse the official booking site is www.atgtickets.com where you will see every performance is sold out. If you’d been quick enough you could have bought the most expensive seat in the house for £35 plus a £2.50 transaction fee, or the cheapest at £7.50, plus the transaction fee.

I couldn’t find any sites offering tickets for this show, not even for £2,015, which according to the BBC – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-25849543 – is what one site was charging for two tickets whose face value was £35 each. I did find a couple of sites that both buy and sell tickets, which I won’t name because I wouldn’t want to give them publicity. They are completely legitimate, unfortunately, but bearing in mind the Donmar is subsidised by the tax payer, and the top price is £35, and virtually every production there is sold out within minutes of the booking period opening, it does seem iniquitous that anyone other than the theatre itself is profiting so much from its own success.


Or if the show is sold out, GO TO THE THEATRE and ask about their returns policy, or whether they offer TICKETS ON THE DAY. The Book of Mormon for instance has a daily ballot so if you turn up at 10am you can put your name on a list and if you are lucky you will get a front row stalls seat for £20.

As I said before most ticket agencies are not breaking the law, even the ones with 1000% plus mark-ups. But except in exceptional circumstances there is no need to have anything to do with them.