The sound of the naked voice

Call me old-fashioned, but I do like to hear a naked voice when I go to the theatre.

We lost them some years ago in musicals. And I guess if you don’t mind watching performers with appendages attached to their hairlines that’s just about acceptable. But more recently the straight theatre, so-called, seems to be adopting the head mike with equal enthusiasm.

The National Theatre’s Network uses them throughout. It’s a busy show, to put it mildly, with a large cast, some of them live in the studio in front of you, some tucked away in a control room on one side of the stage, some on a giant screen and some even sitting among the on-stage audience. And since head mikes are not directional, call me slow-witted, but by the time I’d managed to figure out which character the amplified voice was coming from I’d missed half of what they were saying.

Network: Bryan Cranston and Douglas Henshall (nationaltheatre.org.uk)

On top of which the central character, played with great aplomb and sensitivity by Bryan Cranston, is filmed live on stage, so we get two of him: one live and one on the giant screen, and slightly out of sync. To say this is disorientating is to put it mildly. I was a tad surprised the NT found this acceptable.

It happens too in the Royal Court’s puzzling Goats, where a Syrian spokesperson is shown delivering his speech live and simultaneously on a screen; and since the actor likes to gesture with his hands this means when the live hands are going up the screen hands are going down, which is close to being funny; in the circumstances inappropriate to say the least.

Live goats in Goats (royalcourttheatre.com)

And don’t get me started on background music in the theatre.

Enough ranting. Enjoy your day!

© Patsy Trench, November 2017

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So what is theatre exactly?

Theatre should be real, says Alexander Zeldin.

All theatre is artifice, says Paul Hunter.

I paraphrase both, but this is the essence of the thinking of two talented theatre practitioners I’ve come into contact with recently.

Alexander Zeldin is the writer/director of Love, currently selling out in the Dorfman at the National Theatre. He was talking to Samira Ahmed at a platform talk before the show a couple of days ago. Love has received five star reviews from virtually everywhere, so he’s a man to be taken seriously.

alexander_zeldin_photo_credit_marie_eisendick-offwestend-com

Alexalander Zeldin, photo by Marie Eisendick (offwestend.com)

Paul Hunter is the artistic director of theatre company Told by an Idiot, which has been in existence for over twenty years performing around the country and the world. He was talking to students from the SUNY New Paltz at a workshop held at RADA yesterday.

told-by-an-idiot-workshop-8

Both comments are true of course if not the whole picture. It’s what makes theatre what it is. Paul Hunter likes to create the unexpected and spontaneous through the use of impossible games. Watching a group of people clapping in rhythm only gets really interesting when the rhythm starts to go out of control. You can see what Hunter is getting at when he explains that the best comedy springs from things going wrong.

told-by-an-idiot-workshop-11

The clapping game that goes wrong

But I can’t agree when he says reality belongs to television not theatre. Watching LOVE at the Dorfman is a painful and often boring experience because we are living with the characters on stage in real time. We watch them eating in silence. We watch them washing up (those who could see it). We experience their tedium, their boredom. If this was television we’d probably switch it off and look for something more comforting or entertaining.

love-nationaltheatre-org

Janet Etuk, Anna Calder-Marshall and Nick Holder (nationaltheatre.org)

Love has been rapturously received by the press, and I would not want to disagree except to point out, with some emphasis, that anyone sitting in the side seats in the upper level, which comprises about a quarter of the total audience, only gets to see two-thirds of the play. Anything happening on the sides of the stage, which includes the sink and the toilet and a couple of upstage rooms, is completely invisible if you are sitting on that same side. Why this should be considered acceptable in a newly-renovated and reconfigurable theatre like the Dorfman is a puzzle, to say the least.

That said, the performances are astonishing across the board. And the most touching moment, which produced audible sobs throughout the audience and happens right at the end, is totally theatrical.

Patsy Trench
London 2017

patsytrench@gmail.com

Buying theatre tickets (3)

It’s the third time I’ve blogged on this topic. Things change so fast on the internet these days so I thought it time for yet another update.

Most people booking theatre tickets, including me, begin with Googling the show’s title. Fortunately Google now makes it clear which items are paid ads and which aren’t, as invariably the first sites to appear will be ads and are more than likely to be tickets agents. Tickets agents are perfectly respectable organisations (so long as they are members of STAR – see my earlier blog here.) and just occasionally  have special offers. Every outlet has its own allocation, but generally speaking you are better off booking through the official site.

Taking two ‘hot’ shows currently running in the West End as examples, this is what happens when I try to book two mid-price seats for Thursday 21 April:

The Book of Mormon

Googling The Book of Mormon, the first four sites that crop up are ads, three of them for ticket agents and one for the Mormons themselves. You have to scroll down to the fifth item before you reach the show’s official site, which is www.bookofmormonlondon.com

The Book of Mormon

(atgtickets.com)

When you click on the official site it shows you a seating plan and you get to choose your seats. For some reason however when I tried to click on the seats I wanted most of the apparently available tickets appeared not to be available, which means either their site is faulty or my mouse. I did manage to get two tickets in Row L of the Stalls for £50 each plus a booking fee of £4.50, totalling £104.50.

On theatrepeople.com  you are given a selection of tickets available on your chosen date and two tickets in Row K of the Stalls will cost you £64 per ticket, face value (ie before their markup) £50. This transaction will cost you a total of £128.

lovetheatre.com only offers ‘Stalls 1st price, 2nd price’ etc., though once you’ve clicked on them you are told the seat numbers. A ticket here in Row M is £75 + £3.50 booking fee, making it a total of £157.

This is what I think they call a no-brainer.

People Places & Things

People Places & Things

(nationaltheatre.org.uk)

Four ads come up here of which the first is the official site at Wyndham’s: wyndhams.fromtheboxoffice.comTickets in Row J of the Stalls will set you back £74.50 each, a total of £149.50 for two. (Yes, this is a hot ticket.)

On lovetheatre.com Row M in the Stalls costs £62.50 plus a socking great booking fee of £13.80 per ticket, making a total for two of £152.60.

You can also book this show through the National Theatre (it was an NT production) – www.nationaltheatre.org.uk. Stalls seats for this same date are sold out but you can grab a couple of tickets at the back of the Dress Circle for £62.50, totalling £125 (no booking fee). You can also buy tickets at £15 sitting on the stage, if being up that close appeals.

Of the ‘legitimate’ tickets agents some are transparent and helpful – like theatrepeople – and offer you specific seats, so you can see exactly where you’re sitting and what the face value ticket price is, others just charge you a lump sum and say ‘tickets will be allocated at the box office’, which is pretty poor show in my opinion.

Fringe theatres do not charge a booking fee, nor does the National Theatre.

Enjoy your visit to the theatre and if you have any questions about booking theatre tickets in London do email me on patsytrench@gmail.com.

Our Country’s Good

In 1789, barely a year after the First Fleet of convicts and marines arrived in New South Wales, the governor, Arthur Phillip – who was a remarkable and unusual man – made the remarkable and unusual suggestion that the convicts stage a play. The chosen piece was ‘The Recruiting Officer’ by George Farquhar, and the chosen playmaster was a junior officer called Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark.

National Theatre programme

National Theatre programme

Out of this unusual and remarkable story the playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker crafted a funny and moving play called Our Country’s Good, adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker and first produced at the Royal Court Theatre back in 1988. Now the National Theatre is giving the play a welcome revival, but maybe it was the vastness of the Olivier stage that dissipated much of the intimacy of the relationships at the heart of the play, or the slow pace of the action (it was a second preview), but somehow the joyful, redemptive play that I remember from all those years ago was not as moving or as funny as I was expecting.

The director has made the unusual decision to cast Afro-Caribbean actors in the roles of Governor Phillip and the witty and elegant Watkin Tench. I am all for colour-blind casting but since this is partly a story of the colonisation of a black country by a white one, in this instance it is just confusing. The aboriginal community is represented by one actor (one more than in the BBC TV series ‘Banished’), who observes, and dances, and eventually speaks his thoughts (in cultured English, another jarring note).

Governor Phillip (wikipedia)

Governor Phillip (wikipedia)

But all power to the actors, and in particular to Jason Hughes (Midsommer Murders) who manages to turn the uptight, slightly humourless Ralph Clark into a warm and interesting human being; and to Lee Ross, who takes on the role of the ‘thespian’ Sideway and makes him both hilarious and totally believable. The music is an unusual (and remarkable) mix of gospel, slave-song and guitar, with just the right mix of didgeridoo – previously recorded in Australia I believe.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

(wikipedia)

(wikipedia)

In preparation for seeing the play I have been re-reading Keneally’s book. He calls it a novel, but more surprisingly he states that ‘All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental’. However virtually all his characters, from the governor and his bad-tempered deputy Major Robbie Ross to the convicts Robert Sideway and Mary Brennan – who Clark casts in his play and with whom he later had a child – were not only real people but are represented by Keneally pretty accurately.

In his Author’s Note Keneally acknowledges ‘… that in making this fiction he found rich material in such works as ‘The Journal and Letters of Lt Ralph Clark … and David Collins’s An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales’. Out of idle curiosity I glanced through both of these to find that while Clark kept intimate diaries of some of his early years in the colony the relevant period in 1789 is missing. And all Collins has to say about it was: ‘The anniversary of his Majesty’s birth-day … was observed with every distinction in our power; … the detachment of marines fired three vollies, which were followed by twenty-one guns from each of the ships of war in the cove … and in the evening some of the convicts were permitted to perform Farquhar’s comedy of the Recruiting Officer, in a hut fitted up for the occasion. They professed no higher aim than “humbly to excite a smile,” and their efforts to please were not unattended with applause.’[1]

So all power to Thomas Keneally and to Timberlake Wertenbaker for drawing to our attention such a remarkable (and unusual) event in the earliest days of the colony. And to the National Theatre for transporting us temporarily to that remarkable and much-ignored (in this country) continent.

Finally – a note to the programme compilers: Norfolk Island is not off the coast of Tasmania.

[1] An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, Chapter VII. http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/ozlit/pdf/colacc1.pdf

Tales of madness and sadness

Kingston summer school takes place over the month of July. My theatre group comprised twelve lively lads and lasses (mostly lasses), as always up for a thoroughly good time in this golden city of ours.

Our first show was Death of a Salesman, an RSC production starring Sir Antony Sher and Dame Harriet Walter. I was told on authority that some of the accents veered away from the Bronx on more than one occasion, but frankly the greatest play to emerge from America’s greatest playwright is such an astonishing piece of work it’s impossible not to be completely caught up in the trials and tribulations of the deluded, self-obsessed, deeply flawed Willy Loman.

Show_DeathOfASalesman

Alice's Adventures

Les Enfants Terribles

The programme for Everyman at the National described Loman as a ‘modern Everyman’. This production at the Olivier generally got the thumbs-down from my students: a piece of sound and fury signifying not much, despite a powerful performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor. By comparison Alice’s Adventures Underground sent them into ecstasies. An ‘immersive’ show performed in The Vaults under Waterloo Station, you get to meet the Cheshire Cat, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Knave of Hearts and – depending on whether you choose ‘Eat me’ or ‘Drink me’ – the Mock Turtle, the Duchess, and of course all members of the Mad Hatter’s tea party and the authoritarian Queen of Hearts. It is a complex show involving a whole team of (unseen) stage managers and a cast of thirty-something, brilliantly designed and utterly bonkers.

Lampedusa at the Soho by contrast focused on the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, and featured – ingeniously in the circumstances, bearing in mind the enormity of the whole issue – two actors, in a blank space, eyeballing and haranguing us for 80 minutes on the appalling nature of their jobs: fishing bodies out of the Med, and collecting payments from the people of Leeds who can’t afford to repay their loans. It is a passionate piece, a bit of a hectoring lecture in the way it is executed, but nonetheless a timely reminder of how lucky we first-worlders are not to have to be cramming ourselves into unseaworthy boats or clambering on the roofs of Eurostar trains.

(hightide.org.uk)

(hightide.org.uk)

Bend it Like Beckham is what you might expect: a fun, glittery evening of Anglo-Asian kitsch with an old-fashioned, slightly thin plot but some great performances. And finally Measure for Measure at the Globe, done for the most part as farce, as in no depths to which the Globe will not stoop to get a laugh from its eager audience. That got the thumbs-up from my largely indifferent-to-Shakespeare group. So once again, thank you Globe Theatre for showing us the fun and accessible side of a difficult play like Measure.

Thank you too to Linda Walsh at the NT costume hire store in Kennington, who allowed us to tour – and to try on some of – their astonishing collection of clothes dating from prehistory to the future.

But above all thank you to my twelve enthusiastic, committed, fun-loving theatre lovers, who go so far to reassure me every year that the younger generation, given the chance (and affordable tickets), are every bit as passionate about theatre as we all used to be at their age; which promises well for the future.

Kingston class of 2015

Kingston class of 2015

The One Day of the Year

The One Day of the Year (defribillatortheatre.com)

The One Day of the Year (finboroughtheatre.co.uk)

There’s only one thing wrong with the Finborough Theatre’s current production of Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year: the theatre it’s in is too small.

I don’t mean the production doesn’t fit the space, or that the theatre is uncomfortable, rather that this classic Australian play needs a far bigger audience. In fact I believe this very production should be on the stage of the National Theatre.

Fiona Press and Mark Little (defbrillatortheatre.com)

Fiona Press and Mark Little (defbrillatortheatre.com)

The One Day of the Year is possibly Australia’s best play, or certainly its best-known. So I was quite shocked to see it hasn’t been produced in London since 1961, at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Is this yet another sign of the UK’s indifference to all things Australian?

The themes of the story are still current: Anzac Day in Australia is a big event. This year, being the 100th anniversary, was even bigger. I was in Australia at the time and the coverage was so intense that come the Day itself, rather like young Hughie in One Day, I felt I had had enough. Of course there are no Anzac diggers any more and very few  surviving veterans of WW2, but the event itself still sparks controversy: there are still people who believe, from the critics of the Tower of London poppies to the anti-Anzacs in Oz, that any commemoration of war is a glorification.

This is the central theme of Alan Seymour’s play. Alf is a WW2 veteran whose life since the war has been disappointing. Anzac Day is the lighlight of his year and gives him the excuse to attend the dawn parade before getting blind drunk on the streets of Sydney with his mates. Son Hughie, who is at university, is appalled, not just at his father’s drunkenness but at the public ‘celebration’ of what was one of the biggest disasters of WW1.

The Finborough production is riveting: the performances – Mark Little as Alf, James William Wright as Hughie, Paul Haley as Gallipolli veteran Wacka, Adele Querol as Joe’s posh girlfriend Jan and, in particular, Fiona Press as Alf’s wife and backbone of the family, Dot, are superb. It’s hard to imagine a better production all round.

Australia’s Arthur Miller

Alan Seymour (guardian.com)

Alan Seymour (guardian.com)

Alan Seymour, who died in March of this year, is known really only for this one play, his first. He takes no sides in his own argument, which is what makes his play so powerful. It reminded me many times as I was watching it last night of Arthur Miller – in particular his Death of a Salesman (disappointed father, stoic, loving, long-suffering wife) and All My Sons (flawed father, disillusioned sons, generational conflict). Like Miller, The One Day caused controversy at its Australian opening for daring to criticise elements of his own country. Like Miller, Seymour tells his story through flesh-and-blood characters, all of them flawed in one way or another, each of them demanding our sympathy.

I met Alan when he was working at the BBC here in London. He was tremendously helpful and encouraging when I was trying to become a TV scriptwriter. After he moved back to Australia I visited him whenever I was there at his beautiful Darlinghurst flat in Sydney. He was one of the kindest and most generous people I have ever known, and one of the most self-deprecating. He once described his play as an ‘albatross’, but I think he’d have been very proud and delighted at this latest revival of it.

He would have been even prouder to see it on stage at the National Theatre, where it should be.

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)

(ticketmaster.co.uk)

(fortune-theatre.co.uk)

(fortune-theatre.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.

STAR

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.

theatrepeople.com:
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.

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

lastminute.com
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

seetickets.com
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.

***

(Some) WEST END THEATRES & THEIR OWNERS

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

Lyceum

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.

Queens

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

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

Ambassadors

Ambassador’s Theatre

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

Old Vic

Old Vic Theatre

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