This wartime spoof on Sheridan’s The Rivals, by Richard Bean and Oliver Chris and playing at the National’s Olivier Theatre, seems to have mostly impressed the critics. It certainly impressed the audience on the preview performance I attended.
However I was disappointed. I love farce, I spent a good deal of my youth acting in plays by the likes of Ben Travers and I learned – mostly from the farce master, the (late) actor Ben Whitrow – that it must be played at speed, with deadly seriousness, and above all with a light touch.
It’s this last quality that is missing from the production, in my view. Here and there are the odd very funny lines, some but not all of which are well-delivered. Posh Lydia’s inept attempts at rhyming slang did not always hit the mark. And the Malapropisms are laboured and delivered with a sledge-hammer. On the other hand the scene between the maid Lucy, when she picks up on the fact that would-be poet Bikram, aka Tony, is nicking lines from Shakespeare and Keats, is as funny as it is unlikely.
But all in all there were only two performances I could properly believe in. Helena Melville, as Lydia’s friend Julia, plays her with a true sincerity that is straight out of the 1940s. And the star of the show, in my humble opinion, is Tim Steed, who unlike most of the rest of the cast brings a reality that is both hilarious and occasionally poignant to his character Brian Coventry, manager of the base, thanks to his underplaying and lightness of touch. A true successor to the late and great Ben Whitrow.
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/)
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.
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.
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 here. The Bridge Theatre is presenting Beatthe 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 show’s 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
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.comonly 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
Four ads come up here of which the first is the official site at Wyndham’s: wyndhams.fromtheboxoffice.com. Tickets 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 email me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
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 RADA English, another jarring note).
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.