Wish List

It is one of the sadder and more shameful aspects of modern life, that super-innovative and successful megolithic online companies apparently do not feel it within their capabilities to share their success by extending some humanity to the workers on the shop – or, in this case warehouse – floor.

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Joseph Quinn and Erin Doherty (royalcourttheatre.org)

The company Tamsin works for as a packer in Katherine Soper’s new play at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court is for obvious reasons unnamed. But a working world which is driven entirely by targets, where workers are on zero hours and toilet stops are timed and points (or strokes) are handed out for the slightest thing such as a missed target, is made all the tougher for Tamsin who at the age of 19 is the sole breadwinner for herself and her younger brother, who suffers from an extreme form of OCD.

Wish List, like the National Theatre’s Love, is from the slice-of-life brand of theatre, featuring in both cases people on the edge of society struggling to survive against the unseen and inhumane hand of the benefits system. In both plays the sufferer is called Dean (a coincidence I presume), who is unjustifiably turned down for, respectively, housing and unemployment benefit, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. (It’s time we heard it from the other side I think.)

The two plays have other things in common, not least a set that includes a kitchen and a bathroom. The difference being that on the traverse stage of the Royal Court Upstairs every member of the audience can see everything.

Whatever reservations I might have had about the play were more than compensated for by the performances, and in particular by Erin Doherty as Tamsin: uncertain, eager to please, funny and occasionally and surprisingly passionate, and always completely believable. A talent to watch.

And now it’s over to you, Department of Work and Pensions. Seriously.

Patsy Trench
January 2017

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.

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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

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

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

Workshops

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.

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.

(shaftesburytheatre.com)

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.