THEATRE IN LOCKDOWN part two – BIRDSONG

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

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

Lungs online (theguardian.com)

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

The cast of BIRDSONG online (theatreweekly.com)

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

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

 

 

 

 

Theatre in Lockdown

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

Barber Shop 2

nationaltheatre.org.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Patsy Trench
19 May, London, UK

 

 

Coronavirus 2 – Uncle Vanya

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

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

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

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

digitaltheatrecompany.com

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

~~~~~

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

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

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

Patsy Trench
25 March 2020

 

 

Coronavirus – The show does go on

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

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

Happy viewing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patsy Trench
March 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

West End ticket prices (revisited)

I have written about the price of West End shows a few times over the years – see here – so I was especially intrigued to come upon an article in The Stage (unavailable behind a paywall unless you subscribe to the newspaper) which set out, in great and meticulously-researched detail, a number of enlightening facts I was not previously aware of.

Firstly, according to ticketing guru Richard Howle (The Stage, March 28, 2018), it appears the West End theatre pays more in VAT (20% of all ticket prices goes straight to the government) than the government hands out in subsidies to all arts venues in the London area. Which effectively means the West End theatre subsidises not just the London fringe but dance, opera and arts centres as well.

Secondly, while the top – or premium – ticket price for more than half of West End shows exceeds £100, such are the costs of mounting a West End show, and in particular a musical, if you’re paying less than £30 for your ticket it’s more than likely the producer of the show is subsidising it. Or more specifically, the 5% of the audience who can afford the premium tickets are subsidising the rest of us in the cheap seats.

That made me think a bit. I’ve said before, and I’m going to say it again, one of the great joys of living in London is knowing the best theatre in the world is available to you, and by and large at an affordable price.

To back up this claim I’ve done another whistle-stop tour of some West End ticket prices as of today, the first day of 2019. Ticket prices quoted do not include the booking fee, if there is one.

To begin with the obvious:

HAMILTON: Ticket prices range from £20 to £250. You can buy a £250 ticket for most performances, but for £20 tickets you will have to wait until after April.

Hamilton programme

EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE: tickets available from £20 to £85.

LES MISERABLES: £29.75 (Upper Circle side, partly restricted view) to £127.50

THE BOOK OF MORMON: £27.25 to £99.75.

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME: £18 to £92.50.

Curious 2

(nationaltheatre.org.uk)

THE LION KING: £42.50 to £190.

MAMMA MIA: £27.50 to £97.25.

CONCLUSION: If you are able to wait a bit, and you are flexible with dates, you can see the best shows in London for less than £30 (excepting The Lion King, which being partly a children’s show is a great pity). Long may this remain so.

WARNING: As I’ve said before, be careful who you buy tickets from. If you are browsing online head for the OFFICIAL site of the show you are interested in and IGNORE anything that has [Ad] by it as it’s probably a ticket agent charging a markup.

Patsy Trench
1 January 2019
London (the greatest city in the world – sorry Mr Miranda.)

 

Flesh and Bone

Sometimes you don’t quite know what you’re letting yourself in for.

I teach a month’s summer school course on theatre to overseas students under the auspices of Kingston University. I take them to a cross section of plays in the West End, the National, Globe and the fringe, and each year I choose one new play for what I call a close analysis, whereby they get to read the script beforehand and workshop the play and imagine how they would stage it, before seeing it.

This year I chose FLESH AND BONE on the strength of its reviews. A gritty, urban piece set on an East London estate, written in heightened, Shakespearean language and performed, said the critics, with gusto. Perfect, I thought, for my students to get a glimpse into a bit of true, gritty, East End London culture.

Flesh and Bone (unpolished theatre)

Unpolished Theatre

I booked the show and then bought the script at first opportunity, read it and thought – Whoops. I was expecting in-yer-face, and a good deal of profanity of course. What I wasn’t anticipating was the female character, Kelly (Olivia Brady), chatting up her granddad on a sex chat line (unknowingly I hasten to add), or the central male character Terrence (Elliot Warren) biting off the head of a rat.

So I presented the script to my young protégées (from the US and Australia and all female as it happens) with some trepidation. Would I stand accused of corrupting their delicate minds?

The first thing that astonished me was how much they loved the play on reading it, and even more so on seeing it performed – upstairs at the Soho Theatre, on a bare stage in front of black curtains, with no set and minimal props. The cast of five, including Olivia Brady and Elliot Warren, who created and directed it, deliver this piece of doubtful morality with such punch and commitment that not only is it screamingly funny, it is completely  – well mostly – inoffensive. Half-hearted it is not. On a steaming hot summer’s night in that confined space those five performers give the piece 150 percent, and the audience reacted accordingly.  It is a master class in how to deliver outrage and comedy with such conviction and seriousness as to disarm any kind of reservation one might have about its dubious content.

The performances were outstanding throughout, especially Alessandro Babalola as neighbour and drug dealer Jamal – huge and terrifying one moment, a puppy dog the next: another master class on how to hold an audience in the palm of your hand.

There were one or two quibbles: the actors could pay more attention to audience members seated in the side seats, rather than directing everything out front. And the rat massacre, the high spot of the whole play, was – especially following the beautifully choreographed fight – not as bold or as inventive as were hoping.

Those quibbles aside, this is an astounding evening. You even gets shots of Chopin and Strauss and Mozart. An altogether highly polished piece  of theatre from Unpolished Theatre.

Flesh & Bone runs until 21 July at the Soho Theatre

 

 

 

Hamilton

I’d booked the tickets six months ago, just after the most hyped show of the decade, or the century (or indeed ever) opened in London to rave reviews. (Unlike other smash-hit musicals like Les Mis, which the critics hated – as did I.) In the meantime I followed received wisdom and bought the album and listened to it till I could almost recite the whole thing verbatim.

Hamilton programme.jpg

Hamilton programme

The most astonishing thing about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is that it’s driven as much if not more by its lyrics and its characterisation than by the music. As a one-time lyricist I had always tried to pare the words down to a minimum in the belief that it’s the music everyone wants to hear and nobody is listening much to the lyrics anyway. What’s mould-breaking about the show is not just that America’s founding fathers are all played by non-whites, but that you get the entire history of the American Revolution, and its aftermath, plus a biography of Hamilton’s love life and his relationships with fellow politicians, rapped, sung and very occasionally spoken, and all in the space of just under three hours.

The London show matches the Broadway cast album precisely, which is spooky in a way because it suggests the London cast, and musicians, are puppets of the original. But the cast seem utterly at home in their skins and there are spankingly brilliant performances across the board, especially from Giles Terera as Hamilton’s nemesis Aaron Burr, Obioma Ugoala as George Washington, Michael Jibson as King George III and Rachelle Ann Go and Rachel John as Hamilton’s wife and sister in law Alexandra and Eliza Schuyler. Jamael Westman’s Hamilton is an intriguing mix of great stage presence and self deprecation, and oddly for a young performer almost straight out of drama school, he comes truly into his own in the latter scenes, as a mature man and a remorseful husband and a grieving father.

Hats off too to the fantastic, unfortunately hidden orchestra (MD Richard Beadle) and the non-stop, gyrating ensemble, who like all clever performers make it look like there are more of them than there are.

Worth the hype? Oh boy. I laughed, I cried, I marvelled, and I learned.

Hamilton (4)

Fearsome sniffer dog at the Victoria Palace

Instructions delivered by Ticketmaster in the days leading up to the performance were draconian: no tickets issued until the day of the performance; arrive an hour early, nobody’s allowed in until all the party is together, and once in you’re not allowed to leave again till the end; bring photo ID, booking confirmation and credit card; be prepared for bag searches (nothing surprising there) and sniffer dogs. All to deter ticket touts. In the event the queue stretched around the block but moved quickly, and the staff were efficient and friendly and the whole thing went without a hitch. (Though it would be nice, since there’s all that time to kill, to have a bit more seating in the bar area.)

 

 

Epic Ayckbourn

Well who’d have thought it?

I know Alan Ayckbourn  has tackled sci-fi before but never like this, never on this scale. This is Ayckbourn without the jokes. Sentimental, even – finally – optimistic. And epic in every way.

img376

Erin Doherty (programme cover)

The Divide (Old Vic) runs at nearly four hours long. I’d read the reviews beforehand and was prepared, secretly, to duck out at the interval. The fact that I didn’t is more a credit to the production and the players than the play.

In Ayckbourn’s future-world men and women live separately on either side of the ‘Divide’, as women pass on a deadly plague to the men. Procreation is by artificial insemination and the typical family group is a MaMa, a MaPa and kids. For some reason the women wear long black dresses and caps, seemingly uncomplainingly. (The puritan look has become a right cliché in sci-fi – cf The Handmaid’s Tale.) Mirrors are banned. Boys are removed from the family home when they reach puberty and wear white.

To be honest, I quickly stopped asking myself questions about the premise behind the play because absolutely none of it made sense to me, and the central doomed romance is totally predictable. What I did love about it was the production itself: director Annabel Boulton, designer Laura Hopkins, lighting David Plater, music especially composed by Christopher Nightingale (wonderfully appropriate name) and a live chorus of 26. Not to mention the performances, most notably from Erin Doherty, who narrates the entire story to us and is barely off the stage, and her on-stage brother played by Jake Davies. The rest of the large and almost all-female cast are hard to distinguish since they are identically dressed, but pretty faultless throughout.

The final message is both trite and uncharacteristically optimistic from a man who made his name slicing through the facades of everyday relationships. Astonishing.

The production – which closes tonight, February 10th – has been running for just ten days. I may not have gone for the play itself but there is something marvellous about the fact that it is on at all. Whatever else he is doing Ayckbourn is not playing it safe in his older age.

© Patsy Trench
London February 2018

 

 

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

Peter Nichols at 90

Peter Nichols always was my favourite living playwright, and still is, even though his plays are rarely produced nowadays.  He writes about difficult topics – much of it from his own life  – yet manages to be both seeringly funny and heartbreaking at the same time.

Peter Nichols (standard.co.uk)

(standard.co.uk)

His best-known play is probably A Day in the Death of Joe Eggabout a severely disabled child, based on his own experience as a young dad. My favourite – and, I was interested to hear, his also – is Forget-me-not Lane, about his childhood growing up in Bristol with his travelling salesman father, nickname ‘Hitler’, and his long-suffering mother. What you might call the British Death of a Salesman. Here again he manages to write about dislikeable people (his father) with compassion and understanding and even a kind of empathy. However harsh the subject, however much he takes the micky out of his characters, his plays are overlaid with great humanity, and a strange affection for human vulnerability and weakness.

Bearing all that in mind it’s surprising to hear he was known as a bit of a curmudgeon, with a reputation for complaining about things in public – such as, for instance, a time when he was commissioned by the National Theatre to write a play and subsequently ignored, even snubbed. So it was an especial pleasure to attend what was described as a ‘panel discussion’  at the British Library celebrating ‘Peter Nichols at 90‘; to see he is still alive, well, lively, with an amazingly retentive memory and not in the least curmudgeonly. The ‘discussion’ – more like a celebration of him and his plays – was chaired by the director Michael Grandage and featured readings from Stephanie Cole, Roger Allam, Sarah Woodward and Sam Swainsbury in front of a packed audience of stars from stage and screen, and Michael Blakemore.

What a privilege. I am only sorry he has given up writing plays. There were a lot of young people in the audience, some of them directors apparently. As Michael Grandage suggested, some of them may be moved to give his plays a new and much-deserved airing.

© Patsy Trench
London