Beckett or Balderdash? (revisited)

The trouble with Ibsen

I was reading an old blog post of 2016 about a play I had just seen and not understood. Was it, I wondered, my stupidity? Or was it a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes? (The original is here.)

I came up against this conundrum time and again in my days as a script assessor. When confronted with what seemed like a cleverly-written play that made no sense I had to ask myself, Is it Beckett or is it Balderdash?

It’s not just plays. All creators – writers, painters, composers, architects – who genuinely break new ground are likely to have an uphill battle winning over the general public. Beckett himself – whose Waiting for Godot was received enthusiastically at its premier in France but got a definite thumbs-down in London – might not have become the icon he is had it not been for the critics Harold Hobson and Kenneth Tynan. The same applies to Harold Pinter’s Birthday Party and John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. It takes a far-sighted person to recognise genius, and the rest of us have to run to catch up.

These thoughts were running through my mind while researching for my current novel, which is set in the theatre world in the early 20th century. The Norwegian playwright Ibsen, who is familiar to all of us now, was considered at best subversive and at worst obscene when Bernard Shaw first championed him to British audiences. A Doll’s House, about a cossetted and patronised wife and mother who walks out on her husband and children in order to be able to live the life she wants to live, was originally banned, and could only be performed with a changed ending.

Janet Achurch, the original British Nora in A Doll’s House

Hedda Gabler was likewise considered beyond the pale for featuring a disenchanted married woman who (spoiler alert) kills herself. It originally saw the light of day thanks to an actress called Elizabeth Robins, who hired the Vaudeville Theatre in the Strand in order to mount the play herself along with an actress colleague called Marion Lea, where it was a great success particularly with the Pit and Gallery audiences. (The Examiner of Plays, aka the Censor, eventually granted the play a license saying “all the characters looked as though they had escaped from a lunatic asylum.”)[1]

Elizabeth Robins, the original West End Hedda Gabler

Ghosts, which featured a young illegitimate man suffering from syphilis, could only be presented as a one-off performance by the private theatre company The Independent Theatre.

Censorship is not the same as Fear of the New of course, although they were definitely interconnected in the days of Edwardian theatre. The Examiner of Plays at that time was a former bank manager – “a man of strong convictions and limited intelligence”[2] apparently – who admitted he could or would not explain the principles behind his decisions except to say they generally followed “the code of a gentleman’s club”.

Which brings me back to my original topic: since theatre has by and large progressed in leaps rather than gentle steps, how is the humble script assessor, who is probably quite a lowly individual in the hierarchy of a theatre, to recognise the world’s new Ibsen, or Beckett or Pinter or Kane or Ravenhill, all of whom in different ways set out to challenge the status quo?

Would you recognise such a person? Would I?

© Patsy Trench
London June 2022

[1] Elizabeth Robins, Staging a Life, by Angela John

[2] The Edwardian Turn of Mind by Samuel Hynes

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!

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 – – £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 – Showing today, 23 March, at 6.30pm. Also Mubi  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. 

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 – – 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.


Curious 2


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.)


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 (


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



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 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

The Book of Mormon


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  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. 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


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 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) – 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

Balderdash or Beckett?

One of the hazards the script reader or assessor is bound to come up against from time to time when confronted by a script that is, shall we say, ‘off the wall’, is: is this balderdash, or could this writer be the new Beckett?

Samuel Beckett (

Samuel Beckett (

It’s not just playwrights. All creators – writers, painters, composers and others – who genuinely break new ground are likely to find it an uphill battle winning over the general public. Beckett himself – whose Waiting for Godot was received enthusiasically at its premier in France but got a definite thumbs-down in London – might not have become the icon he was had it not been for the critics Harold Hobson and Kenneth Tynan. The same applies to Harold Pinter’s Birthday Party and John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. It takes a far-sighted person to recognise genius, and the rest of us have to run to catch up.

Angry young man … Kenneth Haigh (right) as Jimmy Porter, with Helena Hughes, Alan Bates and Mary Ure

Mary Ure, Alan Bates, Helena Hughes & Kenneth Haigh in Look Back in Anger (

These thoughts were going through my mind while I was watching the latest play by the young playwright Alistair McDowall, called ‘X’, at the Royal Court. Not I hasten to add that I thought it either balderdash or Beckett, but whenever I find myself baffled by something it’s hard not to think: is it me being stupid, or does this piece make no sense at all?

McDowall, like many writers, does not write simple, chronological, easy-to-grasp stuff. His plays – or should I say this play – is not intended to make obvious sense. It plays with time, and reality and nightmare, featuring as it does a group of people stuck in a spaceship on Pluto waiting to be rescued by an Earth with whom they’ve lost all contact. Baffled as I was when I was watching it I read the script afterwards, which helped a bit, but there was still something in me that wondered whether there might not be an element of the Emperor’s New Clothes: if you didn’t get it or you didn’t like it, you’re stupid.

X (

Darrell D’Silva & Jessica Raine in ‘X’ (

I don’t mind admitting to being stupid. I do mind missing out on something that I am too dense to appreciate, or see the point of. I read the reviews, which were mixed, to see if they could throw light on it. One said all was revealed in the final scene, but I didn’t understand the final scene. A friend said he found it moving. I said I didn’t, not really, because I didn’t feel particularly engaged with any of the characters.

And that, I think after all, is the crux of the matter. As I tell my students, there’s only one thing you need to know when you’re watching a play, and that’s your own mind. It’s not always easy, but it is important. You like a play not because you feel you should, or because the critics liked it, or your friends liked it, or because it stars a clever actor, but because you found it engaging.

For the full review I wrote of the play on please click here.

Bad Jews

A problem for any playwright, or any writer, is how do you present an obnoxious character without making him or her obnoxious not just to the other characters on stage but to the audience as well?

Bad Jews (


Playwright Joshua Harman goes some way to solving this problem by making his play Bad Jews a comedy and the character of Daphna (Ailsa Joy) – Miss Obnoxious personified – ludicrously over the top. Her nemesis, cousin Liam (Ilan Goodman), comes close to matching her. Liam’s brother Jonah (Jos Slovick) goes to the opposite extreme by becoming Mr Passive. (You can’t really blame him.) The fourth member of the group, the ludicrously ditzy Melody (Antonia Kinlay), an outsider not just because she is not Jewish, or family, is only marginally less irritating than the other three.

Would you want to spend 100 minutes in this sort of company? I am in the minority I think by declaring No, actually, after half an hour of them I was ready to scream. I am aware this is exactly the playwright’s intention, and that is partly the problem. The play consists of one continuous row, first – and mostly one-sided – between Daphna and  Jonah and then between Daphna and Liam. The subject of the row is, basically, Jewishness, and who has the right to their recently deceased Grandfather’s heirloom, or ‘chai’, a gold necklace he concealed beneath his tongue throughout his two years in Auschwitz. Daphna, the ‘good Jew’, who plans to go to live in Israel when she’s graduated and join the army, thinks it should be hers. Liam, the ‘bad Jew’ – ie non-practising – who is actually in possession of it, wants to give it to his girlfriend Melody in place of a ring when he proposes to her.

I am not Jewish, and you don’t have to be to understand the issues – how important it is to keep the faith, or to feel free to ‘marry out’. I know this is a play, and a comedy, and I was aware last night the audience were laughing their socks off. My problem was the playwright, and his actors, were trying far too hard to make us laugh  – whether it is Liam being driven to a nervous breakdown by cousin Daphna or Melody, a failed opera singer, giving her rendition of ‘Summertime’. I would merrily have wrung the necks of all four of them, the sooner the better. And yes, I know, this was probably the playwright’s intention.

 Patsy Trench
29 February 2016

Curtain Up at the V & A Museum

The Theatre Museum used to have its own building in Covent Garden, but ever since it was taken over and minimised inside a remote corner of the Victoria & Albert Museum it’s very easy not to know it still exists.

Now, until August, the V & A has expanded the museum space to accommodate an exhibition called Curtain Upcelebrating 40 years of London and New York theatre and  the 40th anniversary of the Olivier Awards.

Curtain Up (


Most of the original exhibits are still on view: the costumes, Kylie’s dressing room, the huge Rhinoceros and Joey from War Horse. But now there is much more, including a Curious Incident room, where you can sit in a miniature version of the set with the lights flashing amid that evocative music; extracts from shows such as Matilda and Les Mis; displays of old programmes, letters to and from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office (the censor) requesting changes to be made to plays by Joe Orton and others; and you can listen in on interviews with actors, designers and directors etc on headphones attached to monitors.

Unfortunately, considering theatre is all about sound and vision, much of it is inaudible and/or hard to see. The censors’ letters and old prompt scripts for instance are displayed in understandably dim light, but too far away to read (for my ageing eyes). And the interviews, transmitted through headphones, are virtually inaudible.  The discussion with theatre people from both sides of the Atlantic comparing the influence of critics for instance, which I was particularly interested to hear, was a case in point. (I did ask a lady attendant about this and she said yes, there had been some problems with sound, which they are trying to address.)

Curtain Up (


Being an old-fashioned and conventional soul I do still like my museum exhibits to be displayed in chronological order however; or at least to give me an overview of what to me is the most fascinating way that theatre has evolved, and continues to. I acknowledge it’s only covering the last 40 years but I still didn’t get much of a sense of this in the exhibition – changing shapes of theatres for example, and changing audiences and expectations. That said it was a brief visit and I intend going back, when hopefully the sound issue will be resolved (and the schoolkids are back at school – though it’s great to see them enjoying the hands-on exhibits).

The exhibition runs until 31 August 2016 and is free. For more information:

Hand to God

Who would have thought you could stick a sock onto the end of an actor’s arm and turn him into the star of the show?

Hand to God (


To be precise, Tyrone is more than just a sock. He has ears and stick-on eyes and an enormous mouth, which grows teeth as the play progresses. He is teenage Jason’s alter ego, if you like, created as part of his mother Margery’s ‘Christian Puppetry Ministry’, which she runs in the local church hall. As is traditional with puppets that are extensions of their masters’ bodies Tyrone is able to articulate things the deeply withdrawn, troubled Jason could never say. He can entertain young Jessica with a rehashed Abbott and Costello routine – ‘Who is your boss?’ ‘Yes you’re right, Hoo is my boss’, etc – which is all very well, but when he goes on to tell he she’s ‘hot’ the bashful Jason is mortified.

The problem is that as time goes on and Tyrone becomes more and more tyrannical, not to say demonic, so he gets more and more out of Jason’s control until he starts attacking other people and, ultimately, Jason himself. At one point it looks as if this might turn out to be some extreme, bizarre story of suicide. (It isn’t.)

You couldn’t make it up, and nor did the writer Robert Askins. His mother really did run a Christian Puppet Ministry in his local church in Texas, and he was the boy whose father had recently died. Whether his mother went on to have a wild affair with Jason’s teenage nemesis Timothy or found herself propositioned by the pious Pastor Greg is less likely. This is a troubled community, to put it mildly.

The joy of the production lies mostly in this central relationship between nasty, vile-mouthed Tyrone and the gentle and tongue-tied Jason. Such is the skill of the actor Harry Melling that that awful puppet really does take on a life of its own, and the more aggressive and violent Tyrone becomes the more you fear for the vulnerable, sweet-faced Jason. They spend much of the time eye-balling one another, nose to nose, and while Melling – and the other actor-puppeteers – makes no attempt at ventriloquism he gets to achieve the miraculous: he not only manages to create two distinct characters, he also somehow manages to react as Jason while being harangued by Tyrone.


Jason (Harry Melling) & Tyrone (

The graphic sex scene, in which Tyrone and Jessica’s buxom creation do everything conceivable to one another while their manipulators chat about this and that, looking faintly bored, is hilarious (if rather out of character for Jessica). But that is the nature of the play. It deals with difficult topics – the bereaved, deranged mother and the neglected, hopelessly troubled and misunderstood, even possessed, son – in a way that’s farcical rather than crude. It is extreme but surprisingly affectionate.

The performances – Janie Dee as Jason’s mother Margery, Jemima Rooper as his would-be girlfriend, Neil Pearson as the pious pastor and Kevin Mains as ‘school bully’ Timothy – are universally excellent. The director is Moritz von Stuelpnagel – a name to conjure with – who has been with the play from its original reading in a hall off-Broadway to its off- and then on-Broadway production (where it was nominated for five Tonys). The set (Beowolf Borritt) moves from the church hall to Jason’s bedroom on a revolve. The special effects – Tyrone seems to have the power to make light bulbs go on and off – are spot-on, and very very funny. But the evening will remain in this reviewer’s memory mostly for that glorious central performance, or should that be performances, from the supremely talented Harry Melling; and all credit to whoever taught him to become such a slick puppeteer.

One of the weirdest and most wonderful nights I’ve spent in the West End.

This review was originally posted on


Mrs Henderson Presents

What is it with musicals? Paper-thin characters, ludicrous plots, over-emphasised, repetitive (and overloud) musical numbers, and what do you get in the end? A thoroughly good night out.

Anyone who knows me knows of my resistance to sentimentality of any kind, not to mention the kind of manipulation creators of musical theatre impose on audience members in their constant efforts to get us to laugh and cry. Those are two of the many reasons why I don’t go to musicals. I don’t see why they should be allowed to get away with the kind of puerile plotting and banal characterisation that you’d never see in a straight play. I don’t see why they expect us to leave our brains behind and blast what’s left of us with childish versions of history or artificially hyped songs about lurv, delivered with relentlessly overstated passion. Or what passes for passion in musical theatre.

Mrs Henderson Presents (


The trouble is that more than once in recent times I’ve found myself sitting in the auditorium and watching a musical that, yes, has made me both laugh and cry. And it’s  often not until later that I’ve begun to think – hang on, that was a clunky piece, that made no sense at all, why would he/she do such a thing? – in other words to pick holes in the plot, and the characterisation, and in pretty well everything else. But not at the time, and this is the crux of the matter.

Mrs Henderson Presents is a case in point. It tells the story of the 70-year-old wealthy widow who, on a whim, bought the Windmill Theatre and turned it from a struggling space showing non-stop revue to the now all-famous ‘We Never Closed’ theatre featuring naked motionless ladies in tableaux vivants. (The motionlessness in order to get past the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship.)

Tracie Bennett (

Tracie Bennett as Mrs Henderson (

The show, based on the 2005 film starring Judi Dench, isn’t anything like as multi-layered or thought-provoking as it might have been. Nor does it set out to be. It is a slickly-written, cleverly directed piece – direction and book by Terry Johnson – that knows exactly how to press the right buttons to get the audience cheering and whooping. The tea girl becomes the star. The show goes on despite bombs dropping. Mrs H and her producer Vivian Van Damm show the kind of stubborn stoicism you only ever associate with the theatre and the plucky, defiant souls who keep it going against all the odds.

The obligatory clapping-along-with-the-music, not to mention the get-the-audience-on-its-feet-dancing that’s now a common feature at the end of a musical is enough to bring out the curmudgeon in anyone. But maybe that’s the whole point. What many serious, not to say snobbish theatregoers (I include myself) are at risk of forgetting these days is that there is nothing wrong with an enjoyable night out. It’s a case of adjusting expectations and temporarily stifling your inner critic.

For my full review of the show click on