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Top Shows of 2017 (According to me)

Theatre’s great isn’t it? Well not all of it – some of it is shit. 

Anyway, 2017 has been a terrific year for theatre – through which I have tried to do what most of the theatre media forgot to do – salute theatre’s good bits, even if doing so required shining a light on the bad bits… 

As 2018 rolls around, I’ve published my annual list of half-decent stuff from the last twelve months below.

  1. Angels in America – National Theatre, London.

Subtitled “a gay fantasia on national themes”, over two extensive plays – separately titled Millennium Approaches and Perestroika – lasting a combined total of eight hours. The cast was led by the seriously good Andrew Garfield, Russell Tovey, Denise Gough and Nathan Lane. The revelatory performance and superb focal point was Garfield’s Prior Walter. 

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Andrew Garfield in Angels in America 

Everything was exquisite, Marianne Elliott’s direction completely breathtaking, the overall vision both flawlessly plotted and magnificently executed. And it’s the only show on this list without a single dud moment. The National’s timely revival of Tony Kushner’s play was 100% superb.

Angels in America heads to Broadway from February 2018, so well done everyone. 

  1. Follies – National Theatre, London. 

James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical was close to perfection. It felt like a genuinely special theatre experience, and when was the last time you felt like that about a thing?

Director Dominic Cooke delivered a really incredible, dramatic happy-sad musical of epic proportions. Every performance was sublime – from Tracie Bennet’s scene-stealing Carlotta to Janie Dee’s dynamic Phyillis.

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Follies

No other musical in 2017 tried quite this hard to be amazing, and no other musical production succeeded in as many ways.

It is fair to say that this is one of the greatest musicals I’ve ever seen. Bill Deamer’s choreography blurred real life and performance to spectacular effect enveloping us in in an emotional no man’s land, unsure where artifice began.

Follies allowed us to see and feel Sondheim’s classic in exhilarating new ways.

Glorious, glorious, glorious.

3. An American In Paris – Dominion Theatre, London. 

Christopher Wheeldon’s stage adaptation of the 1951 film was simply wonderful.

In its best moments, An American in Paris pulled off the trick of homaging multiple sources while looking and sounding like nothing else; a musical at its sophisticated and unhurried best.

George and Ira Gershwin’s irresistible songs coupled with beautiful dance was largely enhanced by Bob Crowley’s stunning design.

The company was fortunate to be led by the insanely talented New York City Ballet dancer Robbie Fairchild and Royal Ballet’s Leanne Cope; both sang, acted and danced sensationally. Remarkable stuff. 

N.B. Ashley Day took over from Fairchild as Jerry Mulligan in July and was quite splendid. So well done to Ashley.

4. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Harold Pinter Theatre, London

A decadent, pensive and astute production.

It says something about the high standard of theatre in Britain that Imelda Staunton – nominated for 2017’s Evening Standard Awards in the Best Actress category for her portrayal as Martha, didn’t win. Staunton was a razor-sharp maniac in this role and demonstrated yet again to be one of our finest & fiercest Stage performers.

Director James Macdonald matched a breathtaking Staunton with a tremendous Conleth Hill and cut straight to the plays dark, throbbing heart.

Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots held their own too, in this disturbing portrait of marital relationships gone wrong.

Edward Albee’s savage play remains, of course, a completely chilling, classic masterpiece.

  1. An Octoroon – Orange Tree, Richmond. 

As a theatre fan it’s hard to beat the feeling of finding out about a show early on and seeing something special. It’s hard to beat the feeling of seeing it in tiny, little theatres before they’re at the National Theatre, then championing it to anyone who’ll listen. And it’s hard to beat the sensation of seeing that play take a bold and brilliant step forward and being able to say to yourself: I was there.

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Ken Nwoso in An Octoroon 

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins reworking of a slave drama was both new and old; an adaptation of a 19th-century melodrama and a biting modern critique of it.

Directed with radical aplomb by Ned Bennett, it was Ken Nwoso’s energetic performance, however, that branded itself on the mind. 

A masterclass in smart theatre and a first-rate cast made this unforgettable viewing.

‘FYI’ An Octoroon will transfer to the National Theatre in June 2018. Don’t miss. 

Note:

1. Have I missed anything? Let me know E: [email protected] – I’ll publish some of the best suggestions.

2. I feel a bit bad about ‘The Ferryman’ not being on the list – it probably should have been. OH WELL.)

 

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Park Theatre, Jez Bond: “Theatres have to come up with novel ways to make money.”

Jez Bond, Artistic Director of Park Theatre, sits hunched on the sofa, twiddling his hair. In a pink hoodie and red Puma trainers, he looks younger than his thirty-nine years. His voice is soft but street-casual, but what stands out is the cheeky smile; which make you notice his sparkly eyes and his determination not to take himself too seriously.

Jez Bond – © Piers Foley Photography

In a year that’s seen him direct Ian McKellen and continue to build Park’s reputation as an exciting home for new plays and celebrated transfers, Bond is also knackered. “I haven’t slept much because I’ve got a little baby at home”, he says.

Park Theatre opened in 2013 in London’s Finsbury Park. Described as “a neighbourhood theatre with global ambition,” it offers a mixed program of new writing, classics and revivals. As well as the main auditorium (Park200), the building includes a studio theatre (Park90), a rehearsal space and a buzzing Café Bar. Is it true that the theatre is part of a housing development?

“Sure, it’s 560 luxury apartments and a little theatre in the basement…” Bond grins, “Ha! That would be nice! No; that’s fake news. Essentially, it’s the other way around. We wanted to build a theatre and discovered a building that was a former office in this incredible area. We raised the money to buy the building… and to raise the money for the theatre we spoke to Islington Council to add two storeys to the front of the building: two 1-beds and one 2-bedroom flat. That gave us a million into the pot. We have to raise £250,000 a year to keep our doors open,” he adds.

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We talk about the recent Park Theatre fundraiser starring Sir Ian McKellen. Titled Shakespeare, Tolkien, Others & You, the show offered audiences the chance to get up close with Gandalf. How was it directing a legend?

“Absolutely incredible – he’s a work-horse and the most incredibly generous man. He did ten shows in a week and after every single show he either took thirty people out to dinner or did the signings and selfies. Every single interval – he was entertaining 6-8 people with private drinks in his dressing room.” Bond beams. “He was a joy to work with.”

I ask him teasingly if it’s true that he sold McKellen-branded wine at the event. His eyes widen. “The merchandising was great. We had an excellent sponsor in the form of Tikveš wines from Macedonia, who provided 1,800 bottles of special edition McKellen-branded wine, some of which were given away as part of the experience people bought, and some of which were sold independently on the night,” he says. Amazing.

Anyone feeling snippy about Bond’s vision, or his ambition, would do well to celebrate his savvy approach. “It’s fair to say the problem with the arts is that there is not enough support. We need a quarter of a million to keep the doors open without producing a show. Theatres have to come up with novel ways to make money. The government keeps saying ‘theatres have to be more entrepreneurial’ and what people don’t realise is, it costs a lot of money to fundraise. If you look at the most successful – the Donmar, NT or the Almeida – they have between 5-10 people in their development department – that’s a salary bill of what, £300,000? The government makes things harder with Gift Aid legislation tightening – so we are able to claim only a very small proportion of Gift Aid on the Ian McKellen money.”

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Sir Ian McKellen

He is not too thrilled with the changes in legislation. “Normally you can contact someone to fundraise – now you have to know that they’ve said you’re allowed to contact them,” he explains. “If we do a fundraiser we need to know who is sitting at what table or in what seat. What we would usually do is look these people up or Google them so that we know: that’s so-and-so or she’s the chairman of that board as a conversation point.” But new privacy laws are making this impossible.

On the plus side, he says, it will stop the companies cold-calling vulnerable people selling double-glazing that they don’t need. “But on the other hand it will impede theatres and arts charities who are working with engaged people who want to be involved and just sometimes need a bit of a nudge. In order to raise the money to keep affordable theatre or give opportunities to the community you have to be a bit capitalist,” he admits. “The people who paid for drinks with McKellen offset open dress rehearsals for students, engagement with Age UK and communities from the local council estate experiencing theatre for the very first time.”

Bond’s own taste in theatre is straightforward: “I love well-made plays – ideally a linear narrative with a beginning, middle and an end. I like story; tell me a good story and I’ll stay.”

How conscious is he about equal gender representation on Park Theatre’s stages? “There are only a limited number of plays which we can afford to produce, we have conversations with guest producers and we really try and ensure diversity,” he says. “This season has ended up less female-focused in Park200 as we would have liked but we have balanced this by being more female-focused in Park90. In the next season we have some really good female led stories.”

We turn to the big show of the recently announced 2018 season, Pressure, which features his secret weapon: David Haig. “He’s the man! David has written Pressure and he is in it. It was originally at Chichester and so this is the London premiere. I read the play and said we’d love to do it. It should be great,” Bond says.

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David Haig in Pressure (Runs at Park200 from 28 Mar until 28 Apr 2018)

How does he get such an array of big-name stars to perform at Park Theatre? Is it blackmail? He laughs. “Well, there’s a lot of skeletons in a lot of closets and if you’ve got the key…. Most of the closets are located in the housing development. They’re in the basement.” He smiles sweetly. “I’m joking.” Or is he?

Park Theatre’s 2018 Season is on sale now 

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Finborough Theatre, Neil McPherson: ‘Fringe theatre is undergoing a lasting change… I don’t want it to become a rich kid’s playground.’

The Finborough Theatre has had a remarkable year; acclaimed sell-out productions, London and New York transfers, the tenth Channel 4 Playwrights Scheme Playwright in Residence Bursary, nominations for The Stage Debut Award and an Olivier Award.

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Neil McPherson

Since 1998, Neil McPherson has been artistic director of the Finborough pub theatre. It’s fair to say he knows what he’s doing on the theatre front and if you’re in the market for a chat about that then today is your lucky day.

Anyway I hopped on the phone with Neil to find out what he’s got to say for himself.

In 2018, the Finborough celebrates 150 years of the Finborough Theatre building with the FINBOROUGH150 series, an anniversary selection of the best plays from 1868. McPherson may be approaching twenty years in post but he shows no signs of losing enthusiasm. “Next year is the 150 Anniversary of our building so we are going to be doing an anniversary selection of the best plays of 1868 – our new season, for example, features one play from 1868 alongside five pieces of new writing,” he says, excitedly.

Last week, Lyn Gardner wrote about the state of play of the London fringe, saying: The days when the London fringe was a place where the penniless and the radical could find a nook of cranny, where they could thrive, have long gone. Does he agree? “Sadly, Lyn is absolutely right.  Fringe theatre – as it is now – is on the cusp of a massive change,” he says. “Almost as big as the shift of print media vs the internet. For many years in London – the number of fringe theatres stayed constant – then suddenly over the last five or six years – a dozen theatres or more popped up. And that brings its own challenges for a 50-seat venue paying market rent,” McPherson says.

He continues, “I’ve never been a subscriber to the belief that “fringe” means amateurish. I’ve always tried to take the best of the fringe – the ability to find new and exciting writers, directors, designers, actors theatre; the ability to respond to events quickly; and to be radical and controversial; and marry that with the best of the commercial theatre’s values – a respect for training, and high production values, for example,” he says.

“It’s got to be good – just because it’s a fringe theatre doesn’t mean it can’t be world class.”

We talk about the renewed discussion of masculinity in crisis and the constant developments around sexual harassment. “I think the best thing we can do is shut up, listen – with humility – and do and be better. It’s time for a big change. And, it goes hand in hand with bullying which also needs to be addressed,” says McPherson emphatically.

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What steps has he taken to ensure that he is doing all that he can within the organisation? “Just this very last week we’ve altered our production manual we give to companies’ clear guidance. We also have the Royal Court code of conduct on display in working areas. The awareness is all, and, as my favourite teacher at drama school used to say “N.T.T.” which stands for “Nobody’s That Talented,” he says, laughing.

Earlier this year McPherson was nominated for an Olivier Award for his play Is It Easy to be dead – a play is about a remarkable WWI poet, Charles Hamilton Sorley. The play received solid reviews and transferred to Trafalgar Studios. McPherson is realistic about the sustainability. “In terms of critical acclaim and commercial sales – we could transfer 1 in 3 of our shows; however, we only transfer 1 in 7. And perhaps not always the most deserving ones. I always go back to the Noel Coward quote “Just do what you like and believe in and just hope to God other people like it too,” he says.

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Alexander Knox in It Is Easy To Be Dead. Photo: Scott Rylander.

McPherson is deeply aware of the importance of seeking out diverse voices and not being dependent on playwriting competitions. “I’ve judged some playwriting competitions in the past and personally I think it’s best to just do the new writing development work I’m doing anyway and then put on the plays when they are ready,” he says.

“I’m not altogether convinced by decision by committee, and I think quite often with competitions, we know something has to win and so we pick one that is the least bad,” he tells me, before adding, “They can be a good thing and an important thing but it should only be part of it the process, not the whole process for getting new voices discovered.”

What are the biggest challenges for the Finborough in 2017? “The Equity low pay – no pay campaign is hugely important, and we’re doing all we can to do our part. But nothing happens in a vacuum, and the campaign does have serious knock-on effects which in the long run may mean a lot less opportunities for actors and creatives,” says McPherson, adding that 9 out of 12 Finborough main shows paid at least Equity Fringe Agreement minimum this year.

“It’s slow progress, but we’re not being lazy,” he says. “The people now putting on shows are coming from a much more moneyed background than, say, five years ago. But, as an example, one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with – a female working class director/producer – she should be having a really successful career now but she’s more or less had to give up because she can’t work in the current climate as she is terrified of being sued if she was to do another fringe show.”

Is there anything that he’d like to add, I ask. “Fringe theatre is undergoing a massive and lasting change and I don’t know where it’s going to go yet, and we’re confronting those new challenges on a daily basis. I don’t want it to become a rich kid’s playground,” McPherson replies.

The Finborough’s 2018 season is now on sale 

 

Coverage of the above interview in The Stage

Coverage of the above interview in The Stage

 

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The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, Chris Pizzey: “Have I ever committed a crime? Apart from hunting for my Christmas presents as a kid… no.”

Chris Pizzey

Mischief Theatre was founded in 2008 as an improvised theatre group on the London and Edinburgh fringes, they have grown into one of the UK’s leading theatre companies, winning the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy for The Play That Goes Wrong, which began in front of four people above a pub. Their latest show, The Comedy About A Bank Robbery is currently running in London’s West End. 

Chris Pizzey

Chris Pizzey

The company has had a meteoric rise of Mischief Theatre, with three productions being performed in the West End, one of which is due to be a highlight of the Christmas TV schedules

 It’s been a hell of a month, so, I thought it might be good to have some light relief and have a chat with cast member Chris Pizzey. Chris is an Actor, writer and a Director and he just so happens to currently be playing Officer Randall Shuck in The Comedy About A Bank Robbery.

Hi Chris, how is it all going?
Busy but good. Instead of having a day off I’ve been recording a voice over for a brand new TV show coming out next year. Sadly In not allowed to say what it is. And then today I was back on stage making people laugh.

You are part of quite a brilliant cast for The Comedy About A Bank Robbery aren’t you. 
Thank you very much you are very kind. The cast is indeed a talented bunch. As also is the whole creative and behind the scene crew. Everyone works hard to make the show run like a well oiled machine.
Do you think we care too much about what other people think nowadays? 
 Some people do. I think it’s very liberating when you reach a point in your life when you feel strong and sometimes brave enough to follow your own path. Be that at 5 or 50 Year’s old.
Do you agree with the statement that the best kind of theatre is jovial with a slight undercurrent of menace? 
 No. I think there are many different types of Theatre that strive to achieve different things. Some want to teach us, others want to open our eyes to a different view point and some just want you to escape into another world for just a few hours. All are equal in my mind and magical in their own way.
Is there one thing you wish someone had told you when you were starting out about this industry?
 Yes. Don’t be scared to be yourself.
Have you ever committed a crime? 
 Apart from hunting for my Christmas presents as a kid… no. 
You have done a lot of work for television including The Basil Brush Show & The Sarah Jane Adventures. Do you prefer performing for theatre or screen? 
They are such different mediums you can’t compare the two. Theatre gives you that immediate reaction that can send shivers down your spine as you listen to the audience laugh or gasp. On the screen sometimes you know after a take you’ve been apart of something special but then have to wait sometimes months to see the results. But in that time the scene can be made even better with clever editing and atmospheric music. I feel lucky to have experienced both.
Comedy About A Bank Robbery

Comedy About A Bank Robbery
©Tristram Kenton

Would you say you are an ambitious person? 
Yes. Ambition I think is a wonderful thing as It drives you on even when things aren’t going your way.
Mischief Theatre is on a roll at presentwith three shows in the West End. It must feel quite good to be a part of that family. 
Yes it does. I think Mischief Theatre has a fantastic energy. It’s great to work for a company that thinks anything is achievable. 
Andrew Lloyd Webber: man, or God? 
 He’s a man but a very talented one.
Why should people come and see The Comedy About A Bank Robbery
If you want to go for a night out and genuinely laugh until your cheeks ache. Our play is for you. Don’t believe me? Come and prove me wrong.
Right you are. If you could ban anything from city centres what would it be?
Nothing comes to mind… I’m quite a tolerant kind of guy.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Thanks for your questions if you have others you can find me on Twitter @chrispizzey. 

Image result for chris pizzey comedy about a bank robbery

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is at the Criterion, London, until November 2018. 

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A coda

Coverage of Ramin Gray story in MSM

Yesterday I published my interview with Artistic Director of ATC Ramin Gray. 

You can read our chat here: 

http://www.mrcarlwoodward.com/interview/atcs-ramin-gray-i-think-the-search-for-who-is-the-weinstein-of-british-theatre-is-an-honourable-search/

Following the publication of the blog, I was approached by a number of women expressing concerns.
I’ve passed on the concerns in confidence to the appropriate people involved with Cornershop PR (who initiated and facilitated the interview) so that they can look into them if necessary.

I did think about whether I should take the blog down but because of the content I think that it should stay up. I take this extremely seriously.
Sexual harassment and bullying are not acceptable.
If anybody wants to speak to me they can contact me on the email below in confidence. <
E: [email protected]

If an Equity member has concerns, please contact them below. The union has specialist organisers covering the different aspects of the industry, such as TV and Theatre, so please identify the area of work you wish to discuss and you will be directed to the correct person.

Equity main switchboard: 020 7379 6000

Scotland and N. Ireland office: 0141 248 2472 

Wales office: 029 2039 7971

Manchester office: 0161 244 5995

For more information on Equity’s recent statement on this topic please click here. 

COVERAGE OF THIS STORY IN MAINSTREAM MEDIA:

Coverage of Ramin Gray story in MSM

Coverage of Ramin Gray story

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ATC’s Ramin Gray: “The search for who is the Weinstein of British theatre is an honourable search.”

“I’ve put in for the Dreamgirls day lottery and I have a very high regard for musicals,” declares Ramin Gray, Artistic Director of Actors Touring Company

In the month of Actors Touring Company’s fourtieth Anniversary, I thought it might be nice to shine a light on one of theatre’s most interesting characters, aka Ramin Gray. A man who’s not afraid to talk openly and honestly about real issues – Regional Theatre, Spacey, taste or Trump– while also knocking out cosmopolitan theatre.

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“The single most inspirational piece of theatre, for me, is A Chorus Line,” he tells me. “which is a model for how to make theatre. The aesthetics and politics of that show are exemplary. There’s good and bad theatre and ultimately, it’s about taste.”

We are two minutes into our conversation in the crow’s nest of an office at the top of a flight of narrow stairs, behind the Royal Society of Arts, off Trafalgar Square.

Gray goes on to explain his theatre frustrations. “Something I find a bit depressing is that I go to the theatre and it’s generally of a rather good standard across the board… But frustratingly, it’s also become a ‘product’ and that’s a bit bloody annoying.”

“I’m so privileged,” he says about his Arts Council Funding. “I have taken that responsibility very seriously. I do understand that it’s a lot of money, but it’s a tiny amount compared to other companies.”

With such diverse and exciting work out on the road, I ask if it is fair to say that ATC do not mess about. “We get £207,000 from ACE every year,” he says, “we have to pay the salaries of four people, run the office and make our shows. The productions don’t make money. When you tour – you don’t make money. But, in the way the public have the right to free health care, they have the right to experience and engage with quality theatre wherever they are in this country. If you’re outside London it will feel like money down the drain, but that’s why we are here, to spread the love. Our USP is, I think, going off-piste, pursuing obscure and some might say elitist or you could say excellent, mainly international writers.”

Currently, Gray and Actors Touring Company  have 5 productions on the road, from Plymouth to Scarborough and their international tour dates for 2017 include Helsinki, Barcelona, Dublin, New York, San Francisco and Hong Kong. This month sees the company celebrate their 40th anniversary making international and contemporary work.

Where would he like to see ATC in another forty years? “I remember when Eat opened up next to Pret A Manger and I thought that they were insane, but they both seem to have flourished,” he says, grinning. “I think it’s a shame that there isn’t another company doing international work on the scale that we are. Not just to challenge us, but to give people more of this fare. If the same people are scrabbling over new writing – the best thing would be if there was another company of a similar stature, doing work in a similar area of the repertoire.”

At the recent UK Theatre Awards, Lyn Gardner commented: “If you want to see the future of British Theatre then get on a train.” What does Gray think about the current state of play in regional theatre? “London is still so dominant, politically, culturally, financially, in so many ways. If you’re in Manchester, for a week even, you can go ‘there’s three things I wanna do’ and you can do them all. Whereas London is inexhaustible. And I think that’s why people in London rarely think about leaving to search out new things. I worked at Liverpool Playhouse for five years but my relationship with regional theatre is now very different as we always co-produce and tour. Standards are generally good but I tell you, a type of theatre that does not exist anymore – the Glasgow Citizens Theatre in the 1980s – That. Was. A. Theatre. Radical aesthetic, off-the-wall programming, I don’t think there’s anyone doing anything as distinctive or different and I don’t see why that can’t still happen.”

Ramin is busier than ever. Later this month his storming production of David Greig’s version of Aeschylus’ tale of escape from forced marriage and exile: The Suppliant Women arrives at the Young Vic. “The Suppliant Women is sung and moved throughout, we wouldn’t have shows like Dreamgirls without it,” he says.

I compliment the scope of ATC’s collaborators: Royal Lyceum Edinburgh, Royal Exchange Manchester, Young Vic, Orange Tree, Theatre de la Manufacture, Schauspielhaus Vienna, Bragenteatret, Unicorn Theatre and more. Gray’s perspective on diversity is unusual:

“Speaking as someone who doesn’t have a drop of Anglo Saxon blood in me, I think that the English are *on the whole* a remarkably tolerant, gentle and self-critical bunch,” he says still smiling. “You’re expecting me to say – I’m absolutely shocked at diversity levels: actually, we are doing a pretty good job. Of course, we have to make absolutely sure that there are no barriers to people participating and we have to make sure people are being invited to see our work. I grew up in the seventies and experienced a lot of racism, I got beaten up, called pakki and gay and I am none of those things…. I do think the world has absolutely changed for the better.”

He continues: “Do I feel I should be doing more? No. Do I think we should be doing less? No. I think we are doing a great job. I want to find new ways to excite people so they engage with the work.”

Is he shocked by the current abuses of power tsunami that is tearing through the industry ? “We are seeing that this is everywhere: Houses of Parliament, bankers, football, Harvey Weinstein and Spacey. It is about power and I think the reason it’s all kicked off could be to do with Donald Trump – the guy was elected President and he’s made a mockery of politics… Our faith has been rattled,” he says, linking the industry that enabled such behaviour to the wider society that voted for a self-confessed crotch-grabbing president.

“Not to excuse him in any way, but Weinstein became the lightning conductor. All the stuff that was in the ether around Trump coalesced in this thunder clap and now it’s rippled out and the ground is shaking everywhere.”

Does he think this is just the tip of the iceberg? “I think the search for who is the Weinstein of British theatre is an honourable search and some names have come up. More may come up. It is a terribly traumatic process and it’s right that we are examining it and bringing stuff to light.”

Who is his go-to collaborator? “David Lan,” he says -instantly. “I’ve done three plays with him. I really adore that man; I think he is an absolutely wonderful human being. He is an incredible combination of cunning, generosity and peerless intelligence.”

Gray explains his thoughts on the current climate for theatre makers. “I think there’s a fantastic energy around. I think it’s a powerful environment in which to be making work. But I’m also concerned that work is becoming blunt. Where is the nuance? Where is the subtlety? Stuff is not black and white. If theatre has value, it is precisely to explore complexity, the grey zone if you like.” Gray says with conviction.

And with that, via a gentle handshake and a recommendation that he go and see An American in Paris“Take care!”, We say goodbye.

The Suppliant Women is at Young Vic, London until 25 November. 

For more information about Actors Touring Company 

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How Bad Can ‘The Band’ Be? Spectacularly.

Just as it is hard to hate someone who has smashed the wing mirror off one’s car if the note under your windscreen wiper comes with a little smiley face at the bottom, it is hard to completely dislike the cunning adherence to the jukebox blueprint.

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Sadly, by no stretch of the imagination is The Band a good musical.

Featuring the songs of Take That, The Band has broken box office records making it the fastest selling touring musical of all time and with advance tickets sales for national tour of ‘The Band’ reaching £10 million(!)

Gary Barlow and musical theatre seemed like a good idea at one point, but by the time he started actually writing songs for musicals, it turned out that he was the worst thing to happen to the genre in the last decade. See: Finding Neverland.

Do you think “Take That have had a good run and should call it a day” is a fair statement? Do you think there’s a chance we might, by now, have heard Barlow’s best work? Well it doesn’t matter what you think because Barlow is not listening. See The Girls. 

But, when it comes to twentieth century pop Barlow remains peerless in his field. Take That had sold 10 million singles in the UK alone before splitting in 1996 – an event that prompted the Samaritans to set up a helpline for grieving fans. Subsequently they reunited as a four piece in 2006, welcomed Robbie Williams back for a lucrative tour and album in 2010, lost a member in 2014 and are now at large as a trio. Williams is listed as a co-producer but has had nothing to do with the promotion other than being on the giant billboards.

Tim Firth’s musical is, above all else, a marketing exercise which has no role for the audience beyond handing over their money. Featuring the winners of the dreadful BBC series Let It Shine (AJ Bentley, Nick Carsberg, Yazdan Qafouri Isfahani, Curtis T Johns & Sario Watanabe-Soloman) who play the singers of old Take That songs. They drive the narrative along like plucked, tanned, buffed, polished and scrubbed Ken dolls. Nothing can rescue them from being bewilderingly dim. They *mostly* sing in tune.

The show has one of greatest pop song lists… and one of the idlest scripts. I wasn’t expecting an evening of Pinter. What I did expect to be able to do, however, was recognise all of the songs. Most of them, in fairness were familiar. The inclusion of Hold Up A Light and These Days, though, is baffling.

Cynicism bleeds into most of these songs, with most of the tracks sequencing built around cavernous incoherence; one of the best pop songs of the last fifty years, Back For Good sounds like it is being sung by The Military Wives. Unforgivable. The show’s air of will-this-do? is encapsulated by some terrible choreography and a cloying mawkishness that extends to the formulaic narrative. Someho—–

BUT YOU AREN’T BEING OBJECTIVE CARL – YOU’VE TROLLED THE SHOW HANDLE FOR FOUR MONTHS – SAY SOMETHING NICE AND CONSTRUCTIVE.

Oh. Okay… Shine is a genuinely enjoyable finale to Act 1. Fans of Take That will have a good time. Theatre makes the people come together. Some of the scene transitions and set are genuinely inventive. The female cast members are not awful.

So there we go.

Anyway, the worst Take That song of all time is, of course, their single, These Days. So, in case you are not aware of this song’s charms, simply imagine a Take That song, but worse. Its most terrifying feature is in its first millisecond, that the Five To Five boys vocals appear completely without warning. This sound of hell opening up offers the audience no safety zone in which to leap towards a fire exit. Basically, what a racket.

Finally Never Forget arrives “Someday soon this will all be someone else’s dream.” If only. I can’t remember much else to be honest.

Is it all just bit of fun and perfect for the target audience? Perhaps I was pre-destined to dislike the show. Perhaps I am trying too hard and maybe The Band is actually clever and postmodern or satirical or something like that.

Food for thought there, readers. Food for thought.

The tour continues through until July 2018 and you can check out the tour dates and venues here.

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Playground Theatre, Peter Tate Interview: “Established and emerging artists will always be free to come here and try out new ideas.”

Back in 2001 Playground Theatre, London was founded as a space for artists to explore creative ideas, without being a fully-fledged venue. After restoration, with a budget of £270,000, the Playground Theatre is opening as a venue with a seating capacity of up to 200 with a flexible stage. This new dynamic theatre is in Ladbroke Grove and just ten minutes from Latimer Road tube station and it was recently announced that the Playground has been nominated for Peter Brook/Royal Court Theatre Support Award 2017.

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Peter Tate in rehearsals.

Peter Tate, who originally found the space, is co-director alongside Anthony Biggs, former artistic director of the Jermyn Street Theatre. The Playground’s premiere production, Picasso, stars Tate. He has had an extensive career as both an actor and businessman. Previously seen regularly at the National Theatre in leading roles whilst, at the same time, running successful commercial businesses.

The softly spoken 66-year-old explains that everything is on track. “Rehearsals are going well – one never wants to say too much at this stage,” he says. “It’s coming together really well. We are currently in technical rehearsals – it’s fine –  the actresses are great. Fingers crossed.”

What are the biggest trials of realising this ambitious venture? “The biggest challenge – and it is completely self-imposed: opening a new venue and this production at *about* the same time,” he says, laughing. “The fit out of the theatre has converged with the opening of the venue. Whilst rehearsing for Picasso I have been involved in helping to create the theatre at the same time. So, it is all hands-on deck!”

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As an industry, it is a miserable time and it seems potent that the inaugural production focusses on the life of Pablo Picasso, arguably the greatest artist of the 20th century but one who has been characterised as a misogynist. Tate is all too aware of the timing whilst working with a female heavy cast. “We have this Harvey Weinstein thing coming out of the closet and of course Picasso had a reputation for that kind behaviour… We are not sanitising what it is but we are very conscious that the situation is happening. Some of the material is challenging but the cast and creative team are all committed and responsive.”

He is, though, justly proud of what he has achieved. “Although we had a lot of success with the projects we developed here, there were many projects that were worthy of going into the public arena were left on the shop floor,” he says, “so now we can get that work off the ground and in front of audiences.”

How is The Playground different from other off-west end spaces? “We are very artist driven – we are not producer driven. I really want this place to be a home for artists to come here to use the space and knock an idea around. We take a fairly unique place in the London scene; an unconditional approach to collaborating. The reason for this theatre really is to create a place without pre-judgement and nowhere really has this ethos.”

The Playground will seek no charitable or government funding: investors paid for the building and initial production costs, but from now on it is meant to run on its revenues. Tate has a firm handle on proceedings. “Obviously now there is a huge amount of money going out now,” he admits, “there are five potential income streams’ and one of the aims is to be absolutely self-sufficient. We have a vibrant café bar, ticket sales, space rentals, one-off events that we are pushing and we will eventually have classical music concerts and a cinema.”

What sets this venture apart is the inclusive and ambitious plans for artist development, theatrical experiment and how deeply it’s plans are rooted in the local community. “I’d love the word to be out there that we are establishing this as a home for artists,” says Tate.

“There is a sense of home here. I’d like to say established and emerging artists will always be free to come and try out new ideas here.”

Picasso runs at The Playground from 5 November to 25 November, with previews from 1 November.

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Young Frankenstein: do we all make our own monsters?

The gender roles in Young Frankenstein raise huge questions around our own collusion as audiences and Mel Brooks’ musical comedy starring Ross Noble, Hadley Fraser, Summer Strallen and Lesley Joseph is ruffling feathers.

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The background is that, in Natasha Tripney’s two-star review for The Stage she makes her case very pertinently about how certain attitudes towards women feed in to a culture that is damaging to women. “You could argue that I’m taking things too seriously, that this show is basically benign and just out to make its audience laugh, but this stuff matters. It adds up. It contributes to a culture in which men in positions of power, movie producers say, can treat women like they exist solely for their titillation and amusement. It’s damaging – and it’s just not funny anymore.

Similarly, Alice Saville wrote a piece for Exeunt (Let’s not forget that Tripney co-founded Exeunt) examining mass culture and sexism within the industry, but misses a trick of weighing the best of the present against the worst of the past. Saville too seems to think that the Guardian’s Chief Theatre critic is conspiring against women: “If the most common way to deal with women who call out sexism and harassment is silence, a close second is this time-honoured strategy of casting people who object to rape jokes and sexism as humourless. Michael Billington’s Guardian review seems to do so, too, albeit in a weird coded way – “This may not be a show for sensitive souls whose idea of a jolly evening is sitting at home reading Walter Pater. For the rest of us, who cherish popular theatre’s roots in laughter and song, it offers two-and-a-half hours of time-suspending pleasure.”

Good grief.

This recurring debate speaks volumes – and prompts this writer’s irony-meter to explode – especially when Young Frankenstein is a musical from a lost vaudevillian universe where the women were leggy and offence was given (and taken) in the spirit it was intended. This all happened in a time pre ‘Trial By Social Media.’

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Can the imagery of gender stereotypes, now so deeply carved on our brains, prevent us from looking beyond the roles assigned to us? I found the elements in question to be a subversive use of entertainment as a means of consciousness-raising. This show is portraying a period, with humour and accuracy.

I felt uncomfortable at times. But isn’t that the point?

Post-Weinstein, I was hyper-aware about my own gaze at the females on stage; but the performances in question here are very funny and subtly ridiculing that.

Even when Hadley Fraser lecherously embraces his fiancé and she pushes his tongue back into his mouth, singing ‘Please Don’t Touch Me’ – I couldn’t but applaud what in other hands might seem tasteless. It could be argued that the show is an inappropriate artefact and should be *at the very least* seriously reconstructed or consigned to the archives. Or, how about not watching it?

Amid the frenzy, we should also pause to remember the Mel Brooks’ heyday as a filmmaker was in the 1960s and 1970s, when sociopath Richard Nixon was in office. Brooks is one of the greatest comedians of the twentieth century whose work is slapstick, irreverent and certainly not polemic.

It’s true that some genres, such as comedy, have thrived on dementedly sexualised and explicitly demeaning imagery of leggy women and ‘funny-sexy’ for decades, but this old-fashioned approach should not represent a line being crossed. I think it’s slightly naïve to beat up the past with the stick of the present.

We know now that sex and sexuality is always going to be part of theatre, and always should be.

But that’s not to say it’s all plain sailing…

After the show I asked ten humans, who identified as female, whether they found anything in Young Frankenstein to be a) offensive or b) misogynistic. Interestingly, they all said no. One woman told me: “I am actually pretty sick and tired of all this right-on idiocy. I have three daughters and I have raised them as independent women. We have loved every minute of it.”

Another woman that I was sat next to told me: “I didn’t want a female Doctor Who – but here we are. I don’t need approval from anybody to enjoy the theatre, I don’t read reviews because the writers often bring their own agenda.”

Nevertheless, just because the ten women did not have a problem with the content of the musical as a misogyny-fest does not mean that no female humans will have a problem with the representation of women on stage.

If a lost British musical was unearthed tomorrow featuring a cartoon monster raping a woman in a cave as a term of abuse, would Cameron Mackintosh commission it, or would he censor it? He’d censor it.

Perhaps there should have been a 2017 sensibility to Young Frankenstein, in much the same way that racist elements are removed from repeats of 1970’s sitcoms on daytime TV. Arguments that “they’ve been playing it uncensored for decades” are irrelevant: society moves on, which is why slavery is a crime, marriage is equal, homosexuality is not a crime and why women are allowed to vote.

Obviously, the history of patriarchy is extensive and entrenched. So, do we remake these stories and tell them differently if we are going to change our own culture and its attitudes towards women? Progress on justice for women is slow, but it’s happening. Young Frankenstein has been directed with aplomb by Broadway’s finest director-choreographer, Susan Stroman. What’s that? A female director, in the West End.

Whether it is cynical, misogynistic, artistic, all three or none, perhaps this will prove a cultural blip, a peculiar aberration like the huge success of the Take That musical: The Band that theatre fans in the future will look back on as nothing more than a snapshot of pop culture in 2017.

But it is hard not to feel that in 2077, people are more likely to look back on the fuss around Young Frankenstein in the way we now regard the reaction, 50 years ago, to the uproar of ‘Springtime for Hitler’ featuring goose-stepping chorus girls and choreographed swastikas: as rather quaint.

I salute Young Frankenstein for sticking a bonfire under good taste and scorching political correctness. Theatre is full of surprises. All we can do, as audiences, is say it how we see it and respond accordingly because there’s nothing more miserable than silence.

We all make our own monsters and I don’t think that anybody associated with Young Frankenstein is one.

Anyway, there is something rotten in the world if you need approval to laugh at a Mel Brooks musical.

Go and see it for yourself.

N.B. I am, though, still upset that there wasn’t a gay bar in Transylvania.

Young Frankenstein runs at the Garrick Theatre until September 2018.

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UK Theatre Awards 2017: A blow by blow account

12.30pm I arrive at the Guildhall, London and head for the drinks reception in the Crypts. It’s quite posh. I have a glass of champagne and bump into theatre critic Mark Shenton. “Hello! I’m surprised you managed to fit this in between all your meetings,” he says, laughing. We have a quick gossip.

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Mark Shenton

12.45pm I mingle and bump into critics Lyn Gardner and Fiona Mountford, which is nice. “What on earth are you doing here!?,” Lyn says. I wouldn’t miss it for the world – congratulations, Mrs. I say. Bless.

12.55pm A man from Scottish Ballet asks me to take his photo around forty times – because the lighting is not flattering. I oblige. Great days.

1.00pm Everyone is having lunch. Here is the menu.

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(I was afforded a cheese roll, a banana and a Kit Kat. Beggars can’t be choosers.

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Guildhall, City of London: The Great Hall.

1.30pm The guy from Scottish Ballet appears. “I need somewhere to throw up my gum,” he says to me and the chap from UK Theatre. Words fail me. I suggest a bin around the corner.

2.00pm It’s starting. I think.

2.05pm Oh here comes Gemma Bodinetz who has won the Best Director award for artistic directorship of Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse’s new repertory season. “I’m looking forward to the whole thing now: I can get drunk,” she says. Amazing.

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Gemma Bodinetz

2.08pm “Yayyy Gemma!” Shrinking violet Sam Hodges is gate crashing my interview, which is a bit annoying. Oh well, he’s charismatic.

2.14pm Anyway, why is today so important to Gemma? “I’m absolutely thrilled…  It’s taken me 14 years to win this award. It’s a very important thing for us as an organisation,” she states.

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Samuel Hodges chatting away

2.16pm Let’s have a quick chat with Nuffield Southampton Theatres Sam Hodges then. He has just picked up the Renee Stepham Award for Best Presentation of Touring Theatre for Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox. Why is today so important for him and this production, I ask. “It’s a massive deal; it was a glorious show. We’d never done anything on this scale and arguably we shouldn’t have – luckily our board backed this decision fully and this is the icing on the cake,” he says, smiling.

2.18pm I lose the thread of what’s going on and before I know it along comes actor Joseph Millson who has won Best Performance in a Play. What is it about regional theatre that is sexy? “I am hugely devoted to the supporting of local and regional theatres; it saved my life when I grew up in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “Even if it hadn’t doesn’t make you an actor – it gives young people such an independence.” He continues. “There’s something so individual and so much expression. If everyone just bought one ticket a year at their local theatre then everybody could reap the benefits.”

2.25pm I have a glass of white wine. 7/10.

2.30pm Sharon Duncan-Brewster has deservedly won Best Supporting Performance for A Streetcar Named Desire at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. “A lot of people do not venture out to do any work outside of London, so when I was asked to be in Streetcar I thought the only role I could play is the negro woman,” she says, candidly. What does this win mean to her? “Every city or town that I go perform in, there are people who look like me in the theatre and its time they saw themselves represented on stage,” she says. “I would love to see more of the amazing diverse work happening out in regional theatre coming into London,” she pauses and has a little cry. We have a hug.

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Sharon Duncan-Brewster

2.41pm I run to the toilet and bump into West End Producer Nica Burns(!) She looks fierce in a white gown- I am too scared to talk to her, which is a shame.

2.45pm Best Touring Production went to The Who’s Tommy, which was co-produced by New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich and Ramps on the Moon. The two organisations also received the award for Promotion of Diversity for their groundbreaking work in the inclusion and integration of deaf and disabled individuals. Here comes the Former Artistic Director of Theatre Royal Stratford East, Kerry Michael. What more needs to be done on the diversity front, going forward? “We need continue making inclusive show because they are so exciting – we’ve got to keep winning awards which aren’t just about inclusion but are about high-quality art,” he replies. Indeed.

3.00pm There is a break. Everyone has a chat, dessert and more wine.

3.25pm Sheffield Theatres’ production of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which will open at London’s Apollo Theatre in November, wins Best Musical Production. John McCrea, who plays the eponymous role of Jamie, won the award for Best Performance in a Musical. Here come the boys.

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Everybody’s Talking About Jamie lads

3.30pm I have a quick photo with John McCrea who is wearing a rather fetching scarf indoors. ‘Trendy’.

3.34pm Personality vortex Freddie Fox appears with Playwright Sir David Hare. Hare is the recipient of the Gielgud Award for Excellence in the Dramatic Arts from The Shakespeare Guild. We have a photo (I’m really very shy) and I collar Freddie for a chat. “Stories need to be told everywhere all over the country and the world. Not just London. It’s a chance to be heard and seen and celebrated – it clearly means an awful lot to many people,” he says.

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Freddie Fox and Sir David Hare

3.40pm I decide to have another glass of wine. ‘Lol’.

4.00pm Lyn Gardner is this year’s recipient of the Outstanding Contribution to British Theatre award and so actual Emma Rice is here to introduce her. That’s pretty amazing. The whole thing feels quite exciting now.

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4.03pm “A critic being honoured by the theatre industry? John Osborne once suggested most of you are supposed to feel towards people like me the way: “a lamp-post feels about dogs.”” Gardner says, which gets a big laugh. She continues. “If you want to see theatre’s future, then get on a train.” The whole place erupts into applause. Inspirational.

4.10pm Lyn Gardner walks up to me clutching her award. I ask her how would she describe her state of mind? “Discombobulated,” she says. Why is this annual event so significant for the sector, I enquire. “Quite simply, too often regional theatre is not as celebrated as it should be. Regional theatre is a thing in itself – it is not simply a training ground or somewhere where people begin their careers until they move to London. It’s where the vast majority of the population live,” she says, emphatically. She’s got a point. Also, Surely she should get an OBE soon – Billington has one.

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Emma Rice and Lyn Gardner

4.12pm Emma Rice looks uncomfortable and our eyes meet. As someone who is moving forward with a regional company (Wise Children), why do you think regional theatre should be celebrated, I ask quickly. She smiles, enigmaticly. “At Kneehigh – we lived by the Joan Miró quote “To be universal, you also have to be local” – you find communities with stories to tell and friends that they want to tell them with. That’s integrity and that’s the real deal,” she says.

4.15pm What a day. The ceremony concludes and I go and find somewhere to eat a burger.

The end.

Find out more about UK Theatre at UKTheatre.org

UK THEATRE AWARDS 2017 WINNERS

The Renee Stepham Award For Best Presentation Of Touring Theatre

Nuffield Southampton Theatres for the world premiere touring musical production of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox

Best Show for Children and Young People

The Snow Queen, New Vic Theatre

Best Director

Gemma Bodinetz, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse new repertory season

Best Touring Production

The Who’s Tommy, New Wolsey Theatre and Ramps on the Moon

Best Supporting Performance

Sharon Duncan-Brewster, A Streetcar Named Desire, Royal Exchange Theatre

Best Performance in a Play

Joseph Millson, The Rover, Royal Shakespeare Company

Best New Play

Narvik by Lizzie Nunnery

Theatre Employee Of The Year

Jane Claire, English Touring Theatre and Liz Leck, Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre Trust

Clothworkers’ Theatre Award

Derby Theatre

Best Design

Jon Bausor, The Grinning Man, Bristol Old Vic

Achievement in Dance

Scottish Ballet for the European premiere of Crystal Pite’s striking one-act ballet Emergence

Promotion of Diversity

New Wolsey Theatre and Ramps on the Moon for their groundbreaking work in the inclusion and integration of deaf and disabled individuals

Achievement in Opera

Scottish Opera, Pelléas And Mélisande

Gielgud Award

David Hare

Best Performance in a Musical

John McCrea, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Sheffield Theatres

Best Musical Production

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Sheffield Theatres

UK’s Most Welcoming Theatre 2017 with Smooth Radio

The Mill at Sonning

Achievement in Marketing/Audience Development

Scottish Ballet for its Digital Season in April 2017

Outstanding Contribution To British Theatre 2017

Lyn Gardner