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Bridge Theatre: A Very Very Very Questionable Year

Bridge Theatre

Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr’s year-old theatre is testing my patience. The mission statement of the two Nicks was to focus primarily on new plays.

I suppose they did do that.

One thing’s for sure, though – the 900-seat, £12.5m Bridge Theatre, has the best toilets in London. No subsidy either. 100% commercial theatre, folks, and disappointingly, when I glanced a programme, within the core staff: no education department. Poor show, guys.

There’s something a bit unnerving about anyone who isn’t London’s literati giving a damn about Bridge Theatre. The warning signs were there as early as the third production Nightfall (Barney Norris) and who can forget the terminal Young Marx (Richard Bean). Let’s not dwell on the shoddy reunion with long-term collaborator Alan Bennett (Allelujah!) either. I walked out of all three bored rigid.

The fact that Hytner has still never directed a play by a woman is an obvious concern, which, I think you’ll agree, is fairly impressive. The two Nicks have to start commissioning and involving women writers. Their worrying all-male, all-white line-up will never bring in a diverse audience.

But, hey, why bother with quality control when you can sell tickets to an Evening with Nigella Lawson for £45.00 a pop and shed-loads of Madelines during the intervals.

The Bridge’s latest misfireMartin McDonagh’s objectively rubbish new play A Very Very Very Dark Matter. It might be a contender for the worst play of the year. Why? The plot. Or almost complete lack of it, to be more accurate. No matter how many illustrious writers pen something for that stage and, despite them being an Oscar winner – I still haven’t been able to find one. A Very Very Very Dark Matter never takes off; avoid it at all costs.

A Very Dark Matter, Jim Broadbent

A Very Dark Matter, Jim Broadbent

McDonagh has taken a historical figure and made him a racist idiot– imagining the life he lived at the height of his fame – in this case by portraying Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen (Jim Broadbent) being offensive to a Congolese pygmy woman (Eula’Mae Ackles) in a secret dwelling upstairs in his attic.

As maddeningly incoherent as it sounds.

What did stun me, though, was the sudden realisation that I’d seen it before. It’s a star-fucking Horrible Histories, obviously, but not just the basic grotesque spin on historical events – whether portraying Charles Dickens as a foul-mouthed misery or Christian Andersen as a cockney racist.

The difference, of course, is that Horrible Histories often delivers a powerful message with a charm, subtlety, humour, a proper story and a great script. Matthew Dunster’s production does it with a mallet over the head. The 90-minute evening is full of the F and C words and an attempt to make us laugh at genuinely offensive language, stereotypes about ‘gyppos’ and in-jokes about German directors. How wrong. How sadly, awfully, dangerously wrong.

Either Nick Hytner and Nick Starr have taken their eyes off the ball or else they are working towards better things. However, what they are missing, as yet, is a real sense of vision, inclusion and diversity. Just because it is a commercial enterprise doesn’t mean these things are not compatible.

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar

Sure, the toilets are nice and Hytner’s promenade production of Julius Caesar was smart and gripping. But with the new season containing a victory-lap of monologue My Name Is Lucy Barton and Hytner directing an immersive production of William Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I’ll pass thanks.

And you can keep your signature Madeleines… For now.

COMPANY is exciting, fresh and relevant

Further proof, if it were needed, there’s not a single theatre format that can’t be improved by the presence of Marianne Elliott. See: Angels in America / War Horse / Curious IncidentElliott & Harper’s gender-switch reinvention of Stephen Sondheim’s musical comedy COMPANY, will go down in West End folklore.

Knocked flat by this wonderful musical, I saw stars at the interval, five of them.

People are trying to work out why COMPANY is proving so insanely popular. Theories have ranged from Patti LuPone’s scene-stealing, Mel Giedroyc’s playful comic bravado, to Richard Fleeshman in tiny blue pants, without considering a more obvious possibility. All of the above.

The musical – ambitious book by George Furth, skilful music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim – is all about marriage and single life. But fifty years on from its Broadway debut – Elliot’s entertaining gender-switch reinvention enables a forensic and meaningful account of the pressures on modern women and female agency. Everything builds to an intriguing investigation of commitment, sexual desire and modern relationships.

Deeply brilliant Rosalie Craig absolutely nails the hardest role of reinventing Bobbie: a thirty-five-year-old, New York singleton. Craig’s performance is an unqualified success. Truly. She displays all the quick-fire shrewd observations to perfection and, like all great performers, can melt your heart in a flash. And she’s tailored in her vocal powers to the size of the Gieguld Theatre and the ascending glories of her two solo first act belters: ‘Someone Is Waiting’ and ‘Marry Me A Little.’

Patti LuPone – a Broadway legend of undiminished vitality and comic charm – plays cynical friend Joanne with mega-star sass. LuPone’s entrance at ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ is full of smack and billion-dollar relish. Her performance is out and out astounding and her jaded but larger-than-life persona is truly delicious. A dazzle to watch.

Patti LuPone

Patti LuPone

Elsewhere, Bunny Christie’s chic set is sensational. Lit in it in blue and red neon shades and Alice in Wonderland inspired, it all looks sleek. It’s all the more hypnotising, because clever casting and pure stagecraft is combined with an ability to tug at the heartstrings. This only serves as a reminder of what a great and distinctively talented team is behind this.

In a uniformly strong cast, Richard Fleeshman is hilarious (‘Barcelona’ = joyful) playing chiselled, nice-but-dim flight attendant Andy and Gavin Spokes delivers stirring pathos as Harry – when he sings ‘Sorry Grateful’ I burst into tears, it was kind of shattering. I love theatre that makes me burst into tears. As arrogant hipster PJ, George Blagden is alluring when he sings ‘Another Hundred People’, against a backdrop of two bleak carriages of commuters amid break-out moments of gorgeous movement. Moments later he is wheeled off on a park bench. Fun.

Liam Steel’s choreography is full of precision and shimmer – especially the storming Vaudevillian party game bat-shit craziness of ‘Side by Side’ – the full cast perform this with military precision and it is 100% excellent.

One of the things the show does very, very well – and often with a wry comic touch – is magic. Actual magic; the illusions, by magician Chris Fisher, are executed cunningly, drawing on sleight of hand – it is utterly theatrical. At one point, the female cleric (divine Daisy Maywood), pops up from the floor in a pink neon box, vanishes behind a door, moments later disappears into a fridge.

In ‘Getting Married Today’, originally a bride-to-be (Amy) delivers a nerve-jangling ode to second thoughts and is here invigorated by one frantic half of gay couple Jonathan Bailey. He is the twitchy gay groom Jamie (embodying monotone hysteria). Bailey’s lines are spat out at machine-gun momentum and with bullseye precision – this whole sequence is ingenious and it nearly stops the show.

Marianne Elliott’s superlatively reworked COMPANY never once lets the pace drop. And the results are vibrant; go, just go.

COMPANY is at the Gieguld Theatre until March 30 2019.

Click here to book your tickets for Company

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So obviously ‘The Inheritance’ is fairly incredible

The Inheritance

Right – so I’ve seen The Inheritance (again) and it’s a pretty astonishing piece of work. The Young Vic’s show of the year: The Inheritance, written by Matthew Lopez and directed by Stephen Daldry, is as close to theatre perfection as it gets.

Is the hype real? Yes, folks.

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

Theatrically, tonally, politically and conceptually it’s right up there with Tony Kushner’s sprawling Angels in America, and with a brilliant cast including Vanessa Redgrave – the only woman in the play.

This, in a nutshell, is where we begin:

A cosy room. A handful of YOUNG MEN sitting around writing.’

Paul Hilton kicks off Part 1 as Morgan, an embodiment of novelist E.M. Forster educating a group of contemporary privileged gay men in New York, lost in the millennial haze of a generation after the AIDS crisis.

Having a production like this at the Noel Coward Theatre (Broadway next – certainly) is more significant than ever. We are living in a divided world; more than two-thirds of same-sex couples avoid holding hands in public and hate crimes against LGBT people has more than doubled since EU referendum.

These are challenging times.

But this is a play of a lifetime – for the time. Release the doves, it’s finally happened. The Inheritance is a thrilling seven-hour, two-parter E.M. Forster inspired epic of New York gay life. Oh, and it is extremely special. Its theatre in all the right ways, it’s noisy in all the right ways, it’s brash and bombastic and funny and audacious and playful in all the right ways, and it’s smart in all the right ways, too.

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

Along with the world-class sound by Paul Arditti and Christopher Reid, one of the best things about The Inheritance is Jon Clark’s lighting. It illuminates the stage; the naturalistic suddenly becomes impressionistic. Falling shadows make the darkness itself visible. Light is used not just to show detail, but to hide it.

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

Part 1, though, has possibly my favourite moments ever spent sat in a theatre. Bob Crowley’s excellent bare wooden set enables the exceptional cast to display constant movement and focussed performances, his minimal design of a moving platform creates a striking azure.

‘We need our community, we need our history. How else can we teach the next generation who they are and how they got here?’ asks the beating heart of the story: Eric Glass– played exquisitely by Kyle Soller – on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration, while scene-stealing Andrew Burnap as Toby swaggers as his narcissistic partner. He flutters around gayly in a tight vest and speedos like an exotic bird. He’s also very funny and has cheek bones that could cut glass. Deftly conjoining these two central performances are the breathtakingly simple sequences between them that encapsulates Lopez’s jaggedly tender script; harrowing, heart-breaking, nasty and joyful.

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

Part 2 is a drama littered with characters living an unfulfilled existence, trapped by the great silence and snappy dialogue that is the true villain of the piece. Having been swept along by Daldry’s vision for a day and night of entertainment, heartbreak and inspiration, Vanessa Redgrave appears as a woman who has lost her son to AIDS. Redgrave, 81, puts on a majestic display of stagecraft full of hypnotic pregnant pauses. By the end of the night, you feel that silence deserves to be broken by tumultuous applause. Which it is.

Everything that I have written about The Inheritance seriously understates the level of theatre sorcery going on here; this is a decadent, astute theatre triumph.

It is addictively binge-worthy and I can’t wait to go back.

N.B. Please note that the amazingness of this cast is indeed dangerous and anybody with an aversion to INCREDIBLE THEATRE should avoid.

The Inheritance is at Noel Coward Theatre until 19 January 2019. Wednesday and Saturday matinee performances. 

Top Show: London – The Inheritance (Pt. 1)

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Remembering the worst idea of all time: StageCon

StageCon
StageCon

StageCon

Make it through the first nine circles of hell and you’ll find a bunch of average theatre people, in Shoreditch Town Hall, over a weekend taking selfies with millenials – for £160.

An idea, surely, no one in their right mind would pass off as entertainment or fan engagement.

The inaugural and ironically, probably last ever ‘Theatre Convention’ was just stupid and criminally naive. Looking back now, it’s obvious that in 2018 the industry is caught in the strange no man’s land between commercialism and exploitation.

StageCon, announced in August, was due to take place in November 3 and 4 at Shoreditch Town Hall in London. Sharon D ClarkeCarrie Hope FletcherMichael Xavier and Christina Bennington were among the stars set to appear, but today after backlash the organisers said some of the contributors had to pull out due to offers of professional work.

Translation: they got a better offer too.

The whole thing was not good. In fact it was the opposite of good. It was very, very bad.

Shed no tears, though, for StageCon or the rats jumping ship. Spread out over a long weekend, the point of StageCon was completely lost on me, but our interest was meant to be held by an ‘exciting programme of events.’

Where are we now? Well, this week Michael Xavier pulled out, for starters, the event was pulled from Shoreditch Town Hall’s website and today was officially ‘postponed’ until 2019.

Woah there, folks. Back up the truck.

True to form, It fooled absolutely no one, of course, least of all me. Of all the irritations that came with StageCon over the summer, it was the cost, partnership with the WhatsOnStage and smugness that got me the most.

Additionally, now United Theatrical will now be the sole organiser of the event. All ticket holders have been contacted and offered a refund or the option to transfer their ticket to next year’s StageCon, apparently.

A spokesperson today said: ‘The organisers are also keen to engage with those who have previously shared their feedback, in order that the community has the chance to contribute to an event created for the community, and that it has every opportunity to become a regular and celebrated fixture on the UK’s theatre calendar.’

That’s why the organisers kept defending, deflecting and denying any incentive to cash in. They got dumb and greedy, and quickly discovered, as was inevitable, that supply had outstripped demand.

This is not just my opinion, obviously. Almost everyone who has looked at the nuts and bolts of StageCon have concluded it’s not good enough.

Anyway, StageCon will be postponed until next year after feedback from fans. Don’t, however, rule out the possibility of a last-minute redemption.

I’m not exactly holding my breath here, though.

We live in nutty times.

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Interview with COMPANY Musical Supervisor Joel Fram

Joel Fram Photo by Helen Maybanks
Joel Fram Photo by Helen Maybanks

Joel Fram Photo by Helen Maybanks

Joel Fram is an international music arranger and conductor. He has worked extensively in the West End and on Broadway. He also happens to oversee the Musical Theatre Writing Workshop at the National Theatre.

I thought it would be a good idea to have a chat with Joel during tech week as he has literally the most important job. He’s making COMPANY happen. “I am one of many people making COMPANY happen,” he says with a laugh. “My job is to look after the music department and make sure we are taking good care of Mr. Sondheim’s score.”

Fram knows what he is talking about. He conducted WickedScandalousSweet Smell of SuccessThe Music Man,and Cats on Broadway and his West End productions include the London premiere of Wicked (starring Idina Menzel).

Company

Company

In many ways, Fram is the ideal ambassador for the new West End production of George Furth and Stephen Sondheim’smusical Company. Exuberant, concise and full of life. “To be in the room with this amazing cast and our fantastic orchestra, singing through this iconic score – what a thrill,” he says.

Joel is working alongside Marianne Elliot on the upcoming gender-swap production of COMPANY. Elliott changed the character – originally a mid-thirties singleton Bobby – from male to female, Bobbi. Sondheim gave his blessing to proceedings, as well as sanctioning minor revisions to the script.

Being Musical Supervisor on COMPANY must be a career high right? “It has been a career highlight to work with Marianne, the great Stephen SondheimDavid Cullen – all people I’ve admired for many years,” he says. “Steve is courteous and supportive. When Marianne and I were in his living room, pitching this idea for the show, we were making a big ask – switching the gender of a leading character in a very famous, ground-breaking musical.”

Where does he go from here? “I’m not sure what’s next – but for now, I just want to live in this very special moment”, Fram reasons.

Today, though, COMPANY is where his heart is. “COMPANY is the product of great minds, and it seems that this piece was and is very personal to all of its original creators. But as we worked through our concept, it became clear that Steve has a real affection and respect for Marianne and her work. He was willing to take a gamble – and he’s been incredibly generous and supportive every step of the way.”

As for there being three productions by Elliott running in London simultaneously from November with Curious Incidentplaying a limited run at the Picaddilly Theatre, Company at the Gielgud, and her production of War Horse returning to the National Theatre; Fram is thrilled. “I just became aware of that yesterday,” he says. “It’s a notable feat in itself, but it also has a lot to say about a long-overdue re-balancing of women’s roles in the theatre.”

“Marianne is such a thoughtful and inspiring director,” he beams.

 “We are in the hands of a wildly inventive thinker, someone who investigates every single word of text. She won’t settle for anything less than the truth, and I think that is what makes her work so successful, moving and enduring. Marianne works so carefully on the scenes – but she also puts her eye on the songs in the same way, investigating both music and lyrics in terms of dramatic structure,” says Fram.

COMPANY boasts a top-notch cast and creative team. What can we expect from them? “Rosalie Craig brings such warmth and humanity to the role, and Patti LuPone is a remarkable Joanne – to name just two.”

“Conducting actors of this calibre is an honour. Songs are dramatic journeys, little one-act plays; there are some actors you help lead through that journey and some who show you the way – Marianne has made sure we are all telling the same story together,” he says. “Also, I have the most amazing orchestra in the West End.”

What does he enjoy doing that has nothing to do with his career? He laughs. “I am an avid baker – you could say obsessed – so imagine having Bake Off’s Mel Giedroyc in the cast! I mean, I can barely breathe when she walks in the room,” says Fram.

“Anyway, throughout rehearsals, however late or tired I was when I got home, I made sure I baked – every single day. Let’s just say I’ve heard that I have some big fans in the company – well, ­fans of my biscuits, at any rate. And I take requests.”

I ask him to choose between musicals Gypsy or Follies. “Oh God. That is a very tough question.” Pause.

“I don’t think there could be a life without either… I would say the best way to answer is: ‘Waiting Around for the Girls Upstairs’ and ‘If Momma Was Married.’ So, both.”

Company runs at the Gielgud Theatre from 26 September to 22 December 2018.

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Theatre Diary: Sweet Charity, SIX The Musical, Abigail’s Party & Eugenius!

It’s a popular misconception, and one frequently held by opportunists, that low quality, no-redeeming-features musicals are easy to palm off on theatre fans. See: Heathers / The Band.

Far from being guaranteed to rock your world, EUGENIUS! is guaranteed to bore you rigid. It is with deep regret that I inform you this sci-fi super hero show is not a good musical in any world.

There are moments you feel the show wants to get out of first gear; when the bizarre dancing fish people appear. Aaron Renfree’s choreography is perfectly satisfactory. Oh, and he was an S Club Junior as well.

This production has been tottering around London for 2 years now – originally staged as a concert at the London Palladium in 2016. But it is 2018 and Ben Adams and Chris Wilkins’ 80’s inspired show is back at The Other Palace. It has very few redeeming features, aside from Rob Houchen. He plays the lead role of Eugene well.

Most of the music doesn’t work, but it scores a palpable hit with ‘Comic Book Kind Of Love’. Every other line, every other character, seems mechanical. It just doesn’t know what it is or who it is for. I also take issue with the grossly stereotype homosexual character – played by Scott Paige. It’s just not funny to have an effeminate individual just for their gayness. Basic.

The Warwick Davies produced musical starts off being far better than you might have expected, ends up being far worse than you could ever have feared. Sadly, it swerves anything meaningful and hurls itself into a sort of risible parody of a parody affair with basic gender stereotypes, a ropey design and misguided sexual politics, which is a bit disappointing but, well, it’s 2018 isn’t it. Avoid.

Life in prison for Warwick and the other two, please.

At Nottingham Playhouse, Rebecca Trehearn demonstrates how Sweet Charity should be done. Everything glides by like a dream.

As Charity Hope Valentine Rebecca Trehearn enters like a ditzy lioness in Bill Buckhurst’s triumphant revival of the 1966 Broadway hit – the first musical produced by the Playhouse in over a decade. Everyone is in most assured hands with choreographer Alistair David, master of clever choreography that animates everything. Sizzling stuff.

SWEET CHARITY

SWEET CHARITY

Things soar with a dazzling interpretation of Big Spender and Buckhurst brings his particular gifts to the show: nimble direction, razzle-dazzle, pinpoint characterisation. Yes, it goes on a bit, at nearly three hours long. Nonetheless, an evening of many enchanting charms with a winning vitality.

Another year, another revival of Abigail’s Party. Douglas Rintoul’s treacle slow production both stages and stays faithful to Mike Leigh’s acidic comedy about 1970s social norms at Queen’s Theatre, HornchurchMelanie Gutteridge is beautifully contained as the ghastly host Beverley, though. Her delivery of: “Laurence, Angela likes Demis Roussos. Tony likes Demis Roussos, I like Demis Roussos, and Sue would like to hear Demis Roussos: so please, d’you think we could have Demis Roussos on?” brought a wide smile to my face. Brilliant.

There are plenty of quietly enjoyable moments. But everything lacks depth that would give it savour. The design helps; Lee Newby’s smartly 70’s kitch work frames the action acutely.

But this is a safe evening: a retrieval rather than a rediscovery, it adds nothing new. The greatness of Leigh’s play lies in its unspoken wish that aggressive suburban consumerism might itself one day have the courage to confront reality.

A new British musical that’s as brilliant as it is absolutely daft, Six The Musical has made the last few years of Arts Theatre, London worth all the hassle.

Managing to be an inspiring piece about female empowerment without being trite and generally shit, SIX The Musical enjoyed a sell-out run at Edinburgh Fringe this year and arrives in town evolved with a real buzz.

Cheers all round for a resounding bunch of queens. A royal affair, sassy performances and a show-making all-female crew stir in tinselly costumes. This concert-style show about the six wives of Henry VIII is a real joy.

SIX

SIX

Yes, the message here is probably as substantial as Girl Power once was / is, but this is stompy musical theatre perfection nonetheless. There’s a strong sense of ‘imperial phase Little Mix’ in this musical, which is to say it’s close to pop musical perfection. There’s a lesson to be learned here.

Eugenius! is at The Other Palace until 21 October.

Sweet Charity is at Nottingham Playhouse until 22 September.

Abigail’s Party is at Queens Theatre Hornchurch until 22 September, then touring. 

SIXthe Musical is at Arts Theatre, London until 1 December.

 

 

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Kiln Theatre: why the north London theatre rebrand is cause for celebration

Indhu Rubasingham

Indhu Rubasingham

The Tricycle is no more: earlier this year Indhu Rubasingham relaunched it as the Kiln theatre.

Before going any further, let’s nail this idea that Kiln Theatre is a mistake. It’s a dangerous half-truth which seriously underestimates artistic director Rubhasingham. So it should be pointed out as a matter of urgency, that it is not the end of the world.

This week, though, former artistic directors and board members of the north London Theatre, are urging the venue to revert to its previous name, the title it held for 38 years.

In a letter to The Observer 15 people signed a letter in the Observer criticising the decision. The list includes all three previous chairs of the board – Andree Molyneux, Patricia Macnaughton and Stephen Phillips – as well as the theatre’s original architect Tim Foster, and others.

In the letter, they say: “The Tricycle was a landmark in London, and a brand locally, nationally and internationally. In our view this change of name throws away a valuable legacy and history.”

I’m kind of over this obsessive and credibility-destroying campaign. Yes, renaming Tricycle Theatre has misfired. But it is the opposite of an attempt at demolishing an old identity.

Understood? Good. Then let’s proceed in an open-minded fashion with the Trike, the focus group years, where there is a £7 million capital development programme, not dissimilar programming to before and a new name: Kiln Theatre.

A Kiln Theatre spokesperson said “Theatre is not, and never has been, primarily about preserving a legacy. Theatre by its nature is ephemeral and impermanent, it’s about reflecting the world around us, provocation, and ultimately change. We are representing the theatre for today as we embark on the next stage of the company’s story in the newly refurbished building we have worked incredibly hard to deliver over the past five years, and one that we are futureproofing for the next generation.”

Elsewhere, Michael Billington also put the boot in this week. Writing in The Guardian, he says: “Even the restructuring of the building is no reason for changing the name. In recent memory both the Bush theatre in Shepherd’s Bush and the Orange Tree in Richmond have moved from spartan rooms above pubs into more spacious premises, but they retained their original names.”

Thank God, then, for Jim Carter and Imelda Staunton who sent a letter into The Guardian urging ‘everyone who professes to have loved the Tricycle’ to support its new name and its artistic director’

I asked a few people for their thoughts on the debacle. Slung Low’s Alan Lane said: “I have some sympathy with Kiln. We’ve a small group of men in Holbeck who when ever they get the chance denounce us as communists and sodomites and all sorts of things. The criticism is occasionally aimed at us by others that we haven’t brought the whole community with us. And of course we havent. I don’t care what the place is called and I’m bored of this little cabal of dickheads who keep theatre stuck in this dreary relationship with the past and with money and with community. We’re meant to be the dangerous art.” Amazing.

Inside Kiln Theatre’s revamped auditorium

Inside Kiln Theatre’s revamped auditorium

On the other side of the fence is critic Dominic Cavendish: “I can’t quite see the point in the name-change, you need innovation and continuity when you effect a major exercise in rebranding. As someone who writes for the Telegraph, I’m fairly used to the anachronism of the ‘title’ I work for – and for some the name itself might suggest a newspaper that hasn’t kept pace with modern technology; but even if there are things a paper, or a theatre, can do to widen its appeal and demographic, I think there’s something self-defeating about a name change; all theatres are built on legacies; unless those legacies are completely toxic, embrace the ghosts of years gone by! The Tricycle programme as was is, incidentally, nothing any artistic director should feel the need to disown, which some might infer is the subtext.”

On the surface the rebrand has misfired badly and people have lined up to throw bricks at the decision, but I think it’s just cosmetic. Which seems like a shame. If we ever needed someone to shake up a staid theatre industry, it’s now.

Cynics be damned – there’s an uncomplicated reason why Indhu Rubhasingham has had so many hits and secured a £7 million facelift for the building. It’s that people like really good theatre, and she makes it happen.

Kiln Theatre is a cause for celebration, a new era – and it’s exactly what 2018 needs.

Give her a break, folks.

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StageCon. No. Just, no.

STAGE CON

I have been getting slowly obsessed with StageCon. Not because it’s any good – it is, of course, utterly dicey– but because of the shamelessness of it. Events featured will include live performances, sing-a-longs, discussions, cast reunions, panels, games, previews, workshops, meet and greets and showcases. 

As you may have noticed, StageCon was announced and Twitter lost its mind. I suppose an outrage is the new zeitgeist and can generally be more useful than total indifference, though the ultimate decision lies in the hands of the public.

You expect this reaction, obviously, during the summer: theatre’s silly season. 

A raft of musical theatre stars including Michael XavierLouise DearmanCameron Blakely and Stuart Matthew Price have been announced. So, you knew, long before you clicked to see who else will be in attendance that the elusive Carrie Hope Fletcher would be involved. 

I was surprised, though, to see Sharon D. Clarke in this questionable line-up; very obviously, the best theatre person not just from that selection. 

The really depressing thing is, though, that the ‘first ever UK theatre convention’ is presented in association with WhatsOnStage. Oh, and Day tickets for the event cost £85 and a Weekend ticket costs £160. In 2018 extra opportunities for theatre lovers to engage with their favourite musical star will continue to seduce theatre fans. 

STAGE CON

STAGE CON

Just how watered down is StageCon going to be? Well conceptually, even, StageCon is just a ripoff cousin of New York’s theatre convention: BroadwayCon

‘A portion of profits from StageCon will be donated to The Royal Theatrical Fund’. The organisers say: StageCon approached Royal Theatrical Fund as it is a charity that does a lot of great in supporting the Theatre community and so will support it with a portion of profits from ticket sales. This is an arrangement both parties are happy with.

That’s that then. 

It is a shame then that the pricing is as predictable as the sun rising in the morning. The ticket prices are not ideal, they are targeted for the privileged. The organisers have failed to realise there is only one simple rule to be observed when producing these kinds of events: Make it accessiblefools

Even if we ignore the fact that they have assumed that there are this many people who will part with this much cash, to attend a theatre convention in Shoreditch, something pretty staggering is going on here.

But it is important to remember that there’s room for everything, and such events are just moments of funWe are living in an age of boundaries being demolished: teenagers would rather have a selfie with a star than their autograph. It is no longer necessary to wait like a fruit-loop outside a stage door as Kelli O’Hara flees from another exit: you can book an appointment to meet her in the time it would take to arrange a visit to the dentist. It would quite possibly be the same price, and there’s every chance you would get a cupcake. 

More names and events will be announced in due course, incidentally, and there will be more Olivier-worthy action from StageCon and their forward-planning department next month, I’m sure. 

StageCon is at Shoreditch Town Hall in November 

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Bloody hell: A Monster Calls, The King and I, The Jungle, Bring it On and Young Frankenstein

A Monster Calls

Sally Cookson’s brilliant and touching staging of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls is currently at the Old Vic, London. There were many moments of genius, in the direction and delivery of this gorgeous production. It’s another lovely, solid effort from one of Britain’s most enduring directors. There is something seriously lovely about the coiled rope and choral beauty that explodes into propulsion and colour – and its ambition is matched only by its beauty. Take Kleenex.
THE KING AND I

THE KING AND I

The Tony-Award winning Lincoln Center Theater production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein epic The King and I is currently gracing The London Palladium for a limited engagement. Powered by the lung-busting magnificence of Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe’s star-power, respectively. The show-within-a-show in the second half does drag. But the dazzling spectacle and the skill of the performers on display is enveloped in designer Michael Yeargan and costume designer Catherine Zuber’s glorious work. I haven’t seen this much Gold Leaf since Follies.
Millennials will have only experienced the musical via the 1956 film. Yes, inert, and yes, problematic, yadda yadda, and, indeed creaky at times but at the heart of the sumptuous story is the struggle between modernity and tradition and production values. This is a unique showcase for the talent of many young actors of Asian ethnicity, too. The King and I is epic, timeless and superb.
Fun fact: the tiniest child in the small army of the King’s children is less than a metre tall. Adorable.
THE JUNGLE

THE JUNGLE

Is there a show that has had as much critical acclaim as The Jungle? First seen at the Young Vic last year, this vibrant migrant-crisis drama has moved into the West End. Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin’s production gets straight down to business placing us in the heart of an Afghan Café. Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s remarkable, rackety play is cleverly conceived; distinctively different. To that end, this kind of theatre is hard to get right but they do and the incredible company of performers bring the refugee crisis closer to home, making it more personal and difficult to ignore.
The essential grit in the oyster, though, is that towards the end, the whole narrative occasionally overestimates how much of a damn normal people give about politics and the charity appeal isn’t as clever as the creative team imagines. In fairness, none of that really matters, The Jungle is a harrowing reminder that everyone has a story worth telling.
I really tried to hate Bring it On – The Musical, but resistance is futile; it had me at “Being a cheerleader is like being a marine: you sign your life away.” It’s hard to resist this giddy musical based on the cult teen comedy. With songs by Lin-Manuel-Miranda and Ewan Jones’s choreography and direction give the whole show a lift. This originally premiered in 2011 on Broadway and the now the British Theatre Academy have brought it to Southwark Playhouse. Many of these bright young things will certainly go into the profession.
The chief glory of the show is Robyn McIntyre as Campbell, the captain of her high school team and vows revenge on her rival. A first-rate ensemble bless things with a remarkable energy, excellent comic timing and touching vulnerability. A predictable feelgood story but Bring it On is a blast, simply.
YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN

I will miss Young Frankenstein. The show has a book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, and music and lyrics by Brooks, and tells the story of Frederick Frankenstein who inherits his grandfather’s castle in Transylvania.
Both times I’ve watched it – Brooks’ horror movie spoof has felt grotesquely pertinent to the #MeToo whirlwind. Last year, I found it a poignantly contemporary antidote to the endlessly offended culture; this time, I laughed harder without discomfort at the naughty satire on the politics within the piece. Hadley Fraser undoubtedly does a marvellous job as Dr Frankenstein. Lesley Joseph, I have to say, is really quite splendid and relishes the role as scene-stealing Frau Blucher. Also, I really rate Diane Pilkington who is consistently excellent as Elizabeth. The rather fantastic live cast recording has also just been released; so check it out.
Complaining about unsubtlety is beside the point with material like this. In fairness, this show is extremely funny so the individuals who took issue with Young Frankenstein are credulous individuals who take everything at face value and with hindsight, make the Creature look smart.
Overall: some people like Young Frankenstein, some people do not. The latter people are wrong.
Young Frankenstein is at Garrick Theatre, London until 24 August.
A Monster Calls is at Old Vic, London until 24 August.
Bring It On is at Southwark Playhouse, London, until 1 September.
The King and I is at the London Palladium until 29 September.
The Jungle runs at the Playhouse theatre, London, until 3 November.
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London Theatre is a flickering tealight of hope: Allelujah! Bat out of Hell, Fun Home & King Lear

There is a special furnace in theatre hell reserved for rubbish state-of-the-nation plays, so I’ll keep it brief. You thought Young Marx was dull? Try staying awake through Alan Bennett’s new play, where the substance is so lacking that it prompted me to leave at the interval. Since the NHS is never out of the headlines and affects nearly all of us, we have long been crying out for a new play on the subject.

Unfortunately, Nick Hytner’s Allelujah! is not it. Generously described by Michael Billington as a “hospital drama”, rather than virtue signalling mediocrity. Not Bennett or Hytner’s finest hour, if we are honest.

Allelujah

Allelujah Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

Old people singing and dancing sweetly– check.

Two original ‘History Boys’ – check.

A sub-plot involving immigration and Brexit – check.

I attempted to discover, once and for all whether Bat out of Hell was good. I can now announce my findings: no, it is nowhere near as dreadful as The Band.

This is exactly what, I think, consumers of Jukebox musicals – shows created out of the existing back catalogue of popular hits – want to see.

From musical to album to musical again, the mind-blowing scale of Jim Steinman’s Bat Out of Hell; robot bats, motorbikes and a Cadillac is quite something to behold. I loved the nonsense of it all. The main source of fascination, though, is how cunningly constructed and gloriously sung it is.

BAT OUT OF HELL

BAT OUT OF HELL

This Jukebox musical is so meticulously crafted, with entertainment in mind, that it becomes disorientating to watch.  

Sometimes you see a show and you can’t quite pin it down. I loved Fun Home at the Young Vic, the Tony-Award winning musical is based on Alison Bechdel’s 2006 striking graphic novel memoir about growing up gay. I know what you’re thinking, another Broadway musical making a long-awaited debut in London. But, if anything, the accolades attached to this show understate the level of theatre sorcery going on here: kids tap-dancing on a coffin, a lesbian protagonist and a closeted gay father. Absolutely ideal.

An intelligent book and an inventive score combine with  often unbearable-to watch emotional performances that are so neatly done. Part of a fine ensemble, Jenna Russell is a cut above the rest. I haven’t seen as concise and uplifting a musical all year. Bit special.

FUN HOME

FUN HOME

Just when you thought you’d had enough Shakespeare, along comes Ian McKellen’s victory lap as King Lear at Duke of York’s Theatre. Jonathan Munby’s monumental production began life at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2017. McKellen is, of course, sublime at least in terms of unassuming lucidness: you will not see such another dignified Lear this year. A brilliant Sinead Cusack add further class to an evening that combines with something more mystic and mythical.

KING LEAR

KING LEAR

79 year-old superstar McKellen shines solidly for 3 hours 40 minutes, in what may be his last major Shakespearean role on stage. We’ll miss him when he’s gone.

Unmissable. Truly.

Allelujah! is at Bridge theatre, London, until 29 September

Bat out of Hell is at Dominion Theatre, London until January 2019 (link https://batoutofhellmusical.com/)

Fun Home is at the Young Vic, London, until 1 September.

King Lear is at Duke of York’s until 3 November and will be broadcast live on 27 September via National Theatre Live.